APPROACHING IRAN: THE FLAWS OF IMPERIAL DIPLOMACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

28 Jun

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of six segments devoted to relations of the West to Iran, centering on whether the United States post-Trump will attempt to reduce tensions with Iran or opt for continuity, and greater policy coordination with Israel’s new post-Netanyahu leadership. Naphtali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister, has already made clear that he views Iran no differently than Netanyahu, opposes a return to the 2015 Nuclear Program Agreement (JCPOA) and seems to have authorized at unprovoked attack on the Karaj facility on June 23rd that produces centrifuges needed to obtain enriched uranium.

When the U.S. Government withdrew from the hard bargained Obama Era nuclear agreement in 2018 accompanied by a revamping of sanctions against Iran, tensions once again dangerously escalated. Biden pledged as a candidate for the American presidency to restore JCPOA, but has so far shown only a limited commitment to rejoin the earlier agreement, and seems to be insisting on a new agreement that is more restrictive of Iran’s nuclear program and even its regional political activity. The U.S. Government seems to forget that it was its actions that led to the breakdown of the agreement, and that Iran continued to comply for an entire year before embarking upon a more ambitious program of nuclear enrichment, accumulating three tons above the agreed limits, ten times the amount allowed by the lapsed agreement, yet still short of the level of enrichment need to produce nuclear weapons. Six rounds of negotiations have taken place during recent months in Vienna among the five remaining parties to the 2015 agreement (China, Russia, France, UK, Germany) and Iran, as well as indirect negotiations between Iran and the U.S. with the other governments serving as intermediaries.

Authoritative voices from Vienna tell us that an agreement is ‘within reach,’ whatever that may mean, yet they also say its restoration remains uncertain due to Israeli pressures, the recent election of a hardline Iranian President—Ebrahim Raisi, and the American insistence on a longer timeline for the agreement as well as a reported demand that Iran cease its support for ‘terrorist’ entities in the region and reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium.

The Western media fails to understand the relevance of Iranian grievances with respect to its nuclear program, seems totally insensitive to double standards in its reportage, and so the issue is portrayed to the public in an exceedingly misleading manner. Among Iranian grievances the following are especially important: Iran is portrayed as a supporter of terrorism in the region while there is virtually no mention of the blatant pattern of Israel ‘terrorism’ against Iran, and specifically against its nuclear program that has breached no international norms. In the period 2010-2012 four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated by Israel: Masoud Alimohammedi, Majid Shahriari, Darioush Rezaeinejad, Mostafa Ahmed Roshan. As recently as November 2020 Iran’s leading nuclear scientist associated with Iran’s program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed by a Mossad operation while driving in a car near Tehran. The U.S. has done its share of state-sponsored terrorism: disabling 1,000 centrifuges by cyber Stuxnet attacks back in 2010 and assassinating a leading military and political figure, Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 while he was on a diplomatic peace mission in Iraq. Israel also seems responsible for periodic attacks on the Natanz nuclears facility, as well.

For further contextualization it is well to recall that it was Trump who ruptured JCPOA when it was working well, which was confirmed by assessments of U.S. intelligence reports. Maybe even more important was the U.S. failure to object to such Israeli violation of Iranian sovereign rights, as well as aggressive acts that violated the basic norms of the UN Charter, as well as to curb its own recourse to overt and covert violations of Iran’s legal rights.

Despite this abusive pattern Iran refrained from challenging the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, or even coupling its commitment to refrain from acquiring the weapons or even the capability to produce the weaponry with a demand for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. This pattern should remind us that Western colonialism is largely dead, yet Western imperialism persists almost undetected by the normative radar by which international behavior should be judged. Antony Blinken’s ‘rules-governed’ international order has some gaping black holes, and Iran continues to be victimized in the process, while Blinken’s silence is totally overlooked.

Finally, two statements indicative of Israel’s rogue behavioral ethos toward Iran. The Defense Minister, and alternate opponent of Netanyahu, Benny Gantz speaking on June 24, 2021 put his view of Iran in direct language: “..a murderous and dangerous enemy, building arms of terror around the State of Israel, seeks to acquire a nuclear weapon to threaten Israel, and the stability of the entire region.” Iran’s ‘arms of terror’ presumably contrast with Israel’s ‘weapons of self-defense,’ such are the distortions of hegemonic political discourse. Allon Ben David writing in Ma’ariv on the same day as Gantz spoke was engagingly candid in masking Israeli embrace of terror as a peacetime tactic: “..the Mossad and IDF will contribute in their quiet way part of the effort to delay Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.” The word ‘quiet’ is code talk for ‘secret,’ and the quiet work consists of killing scientists and planting explosives in Iran’s nuclear facilities, or even sending drones on armed missions carried out in Iranian or Syrian territory.

Two interviews are also included that address Iranian leadership issues. It is almost comical that one hears shouts of indignation about an extremist leader being elected in Iran, whereas discussing Bennett’s extremist support of the unlawful encroachment of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territories or refusal to support the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state is hardly mentioned, or set off against Biden’s endorsement of a two-state solution.]

APPROACHING IRAN: THE FLAWS OF IMPERIAL DIPLOMACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

(1) Responses of Richard Falk to Interview Questions of journalist Niloofar Adibnia (19 April 2021)

What is your analysis of the Vienna meeting?

The so-called ‘indirect talks’ in Vienna likely have several distinct goals. (1) Holding the talks include the purpose of involving the four other P5 (Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in the process of restoring American participation in and Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, known as JCPOA, and also, as the ‘5 +1 Agreement’; the U.S. and Iran separately interact with representatives of these five governments, which in turn inform U.S. and Iran, which then in turn provide responses; it is a dialogue with intermediaries; (2) The indirectness of the process allows each side to make an assessment as to whether it is worth the risks of international failure and domestic backlash as a result of disagreements as to the respective expectations of the two sides in a high profile diplomatic effort at restoring JCPOA along the lines of its original character in 2015; (3) The Vienna process also should be helpful in identifying sticking points with respect to the removal of sanctions on Iran, the restraint of Iranian regional diplomacy in the Middle East, and any further adjustments such as reparations for ‘nuclear terrorism’ or agreed ceilings on uranium enrichment, allowing both countries to decide how serious these gaps are.

Will the Vienna Summit Lead to the Revival of the Nuclear Deal?

I think part of the purpose of the Vienna talks is to allow the parties to determine whether the timing is right at present for a renewal of JCPOA. The U.S. is under pressure from Israel, and some Arab states not to participate again within the JCPOA framework unless new burdensome conditions are imposed on Iran. On its side, Iran is likely unwilling to alter its enrichment levels without assurances that ‘nuclear terrorism’ will be treated as a criminal disruption in the future, and appropriate steps taken including reparations. Iran may also insist upon unconditional removal of sanctions in view of its experience during the Trump presidency. In opposition, Biden may insist on flexibility with respect to sanctions relief in the event that Iran enriches uranium beyond agreed levels.

Will the US lift sanctions?

I think the sanctions will be lifted by stages if Iran agrees to return to the 2015 enrichment levels, and perhaps, agrees to transfer any stockpile of enriched uranium beyond these levels in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 to an international depository or placed in a depot subject to periodic inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear agreement is not likely to become again operative unless the U.S. sanctions are completely removed. It is assumed that Iran learned its lesson of relying on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions when Obama was president, while experiencing their reinstatement in harsher form when Trump became president. Undoubtedly, this sequence partly explains the discrediting of the so-called ‘moderates’ in Iran and their replacement by the ‘hardline’ faction, making diplomatic de-escalation seem somewhat more problematic

Do you think the nuclear deal will be revived?

It seems as though there exists a political will on both sides to proceed cautiously in that direction, with the intention of reviving the 2015 arrangements regulating Iran’s nuclear program. Whether this political will is strong enough on both sides remains to be seen as does whether some of the issues turn out to be non-negotiable, and hence deal breakers. Such include enrichment ceilings, treatment of ‘nuclear terrorism. There is also some uncertainty arising from domestic politics in both countries. Will Biden give priority to satisfying Israeli concerns or to reaching a major diplomatic goal of reviving JCPOA? Will Iran insist on a clear pledge of unconditional irreversible removal of the sanctions?

Is there a determination to keep the nuclear deal alive?

I think there is a widespread desire on both sides to give renewed life and relevance to the nuclear agreement,
But there are competing forces on both sides that are more ambivalent about the agreement or are even opposed to its existence. At this point it is difficult to determine with any confidence whether the pro-agreement forces in both countries are strong enough to withstand pressures from anti-agreement forces. The impact of other issues may turn out to be decisive. Will the Natanz attack harden Iran’s demands or soften the U.S. diplomatic stance? So far the indications are not encouraging, and even less so after the Karaj attack on Iran centrifuge production facility. The American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has called Iran’s lifting of the enrichment ceiling from 20% to 60% as ‘provocative’ without putting forth the slightest gesture of criticism of its Natanz attack, widely presumed to have been carried out by Mossad operatives acting on Israel’s behalf.

Will Iran return to full implementation of its nuclear obligations in the nuclear deal?

I cannot imagine the revival of JCPOA unless Iran agrees to comply, and maintains compliance. The more important question is whether Iranian compliance requirements will be set by reference to the initial standards agreed upon in 2015 or whether there will be new standards reflecting intervening developments and to some extent negotiating demands accepted, and. going into effect when the agreement is again operative.

what is your analysis about sabotage on natanz? can it derail vienna negotiation?can it lead to war?

It would seem that Israel intended the attack on the Natanz underground facility as a provocation that would by inducing a major Iranian retaliation and make progress in the Vienna talks problematic. Some have thought that the attack was only designed to give Israel a seat at the Vienna table. The attack should be internationally condemned as a form of ‘nuclear terrorism’ as well as a serious violation of Iran’s sovereign rights. The relative international silence, including by the IAEA is disappointing, and the Blinken response referred to above is unacceptable.

I do not think this event will lead either to the breakdown of the Vienna indirect talks or to regional war, although both possibilities certainly exist. It may delay reaching an agreement in Vienna, and has already raised regional tensions. My view is that with tensions rising in relation to China and Russia, the U.S. will not irresponsibly escalate the conflict dimensions of its relations with Iran, but there are many surrounding complications that
make such speculation unreliable.

We can only hope that peace-oriented pressures on both sides hold sway, and JCPOA again becomes operative. Many will hail this as a diplomatic breakthrough if this happens, and when sanctions are removed, Iranian societal life will benefit greatly, improving the regional and international atmosphere.

(2) Responses of Richard Falk to Amir Mohadded Ismaeli Questions for Mehr News Agency (April 14, 2021)

Q1: Who’s behind Natanz sabotage?

At this point, we have only the uncontested reports that Israel is responsible, having virtually confessed as much. Apparently Israel used Mossad to carry out the attack on the Natanz underground nuclear enrichment facility on April 10, 2021. The attack came only a day after new more advanced cetrifuges began operating at Natanz. The attack took the form of a major explosion 65 meters below the ground. The explosives used are believed to have been smuggled past security guards by being sealed within a steel table and then detonated from a remote location. The complete destruction of the power distribution supply system used to make the centrifuges work has been confirmed as the main damage. It has been estimated by Israelis that it might take Iran as long as nine months to make the facility operational again.

The United States has officially declared that it had no role in this act of sabotage, but it is hard to believe that Washington did not have advance knowledge, and there is no evidence of any attempt to prevent the attack from being carried out or complaints after the fact. Israel leaders although evasive, seemed to justify the attack as part of the country’s defense against the controversial assumption that despite Tehran assurances, Iran is developing the capacity to produce nuclear warheads that could be attached to missiles or rockets, posing dire threats to Israeli security. Iran continues to deny that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capacity. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has vowed unspecified ‘revenge’ for the attack on Natanz, but there is no indication that this is meant to signal a reversal of Iran’s policy toward the acquisition of the weaponry.

In the background, is the reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal that seems to stay below the radar of proliferation concerns and overlooks Iran’s reasonable apprehension of what this could mean in the future for its own security.

Q2: In your view, what purposes are behind this sabotage?

On the basis of circumstantial evidence, contrary to the posture taken by Israel that the Natanz incident was directed at slowing Iran race to the nuclear weapons threshold, I believe the attack had as its primary purpose, a provocation designed to escalate tensions between Iran and Israel, and encourage the U.S. to stick with the Trump approach to relations with Iran. More immediately, the attack is sure to complicate current efforts in Vienna to create the conditions leading to the resumption of U.S. participation in JCPOA through direct negotiations. As is widely understood, Iran has been demanding that its compliance with JCPOA depends upon an American commitment to terminate the sanctions imposed during the Trump presidency in conjunction with its unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018.

This hypothesis of provocation is reinforced by the highly belligerent statements made by Netanyahu when asked about the Natanz attack. Instead of a denial or even a claim of Israeli worries, he chose to treat the relationship between the two countries as a relation between two enemies poised to destroy one another. He is quoted as claiming that the ‘fanatical regime’ governing Iran without doubt intends to acquire nuclear weapons so as to destroy Israel in pursuit of their ‘genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.” Netanyahu added that Israel would continue ‘to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism’ as if Iran was the provocateur. Such language offers an official indirect justification for what happened an Natanz, as well uses warlike language of implacable hostility.

I suspect that Israel by such high-profile sabotage and incendiary language is doing its best to tie the hands of the Biden presidency, agitate pro-Israeli sentiments in the U.S. Congress and Western media. The secondary objective is to obstruct the Iranian nuclear program, which is consistent with such past acts of aggression as the disabling of centrifuges through the insertion of the Stuxnet virus back in 2010 as well as through targeted assassination of leading nuclear scientists, including Iran’s leading nuclear specialist, Mohsen Fakhrizadez in November 2020. This pattern of covert violence has long violated Iran’s sovereign rights and has been understandably denounced by Iranian officials as ‘nuclear terrorism.’

What is uncertain at this time is whether Israel will commit further provocations, how Iran will react, and whether the United States will take the bait, and either delay JCPOA negotiations or demand Iranian compliance with new conditions beyond the original agreement before it lifts or even eases the sanctions or resumes its own participation.

Q3: Do you think there is a coordination between the US and Israel for implementing the sabotage?

It is difficult to say. There is some reason to believe that if there was such coordination it would not be necessary for Israel to take the risks arising from such serious provocations. As with the Obama diplomacy that led to the agreement in 2015, there are differences between the U.S. interest in regional stability and the Israeli determination to keep destabilizing Iran so as to realize at some point its undisguised goal of regime change.

At the same time, with the COVID challenge uppermost as a policy priority for Biden, there may be some level of coordination, involving reassurances to Israel that it will not make things easy for Iran with respect to the sanctions or JCPOA. Biden seems eager to avoid diversionary issues in America that would allege that the U.S. is failing to uphold reasonable Israeli security demands.

As of now, resort to the ‘indirect talks’ in Vienna suggest that both sides are proceeding cautiously, keeping their options open. The next month or so will make clearer whether the U.S. will separate its search for normalization with Iran due to pressures arising from its special relationship with Israel or will pursue a diplomatic course in accord with its national interest. It will never be able to satisfy Israel and reach a negotiated agreement with Iran. It must choose, and hopefully opting for peace and diplomacy rather than coercion and hostility.

Q4: Some scholars believe that the International Atomic Energy Agency and JCPOA parties should clarify their stances and condemn this sabotage, as it’s been done while Iran has been trying to revive the agreement in Vienna. What do you think?

I do believe that if an investigation confirms Israeli responsibility for the Natanz attack it should be condemned by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the parties to JCPOA (that is, the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and Germany). Such a step would be a major step toward depoliticization of regional tensions, and offer some hope that the current crisis atmosphere can be overcome. What is being called ‘the shadow war’ between Israel and Iran is dangerous and every effort should be made to end it. It also should be acknowledged as widely as possible that Israel has the main responsibility for recourse to this surge of war-mongering propaganda and acts of aggression that violate international law and the UN Charter. The UN should stop watching such dangerous and unlawful events in a spirit of silent detachment, and take its own Charter responsibilities seriously.

(3)Zahra Mirzafarjouyan interview questions, May 30, 2021, Mehr News Agency

1- An Israeli leader described Islamic revolution as “earthquake of century”. What have been the effects of the Imam Khomeini-lead revolution in the region that worried Israelis?

Imam Khomeini made clear his opposition to Israel and the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish state inside the Islamic World, although he was also clear that he regarded Judaism as an authentic religion deserving respect. When I had a meeting with Imam Khomeini in Paris days before he returned to Iran, he said explicitly that so long as Jews were not active in supporting Israel, it would be ‘a tragedy for us if they left Iran after the revolution.’ His outlook was anti-Israeli, but not anti-Semitic.

I am not familiar with this quote although it makes sense. Israel had enjoyed positive relations with Iran during the period of the Shah’s rule. The Islamic Revolution was perceived as an immediate threat to Israel because it sought to reclaim political control for the ancestral peoples, long resident in the region under the auspices of a political movement espousing Islamic principles and opposed to all forms of secular and Western penetration, especially in the form of a settler colonial state. And such a movement had successfully challenged the Pahlavi regime in Iran, which had the most elaborate modernized internal security apparatus in the region. If it could in Iran, it was supposed that such revolutionary movements could and would succeed elsewhere in the region.

Whether ‘earthquake of the century’ is an overstatement can be discussed, and challenged. It competes with the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and the rise of Hitler, World Wars I & II as alternative candidates for such an assertion. Possibly, seen in the context of the Middle East, and from the perspective of Israel, it was seen as an extreme disruptive event, with an anti-Israeli mobilizing potential that would influence the peoples of the region, and at the same time deprived Israel of its most sympathetic support as centered previously in Iran.

2- What features of the Islamic Revolution have worried the western powers?

I suppose the most worrisome aspect of the Islamic Revolution from the perspective of the West was its resolve to eliminate all forms of Western influence—geopolitical, political, economic, and cultural. In this sense, the events in Iran could be interpreted as anti-imperial as well as anti-colonial, that is, not only opposing European colonialism but its sequel taking the form of the project of U.S. influence in strategic partnership with the hostile regimes and Israel.

A second source of concern was the rejection of Western ideas about governance and the place of religion in the life of society. Western ideas of political legitimacy rested on a premise of separating church and state, while the Islamic Revolution favored their organic connection, giving primacy to religious leadership, although accompanied by a political sphere that was legitimated by periodic free elections.

Other issues involved imposing religious traditions contrary to Western cultural ideas. This can be observed, especially, in relation to the dress and appearance of women, and with respect to education, social life, and entertainment.

The West celebrates ‘freedom’ by reference to social practices, including music, consumption of alcohol, pornography, and tolerance of anti-religious ideas. It perceived Iran after the Islamic Revolution as prohibiting what in the West were regarded as achievements of the Enlightenment and modernity.

In the end, the most fundamental opposition to the Islamic Revolution arose from the belief that political Islam would be resistant to Western penetration and hegemonic control after the collapse of European colonialism, and thus threatened crucial Western strategic interests, including access to energy, security of Israel, ideological anti-Marxist solidarity, and neoliberal globalization.

3- How do you see the role of Imam Khomeini in uniting the Muslim world?

I believe that Imam Khomeini had a major impact in demonstrating to the Muslim world
the mobilization of national populations could be effective in challenging corrupt and decadent forms of political leadership. It gave rise to Islamic activism and extremism, which in turn produced Islamophobic reactions in Europe and North America. Iran itself
opposed such Sunni extremism associated with ISIS and the Taliban as in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Imam Khomeini has so far failed in uniting the Muslim world, especially if measured by the outlook of governing elites. Indeed, it seems more reasonable to conclude that his
Influence has led to deeper divisions and a rise in sectarian rivalries, especially in the Middle East. Imam Khomeini was as opposed to the Gulf dynasties, especially Saudi Arabia, than he was about Israel, secularism, and Western influence. In turn, these conservative monarchies, although purporting to adhere to Islamic law and practices,
were severely threatened by populist advocacy of an Islamic orientation of government. It is no secret that Gulf monarchies, along with Israel, opposed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood anywhere in the region, especially Egypt. Islam from below, as in Iran, was
consistently opposed by Sunni elites in the region.

4- Imam Khomeini always hated compromising with arrogant powers and Zionists and believed in resistance. How has the culture of resistance been able to change the balance of power in the region?

Except for Iran itself, I do not see any shift in the balance of power in the region arising from Imam Khomeini’s support for a culture of resistance. It could be argued that the Arab uprising of 2010-11 reflected a certain influence of the Imam and the Iranian experience of revolutionary success inspired people to act collectively in mounting challenges to the status quo. Even if this is so it must be offset by counter-revolutionary moves that followed these uprisings, producing chaos in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and intensifications of the harsh rule of Arab monarchies. It may be correct that Western influence has somewhat declined, and is being now challenged by other extra-regional forces, China and Russia. These changes are affecting the role of global geopolitics in the Islamic world, but I don’t associate these developments with manifestations of a culture of resistance.

Iran’s foreign policy has enjoyed a measure of success in Lebanon, Palestine, and above all, Syria, but it seems premature to speak of a new balance of power in the region. The Palestinian resistance is the most impressive example of a culture of
resistance that is active in the region. Although the Palestinian struggle has been led for 20 years by Hamas, its movement of resistance seems remote from any direct influence by Imam Khomeini, whom I believe would be disappointed that his legacy has not extended beyond Iran.

(5) Responses of Richard Falk to Questions posed by Javad Arab Shirazi(May 9, 2021) (Press TV)
Q#1: Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei on Friday marked the International Quds Day, voicing confidence that the downward movement of the Zionist regime has already started and “it will never stop”. What do you think?
I agree with the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Israeli apartheid state has suffered a series of defeats in the symbolic domain of politics in the first months of 2021: the preliminary decision of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the Prosecutor possesses the legal authority to investigate allegations of Israel’s criminality in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem that occurred after 2015; influential reports by the Israeli NGO, B’Tselem and by the leading U.S. NGO, Human Rights Watch conclude that the practices and policies of Israel throughout Israel and occupied Palestine constitute the international crime of apartheid; and significant worldwide increases in global solidarity initiatives in support of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, including the inalienable right of self-determination enjoyed by every people.

These symbolic advances suggest that Palestine is winning the Legitimacy War fought between Israel and Palestine over the relative legal, moral, and spiritual entitlements in their struggle. The record of the struggles against colonial rule since 1945 suggest that the side that prevails in a Legitimacy War eventually controls the political outcome. In this respect, the statement of Ayatollah Khamenei about a downward Israeli spiral accords with the flow of history.
At the same time Israel will not easily accept defeat. It has tried to deflect attention by accusing individuals and even institutions, such as the UN and ICC, of being ‘antisemitic.’ This is a display of ‘the politics of deflection.’ Such deflection attempts to wound the messenger rather than heed the message. Israel also enjoys the geopolitical backing of the United States and to a lesser extent, the European Union, and has benefitted from ‘the normalization agreements’ reached in 2020 with several Arab governments as encouraged by the Trump presidency during its last months. These factors suggest that it will be a difficult and likely prolonged struggle.
In the meantime, the Palestinian people are being severely subjugated in their own homeland, including ever since the Nakba in 1948 being victimized by ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. It is necessary to appreciate that symbolic successes do not translate immediately into substantive results, and often have the opposite short-term effects because the oppressor senses its vulnerability. Such an experience is currently the fate of the Palestinian people.

Q#2: The Leader said the policies of the oppressive and cruel capitalism “have driven a people out of their homes, their homeland and their ancestral roots and instead, it has installed a terrorist regime and has housed a foreign people therein.” What are your thoughts on this?
My response to the prior question addresses this language on the level of the existential suffering of the Palestinian people within and outside their homeland, including in refugee camps in neighboring countries and through the dispersion of Palestinians in involuntary exile around the world.
I think that the abuses of capitalism are not essential aspects of the basic crimes of displacement and oppression of the Palestinian people so as to enable the Zionist Project to succeed in establishing a Jewish state in the Palestinian homeland. These crimes are virtually acknowledged in Israel’s Basic Law of 2018. Capitalist patterns of exploitation of Palestinian labor and resources are part of this overall picture but incidental to the apartheid and colonial structures that exert comprehensive control over Palestinian activities.

Q#3: “Today, the situation in the world is not like those days. We should keep this reality within sight. Today, the balance of power has swung in favor of the world of Islam. Various political and social incidents in Europe and in the United States have laid bare the weaknesses and the deep structural, managerial and moral conflicts among westerners. The electoral events in the US and the notoriously scandalous failures of the hubristic and arrogant managers in that country, the unsuccessful one-year fight against the pandemic in the US and Europe and the embarrassing incidents that ensued, and also the recent political and social instabilities in the most important European countries are all signs of the downward movement of the western camp”, the Leader said. What do you think?

There is much evidence of Western decline as the quoted language of Ayatollah Khamanei suggests, but the world future remains obscure. Historical tendencies appear to favor the rise of Asia and a more multipolar world order. There are also indications of Western, particularly U.S. decline, as in its handling of the COVID pandemic and prolonged failure to update and improve the quality of its infrastructure, spending excessively on armaments instead of investing
in a sustainable and equitable future.

Yet there are some contradictions that prevent any assured image of the future. At present, there are prospects of a dangerous confrontation between China and the United States, which could confirm Chinese ascendency or lead to regional conflict, and possibly wider tensions in the form of a second cold war. It is also possible that prudence and humane judgment will lead to a geopolitics of accommodation, allowing proper attention being given to managing global challenges of unprecedented magnitude.

It is not clear to me that the Islamic world can escape from the constraining logic of statism, particularly in the Middle East where sectarian strains and regional rivalries appear stronger at present than religious and civilizational bonds.

There is also uncertainty arising from the novelty of global scale challenges amid many inequalities causing both impulses toward cooperation and withdrawals from internationalism in the form of exclusive forms of statism. The modern world system has never been challenged as a totality by anything like climate change in the past, and whether it has the flexibility and resilience to adapt remains to be seen, although the evidence to date is not encouraging. The failures to suspend sanctions during the pandemic in response to humanitarian appeals and the vaccine diplomacy emphasizing profits over people that accompanied the COVID suggest that the political elites have not caught up with history, and are ill-equipped to conceive of national wellbeing beneath the bluer skies of human wellbeing.

There is a need for forward-looking global leadership that is informed by a commitment to the global public good. It may be that this leadership could emerge from below, from a transnational movement animated by a struggle for ecological balance and species identity.
Instead of patriots of the nation or state, patriots of humanity; instead of entrepreneurs for profit, guardians of nature. New values and new identities to sustain a responsible anthropocentrism.

(5)Interview Questions from Javad Arabshirazi, Press TV on domain seizures (June 23, 2021)

Q#1: In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message has appeared on the websites of a series of Iranian and regional television networks that claims their domains have been “seized by the United States Government.” The notice, which appeared late Tuesday on the website of English-language television news network Press TV as well as a number of other Iranian and regional news channels, cited US sanctions laws for the seizure and was accompanied by the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Department of Commerce. What is your take on this?

A#1: It is important to recall that a similar seizure of Iran-related news sites occurred on October 7, 2020. It was justified at the time as the implementation of U.S. sanctions and directed at preventing alleged dissemination of ‘disinformation.’ It was further claimed that the step was taken in response to threatss to U.S. national security and its ‘democratic process.’ Significantly, the identification of the seized website domains was a result of cooperation between the U.S. Government and the high tech giants Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Such a move was seen in 2020 as an effort to increase pressure on Iran by way of improper interference with its sovereign rights, an intensifying of coercive pressures.

The rationale of this latest phase of domain seizures repeats the earlier pattern of justification, again with accusations that these supposed Iranian news outlets were disguised governmental operations that used their media platforms to subvert democratic procedures in the United States. Again this time the seizures were presented as implementations of the U.S. sanctions procedures. The timing is suspicious, coming a few days after a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected and just prior to the resumption of a seventh round of talks in Vienna to negotiate indirectly the restoration of U.S. participation in the Iran Nuclear Program deal of 2016 coupled with a phasing out of the sanctions.

These developments raise crucial questions about motivation and goals: does it reflect Israeli influence designed to prevent restoring U.S. participation in and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, the technical name of the nuclear deal? Or is it a reaction to the outcome of the Iranian presidential election, which resulted in a landslide victory for a candidate presented as hostile to the West, and particularly to Israel and the United States? Perhaps, the best answer is to postulate a combination of factors. It should be noted that an American spokesperson for the government in Washington claims that the election of Ayatollah Raisi is not relevant to the Vienna diplomacy as whoever was president of Iran, it was asserted, the final decision on such issues of vital policy would be made not by an elected official but by the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Q#2: Do you believe that the move shows Washington’s selective view towards freedom of speech and democracy?

A#2: If the seizures turn out to be official acts of the U.S. Government, it would express a serious moral hypocrisy and double standards, and unlawful encroachment on sovereign rights. The U.S. seeks to control the public discourse on matters of international concern, especially if part of the background is conflict and strife as here. There are also in the U.S. ongoing struggles behind the scene between moderate and hardline attitudes toward Iran, which also reflects degrees of direct and indirect Israeli influence. The more aggressive tendencies opposes moves toward normalization, favoring high tensions. Having one-sided presentations of conflictual situations tends to inhibit compromise and normalization of relations among states, producing an atmosphere of might makes right.

Q#3: The US is in possession of the mainstream media and can easily change and distort narratives around the world. What has irked the US government? Why do you think a TV network like Press TV should be seized by the US government?

Control of the political narrative is an important dimension of geopolitics in the digital age. Fake news and manipulation of reality are coercive means if deployed in uncontested political settings. By shutting down Press TV the US is attempting to deprive Iran of its capacity to challenge hostile propaganda, and put forth its own counter-narrative of controversial events, and more generally of peace, justice, and democratic governance. In effect, being able to exercise monopoly control of media platforms is a crucial representation of power, as important in some settings as guns and missiles. Underneath this manipulation of information is an extremely dangerous tendency to substitute one-sides propaganda for truth and dialogue.

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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WHAT TO EXPECT FROM NETANYAHU & RELIGIOUS ZIONISM

12 Nov

Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of my Nov 62022 responses to questions posted by an Iranian journalism, Javad Heirian-Nia] 

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM NETANYAHU & RELIGIOUS ZIONISM: A Preliminary Appraisal

  1. Israel’s Knesset elections ended with the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. Many analysts believe that the cabinet headed by him will be the most right-wing cabinet in Israel. What is the effect of Netanyahu’s victory on the region?

The anti-Netanyahu political parties in Israel were united around a platform that contained few substantive changes from the policies expected to be pursued by the Netanyahu coalition. Their faulty focus was devoted almost exclusively to stopping Netanyahu from having an incredible fifth opportunity to become the next Prime Minister of the country. 

It is now generally agreed that the election results are  significant beyond this failure to block Netanyahu’s return to governing authority. What has emerged as potentially important is that Likud’s winning coalition depended on teaming up with the openly racist and exclusionary Religious Zionism Party, a political alliance of two far right religious parties that put the completion of the settler colonialist project at the top of their explicit agenda, although phrased in the language of Zionism and their understanding of ‘the promised land’ and what is meant to be truly a state of the Jewish people. It also reflected the growing strength of religious Zionism as compared to secular Zionism, and thus poses serious issues about the future character of Israel as a sovereign state.  

The alliance of these two extremist ultra-religious parties gained 14 seats in the Knesset, the third most, and emerged not only as a strategic partner in Netanyahu’s triumphal return to power, but seems likely to provide the indispensable political glue needed by Netanyahu to prevent a crash landing of his tenuous coalition in the months and years ahead. This vulnerability will make Netanyahu, a master tactician and opportunist, pragmatically responsive to the extremist priorities of these ultra-Zionist allies. If current expectations are correct the first sign forming a cabinet that includes accords important ministerial portfolios to the leaders of the two political groupings making up the Religious Zionism (RZ) Party, such notoriously Israeli political personalities as Itamar Ben Gvir, and possibly even Bezabel Smotrich. 

I think the regional impacts of these political developments will be a gradual downgrading of overt normalization diplomacy by the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, and even Morocco initiated during the Trump presidency under the banner of the Abraham Accords, continued by Biden within a less flamboyant framing as ‘normalization and peace diplomacy.’ These arrangements were significant legitimizing victories for Israel within the Arab world, the result of bargains by the highly pragmatic Arab governing elites that had long dealt with Israel on economic and security matters of joint interests covertly. Such reactions against formalizing normalization will undoubtedly take more seriously the sentiments of the outraged public opinion of Arab masses who remain overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and regard their national elites as betraying the just cause of fellow Arabs and Muslims. I expect that this Israeli election, more than previous ones, will give rise to a new wave of pro-Palestinian activism in the Islamic World, but also at the UN, and perhaps more widely, including in the Global South.

But Netanyahu’s leadership is also extremely worrisome on other grounds, especially his obsessive hostility to Iran that centers on exaggerated concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Such a belligerent approach to Iran is likely to produce Israeli militarist provocations that will increase risks of a major regional war. We should recall that Netanyahu, then also Prime Minister, was fiercely opposed to the Obama approach that resulted in the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA). Netanyahu also exhibits a seeming willingness to take unilateral military action against Iran with the goal of disrupting if not destroying its alleged ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons once and for all, as well as supporting initiatives aimed at destabilizing the government in Tehran. 

At the same time, we can expect Netanyahu to ignore, if not renounce, the widely supported recent UN General Assembly urging Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal and abide by the inspection provisions of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. The Resolution (A/C.1/77/L.2) adopted on October 30, 2022 by a vote of 152-5 (24 abstentions) in the First Committee of the General Assembly; of the five were unsurprisingly U.S., Israel, and Canada, joined by Palau and Micronesia. Such a resolution introduces a semblance of balance at the global level, at least, with respect to negotiations pertaining to Iran, which in the public aspects of the Vienna negotiations designed to revive the 2015 JCPOA have so far ignored the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability, which both undermines regional proliferation constraints and disregards denuclearizing imperatives.

  • Netanyahu won while the Arab League meeting emphasized the Arab peace plan. What actions may Netanyahu take to undermine the Arab peace plan?

Netanyahu’s primary concerns in the period ahead will be to gain acceptance within Israel of his rightest leadership that will probably emphasize the threats posed by Iran to Israeli security, or unity through fear. Even prior to these Israeli elections there were growing indications of discontent with the normalization diplomacy initiated by Trump and continued by Biden. For instance, the leading Israeli liberal Zionist print media platform, Haaretz editorialized: “The Israeli election dealt a grievous blow to Judaism.” In effect, Jews elected a leadership that was programmed to push this already expansionist Zionist political entity in the direction of openly embracing and strengtheningethno-nationalist values and policies, which because of Palestinian demographic presence and continuing resistance will exert strong societal pressures to introduce new ugly episodes of ethnic cleansing combined with territorial expansionism particularly in the form of futher annexationist encroachments in the occupied West Bank.

Even without the problem of a coalition dependent on the RZ, Netanyahu and the Likud Party have not the slightest intention of lending credibility to any Arab proposal for a negotiated peace, and especially one that revives the 2002 Plan put forward by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Israel public opinion seems firmly committed to the idea that there is no longer any security need to offer, even as was the case earlier, but even if only for the sake of public relations, the Palestinians national sovereignty or a meaningful form of statehood. The whole spectrum of opinion in the new Knesset lineup is to secure Jewish supremacy quickly as much of ‘the promised land’ as possible, while the world is distracted by Ukrraine, COVID, and climate change. Concretely this means accelerated settlement expansion in the West Bank, punitive occupation in Gaza, and Israeli governance and further Judaization of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. This entails increasing pressures on Palestinians by way of terminating tenuous residence rights, raising pressures to live elsewhere, preferably outside of Israel. For almost a decade it has become clear to anyone with eyes that wanted to see the realities on the ground that Israel had abandoned all pretenses nurtured by the Oslo Diplomacy to bring peace through negotiations of the parties prepared to compromise, and instead chose to rely on an imposed ‘peace’ sustained by what is now widely understood to be the Israeli apartheid state.

  • Netanyahu’s victory comes while the democratic government is at work in America and insists on the two-state solution. What will be the relationship between Israel and the US considering Netanyahu’s rise to power?

Contrary to the wording of your questions there is no U.S. ‘insistence’ on the two-state solution, only an empty rhetorical posture belied by the language of ‘strategic partnership’ highlighted in the Biden-Lapid Jerusalem Declaration of last July. If Netanyahu is openly collaborating with and dependent on religious extremists, his new indispensable allies, it will make Washington Democrats and liberal Zionists nervous and uncomfortable, gradually producing some lowering of public enthusiasm for Israel. Even this happens it will be without foreseeable policy consequences. It seems inconceivable at this point that there will be a groundswell of opposition in the U.S. calling for an abandonment of the bilateral partnership on regional security issues, including the annual $3.8 billion U.S. economic assistance given to Israel or American continuing efforts at the UN and elsewhere to shield Israeli policies and practices when it comes to  dealing with Palestinian resistance or grievances, compliance with international law, and even with its special status as a known but still undeclared nuclear weapons state. Since the outcome of the 1967 War Israel has been valued as a vital strategic asset by the U.S. Government, which is societally reinforce by the strong pro-Israeli influence wielded by such powerful domestic grouping as the AIPAC lobbying organization and Christian evangelists. 

  • Considering Netanyahu’s serious opposition to the JCPOA, how do you see the prospect of reviving the JCPOA?

I think it highly unlikely that JCPOA will be revived. The U.S. might be prepared to reach agreement with Iran absent Netanyahu’s record of opposition that goes back to its origins during the Obama presidency. Biden has strongly indicated that the domestic political costs are too high to break openly with Israel on such a crucial security issue. The power struggle for political control of the United States is at a critical phase and no mainstream liberal leader, such as Biden, is remotely likely to weaken Jewish support by openly alienating Netanyahu. Besides, even before the Israeli elections, Israeli back-channel pressures were influencing the Biden presidency to insist on unacceptable concessions from Iran. Given the background of Trump’s 2018 withdrawal and repudiation of JCPOA, coupled with the ramping up of sanctions despite Iran’s internationally verified compliance with the agreement, the U.S. from the outset approached negotiations arrogantly. If seeking agreement and hoping for normalization, the U.S. should been prepared to offer apologies and an incremental removal of sanctions rather than put forward additional conditions that needed to be satisfied before it would rejoin JCPOA. The Trump/Biden sanctions have brought prolonged economic hardship to the people of Iran in recent years, and it undoubtedly colored the Iranian approach even if it seemed not to matter to the U.S.

  • Netanyahu is Putin’s friend, and the relations between Israel and Russia are bad after the war in Ukraine. It seems that Netanyahu has to choose between America and Russia. What is your assessment?

I think there is little doubt that if such an existential choice ever were to confront Netanyahu, he would have not have a moment’s hesitation about choosing America. It is not only the years of closeness, but the U.S. is the more formidable geopolitical actor in the Middle East and the world than Russia, and massively helps Israel militarily, ideologically, and diplomatically. Besides, the Jewish presence in the United States has great leverage over foreign policy, and although somewhat less supportive of Israeli behavior than in the past, continues to regard Israel’s security and wellbeing as an unconditional commitment, ignoring and defying the apartheid consensus that has emerged in the last five years, by shamelessly continuing to include Israel in the ranks of countries governed as ‘democracies.’ 

Of course, Netanyahu would like to maintain friendship with both Russia and the United States if this can be managed. The Ukraine War, should it be further prolonged, might induce Netanyahu to side more openly with the U.S./NATO, especially in light of the difficulties arising from including the religious extremists in his governing process with their undeniable hostility to a two-state solution. Their priority is to move toward ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to complete the ultra-Zionist project of settler colonialism, which either requires the elimination of the Palestinians from Israel altogether or at minimum their complete marginalization through crushing Palestinian resistance morale. How Netanyahu handles this open departure from Washington’s two-state mantra will give hints as to his approach to other issues where pressure arises if Israel rejects the American effort to adopt a posture, however insincere, that does not explicitly reject basic Palestinian objectives. We must wait and see how this likely political drama unfolds.

Netanyahu has early tried to convey an impression that he is not captive of the RZ by indicating his continuing support for LGBTQ freedoms and rights. Whether this is a true demonstration of Netanyahu’s political independence or a symbolic marginal gesture that is to be soon offset by an unpopular implementation of the radical policy views of RZ. It is this cloud of uncertainty that hangs over what this renewed Netanyahu/Likud governance of Israel will mean for regional politics, the Palestinian people, and Israel’s standing in the world.   

FRANCESCA ALBANESE’S ILLUMINATING FIRST REPORT AS UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON OCCUPIED PALESTINE

31 Oct

[Prefatory Note; This post is the text of opinion piece published in Middle East Eye on Oct. 27, 2022. It is slightly modified.] 

FRANSCESCA ALBANESE’S FIRST REPORT DEVOTED TO THE RIGHT OF SELF-DETERMINATION

For more than a century, the Palestinian people have endured a series of ordeals that have violated their most basic individual and collective rights.

Instrumental to this epic saga of suffering has been the success of the Zionist movement in establishing the state of Israel on the premise of Jewish supremacy in 1948. 

Such success depended also on perpetrating a distinct international crime, a consequence of the Zionist Movement seeking to establish not only a Jewish state but a democratically constituted state. This combination of goals could only be reliably ensure and maintained by demographic measures that Jews in Israel would enjoy a permanent  demographic majority. Note that other settler colonial states so long as they kept a hierarchical relationship with the native population never pretended to be an inclusive electoral democracy. 

As an operational undertaking this  required Israel to make a drastic demographic adjustment involving either a large increase in the Jewish presence in Palestine – which was not feasible at the time – or the drastic reduction of the Arab presence, which was course taken.

This logic informed the forced expulsion of 750,000 or so Arab citizens of British Mandate Palestine from that part of historic Palestine set aside for the Jewish state by the United Nations partition plan, itself territorially enlarged by Zionist territorial acquisitions in the 1948 war.

A Jewish majority in Israel was further reinforced and safeguarded by the implementation of a rigid denial of the right of return of displaced and dispossessed Arabs of Palestine in violation of international law. This Palestinian experience of expulsion coupled with the denial of any right of return is what is known as the Nakba (or catastrophe). 

Of course, this is not the whole story surrounding the founding of Israel. There was a Jewish presence and biblical connection with Palestine stretching back thousands of years, although the Jewish minority had dwindled to less than 10 percent in 1917, when the British foreign secretary pledged support for establishing a Jewish homeland by way of the infamous Balfour Declaration. Nevertheless, the Zionist narrative, taking various forms, became widely accepted, especially in the West.

Highly relevant to this endorsement of the dominant Jewish narrative was the rise of European antisemitism in the 1930s, culminating in the Holocaust, which made a Jewish sanctuary a condition of survival for a significant portion of Jews in the world. It also increased receptivity to the founding of Israel, reflecting liberal guilt about failing to stop Naziism at an earlier stage and by an Orientalist dismissal of Palestinian nationalist claims.

The historical context certainly mobilized the Jewish diaspora, especially in the US, to back the Zionist project to colonize Palestine, and ever since, to provide geopolitical muscle and massive economic and military assistance over the course of many years to support the security and expansionist ambitions of Israel continuing even as it became strong and prosperous. .

A UN innovation 

At the international level, particularly within the UN, there has been constant sympathy and support for Palestinian rights under international law, especially in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission (HRC), which carries out the decisions of the Human Rights Council, consisting of 47 elected governments.

In 1993, a country mandate concerned with Israel’s human rights violations in the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza occupied since 1967 was created. 

It is from this initiative that the mandate of the special rapporteur (SR) derives.

A special rapporteur is selected by a consensus vote of the HRC on the basis of a rather elaborate vetting process that includes a committee of diplomats from member government that conveys to one-year rotations of country diplomatic representatives who serve as president of the HRC a ranked shortlist of preferred candidates.  The candidates are supposed to be selected because of their expert credentials.

The president generally follows the recommendation, which is then submitted to the HRC for an up or down vote, with a single dissenting vote sufficient to reject a candidate.

The SR position itself is a U N innovation, with each individual normally serving two three-year terms. 

Although requiring considerable work by way of travel and reports, it is an unpaid position. The up-side of this voluntary status is that SRs are not subject to administrative discipline as UN civil servants. This feature is designed to provide the position with political independence, at least with respect to UN Members and the UN itself, but offers no insulation from hostile media or NGOs, or even governments so long as they do not interfere with the work of SRs.

It should surprise no one that Israel and the US were against establishing the mandate since it was first proposed in the HRC. In recent years Israel has refused to cooperate with SRs even refusing to allow access to Occupied Palestine..

By denying entry into Israel or the occupied territories, the Israeli government denies the UN rapporteur direct contact with the people and situation on the ground, and forces a reliance on public information and meetings in neighboring countries. For those of us who have been to Occupied Palestine, there is no adequate substitute for a direct experience of the place.  

It is significant that during the last 15 years, Israel and its supporters have stopped responding to the substance of the carefully documented SR reports and other UN assessments of alleged Israeli violations. Instead Israel and its most ardent apologists have concentrated their political energies on allegations of UN antisemitism and related vilification of successive rapporteurs. 

I would explain the shift in tactics in this way. When the Israeli violations became too flagrant and documented by multiple sources it was a. fool’s errand to attempt refutation. Better attack the messenger than address the message. It is most unfortunate that ofteen such a tactic has been effective, diverting the discourse, especially in the media, to questions about whether or not the SR is in fact biased or antisemitic, and burying the serious allegations in the process.

Despite being confronted by this personally unpleasant, abusive, and diversionary Israeli pushback, the reports of SRs have gained influence and legitimacy over the years. They are relied upon by several important governments, as well as by some of the more independent media and many civil society actors including churches, labor unions, and human rights organizations. 

Within this context, the new SR for Palestine, an Italian academic jurist and highly esteemed human rights expert, Francesca Albanese, has recently issued her first report, due shortly for presentation to the UN General Assembly in New York. [UN GA Doc. A/77/356, 21 Sept 2021]

It is a most impressive document that comprehensively depicts and offers evidence relating to the most fundamental violations of the basic rights of the Palestinian people.

Against the flow of history

The Albanese Report appropriately gives primary attention to the Palestinian entitlement to the fulfillment of the inalienable right of self-determination. It was this right of self-determination that provided the normative foundation for the anti-colonial struggles in the period of 1950-80. These struggles shared and interacted with the Cold War on the global center stage after the end of World War II.

Albanese takes note of the supreme irony that Zionism managed to go against the flow of history by establishing a durable and legitimated settler-colonial state of Israel at the very moment when European colonialism was elsewhere under assault by national resistance and liberation movements, enjoying media and public support.

Her report has already gained widespread attention and praise both for its spirit of fierce independence, the lucidity of its argument, and the superior quality of its analysis. Such an exemplary performance in the formal start as SR has expectedly also provoked hostile commentary by way of taunts and defamatory accusations. Albanese’s report is accused of deliberately slanted interpretations of law and facts, which enabled her to reach conclusions hostile to Israel.

I would submit that such a complaint is unjustified and believe that any fair reading would confirm this. An objective reading of the Albanese report would conclude, in opposition to her venomous critics, that the author has gone out of her way to gain direct access to Israel’s narrative and sought to present to the reader Israel’s own justifiications of its contested behavior.

Although accepting the emerging civil society consensus to the effect that Israel is imposing an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people, Albanese sets forth an entirely original and illuminating argument for why the elimination of apartheid would not by itself be enough to end the ordeal of the Palestinian people.

Briefly summarizing, the most influential depictions of Israeli apartheid are territorially bounded either to the occupied territories or an enlarged entity that includes Israel proper (often identified as stretching “from the river to the sea”). As Albanese notes, such spatial delimitation of apartheid are not directly relevant to refugees in the occupied territories and neighboring countries, as well as to the several million involuntary exiles living in various places around the world living outside the boundaries of Palestine.

Dismantling settler-colonial occupation

Beyond that, without satisfying the full spectrum of Palestinian basic rights, including economic and social rights, there is no assurance that Israel would not be able to maintain exploitative forms of domination characteristic of settler-colonialism even should Israeli apartheid be dismantled.

For Albanese, it is indispensable to recognize that justice for all the Palestinian people will not be done until their right of self-determination is fully implemented. She analyses this Palestinian right by reference to two principal dimensions: free choice of the form of political governance and permanent national sovereignty over natural resources.

The resounding message of this historically significant report is its call for a solution premised on respect for relevant history and international law

In essence, as articulated by Albanese, the right to self-determination is the right of a people “to exist as independent both demographically (as a people) and territorially (within a given region) and to pursue their cultural, economic and social development through what the territory and associated resources offer.”

In the more prescriptive sections of her report, Albanese puts her analytic skills to work in clearing a path forward for the Palestinians. In doing this she does not exempt the UN from its many past failures to uphold international law in relation to the struggles for justice and the rule of law in Palestine and is insistent that it should do better in the future.

She indicts the UN as having “systematically failed to hold Israel accountable”, thereby enabling Israel’s imposition of settler colonialism accompanied by flagrant, repeated violation of international humanitarian law.

In passing, she also argues that Israel’s defiant rejection of a stream of General Assembly resolutions calling upon Israel to uphold Palestinian rights, including the rights of self-determination “legitimated a Palestinian right of resistance” and undermined the legality of Israel as an occupying power.

The Palestinian People Deserve Respect for their Rights under International Law

The resounding message of this historically significant report is its call for a solution premised on “respect for history and international law.” It is to be enacted by the immediate withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories and the payment of reparations for decades of unlawful harm inflicted on the Palestinian people.

Albanese is to be commended for the clarity and forthrightness of this report to the UNGA, but it would be naive to suppose that it will by itself bring overdue liberation to the Palestinian people.

What it does bring is an authoritative and deeply informed legitimation of Palestinian resistance to occupation and a convincing critique of UN weakness when it comes to the implementation of basic rights.

It would be wrong and misleading to conclude from the realization that the UN has been useless in relation to the Palestinian struggle. Even though the UN is helpless to change the behavior on the ground, it remains crucially important in the symbolic and normative domains of legitimacy wars, which have controlled the eventual political outcomes of major anti-colonial wars. These outcomes have astonished ‘realists’ who continue to exert a dominating influence over the formation of foreign policy. Astonished but not persuaded. These realists continue to suppose that the side with the better military technology and smarter tactics should be able to prevail even in anti-colonial wars, and so the bloodstained failures of imperial warfare are repeated, ignoring this record of defeat.

A Concluding Remark

This sense of UN impotence to achieve substantive results whenever the dictates of justice clash – as here – with the vital strategic interests of a geopolitical actor is an operative fact of international life. Such a phenomenon is at play in the Ukraine Crisiis.

At the very least, Francesca Albanese’s courageous report should serve as a wake-up call for the Global South and a reminder to all of us that the anti-colonial movement still faces a formidable challenge.

[Prefatory Note: This is the third iteration of an essay on the evolution of the Ukraine War, the earlier two versions published online in Transcend Media Service (TMS) and CounterPunch. The essential argument remains: war-mongering geopolitics in the nuclear age imperils species survival and suppresses the necessity for emergency action to restore sustainable forms of ecological habitability to planet earth.]

25 Oct
RIP VAN WINKLE SLEEPS FOR 20 YEARS

Ukraine War Evolves: Who  Will Awaken Rip Van Winkle?

Disdaining Diplomacy, Seeking Victory

Ever since the Ukraine War started on February 24, 2022 the NATO response, mainly articulated and materially implemented by the U.S., has been to pour vast quantities of oil on the flames of conflict, taunting Russia and its leader, increasing the scale of violence, the magnitude of human suffering, and dangerously increasing the risk of a disastrous outcome. Not only did Washington mobilize the world to denounce Russia’s ‘aggression’, but supplied a steady stream of advanced weaponry in great quantities to the Ukrainians to resist the Russian attack and even mount counterattacks. The U.S. did all it could at the UN and elsewhere to build a punitive coalition supportive of international sanction hostile to Russia, and when this failed to gain sufficient support resorted to a range of national sanctions. The American president, Joe Biden, also breached diplomatic protocol by resorting to the demonization of Putin as a notorious war criminal unfit to govern and deserving of indictment and prosecution. This incendiary flow of state propaganda was faithfully conveyed by a self-censoring Western media filter that built public support for a Western posture of war rather than diplomacy. It did this primarily by graphically portraying on a daily basis the horrors of the war endured by the vivid portrayals of the sufferings being by the Ukrainian civilian population, something the media has been advised to avoid when dealing with U.S. regime-changing interventions or Israel’s violence and flagrant practices of collective punishment unlawfully inflicted on the Palestinian people.

This unduly provocative behavior, given the wider issues at stake, is underscored by a newly discovered West-oriented enthusiasm for the International Criminal Court, urging the tribunal to gather as much evidence as quickly as possible of Russian war crimes. This law-oriented posture is contradicted by intense past opposition to ICC efforts to gather evidence for an investigation of war crimes by non-signatories (of which Russia is one) in relation to the U.S. role in Afghanistan or Israel’s role in occupied Palestine. To some degree such one-sidedness of presentation was to be expected, and even justified given Russia’s aggression, which while irresponsibly provoked was still a breach of the most fundamental norm of international law. And yet the intensity of this NATO response in relation to Ukraine has been dangerously interwoven with an irresponsible and amateurishly pursued geopolitical war waged by the U.S. against Russia, and indirectly against China. It is so far a war fought without weapons, yet with a major potential impact on the the structure and processes of world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, further complicated by the ascent of China as a credible regional and even global rival to U.S. dominance. Such a geopolitical war proceeds on uncharted historical conditions. It is being waged in a manner oblivious to wider human security interests, and in a profound and perverse sense, contrary even to the wellbeing and fate of Ukraine and its people.

Despite the presence of these features of the Ukraine War, Western minds continue to view the conflict with one eye closed. Even Stephen Walt, a moderate and sensible self-styled realist commentator on U.S. foreign policy, and currently, a prudent, persuasive critic of the Biden failure to do his best to shift the bloody encounter in Ukraine from the battlefield to diplomatic domains nevertheless joins the war-mongering chorus by misleadingly asserting without qualification that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, immoral, and unjustifiable..” [Walt, “Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2022] It is not that such a characterization is incorrect as such, but unless supplemented by explanations of context it lends credibility to the war-oriented, self-righteous mentality displayed by the Biden presidency, while shielding its geopolitical war dimensions from scrutiny. Perhaps Walt and others of similar outlook were striking this posture of going along with Washington’s portrayal of the Ukraine Crisis as a tactical concession needed to be in a position to propose a Faustian Bargain of self-righteousness as a prelude to endorsing support for finally adopting a diplomatic stance toward ending the Ukraine War, and abandoning the ultra-hazardous militarist path toward victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia. Perhaps, Walt frames his argument to gain a seat at the table with influential audiences in Washington. Understandingly believing that even their dire warnings about the rising escalation risks and to improve chances of advocacy of diplomacy will otherwise not even get a hearing from the foreign policy insiders advising Biden/Blinken. 

To be clear, even if it can be argued that Russia/Putin have launched a war that is unlawful, immoral, and unjustified, the wider geopolitical context remains imperative if peace in Ukraine is to be restored and global catastrophe avoided. For one thing, the Russian attack may be as wrong as alleged, and yet conforms to a geopolitical pattern of established  behavior that the U.S. has itself been largely responsible for establishing in a series of wars starting with the Vietnam War, and notably more recently with the Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. None of these wars were legal, moral, and justifiable, although each enjoyed a geopolitical rationale that made them seem sufficiently desirable to U.S. foreign policy elites and its closest alliance partners to be worth undertaking despite violating these norms. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but in a world where geopolitical actors enjoy a license to pursue vital strategic interests within traditional spheres of influence, it is not objectively defensible to self-righteously condemn Russia without taking some principled account of what the U.S. has been doing around the world for several decades. Antony Blinken may tell the media that spheres of influence became a thing of the past after World War II, but he must have been asleep for decades not to notice that the Yalta Agreement on the future of Europe reached in 1945 by the Soviet Union, United States, and the United Kingdom was premised on precisely the explicit affirmation of such spheres, which in retrospect, however distasteful in application, deserve some credit for keeping the Cold War from becoming the disaster of all disasters, World War III fought with nuclear weapons far more potent than the atomic bombs that so apocalyptically devastated the people and cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such compromised sovereignty of these borderland countries is descriptive of the often tragic prerogatives claimed by so-called Great Powers throughout the history of international relations, not least by the United States through the Monroe Doctrine and its extensions. In this sense, Ukraine finds itself in the long unenviable position of Mexico, and indeed all of Latin America. Many years ago the famous Mexican cultural figure, Octavio Paz, proclaimed the tragedy of his country ‘to be so far from God and yet so close to the United States.’

The UN  Itself a Vehicle of Geopolitics more the International Law

In a somewhat insightful fit of frustration, George W. Bush after a failure to gain UN Security Council authorization in 2003 for the use of non-defensive regime-changing force against Iraq, declared that the UN would lose its ‘relevance’ if it failed to go along with the American imperial plan of action, and so it has. The ambiguity as to international law arises from the UN Charter own equivocation, asserting that all non-defensive uses of force are prohibited, a position reinforced by the amended Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court by declaring ‘aggression’ as a crime against the peace, while conferring a conferring a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. How can this right of veto be conferred on these five states, which has the effect of precluding any Security Council decision that clashes with their strategic interests, be reconciled with the Charter and international law prohibition on aggression? Of course, Bush’s frustration was more extreme in the sense that he was expecting the Security Council to sanitize a proposed unlawful war of aggression against Iraq, that is, in a fit of unipolar arrogance, this American president expected that even the veto powers would fall in line, and offer the US/UK attacking coalition the legitimacy of UN authorization. When this was not forthcoming the U.S. did not adjust its war plans, but resorted to this dismissal of the UN.

The right of exception as embodied in the constitutional framework of the UN is not some peculiar anomaly, and the failed Bush override was an unusual rebuff of imperial geopolitics that flourished after the Cold War. It was seldom notice that such developments were indirectly anticipated by post-1945 experience of international criminal law, which from Nuremberg to the present has exempted from accountability dominant geopolitical actors, even for such incredible acts as the dropping of atomic bombs on overwhelmingly civilian targets at the end of World War II. This gray zone separating law from power continues to be the accepted playground of geopolitical actors, never so dangerous as when its prerogatives, alignments, and constraints are in flux. The Russian and Chinese challenges can be best interpreted as seeking to restore the framework of geopolitical bipolarity (or modified to accommodate tripolarity) that collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This situation led the U.S. to fill the resulting vacuum with a militarist/neoliberal form of geopolitical management consisting of full spectrum dominance of the instruments of warfare and an ideological insistence that the legitimacy of the internal political order of a sovereign state depended on its adherence to a market-driven logic of private sector dominance at home and internationally, the s0-called ‘Washington consensus.’ The momentous open question, aside from worrying about how and when the war in Ukraine will end, is whether the geopolitical world order resting on U.S. primacy will be confirmed or modified. If confirmed it will extend the period of unipolarity that followed the end of the Cold War. If modified, it will usher in a new era of geopolitics requiring a new framework of meta-legal accommodation. In either case, there exists the additional uncertainty as to whether post-Ukraine world order will be oriented toward cooperation and the production of global common goods or with hegemonic and conflictual priorities.

Geopolitical Practice: Prudent or Irresponsible

These considerations are mentioned here not to defend, much less exonerate Russia, but to show that the world order context of the Ukraine War is deeply problematic in relation to U.S./NATO claims of normative authority, especially when invoked in such a partisan manner. In contemporary geopolitical relations, as distinct from normal state-to-state or international relations, precedent and Great Power experience generally act as substitutes for norms and rule-governed behavior, at least on matters of peace, national security, and public economic policy. What the U.S. claims the right to do and does, can be generally done subsequently by other sovereign states, especially those with some level of geopolitical entitlement. Blinken has again muddied the waters of international discourse by falsely claiming that the U.S., unlike adversaries China and Russia, is as observant of rule-governed behavior in a similar manner to that regulating the behavior of ‘normal states’ in relation to matters of vital strategic interests

To gain a clearer and more objective perspective on aspects of Russian behavior in Ukraine it seems appropriate to look back at NATO’s clearly unlawful war of 1999. This non-defensive war, unauthorized by the UN, fragmented Serbia by coercively supporting Kosovo’s claimed right of secession, including political independence and territorial sovereignty. Account should be taken of this Kosovo precedent before uncritically condemning the Russian annexation of four parts of eastern Ukraine, rationalized as the exercise of rights of self-determination in the light of alleged Serbian abuse, and supposedly validated by after administering widely condemned referenda. Yet even here an understanding of past geopolitical behavior is instructive. The NATO military victory didn’t even bother with a referendum before implementing Kosovo’s secession.

The point is not to condemn all such undertakings without legal authority by recognizing that there may be extreme cases where the fragmentation of existing states is justifiable on humanitarian grounds and others where it is not, but to claim that Russia overstepped the limits of law in a context where power has been consistently shaping behavior and political outcomes in similar cases is to prepare the public for a wider war rather than leading it to seek and be pragmatically receptive to a diplomatic compromise. In effect, I am arguing for the wisdom and virtue of what might be described as geopolitical humility and self-restraint: do not require of others, what you have yourself done, or at the very least explain non-polemically what is the difference between say Dombas and Kosovo that makes the former unlawful and illegitimate and the latter lawful and legitimate. In the complexity of internal struggles of a beleaguered ethnic or religious minority it is along the same lines helpful to acknowledge that Moscow and Washington ‘see’ the same realities of the Dombas and Kosovo in contradictory ways.

This contextual understanding of the Ukraine War is in my judgment highly relevant as it makes the current fashion of mounting legal, moral, and political arguments of condemnation distract attention and energies from following otherwise rational, prudent, and pragmatic courses of action, which from day one of the attack on Ukraine strongly supported the wisdom of making an all-out effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiations aiming at durable political compromises not only between Russia and Ukraine, but also between Europe/U.S. and Russia. That the U.S. Government never to this day has publicly manifested any such interest, much less setting forth a commitment to stopping the killing and devastation by encouraging diplomacy, in the face of mounting costs and escalation risks associated with prolonging the warfare in Ukraine. Such geopolitical recklessness should be shocking to the conscience of peace-minded persons and patriots of humanity everywhere.

Beyond the immediate zones of combat, catastrophic costs are presently being borne by many vulnerable societies throughout the world from the spillover effects of the war, magnified by anti-Russian sanctions and their major impact on food and energy supplies and pricing. Such a deplorable situation, likely to get worse as the war goes on and likely intensified in the coming Winter months. Beyond this it is now also bringing closer to reality the growing danger of the use of nuclear weapons as Putin’s alternatives may be narrowing to a personal willingness to accept responsibility for a Russian defeat or to give up his status as autocratic leader. While not relenting a bit on implementing an aggressive approach to gaining Ukraine’s ambitions of victory, Biden himself incredibly acknowledges that any use of even a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine would with near certitude lead to Armageddon. This paradoxical duality (combining escalating the war and anxiety as to where it might lead) seems more like a mindless embrace of geopolitical insanity than a sobering balancing of the contradictory somber realities at stake in Ukraine. We can ask when will this Rip Van Winkle of our time awaken to the realities of the nuclear age?

As always actions speak louder than words. Blinken facing a rising public clamor for negotiations, especially in Europe, responds with his usual feckless evasions. In this instance, contending that since Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression it alone has the authority to seek a diplomatic resolution and the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine’s maximal war aims, supposedly, for as long as and for whatever it takes, including recently even the extension of Ukraine war aims to the recovery of Crimea, which has been widely accepted internationally as reabsorbed by Russia since 2014.

Context also matters in relation to the conduct of the war. Its major escalation within the month of the sabotage of Nord Stream1 & 2 gas pipelines to Europe, which Blinken once more confounded by this act of sabotage outside the war zone by calling it ‘a tremendous opportunity’ to make weaken Russia and force Europe to intensify their efforts to gain energy independence. Such an operation initially implausibly attributed to Russia by the U.S., yet later more or less acknowledged as part of the expansion of the war by reliance on ‘terrorist’ tactics of combat. This latest expression of state terrorism is the suicide bombing of the strategic Kerch Straight Bridge on October 7th, connecting Crimea and Russia, a major infrastructure achievement of the Putin period of Russian leadership, as well as a symbolic expression of relinking Crimea to Russia serving as a supply line for Russian troops operating in the Southern parts of Ukraine. These extensions of the combat zone and tactics beyond the territory of Ukraine contain the fingerprints of the CIA and seems designed as encouragement of Ukrainian resolve to go all out for a decisive victory, sending Putin unmistakable signals that the U.S. remains as unreceptive as ever to a responsible geopolitics of compromise. Biden reportedly refuses even to respond favorably to Putin’s apparent initiative that the two leaders discuss their differences at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia. Biden’s characteristic response was a defiant refusal, subject only to reconsideration if the meeting was limited to negotiating the release of an American female pro basketball player being held in Russia on drug charges. The U.S. anger directed at Saudi Arabia for cutting its oil production is an additional sign of a commitment to a victory scenario in Ukraine as well as a reaction against the Saudi resistance to U.S. hegemonic geopolitics in its co-management of OPEC+ with Russia. With such provocations, it is hardly surprising, although highly unlawful and immoral, for Russia to retaliate by unleashing its version of ‘shock and awe’ against the civilian centers of ten Ukrainian cities. Such is the course of these vicious cycles of escalation characteristic of the lawlessness of major warfare! The neglect of the relevant and shameful American precedents in Iraq and Afghanistan is also integral to sustaining a war mentality under siege.

Concluding Observations

Always lurking in the background, and at Ukraine’s and the world’s expense, is Washington’s geopolitical opportunism, that is, seeking to defeat Russia and deter China from daring to challenge the hegemonic unipolarity achieved after the Soviet disintegration in 1992. This huge investment in its militarist identity as the sole ‘global state’ that best explains such a cowboy approach to nuclear risk-taking and the tens of billions expended to empower Ukraine at a time of internal suffering in the U.S. and elsewhere coexisting with such a costly expression and dangerous expression of international overreach.

Such a tragic political drama unfolds as the peoples of the world and their governments, along with the United Nations, watch this horrendous spectacle unfold, seemingly helpless witnesses not only to stop the carnage, but also to do their best to curtail the spillover and Armageddon dangers, and even to react meaningfully against the potential supreme damage to their own national destinies.

Call on the Future of Humanity

20 Oct

A poster for a webinar seeking to build a global community of endorsers to work for a better future for all of us living together on this lonely endangered planet

Will Saudi Leadership of OPEC Clash with U.S. Strategic Partnership?

14 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat updated and expanded version of responses to questions posed by the Iranian journalist, Javad Arabshirazi on October 12, 2022.]

REEVALUATING US RELATIONS WITH SAUDI ARABIA AFTER OPEC+ OIL PRODUCTION 

#1: The White House says that President Joe Biden is re-evaluating the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies (OPEC+), in which Riyadh is a top producer, announced last week it would cut oil production. What is your take on this?

Biden and the U.S. swallowed a lot of harsh criticism for maintaining such a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the 2018 brazen murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul of the respected journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was long a Washington resident. Also, such a positive relationship had long been criticized as disregarding Biden’s supposed primary commitments to democratic values and human rights, given that Saudi Arabia has a worst record on gender issues than Iran and yet gets a pass. Furthermore, criticism had long been leveled at the U.S. military and diplomatic support for the unlawful and inhumane Saudi military intervention in Yemen mainly in the form of air attacks that have frequently struck civilian targets. 

In this sense, Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salmon, like Israel, had been shielded from official censure either by the U.S or at the UN, being considered a strategic partner and a key player when it comes to world energy markets and regional security in the Middle East. That being said, it is also true that Saudi Arabia never dreamed of having the extraordinary policy leverage in the U.S. enjoyed by Israel, lacking its lobbying prowess and willingness to use its influence when necessary to sway American voters. In addition, Biden’s visit in July of this year in the face of mounting liberal criticism was  rumored to be compensated by a private Saudi commitments to maintain  oil production levels and accept lower per barrel princes at least until December, that is, after the U.S. upcoming November elections at which higher gap pump prices would hurt Democratic Party prospects.  In addition, it was believed that any production cuts by OPEC would aid Russian energy export marketing.  

In this sense, the Saudi-led OPEC+ (13 OPEC members + 23 cooperating governments of oil exporting countries; significantly, Saudi Arabia and Russia co-chair OPEC+!) production cuts were seen as undercutting both U.S. domestic anti-inflation and foreign anti-Rissian policy, which was determined to reduce Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. Although not publicly commented upon, this turn toward Russia in the strategic context of energy must have outraged, or at least disillusioned, those Washington insiders who have pragmatically encouraged a human rights blindfold and a tight embrace.

To consider this production/price move from a Saudi perspective makes it seem mainly motivated by its national interest in protecting the value of their principal trading asset, as well as not wanting their compliance with Washington wishes to be taken for granted or cancel other relationship as with Russia in OPEC+. With a global recession widely anticipated in coming months, principally as a consequence of the prolonged Ukraine crisis, oil demand is predicted to fall sharply, if possibly  briefly, exerting a downward pressure on the world prices of oil and gas. Thus, from an economistic perspective an OPEC adjustment by way of temporarily reduced production seemed sensible. The Saudis undoubtedly felt that to remain a trustworthy leader of the OPEC and especially OPEC+ required that their influence not be distracted by U.S. political pressures and this depended on setting production quotas responsive only to energy market factors. Saudi Arabia formally confirmed this line of interpretation in their public written reaction to complaints from Biden, ant threats to reevaluate the bilateral relationship in manner than would be punitive toward Riyadh.

Also, at stake was the idea that a country like Saudi Arabia should demonstrate its political independence, especially when purporting to administer such an important form of multilateralism as is involved in OPEC+ operatioonas. To manifest such independence on such a crucial issue as production levels meant avoiding any impression of subservience to the regional hegemony claimed by any non-OPEC or OPEC+ external actor. In this sense, what the Saudis are doing is somewhat similar in spirit to what Turkey has been doing in recent years, which has caused some friction within the NATO alliance framework but gained wide international respect for Turkey as an independent political actor. This is also what Israel has done in its own more provocative manner by not at all hiding its sharp differences with the U.S. on important questions, perhaps most notably through various disruptive expressions of its intense opposition to the 5+ 1 Nuclear Agreement of 2015 (also known as JCPOA) with Iran and currently by way of its opposition to the revival of the agreement by way of a U.S. return as a party, which is what Biden pledged when campaigning to be president in 2016. Israel has vigorously obstructed this major diplomatic and security effort without encountering any sort of pushback by way of adverse ‘consequences’ that the Saudis are now being warned about. I would venture the opinion that absent Israel’s opposition, JCPOA would have been by now long restored,   providing greater stability to the Middle East while at the same time gradually  lifting the harsh and unjustifiable Trump sanctions that have brought great suffering to the people Iran.

#2: President has warned of the consequences. What consequences this could have?

Biden has been deliberately vague about the nature of such consequences, although he spoken publicly about reevaluating the entire U.S./Saudi relationship. It may indicate that such a public show of displeasure, also reflecting some Congressional and public pressure to rethink whether closeness to Saudi Arabia sufficiently serves American interests to offset the clash with U,S. proclaimed values relating to human rights and democracy. I believe that it is helpful at this stage to consider this flareup as  a temporary kafuffle between long-term allies joined at the hip. If this is true this incident will eventuate in nothing more consequential than a warning and a signal of disappointment, at most conveying an implicit threat that if such diplomatic defiance is shown in the future by Riyadh it might then indeed have ‘consequences,’ but even that might be a stretch unless Israel also turns away from soliciting normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. If Republicans regain the White House in 2024, there will be even less willingness to rethink in any serious way, u.S./Saudi relations. 

More concrete options are of course presently possible and have been proposed in the U.S. media and the Congress including an embargo on arms and legal action against the OPEC oil cartel. I find it somewhat doubtful at this stage that such drastic steps would be taken, and if they were, I would predict a boomerang effect. I suspect that the foreign policy establishment in Washington is inhibited by the fear that in the event of a tangible pushback, Saudi Arabia might become tempted by the opportunity to shift its alignment in a direction more in line with China and Russia, an outcome running directly counter to the regional policies of both Israel and Egypt and quite disturbing for Europe, and of course the United States.

#3: An important question here is that on what basis and why Riyadh has decided to do this. Is Riyadh going to partner with another country? 

It is probable that Saudi Arabia’s leaders are also hoping that the storm will pass, and that it can reestablish close security ties with the U.S.. once having made its point about the autonomy of its approach to oil and OPEC+. There is little reason to think that the Saudis are ready to risk the loss of U.S. support for the security of Kingdom against internal and external adversaries. This has been the overriding Saudi goal long before MBS became the face of Saudi Arabia, and this support has critically extended to the management of its regional rivalry with Iran. 

It may take some accommodating steps by Riyadh to restore rapidly pre-crisis normalcy such as voting with the U.S. in the UN to condemn the Russian annexation of four areas of Ukraine following the sham referenda that Moscow insisted exhibited a popular preference for reintegration with Russia. It has been rumored that the Saudis have given secret reassurances that current OPEC oil production quotas will be reconsidered at the next cartel meeting in light of any changes in the world economic situation that might lead increased oil production by OPEC members.

I would think that both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will downplay the apparent tensions of the moment, and nothing concrete will happen to diminish the strategic level of mutual cooperation between these two countries. I further assume that behind the scenes, Israel is exerting strong pressure encouraging such an approach for the sake of its regional ambitions  and to undergird its continuing  efforts to confront and destabilize Iran. Nevertheless, it is a turbulent time in international relations, and anything is possible. So what seems most plausible at this moment may look quite different in a month or two.

Protesting Mahsa Amini’s Tragic Death in Iran

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post consists of questions put by Daniel Falcone and responses by Richard Falk, published on October 7, 2022 in CounterPunch

Protest in Iran: Historical and International Contexts: Q&A with Richard Falk

By Daniel Falcone

Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of abuses of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

In this interview international relations scholar Richard Falk addresses the events surrounding Mahsa Amini’s September 13th detention and reported death three days llater as well as the meaning of her Kurdish identity. Falk reminds the reader of the 2010 arrest of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia to highlight how the actions of the “morality police” can create massive reactions after they target largely unknown individuals. Falk remarks that the political significance and staying power of the protests in Iran are essentially impossible to assess at this stage, but based on historical analysis, some patterns and historical parallels have emerged thus far. Context is often decisive in such interactions between an enraged opposition and the political leadership and orientation that finds itself under fire from its own public, Falk argues. There are also many other contextual factors that may prove relevant in Iran, including the organizational skill of the protesters, their access to funds and even weapons, and the firefighting skill and ingenuity of the government.  

Daniel Falcone: Could you briefly contextualize the protests in Iran that have been taking place since September 16, 2022, as well as the Iranian response?

Richard Falk: I am immediately reminded by these protests in Iran following Mahsa Amini’s arrest, detention, and death by the Iranian ‘morality police’ of the uprisings in Tunisia back in late 2010 that started after police abuses leading to the suicide of a vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in a remote Tunisian city. The circumstances in these two instances, and nature of the abuse and the character of the regime were vastly different, but what unites these two events distant from one another in time and place is that single incidents involving a previously obscure individual sparked a massive reaction in the streets of the two countries. 

This suggests to me that both incidents exploded politically because a preexisting revolutionary mood existed in the country that was receptive to being activated. In the Tunisian case the anti-government momentum proved strong enough to topple an authoritarian and corrupt regime led by the dictatorial Zine  Ben Ali, long in control of the country, and what is more stimulated parallel anti-government events throughout the Arab world. Yet as these seemingly transformative events unfolded, they give rise to a counter-revolutionary backlash that proved strong enough to restore either repressive governance to these Arab countries or to induce prolonged strife and chaos. This countercurrent has taken longer to unfold in Tunisia, than in, say, Egypt, but occurred throughout the region. Making the Arab Spring celebrations of a decade ago now seem occasions of disappointment that led to even more pronounced disempowerment of the citizenry.

The political weight and durability of these protests in Iran is impossible to assess at this stage. They could be nothing more than an interlude in the long experience of repression or represent an historic turning point toward more liberal theocratic rule or, on the contrary, result in a more draconian version of the violent repression unleashed by the government response to the protests that followed Amini’s tragic death. Iran has experienced periodic protests in the last decade, and earlier, suggesting both a restive public and an inflexible governing process unwilling to make compromises or reforms yet resilient enough to weather such political storms. 

The Arab Spring initially targeted governments friendly to the West, content with the Israeli status quo, and accepting of the economic hardships imposed on their impoverished masses in exchange for making national elites wealthy by facilitating the predatory tendencies of neoliberal globalization. In contrast, the Iranian protests are directed at a government long and deeply at odds with the United States and Israel since overthrowing the Shah’s dynastic rule in 1979 after mobilizing a nonviolent mass movement that overcame violent oppressive tactics of the regime, tactics publicly endorsed at the time by the presidency of Jimmy Carter to the lasting embitterment of anti-Shah Iranians. 

Also, highly relevant for the new leadership in Iran were memories of 1953 when a CIA-backed coup drove the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh into exile, restoring the autocracy of the Pahlavi Dynasty to power.  It was clear that these earlier pivotal events were primarily motivated by Mossadegh’s provocative form of economic nationalism during the Cold War, especially his bold decision to nationalize the Iranian oil industry that at the time was largely dominated by British companies. Although the U.S. denied culpability for these events, the allegations were widely believed to be accurate by Iranians and later confirmed conclusively by Western investigative journalists. This background remained very much in the minds of those who led the Iranian popular movement in 1978-79. It is notable that the earlier Western intervention was directed at a radical nationalist government in Iran while the post-1979 encounters are partly in reaction to the Islamic character of the regime, but better understood as reflecting antagonistic regional geopolitics involving Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

It is too early to evaluate with any precision how this historically relevant international context conditions both protest activity and government reactions in Iran. Even at this stage we observe that the Iranian protests are uniformly treated favorably in the West, reported as outbursts led by women against the harshness of Islamic theocratic rule, which policies clash directly with central ideas of secularism and gender equality in the West. In this setting, the uprisings are fully compatible with preexisting regional and global geopolitics, which has long imposed sanctions on Iran, as well as rather openly sponsored destabilizing acts of sabotage and assassinations within Iran. Also relevant was the fact that Iran and Israel/U.S. were aligned on opposite sides in such notable regional conflict situations as ongoing in Occupied Palestine (especially Gaza), Yemen, Syria, and Libya.[1]

Beyond this, many educated Iranians with middle class roots chose exile decades ago rather than living in a theocratically governed Iran, which has meant the presence of an anti-regime middle- and upper-class diaspora that exerts considerable influence in the capitals of the West. Not surprisingly, Iranian expatriates have been cheerleading the protests following Amini’s seeming murder while under official detention and hoping to encourage these episodic protests to be an anti-regime movement with a secularizing agenda. The extreme gender bias of the Iranian theocracy provides international opponents with ‘a wedge issue’ but their real agenda is not reformist, but a return to secular governance. This means monarchy for Iranian conservatives, and social democracy for progressives among Iranian exiles. This does not mean that diaspora Iranians favored coercive intervention in Iran, which was generally opposed except by pro-Shah forces dedicated to a second restoration of Pahlavi rule. 

At the same time the Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated its durability as compared to popular movements in the Arab World, which posed democratizing threats to the powerful Gulf monarchies and Israel from their outset. With memories of 1953 still fresh in the mind of Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution, the need to safeguard the political gains against internal and external enemies led both to understandable vigilance and regrettable, perhaps paranoid and vindictive repression of dissent and diversity by the new rulers.

A final contextual observation. Enthusiasts for political change often exaggerate the strength and durability of protests and count on the provocative reliance by the established order on excessive force and a generally unimaginative pattern of governmental response. I was in Turkey during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that seemed for a brief time to be sweeping the country and exhibiting the worst tendencies toward violence of an autocratic state, leading to police killing of unarmed demonstrators. 

Secular Turks believed, and fervently hoped, this was the beginning of the end of Erdogan era of governance. Perhaps, learning from the experience in the Arab world, Erdogan essentially gave into the basic demands of the protests to leave Gezi Park free from ‘urban renewal’ plans, met with protest leaders and listened to their grievances. These government moves went virtually unreported in Europe and North America. Theu had the effect of quietly ending the anti-government protests. Naturally, this disappointed the secular opposition long sidelined in Turkish politics, but rather than learn from the experience, the opposition resumed its identity as the legitimate guardian of secularism and modernity, that is, upholding the near sacred legacy of Kemal Ataturk, offering the Turkish people a strong dose of nootallgia

rather than an alternative democratizing vision of Turkey’s future. 


Daniel Falcone: What is the social and political significance of Amini’s identity (Kurdish Iranian) in the region? 

Richard Falk: The fact that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish has been stressed in some Western media accounts of the protests from the beginning. Her Kurdish identity may help explain why unlike previous protests this one spread so quickly from its Tehran origins, and relevantly, particularly in regions where the Kurdish minority was strong. It probably also explains why the repressive response of the government was so intense and violent in cities and towns with majority Turkish populuations.

At the same time, it is my impression that the protesters themselves emphasize gender and political freedom issues, making scant reference to questions of ethnic identity. Unlike other countries in the region, such as Turkey and Iraq, there have not been comparable strife between the majority Iranian ethnic identity and Kurdish discontent, although allegations of anti-Kurdish discrimination are certainly present in Iran and have a long lineage that stretches back before the present system of government took over control of the country almost 45 years ago.

Daniel Falcone: Recently, Anthropologist Janet Amighi and Historian Lawrence Davidsoncommented on the increasingly isolated Iranian protestors and the difficulty to follow the story after Amini’s arrest by Morality Police for dress code violations (hair). Amighi argues that the Asia Times includes some of the better coverage overall on the matter, as the western press continues to reduce itself to a series of competing propaganda outlets. Some western outlets are indicating that more than half of Iran’s 31 provinces have erupted in mass protest. Can you give insight on what is happening on the ground in Iran in terms of resistance?

Richard Falk: I think this is an exaggeration, or if you prefer, an outburst of ‘wishful thinking’ on the part of ‘secular commentators.’ The more careful accounts of the protests suggest relatively small numbers, and a prevalence of women and young people. Of course, this could prefigure a more robust political phenomenon in the weeks ahead. Some commentators in Iran and elsewhere believe that the protests are at least the beginning of a durable ‘women’s movement’ in Iran that is guided by its inspirational slogan: “women, life, freedom.” The emphasis of the most militant activists has so far been on women and human rights, and not on a political agenda demanding systemic change as much as many on the outside and an incalculable number on the inside may be hoping for, supposing that they are witnessing the dawn of a new revolutionary movement in Iran.

The most obvious question of the moment is whether the Iranian regime is flexible enough to give ground on the narrow agenda of gender equality and freedom, and whether that will bring to a temporary end the current phase of protest activism. Or more depressingly, the hardline Raisi government will succeed in the reimposition of theocratic discipline that is harsh and effective enough to quell the unrest.[2]

Daniel Falcone: As usual, the US media treatment of the uprisings deserves scrutiny. Are there any salient features to focus on within agenda setting coverage?

Richard Falk: What I find most disturbing about the main media approach in the West is its total failure to discuss the protests within their historical and international context. It is to be expected that a government that has been denied normalcy from day one of its existence would view protest activity as glorified by Western media and possibly funded or at least given encouragement by Iran’s external adversaries as threatening its internal security. Already the protests have had the effect of delaying, and quite possibly ending, prospects for the renewal of the 2015 Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program (JCPOA). After Trump’s 2018 withdrawal in the face of Iran’s compliance shattered what little trust underpinned Iran’s relations with the West strengthening the hard-line factions in Tehran. In this sense, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, which vigorously opposed renewing JCPOA have their own reasons to feel grateful for the protests, while once again the U.S. is lured deeper into the darkest of caves, that of nuclear danger. 

Daniel Falcone: What do Americans need to know about the protests? How does social class and economic precariousness factor as root causes to the demonstrations? 

Richard Falk: These are difficult issues to interpret under any circumstances. Sustained hardship and a tightening of theocratic discipline in Iran likely hit the urban middle classes most directly.[3] There is every reason to think that the reaction to Mahsa Amini’s tragic experience produced a spontaneous reaction concentrated among women, youth, and the urban poor who had been suffering for decades from the lethal mixture of encroachments on personal freedom of state power and external pressures undermining their security and wellbeing.

We do not know on balance whether the successful defense of national security in the face of constant external destabilizing challenges earned the government a measure of loyalty from more established sectors of Iranian society. There are so far no visible signs that this latest wave of protests is a ‘front’ for a return of the Pahlavi dynasty, and yet there seems present a more generalized democratizing set of goals at play than the narrow agenda of gender freedom suggests. It may be possible that a secularizing movement with a liberal/progressive social agenda will spiral out of this protest activity with its seemingly narrow focus on women, the hijab, and theocratic harshness.


[1] Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press. President Andrzej Duda of Poland — on Ukraine’s doorstep — stressed in his speech that “we mustn’t show any ‘war fatigue’” regarding the conflict. But he also noted that a recent trip to Africa left him pondering how the West has treated other conflicts. “Were we equally resolute during the tragedies of Syria, Libya, Yemen?” he asked himself, and the assembly. And didn’t the West return to “business as usual” after wars in Congo and the Horn of Africa? 

[2] Amighi has indicated that Iran’s leadership and authoritative technique is to clamp down hard on protesters then negotiate with them. 

[3] Most of the protestors have demonstrated in and near Tehran. 

ON LOVING THE ‘VIETNAM SYNDROME’

2 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in modified form in CounterPunch on September 30 2022. Its essential claim is that the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ exerted a desirable downward pressure on hawkish war making tendencies for a period of almost 20 years after the Vietnam War came to end. For those in the political elite in and out of government this was regarded as a negative spillover from a mismanaged war effort in Vietnam. For the anti-war movement this was a positive sequel to a war n Vietnam that should never have been fought, and was wrongly conceived as well as criminally executed. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy establishment carried the day, erasing memories of the Vietnam political defeat, and paving the way for new military misadventures. Never, in my opinion is the country and world more in need of a second coming of the Vietnam Syndrome than at present, with pressures building for an existential nuclear confrontation more menacing to contemplate than was the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. To be balanced in assessing the global setting, Moscow would likewise gift the world if it emerged from the Ukraine War with some durable version of a ‘Ukraine Syndrome.’]

“Why I Love the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ of the People”

The Vietnam Syndrome was a term deployed after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War to

explain and complain about the reluctance of the U.S. Government to use international force robustly in shaping its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its first enunciations resented by the foreign policy establishment in Washington including conservative think tanks. The language of ‘syndrome’ was interpreted by powerful men to refer to what they thought of as a psychic disorder afflicting the U.S. policy establishment that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet to others, situated less prominently in the power structure, including myself, the Vietnam Syndrome was welcomed in the late 1970s as major component of long overdue prudent and principled post-Vietnam advocacy of a law-oriented U.S. foreign policy respectful of the self-determination rights of the Global South and restraints on the use of international force as enshrined in the provisions of the UN Charter.

Over the years, the Vietnam Syndrome lived this double life. One proposed cure was by way of the Weinberger Doctrine for those bristling under its restraining influence, which was formulated with the explicit intention of correcting the alleged government mismanagement of armed intervention in Vietnam over the course of a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing political figure and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense proposed in 1983, was that the U.S, should not enter future non-defensive questionable foreign wars, with the Vietnam War uppermost as an example of what not to do. The Weinberger Doctrine set forth six conditions to guide policymakers: 

            “1)The commitment must be deemed vital to our national interest or               that of our allies. 

            2)It should be made “wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of   winning.” 

            3)Political and military objectives and the ways to meet them must       be clearly defined. 

            4)As conditions change, whether the commitment remains in the          national interest must be reassessed. 

            5)Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable          assurance” of popular and congressional support. 

            6)A commitment to arms must be a last resort. “

Weinberger, in particular,  was particularly critical of the incremental character of the Vietnam engagement, which he contended, almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those on the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescriptions for the future, embraced the doctrine as a useful formula to gain political credibility in domestic foreign policy debates as well as victory in regime-changing and state-building wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman with customary arrogance later christened as law-free ‘wars of choice’). Read carefully, there are fundamental ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never made clear whether the Vietnam War was vital to ‘our national interest’ or that its supporters lacked ‘the clear intention of winning.’ Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine could put to rest the idea that under no circumstance should the U.S. expend blood of its citizen or treasure on non-defensive wars in the Global South. In this crucial sense, Weinberger’s views prevailed in policy circles and even somewhat in public opinion but failed when put to the test, reaching political outcomes resembling the Vietnam War rather than the standard model of the good war, World War IL.

Despite the bureaucratic backlash against a constrained foreign policy, sophisticated national leaders in the U.S. understood there was more political weight to the Vietnam Syndrome than setting forth a formula to ensure that policy-makers would not in the future commit the country to wars it could not win. It was thus not surprising that the first words uttered by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 after a U.S. led victory over Iraqi ground forces in the First Gulf War were “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndr0me once and for all.” The implicit claim was that the desert victory in conventional warfare would demonstrate to the American people and skeptical members of Congress that the U.S. could turn its military superiority into a political victory at acceptable costs in a time span that would not tax the patience of the American public. In other words, the American war machine was revamped to gain the kind of victory is was unable to achieve in Vietnam. Bush’s enthusiasm was ill-conceived and proved disastrously premature. First of all, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance fought against Western colonialist forces by relying on guerrilla tactics, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond this the military phase in the Gulf War was mandated by the UN Security Council and a regional consensus, with implementation delegated to an American-led coalition of countries and limited in its goals to restoring Kuwait territorial sovereignty.  Only hawkish ideologues and unperceptive commentators could in good faith confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neo-conservative intellectuals eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s understood that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to stand in the way of their ideological commitments to democracy promoting military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by taking advantage of what they declared to be an opportune ‘unipolar moment.’ One of its prominent advocacy platforms, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually recognized the political dependance of their expansionist program on ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although PNAC didn’t itself connect the dots, the Vietnam Syndrome had withstood earlier erasure efforts, and the rapturous welcoming of unipolarity had an abstract quality that did not overcome citizen qualms about Americans fighting and dying for the sake of a geopolitical abstraction. The Vietnam Syndrome was only existentially overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 Attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great Terror War in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, in effect, the performative reenactments of Pearl Harbor that the PNAC was waiting for. Yet once again the analogy was disastrously misleading, inducing failures reminiscent of Vietnam that doomed U.S. political efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Weinberger Doctrine and revisions of counterinsurgency doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for boots on the ground to the extent possible and rely upon ‘shock and awe’ tactics to overwhelm a lesser adversary quickly, but as it turned out, these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. In the end of costly, controversial, prolonged occupations of hostile societies the desired political outcomes were not attained in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse the U.S. continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, especially when the political undertaking encompassed a regime-changing intervention with state-building along Western neoliberal lines.   

In my view, the dominant and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition on entry into non-defensive, essentially internal wars without at least the authorization of the UN and the conformity of the mission with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was not initially articulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a warning to war-mongering bureaucrats against fighting losing wars, but as opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a casualty of state propaganda and a complicit media, reinforced by those private sectors that benefit from militarism and war. U.S. military overinvestment had succeeded in managing geopolitical power in the aftermath of the Cold War, but its innovations in weaponry and tactics achieved no notable political victories in wars surrounding the politics of national self-determination. What should arouse deep concern is that the militarist leanings of the government are undeterred by repeated experiences of failure, and keep trying, which adds to the devastation and suffering endured at the site of the struggle, and may defer the outcome, but it does not end in victory for the foreign intervenor, and hence is recorded as yet another political defeat. In one sense the Vietnam Syndrome was an acknowledgement that in these types of conflicts, military superiority had lost its historical agency. The Era of Western Colonialism was over, or at least coming to an end.

When the elder Bush was announcing to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome ‘beneath the sands of the Arabian desert,’ he wasn’t gloating over successful the application of the Weinberger Doctrine. He was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in war. The legacy of defeatism prevalent among the American people was what was annoying and inhibiting the Washington establishment, especially its lingering presence in Congress. Already a decade earlier Ronald Reagan had declared ‘[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.’ As with Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. They were little more than talking points to wary members of Congress and inquisitive journalists. What Reagan opposed was the national mood of political timidity in the country that undermined the willingness of public opinion to support going after leftist adversaries in the Global South with America’s military might.

Among my current fears is that it is Russia’s attack on Ukraine that has finally nullified the calculus of restraint implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome so far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum that is less enamored of assuming national responsibility for global security than is the broad bipartisan internationalist consensus that controlled American foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Ukraine as a seemingly victimized white, European society involves an attack by a hostile rival country that has sent tremors of fear and trembling throughout other Russian neighbors, especially those in East Europe that had been coercively subjugated within the Soviet sphere of influence throughout 40+ years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in the leading countries of Western Europe and North America.  

Currently, the escalating Ukraine Crisis suggests that the absence of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome. As such, it is irresponsibly risking catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of great powers historically accustomed to geopolitical prerogatives such as Russia. It is not a matter of endorsing Putin’s aggression, but rather concerns about the failure to exert a greater effort to make the world somewhat more insulated against the onset of major wars, especially warfare with high enough stakes to make strategically plausible the use nuclear weapons. The pre-2022 efforts to interfere in the politics of Ukraine by promoting anti-Russian moves while overlooking abuses by Ukraine toward the Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin but they do cast a dark shadow on NATO claims of virtuous and responsible behavior guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of states, human rights, and a mutual concern for maintaining conditions of peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.  The apocalyptic dangers now confronting the world with a greater risk of nuclear war than that posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis should also remind us that the political failure in Vietnam was primarily a result of promiscuous militarism. The geopolitical takeaway should have focused on conflict avoidance rather than avoiding future defeats in comparable geopolitical escapades, the regressive preoccupation of the Weinberger Doctrine.

Against this background, I find myself a fervent advocate of the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of existential restraint when it comes to  international uses of military force, and not only in the Global South. Rather than a ‘syndrome’ it was from its outset 50 years ago primarily an angry public reflex to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit future belligerent impulses in Washington.

I love the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the proper redemptive path for American foreign policy to take after the Vietnam defeat. Yet the promise of the Vietnam Syndrome was first reformulated in a manner pleasing to the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to the citizenry eager to prevent such wars. Future wars would become supposedly winnable if the six precepts of the diversionary Weinberger Doctrine were followed. Such an approach made some sense conceptually but it failed miserably when operationalized as in Iraq, Afghanistan. More recently any sense of restraint has been marginalized in American foreign policy deliberations when dealing with a major nuclear weapons state facing defeat on its own borders and led by a dangerous autocrat.  Privileging the righteous cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the offsetting imperatives of geopolitical caution in the nuclear age is a stunning display of managerial incompetence in Washington that is jeopardizing the future of the entire human species. It should enlighten people everywhere about the severe dangers of taking big risks to maintain a unipolar form of world order. These risks are magnified by the dispersed possession, deployment, and alert status of first usenuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are done for as a species.

ON LOVING THE ‘VIETNAM SYMPTOM’

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in modified form in CounterPunch on September 30 2022. Its essential claim is that the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ exerted a desirable downward pressure on hawkish war making tendencies for a period of almost 20 years after the Vietnam War came to end. For those in the political elite in and out of government this was regarded as a negative spillover from a mismanaged war effort in Vietnam. For the anti-war movement this was a positive sequel to a war n Vietnam that should never have been fought, and was wrongly conceived as well as criminally executed. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy establishment carried the day, erasing memories of the Vietnam political defeat, and paving the way for new military misadventures. Never, in my opinion is the country and world more in need of a second coming of the Vietnam Syndrome than at present, with pressures building for an existential nuclear confrontation more menacing to contemplate than was the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. To be balanced in assessing the global setting, Moscow would likewise gift the world if it emerged from the Ukraine War with some durable version of a ‘Ukraine Syndrome.’]

“Why I Love the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ of the People”

The Vietnam Syndrome was a term deployed after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War to

explain and complain about the reluctance of the U.S. Government to use international force robustly in shaping its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its first enunciations resented by the foreign policy establishment in Washington including conservative think tanks. The language of ‘syndrome’ was interpreted by powerful men to refer to what they thought of as a psychic disorder afflicting the U.S. policy establishment that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet to others, situated less prominently in the power structure, including myself, the Vietnam Syndrome was welcomed in the late 1970s as major component of long overdue prudent and principled post-Vietnam advocacy of a law-oriented U.S. foreign policy respectful of the self-determination rights of the Global South and restraints on the use of international force as enshrined in the provisions of the UN Charter.

Over the years, the Vietnam Syndrome lived this double life. One proposed cure was by way of the Weinberger Doctrine for those bristling under its restraining influence, which was formulated with the explicit intention of correcting the alleged government mismanagement of armed intervention in Vietnam over the course of a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing political figure and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense proposed in 1983, was that the U.S, should not enter future non-defensive questionable foreign wars, with the Vietnam War uppermost as an example of what not to do. The Weinberger Doctrine set forth six conditions to guide policymakers: 

            “1)The commitment must be deemed vital to our national interest or               that of our allies. 

            2)It should be made “wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of   winning.” 

            3)Political and military objectives and the ways to meet them must       be clearly defined. 

            4)As conditions change, whether the commitment remains in the          national interest must be reassessed. 

            5)Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable          assurance” of popular and congressional support. 

            6)A commitment to arms must be a last resort. “

Weinberger, in particular,  was particularly critical of the incremental character of the Vietnam engagement, which he contended, almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those on the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescriptions for the future, embraced the doctrine as a useful formula to gain political credibility in domestic foreign policy debates as well as victory in regime-changing and state-building wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman with customary arrogance later christened as law-free ‘wars of choice’). Read carefully, there are fundamental ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never made clear whether the Vietnam War was vital to ‘our national interest’ or that its supporters lacked ‘the clear intention of winning.’ Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine could put to rest the idea that under no circumstance should the U.S. expend blood of its citizen or treasure on non-defensive wars in the Global South. In this crucial sense, Weinberger’s views prevailed in policy circles and even somewhat in public opinion but failed when put to the test, reaching political outcomes resembling the Vietnam War rather than the standard model of the good war, World War IL.

Despite the bureaucratic backlash against a constrained foreign policy, sophisticated national leaders in the U.S. understood there was more political weight to the Vietnam Syndrome than setting forth a formula to ensure that policy-makers would not in the future commit the country to wars it could not win. It was thus not surprising that the first words uttered by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 after a U.S. led victory over Iraqi ground forces in the First Gulf War were “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndr0me once and for all.” The implicit claim was that the desert victory in conventional warfare would demonstrate to the American people and skeptical members of Congress that the U.S. could turn its military superiority into a political victory at acceptable costs in a time span that would not tax the patience of the American public. In other words, the American war machine was revamped to gain the kind of victory is was unable to achieve in Vietnam. Bush’s enthusiasm was ill-conceived and proved disastrously premature. First of all, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance fought against Western colonialist forces by relying on guerrilla tactics, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond this the military phase in the Gulf War was mandated by the UN Security Council and a regional consensus, with implementation delegated to an American-led coalition of countries and limited in its goals to restoring Kuwait territorial sovereignty.  Only hawkish ideologues and unperceptive commentators could in good faith confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neo-conservative intellectuals eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s understood that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to stand in the way of their ideological commitments to democracy promoting military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by taking advantage of what they declared to be an opportune ‘unipolar moment.’ One of its prominent advocacy platforms, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually recognized the political dependance of their expansionist program on ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although PNAC didn’t itself connect the dots, the Vietnam Syndrome had withstood earlier erasure efforts, and the rapturous welcoming of unipolarity had an abstract quality that did not overcome citizen qualms about Americans fighting and dying for the sake of a geopolitical abstraction. The Vietnam Syndrome was only existentially overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 Attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great Terror War in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, in effect, the performative reenactments of Pearl Harbor that the PNAC was waiting for. Yet once again the analogy was disastrously misleading, inducing failures reminiscent of Vietnam that doomed U.S. political efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Weinberger Doctrine and revisions of counterinsurgency doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for boots on the ground to the extent possible and rely upon ‘shock and awe’ tactics to overwhelm a lesser adversary quickly, but as it turned out, these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. In the end of costly, controversial, prolonged occupations of hostile societies the desired political outcomes were not attained in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse the U.S. continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, especially when the political undertaking encompassed a regime-changing intervention with state-building along Western neoliberal lines.   

In my view, the dominant and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition on entry into non-defensive, essentially internal wars without at least the authorization of the UN and the conformity of the mission with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was not initially articulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a warning to war-mongering bureaucrats against fighting losing wars, but as opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a casualty of state propaganda and a complicit media, reinforced by those private sectors that benefit from militarism and war. U.S. military overinvestment had succeeded in managing geopolitical power in the aftermath of the Cold War, but its innovations in weaponry and tactics achieved no notable political victories in wars surrounding the politics of national self-determination. What should arouse deep concern is that the militarist leanings of the government are undeterred by repeated experiences of failure, and keep trying, which adds to the devastation and suffering endured at the site of the struggle, and may defer the outcome, but it does not end in victory for the foreign intervenor, and hence is recorded as yet another political defeat. In one sense the Vietnam Syndrome was an acknowledgement that in these types of conflicts, military superiority had lost its historical agency. The Era of Western Colonialism was over, or at least coming to an end.

When the elder Bush was announcing to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome ‘beneath the sands of the Arabian desert,’ he wasn’t gloating over successful the application of the Weinberger Doctrine. He was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in war. The legacy of defeatism prevalent among the American people was what was annoying and inhibiting the Washington establishment, especially its lingering presence in Congress. Already a decade earlier Ronald Reagan had declared ‘[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.’ As with Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. They were little more than talking points to wary members of Congress and inquisitive journalists. What Reagan opposed was the national mood of political timidity in the country that undermined the willingness of public opinion to support going after leftist adversaries in the Global South with America’s military might.

Among my current fears is that it is Russia’s attack on Ukraine that has finally nullified the calculus of restraint implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome so far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum that is less enamored of assuming national responsibility for global security than is the broad bipartisan internationalist consensus that controlled American foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Ukraine as a seemingly victimized white, European society involves an attack by a hostile rival country that has sent tremors of fear and trembling throughout other Russian neighbors, especially those in East Europe that had been coercively subjugated within the Soviet sphere of influence throughout 40+ years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in the leading countries of Western Europe and North America.  

Currently, the escalating Ukraine Crisis suggests that the absence of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome. As such, it is irresponsibly risking catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of great powers historically accustomed to geopolitical prerogatives such as Russia. It is not a matter of endorsing Putin’s aggression, but rather concerns about the failure to exert a greater effort to make the world somewhat more insulated against the onset of major wars, especially warfare with high enough stakes to make strategically plausible the use nuclear weapons. The pre-2022 efforts to interfere in the politics of Ukraine by promoting anti-Russian moves while overlooking abuses by Ukraine toward the Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin but they do cast a dark shadow on NATO claims of virtuous and responsible behavior guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of states, human rights, and a mutual concern for maintaining conditions of peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.  The apocalyptic dangers now confronting the world with a greater risk of nuclear war than that posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis should also remind us that the political failure in Vietnam was primarily a result of promiscuous militarism. The geopolitical takeaway should have focused on conflict avoidance rather than avoiding future defeats in comparable geopolitical escapades, the regressive preoccupation of the Weinberger Doctrine.

Against this background, I find myself a fervent advocate of the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of existential restraint when it comes to  international uses of military force, and not only in the Global South. Rather than a ‘syndrome’ it was from its outset 50 years ago primarily an angry public reflex to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit future belligerent impulses in Washington.

I love the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the proper redemptive path for American foreign policy to take after the Vietnam defeat. Yet the promise of the Vietnam Syndrome was first reformulated in a manner pleasing to the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to the citizenry eager to prevent such wars. Future wars would become supposedly winnable if the six precepts of the diversionary Weinberger Doctrine were followed. Such an approach made some sense conceptually but it failed miserably when operationalized as in Iraq, Afghanistan. More recently any sense of restraint has been marginalized in American foreign policy deliberations when dealing with a major nuclear weapons state facing defeat on its own borders and led by a dangerous autocrat.  Privileging the righteous cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the offsetting imperatives of geopolitical caution in the nuclear age is a stunning display of managerial incompetence in Washington that is jeopardizing the future of the entire human species. It should enlighten people everywhere about the severe dangers of taking big risks to maintain a unipolar form of world order. These risks are magnified by the dispersed possession, deployment, and alert status of first use nuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are done for as a species.

What Makes Ukraine Different than Serbia? Why Kosovo? Why not Dombas?

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The post below is adapted from responses to questions addressed me to Stasa Salacanin of New Arab on September 14, 2022. My responses here are somewhat modified and greatly expanded.] 

Defying Serbian Territorial Sovereignty in Kosovo, Upholding Ukrainian

Territorial Sovereignty in the Dombas Region

  1. Would you agree that the repeating incidents and crises speak to the great limitation of the EU and the West, which seem to have long lost their sense of direction for a solution, offering no incentives or tangible promises to any of the Western Balkan states, especially when it comes to exact dates and full membership in the EU?

My sense is that EU has never made Western Balkan stability, security, rights of self-determination,  and EU membership for its component peoples a high priority. The Western Balkan states have been approached in a transactional mode by the EU rather than in the spirit of regional and civilizational community.

The Kosovo Exception was motivated by other political considerations than the wellbeing and wishes of the Albanian majority Kosovars, the rationale for humanitarian intervention in 1999 that masked the pursuit of strategic interests of the intervening coalition of states. These interests include establishing the viability of NATO after the end of the Cold Wars and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the lingering liberal sense of guilt associated with the failure to react effectively to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 combined with concerns that it could be repeated in Kosovo. Such a prospect was felt to be a betrayal of the European ‘never again’ pledge made subsequent to the Holocaust, as well as expressive of a general hostility to Serbia and its leader.

At the time Noam Chomsky usefully called attention to the double standards characteristic of such Western undertakings by labeling the Kosovo War as an instance of ‘military humanism.’ After this post-Cold War revitalization of NATO, the liberal elites of the West sought a terminology to legitimize non-defensive uses of force that would conform superficially to the ethos of a post-colonial world. This ethos was particularly sensitive to ‘interventions’ claims overriding ‘territorial sovereignty.’

After Kosovo was ‘liberated’ from its captive status in Serbia, an elite search was underway to reconcile such uses of force with behavior that was neither defensive nor authorized by the UN Security Council. The most satisfactory normative solution turned to involve scrapping the language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a less abrasive verbal alternative that would justify such action. The best formula was found in the 2001 report of the Canadian initiative, International Commission on State Sovereignty, which proposed the adoption of a norm mandating a ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P. In 2005 R2P was accepted as a framework for the exercise of international responsibility by the UN, and as necessary upholding humanitarian justifications for the use of force to protect basic rights. R2P was invoked by NATO members of the Security Council in 20ll in its call for the imposition of a No Fly Zone with the mission of protecting the civilian population of Benghazi from the alleged threat of approaching Libyan armed forces, Several countries (not only China and Russia, but India, Brazil, and Germany) were opposed to armed intervention, yet succumbed to the more modest sounding claim to establish a defensive No Fly Zone in relation to one city in Libya. resulting in a vote on SC Res. 1970, March 17, 2011. This resolution was supported by 10 states, opposed by none, with five abstentions. 

The implementation of the mission in 2011 was delegated to NATO, with the U.S. in Obama’s words, ‘leading from behind.’ The limits imposed by the SC in its authorization of the undertaking went unheeded. and the actual operation from its outset seemed clearly designed to achieve regime-change. At the very start of military operations the use of force, especially from the air, was greatly expanded beyond what the abstaining states thought they were authorizing by abstaining from the vote in the Security Council. In effect, R2P turned out to be a diplomatic device to give cover to military humanism, but this time clouded by an ambiguous stamp of approval by the UN. The result was to lower the level of trust among members of the Security Council, making further subsequent requests by Western members for UN authorizations of force more problematic as was illustrated by the standoffs during the Syrian Civil War of the prior decade.

The other facet of the Chomsky critique concerning double standards is also pertinent. In the Kosovo instance Chomsky illustrated his assessment by reference to the plight of the Kurdish minority, especially in Turkey. In relation to the Libyan intervention, there are many instances of geopolitical detachment, most notably the failure to authorize, or even propose, the implementation in relation to the Palestinian people, long denied their basic rights and periodically exposed to massive military operations by Israel, especially to the two million Palestinian civilians locked up in Gaza by an unrelenting military blockade that has existed since 2007.

It would be important to contextualize the Russian intervention in Ukraine in relation to the well-documented plight of the Russian-oriented minority in the Dombas region. Of course, this Ukraine Crisis is compounded by the complexity of the objectives sought by both sides. Russia seeking to establish its traditional spheres of influence lost at the time of the Soviet collapse and challenge what is perceived by Moscow (and elsewhere) as the American-led aftermath of the Cold War in the form of a Western-oriented hegemonic unipolarity. The United States, and a compliant Europe, regard the Russian aggression as a challenge to the global security arrangements it has presided over since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. wants to inflict defeat on Russia, claim some credit for defending Ukraine, signal China that challenging unipolarity is self-destructive.

  • Do you think that the so-called normalization process-advocated by the EU, and the US and which foresees the step-by-step establishment of a functional relationship between Belgrade and Pristina will eventually lead to mutual recognition of two states Kosovo and Serbia, will succeed in the current situation, (and given to similar challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also with conflict in Ukraine)?

Each conflict of this character, stressing the rights of aggrieved distinct peoples within the borders of an internationally recognized state, raises a general issue of the integrity and territorial rights of existing sovereign states versus the scope of rights of self-determination. The interpretation of policy options in each case is highly influenced by the overall strategic context and only secondarily by legal rights and moral principle. Overall, geopolitics plays a decisive role in high profile instances where strategic interests and ethnic identifications are at the core of the tensions. This is the only way to understand the contradictory Western presentations of Kosovo on the one side, and Donbas on the other side. In one instance, the claims of an existing state to the integrity of its borders is set aside due to the supposed primacy of humanitarian concerns, while in the other it is upheld, in both instances by NATO/US intervention in support of the national government and at the expense of the separatist claims and human rights of a captive minority. 

  • Is the situation in Kosovo comparable with the conflict in Ukraine (especially regarding Crimea and Donbas, where the West in one case supports the territorial integrity of the state and condemns the invasion of Ukrainea while in another case supports the secession/self-determination and while justifying the international (regional) intervention/aggresssion/occupation of Kosovo? Their arguments have not been convincing. Russia as well as China, Serbia have not missed a chance to remind the collective West about their double standards (and the fact that approximately half of UN members (as well as 5 EU members, still do not recognize Kosovo).

Comparability is a matter of interpreting the broader context of the conflict, and often is shaped by the eye of the beholder. There was a Euro-American readiness in the Kosovo case to take punitive action against Serbia given the background of its political and cultural affinities with Russia, while in the Ukraine the anti-Russian central government in Kyiv enjoys unconditional Western backing, including participation in the deliberately provocative conduct of the decade preceding the Russian attack . Double standards are pervasive and responsible for grave injustices to some captive peoples, and not only in Europe. The blind eye turned toward denials of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people in what had been their own country of Palestine represents a flagrant example of international double standards. The Zionist Project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was enacted over the course of more than a century. It resulted in the establishment of a settle colonial regime that maintains Jewish supremacy through the imposition of an apartheid regime of discriminatory and exploitative control. Palestine as a site of injustice is notable, although far from being the only such instance of prolonged denial of basic rights (Western Sahara, Kashmir). Palestine is, however, uniquely linked to the UN through its succession to the British Mandate. By the acceptance of responsibility by the UN in 1947 for finding a peaceful solution between contradictory claims of the Palestinian resident population and the Jewish post-Holocaust Zionist Movement this struggle more than any other since 1945 has dramatized the weakness of the UN in face of strong geopolitical resistance.

The situation in Ukraine resembles Kosovo in the sense that the UN cannot be mobilized by the West due to the right of veto enjoyed Russia and China. As a consequence, the UN Charter restrictions on the use of force are put aside to varying degrees by both Russian and the U.S. The struggle will be finally resolved by the costs and risks these two geopolitical actors are willing to incur over time. The people of Ukraine are being victimized by the apparent refusal of either side to end the killing and turn to diplomacy in the hope of finding a diplomatic compromise. Having drawn the geopolitical lines of battle so starkly, the devastating Ukraine War is likely to be prolonged at the expense of the Ukrainian people. The question of whether post-1989 unipolarity is confirmed or yields ground to the multipolar challengers is likely to determine the flow of history for at least the decade ahead. These high geopolitical stakes are bad news for the Ukrainian people, and seems not to be understood by their Kyiv leaders so that mitigating steps might be independently taken, and diplomacy initiated between Ukraine and Russia, hoping that Moscow might be willing to put aside its geopolitical ambitions and restore peace and security on its border.

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict —the nuclear danger

14 Sep

[Prefatory NoteThe following interview was previously published in September by the online Global Governance Forum. My responses to the questions posed by Aslı Bâli have been somewhat updated to take account of intervening developments. Aslı was my last PhD student at Princeton, has emerged as a star of the UCLA School of Law in recent years, and just now has joined the faculty of Yale Law School. Although her brilliance as a Princeton student both stimulated and challenged me, it as a cherished friend that Aslı has most impacted my life.]

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict — a focus on the return of the nuclear question

Introduction: The risk of nuclear escalation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a subject of considerable debate in the United States among scholars, policy analysts and media commentators. These debates reveal a broad spectrum of views from those who dismiss Russian references to nuclear capabilities as mere saber rattling to those who worry that if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds his back to the wall in Ukraine, he may resort to tactical nuclear strikes. Whatever the assessment of the risks in Ukraine, it is clear that questions of nuclear deterrence are back on the table after nearly a generation in which most American analysts viewed non-proliferation as the sole U.S. foreign policy objective regarding nuclear arsenals. 

For those who have continued to press concerns about nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the return of the nuclear question may raise awareness among new audiences about the existential threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. Richard Falk has for decades been an outspoken authority calling for denuclearization. In this interview, Aslı Bâli invites Richard to reflect on whether the Ukraine conflict risks becoming a military confrontation that tips the world into further nuclear escalation or whether there remains an opportunity to move the world away from the nuclear precipice.

Richard Falk is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus at Princeton University and Chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, Faculty of Law. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books, and editor or co-editor of numerous others. A collection of his selected writings on nuclear disarmament was published in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press titled On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019). Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. She interviewed Falk in May 2022.

Aslı Bâli: To begin our conversation, it would be useful to provide some context as to why nuclear disarmament was largely sidelined as an urgent international question in the post-Cold War period. How might we think about the last two decades in particular, during which the possibility of the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal was deemed so much more threatening than the existence of extensive nuclear arsenals in the hands of other states? 

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades since the Soviet collapse reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain offered to induce non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this treaty regime is regarded by the US and NATO countries as a great achievement of international law in relation to nuclear threat reduction. The existential scope of the NPT is reduced to a hegemonic arrangement that imposes limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while keeping the development and control of the weapons restricted to a small group of nuclear weapons states. This includes the discretion to develop and threaten their use, as well as determining how and whether they would be used, and to what extent, in crisis or combat situations. This is a regulatory framework that neither reflects the NPT as a negotiated text, nor is prudent and equitable, and it certainly violates the major premise of the rule of law—treating equals equally.

I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations webinar event a year or so ago about the future of national security, and one of the participants introduced the idea that Article VI of the NPT is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they were being offered an equitable bargaining framework by becoming parties to the NPT. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament, despite the treaty language of commitment, was not viewed by political elites of the nuclear weapons states as a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, and most especially it was so viewed by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, preponderately in the US and Russia, and very little public understanding of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that strongly implied that such weapons might actually be introduced into local or regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including in Ukraine, if confrontation escalates in relation to Taiwan, on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan, perhaps if Israel’s security is under pressure in the Middle East. Despite these possibilities being widely feared, there has been so far no concerted or consistent international response exhibiting opposition or even anxiety. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as a reliable assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred seconds away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The UN Secretary General has recently warned that the world is but ‘one miscalculation’ away from nuclear catastrophe.

There is another worrisome aspect of the manner in which the three NATO nuclear weapons states have assumed the authority to enforce the NPT regime as it applies to non-nuclear states. There is nothing about enforcement in the treaty, and Article X grants non-nuclear states a right of withdrawal if facing severe security threats. And yet the U.S. and Israel have made unlawful claims to use force if they believe Iran intends or achieves a nuclear weapons capability. This is hegemonic geopolitics, which not be confused with the implementation of international law.

The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical and hegemonic relationship to non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran require urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary priority given to containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament and war threats for many decades. This must stop or disaster is virtually assured.

Aslı Bâli: Your response raises one further question: why, in your view, have the non-nuclear states acquiesced in the violation of the core bargained-for agreement they had negotiated in the NPT?  

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons, although this may be changing, and not primarily because of Ukraine. It may reflect a sense of a lack of leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process on negotiating arsenal reductions, and this seemed realistic to the rest of the world. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more supportive of the views of disarmament advocates. This ‘new look’ of the Global South has been most clearly expressed in the negotiation and adoption a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in 2017 and coming into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two-thirds of that number and been ratified so far by half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to overlooking the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and finally took place in August 2022. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament. Although the failure to produce a consensus outcome document was blamed on Russia, there were also present signs of resentment about the continuing refusal of the nuclear weapons states to implement their Article VI obligations.

In short, even prior to Ukraine and Taiwan there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine and Taiwan encounters have now added momentum to this shift by a reawakening at the civil society level of palpable apprehensions over the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and in Ukraine the additional risk that nuclear power facilities will be accidentally, or even deliberately, attacked. I believe this is a time when I am hoping for a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda, and this time with greatly increased participation of non-Western civil society and governments. 

Aslı Bâli: Some have characterized the Ukraine conflict as illustrating the degree to which global powers might stumble blindly into a nuclear confrontation. Is it your sense that there are opportunities to contain this risk today whether through intergovernmental diplomacy or global civil society mobilization?

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some high officials in the Biden inner circle have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if the Biden administration didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always present fortunately to some degree wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s early resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and in his original hesitancy to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise further confirmed that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and at the same time, and perhaps of greater significance, to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan, followed by an irresponsibly provocative visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi that violated the spirit of the One China Policy that represented the core of the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which has kept peace and stability for 50 years. 

With respect to the Ukraine conflict, I have drawn a distinction between two levels. First, there is the Russia-Ukraine confrontation over issues that pertain to their bilateral conflict. But secondly, there is the geopolitical level of interaction between the US and Russia, which entails a confrontation whose stakes exceed the question of Ukraine. Here, escalation was stimulated by what I view as the quite irresponsible rhetoric from the Biden administration that demonized Putin from the outset of the crisis in February 2022. To be sure, Putin is not an attractive political leader, but even during the Cold War American leaders sensibly refrained from demonizing Stalin or other Soviet leaders, and vice versa. Some public officials, congresspeople, did demonize Soviet officials and policies but leaders in the executive branch refrained from such behavior because it would create such an evident obstacle to keeping open necessary diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviets, and significantly the Soviets did the same even during such encroachments on sovereign rights as in the Vietnam War. 

Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia after a visit to Ukraine in which they pledged increased economic and military support. I think that now we have passed a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there was some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction from the perspective of prudence and with regard to the spillover harm from prolonged warfare. Now in a fourth phase where once more a Ukrainian victory together with a Russian/Putin defeat has changed Washington tactics once more, with such favorable results seemingly within reach at what are viewed as acceptable costs. The tragic result, already partly consummated, will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences for the world economy  and the wellbeing of poorer people in a series of countries in the Global South. It will hardest those countries most dependent on affordable access to food and energy, and this includes European countries. It is not only the continuation of Ukraine warfare and China tensions, but the unintended consequences of anti-Russian sanctions that will result in harmful impacts in many parts of the planet. 

Aslı Bâli: Given your analysis of the U.S. role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine, what in your view is the current risk of either nuclear confrontation or further erosions of the possibility of promoting U.S.-Russian arms control and nuclear disarmament?

Richard Falk: The discouraging thing about the third phase is that the Biden administration still hasn’t clearly opened wide the door to a diplomatic resolution or emphasized the importance of a cease fire that might stop the immediate killing and enable de-escalation, and now in the midst of the fourth stage it seems too late. What this suggests is that there will be either of two bad scenarios unfolding as the Ukraine Crisis continues: the first is that the risk and costs of a long war in Ukraine results in the U.S. further escalating in order to try to bring the war to a faster conclusion by making Moscow give in, or withdraw, or do something that allows Ukraine and the U.S. to claim victory. That approach really would put maximum pressure on Putin who, in turn, might determine that facing such a serious existential danger to Russian security justifies a robust response that includes the threat and possibly even the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way, and maybe the only way, to avoid impression of strategic defeat to be the beginning of the end of his leadership. 

The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that it at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country as receptive to the Taliban as was twenty years earlier before driven from power, millions permanently displaced and millions more wandering the world as refugees, while those who stay home face famine and extreme gender discrimination, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis have been maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will not change very much because of what happens on the bloody battlefields, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties, greater devastation, and enduring embitterment.

Aslı Bâli: Could you say more about what you would expect at the end of the Ukraine conflict whether it happens through early negotiations or at the end of a protracted war?

Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would heretofore respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March of 2022 and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially, although if the Ukrainian battlefield successes in the fourth phase hold up, it may alter a future peace process. Yet the probability still remains that such a compromised political outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second, and then, a fourth geopolitical phase of escalation. It has become clearer as the conflict has persisted that the U.S. is prepared to go to extreme lengths, if necessary to retain its post-Cold War status as sole manager of a unipolar configuration of power in the world.

Asli Bali: Given this assessment, what opportunities, if any, do you see for reviving calls for nuclear disarmament in response to the nuclear risks made evident by the Ukraine conflict?

Richard Falk: Of course, there is a very dark form of opportunity that might emerge if there is indeed a nuclear confrontation and the use of tactical or other nuclear weapons. Such a development would undoubtedly generate a widespread call for disarmament—one hopes that doesn’t occur, of course. Beyond this apocalyptic scenario, it is a little unpredictable whether there will emerge a recognition that the pursuit of permanent stability via the non-proliferation approach should be superseded by a new effort at nuclear disarmament. I think it would be very globally popular to explore that possibility, and I would imagine the Chinese at least would be quite open to that. 

In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been discarded after World War II.[1] The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in a truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather an adaptation of a Monroe Doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its singular sphere of influence. And, of course, the Monroe Doctrine in its narrower hemispheric form is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies and interfere with internal politics in countries throughout Latin America from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond. We can hardly imagine the bellicosity of the U.S. response if Russia had dared meddle in Mexico for a decade in the manner that Washington did in Ukraine.


Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the ongoing US effort at global supremacy does put it at a massive asymmetric advantage over all other actors in exerting influence without geographic bounds. With some 800 foreign bases—and a context in which 97% of all foreign bases globally are American—and troops stationed in every continent the US has spread its influence globally, on land, in the air, on the sea, and is investing heavily to be sure it will control space. Meanwhile, of course, alongside this enormous investment in militarism is profound disinvestment in the infrastructure and social services needed to sustain its own population domestically. In short, the US effort to prevent a multipolar order from challenging its own claim to global supremacy is coming at an enormous cost at home and is currently faltering abroad. The risk is that this strategy is increasingly tied to an investment in ensuring strategic weakness for the Russians in Ukraine, which, in turn, raises temptations to engage in nuclear brinksmanship.

*************

Aslı Bâli: There is something distressing about the way in which the Ukraine conflict has reset the domestic debate, which at the end of the Trump years and in the 2020 presidential election had begun to converge around the idea of restraining American militarism and ending endless wars. Today, bipartisan consensus around an enhanced defense budget and massive military aid to Ukraine may be eclipsing those earlier commitments. Do you consider the Ukraine conflict as providing a new lease on life for the project of American primacy?

Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of projecting himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus, profoundly believing that a unified America remains a country capable of doing unlimited good at home and internationally. In fact, however, this unity project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war, but with a belated recognition that currently seeking unity at home is not only a lost cause but exhibits his lost sense of the realities of the country. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of this partial unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without taking into account an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.

Aslı Bâli: Returning to the nuclear question, you have suggested that the Ukraine war has awakened a new generation to the real risks of the nuclear arsenals retained by global powers. Do you believe that this awareness alongside concerns about the double standards attached to American hegemony might mobilize new global social movements calling for disarmament and a more equitable international order?

Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, and above all the looming conflict involving Taiwan. In the latter instance Pentagon war games have achieved results showing that unless the U.S. is prepared itself to abandon the nuclear taboo it loses in the event of a naval confrontation in the Taiwan Straights. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a dangerous and unstable illusion. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no pushback against such an assertion at the meeting. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into crises where one side is prepared to risk nuclear war to avoid a strategic defeat. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, and beyond might spark new forms of awareness among the now more mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities, and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do if we are to address all of these challenges, and there might be no better place to launch a new phase of transformative global politics by championing nuclear abolition.


[1]           

APPRAISING MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

6 Sep

[Prefatory Note; This post consists of my responses questions posed by Daniel Falcone, an independent journalist two days after Mikhail Gorbachev’s death.]

APPRAISING GORBACHEV

  1. Can you briefly comment on Gorbachev’s life? What do you suppose is his historical legacy, especially as it relates to the Cold War?

I think it is safe to say that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest historical impact of any public figure since the end of World War II. To be sure, it is a bitterly polarized legacy. One of unbounded admiration and historical achievement in the West and one of contempt and almost total disrepute in Russia, holding Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union as a Great Power and its loss of political relevance beyond its territorial borders. It has taken Vladimir Putin, a political figure reviled in the West, to undue Russian irrelevance by launching an aggressive war against Ukraine, but whether the cost is worth it even for Russia, only time will tell.

As far as the Cold War is concerned, it was not Gorbachev’s original intention to bring it to an end, but rather to reform the Soviet internal political and economic system so that it would deliver a better life to ordinary people. There is little doubt that Gorbachev was affected by his travels as a young Communist functionary to Europe where he was deeply affected by the vastly higher living standards enjoyed by the peoples of these countries with comparably developed economies to that of the Soviet Union. I remember being told in Moscow by one of his close associates that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed national leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what FDR had achieved for capitalism in the United States, nothing more nothing less. His public tactics were to encourage glasnost (freedom of expression) and perestroika (structural reform). I remember a Soviet security specialist in Moscow in the late 1980s telling me somewhat cynically that “we have lots of glasnost, but no perestroika.” It was a widespread critical sentiment expressive of the view of impatient Soviet reforms that Gorbachev was all talk and no action. As he proceeded with this domestic agenda, Gorbachev himself came to realize the depth of corruption and dysfunction throughout the Soviet bureaucracy, making the system almost non-reformable and on the verge of financial and political bankruptcy, and once challenged by a reformist leader, unravelling in an uncontrollable manner that rendered Gorbachev himself helpless to slow down the spiral ending in collapse.

Gorbachev was also affected by the cruelties of the Stalin period, being personally touched by the arrest and prison abuse of both of his grandfathers as political dissidents. In this sense, it seems he was attracted to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. Undoubtedly. feeling blocked at home he sought to wind down the tensions with the West and the costs of the arms race in well-publicized 1986 meeting with Ronald Reagan, the so-called, ‘Reykjavik Summit,’ which led to significant progress in reducing the stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons and gave public opinion the temporary illusion that nuclear disarmament might actually happen on his watch. These talks with Reagan in Iceland went so far in the direction of embracing disarmament that the American bipartisan nuclear establishment and compliant media showed its true colors, uniting to undermine Reagan’s diplomatic credibility when it came to global security, calling him ‘unprepared’ to conduct such delicate negotiations with a wily Soviet leader. This display of nuclearist bipartisanship with respect continues to haunt U.S. foreign policy more than 40 years later, persisting despite an atmosphere of extreme political divisiveness on all issues bearing on the daily lives of Americans.

It is also notable that Gorbachev remained a strong advocate of total nuclear disarmament after 1991 when he became a public intellectual active in Western civil society debates. His sophisticated approach to achieving a world without nuclear weapons was coupled with an insistence that in latter phases of nuclear disarmament it would be essential to also initiate a process of conventional disarmament with the goal being one of peace and security based on a demilitarized form of geopolitics. He correctly feared that getting rid of nuclear weapons without addressing the whole spectrum of weaponry would have the unintended effect of making the world ‘safe’ for major warfare, that is, ‘safe’ in this sense of removing apocalyptic fears but still enabling the repetition of ‘world wars’ of the sort that caused such devastation in the 20th Century, and were now enhanced by more powerful weaponry with greater precision and explosive potential, as well as various forms of cyber warfare.

As the Cold War was centered in Europe it was there that Gorbachev’s innovative  approach to international relations most clearly manifested itself. Perhaps, challenged by Reagan’s famous taunt in Berlin, “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!”

Gorbached proceeded to loosen Moscow’s grip on the Warsaw Pact’s bloc of East European counties, respecting their sovereign rights to claim political independence, and making clear that under his leadership there would be no Soviet interventions of the sort that occurred in East Europe dating back to Hungary in 1956 and forward to the Czech Republic in 1968. This process did indeed culminate with the dramatic breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unexpectedly rapid reunification of Germany, which epitomized the emerging realities of a post-Cold War Europe.

It was in Europe that Gorbachev advocated a hopeful end to the ordeal of a divided continent, proposing security for ‘our common European home.’ Had these ideas been acted upon by the West, it might have avoided the nightmarish aftermath of the Cold War now being experienced in Ukraine and threatened in relation to Taiwan, and early preceded by a predatory form of economic globalization that opened the floodgates to autocracy around the world. It may be that historians will someday come to acknowledge that if Gorbachev’s vision of future East-West engagement in Europe had prevailed rather than the neo-conservative thirst for American geopolitical expansionism, anchored in a revitalized NATO with a much more expansive and flexible mandate, recently highlighted by the inflammatory phrase ‘Global NATO.’ This may be the time to remember that NATO was brought into being in1949 as a strictly defensive alliance, supposedly the centerpiece of the containment policies so persuasively advocated at the time by George F. Kennan as a response to the threat of Soviet military expansionism in Europe. Given the failure to heed Gorbachev on Europe over the decades, despite ending the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev’s legacy is primarily being depicted as bringing the Cold War to an end in ways that allowed the West to pronounce itself ‘the winner,’ not so unlike the spoiled aftermath of World War II. It is obvious after the three big botched experiments in ‘peace diplomacy’ over the course of a little over 100 years that the liberal democracies of the capitalist West are better at waging war than making sustainable peace arrangements.

It should not be forgotten that unlike any leader of a Great Power in his time, Gorbachev made memorable speeches at the UN and elsewhere calling for a more robust internationalism and a geopolitical approach rooted in the values of the UN Charter. This advocacy of responsible internationalism and demilitarization endeared Gorbachev to peace activists the world over, but was dismissed as nothing more than diplomatic fluff by Beltway and Pentagon gurus who didn’t even take Gorbachev’s global and reform agendas seriously enough to bother refuting them. This life journey of Gorbachev carried him to the peak of power in the Kremlin, and then following his seven years as head of the Soviet state made him a world citizen in the best sense. His civilian life after the end of the Cold War was more in spirit and substance with progressive civil society tendencies than with the continuing necrophilia of the Great Powers.  



2. Over the course of your research and activism, can you describe your experiences or interactions with him? How did his life impact your studies and craft?

I did have the opportunity on two occasions to interact personally with Gorbachev in a rather extended manner that included time for social engagement. I felt it a great honor to do so as he was already a brave and sympathetic historic personage of great distinction, and although misleadingly lauded in the West partly because he paved the way for unipolarity and triumphalism, and possibly even Putin and Putinism, outcomes that he was neither responsible for nor wished to have happen. In an important sense Gorbachev’s international legacy of humane global governance is already all but forgotten by the mainstream. The West admired most his decisive role in loosening the Soviet grip on East Europe and unwittingly accelerating the process by which the Soviet internal empire of ‘captive’ nations was permanently shattered.. My two encounters with Gorbachev were after he ceased to be a leader, and devoted himself to sharing idea and activities with likeminded individuals

My first encounter was a day-long meeting in 1993 or 1994 at a men’s club in New York City of a contemplated foundation that he was to be co-Chaiir with James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s influential Secretary of State to support work toward a peaceful world undertaken by politically independent persons of the once antagonistic so-called ‘superpowers.’ To my astonishment, which has not lessened over the years, I was invited to serve as a member of the initial Board of Directors along with several more mainstream individuals. For undisclosed reasons, Baker was unable to attend the meeting, but Gorbachev, by way of an interpreter participated throughout the long day, including at a small luncheon. The meeting was devoted to what the Foundation might most usefully do, how it would operate, including its plans to establish a funding base. Gorbachev mainly listened, asked useful questions, and projected a demeanor of being one among equals. As it happened, nothing further took place, and the whole undertaking was discreetly abandoned. Nevertheless, it did give me a glimpse of this great man adjusting to his new role and status. Looking back, it was a time when Gorbachev continued to identify with the transnational ruling elites of Western countries but showed an intellectual interest in working with more independent individuals in global civil society. Above all, it demonstrated to me that as a private citizen Gorbachev was committed to a peaceful and human sequel to the tensions and antagonisms of the Cold War decades.

The second encounter was a couple of years later in Italy at a meeting on the future of Euurope under the auspices of Gorbachev’s own foundation, bearing his name. The 25 or so invited participants were mainly European intellectuals and government officials. It went on for two days, revisiting Gorbachev’s ideas of a common European home and collective security structure. The debate was lively and stimulating although the pan-European consensus never got much further than the walls of the conference center. I had the feeling that Gorbachev now felt himself an independent voice of civil society, widely honored in the West yet ignored in his own country. He had returned to living in Moscow, and reported that Putin had respectfully received him and made him feel at ease about resuming Russian residence despite his continuing unpopularity in the country of his birth and later political prominence.

In my own work, I have been conscious of course of Gorbachev’s role as a transformative agent of change that made ‘the impossible’ happen in the Soviet context, although not altogether responsive to his agency, much that happened is best understood beneath the rubric of ‘unintended consequences.’. Given my interest in ‘the politics of impossibility’ I often mentioned Mandela in South Africa and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as having validated this counter-intuitive belief that seems the most realistic hinge of hope given the present world situation, strange as that may sound..

It is always of great interest to meet with historic figures of global stature. In Gorbachev I found none of the moral radiance and existential charisma that I associated with my meeting with Nelson Mandela. Rather in Gorbachev I found a sense of purpose, of decency, of intelligence, and a seriousness about doing what he could to make his country, region, and world better than they were at present.  

  • How do you suppose Russia will use the public memory of Gorbachev and his commemoration to suit their own political purposes? 

I would suppose that Putin does not regret the passing of the Communist Era, but will fault Gorbachev on nationalist, Czarist grounds as allowing the territorial extensions of the Soviet Union to shrink, leading to the temporary eclipse of Russian greatness. With minor variations the Russian media will follow this line, reporting on the demonization that Gorbachev deservedly experienced, especially in the decade after the Soviet collapse.

It may take several more political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War with the West and in taking on the Communist Party elite of bureaucrats (nomenklatura) that had presided since the early days of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death. The fact that this precipitated the Soviet collapse was an outcome that almost no one in the West lamented.

Gorbachev memory will last, most celebrated outside of Russia, and subject to subtle reappraisals from within, in relation to Europe, and with regard to world peace. I would feel more comfortable contemplating the future of humanity if Gorbachev was running the global show than any other political leader currently walking about on planet Earth!