Archive | April, 2011

What Future for the Goldstone Report? Beyond the Name

20 Apr

            Ever since it first struck the raw nerve of Israeli political consciousness I thought it misleading to associate the Goldstone Report so exclusively with its chair, Judge Richard Goldstone. After all, despite his deserved prominence as an international jurist, he was the least qualified substantively of the four members of the mission. Undoubtedly, part of the intensely hostile Israeli reaction of their highest political leaders had to do with the sense that Goldstone as a devoted Zionist had been guilty of betrayal, even of ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people, because he seemed to be elevating his fidelity to the ‘law’ above that of tribal loyalties, and according to Tel Aviv he should never have been mixed up with such a suspect entity as the UN Human Rights Council in the first place.  


What should be observed, and stands out over time, is the degree of importance that even the extremist Israeli leadership attaches to the avoidance of further stains on their reputation as a law abiding political actor. This seems true for the Israeli leadership even when the assessing organization is the UN Human Rights Council that Israel, as well as the U.S. Government, never misses the chance to denounce and defame. Implicit in this Israeli search for vindication is their implicit acknowledgement that the UN is after all a major site of struggle in the ongoing legitimacy war being fought against Palestinian claims of self-determination. This acknowledgement of importance has been expressed more recently by Netanyahu’s inappropriate insistence that in view of the Goldstone retreat the UN retract the report in its totality.


This assessment was embarrassingly confirmed by the reaction of the U.S. Senate to Goldstone’s Washington Post op/ed of April 1st when two weeks lateron it unanimously passed a resolution calling on the UN “to reflect the author’s repudiation of the Goldstone report’s central findings, rescind the report and reconsider further Council actions with respect to its findings.” It also asked the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, “to do all in his power to redress the damage to Israel’s repuation.” This ill-informed and inflammatory wording is quite extraordinary, starting with the reference to Goldstone as ‘the author’ of the report, thereby completely overlooking the reality that it was a joint effort, that his input was probably the smallest, and the other authors have reaffirmed their support for the entire report subsequent to the Goldstone retreat. What is mostly revealed by this Senate initiative is the blatant partisanship that is now unquestioned in official Washington. This unsubtle disregard for international law and the authority of the UN should at the very least encourage the Palestine Authority to seek other auspices for any future negotiations with Israel than what is provided by the U.S. Government.


            It is probably true that if Goldstone had not been so vilified for his association with the report it would have likely experienced the same fate as  thousands of other well documented UN reports on controversial issues. By lending his name to the fact-finding mission and its outcome Goldstone became an unwilling lightning rod, the target of vicious attacks but also heralded at the time by fair-minded persons around the world for his fidelity to the law even in the face of such hostile fire. In this regard Goldstone became a sacrificial scarecrow that failed in his appointed role of keeping the birds of prey at a safe distance. In effect, how could Israel attack one of their own if the assessment of their behavior produced findings of severe violations of international humanitarian law? How could such findings be avoided given the widely known characteristics of Operation Cast Lead? There is a double irony present: Goldstone was partly selected to head this sensitive undertaking because as a known supporter of Israel he would make it harder for Israel to complain about UN bias so as to deflect attention away from the message; but precisely because of the difficulty posed for Israel’s propaganda machine by Goldstone’s credibility the level of attack on him reached hysterical heights and evidently exerted such intense pressure that he was eventually led to make an awkward and unprecedented partial repudiation of the report that pleases neither side.


            Two other aspects of the situation are often neglected or misstated. First of all, several other respected international studies had already confirmed most of the conclusions reached by the time the Goldstone  Report was released in September 2009. Other prior noteworthy reports on the international law issues including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, Al Haq, and especially the comprehensive report of an earlier detailed and authoritative fact-finding team composed of internationally respected international law experts under the leadership of John Dugard, a leading South African jurist and former UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine carried out on behalf of the Arab League. Against such a background, in a substantive sense the Goldstone Report did not say anything that was not already well established by a highly credible accountability community of NGOs, journalists, and an array of UN humanitarian workers and civilians who were on the scene during the attacks. Such an overwhelming informed consensus is what makes such a mockery of this effort by the U.S. State Department and the Senate to seize on the Goldstone retreat as a new occasion to repudiate the report as a whole, and throw once more a blanket of impunity over Israeli defiance of international law.


            The second element that should be kept in mind, but is rarely ever acknowledged even by those who stand 100% behind the report is that it was not, as the media mostly claimed, unduly critical of Israel. On the contrary, in my view, the report was one-sided, but to the benefit of Israel. Let me mention several evidences of leaning toward Israel: the report proceeds on the basis of Israel’s right of self-defense without bothering to decide whether in a situation of continuing occupation a claim of self-defense is ever available under international humanitarian law, although Israel was entitled to rely on force to the extent necessary to uphold specific security interests arising from the rocket attacks. Furthermore, the report did not examine whether the factual conditions prior to the attacks supported any security claim considering the success of the truce to cut rocket fire to almost zero in the months preceding the attacks, a truce that had held until Israel provocatively broke it on 4 November 2008 by conducting a lethal raid within Gaza. Beyond this the claimed security justification seemed artificially fashioned to serve as a rationalization for the Israeli aggressive and unlawful all out military assault against Gaza that was mostly motivated by a series of Israeli claims that were quite independent of security in Gaza. The real goals were as follows: to destroy Hamas; to  induce the return of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to punish Gazans  for voting in favor of Hamas back in 2006. In addition, it was clear that the IDF had been planning Operation Cast Lead for six months prior to launching the attack on 27 December 2008, and for a variety of reasons other than securing southern Israel against rockets: striking hard at Gaza before Obama took office, influencing in Kadima’s favor the Israeli domestic elections that were about to take place, restoring confidence in the IDF after its failures in the Lebanon War of 2006, and sending a message to Iran that Israel would not hesitate to use overwhelming force whenever its interests dictated and without restraint.  


            The Goldstone Report did appropriately emphasize the severe Israeli departures from the law of war by attacking with disproportionate and indiscriminate force against a crowded, mainly urbanized society. But it failed to emphasize a distinctive feature of the attacks—the denial to the civilian population of Gaza of the option to leave the war zone and become refugees, at least temporarily. To keep civilians, especially children, the aged, and the disabled, so confined leaves permanent psychic wounds as has been reported by many post-attack studies and residents of Gaza, but is not disclosed by the casualty figures that count only the dead and the wounded. Part of the public horror of Operation Cast Lead resulted from the 100:1 ratio of war dead, which is a vivid confirmation of the defenseless plight of the Gazan population and the helplessness of Hamas protectors when confronted by the Israeli war machine. Despite this indicator of one-sidedness, the casualty comparison dramatically understated the real losses to the Palestinians. If the psychologically damaged are added to the Palestinian total and the friendly fire victims are subtracted from the Israeli side, reducing their total deaths from 13 to 6 or 7 the ratio of losses is gigantically uneven. In view of this one-sidedness, together with Israel’s initiation of the attacks and its role as occupying power, the report gave excessive emphasis to Hamas violations of international humanitarian law, which should have been noted, but not treated, as was the case, as virtually symmetrical with those of Israel. To treat as balanced that which is so manifestly unbalanced is to falsify the relevant reality.


            As has been pointed out in the media, including by Goldstone, his retraction was limited to the admittedly important issue of whether Israel intentionally targeted civilians as a matter of policy. Even this limited retraction is unconvincing because it rests so heavily on Israel’s self-investigations, which the post-Goldstone UN fact-finding mission jointly headed by an American judge, Mary McGowan Davis and the Swedish judge, Lennart Aspergen, found in their recent report failed to meet international standards. As mentioned previously, the retraction by Goldstone was also seriously undermined by the joint statement of the three other members of the Goldstone mission who publically reaffirmed the report in its totality, which never made the sweeping accusation of Israel that Goldstone retracted!


            Only half satirically, I would think that the Goldstone Report might be time to rechristen the Goldstone Report as the Chinkin Report or blandly let it be henceforth be known as the ‘Report on Israeli and Hamas War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity during Operation Cast Lead.’ Whatever the name, the main allegations have been confirmed over and over again, and it is now up to the governments making up the UN General Assembly and Security Council to show the world whether international criminal accountability and the International Criminal Court is exclusively reserved for sub-Saharan African wrongdoing!


            Many have asked whether the Goldstone retraction will doom the future of the report. In my view rather than performing a funeral rite Goldstone miscalculated, and has given the report a second life. It may still languish in the UN System, thanks to the geopolitical leverage being exerted by the United States to ensure that Israeli impunity is safeguarded once more, but this new controversy surrounding the report has provided civil society with renewed energy to push harder on the legitimacy agenda that has been animating the growing Palestinian global solidarity movement. Never before has the Goldstone Report received such sympathetic attention even from American mainstream sources. Astonishingly, even the NY Times columnist, Roger Cohen, chided Goldstone for trying belatedly to distance himself from the report, going so far as to suggest that his behavior has contributed a new verb ‘to Goldstone’ to the language of politics. “Its meaning: to make a finding, and then partially retract it for uncertain motive.” Cohen’s formal definition—“to ‘Goldstone’: (Colloq.) To sow confusion, hide a secret, create havoc.”


            History has funny ways of reversing expectations. Just as most of the world was ready to forget the allegations against Israel from the ghastly 2008-09 attacks on Gaza and move on, Richard Goldstone inadvertently wakes us all up to a remembrance of those morbid events, and in the process, does irreparable damage to his own reputation while trying to redeem himself in certain circles.


It is up to persons of conscience to seize this opportunity, and press hard for a more even handed approach to the application of the rule of law in world politics. There is much righteous talk these days at the UN and elsewhere about the ‘responsibility to protect,’ contending that the Qaddafi threats directed at Libyans civilians justified a No Fly Zone and a full fledged military intervention from the air undertaken with UN blessings and NATO bombs and missiles, but not even a whisper of support for providing the still beleaguered people of Gaza with a No Fly Zone despite frequent violent incursions by Israel and a debilitating unlawful blockade that has lasted almost four years, a severe form of collective punishment that directly violates Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This blockade continues to block the entry of building materials needed in Gaza to recover from the devastation caused more than two years ago.




Rethinking Germany

13 Apr

Not only the unforgettable Nazi past, but also the hard power materialism and reactionary politics of the German success story, made Germany in many respects the least lovable country in the Western world.

Despite the rise of the European Union, and Germany’s dominant role as the economic engine pulling the European train, the culture and politics of the country remained unpleasantly nationalist, unwelcoming to foreign minorities even after several generations of residence, an assessment that the three million Turks will confirm. If anyone doubts this harsh depiction of German reality, I recommend watching the acclaimed Christian Petzold film, Jerichow, that depicts the tragic plight of a Turkish ‘success’ story in Germany, or for that matter, a reading of almost any novel by Gunter Grass, especially, The Tin Drum and The Rat.

Of course, national stereotypes should always be skeptically viewed, if not altogether avoided, but if invoked, at least balanced by an acknowledgement of contradictory evidence, which in this case would call attention to a litany of German achievements through the ages. Germany has given the world far more than its share of great music and literature, and its engineering skills produce a range of superior products. And philosophically, German thinkers have exerted a profound influence on modern thought, perhaps none more than the enigmatic Nietzsche whose metaphysical nihilism induced a still not fully acknowledged or understood courageous humanism.

Personally, I had the good fortune to have a friendship with two extraordinary Germans, Petra Kelly and Rudolph Barro, who represented the opposed factions of the Green Party during its early period of formation and prominence in the heartland of the Cold War. It was this green questioning of modern industrial society in Germany that raised the most serious post-Marxist challenge in the West. It was a challenge directed at what later became known as the ‘Washington Consensus,’ the label used to draw attention to the regressive neoliberal ideology that continues to generate market behavior that exploits the peoples of the world and destroys our natural habitat. In the last several years this ideology of contemporary capitalism proved itself resistant to correction despite a deep recession, and expectations of worse to come in the near future. These two German public intellectuals disagreed sharply as to the proper depth and breadth of the green vision. Kelly thought that a responsible reformation of capitalism was possible while Barro was convinced that nothing less than the rollback of industrialism could ensure ecological and spiritual survival for the human species. Especially in the aftermath of the Sendai/Fukushima ordeal these issues are again becoming integral to the political and moral imagination for all those of us who see the future through a glass darkly.

My emphasis here is on the recent bashing of Germany because of its stands on nuclear energy and the Libyan intervention. With respect to nuclear energy, German public opinion exhibited more of a reaction to the Fukushima problems than anywhere else on the planet, probably in part because of the strong Green political presence, memories of the devastation of World War II, fears generated by the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and radioactivity carried to the West by wind currents, and because 25% of German power comes from nuclear reactors. With the Fukushima disaster intensifying day by day, Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself in an anxious political atmosphere relating to domestically crucial upcoming elections at the sub-federal or länder level. Merkel retreated from an earlier embrace of nuclear energy, imposing a moratorium on extending the life of existing reactors and temporarily shutting down seven reactors that were of the same design as those in trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. German voters were not persuaded by this switch, apparently regarding it as a tactical ploy, and in the key conservative länder of Baden-Württemberg the electorate gave the Green Party a stunning surprise victory. It was the first time that the Greens won political control of a German länder, one that was known to be the most conservative in all of Germany where the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had exercised uninterrupted dominance during the past six decades.

The mainstream media has both derided Merkel for her failed cheap political trick to assume an anti-nuclear pose and attacked the Greens as unfit to govern or to devise an economically responsible energy policy for the future. In effect, Green insistence on ending German dependence on nuclear power has been accompanied by the belief that the accelerated development of wind and solar can supply energy needs without hurting the economy. In their bid for greater political influence the Greens now accept capitalism as their policy framework, and believe that markets can be made to function humanely and in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. Whatever else, this Green upsurge in Germany brings to the fore some alternative thinking that is desperately needed throughout the world, and is currently absent in most major societies, perhaps most dramatically here in the United States. This Green thinking has great appeal for German youth, especially women, as a way of forging a brighter future.  Instead of considering the Green success in Germany as an anomaly in secular politics because it focuses less on jobs and Eurozone difficulties, it should be regarded as a challenge to the sterile and historically irrelevant political parties that continue to dominate the scene in Euro-American elections, and help explain the alienation of the young and the embitterment of the old, as well as the rise of the mean spirited and totally dysfunctional Tea Party in America. What strange plants manage to flourish in this political desert of American political life should make all Americans, and for that matter everyone everywhere, tremble.  We not only are damaging ourselves by this politics of evasion, but also due to our heavy global footprint, putting others throughout the world at severe risk.

The growing oppostion of the German public to nuclear energy is equally justifiable. Rather than being dismissed by the pundits as an over-reaction (Germany is not prone to earthquakes or tsunamis) or economically quixotic (renewable energy will not be able to supply sufficient energy to dispense with nuclear), it should be praised as taking weighing carefully risks that have been thoughtlessly assumed elsewhere. It is not only the events in Japan that should give us pause. The explosion of the oilrig engaged in deep sea drilling by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil-driven interventions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are kindred events that should be introduced into the societal calculus of gains and losses. These various developments, including a variety of geo-engineering schemes under consideration to gain access to deep pockets of natural gas and oil shale deposits are suggestive of the overall pressure to rely on these economically seductive frontier technologies despite the massive environmental risks posed. In effect, the compulsion of modern civilization to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the earth is pushing human endeavor up against a series of limits, which if not respected enter domains of catastrophic risk that can and will only be appreciated fully in retrospect. It seems self-evident beyond discussion that now that the Fukushima reactor accidents have taken place, the future of nuclear energy will be scrutinized in a manner that was inconceivable only two months earlier.

Will it be enough to prevent future disasters? Just as Hiroshima was a warning ignored with respect to nuclear weaponry, there is every indication that Fukushima will become another unheeded warning. Reassurances from influential members of the governing elites are likely to take the form of promising higher safety and monitoring standards and more care when deciding in the future upon where to locate reactors. These gestures will be reinforced by a variety of arguments put forward by formidable private interests to the effect that soft coal is far more dangerous to human health and societal wellbeing than is nuclear energy even if full account is taken of the periodic occurrences that generate public fear of the sort now present in Japan. Conventional wisdom is claiming that such a catastrophic accident temporarily disrupts social reason, and that in due course there will be a return to rational decision that will restore confidence that nuclear energy is comparatively benign, and in any event, is necessary to prevent economic collapse. Germany, whatever its motivations, has reminded the world that these issues, however resolved, should engage both the leadership and citizenry of a robust democracy, and in this sense, represents a display of public reason at its best, rather than a foolish detour into the underbrush of romantic politics derisively associated with this unexpected Green upsurge. Of course, it is not clear that the rest of the world, or even the rest of Europe, will take any significant note of this German response to Fukushima and the threat of nuclear energy beyond cynical commentary.

Germany has also been widely criticized for its refusal to back the Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 authorizing the establishment of a No Fly Zone for the protection of civilians in Libya. The widely voiced opinion in Europe and the United States was that the German vote to abstain was a stab in the back from the perspective of European unity and loyalty to NATO, and some went so far as to call it as an inappropriate expression of ingratitude for the protection given to Germany by NATO throughout the Cold War. It was also suggested that the German abstention was an irresponsible refusal to stand up for the humanitarian values that the intervening governments were insisting to be at stake in Libya. No matter that the concerns that Germany expressed prior to the vote have all been proven correct: a No Fly Zone is a clumsy instrument of intervention, essentially incapable of either altering the outcome of the struggle for power that was underway in Libya or achieving regime change, and to the extent this political goal was being pursued it would involve ignoring the limits and purpose set forth by the UN resolution. As the military operation unfolded, it has decreasingly been devoted to protecting Libyan civilians in cities under attack by Qaddafi forces, and mostly dedicated to helping the rebels somehow prevail, despite their meager military capabilities and shadowy political identity. By refusing to endorse such a venture it would seem to me that Germany deserves the thanks of the world, not a lecture about alliance loyalty. Should not a democratic government be reluctant to commit its resources and risk the lives of its citizens in foreign military undertakings?

In the instance of Libya, Germany had urged that diplomacy and sanctions be tried prior to any serious consideration of military intervention. Is not this what the UN Charter mandates, seeking to make recourse to force the last option after all efforts at peaceful resolution have been tried and failed? Unfortunately this is not the first time that the UN has succumbed to American-led geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War. It authorized without any ongoing supervision the first Gulf War (1991) when a diplomatic solution could probably have avoided mass killing and the destruction of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, and now this new authorization in relation to Libya issued twenty years later. True, the Security Council did not endorse the Kosovo War (1999) (thanks to the prospect of a Russian veto) or the Iraq War (2003), but it did acquiesce afterwards in the results produced by the unlawful uses of forces in both instances, thereby making its refusal to mandate the attacks in the first place little more than a nominal obstacle that could be circumvented by ‘a coalition of the willing’ acting independently of UN blessings. For Germany to stand alone among its Western allies while being in solidarity with the BRIC countries should be a moment of national pride, not a time for solemn soul searching as the German mainstream media has been encouraging. It may even be, if the EU cannot manage its sequence of sovereign debt and banking crises that Germany in the future base its security and wellbeing by moving toward a closer alignment with an emergent global multipolarism and giving up altogether an outmoded adherence to an American led unipolarity that has existed in the aftermath of the Cold War era. Admittedly, this remains but a glint in the eye at present, although attractive from the perspective of constituting a genuine ‘new world order,’ which is long overdue. In the face of continuing American decline as a responsible global leader, Germany can seize the day by withdrawing from the anachronistic behavior of violent geopolitics, and put to rest once and for all its own disastrous heritage of failed militarism.

In concluding, where others raise eyebrows over these controversial recent German developments, I find them deserving of admiration and reflection. Just as Turkey has been recently chastised by American neoconservatives and Israeli warmongers for getting out of its lane, that is, seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran in relation to its nuclear program, so Germany is being told to get back in its NATO lane, which is tantamount to doing what the United States wants done on the global stage. It is true that here in response to domestic pressures that it was France and Britain that were most ardent champions of intervention, seeming having most to gain (above all, oil and the avoidance of an influx of Libyan immigrants) by getting rid of the Qaddafi regime. But unfortunately, for these former senior partners of the colonial era, a major NATO undertaking cannot be made credible without American leadership. The Libyan operations seem to have demonstrated this, and may inhibit future European adventurism. In effect, in matters of war and peace, each country is ethically sovereign given the way the world is organized even if many countries often act as if they were politically subservient, that is, by being more deferential to the geopolitical hierarchy than respectful of international law or even of its own selfish calculus of values and interests. With this background in mind, let us hope that these German initiatives are not merely episodes soon to be forgotten, but rather represent the first steps along a new pathway to a global future that others should reflect upon rather than dismiss or ignore.


Obama’s Libyan Folly: To be or not to be..

5 Apr

The outcome in Libya remains uncertain, but what seems clear beyond reasonable doubt is that military intervention has not saved the day for either the shadowy opposition known as ‘the rebels,’ and certainly not for the people of the country. It has seemingly plunged Libya into a protracted violent conflict with the domestic balance of forces tipping decisively in favor of the Qaddafi regime despite a major military onslaught managed by the American-led coalition, which in recent days has been supposedly outsourced to NATO. But since when is NATO not an American dominated alliance? The best that can be hoped for at this stage is a face-saving ceasefire that commits the Libyan leadership to a vague power-sharing scheme, but leaves the governing process more or less as it is, possibly replacing Qaddafi with his son who may offer the West the cosmetic trappings of liberal modernity, which may exhibit a genuine interest in reform.

President Barack Obama has chosen Libya as the place to draw a line in the sand, although it is a rather wavering and fuzzy line. It was finally drawn in response to what was being called two weeks ago an imminent atrocity about to be inflicted upon the people of Benghazi, although the evidence of this prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator. Obama stopped what the more ardent interventionist in his camp were derisively calling his ‘dithering.’ Heeding these criticisms Obama on March 28 came out clearly in support of military action, although carefully circumscribed in scope and nature by reference to its supposedly narrow humanitarian undertaking of protecting Libyan civilian.  The futility of preventing a Qaddafi victory on the ground by establishing a No Fly Zone, even as inappropriately expanded to become a No Drive Zone, should have been obvious to anyone conversant with the course of numerous political struggles of recent times being waged for the political control of a sovereign state. What the world actually witnessed was mainly something far different than an effort to protect Libyan civilians. It was rather a an unauthorized attempt to turn the tide of the conflict in favor of the insurrectionary campaign by destroying as many of the military assets possessed by Libya’s armed forces as possible, clearing the path for a rebel advance.

The campaign and character of the opposition has never been clearly established. It is still most accurately described as a motley gathering of opposition forces mysteriously referred to as ‘the rebels.’ In contrast to the seeming failure and ineptness of its military challenge, the public relations campaign of the rebels worked brilliantly. Most of all it mobilized the humanitarian hawks inhabiting the Obama presidential bird nest, most prominently Samantha Power, Hilary Clinton, and Susan Rice, as well as the recently departed former State Department Head of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Samantha Power particularly has long called upon the United States Government to use its might wherever on the globe severe human rights abuses should occur (unless in a large country beyond interventionary ambitions), apparently analogizing every humanitarian crisis to the totally different circumstances of Rwanda (1994) where a small effort to mitigate major genocide was inappropriately blocked by the Clinton White House. And in the media the celebrants of this intervention have been led by the NY Times pious stalwarts, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman.  At least Friedman, the patron saint of ‘wars of choice’ was sensible enough on this occasion to acknowledge that Obama would need major help from Lady Luck if his Libyan policy would have any chance of a happy ending, which is welcome contrast with his cheerleading of the Iraq intervention. If lives were not at stake, it might be amusing to note the new cosmic humility of this most arrogant of journalists, who in the past was forever fond of addressing world leaders by their first names in his columns while dishing out his unsolicited guidance, now being reduced to treating the Libyan intervention as the equivalent to a night out in Las Vegas!

The PR full court press by the rebels, aided by that high flying French publicity seeking French enthusiast for intervention Bernard-Henri Lévy, also misleadingly convinced world public opinion and several Western political leaders that the Qaddafi regime was opposed and hated by the entire population of Libya making him extremely vulnerable to intervention. This encouraged the belief that the only alternative to military intervention was for the Western world to sit back and bear witness to genocide against the Libyan people on a massive scale. This entire portrayal of the conflict was at best premature, and likely misleadingly intended to make it appear that the only choices available to the UN and the global community was to intervene militarily or sit back and take the consequences. Among other options, diplomacy and the search for a ceasefire was never seriously embarked upon.

Even without the spurious wisdom of hindsight, the international undertaking could be criticized from another angle as having been designed to fail: a questionable intervention in what appeared increasingly to be an armed insurrection against the established government, yet falling far short of what would be needed to secure the only outcome proclaimed as just and necessary—the fall of the Qaddafi government. How can such a struggle, involving one more paternalistic challenge to the dynamics of self-determination, be won by relying on the bombs and missiles of colonial powers, undertaken without even the willingness to follow the attack with a willingness to engage in peacekeeping on the ground? Had this willingness been present it would have at least connected the dots between the interventionary means adopted and the political mission being proclaimed. Even with this more credible posture the odds of success would still remain small. If we consider the record of the past sixty years very few interventions by colonial or hegemonic actors were successful despite their overwhelming military superiority. The only ‘success’ stories of interventionary politics involve very minor countries such as Grenada and Panama where organized resistance was absent, while the failures were in the big and prolonged struggles that took place in Indochina, Algeria, Indonesia, elsewhere.

In Libya the prospects were further worsened by the incoherence, inexperience, and lack of discipline exhibited by rebel forces. This effort of a weak and unorganized opposition to induce foreign forces to secure for themselves an otherwise unattainable victory is reminiscent of the bill of goods that wily Iraqi exiles sold to neoconservative operatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz during the lead up to the Iraq War (2003). Remember those promises of flowers greeting the American troops arriving in Baghdad or regime change being ‘a cakewalk’ that would be achieved without notable American casualties or costs. As in Libya the case for intervention rested on the false assumption that the foreign occupiers would be welcomed as liberators and that the Saddam Hussein regime lacked any popular base of support. Obama sang this interventionists’ lullaby when he lauded the villager

who thanked an American pilot whose plane crashed accidentally over some rebel held territory.

Such a negative assessment of the Libyan intervention seems clear enough. Such an assessment was offered at the outset of the crisis by the most qualified high official in the Obama inner circle, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. Why did Obama not heed this sensible advice? Unfortunately, every Democratic president, and none more than Obama, struggle to maintain their image as willing to use force in the pursuit of national interests whenever the occasion arises. We must pause to give credit as Obama has pursued a generally militarist foreign policy while still managing to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, something that W’s handlers could never have achieved, and likely didn’t seek. And here in Libya, the risks of inaction must have seemed too great to bear. Instead Obama attempted to have it both ways: lead the diplomatic effort to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council and then provide most of the military muscle for the initial phase of the operation, and then hastily withdraw to the background while NATO supposedly takes over. This middle path is littered with contradictions: to convince the Security Council, and avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, it was necessary to portray the mission in the most narrow humanitarian terms as being only for the protection of civilians, while to protect the rebels (who are not ‘civilians’ as legally understood) required a much more ambitious scale of attack than is implied by establishing a No Fly Zone; beyond this, if the unconditional goal was the elimination of the Qaddafi regime, then the intervention would have to go far beyond the boundary set by the Security Council decision. It would have to tip the balance in the conflict. As has become clear, the approved military objectives have been dramatically exceeded in the flawed effort to protect the rebels and help them win, but seemingly to no avail.

Of course, the abstainers also have blood on their hands, and share some of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. These abstaining members of the Security Council went along with a mandate to use force that seemed inconsistent with the Charter assurances of refraining from UN intervention in matters essentially within domestic jurisdiction, as this struggle surely was and is. They also allowed the backers of the Securitry Council to twist enough arms to get their mission creep hopes raised by inserting the permissive clause ‘by all necessary means.’ China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa should be ashamed of their posture, criticizing before the vote, abstaining so as to assure that authorization would be provided, and then resuming criticism afterwards to undertakings that should have been anticipated and precluded by much more constricted language in 1973. The vote was 10 in favor, none opposed, and five abstaining.

Such disregard of the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, awkwardly reinforced by the failure of the Security Council to play any subsequent supervisory role to ensure that its approval of force did not go beyond what had been agreed, has once again weakened the UN as a body operating within the constitutional framework of the UN Charter. It makes the UN in the peace and security area appear to be more an agent of geopolitical and neoimperial forces in the West than an objective body seeking to implement the rule of law in relation to the strong and weak alike. We all should remember that when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II it was assigned the primary responsibility of minimizing the role of war in human affairs.  The inspirational opening words of the Preamble to the UN Charter should be recalled and solemnly reaffirmed: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” To allow these words to be selectively overridden by the recently endorsed norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ or R2P is to provide a selective tool that shamelessly exhibits double standards. Where were those humanitarian and paternalistic voices when the civilian population of Gaza was subjected to a murderous attack from land, air, and sea for three weeks by the Israeli Defense Forces (Dec. 27, 2008-January 19, 2009)

Throughout this period of revolutionary ferment in the Arab world, Obama’s paternalism has been pronounced. While intermittingly celebrating these popular risings, Obama has unblushingly felt entitled to pronounce on which leaders should stay and which should go as if he is indeed the first designated global chief executive. And these pronouncements lack even the pretense of coherence and consistency unless measured from an exclusively geopolitical standpoint. The White House was fine with Mubarak until the popular movement made his continued presence untenable, and then he was instructed to leave. In Yemen the leader is told to step down after he failed to quiet the protests, while in Bahrain the Al Khalifa royal family is supported by Washington although governed as an absolute monarchy, which has not only recently relied on extremely violent means to quell unarmed demonstrators, but has even inviting its stronger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to send military forces across the border to help restore order. Restoring order in Bahrain  is a matter of making further repressive moves to thwart robust popular calls for a new political order based on democracy and human rights.

Obama’s maneuvers in and out of the limelight during the unfolding of events in the Arab world reveals the two sides of the current American dilemma: it is not yet ready to shed the mantle of imperial overseer in the post-colonial regions of the world, but it is faced with the contradictory pressures of imperial decline and overstretch.  This fledgling patriarch can lecture the world, and even manage a military thrust or two, but nothing is sustained, and little achieved. Obama seems to be auditioning to play Hamlet in this unfolding global tragedy.


Donate for the Sake of Japan, for the sake of our shared humanity

1 Apr

I will rarely use my blog to encourage donations even to good causes, but today I am making an exception. The horrifying combination of a monumental earthquake followed by a huge tsunami producing damage to the Fukushima reactor complex at the Daiichi plant makes me feel that we all have a historic stake in expressing solidarity with the Japanese people. Friends in Japan have shared with me their experiences of coping with the disaster/tragedy in an atmosphere where the full effects are not yet known or knowable and where the government and private sector actor (Tokyo Electric Power Co TEPCO) are not trustworthy, and have a past record of downplaying past nuclear mishaps. The magnitude of the catastrophe is for older Japanese comparable to the situation in Japan after the end of World War II when the country was devastated by bombardment, including the two atomic attacks, and was without food or needed consumer goods. The remarkable recovery that included the development of an extraordinary ‘economic miracle’ is reminder of the strength of the Japanese will and spirit as well as their capacity to overcome adversity.

One further overarching thought: the world cannot consider an incident of this sort as befalling only the country where the locus of the harm is being now experienced. There is every possibility, especially if the worst scenarios about the release of radioactivity and other toxic substances happen, that societies other than Japan will be negatively affected. Even here in the United States there are conjectures about sushi no longer being safe, along with other anxieties, which are real even if exaggerated. A similar issue is present in the climate change context. Global warming is widely thought to be responsible for higher temperatures and resulting droughts in SubSaharan Africa, while the main emitters of greenhouse gasses producing this added heat arises from outside of Africa ever since the industrial revolution. What is being suggested is that matters as diverse as nuclear safety and climate change, as well as recourse to war, can no longer be entrusted to the governments of sovereign states. We no longer live in a state-centric world, and yet this is the way global policy is formed and implemented. Unless the human species finds ways to overcome political fragmentation, reinforced by anachronistic nationalist ideologies, there is almost no prospect that we will find ways to live well together on this lonely, lovely, endangered planet.

So take a small step in the direction of global solidarity by donating today to: