Archive | May, 2011

Obama’s AIPAC Speech: A Further Betrayal of the Palestinian People

24 May

            On Sunday, May 22, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke at an AIPAC Conference, three days after giving his decidedly pro-Israeli speech at the State Department on his broader Middle East foreign policy. It was a shockingly partisan speech to the extremist lobbying group that has the entire U.S. Congress in an unprecedented headlock that has become the envy of even the National Rifle Association. Of course, I assume that Obama’s handlers regarded a speech to AIPAC as obligatory given the upcoming presidential election in 2012. The dependence of political candidates for almost any significant elective office in the United States on Jewish electoral and funding support has become an article of secular political faith, and particularly so for a national office like the presidency. Nevertheless, the enactment of this political ritual by Obama seemed excessive even taking full account of the role of Israeli Lobby as to be worth noting and decrying.


            What is worse, the mainstream media typically misconstrued the AIPAC event in a manner that compounds the outrage of the speech itself. For instance, the NY Times headline says it all: “Obama Challenges Israel to Make Hard Choices for Peace.” As Obama pointed out himself in his remarks, “there was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.” The supposed hard choices involve Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, only restating the generalized international consensus that has often been articulated by American leaders and in a variety of authoritative settings. This is hardly a hard choice, especially as interpreted by the White House’s former Special Envoy, George Mitchell, as including Israel’s perceived security requirements. That is, the land swaps now seem to embrace not only the unlawful settlement blocs that had been conceded by George W. Bush, but now appear to incorporate Netanyahu over the top demands for strategic depth at the expense of Palestinian land, demanding the appropriation of portions of the Jordan Valley along with the deployment of Israeli troops within a hypothetical demilitarized Palestinian state.


            What is more, the alleged hard choice is never set against the background of the aftermath of the 1948 War that deprived of about half of the territory they had been given according to the UN partition plan embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181. And as is widely known, the Palestinian rejected that partition as being grossly unfair, imposed from without and awarding the Jewish minority population about 56% of historic Palestine. In effect, the willingness of the Palestinians, expressed first by the 1988 session of the Palestinian National Council to live within the 1967 borders meant agreeing to have their Palestinian state on 22% of the British mandate. This was indeed a hard choice! The land swaps involving settlement blocs, and their bypass roads, and further security zones claimed are all encroachments upon that 22%, and the fact that such further Palestinian concession can be proposed is indicative of just how unfair has become the American led approach to the resolution of the underlying conflict. It is further notable that this fundamental territorial redefinition of the two-state consensus is never acknowledged or even mentioned. In effect, what was thought to be two states in 1947 was dramatically diminished by what became the contours of two states after the 1967 War, and has been further diminished in dramatic form ever since by the settlement process and the various unilateral changes introduced by Israel in the course of administering Jerusalem.    


            The speech to AIPAC is significant not for these non-existent ‘hard choices,’ but for the scandalously obsequious pleading tone adopted by an American president that acknowledges with pride everything about the U.S. Government’s relationship to the conflict that should disqualify it from ever again having a shred of diplomatic credibility as a third party intermediary. Starting with the fawning “[w]hat a remarkable, remarkable crowd” to his heartfelt words of sympathy for Israeli victims of violence without even a scintilla of empathy for the far, far greater suffering daily endured by the entire Palestinian people: dispossessed, living under occupation, blockade, in refugee camps and exile, or as persons displaced physically and psychologically.


            The passage on military assistance to a prosperous Israel should have come as a shock to American taxpayers but passes without notice by the Western media.  I quote in full because it so shamelessly overlooks Israeli defiance of international law and its militarist outlook toward the future: “..I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. It’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels. And that includes additional support—beyond regular military aid—for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.” It is not surprising that there was loud applause after each sentence in the paragraph just quoted, but it is surprising that an American president would try to please even an AIPAC audience this abject manner. After all, others are listening! Or should be!


            Obama similarly brushes aside any concern about the unlawfulness of the Israeli occupation or its uses of force against a defenseless population in Gaza in its massive attacks launched at the end of 2008, and carried on for three weeks. Obama brushes aside the Goldstone Report by name, suggesting that its assessment of Israel’s wrongdoing somehow challenges Israel’s right of self-defense when in actuality the Goldstone legal analysis does just the opposite, and far more ardently and unconditionally than appropriate, in my view. There is not a word about the Flotilla Incident of a year ago or the recent excessive use of lethal force at the Israeli borders in response to the ‘right of return’ demonstrations associated with the Palestinian remembrance of the 2011 Nakba.


            Going beyond the negativity of his State Department comments, Obama mimics Netanyahu in condemning the moves toward Palestinian Authority/Hamas reconciliation and unity. He has the temerity to insist that “the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace.” Actually, reasonably considered, the agreement should have been welcomed as an indispensable step toward creating the possibility of peace.


            Not a word of challenge is uttered by Obama in front of this AIPAC audience about settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees. Not a word about the Palestinian ordeal, or diminished horizons of possibility, and no White House plan announced to give a talk before a Palestinian audience. The Obama talk was so outrageously one-sided, so contrary to American strategic interests, that it implicitly suggests that the Palestinians are so weak and passive as to let it slip by in silence. Only a justifiable outburst of Palestinian rage could begin to counter this impression of diplomatic surrender.


            Palestinian prudence would go further that an angry reaction. After such a speech the only responsible response by the Palestinian leadership is to conclude once and for all, however belatedly, that it is no longer possible to look to Washington for guidance in reaching a peaceful, just, and sustainable resolution of the conflict. Indeed, to allow such a Washington framing of peace at this point, in light of this Obama/Netanyahu posturing, would further disclose the incompetence and illegitimacy that have long handicapped the Palestinian struggle for self-determination based on a just and sustainable peace and founded on respect for Palestinian rights under international law. 

Obama’s Flawed Approach to the Israel/Palestine Conflict

21 May

            There is no world leader that is more skilled at speechmaking than Barack Obama, especially when it comes to inspiring rhetoric that resonates with deep and widely held human aspirations. And his speech on Middle East policy, symbolically delivered to a Washington audience gathered at the State Department, was no exception, and it contained certain welcome reassurances about American intentions in the region.  I would point to his overall endorsement of the Arab Spring as a demonstration that the shaping of political order ultimately is a prerogative of the people. Further that populist outrage if mobilized is capable of liberating an oppressed people from the yoke of brutal and corrupt dictatorships, and amazingly to do so without recourse to violence. Obama also was honest enough to acknowledge that the national strategic interests of the United States sometimes take precedence over this preferential option for democracy and respect for human rights. Finally, his proposed $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt was a concrete expression of support for the completion of its revolutionary process, although the further $1 billion tied to an opening to outside investment and a free trade framework was far more ambiguous, threatening the enfeebled Egyptian economy with the sort of competitive intrusions that have been so devastating for indigenous agriculture and industry throughout the African continent.


            But let’s face it, when the soaring language is taken away, we should not be surprised that Obama continues to seek approval, as he has throughout his presidency, from the hawks in the State Department, the militarists in the Pentagon, and capitalist true believers on Wall Street. Such are the fixed parameters of his presidency with respect to foreign policy and explain why there is so much disappointment among his former most ardent followers during his uphill campaign for the presidency, who were once energized and excited by the slogan “change, yes we can!”  Succumbing to Washington ‘realism’ (actually a recipe for imperial implosion), the unacknowledged operational slogan of the Obama presidency has become “change, no we won’t!”

Obama’s Pro-Israeli Partisanship

           With these considerations in mind, it is not at all surprising that Obama’s approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict remains one-sided, deeply flawed, and a barrier rather than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace. The underlying pressures that produce the distortion is the one-sided allegiance to Israel (“Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums.”). This leads to the totally unwarranted assessment that failure to achieve peace in recent years is equally attributable to Israelis and the Palestinians, thereby equating what is certainly not equivalent. Consider Obama’s words of comparison: “Israeli settlement activity continues, Palestinians have walked away from the talks.” How many times is it necessary to point out that Israeli settlement activity is unlawful, and used to be viewed as such even by the United States Government, and that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate while their promised homeland is being despoiled not only by settlement expansion and settler violence, but by the continued construction of an unlawful barrier wall well beyond the 1967 borders. Obama never finds it appropriate to mention Israel’s reliance on excessive and lethal force, most recently in its response to the Nakba demonstrations along its borders, or its blatant disregard of international law, whether by continuing to blockade the entrapped 1.5 million Palestinians locked inside Gaza or by violently attacking the Freedom Flotilla a year ago on international waters while it was carrying much needed humanitarian aid to the Gazans or the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.


            At least in Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009 there was a strong recognition of Palestinian suffering through dispossession, occupation, and refugee status: “ is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West  Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Of course, this formulation prejudges the most fundamental of Palestinian entitlements by confining any exercise of their right of self-determination as a people to a two-state straight jacket that may no longer be viable or desirable, if it ever was. And throughout the speech in Cairo there was never a sense that the Palestinians have rights under international law that must be taken into account in any legitimate peace process, taking precedence over ‘facts on the ground.’

             But at least in Cairo Obama was clear on the Israeli settlements, or reasonably so: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for the settlements to stop.” Even here Obama is only pleading for a freeze (rather than dismantling what was unlawful). In the new speech settlement activity is blandly referred to as making it difficult to get new negotiations started, but nothing critical is said, despite resumed and intensified settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This unwillingness to confront Israel on such a litmus test of a commitment to a negotiated peace is indicative of Obama’s further retreat from even the pretense of balanced diplomacy as measured against Cairo.

             And there were other demonstrations of pro-Israeli partisanship in the speech. On the somewhat hopeful moves toward Palestinian Authority/Hamas reconciliation as a necessary basis for effective representation of the Palestinian people at the international level, Obama confines his comments to reiterating Israeli complaints about the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. What was left unsaid by Obama is that progress toward peace might be made by at last treating Hamas as a political actor, appreciating its efforts to establish ceasefires and suppress rocket attacks from Gaza, acknowledging its repeated acceptance of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders buttressed by a long-term proposal for peaceful co-existence with Israel, and lifting a punitive and unlawful blockade on Gaza that has lasted for almost four years. It is possible that such an approach might fail, but if the terminology of taking risks for peace is to have any meaning it must include an altered orientation toward the participation of Hamas in any future peace process.

 A Disturbing Innovation

             Perhaps, the most serious flaw in the Obama conception of resumed negotiations, is the separation of the territorial issues from the wider agenda of fundamental questions. This unfortunate feature of his approach has been obscured by Israel’s evident anger about the passage in the speech that affirms what was already generally accepted in the international community: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” If anything this is a step back from the 1967 canonical and unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that looked unconditionally toward “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict.”

              Obama’s innovation involves deferring consideration of what he calls “[t]wo wrenching and emotional issues..the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.” Leaving Jerusalem out of the negotiating process is in effect an uncritical acceptance of Israel’s insistence that the city as a whole belongs exclusively to Israel. What is worse, it allows Israel to continue the gradual process of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem: settlement expansion, house demolitions, withdrawal of residency permits and deportations, and overall policies designed to discourage a continued Palestinian presence.  It must be understood, I believe, as an unscrupulous American acceptance of Israel’s position on Jerusalem, which is not only a betrayal of legitimate Palestinian expectations of situating their capital in East Jerusalem but also a move that will be received with bitter resentment throughout the Arab world.

            Similarly, the deferral of the refugee issue is quite unforgivable. As of 2010 4.7 million Palestinians are registered with the UN as refugees, either living within refugee camps under conditions of occupation or in precarious circumstances in neighboring countries within camps or as vulnerable members of the host country. This refugee status has persisted for more that 60 years despite the clear assertion of Palestinian refugee rights contained in General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted in 1948 and annually reaffirmed: “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” This persistence of the Palestinian refugee status six decades later is one of the most notorious denials of human rights that exist in the world today. To remove it from the peace process, as Obama purports to do, is to consign the refugees to an outer darkness of despair, and as such, is a telling disclosure of the bad faith embedded in the most recent Obama rendering of his approach to peace. Those who are dedicated to achieving a just peace for the two peoples—Israelis and Palestinians—are doomed to fail unless the refugees are treated as a core issue that can neither be postponed nor evaded without a grave betrayal of justice.

 Legitimacy Confusions

               And finally, Obama does his best to dash Palestinian hopes about their one effort to move their struggle a step forward, gaining their acceptance as a state by the United Nations in September of this year. In a perverse formulation of this reasonable, even belated, Palestinian effort to enlist international support for their claims of self-determination and statehood, Obama resorts to deflating and condescending language: “..efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” This language is perverse because the Palestinian diplomatic initiative is meant to legitimize itself, not delegitimize Israel. And the BDS campaign and other international civil society initiatives carrying on the ‘legitimacy war’ being waged against Israel by way of the Palestinian solidarity movement are not aimed at delegitimizing Israel, but rather seek to overcome the illegitimacy of such Israeli unlawful policies and practices as the Gaza blockade, ethnic cleansing, wall building in defiance of the World Court, settlement expansion and settler violence, excessive violence in the name of security.

               In many respects, Obama’s speech, aside from the soaring rhetoric, might have been crafted in Tel Aviv rather than the White House. It is a tribute to Israel’s extraordinary influence upon the American media that has been able to shift the focus of assessment to the supposed Israeli anger about affirming Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. It is hardly a secret that the Netanyahu leadership, aside from its shrewd propaganda, is opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state, whether symbolic or substantive. This much was confirmed by the release of the Palestinian Papers that established rather conclusively that behind closed doors even when the Palestinian Authority made concession after concession in response to Israeli demands, the Israeli negotiating partners seemed totally unresponsive, and appeared disinterested in negotiating a genuine solution to the conflict.

             Underneath the Israeli demand for recognition of it character as a Jewish state is the hidden reality of a Palestinian minority of more than 1.5 million living as second class citizens within Israel. The Obama conception of “a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace” seems completely oblivious to the rights of minority peoples and religions. Such ethnic and religious states seem incompatible with the promise of human dignity for all persons living within a political community. Homelands for a people are fine provided they do not encroach on pre-existing rights of others and do not claim exclusivity at the level of society or state. The Jewish claim in Palestine has the force of history behind it, but so Christians and others, and the Balfour certification should not mean much in a post-colonial era. It needs also to be acknowledged that the realization of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine has long been abusive toward the resident population, and now to consign the Palestinians to a homeland behind the 1967 borders sends a regressive message. It offers Israel a covert way to invalidate the claims of refugees expelled in 1948 from Palestine, as well as overlooks the rights and wellbeing of the Palestinian minority living within Israel at present.


American Irrelevance and Palestinian Populism

               In a profound sense, whatever Obama says at this point is just more words, beside the point. He has neither the will nor the capacity to exert any material leverage on Israel that might make it more amenable to respecting Palestinian rights under international law or to strike a genuine compromise based on mutuality of claims. Palestinians should not look to sovereign states, or even the United Nations, and certainly not the United States, in their long and tormented journey to realize a just and sustainable destiny for themselves. Their future will depend on the outcome of their struggle, abetted and supported by people of good will around the world, and increasingly assuming the character of a nonviolent legitimacy war that mobilizes moral and political pressures that assert Palestinian rights from below.  In this regard, it remains politically significant to make use of the UN and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right. It is Palestinian populism not great power diplomacy that offers the best current hope of achieving a sustainable and just peace on behalf of the Palestinian people. Obama’s State Department speech should be understood as merely the latest in a long series of disguised confessions of geopolitical impotence, but of one thing we can be sure, it will not be the last.       

Global Leadership: American Retreat, BRIC Ambivalence, and Turkey’s Rise

19 May

As the American president, Barack Obama, sets forth his views on the future of the Middle East it seems a good time to take stock of the leadership vacuum in world affairs, and whether there are alternatives to the role the United States has played ever since World War II. While Obama welcomed the regional moves toward democracy and deplored those regimes that hold onto power by using violence against their own people, there was little cause given in the speech for either American balance with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict or commitment to a more equitable world economy. In other words, the speech was mainly a courtly exercise in cheerleading for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East but not an attempt to be a creative and innovative global leader with respect to regional problem-solving.

A disturbing feature of the present global setting is the absence of constructive global leadership, especially in relation to peacemaking and addressing issues of economic distress and environmental danger. True, the election of Barack Obama as the American president in late 2008 temporarily gave rise to widespread enthusiasm around the world that the United States could again do what it did after World War II, generally promote global wellbeing. Obama was viewed as offering the world a vision of peace and justice anchored in the promise of a new approach to both the Israel/Palestine conflict and troubled interactions between the West and the Muslim world. It was hoped that Obama would certainly allow the Bush era global war on terror or GWOT to subside, if not altogether end.

It was always doubtful in my mind that Obama would satisfy these high expectations that he further encouraged by carefully crafted visionary speeches in Cairo and Istanbul delivered early in his presidency. Although the language used by Obama on those occasions was a welcome change from the belligerent rhetoric that emanated from the White House during the Bush presidency, it seemed unlikely in my mind that Obama would be able to satisfy these promises, and that even if he did, I doubted that his policies as distinct from his words would be transformative. There was too much pressure exerted on any elected president in the United States to defer to the Pentagon, to please the Israeli Lobby along with its Congressional mouthpiece, and to cozy up Wall Street. Such pre-existing structural constraints were intensified in Obama’s case because these interest groups seemed somewhat worried that he might really mean what he says, and take the determined action on behalf of change that his presidential campaign so well articulated.

There was no need for these pressures groups to worry. Obama turned out to get the message before it was even delivered. From the outset of his presidency he was eager to please the Pentagon, Israel, and Wall Street, often going the extra mile, disappointing his political base but never earning the trust of these entrenched interests no matter how hard he tried. Obama has turned out to be conformist beyond what even skeptics such as myself expected. In fairness, he did inherit a broken economy at home and a radicalized Republican Party opposition that was intent on making his life as difficult as possible no matter what he did. At the same time he did not have to cave in so abjectly, and abandon those most afflicted by the economic downturn while giving the banks and corporations most everything requested without any strings attached: too big to fail, too small to save.

On critical issues of foreign policy nothing fundamental has improved during these past three years. The United States continues to back Israel unconditionally even in the face of acute Palestinian suffering and Israeli defiance toward international law and its refusal to support Washington’s wishes to keep a nominal peace process going. On economic policy the White House allowed the boys from Goldman Sachs to have their way, allowing scandalous gains to be pocketed and setting the stage for a future even deeper recession. In the area of peace and security, the war in Afghanistan was imprudently escalated, withdrawal from Iraq remains inconclusive, and more recently supported a politically dubious intervention in Libya’s internal conflict by NATO. At the same time, the United States continues to spend more on its military than the rest of the world combined, while seeming to be obsessed about its escalating fiscal deficit that it seems to be addressing with measures that impact negatively on the wellbeing of workers and welfare recipients.

The United States is also faltering in its role as champion of the global public good, a role that it did often seem to play effectively in the aftermath of World War II and periodically during the Cold War. However, if we look at the what the United States has done globally in relation to such serious challenges as climate change and extreme poverty, the results are practically nil. At this point, the United States seems disinclined and incapable to provide the kind of leadership the world needs or wants in the early 21st century, which partly is a result of a domestic refusal to expend substantial resources on behalf of global public goal. It is true that the Obama administration is ready to forgive Egyptian debts up to $1 billion and to extend a line of credit for another $1 billion, but this does not seem a sufficient show of support to qualify as leadership on the scale that seems warranted by the regional developments encapsulated by the phrase ‘the Arab spring.’

A secondary source of potential global leadership are the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the new presences on the geopolitical world map, robust economies with an independent approach to global policy, countries never implicated in colonialism, and possessing obvious ambitions to be given a more prominent place in the geopolitical pantheon. Again mostly disappointment, although Lula’s Brazil did make some extra-regional gestures in the direction of asserting a non-American approach on some global issues, but its impact has been far too marginal to be taken seriously. These BRIC governments, each a regional powerhouse, seem to lack the vision, will, or the diplomatic capabilities at this stage to provide a global alternative, or even a serious challenge, to faltering American leadership. At the same time, maybe it is a matter of waiting, enabling more accumulation of relevant experience that might give these governments, singly and collectively, the confidence and the understanding to provide the kind of leadership that would allow the world to meet its mounting challenges in more effective ways. For now these countries are domestically preoccupied, seeking to achieve as rapid economic growth as possible, overcome poverty at home, and content to be front row spectators of the geopolitical drama unless it impinges directly on their territorial reality (as does Georgia for Russia, Taiwan and the South China Sea Islands for China, Kashmir and Afghanistan for India).

This BRIC posture of geopolitical ambivalence was manifest in the recent UN Security Council debate on what to do about the unfolding political situation in Libya. In the end the Security Council in Resolution 1973 authorized a No Fly Zone designed to protect Libyan civilians that were claimed to be at grave risk of slaughter due to the aggressive tactics and bloody language of the Qaddafi regime, especially in and around the city of Benghazi. In the vote the four BRICs plus Germany abstained, despite having essentially expressed in the debate preceding the vote their sharp reservations about the feasibility and desirability of the proposed military operations, which were repeated after authorization was granted. As the situation has further developed these concerns turned out to be well-founded, and maybe in retrospect the political leaders of these governments have had second thoughts about whether it was wise and correct to go along with the American and European advocacy of a military intervention. China and Russia had the option to veto the decision, which would at least have removed the UN imprimatur from the military operation, possibly leading NATO to embark upon the intervention on their own authority (a meta-legal coalition of the willing) in the manner of the Kosovo War of 1999. Undoubtedly, a motive for BRIC passivity in the Security Council was anxiety about how their ‘no’ vote would be viewed if indeed Qaddafi forces were to occupy Benghazi and carry out the vengeful threats of the ruler.

As it has turned out, what was a distinct possibility all along, this undertaking seems far less linked to a humanitarian intervention prompted by the alleged need to avoid mass atrocities against civilians by the Qaddafi regime than a thinly disguised effort to tip the balance in an internal Libyan struggle for control of the state. The ‘rebels’ that form the anti-Qaddafi opposition remain a shadowy coalition, which seems regional and tribal in its essential character, but does feature urban and middle class advocates of democracy and human rights, projects its political goals as secular, inclusive, and constitutional. Nevertheless, this uprising is a violent insurrectional challenge to the established, if oppressive, political order in Libya, and constitutes an unresolved power struggle that should not be confused with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia or the spectacular populist nonviolent challenge to the Mubarak regime mounted in Tahrir Square and throughout the whole of Egypt. Due to this Libyan reality of civil warfare, external involvement has been sought and present, most recently in a series of international initiatives designed to test whether a negotiated compromise between the warring parties can be found to bring the fighting in Libya to an end, which would seem to depend on agreeing about a procedure for achieving democratic reform and power sharing. As has so often been the case in recent times, military intervention as the solution has proved to be a costly failure, even if, as here, it proceeds with the legalizing blessings of the United Nations, and even if it should eventually rid the country of the Qaddafi regime.  The UN should never support such violent geopolitics except to offer protection to a beleaguered civilian population facing imminent catastrophe.

Despite the disappointing failure of the BRIC countries to stand up to the West on Libya, we should not ignore the overall benefits for the peoples of the world of this diffusion of power to non-Western countries. This prospect of greater multipolarity with respect to economic and political global police remains an attractive one for the future. A more activist global role for the BRIC countries is desirable because of their seeming disposition toward greater reliance on diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution, which might serve as an effective check on recourse to violent geopolitics that continues to find favor in Washington as the preferred mode of conflict resolution. These countries have not risen to prominence because of their military prowess and do not seem to harbor ambitions to greatness by way of militarism. This is not to say that their diplomacy renounces military options on all occasions. But generally the BRIC countries, aside from internal issues or on their borders, seek peaceful alternatives to satisfy their national goals rather than relying on the military leverage that remains so beloved by hard power realists who continue to dominate the foreign offices of most Western powers. In this regard, a strong BRIC presence is to be welcomed in many global policy arenas as a way of demilitarizing geopolitics.  Brazil (along with Turkey) has prefigured such an approach in a persisting effort to find ways to defuse regional tensions in the Middle East arising from allegations that Iran’s nuclear program is covertly seeking nuclear weaponry. Such a diplomatic initiative aims to avoid a dangerous regional war with global implications that is likely if the United States/Israel reliance on coercive diplomacy (sanctions and military threats) should escalate in the future.

It is against this background, that the emergence of Turkey from its accustomed shadow land of subordination to the United States is one of the most encouraging dimensions of the global setting in this second decade of the 21st century, and offers the world a secondary model of diplomatic leadership that is already exerting a major influence within its region and beyond. The credit for this extraordinary development belongs to the top echelons of the AKP, the political party that has governed Turkey since 2002 with increasing populist backing from the citizenry. The priority of this new leadership when first elected was to push as hard as possible on the closed doors of the European Union with the goal of Turkish accession to membership within a few years. This was a natural issue to concentrate upon as it bridged the basic divide in Turkish society, enlisting even the grudging support of the strict secularists who did little to hide their hostility and suspicions about the AKP and of military commanders who had previously resisted elected leaders that seemed to cross the red lines of Republican Turkey. The Turkish military periodically intruded upon the governing process whenever their leading generals perceived departures from the vision for modern Turkey fashioned by Kemal Ataturk, whether these departures were attributed to the Marxist left or more recently to conservative Islam. The unifying effort to satisfy the EU gatekeepers also allowed the AKP to explain and justify its reformist initiatives within Turkey, allowing the government to take some major steps to improve the protection of human rights and even to set limits on the former degree of military control exercised over the civilian governing process. This disciplining of the notorious Turkish ‘deep state’ should not be underestimated in the continuing struggle to deepen constitutional democracy in the country.

As time passed two developments dampened Turkish eagerness to pursue the EU track: first, an eruption of Islamophobia in several crucial European countries (France and Germany), which meant that Turkish membership in the EU would not come about soon, if ever, no matter how many policy gymnastics demanded by the Europeans were acceded to by Ankara in its futile effort to satisfy EU admission criteria; and secondly, in light of these locked EU gates, it seemed increasingly sensible for the Turkish government to let go of national hopes and expectations of soon becoming part of Europe, while not altogether abandoning the Turkish goal of eventually being accepted by the EU. With this understanding, Turkish foreign policy began to pay increasing attention to an attractive array of non-European diplomatic options.

The principal architect of Turkish foreign policy throughout this exploratory period was Ahmet Davutoglu, first as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and for the last two years as Foreign Minister. Turkey has been extremely fortunate to have the benefit of Davutoglu’s deep historical, political, and cultural understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie on the country’s horizons, and the main political leaders of the AKP, especially Prime Minister Recip Teyyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, deserve credit for appreciating and supporting Davutoglu’s diplomatic vision, which inevitably has given rise to domestic controversy and is not without risks. It is rare for a major government to put its trust in such an outstanding intellectual and morally upright personality as Davutoglu, someone who did not emerge from either the corridors of power or the enclaves of economic privilege, was not beholden to any special interests, and seemingly harbored no political ambitions beyond a professed interest in returning to academic life at the earliest possible time to fulfill his dream of establishing and shaping a world class university as a learning community responsive to his vision of humane politics and ecumenical culture. Davutoglu combines a brilliant political mind with astounding energy. He is endowed with the skills of a seasoned diplomat, which is rather amazing considering his prior absence of government service. Beyond these capabilities, what is most impressive about this Davutoglu phenomenon is the innovative diplomatic orientation that is daring and  extraordinarily attuned to the times. So far it has taken full advantage of opportunities for expanding Turkish influence and beneficial economic relations. Davutoglu also appreciates the importance of skilled institutional support for Turkish foreign policy, and exhibits an administrative resolve to build an energetic and competent Turkish Foreign Ministry that understands the role of soft power in the pursuit of peace and justice in the region and the world.

In some respects, Davutoglu’s arrival on the scene was timed perfectly for the enactment of such a vision. The Cold War alliance rigidities no longer made sense in the altered conditions of the new century. This freed countries in the Middle East from the constraints of bipolarity, thereby clearing space for diplomatic maneuvers. Davutoglu also realized that the Middle East due to its oil reserves, the dangers of further nuclear proliferation, the persistence of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the challenge to Western interests by a resurgent Islam was becoming the new strategic fulcrum of struggle with respect to the unfolding of world history. In this role, the region was superseding Europe that had been the scene of both world wars in the 20th century and remained the prime strategic site of struggle throughout the Cold War. There was also the widespread appreciation that festering regional tensions posed dangers for Turkey and others, and harmed with prospects for trade,  investment, and stability. Davutoglu’s style and approach seemed designed to work wonders in such a regional setting. First of all, Davutoglu made clear that his goal was not victory, but accommodation and reconciliation based on respect and mutual benefit, expressed vividly by the phrases ‘zero conflict with neighbors’ and ‘zero-problems foreign policy.’ This approach was dramatically put into practice in relation to Syria, replacing border and policy tensions during prior decades with open borders, an outcome that could not have been anticipated before it happened. Of course, the brutal repression of the Syrian uprising in recent weeks has posed unanticipated and awkward difficulties for Turkey, showing that turbulence of regional politics can nullify seemingly successful conflict-resolving initiatives.

Similarly with Iran, rather than hide behind a wall of fear and hostility, Turkey has refused to be dragged into the confrontational approach insisted upon by Washington and Tel Aviv, seeking along with Brazil to find a pathway to mutual acceptance on the hot button issue of Iran’s contested nuclear program. In reaction, there was much annoyance voiced by those governments that wanted to lend credibility to the military option. Turkey was harshly criticized for moving out of ‘its lane’ by an arrogant foreign policy commentator in the United States. The imperial pretension here is embarrassingly manifest: Turkey’s lane is supposed to be subservience to the hegemonic role of the United States (and Israel) even in the region where it is located, and even taking into account that if war breaks out Turkey’s political and economic interests will be greatly harmed. While avoiding an abrasive response to a steady stream of criticism from Washington, Turkey has made it clear that it will continue to act as an independent state pursuing its goals on the basis of its values and interests, and is no longer prepared to defer automatically to the United States in the manner that had been the practice during the Cold War. To be a geopolitical poodle seemed somewhat more justifiable in that context as there did exist a shared fear of Soviet expansion that needed American military capabilities to deter and contain.

Of course this litany of praise does not mean that everything Davutoglu tried has succeeded, or that there are not still unmet challenges. To attempt as much as he has in such a short time is remarkable, and has been recognized even by the mainstream magazine Foreign Policy, that listed Davutoglu as seventh on the list of the 100 top world thinkers in all fields, placing him immediately behind Celso Amorim, Brazil’s much admired foreign minister. It was appropriate that these two individuals should be rated as the two most highly rated statesmen in the world, and far ahead of such geopolitical heavyweights as those making foreign policy on behalf United States and China. I am not enamored of such evaluations overall, but the acknowledgement of Davutoglu’s and Amorim’s achievements as compared to the foreign ministers representing every other country seems to me to be deserved, and is a revealing acceptance of the dramatic Turkish (and Brazilian) rise to prominence  on the global stage of diplomacy.

If we consider the unmet challenges, probably the foremost one remains the Israel/Palestine conflict. Davutoglu made a determined effort to engage Israel constructively in several respects. Davutoglu offered Turkey’s services as a truly credible broker to help negotiate a sustainable peace between Syria and Israel, including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There was progress for a while, even some hope of an agreement for a brief period, but the process was a casualty of Israel’s aggressive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, and some bitterness between the two countries ensued as a result of Erdogan’s dramatic condemnation of Israel’s conduct at the World Economic Forum. It was also never clear that Israel was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights, removing its settlements and settlers, as well as the economic infrastructure that has evolved over the more than forty years of occupation.

Daringly, in the aftermath of the Hamas electoral victory in Gaza at the start of 2006, Turkey at the urging of Davutoglu explored the possibilities of treating Hamas as a political actor rather than leaving them out in the cold being branded as ‘terrorist.’ Although these initiatives were widely endorsed throughout the world as constructive, Israel was not ready to move in either of these directions, and so neither was the United States (despite having previously urged Hamas to compete in the Gaza elections, and thereby shift their resistance to Israeli occupation from a violent track to a political one) but who could say it was not worth the effort to try. If it had succeeded, the most acute Palestinian misery in Gaza would almost certainly have been lessened, and some kind of wider reconciliation between the two peoples might not seem as remote as it now appears to be. Davutoglu’s attempts with regard to Syria and Hamas had they succeeded would have unquestionably been beneficial for the region, and were well worth the attempt.

Less controversial and not as salient, but equally impressive as a departure from the earlier Turkish norm for diplomatic engagement, have been Davutoglu’s initiatives in the Balkans and Caucasus, seeking to overcome hostile relations in these troubled regions. Perhaps, his most notable success in these settings was to host an amicable meeting between Bosnia and Serbia, two states formed from the carcass of the former Yugoslavia that had treated each other as enemies ever since the struggles of the 1990s when Serbia promoted secession of the Serb minority and supported systematic ethnic cleansing of genocidal proportions in Bosnia. Not only was the meeting a surprising success, but also an agreement was reached to have annual gatherings in the spirit of confidence-building between these previously hostile neighbors.

This diplomatic outreach has produced mainly benefits for Turkey. I believe it has contributed to a growing sense of Turkish self-esteem that reaches backwards in time to the Ottoman glory days and forward to establish Turkey as a major regional presence with significant global standing and respect. This status was reflected in Turkey’s election to the Security Council for the first time. Turkish hard- core secularists have given this diplomacy a mixed reception, registering complaints about alienating Turkey previously closest allies, United States and Israel, without achieving offsetting gains. Secularists have also objected to what they view as an overly friendly relationship forged with Iran, which is regarded as an anti-secular theocracy. But over time, Turkey’s rising regional stature and domestic economic success has diluted such opposition.

The personal achievements of the Davutoglu’s diplomacy has been reinforced by the wider impacts on the region of Turkey’s domestic stability and pragmatic adaptation to the world economic recession. Turkey has become a trusted diplomatic partner throughout the region. In this period of upheaval in the Arab world, Turkey offers a model worth learning from, if not emulating, while of course affirming the autonomy and distinctiveness of each national experience. Turkey is especially admired for the way it has blended a democratizing leadership with Islamic leanings with respect for the societal pluralism and secular principles. In this regard, Turkey offers a positive example of accommodating Muslim values and national and cultural traditions that contrast with negative models of repression, rigidity, and abject submission to neoliberal globalization. Turkey has avoided the fate that has befallen Iran as a consequence of its outright subordination of politics to religious authoritarianism, as well as overcoming the anti-religious suppression of fundamentalist secular regimes.

In the end, the future for Turkey remains uncertain. There are still unresolved problems that could create internal conflict and crisis, including the issue of Kurdish rights and the unresolved conflict over the future of Cyprus, as well as the struggle between the regime and its domestic enemies that has led to disturbing large-scale roundups of opponents charged with political crimes and to the harassment of critical journalists. Relations with Israel remain tense in the stalemated efforts to restore normalcy between the two countries in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident of 31 May 2010 when a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza was attacked in international waters and nine of the political activists and humanitarian workers on board were killed by Israeli commandos. Perhaps, most threatening of all to this Turkish vision of a politically friendly and economically prosperous region is a continuing fear that the encounter with Iran might yet lead to a most destructive war. Finally, the spillover from the Arab tumult could produce a variety of negative effects due to Euro-American military intrusions as the ongoing intervention in Libya suggests, and while this situation presented Turkey with opportunities to serve as a peacemaker, its main effect so far has been to generate dangerous geopolitical tensions within and beyond the region.

All in all, Turkey has emerged from the first decade of the 21st century as a pivotal country in world affairs, often spoken of in the exalted terms as deserving to be now regarded as a junior BRIC, and operating regionally and globally in a manner that is exemplary in many respects. Turkey cannot alone overcome the continuing global leadership deficit, but its diplomacy during the last decade casts a bright glow on a darkening sky. Turkey more than any other country in this period is providing the world with a set of blueprints that depicts the contours of what benign global leadership could become in this period. As argued here such leadership is urgently needed to cope with the destructive sides of a heightened globalization and with the unmet challenges of a series of environmental, ethical, and political threats to the present and future wellbeing of the peoples of the region and the world.

Observing the 63rd Nakba

15 May

The latest news reports that at least 14 were Palestinians killed and scores more than that number injured by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition against Nakba demonstrators at confrontations near the Israeli borders with Lebanon (Ras Maroun), Syria (Golan Heights), Gaza, and West Bank. An immediate reaction is to contrast sophisticated Israeli non-lethal crowd control when dealing with settler violence and the lethal responses to Palestinian resistance politics in these four distinct settings. All in all, what is exhibited by these encounters is an upsurge of Palestinian militancy, perhaps a prelude to a third intifada, and the continuity of Israeli reliance on excessive force designed to punish and intimidate, which is a characteristic severe violation of Israel’s duties as an occupying power as defined by international humanitarian law. 

One of the many signs of the growing worldwide movement in support of the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and elemental morality is the increased international awareness of the Nakba. On this 63rd anniversary of the catastrophic Palestinian experience since 1948 when an escaping and expelled 760,000 Palestinians (now this dispossessed population has grown to 4.7 million; the 160,000 Palestinians who managed to stay behind in what became Israel now number 1.3 million) there is an encouraging sense that the destiny of the Palestinian people has entered a more hopeful phase: the Arab Spring, combined with earlier political developments in Turkey and Lebanon, have shifted the regional balance toward a greater identification with the Palestinian people and their just claims under international law and morality; the growing BDS worldwide campaign has extended the symbolic battlefield in the Legitimacy War against Israeli occupation, and related policies of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, barrier wall, blockade, settlements; the decision by the recently unified Palestinian leadership to seek acknowledgement of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations this September opening possibilities for further motivating the international community to live up to its responsibilities to address Palestinian grievances that have gone unanswered for these 63 years of UN endorsement of the valid establishment of Israel,  despite it being a colonial settler state imposed on and carved out of  historic Palestine; new signs of activism among the Palestinians living under occupation and in exile; the manifest and deplorable double standards involved in supporting the violent imposition of a No Fly Zone on Libya, which is in reality an effort to achieve regime change on behalf of a rebel insurgency of unknown character, while refusing to protect the people of Gaza who have severely victimized by a total blockade that has lasted almost four years, a massive case of deliberate and criminal collective punishment outlawed by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Against such a background the ongoing mobilization of public engagement on behalf of Palestinian rights should enlist all persons of conscience throughout the world, a populist dynamic that is happening and should intensify in the coming year. From this perspective it may soon be the case that the annual observance of the Nakba will be treated as the first truly global holiday the world has known.

Despite these developments there is no indication whatsoever that the Israeli leadership or public has any interest in achieving a sustainable peace or that it is prepared to desist from its expansionist and annexationist approach to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There are a few lonely Israeli voices calling for justice to the Palestinian people. For instance, Gideon Levy calling on Israel to teach ‘a different heritage lesson,’ that of the Nabka. Writing in Haaretz (15.5.2011) Levy writes, “Not only is it possible to permit the Israeli Palestinians to commemorate the day of their heritage and express their national and personal pain, something that should be self-evident, but also to teach us, the Jews, the other narrative..Only on the day that the pupils in Israel also learn about the Nabka, will we know that the earth is no longer burning under our feet..”

The Nakba is of course a day of grievance and resolve for all Palestinians including the several million living in refugee camps for decades in the countries surrounding Palestine and other millions in exile throughout the region and the world. A sustainable peace must realize the rights of all Palestinians, and must be broader and deeper than ending the occupation or establishing a Palestinian state. Palestinian representation to be legitimate and effective must keep faith with this wider Palestinian reality, and not confine its political program to a territorial imaginary. Just as the Palestinian solidarity movement is without boundaries so must be the campaign to achieve full realization of all of the rights of the dispossessed Palestinian people.

To live under Israeli occupation or as refugees for a day is difficult, for a week is unendurable, but to do so for decades is intolerable beyond words of outrage and empathy. We cannot grasp the enormity of this ordeal merely by underscoring the fact that Nakba occurred 63 years ago and that the added cruelty of the occupation started in 1967. Only the existential experience of being on the ground in occupied Palestine or visiting refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria can begin in a modest way to impart an understanding of the suffering and insecurity that is a daily reality of all those so confined, and even this can give rise to a false consciousness of ‘knowing.’ Those that visit can leave, those subject to regimen cannot, and that makes all the difference!

Below is the text of a press release issued in my capacity as Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967, and released under the auspices of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva.


                                                                                          16 May 2011


The UN human rights expert on the 63th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba

16 May 2011
UN human rights expert on the 63th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba

GENEVA – The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Mr. Richard Falk, marks the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophic beginning of the Palestinian tragedy of dispossession and occupation, with the following statement: 

“I commemorate Nakba this year dismayed by the killing of demonstrators observing the day in the occupied Palestinian territory and elsewhere in the region.

Since the Nakba on 15 May 1948 Israel has continuously confiscated Palestinian land in order to build illegal settlements and populate them with Israeli citizens. It is astonishing that no one in the international community has stepped forward, after 63 years, to coerce Israel to comply with international law. Israel’s legacy of ethnic cleansing persists, and manifests itself in an array of challenges to the security of residency for Palestinians living under occupation.

“The construction of the Wall inside the West Bank results in an additional 12% of land confiscation and demolition of Palestinian homes, in flagrant defiance of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice.

“This past week seven Palestinian families in the West Bank village of al-Walaja received demolition orders. This is a reminder that the Nakba continues. Israel’s pursuit of what it calls ‘facts on the ground’ consistently forces Palestinians to abandon their homes, lands, and lives, creating a reality better understood as virtual annexation. 

“This is a particularly notable Nakba anniversary, as it coincides with the release of information confirming that Israel secretly revoked as many as 140,000 residency permits of Palestinians between 1967 and 1994. This is not only another violation of Israel’s obligations as the Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention.  It is also a glaring example of several sinister schemes that Israel has employed over the years to rid historic Palestine of its original inhabitants, in order to make space for Israeli citizens.

“The international community needs to take urgent action to compel Israel to end its confiscation and occupation of Palestinian land.” 


In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council designated Richard Falk (United States of America) as the fifth Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The mandate was originally established in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur:

OHCHR Country Page – Occupied Palestinian Territories:

OHCHR Country Page – Israel:

For more information and media requests, please contact Nikki Siahpoush (Tel.: + 41 22 928 9430 / or write to 


Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan?

6 May

             Understanding the Western response to the Arab Spring, a colorful designation of the democratizing movements of varying character that have rocked the foundations of the Arab world, is an ongoing process.  These movements are also seen as posing possibly serious threats to the structure of economic and strategic interests associated with long standing American and European influence in the region.  On the surface after some obvious hesitation, even ambivalence, the liberal democratic governments of the West, headed by the United States, declared their support for the Arab Spring, and even mounted a ‘humanitarian intervention’ (disguised as a No Fly Zone to protect the Libyan civilian population so as to discourage Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council) to help the rebels prevail in their civil war against the Qaddafi regime. Everywhere in the region the political outcome of these unfinished uprisings remain shrouded in multiple doubts.


Having just visited Egypt for a week I came away with this dual sense that the revolutionary dynamics have produced remarkable results that form a glorious chapter of Egyptian history, but also that there are a variety of dark forces that are working under the radar to contain if not reverse this exhilirating democratizing momentum. In the foreground was the widespread acknowledgement by all sectors of public opinion in Cairo that the more reflective governing policy is of popular sentiments the more likely is a definite adjustment of diplomatic stance with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This stance is already evident in the opening of the Rafah Crossing and in the robust Egyptian encouragement of Palestine Authority/Hamas reconciliation.


Looking from outside, I encountered one brief insight into real American thinking about the Arab Spring that was for me particularly revealing. It was published in the comment section of the May/June 2011 online website of Foreign Affairs, the most influential voice on foreign policy in the United States. It was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, and opened with this rather startling sentence: “The upheavals in the Middle East had much in common with the recent financial crisis: both were plausible worst-case scenarios whose probability was dramatically underestimated.” What an odd comparison! The equivalence was premised on the negative character of both occurrences, which led the authors to identify the emancipatory movements in the Middle East with the perjorative label of “upheavals,” thereby ignoring the manifest revolutionary and reformist challenges being directed at the established repressive political order. At their worst, these movements could be downgraded to ‘uprisings,’ rather than the image of ‘upheavals’ that mainly suggests purposeless disorder.


The most remarkable aspect, by far, of the Taleb/Blyth comment was to treat these Middle Eastern events as illustrative of unanticipated “worst-case scenarios.” Worst-case? Such a perception only makes sense if it unintentionally reflects the undisclosed underlying strategic consensus that the Arab Winter was far better for the West than the Arab Spring. In effect, that authoritarian government in the region was a necessary correlate of Western grand strategy long built around petropolitics, and more recently extended to the containment of political Islam and sustaining Israeli

regional security goals. Netanyahu and other political leaders in Israel acknowledged as much by their outspoken admission that they were sorry to see the Mubarak regime collapse.


             Nissam Nicholas Taleb is a financial risk analyst who made a wider stir when he published his book Black Swan  a couple of years ago. It has as its central and compelling thesis that there is a pervasive tendency for history to be shaped by unpredicted events, and especially by occurrences that have not taken place in the past. His vivid central metaphor is the assumption that all swans are white because no other color had been seen until the black swan variety was discovered in Australia. This is an interesting alternative approach to what I have been calling ‘the politics of impossibility,’ a phrase meant to suggest that the impossible repeatedly happens, making future studies based on past trends and statistical projections almost certain to be wrong.


            I am not contesting the idea that implausible happenings should be taken into far greater account when contemplating the future. What I am remarking critically upon is the bland classification of the Arab Spring as ‘a worst-case scenario,’ and the fact that such a comment could survive scrutiny from the normally very adept gatekeepers at Foreign Affairs. Is it to be explained as an accidental political oversight or more darkly as a revelation of the mindset so ingrained within the American foreign policy establishment as to be unnoticeable? If the latter, then, it is not surprising that such a phrasing would not even be noticed because it was accurately expressive of the private discourse among foreign policy elites on the impact of these developments. Supportive of this latter interpretation is the fact that this Black Swan comment has remained featured on the Foreign Affairs website.


            It is possible that I am exaggerating a flourish that is nothing more than a slip of the pen! At the very least, however, it should serve as a reminder, if not a warning, that there is not only pro-democracy cheering going on in the Washington situation rooms that shape the foreign policy of Western countries, especially the United States, with respect to what to hope for in the Middle East. As the Chinese supposedly believe: “two persons sleep in the same bed but they have different dreams.”

Hazards and Hopes of Limitless Freedom of Expression

4 May

             One of the glories of the Western Enlightenment, especially as embodied in the lifeblood of political democracies is freedom of expression, the right to give voice in public spaces to unpopular, tasteless, provocative, and even outrageous ideas, and especially those critical of the prevailing political order without fear of retaliation. In the United States particularly the right to express ideas and opinions are extended to symbolic acts such as burning the American flag as a way of dramatizing the repudiation of official policies, or more broadly, the right to challenge the symbolic ascendancy of nationalism and patriotism. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally takes a very broad view of freedom of expression but finds some outer limits. It indicated famously that it would validate laws prohibiting members of an audience from falsely shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. It explained that the likely result is panic and a stampede that can hurt of kill. Even at the height of the Cold War, with McCarthyism creating waves of conformity, the endorsement of Communist ideas were generally allowed, although loyalty oaths for certain types of employment were imposed and actual, and even suspected, Communist Party affiliations were punished both formally and informally. The dividing line in wartime and during periods of national tension is very thin as exemplified in the United States by past laws on seditious speech and required loyalty oaths, which when the crisis expires are often in retrospect disowned as mistakes.


The Rushdie Fatwa


            These issues are often more easily be balanced by delicate legal and politics acrobatics within national political space, but finding a comparable balance globally has become far more precarious, if it is possible at all. The exceedingly difficult nature of the problem became evident to many after Salmon Rushdie in 1988 published Satantic Verses to Western critical acclaim and widespread Eastern censure, climaxing in the issuance of a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 that declared it a duty of Muslims to kill Rushdie and to hold mortally accountable anyone anywhere who was associated with the publication of the book. Demonstrating that such words have deadly consequences, a Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarishi was stabbed to death in 1991, as was an Italian translator of Satanic Verses. In addition, a Norwegian publisher of the book was violently attacked and barely survived. Rushdie himself went into hiding for about a decade with Britain effectively providing twenty-four hour police protection. In most countries with large Muslim populations the book was banned, with the notable exception of Turkey, and bookstores in the West that carried the book were threatened, and several were burned. Obviously, the fatwa had severe harmful effects on a variety of ‘innocent’ persons that carried far beyond Iran, the country of utterance by its supreme leader, that is, if innocence is assessed by Western liberal norms.


In 1998 Iran’s President Mohamed Khatami appeared to withdraw support for the fatwa, and seemed eager to bring to an end the anti-Rushdie worldwide campaign, but the fatwa remains formally in effect as it can only be withdrawn by the person who issued it, and Khomeini had died long before Khatami spoke out even assuming, which is highly unlikely, that the author of the fatwa might have been later inclined to back away from the harshness of the original condemnation. Had Khomeini been alive in 1998 he would have almost certainly reaffirmed the fatwa, and might likely have gone on to challenge Khatami’s qualifications to provide secular leadership for the country. With respect to the treatment of the Rushdie book there exists a definite clash of values and rights. In most countries in the West this publication was immediately treated as an important work of literature by a renowned author whose publication was initially not thought as posing any challenge to freedom of expression, while in many Islamic societies the book was immediately viewed as offensive to deeply held community and religious beliefs as to make its availability and distribution arguably unacceptable, and regarded by public authorities as such a grave threat to public order to lead several governments to ban its publication. This diversity about matters of cultural and religious propriety and the fixing of some limits on free expressions seems inevitable in a state-centric and multi-civilizational world that contains contradictory assessments of the balance between individual freedom and community values. This diversity is an accurate reflection of the world order that currently exists, and is incapable of being persuasively resolved by resort to claimed universal principle. Despite the worldwide rise of human rights, universal norms cannot resolve difficult controversies about rights and values, although almost everywhere except Iran the Khomeini fatwa was treated as a deeply troubling precedent. The fatwa claimed an unreviewable authority to mandate death by unreviewable decree to the author of a book and those who facilitated publication even though in their political space no law was broken or widely endorsed moral position was affronted. This fatwa was indeed a bridge too far!


How to prevent such abuses in the future is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to propose a better response than the ancient encouragement of comity among countries, but this reliance on reciprocal courtesy and respect among sovereign states can hardly be expected to exert much influence on those who act on the basis of genuinely held fundamentalist beliefs about good and evil. It is inevitable that there will at some point arise somewhere on the planet behavior that will give rise elsewhere to the formulation and implementation of efforts to punish or react to controversial ideas that are found offensive within and beyond territory.


The Danish Cartoon Controversy                                                     


            In many ways as insulting to Muslim sensibilities around the world as Satanic Verses, was the Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed in a derogatory manner. In response, riots leading to several deaths took place in Asian countries. The Danish official defensive response to criticism after the event was to call attention to the existence of national penal laws that prohibited blasphemy or discriminatory statements. It was a curious gesture because at the same time the Danish prosecutor declared the inapplicability of these laws in this instance because the cartoons addressed matters of ‘public interest’ whose publication was thus entitled to special protection. Here, there was more at stake than the trouble caused overseas. The cartoons also caused intense discomfort to Muslim minorities living in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. The publication and political debate that followed was properly regarded as confirming the reality of an Islamophobic climate of opinion taking shape in Europe. The Danish response was essentially premised on freedom of expression as insulating even deliberately insulting remarks and images associated with religions and their sanctified leadership. In this respect, Copenhagen was arguing that Islam was not being singled out. Every religion, including Christianity, it was said had been at various times attacked in a manner that could be construed as blasphemous. But what here of the predictable impact of the cartoons, causing violent reactions around the world and intensifying hostility to Muslims within Denmark? Is this not analogous to shouting fire in a crowded theater? That is, the publisher and editor of the Danish newspaper should have anticipated these harmful effects, although some observers have argued that the riots were not the foreseen, and were primarily caused by the cartoons. Seen in this manner, the ensuing violence was mainly the result of opportunistic and irresponsible mainstream religious figures in several Muslim countries seizing the inflamed moment by agitating mobs to bolster their own personal influence. Unlike Rushdie, who acted perfectly reasonably, given his British residence and citizenship, the Danish provocation should arguably have been avoided by self-censorship, and the violent responses in Asia were exaggerated reactions that also should never have happened. It is generally desirable to encourage free expression without the state administering the limits, but in that case it is up to the state to prevent riots and societal violence.


            The challenge is a difficult one. It could be argued that a stronger civic tradition on Rushdie’s part, but even more so in relation to Khomeini, would have produced self-censorship. Long after the event, Rushdie expressed surprise, and even a tinge of remorse, that his novel had become an occasion for such a violent and enraged backlash. Long after the fact he gave the impression on occasion that he might not have written such a book had he anticipated the consequences for himself and others. In contrast, the Danish newspaper was forewarned of inflammatory effects but went ahead without any hesitation. In effect, self-censorship does not currently protect against the harmful effects of incendiary forms of expression in the hostile and commercially driven, even hateful, environment that exists, and even promotes a culture war against or on behalf of the Muslim world.


Burning the Koran


            The case of Terry Jones, the fundamentalist pastor of a small Christian church in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center, founded in 1996 and serving 50 families, is a dramatic illustration of the dilemmas posed by hateful and irresponsible speech, not by a supreme leader as with Khomeini but by an obscure religious figure who would have remained forever unknown except for his outrageous provocation. The actions of Rev. Jones illustrate the ethical and political challenge in its most vivid form. Jones proclaimed his intention to burn the Koran on the anniversary of September 11 in 2010, even proposing the establishment of an “International Burn a Koran Day.” He had earlier published a booklet entitled “Islam is of the Devil,” and in August 2009 two children from his church were sent home from a local school because of ‘inappropriate dress,’ T-shirts with “Islam is of the Devil” emblazoned in bright letters. The Florida community did what it could to rein Jones in by informal action, denying Jones a burn permit and seeking to cancel the mortgage outstanding on his church. When asked to explain the recent shrinkage in his church membership by 50% Jones cunningly replied, “I think mainly just because the things we’re involved in are just really too hot for your normal Christian and your normal person.” Prior to the burning last month, many urged Jones to refrain, including even General David Petraeus who correctly warned that such anti-Islamic acts would endanger the lives of American troops under his command. And indeed two American soldiers were killed in distant Afghanistan apparently to avenge the Koran burning. Of course, such an incident should be appreciated as a personal tragedy for those singled out, although the American military presence in Afghanistan was likely a contributing cause, and in its own way an unlawful and irresponsible provocation. Should the state step in and impose a punishment or forbid such speech? On what authority? Should the idea of hate speech be associated with hostility to a book (as distinct from a person) that is treated as sacred by more than a billion persons? Is its denigration an intolerable incitement to public disorder? Does the answer depend on the national or civilizational setting at a particular historical, or are we now living in such a globalized and networked world as to make geographic boundaries of acceptable expression meaningless?


The Manning Case


            This brings me, finally, to the sad and illuminating case of Bradley Manning, a young intelligence analyst serving in the military. While Terry Jones is a free man despite deliberately generating violent reactions to speech and symbolic deeds known to be deeply offensive to many people, Manning seemingly acted out of conscience and belief facilitating the release of thousands of documents that had been classified by the U.S. Government, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, confidential State Department cables, and other classified materials. As with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers almost 40 years earlier, the evident intention of Manning was to inform people about the realities of government policies that were producing death and destruction in foreign countries. It seems that Ellsberg, also a government security specialist with privileged access and status, wanted the American people to know some core truths about the planning and perpetration of the Vietnam War that were dramatically at variance with what the public was being told about the war by the government. With Manning his range of motivations is not fully known, but he seems also to have become deeply disenchanted with the unlawful and immoral manner with which the United States was using its military power around the world, and the extent to which it was hiding war crimes behind heavy curtains of unwarranted secrecy. Manning has not yet been prosecuted, but has been held in demeaning and cruel conditions for many months. Without alluding to any extenuating circumstances, President Obama has not only said in response to a question from a journalist in the face of protests by human rights groups and others about Manning’s treatment in military prison that it was “appropriate and meets our basic standards,” but also was later caught on tape prejudging the case by saying in a private conversation at a fundraising dinner that Manning “broke the law,” and should be prosecuted.


The Manning case is a further stain on the moral reputation of the United States. It exhibits a vindictiveness toward a citizen, and a low ranking member of the armed forces, who steps out of line, seeking to allow a wider public of a democratic society to know a series of ‘inconvenient truths.’ Perhaps, there is some justification for some secrecy in diplomatic communication, and thus for laws that punish improper disclosures, or leaks. But each case needs to be judged in relation to its specific context. This case has many extenuating circumstances, and calls for leniency and empathy, taking account of Manning’s motivation and the improprieties exposed, rather than the vindictive approach so far taken by American officialdom. Let us remember that high government officials often leak classified information for their own purposes, including the exertion of influence on the media treatment of controversial policy issues. They almost never suffer any adverse consequences, enjoying what amounts to de facto impunity. What is striking about the Ellsberg/Manning disclosures is the whistle blowing character of their actions, that is, essentially a contribution to public wellbeing. In Manning’s case the documents given to WikiLeaks, including a classified video of a military incident in Afghanistan (an Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters News employees and several civilians without any indication of a military target), as well as many documents confirming U.S. association with war crimes, government lawbreaking, and serious corruption. Such behavior deserves to be known by the American public and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Rather than condemning the disclosures, the behavior disclosed is what should have produced presidential anger and appropriate action.


In a healthy democratic society such behavior would be protected if the intentions of ‘unlawful’ were shown to be positive and reasonable, and no unwarranted harm could come to named individuals. According to reports, the documents released by WikiLeaks were carefully screened in advance to avoid targeting individuals. Complex modern societies are rendered more secure by the safety valve of whistle blowing, and at the very least, benign leadership should moderate the implementation of secrecy laws by an acknowledgement of the huge public benefits of and needs for governmental transparency. In this instance President Obama’s inappropriate assertion of Manning’s guilt prior to a criminal trial under the auspices of a military tribunal further highlights the degree to which statist interests outweigh both justice to an individual charged with serious crimes (remember that innocence until proven guilty by a court of law operating according to due process is a fundamental right) and disregards the interest of the citizenry in the greatest possible transparency on the part of their government. If due process prevails even a military tribunal should conclude that Obama’s statements have been sufficiently prejudicial, after all he is commander in chief whose views are not likely to be contradicted in a military venue venerating hierarchy and chains of command, to have the case against Manning thrown out. Such an outcome is also justified as a result of severe and sustained pre-trial abuse that cumulatively amounts to ‘torture,’ or what the Bush presidency chillingly called the techniques of ‘enhanced interrogation.’


            The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in 1885: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” [Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘Of the New Idol’]

In the Manning case this coldness is exemplified, as is the lie that because the state is the people, the people have no needs to know beyond what the state is prepared to disclose, however incriminating the information. This coldness of the state is expressed by criminalizing truth telling, branding it as virtually a form of treason, whereas a humane political community would seek to learn from those in their midst who are brave and dedicated enough to reveal to their citizen comrades what is hidden because it should never have been allowed to take place.  To punish righteousness is the seminal sin of organized power that the Bible warns about over and over again, and yet the ears of the modern cold state remain are plugged on principle, with the help of laws that stifle those forms of freedom of expression needed to ensure a lawful government. The same state that will go to great lengths to claim virtue for itself because it tolerates criticism will spare no effort to punish those who dare to expose its criminality. This punitive reflex must be curbed if democracy is to flourish in the 21st century.