Archive | January, 2012

Nuclear Free Middle East: Desirable, Necessary, and Impossible

28 Jan

Nuclear Free Middle East: Desirable, Necessary, and Impossible

            Finally, there is some argumentation in the West supportive of a nuclear free zone for the Middle East. Such thinking is still treated as politically marginal, and hardly audible above the beat of the war drums. It also tends to be defensively and pragmatically phrased as in the NY Times article by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull (I.15..2012) with full disclosure title, “Preventing a Nuclear Iran.” The article makes a prudential argument against attacking Iran based on prospects of a damaging Iranian retaliation and the inability of an attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear program at an acceptable cost. The most that could be achieved for would be a short delay in Iran’s acquisition of weaponry, and maybe not even that. An attack seems likely to create irresistible pressure in Iran to everything possible to obtain a nuclear option with a renewed sense of urgency.

            This argument is sensibly reinforced by pointing to respected public opinion surveys that show Israeli attitudes to be less war-inclined than had been generally assumed. According to a Israeli recent poll, only 43% of Israelis favoring a military strike, while 64% favored establishing a nuclear free zone (NFZ) in the region that included Israel. In effect, then, establishing a NFZ that includes Israel would seem politically feasible, although not a course of action that would be entertained by the current Tel Aviv governmental political climate. We can conclude that the silence of Washington with respect to such an alternative approach to the dispute with Iran confirms what is widely believed, namely, that the U.S. Government adheres to the official Israeli line, and is not particularly sensitive to the wishes of the Israeli public even to the extent of serving America’s own strong national interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

            A variant of NFZ thinking has recently been attributed to Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and once the head of Saudi intelligence. He too argues that NFZ is a better alternative than the military option, which he contends should be removed from the table. Prince Turki insists that sanctions have not altered Iran’s behavior. His proposal is more complex than simply advocating a NFZ. He would favor sanctions against Iran is there is convincing evidence that it is seeking nuclear weapons, but he also supports sanctions imposed on Israel if it does not disclose openly the full extent of its nuclear weapons arsenal.  His approach has several additional features: extending the scope of the undertaking to all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that is, including biological and chemical weapons; establishing a nuclear security umbrella for the region by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; and seeking a resolution of outstanding conflicts in the region in accordance with the Mecca Arab proposals of 2002 that calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, as well as the political and commercial normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

            Prince Turki warns that if such an arrangement is not soon put in place, and Iran proceeds with its nuclear program, other countries in the region, including Turkey, are likely to be drawn into an expensive and destabilizing nuclear arms race. In effect, as with Telhami and Kull, Prince Turki’s approach is designed to avoid worst case scenarios, but is framed mainly in relation to the future of the region rather than confined to the Israel/Iran confrontation.  

It concretely urges establishing such a framework with or without Israeli support at a conference of parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty scheduled for later in the year in Finland. Israel, not a party to the NPT, has not indicated its willingness to attend the conference at this point. As long ago as the 1995 NPT Review Conference the Arab countries put forward a proposal to establish in the Middle East a WMD free zone, but it has never been acted upon at any subsequent session. Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, has consistently taken the position over the years that a complete peace involving the region must precede any prohibition directed at the possession of nuclear weapons.

            The NFZ or WMDFZ initiatives need to be seen in the setting established by the NPT regime. An initial observation involves Israel’s failure to become a party to the NPT coupled with its covert nuclear program that resulted in the acquisition of the weaponry with the complicity of the West as documented in Seymour Hersh’s 1991 The Samson Option.  Such a pattern of behavior needs to be contrasted with that of Iran, a party to the NPT that has reported to and accepted, with some friction, inspections on its territory by the Western oriented International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has consistently denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but has insisted on its rights under Article IV of the treaty to exercise “..its inalienable develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination..” Iran has been under constant threat of an attack by Israel, the target for several years of Israel’s dirty low intensity war, the target of a Congressionally funded destabilization program of the United States reinforced by a diplomacy that constantly reaffirms the relevance of the military option, and operates in a political climate that excludes consideration of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. What is surprising under these circumstances is that Iran has not freed itself from NPT obligation by exercising its option to withdraw from the treaty as it entitled to do by Article X provided only that it gives notice to other treaty parties and an explanation of its reasons for withdrawing.

            Comparing these Israeli and Iran patterns of behavior with respect to nuclear weapons, it is difficult not to conclude that it is Israel, not Iran, that should be subjected to sanctions, and pressure to participate in denuclearizing negotiations. After all, Israel acquired the weaponry secretly, has not been willing to participate in the near universal discipline to the NPT, and has engaged in aggressive wars repeatedly against its neighbors resulting in long-term occupations. It can be argued that Israel was entitled to enhance its security by remaining outside the NPT, and thus is acting within its sovereign rights. This is a coherent legalistic position, but we should all realize by now that the NPT is more a geopolitical than a legal regime, and that Iran, for instance, would be immediately subject to a punitive response if it tried to withdraw from the treaty. In other words geopolitical priorities override legal rights in the NPT setting.

         The NPT is shaped by its geopolitical nature. This is best illustrated by the utter refusal of the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, to fulfill its obligation under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons unanimously affirmed in its findings the legal imperative embodied in Article VI: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control.” This finding that has been completely ignored by the nuclear weapons states (who had earlier made a furious failed effort to dissuade the UN General Assembly from seeking guidance from the ICJ with respect to the legal status of nuclear weapons and the obligations of the NPT). The refusal to uphold these obligations of Article VI would certainly appear to be a material breach of the treaty that authorizes any party to regard the treaty as void. Again the international discourse on nuclear weapons is so distorted that it is a rarity to encounter criticism of its discriminatory application, its double standards as between nuclear and non-nuclear states, and its geopolitical style of selective enforcement. In this regard it should be appreciated that the threat of military attack directed at Iran resembles reliance on the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war that had been used to justify aggression against Iraq in 2003.

            In summary, it is of utmost importance to avoid a war in the Middle East arising from the unresolved dispute about Iran’s nuclear program. One way to do this is to seek a NFZ or a WMDFZ for the entire region that includes the participation of Israel. What has given this approach a renewed credibility for the West is that it seems the only way to avoid a lose/lose war option, that it possesses some prudential appeal to change minds in Tehran and Tel Aviv, and also to engage Washington in a less destructive and self-destructive course of action. Whether this prudential appeal is sufficiently strong to overcome the iron cage of militarism that guides policy choices in Israel and the United States remains doubtful. Thinking outside the militarist box remains a forbidden activity, partly reflecting the domestic lock on the political and moral imagination of these countries by their respective military industrial media think tank complexes.

            I would conclude this commentary with three pessimistic assessments that casts a dark shadow over the regional future:

(1)  an NFZ or WMDFZ for the Middle East is necessary and desirable, but it almost certainly will not placed on the political agenda of American-led diplomacy relating to the conflict;

(2)  moves toward nuclear disarmament negotiations that have been legally mandated and would be beneficial for the world, and for the nuclear weapons states and their peoples, will not be made in the current atmosphere that blocks all serious initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons;

(3)   the drift toward a devastating attack on Iran will only be stopped by an urgent mobilization of anti-war forces in civil society, which seems unlikely given other preoccupations.  



Stop Warmongering in the Middle East

20 Jan


            The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states.  Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.


            It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.


            This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.


Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.


            To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.


            So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!


            We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.  


            It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.


            These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and no where more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.


            Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.


            But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attacked is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.


            The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form.  Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial  (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.


            It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.


            And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.


            There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.    

Healing Wounds: Seeking Closure for the 1915 Armenian Massacres

12 Jan


Richard Falk & Hilal Elver


            Recently the National Assembly, France’s lower legislative chamber, voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in 1915, imposing a potential prison sentence of up to one year as well as a maximum fine of 45, 000 Euros. The timing of this controversial initiative seemed to represent a rather blatant Sarkhozy bid for the votes of the 500,000 French citizens of Armenian descent in the upcoming presidential election. It follows similar pre-election initiatives in 2001 when the French Parliament officially declared that the massacres of Armenians in 1915 were an instance of genocide and in 2006 when the Assembly first voted to criminalize Armenian genocide denial, an initiative that never became law because the French Senate failed to give its assent. And this hopefully may happen again with respect to this recent Assembly move.


            Predictably, the French action was perceived by Turkey as a hostile provocation. The Turkish government, which has so far refused to describe the 1915 events as ‘genocide,’ immediately reacted, warning France of adverse economic consequences if this initiative went forward, and has reacted by withdrawing its ambassador and freezing inter-governmental economic relations. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Teyyip Erdogan, denounced the action of the French Assembly that had been initiated by a prominent member of Sarkhozy’s party. Erdogan, known for his forthrightness, advised the French Government that instead of criminalizing the Turkish unwillingness to acknowledge the 1915 events as genocide, France should busy itself with determining whether its harsh tactics used during the 1950s in Algeria, and supposedly responsible for up to a million Algerian deaths during the long French campaign to hold onto to its north African colony constituted genocide.


            There are many issues raised by this turn for the worse in French-Turkish relations, and its embittering dialogue about historic events. Perhaps, the most important, is whether it is ever justifiable to criminalize the expression of an opinion about a set of past occurrences that goes against a societal consensus. It is true that genocide or Holocaust denial can be hurtful to those who are survivors or descendants of survivors, and identify with the victims of such severe wrongdoing, and its attendant suffering, but whether the sensitivities of these communities should ever be protected by the criminal law seems doubtful, conflicting with freedom of expression and censuring inquiries into historical events that are unpopular and controversial, but occasionally illuminating enough to challenge conventional wisdom. It would seem that informed agreement and social pressure should be sufficient to deter all but the most extremist instances of denial if a genuine and sufficient consensus exists as to the locus of responsibility and the character of the events. In this instance, such criminalization is especially unfortunate as even if the facts of the 1915 events are reasonably well established, the relevance of genocide is certainly ambiguous and somewhat problematic, especially from a legal perspective.


            Against this background, where Turkey has not yet been willing to describe the events of 1915 as ‘genocide’ the criminalization of the denial is more likely to raise tensions that encourage a long overdue accommodation. Of course, there are related irritants to the Turkish-Armenian relationship, especially the unresolved conflict over the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan. Among thoughtful Turks there continues to be some questioning of the character of the World War I events in question, not about their tragic character or even a willingness to condemn Ottoman wrongdoing, but there remains a Turkish governmental and societal reluctance to pin the label of genocide on these occurrences. It is well known that the Armenian diaspora has long been seeking to induce key governments around the world to make formal declarations to the effect that what happened in 1915 was genocide, and some 25 governments have done so, as have many lesser political entities such as sub-divisions of the state or cities. Such efforts to legalize historical truth, as distinct from mourning historical events, is itself

a political gimmick to circumvent diplomacy and accommodation. But to criminalize genocidal denial represents a still further escalation of Armenian efforts to resolve the controversy over this potent g-word through branding of denial as a crime. We would insist that rather than resolving the conflict, such steps make a politics of reconciliation that much more difficult for both parties.


            The discourse on genocide has always been confusing, multi-layered, and often toxic. The word ‘genocide’ is weighted down by its implications, explaining both why there is such a strong impulse to invoke it and an equally intense effort to deny its applicability.  We need to distinguish genocide as a crime in international law from the political assessment of historic events as genocide due to a clear pattern of deliberate killing of an ethnic or religious group. And such a political assessment needs to be further distinguished from a moral condemnation of a pattern designed to destroy systematically a beleaguered minority that might properly be described as ‘genocidal,’ or what has been more recently described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the setting of Bosnia, which is distinct from the judicially certified ‘genocide’ that shook the foundations of Rwanda in 1994.


            From a legal perspective it is not plausible to call these events in 1915 as genocide. After all, the word did not exist until coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1943, and the crime was not so delimited until the Genocide Convention came into force in 1951. Beyond this, and more telling than this technical observation, is the fact that the indictments at Nuremberg did not charge the surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, but convicted these Germans of ‘crimes against humanity’ for their connection with genocidal conduct, and even here only if the alleged criminal acts were associated with World War II, found by the tribunal to be an unlawful war, and thus a ‘crime against peace.’ If the Holocaust perpetrated against Jews and others did not seem to the Nuremberg tribunal to be a distinct crime, then it seems untenable to regard the Armenian tragedy as embodying the crime of genocide. When the UN expert body, the International Law Commission, put into words what was done at Nuremberg it explicitly affirmed the Roman dictum prohibiting retroactivity: no crime without law (nulla crimen sine lege).  Such a dictum touches on a fundamental component of justice to the effect that behavior, however detestable from moral and political points of view, is not a ‘crime’ until so designated in advance of the acts in question by a competent judicial body. This principle has never been contested, and it pertains to the genocide debate whenever attached to pre-1951 events, whether the Armenian experience or to the destruction of a variety of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world or to the barbarous institution of slavery.


            At the same time, if what took place in 1915 were to have occurred anytime after the Genocide Convention became effective, it would seem beyond any reasonable doubt to qualify as genocide. The International Court of Justice in the course of examining the Bosnian allegations of genocide, put the bar high by requiring written or documentary evidence of a clear intent by Serbian governmental leaders to commit the crime of genocide that was not available (except the particular incident involving the horrific massacre of several thousand Bosnian males at Srbrenica in 1995 was declared to be genocide). While such evidence was difficult to provide to the satisfaction of the World Court in relation to this notorious Bosnian experience of the 1990s partly as a result of a questionable arrangement with the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia not to release documentary evidence tying the Belgrade regime to the anti-Muslim cleansing operations in Bosnia, the situation with respect to Armenia is different. Unlike Bosnia, documentary evidence from the ruling Ottoman authorities does exist in sufficient quantity and quality to make a persuasive argument to the effect that ‘genocide’ took place in 1915, but because the events occurred 36 years before genocide formally became a crime such a showing is legally irrelevant.


            If this reasoning is accepted, it has important implications, including establishing some political space for bringing closure to the issue: Turkey could formally declare that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 took place in the 1960s it would have been genocide, while those on the Armenian side could accept the idea that the 1915 massacres were not then genocide, but that their extent, character, and evidence would constitute genocide if taking place now, or anytime after 1951. The French move, if indeed it becomes law, is irresponsible in the extreme as it disallows the explorations of constructive ways that the violence and suffering of the past might be mitigated. As post-apartheid South Africa has illustrated, it might sometimes be politically and morally preferable for a victimized people to opt for ‘truth and reconciliation’ than to insist on the criminalization of past wrongs however heinous.


            It seems to me that such an approach would have mutual benefits. It would bring a conflict that has endured for decades nearer to closure. It would allow Armenians to regard their victimization as genocide from a political and moral perspective, while enabling Turkey to make such a concession without fearing such legal implications as Armenian demands for reparations and the recovery of lost property. Turkish good faith and remorse could be further expressed by appropriating funds for the establishment of a major museum of Armenian History and Culture in Ankara, by recognizing April 24th as a day of Armenian remembrance, and by encouraging honest historical inquiry into these horrific occurrences.


            Of course, such a politics of reconciliation can only have any hope of succeeding if there is a large display of good will and a sincere search by Turkish and Armenian leaders for positive relations between the two peoples. It is to be expected that extremists on both sides would strenuously object to such an accommodation. Admittedly, there would not be complete satisfaction even among that largely silent majority of Armenians and Turks who might welcome a pacifying development. What would be created is valuable– a new opening that would allow a more benevolent future to unfold for both peoples that could include a joint cathartic reexamination of the past. Such a development might add to the solemnity and dignity of the expected worldwide observances in 2015 of the 100th anniversary of these events and avoid these occasions from being little more than sad remembrances and shrill recriminations.  


Remembering the Best and Worst of 2011

3 Jan

             2011 was an exciting and pivotal year in many respects, although its main outcomes will remain inconclusive for years to come.  We will learn in 2012 whether we are moving closer to fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and goals or are trying to interpret and overcome a recurrence of disappointment and demoralization with respect to progressive change in world affairs. The stakes for some societies, and for humanity, have rarely been higher.


             Undoubtedly, the most dramatic moments of the prior year were associated with those many remarkable happenings that collectively became known as the Arab Spring, a complex, varied, and even contradictory phenomenon that did not occur in an historical vacuum. There were many antecedent events, as well as prior heroes and victims, known and unknown, and numerous identified and unidentified villains. Mohamed Bouazizi’s extraordinary self-immolation on December 17, 2010 in the interior Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid provided a catalyzing experience that will never be forgotten by those longing for justice and change.  This suicide achieved much more than highlight personal tragedy, although this sad ending of a young besieged life was itself a most sorrowful occurrence. Bouazizi’s death awakened the Tunisian public to an intolerable set of national conditions that pertained to the whole society. With explosive spontaneity Bouazizi’s tragic death generated Tunisian uprisings throughout the country that led quickly and surprisingly to the fall of the dictatorial and corrupt 23 year old regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a mere five weeks later, a startling course of events that provided a spark for volcanic action in Egypt, and indeed the entire region.


            The brave and transformative Egyptian demonstrations of January 2011, centered in Tahrir Square, contributed to the world many images of populist energy and courage associated with a political awakening of vivid and massive proportions. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt inspired people throughout the region and eventually the world. What was achieved in Tunisia and Egypt reestablished the agency of a mobilized populace that nonviolently challenges an entrenched regime of an oppressive and corrupt character that had endured for some 30 long years.  More than surprising developments in Tunisia and Egypt, regimes regarded as ultra-stable by their Western backers, was the exposure of several distortions embedded in prevalent Orientalist teachings to the effect that Arabs had a slave mentality. In effect, oppressed Arabs were consigned to their unhappy fates because they lacked the will or capacity to embark upon political undertakings to challenge unjust political structures, were reconciled to their subservience, and had no social imaginary that insisted on the dignity of ordinary people and demanded justice for society. In the sharpest contrast, the Tahrir political spectacle exhibited an Arab population prepared to risk death and harsh imprisonment so as to achieve freedom, human rights, democracy, as well as an equitable economic order.


            These were inspiring uprisings that achieved unbelievably successful results, toppling tyrants long entrenched at the pinnacles of state power. Many participants and commentators believed that these extraordinary uprisings were accomplishing revolutionary results by toppling the old regimes and thereby transforming the political setting. Unfortunately, such enthusiasm was a disheartening exaggeration, and definitely remains premature. A revolutionary process implies radically transforming the political, economic, and social structures so as to produce just and democratic societies.  Such work has yet to be done anywhere in the Arab world, and it will not be easy, or accomplished without overcoming formidable and desperate resistance from beleaguered governmental, societal, and international elites that had long benefitted from the old regime, and would stand lose from genuine political reform.


            Tunisia seems to be moving forward toward the realization of its revolutionary promise, although even progress on its road of political reconstruction is slow, uncertain, and replete with twists and turns. Tunisia has not yet experienced what could be fairly called a revolutionary outcome, although it is so far free from a counter-revolutionary backlash. At this time the overall outlook for Tunisia remains exciting and positive. The same cannot now be said for Egypt, which is gripped by a series of deadly unresolved struggles that leaves its future very much in doubt, and makes us wonder whether 2012 will suggest an Egyptian outcome that is, at best, outwardly reformist, while remaining inwardly regressive. It would be a mistake to ignore counter-revolutionary maneuvers and horizons, abetted by external actors that never privately welcomed the Arab Spring and would welcome restoration of the old regimes, if possible with new faces and a political style that was more superficially congenial with democratic procedures.


            And yet many Egyptians continue to struggle on behalf of a revolutionary future. Despite the violence of the Cairo regime without Mubarak they returned in late 2011 to Tahrir Square for a second cycle of demonstrations. The show of unrestrained state violence and cruelty used to crush this renewal of popular demands for democracy, civilian governance, and justice was a reminder that the ouster of Mubarak was the beginning, not the end, of a long and difficult struggle to shape the political future of the country. The Egyptian army that last January seemed almost to greet the fall of Mubarak with a sigh of relief, now seems to be showing its hand as intensely anti-democratic and hostile to fundamental social and economic reforms that might threaten their privileges, but are urgently needed if Egyptian democracy is to become more than a discredited slogan. Also, the domestic situation is complicated by growing tensions between secularists and Islamists as to what sort of role Islam should play in Egypt that are susceptible to manipulation by malevolent outsiders. Although each country in the region is experiencing the Arab Spring in its own way, the form of the Egyptian unfolding, for better or worse, is the one that is most likely to exert a significant influence beyond its borders.


            It must also be admitted that the Arab Spring has already produced its share of extremely disappointing results: Uprisings generated an escalation of oppression in Bahrain, a despondent resignation in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, a destructive and very violent NATO intervention in Libya,  a situation of unresolved chaos and violence in Yemen, and a series of inconclusive bloody encounters in Syria.




            Among the most extraordinary of extra-regional impacts of the events in the Arab world was the totally unanticipated Occupy Movement, starting in Wall Street, but spreading with the speed of an uncontrollable wild fire to cities throughout the United States, and then around the world. The word Occupy was given a radically transformed meaning through this movable feast of radical reclaimings of political space through nonviolent tactics that were confrontational toward the established order, including especially a display of anger about the excesses of capitalism and financial institutions. The movement was indistinct in its contours and goals, seemingly dedicated to the realization of democratic values on a global scale, particularly with respect to the global economy, but without any confidence that desirable ends could be reached by way of conventional politics: elections, political parties, institutional lawmaking, and governmental policies.


            The creativity of the movement was embodied in its radical reliance on pure democracy to manage its own collective behavior, giving equality of participation the highest priority. So far, the Occupy Movements have lacked a clear agenda of substantive initiatives and demands, remained leaderless, and operating without a program or even a consistent spokesperson, but in varying ways deferring to the daily needs and wishes of its militants camped out in dozens of city squares and parks. Whether this kind of politics represents the first stage of a new revolutionary politics capable of both challenging the modern capitalist state and of transforming neoliberal globalization into a robust realization of global democracy is most uncertain at present, but may become clearer throughout 2012.  At the very least, the political imagination of resisters in the West to injustice has been temporarily lifted from the doldrums of passivity and despair. The idea that popular discontent need not await the outcome of normal politics is again credible. Such politics can move to occupy and maybe, just maybe, stay around long enough to mount a political challenge that shakes the foundations of what was triumphantly dubbed ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’ at the end of the Cold War.  We should begin to ask ourselves whether we are witnessing the birthpangs of what I have called ‘anarchism without anarchism.’  Or is this just a political dance that will continue only so long as the music plays?




            There were many other important happenings in 2011, some encouraging, some foreboding, and some ambiguous. Only a few can be mentioned.


            First of all, the speech given by Mohamed Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the UN General Assembly on September 25, putting forward a clear official argument for the first time calling for an acceptance of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty by the United Nations. The forcefulness of the language used by President Abbas exceeded expectations, and was especially impressive in light of the intense campaign of intimidation mounted by Israeli officials and their American counterparts to warn the Palestinians of dire consequences if they persisted with this political initiative. The speech also was political theater at its best, displaying the solidarity of most governments with the Palestinian effort to escape the ordeals of occupation, refugee status, and pervasive exploitation. Abbas’ words were greeted with explosive applause that no other head of state received at last year’s session of the General Assembly.


            As might be expected given the varied conditions of deprivation, not every Palestinian welcomed the PA initiative. There were some well grounded anxieties that any establishment of Palestinian statehood at this time would involve a tacit acceptance of Israeli ‘facts on the ground,’ including settlements, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, and in such a process sacrifice inalienable Palestinian rights. Some Palestinians also worried that such an international acceptance of the PA would inevitable sideline the parent representative body, the PLO, serving as a prelude to bargaining away the rights of Palestinian refugees and exiles, as well as excluding Hamas from any representational role, which would effectively deny the people of Gaza any opportunity to participate in the diplomacy designed to control their future.


            Encouragingly, in October the PA followed up the bold Abbas speech by seeking and gaining membership as a state in UNESCO by an overwhelming  vote of 107-14 despite a barrage of punitive threats and responses by Washington and Tel Aviv (U.S. is committed to withholding 22% of the UNESCO budget for the coming year).  On December 13th the Palestinian flag was raised at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris as Palestine became the 195th  member of the organization. This play of forces at UNESCO is a microcosm of worldwide political sentiments favorable to the Palestinian struggle.


            Despite this victory, it now appears that the PA has again lost its nerve, and is retreating to Ramallah. It seems that the PA will make no further effort to gain recognition as a state by the Security Council or General Assembly or attempt to be accepted as a member of other UN institutions, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. If this retreat materializes, it will encourage the Palestinian people to believe that only politics from below can hope to achieve emancipatory results.


            We must also not lose sight of existential Palestinian hardships and suffering that is something that the people living under occupation or confined in Gaza or refugee camps experience day by day, hour by hour. These miserable conditions experienced by Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza have persisted for decades, and there is no end in sight. Israel continues to expand its settlements in defiance of international law and world public opinion and goes on insisting on its acceptance as ‘a Jewish state’ despite claiming to be the only democratic country in the region, and the only government that treats its citizens on a non-discriminatory basis. This misleading Israeli propaganda hides policies and patterns of governmental conduct that have long been multiply abusive toward the non-Jewish Palestinian minority in Israel that numbers about 1.4 million or about 20% of the total population.


            What the Palestinian people endured in 2011 was mainly experienced as a dismal confirmation of continuity. Perhaps, the Abbas abortive effort at the UN will seem in 2012 to have sounded the deathknell of diplomacy from above as the way forward for the Palestinian people. In its place will grow an increasing reliance on various forms of borderless and nonviolent politics from below. At present, the ever strengthening global solidarity movement encourages such a shift in emphasis. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) is presently the clearest and most encouraging expression of this Palestinian move away from inter-governmental frameworks of conflict solution.  And for BDS maybe 2012 will be the year that sanctions come to reinforce the stunning successes already achieved with respect to boycotts and divestment.





            In 2011, the climate change clock continued to tick. Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising far above safe levels, despite the scientific community’s warnings that the failure to regulate emissions is causing present harm of a severe sort and threatening much worse in the years and decades ahead. By the time such warnings are likely to be heeded because the damage has become so widespread and manifest, it may well be too late, as the effects of a carbon buildup cannot be reversed after certain thresholds are crossed. Already extreme weather in the form of storms, tornados, floods, and droughts have brought devastation and suffering to many societies in the world, especially those most vulnerable due to their geography or poverty. The early effects of global warning have been most severely experienced in sub-Saharan Africa where 33 of the 48 least developed countries are situated. The annual UN conferences on climate change have run up against a stonewall of geopolitical irresponsibility, led by the U.S. refusal to allow any framework of regulation to come into being that imposes obligations on states, burdens the private sector, and questions the cult of consumerism. The EU seems ready to offer the world a more constructive approach to climate change, but whether it can rally enough political support to impose controls on the principal emitters of carbon dioxide remains doubtful. It is crucial that those seeking a just future for humanity do not neglect the challenge of climate change, which is less tangible and immediate in its harmful impact than other concerns, but no less deadly. Without adjustments prior to catastrophic events, ecological and civilizational collapse could make a nightmare of the near future for all peoples living on the planet.




            The meltdown and damage at the Daichi Fukushima nuclear reactor complex initiated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 are a foretaste of what can happen anywhere in the world. For Japan to experience ‘a second Hiroshima’ both deepens the tragedy and is testimony to a sad irony of history. It also challenges Japan and the world to find safer alternatives to nuclear energy to meet the demands of society, and raises questions about the sustainability of consumer-based modernity with its high per capita energy demand. For other countries, especially the United States, the unmonitored huge energy requirements needed to maintain 21st century military establishments is a further aggravating circumstance, with many secondary harmful effects, including accident-prone deep sea oil drilling and the attempted conversion of environmentally devastating tar sands into usable forms of energy. Fukushima exhibited the dire consequences of natural catastrophe abetted by human error and wrongdoing in the form of corporate mendacity relied upon to hide risks from the public and governmental complicity in issuing false reassurances about the extent of the damage and the degree of exposure of the Japanese population to lethal doses of radioactivity in water, food, and air.




            Disturbing, also, were unacceptably belligerent moves by Israel and the United States threatening to wage war against Iran. This appetite for waging war against Muslim countries is making the projected clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophesy as it becomes established as an undeniable historical reality. In the first decade of this century the West has already intervened militarily in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, as well as gearing up for war against Iran, and even threatening to use force in Syria and mounting deadly drone attacks in Pakistan. In all these post-9/11 encounters there was no serious claim of self-defense and no UN mandate except in Libya where a limited protective authority to use force was approved by the UN Security Council, and later improperly converted by NATO into an instrument to sway the internal play of forces in an internal struggle within Libya. These were each unlawful wars that inflicted devastation, heavy casualties, and massive displacement on the target societies. Each was in its essence an imperial war fought far from the imperial homelands, and each represented a strategic failure by the imperial power, a definite signal to the world of imperial decline, further confirmed by economic troubles at home and the rise of extremist oppositional parties with highly irresponsible agendas and ‘solutions.’ For instance, all of the Republican Party presidential candidates are ‘climate skeptics’ who defy the scientific consensus, which should be understood as a turning away from evidence and reason, in effect, a flight from reality.




            All in all, 2011 will be remembered as a seminal year, principally due to innovative political uprisings that shook the foundations of established orders. More subtly, also, 2011 dramatizded a series of challenges that will not be resolved for a long time as to the sustainability of development and the global maintenance of stable ecological and economic conditions. These challenges seem to exceed the capacity of a world of sovereign states to address in acceptable forms. Two major effects are observable: first, a widespread politics of denial to divert attention from the ticking bombs of worsening conditions associated with these unmet challenges; and secondly, the exhilarating realization that toppling oppressive structures of government in the Arab world has already moved beyond the realm of the possible, having achieved more than could have been dreamed of in 2010, and producing some hope that a politics of impossibility may lead to an as yet unimaginable global dawn.