Asking Foolish Questions About Serious Issues

7 Mar



When the Clinton campaign started complaining about Russia interfering in US elections by hacking into the DNC I was struck by their excesses of outrage and the virtual absence of any acknowledgement that the United States has been interfering in dozens of foreign elections for decades with no apparent second thoughts. CNN and other media brings one national security expert after another to mount various cases against Putin and the Kremlin, and to insist that Russia is up to similar mischief in relation to the upcoming French elections. And never do they dare discuss whether such interference is a rule of the game, similar to espionage, or whether what was alleged to have been done by the Russians might lead the US political leaders and its intelligence agencies to reconsider its own reliance on such tactics to help sway foreign elections.


Is this selective perception merely one more instance of American exceptionalism? We can hack away, but our elections and sovereign space are hallowed ground, which if encroached upon, should be resisted by all possible means. It is one thing to argue that democracy and political freedom are jeopardized by such interference as is being attributed to Moscow, and if their behavior influenced the outcome, it makes Russia responsible for a disaster not only in the United States but in the world. The disaster is named Trump. Assuming this Russian engagement by way of what they evidently call ‘active measures’ occurred is, first of all, an empirical matter of gathering evidence and reaching persuasive conclusions. Assuming the allegations are to some extent validated, it hardly matters whether by what means the interference was accomplished, whether done by cyber technology, electronic eavesdropping, dirty tricks, secret financial contributions, or otherwise.


What is diversionary and misleading is to foster the impression that the Russians breached solemn rules of international law by disrupting American democracy and doing their best to get Trump elected or weaken the Clinton presidency should she have been elected. The integrity of American democratic procedures may have been seriously compromised, and this is deeply regrettable and should be remedied to the extent possible, but whatever happened should not be greeted with shock and consternation as if some inviolate international red line had been provocatively crossed.


There are three appropriate questions to pose: (1) what can we do to increase cyber defenses to prevent future intrusions, and restore domestic confidence that elections in the United States reflect the unimpeded will of the citizenry and are not the result of machinations by outsiders? (2) do we possess the means to ascertain the impact of such intrusions on the outcome of the 2016 national elections, and if such investigation points beyond a reasonable doubt to the conclusion that without the intrusion Clinton would have won, should that void the result, and impose on Congress the duty to arrange for a new emergency electoral procedure for selecting a president free from taint (especially if the Trump campaign aided and abetted the Russian intrusion)? (3) are there ways to bolster norms against interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign states that offer protection against such interference? Note that giving convincing answers to these questions is not a simple matter, and requires serious reflection and debate.


To illustrate the moral and political complexity we can consider the core dilemma that is present for a government with a dog in the fight. Suppose the Kremlin had reason to believe that a Clinton presidency would lead to a new cold war, would it not have been reasonable, and even responsible, for Russians leaders to support Trump, and if the situation were reversed, shouldn’t the US do all it can do to avoid the election of a belligerent Russian leader? Wouldn’t millions of people have been thankful if Western interference in the German elections of 1933 were of sufficient magnitude to avoid the triumph of the National Socialist Party?



There are good and bad precedents arising from past international behavior, especially if established by important states by repeated action, that then empower others to act in a similar manner. Without governmental institutions to oversee political behavior, the development of international law proceeds by way of international practice. Thus when the United States claims the right to interfere and even engage in regime-changing interventions, we greatly weaken any objections when others do the same sort of thing. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The logic of reciprocity contributes to a normative process that reflects international practice as much as it does international lawmaking treaties.


Some equally serious and worrisome parallel issues are raised by recent disclosures of serious cyber attacks by the US Government on the North Korean nuclear program. The American media and government officialdom treat the conduct of cyber warfare against North Korea’s nuclear program as something to be judged exclusively by its success or failure, not whether its right or wrong, prudent or reckless. We interfered with the North Korean nuclear program without seeking authorization from the UN, and certainly without any willingness to tolerate reciprocal behavior by others that disrupted any of our nuclear activities.


It can be plausibly argued that North Korea and its wily leader, Kim Jong-un, are dangerous, reprehensible, and irresponsible, and that it is intolerable for such a government to possess nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. That such a circumstance creates a ‘right of exception,’ suspending international law and considerations of reciprocity, would seem a far more responsible way to proceed, preserving a sense that the US is normally respectful of and accountable to international law, but North Korea poses such a dire threat to humanity as to make all means of interference acceptable. But apparently so intoxicated by geopolitical hubris the thought never occurs to either our leaders or the compliant mainstream media that puts out its own version of ‘fake news’ night after night. It is instructive to realize how bipartisan is this disregard of the relevance of international law to a sustainable world order. These new disclosures relating to North Korea assert that Trump ‘inherited’ an ongoing cyber war program from Obama, who had in earlier years been unabashedly complicit with Israel’s cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.


Does it serve the interests of the United States to set the rules of the game in international relations with respect to nuclear policy, making little pretense of being bound by the standards imposed on other sovereign states, especially those non-nuclear states accused of taking steps to acquire the weaponry? The tigers control the mice, and the idea of a rule of law that treats equals equally is completely foreign to the American mindset in the 21st century when it comes to the role of hard power, security policy, and grand strategy in international life, but interestingly, but much less so in the context of trade and investment. This distinction is worth pondering.


In other words when it comes to security policy and grand strategy, there are two basic rules of contemporary geopolitics that contravene the golden rule of ethical behavior:


         Rule #1: Do not allow others to do unto you what you frequently do to others (the Russian hacking discourse);


         Rule #2: Do unto other what you would never accept others doing unto you (cyber attacks on Iran and North Korea).


It is arguable that this normative assymetry is the only way that world order can be sustained given the absence of world government, or even a strong enough UN to enact and implement common behavioral standards in these domains traditionally reserved for sovereign discretion. A golden rule governing the way states are expected to act toward one another with respect to war/peace issues is certainly currently situated in global dream space. If this is so or so believed, let us at least lift the fog of self-righteous rhetoric, plan to defend our political space as well as we can, and rethink the unintended consequences of interfering in foreign elections and engaging in regime-changing interventions.


At least, let us not deceive ourselves into believing that we are responsible custodians of peace and decency in the world. Do we really have grounds for believing that Donald Trump is less dangerous to the world than Kim Jong-un or the Supreme Guide of Iran? Even if their outlook on political engagement overlaps and their swagger is similar, the US is far more powerful, has alone used nuclear weapons against civilian targets and overthrown numerous foreign governments, including those elected in fair and free elections, and has its own house in a condition of disorder, although despite all this admittedly humanly far more desirable than the order experienced within totalitarian North Korea.


Is it not time for the peoples of the world to rise up and put some restraints on the strong as well as the weak? The UN veto power confers on the most powerful states a constitutional free ride when it comes to compliance with international law and the UN Charter. In effect, the UN back in 1945 institutionalized a topsy-turvy structure that curbs the weak, while granting impunity to the predatory behavior of the strong.


If we grant that this is the way things are and are likely to remain, can’t we at least look in the mirror, and no longer pretend to be that innocent damsel that can only be protected by slaying the dragons roaming the jungles of the world. Trump had his singular moment of truth when he responded on February 4th to Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that Putin was “a killer”: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country is so innocent.” And unlike Trump’s frequent journeys into dark thickets of falsehood that are dismissed by the injunction “let Trump be Trump,” when the man speaks truly for once, his words were scorched, and erased even from the influential media blackboards of the alt right.

23 Responses to “Asking Foolish Questions About Serious Issues”

  1. Juanmi (@jkymmenen) March 7, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks for this, very relevant questions to ponder about. I had to actually stop for a while in the first question: “(1) what can we do to increase cyber defenses to prevent future intrusions, and restore domestic confidence that elections in the United States reflect the unimpeded will of the citizenry and are not the result of machinations by outsiders?”

    It got me thinking. Isn’t it that the explicit delimitation of the question to the machinations by “outsiders”, suggests that we are perhaps avoiding to address some far more complex and further-reaching questions pertaining to the integrity of current democratic systems? Are the interferences mentioned in the article more tolerable when devised and perpetrated by insiders? Is it really the free and unimpeded will of the US citizenry what emerges at the end of their democratic elections?

    In connection to the rest of your article, I suppose that it is certainly not uncommon to prefer to maintain alive the illusion of being what we are not, to avoid facing the kind of truths that would only be uttered by drunkards, children and fools.

  2. truthaholics March 7, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “In other words when it comes to security policy and grand strategy, there are two basic rules of contemporary geopolitics that contravene the golden rule of ethical behavior:
    Rule #1: Do not allow others to do unto you what you frequently do to others (the Russian hacking discourse);
    Rule #2: Do unto other what you would never accept others doing unto you (cyber attacks on Iran and North Korea).”

  3. Beau Oolayforos March 7, 2017 at 4:20 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Perry Mason, in the TV show, used to object to some of the DA’s assertions by saying “it assumes a fact not in evidence”. The MSM now routinely, parenthetically, mentions “the Russian hacking of the US election”. So it is useful to actually read that “evidence”, as presented by the ‘intelligence’ bureaucracy.

    My favorite commentaries are by Matt Taibbi and Masha Gessen.

    Taibbi: “I had to stop reading at one point when I realized that broadcasts by Russia
    Today about ‘anti-fracking, environmental issues, and public health’ were
    seriously being offered up as evidence of anti-American conspiracy”.

    Gessen: “…the fog is not
    coincidental: if the report’s vague assertions were clarified and its
    circular logic straightened out, nothing would be left.”

  4. Rabbi Ira Youdovin March 7, 2017 at 6:51 pm #


    You wrote:

    “When the Clinton campaign started BITCHING about Russia interfering in US elections…”

    I don’t know whether to chastise you for being a male chauvinist or laugh at you for showing your age.

    Saying that women BITCH is so last century. Next thing, you’ll be saying that Hillary Clinton got HYSTERICAL.

    Be careful, my friend, or your grand children will write you out of their wills.


    • Richard Falk March 7, 2017 at 10:59 pm #


      I stand corrected and properly chastised. A slip of the generational pen..

      • Gene Schulman March 8, 2017 at 12:02 am #

        Richard, you have nothing to apologize for. “Bitching” is a perfectly valid word, and your usage of it conforms even to my Concise Oxford Dictionary. And, yes, to parse Ira’s ignorant attack on you, Hillary DOES get hysterical at times. Such rants as ‘blowing the Iranians to smithereens’, is one such example, or her cackle about ‘we came, we bombed, he died’ is another. Seems like the Ira ilk will find something to bitch at you about no matter how innocent you are.

        It is political correctness that is so last century. I began Suarez’ “State of Terror” last night and there is no political correctness there. Just ugly fact after ugly fact. It is the best antidote to the Freds and Iras I have come across. I do hope they can overcome their prejudices for a couple of hours and put their noses into this extraordinary revision of history.

      • Fred Skolnik March 9, 2017 at 12:52 am #

        Prof. Falk

        If you have no objection to referring to perceived adversaries as ignorant, among other things, as Mr. Schulman is now doing, permit me to say that his habit of hiding behind other people as a way of life and celebrating “facts” that he is totally unequipped to verify as long as they give him what he is looking for, puts him in a very special class for which the word ignorant would be too mild.

      • Richard Falk March 9, 2017 at 7:33 am #

        Even this relatively mild comment (that is, mild for you), is if properly read one
        extended personal insult..We all have our ways of knowing, and yours is not superior
        to the rest of us, although you act as if it is.

      • Fred Skolnik March 9, 2017 at 8:18 am #

        You have set up two sets of criteria to give your admirers free rein to make the vilest assertions imaginable about Jews and the State of Israel, coupled with what are certainly personal insults directed against whomever defends Israel, while at the same time censoring replies in kind. You are simply being a dishonest moderator.

        And are you joking about a “genuine conversation or dialogue”? Is that really why you think schulman and ray and the others are here? In any case, when one your admirers calls me ignorant ot lacking in conscience I expect to be allowed to reply in the same language. If you don’t like personal remarks, censor them too. And when someone make a demonstrably false statement, I expect to be allowed to reply substantively, which is exactly what I do. It is you yourself, by example, who have set the tone in the use of extreme language. Do you really think you can slander entire peoples and nations and then claim academic immunity to shield yourself from personal scrutiny. One kind of insult is as uncivil as the other.

      • Richard Falk March 9, 2017 at 10:34 am #

        From my perspective, you just don’t get it: one argument is not as good as its opposite, not all insults
        are equally uncivil. Yours rise above the threshold of acceptability on this blog, not because of your views, with which
        I strongly disagree, but because of your splash and burn rhetorical style.

      • Gene Schulman March 9, 2017 at 8:32 am #

        Mr. Schulman is not hiding behind other people, merely citing sources to confirm his opinions. Otherwise, he would be criticized for not sourcing them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (at least it’s not Counterpunch this time). That’s more than my ‘perceived adversaries’ are willing to do.

      • Fred Skolnik March 9, 2017 at 9:30 pm #

        You are not citing sources that confirm your opinion, Mr. Schulman. You are citing opinions that selectively quote sources that you are not equipped to evaluate or verify and which rarely if ever cite primary Hebrew or Arabic documents. I admit that I don’t read opinion pieces, but I did listen to the radio in 1967 and heard the Jordanians and Egyptians telling us exactly what they planned to do to the Jews, and I did read the statements made by Arab leaders in 1947, also telling us what they planned to do to the Jews, and I have even read Arab historians revealing the well-kept Arab secret that they really did come out of the Arabian Desert and conquer the Middle East in the 7th century.

      • Gene Schulman March 10, 2017 at 12:29 am #

        I can’t resist posting this here, if only to demonstrate the same strategies used by Fred and Ira in their apologetics for Zionist crimes. They accuse critics of Israel of being one-sided and reading and citing only those who support their ‘anti-Semitic’ views. Well, all I can say is that we at least read both sides of the arguments. They won’t even countenance opposing views to their hasbarist narratives. Their insults to the writer of this blog and those who might agree with him are, of course, SOP. And how tiresome they can be.

      • Fred Skolnik March 11, 2017 at 9:25 am #

        I have to say that I am bewildered too, by your censorship, which doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason other than your ability someow to rationalize blocking a comment that you don’t like. Is what I have to say about Atzmon’s attack on Dershowitz really so objectionable to you? Is it even insulting in the way that Mr, Schulman;s remarks are meant to be?

      • Richard Falk March 11, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

        I am asking you to not direct comments at persons as you do above if you wish to participate on this website.
        Limit yourself to substantive issues. If you disapprove of my efforts to monitor the comments section, please
        take your concerns elsewhere. I have tried to be sensitive to your objections, but you have not been sensitive to
        mine. I give others the benefit of the doubt because they do not write in such a vindictive and insulting manner.

  5. Schlüter March 8, 2017 at 12:13 am #

    Another great post! See also: “Bush: How Could He Dare?!”:

  6. daveyone1 March 8, 2017 at 7:12 am #

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

  7. Rabbi Ira Youdovin March 9, 2017 at 11:26 am #


    In this Age of Trumpian “alternative facts” your defense of Gene is alarming. Fred critiques him for affirming claims in Suarez’ book when he (Gene) has not checked their accuracy. That’s valid criticism, while your response,—“We all have our ways of knowing”—would make Kellyanne Conway smile.

    Yes, some “knowing” is highly, even entirely subjective; as when one “knows” that he/she is in love (…”the heart has its reasons”) This isn’t the case with Suarez’s book, where the issue is assessing events that did, or did not happen as he describes. Fred is 100 percent on target when he concludes that Gene’s single criterion for evaluation is whether the allegation conforms with his narrative. That’s how one creates an alternative reality. If that sounds like Trump, it’s because it is like Trump.

    As I wrote in an earlier comment, I can’t assess the book in any detail because I haven’t read it. Nor did I find many reviews on line, which could indicate that it hasn’t made much of an impression outside the Mondoweiss orbit, and virtually none in Academia. (I checked the internet, including the book’s website). There must be a reason for that!

    The author notes in remarks he made to an invited audience that he relied almost entirely on documents in official British archives, largely from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when Israelis, many of them survivors of the Holocaust and genocidal threats from Arab governments untrained in military matters, were fighting literally for their lives against Palestinians and the invading armies of four Arab countries. That’s not terrorism. Earlier material could be tainted by British disdain for Jewish pioneering in Palestine at a time when Britain was currying favor with Arabs nations as potential allies in the looming desert war against the Nazis.

    This is not to say that elements of the Jewish community in Palestine did not employ terrorism, and that Israeli terrorism is not a factor in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, very strong criticism of this is voiced by Israelis and Jews throughout the world. But to say that Jewish terrorism was pervasive, and to call Israel a “State of Terror” created by terrorism is simply wrong, unsupportable, polemical and defamatory.


    • Rabbi Ira Youdovin March 9, 2017 at 5:39 pm #


      “I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but you are rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
      Revelation 2:9”

      “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.
      Revelation 3:9”

      Synagogue of Satan???? Where might I have found this obviously anti-Semitic screed?

      Well…it was a comment Ray posted in the previous thread, presumably after passing your “Civility Test.”

      In my many hours of interfaith dialoguing over a long career, I’ve never seen this quoted: not by harsh critics of Israeli policy or even those who oppose the very existence of a Jewish State. They don’t cite it because they find it reprehensible, or they don’t want to be seen as anti-Semites. But Ray finds it instructive and Richard sees it as being civil.

      This is not a mere oversight. It’s systemic. Ray habitually posts material of this genre, as does Kata Fisher.

      Richard, I agree that anti-Zionism is not co-extensive with anti-Semitism. But with Ray and Kata Fisher (and others) it is…not by innuendo or misrepresentation, but clearly and irrefutably by what they post. If that’s the way you want your blog to be perceived, so be it.


      • Kata Fisher March 11, 2017 at 7:18 pm #

        Dear Rabbi

        I have examined my conscience in Juridic Person during spiritual exercises fot the past of the few days — and I was confirmed that I am not Antisemitic.

        In addition to that Rabbi, during our Spiritual exercises — things came to the true light:

        a) Jewish-Anti-Semitism would be a good definition of some actual Anti Semitism that is taking place.

        b) Jewish-Anti-Semitism was also manifested among Ancient folks.
        c) I do not think that contemporary claims of Anti-Semitism should be taken outside the ancient context.

        d) Semitic people is not the exactly same thing as Semitic tribes. Semitic tribes do not equal Semitic people.

        Also, in addition to all that– this, came up in spiritual exercises:

        That will be the judgment because they tempered with things in Juridic Person, and they did not accept that what was in Juridic Person.

        They will not reject things done in Juridical Person without bringing on curse of destruction upon them self.

        I am understanding that they were tempering with things that was already in Juridic Person and that office, they tempered with sovereignties, with constitutions — all already in Juridic Person. Now, if they do not correct themselves by things in Juridic Person — they will be no hope for them ever again. They will fall in the curse of destruction. Those tribes will be irrevocably scattered

        Dear Rabbi,

        If you still wish to improve my conscience or give me penitence — you may like to do that. But I believe those things are outside of your ecclesiastical office (or you are stepping outside your ecclesiastical office), in the first place. I am saying this without viciousness/deliberate cruel, and instead, in a full respect for you as a Rabbi.

        I believe that your lay-folks are due national and international penitence. That may be in your eclesialistical office.

        Church can not impose penitence on civil-eccalistical occults in Holy Land.

        Ecclesiastical Church Office only spiritually and naturally excommunicates civil-eccalistical occults in Holy Land.


    • Gene Schulman March 11, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      I see no indication that Richard is defending Gene. He has a difficult enough time defending himself against your misinformed attacks.

      I would like to suggest that if you are unwilling to read the book in
      question, you have no right to comment on its contents. You are merely showing your prejudices. To paraphrase the philosopher: “Whereof we do not read, thereof we should not speak.”

  8. ronniedugger March 14, 2017 at 9:11 am #

    I try to send this to myself,

    On Tue, Mar 7, 2017 at 10:53 AM, Global Justice in the 21st Century wrote:

    > Richard Falk posted: ” When the Clinton campaign started bitching about > Russia interfering in US elections by hacking into the DNC I was struck by > their excesses of outrage and the virtual absence of any acknowledgement > that the United States has been interfering” >


  1. News Items – 03.08.17 (In Edit) – Public_COINTEL - March 8, 2017

    […] “Asking Foolish Questions About Serious Issues,” by Richard Falk — Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice and Professor Emeritus of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University; former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine; former professor at the Universities of Harvard and Ohio State; and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. […]

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