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Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

For these reasons it seems a dangerous mistake to address these issues of principle under the stress of extreme conditions generated by Trump in the aftermath of the lost November elections, culminating in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. Given the genuine national emergency resulting from an abusive president, the ad hoc responses of social media were benevolent in this instance, despite setting off alarms about entrusting the guardianship of democracy in the Digital Age to for profit private sector actors, especially given the concentration of market control, the wealth, and the record of regressive one-sidedness not only of social media, but of more traditional print and TV outlets. [See Michelle Goldberg, “The Scary Power of the Companies That Finally Shut Trump Up,” N Y Times, Jan. 11,2021; and more pointedly, Fraser Meyers, “Like him or not, the censorship of Donald Trump has set a terrifying precedent.” Information Clearing House, Jan. 12, 2021.] 

The pre-digital political life of the United States was already severely tilted to the right as a result of allowing money to pour toxic substances on the electoral process by which public officials at all levels of society are selected, as well as to fashion media empires around quasi-fascist worldviews. There is also a dumning down effect as the opposition, especially if not aligned with Wall Street or Silicon Valley, must itself beg for money rather than focus on issues, programs, and socio-economic justice. The result is the commodification of political life where beliefs and values are monetized.

Behind the tumult is the Trump electoral defeat in 2020, which Trump falsely attributed to reality-defying fraud, a macabre fairy tale that was accepted by an astonishing 70% of those who had voted for him and even a significant number of lawmakers who probably knew better, but thought their political careers would suffer more from breaking with Trump than sticking with him. But, perhaps, more astonishing is the nature of Biden’s victory. It was a clear political victory, 306-232 in electoral college votes, and a margin just over seven million in the popular vote. Yet, in one sense it was revealingly close, and actually registered a Republican victory in the state-level elections across America. If California and New York are removed from the Biden column, Trump wins in the electoral college and, narrowly, even the popular vote. By federalist logic, a large majority of the states making up the union, endorsed the Trump presidency even in the face of his malignancy as a leader, exhibited most devastatingly his COVID denialism that cost many lives and much misery, and brought the economy tumbling down. What should we as a country learn from this movement built by such a sinister demagogic pied piper?

From another angle, if COVID had not occurred, the economy would have remained strong, unemployment low, and no health crisis present to spoil his record of ‘achievements.’ In such an atmosphere, there seems little doubt that Trump would have rather easily prevailed by a margin no smaller than his surprise victory in 2016. What do these looks beneath the surface tell us, not only about the election, but about the public and governmental acceptance of four years of governance that deepened class, ethnic, and gender differences, that hurt badly the U.S. world reputation, that adopted a catastrophic denialist stand toward climate change, that championed alternative realities and proudly proclaimed post-truth guidelines, while ignoring urgent socio-economic disparities and infrastructure.

This Trump experience requires more than censorship, whether by the state or private sector. Above all, it calls for renewed attention to the deficiencies of citizen education. We have post-modern technology in a society that still cleaves to the worst forms of superstitious pre-modern worldviews. It is time for another ‘war,’ this time a ‘war on ‘ignorance’.’ After Trump the country needs a Second Enlightenment more even than the rectification of such evils as systemic racism,  ecological disregard, and commodified democracy.

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting against such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states, such as China, which regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age. 

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.

In the Turkish experience the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?

The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse, which if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long  conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’ 

In many respects these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.

There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files, while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves. The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. Until we as a country adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves. Such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.

Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.

As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false

boast on January 3, 2020 justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.

I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished. Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and is invited as a guest expert while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.  

State Terrorism: Remembering General Soleimani

8 Jan

[Prefatory Note: 2020 hardly began when the news reported the shocking MQ9 Reaper Drone assassination of General Qassim Soleimani on Januarary 3rd shortly after he landed at the Baghdad Airport to begin a discreet diplomatic mission to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the time, I felt this was provocative and self-defeating, as well as unlawful and criminal, as to deed and precedent. After a year those initial reactions seem even more appropriate than they did at the time. If the United States is setting the operative rules of world politics it is doing itself no positive service by such behavior, and with drones proliferating at a rapid rate, encouraging forces of disorder, whether governments or political movements. Published below are two efforts of mine to comprehend the many facets of this most unfortunate and humanly tragic incident, which was reinforced by the apparent Mossad murder by remotely controlled explosives of the senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th while driving in a suburb of Tehran. The first selection is a short essay entitled ‘Remembering General Soleimani,’ and the second is an interview titled Responses Questions of Tasnim News Agency on the 1st anniversary of General Qassim Soleimani’s Assassination by U.S. drone on 3 Jan 2020.]

Remembering General Qassim Soleimani

This first anniversary of the assassination of General Qassim Soleimani, provides an occasion to remember not only the man but the nature of the act, the precedent set, and degree to which Iran and the region have become the main hunting ground of post-colonial Western imperialism. It is also relevant to take note of Mossad’s apparent responsibility for the   targeted killing of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, ten months later. Although for the world 2020 will be primarily remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Iranians, although themselves hard hit by the virus further aggravated by U.S. sanctions maintained despite many international humanitarian pleas, the year will be long primarily associated with these acts of state terror.

Without shame or even the typical ruse of ‘deniability,’ Donald Trump made no secret of his role in ordering, and even claiming credit for the killing of General Soleimani, while this stateman/military commander was arriving in Baghdad at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Iraq, Adil Abdul Mehdi, apparently to engage in discussions with Iraqi and Saudi Arabian officials with the purpose of deescalating regional tensions. Trump claimed without the slightest proof that killing Soleimani staved off an imminent attack on American diplomatic facilities. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callimard, made clear in an official Human Rights Council report concentrating on this event that the use drone weaponry to assassinate a top leader of a foreign country, without presenting a shred of evidence for the purported U.S. justification that there existed a threat of an attack on American diplomatic facilities, is more serious than a violation of international human rights law. According to her report the assassination amounts to ‘an act of war’ that violated the core norm of the UN Charter, which in Article 2(4) prohibits recourse to aggressive forms of international force. The world is fortunate that Iran did not exercise its defensive rights beyond a gesture of retaliation that caused no fatalities. The fact that the assassination occurred in Iraq, a third country, without the consent of the government was a further aggravating factor. It continues to produce calls for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the country, and has bolstered those Iraqi forces demanding an end to the U.S. occupation that began more than 17 years ago.

There are additional lessons to be learned in thinking about the life and death of General Soleimani. An important lesson for Americans is to appreciate the degree to which tying their role in the Middle East to Israeli priorities brings negative consequences for the wider national interests in the region. The most important achievement of General Soleimani was to be the most effective anti-ISIS leader in the struggle against extremist barbarism in the region, which built upon his earlier efforts to weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan. In effect, the only real threat to legitimate American security interests came from ISIS, and earlier Al Qaeda. Seen in this light, to regard Iran as Enemy #1 was to misinterpret U.S. interests, and to perpetuate earlier mistakes in grand strategy, above all the 2003 attack and subsequent occupation of Iraq, in ways that were extremely costly in lives, expenses, and reputation, while producing a political outcome that realized none of the goals of this military (mis)adventure. If U.S interests in the Middle East were appraised free from distortions attributable to the Israeli lobby and the pro-Israeli bureaucracy in Washington, Netanyahu’s leverage in Washington would not exist, and long ago the U.S. Government would have taken the sensible step of normalizing relations with Iran, which would have diminished chaos and tensions thoughout the entire MENA region.

I believe that Obama arrived at the White House with the intention to achieve this reset of U.S./Iran relation. Obama tried skillfully to move out of a policy orbit shaped in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, angering the Israeli leadership to such an extent that the Trump presidency, despite its overall irresponsibility, was enthusiastically embraced by an Israel extremely displeased with the Obama effort despite its limited results. What Obama tried to do was to remove anxieties about Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions, formalized in the Joint Comprehensive Program of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) agreement unanimously supported by the P-5 membership of the Security Council plus Germany in 2015. I was surprised at the time that Iran was willing to accept a diplomatic outcome that curtailed its nuclear program without raising objections to Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, for Israel and Saudi Arabia JCPOA was treated as a betrayal, and Trump re-bonded with these two states by repudiating and then withdrawing from this breakthrough agreement in 2018. Without question Trump seemed motivated to undo this major diplomatic achievement by his predecessor as president to dramatize his anachronistic commitment to an ‘America First’ foreign policy that rejected internationalism in all its forms. Trump also withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement for similar anti-Obama, ultra-nationalist reasons.

We are led to wonder, with the advent of the Biden presidency, whether the Obama approach will be restored with respect to Iran, and if so, in what manner and with what effort to balance such an accommodating diplomacy with Iran while trying not to upset Israeli support groups too much, having witnessed at close range Israel’s dirty pushback tactics. The litmus test of Baden’s diplomacy will be revealed by whether Washington insists on more stringent limitations on Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, and even more so, if it links its renewed participation in the JCPOA with a demand that Iran disavow its regional diplomacy in such countries as Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Such one-sided enlargements of the scope of what is agreed beyond its nuclear program is highly unlikely to be acceptable in Iran, and for good reasons, given the interventions of Saudi Arabia and Israel in these conflicts. This anticipated reluctance would also antagonize hardline opinions in Iran, and likely partly express a lingering resentment about the targeted killing of General Soleimani, an individual who was not only beloved and revered by the Iranian people but was considered an extremely promising future president for the country, someone regarded by close Iranian observers as second in importance only to the Supreme Guide, who was beloved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  

Q1: As you know, the US assassinated Lieutenant General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, and their companions by targeting their vehicles outside Baghdad International Airport on January 3. The act of terror was carried out under the direction of Trump, with the Pentagon taking responsibility for the strike. How do you see the role of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and certain Arab states in the region in killing?

R1: I have no inside information on the undisclosed connections between the states mentioned in the question and the assassination of Lieut. General Soleimani, but offer some generalizations based on the public reactions of these governments to the event and their general approach to the confrontation with Iran. Two things are clear. First, Israel and Saudi Arabia officially and explicitly welcomed the killing of Gen. Soleimani for reasons different than those put forward by the United States, while disavowing any connection with the event; secondly, the Arab governments, and even some Israeli strategists, acknowledged being wary of the possible consequences associated with feared Iranian retaliations and a regional escalation of tensions. It seemed that the most respected analysts of Israeli security interests were urging their government to do its utmost to deescalate the confrontational approach that had been previously advocated. Such moderating moves seemed to reflect an awareness of the vulnerabilities of Israel and the Gulf countries to Iranian missile attacks and overall worries about regime security. With these considerations in mind, it makes sense that these governments insisted that the U.S. acted on its own, without prior consultation or encouragement. Some reports in the Arab media alleged that Qatar should be viewed as complicit because the drone that responsible for this act of state terror was apparently launched from the U.S. Udeid air base in their country, but there was no indication of any advanced knowledge, much less participation, by Qatar before the attack was launched. The apparent reconciliation between Qatar and the Saudi-led Gulf coalition at the start of 2021 may also be interpreted as part of this moderating trend, perhaps also a cautionary reaction to the defeat of Trump’s bid for reelection and uncertainties associated with how Biden will approach the region.

Of great concern is the failure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to condemn the event. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callamard, did issue a report on July 6, 2020 that concluded that the targeted killing of such a prominent military leader as General Soleimani was not only a violation of international human rights law, but ‘an act of war’ that violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. This important report does highlight the use of drones as creating a class of weaponry that erodes the distinction between war and peace, and creates a threat to all countries and their population. The international tolerance of such state behavior is totally unacceptable, aggravated in this instance by being openly authorized by the head of state of a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. The rapid proliferation of attack drones also adds a destabilizing dimension that makes the Soleimani killing a particularly dangerous precedent.

In short, for Israel the elimination of Iran’s most effective military commander was viewed as reducing the security threat posed by Iran’s regional influence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, supposedly surrounding Israel with unpredictable political forces. Eliminating the architect of Iran’s regional influence was viewed as a positive  development from the perspective of Israeli security that deems itself as virtually ‘at war’ with Iran. Yet even some Israeli strategic commentary at the time of the assassination tended to worry about such a high-profile assassination being treated as an ‘act of war’ by Iran intensifying risks of an unwanted all out conflict urging, contrary to Trump and Netanyahu, offsetting concessions to Iran. Some Israeli security experts urged the unconditional revival of the JCPOA deal relating to Iran’s nuclear program and even the elimination of sanctions.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, although insisting that it had no role in the assassination viewed it partly through the perspective of finally overcoming Trump’s refusal to respond to the psychologically and material damaging September 2019 drone attack on the state-owned Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Ehurais located in eastern Saudi Arabia. These attacks although emanating from Yemen were attributed to Iran, at least indirectly. In this regard, the assassination was interpreted as responsive to the Saudi (and Israeli) criticisms of the Obama presidency’s moves toward normalization with Iran, as well as of Trump’s allegedly timid responses to prior provocations and some concern that withdrawals of American forces from Iraq, which was viewed with alarm as the beginning of U.S. strategic disengagement from the region.

 Q2: General Soleimani is viewed by the world’s freedom-seeking people as the key figure in defeating Daesh/ISIS, the world’s most notorious terrorist group, in the Middle East battles. What are your thoughts on Gen. Soleimani’s character and his role in fighting terrorism?

R2: I am aware of the revered status of Gen. Soleimani for his various roles in defense of the Iranian Revolution and in opposition to the spread of U.S. and Israeli influence in the region. He had that rare quality of being a military commander whose intelligence and political leadership were widely appreciated at all levels of Iranian society, from the Supreme Guide to the Iranian citizenry. Over the course of the last ten years there have been many reports that he was being urged to become a presidential candidate in Iran. It is significant in my view that Gen. Soleimani was killed while on a diplomatic mission mediated by Iraq to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to believe that the assassination was timed to disrupt such a move, but its occurrence surely had the effect of intensifying regional tensions in a highly provocative, lawless manner that generated widespread calls in Iran and Iraq for revenge and retaliation. Iran has formally issued a warrant for the arrest of Trump on charges of premeditated murder, which according to the Iranian penal code imposes a death sentence. Iran has asked Intepol for assistance in inducing police forces around the world to implement the arrest warrant.

By and large, commentators on the assassination in the West, including critics of Trump’s presidency, viewed the event from a narrow American perspective. This meant highlighting Gen. Soleimani’s role both in Iraqi violent resistance to the American occupation and in giving overall help to the general opposition throughout the region to Washington’s strategic priorities, including Hezbollah and Hamas, the Damascus government, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. What was not stressed, and rarely acknowledged, was Gen. Soleimani extremely effective role not only in defeating Daesh (or ISIS) in the Syria and Iraq, but also in temporarily neutralizing the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the Mossad official, Yossi Alpher, correctly noted of the fallen military leader: “He was a highly intelligent strategic thinker who understood how to wage asymmetric warfare.” Contrast this assessment with the words of Thomas Friedman, the liberal icon of American journalism, writing in an opinion piece published in the immediate aftermath of the event. Friedman praised Trump for ordering the assassination of “possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.” [“Trump Kills Iran’s Most Overrated Warrior,” Jan. 3, 2020.] Why dumb? Because Gen. Soleimani role in expanding Iran’s regional resistance to U.S. regional interventions prompted Washington to take major countermeasures that had an overall disastrous impact on Iran. In effect, the United States’ imperial role was legitimate, and to challenge it, was not only illegitimate but self-defeating as the killing of their leading military commander demonstrates. 

Viewing Gen. Soleimani’s role more objectively, a larger geopolitical distortion is revealed. The United States real security concerns over the course of the past twenty years were associated with eliminating threats of transnational extremist violence that culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. It is only through an acceptance of Israel’s and the Gulf monarchies’ regional priorities that made rational either the attack on Iraq in 2003 or the repeated efforts to destabilize Iran. To some extent Obama did somewhat recognize that reaching an accommodation with Iran and continuing to support the national security of Israel were not necessarily contradictory. In contrast, Trump, whether wittingly or not, subordinates U.S. national interests to the Israeli/Gulf sectarian view of Middle East politics. At this point, with the imminent prospect of Biden’s presidency there is reason to be cautiously hopeful about the formulation of a policy for the Middle East that is more coherent, less Israeli driven, less guided by impulse, and more oriented toward achieving stability rather than seeking ‘solutions’ based on coercive diplomacy.

Q3: How do you see the future of the region after the assassination of Gen. Soleimani? Do you think that foreign troops including the US forces will be forced out of the region and Iraq at people’s will?

R3: The turmoil throughout the region, along with interventions by geopolitical actors, makes predictions hazardous. There are some encouraging indications that Biden seeks to revive JCPOA as soon as possible and seeks order and moderation throughout the Middle East. Such post-Trump modifications will not be undertaken without taking Israel’s views into account, but to what extent is at present unknown. Israel will certainly try its best to condition the renewal of American participation in JCPOA on imposing new, more stringently restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is also likely to insist that the U.S. receive assurances from Iran that it will no longer extend material support Islamic political tendencies in the region as exemplified by Hezbollah and Hamas. Upholding such assurances would be correlated with reducing sanctions. It seems unlikely that Iran would be willing to end its support for self-determination and human rights in Israel/Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon, and more controversially, governmental legitimacy and counterinsurgency in Syria. And if such a political surrender were to be accepted by Iran’s current elected leadership, it would be effectively challenged from within the country.

The Arab acceptance of normalization agreements with Israel are not likely to be challenged by the Biden presidency, although brought about by American inducements, including advanced weaponry and a greater commitment of the U.S. to extend its security protection beyond Israel. In this regard, should a second Arab Spring occur in Gulf countries or Egypt, it is likely that Washington will more overtly side with the established order, no matter how repressive.

Of relevance as well is whether China and Russia will play more active diplomatic roles in the region, either seeking alignment or as offering an alternative to the American imperial presence. Such speculation depends in part on whether the U.S. adopts confrontational approaches to Russia in relation to Ukraine and Crimea and to China with respect to international trade relations and tensions in the South China Seas. Unless the U.S. disengages from its reliance on global militarism as the basis of its foreign policy, which seems highly unlikely, there are almost certain to be troubled waters in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. More than Trump, the Biden presidency is likely to adopt a foreign policy of the sort that resurrects the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that was borne shortly after the World War II, and persisted throughout the long Cold War. The essence of this consensus is the exaggeration of security threats so as to justify political support for high peacetime military budgets.

It is finally possible that energy geopolitics will also exert an influence over how relations with Iran evolve. It seems to serve OPEC’s interest to restrict Iran’s energy export markets, but if European or Asian demands rise, the reintegration of Iran in the world economy is like to receive strong backing that could change the balance in the Middle East, especially if confrontation with China dominates U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead. 

The Trump Pardons and Fast-Tracking Capital Punishment

31 Dec

Measuring Trump the Man: Pardons and Capital Punishment

Among the disquieting dimensions of this strangest of all Christmas holidays

has been the lurid spectacle of misplaced empathy by Donald Trump, placatingcronies and criminals who helped him circumvent law and morality while exhibiting hard heartedness toward those unfortunate souls awaiting execution on death row in federal prisons. Perhaps, most lamentable of all oversights has been the failure up to this moment to pardon Assange on both principled and humanitarian grounds. The U.S. application for Assange’s extradition, if granted, could subject him to a lengthy prison term. 

The pardon power is set forth in general terms in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and by Supreme Court decision is without limitation beyond its own terms. The pardon power applies only to federal crimes, and cannot be used to pardon state crimes, and it does not apply to impeachment proceedings. The rationale for the pardoning power, contested at the time by federalist opponents of strong national government, was set forth in Federalist Paper #74 authored by Alexander Hamilton. The stress was on the need for some check on mistaken or unjust punishments resulting from improper applications of  federal criminal law. In Hamilton’s words, without “easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.” This linkage between the pardoning power and the need for an effective antidote for the unjust application of criminal law was central, and has generally governed its use, but there have been a variety of questionable pardons in the last 50 years, but none to match the Trump’s undisguised corruption of pardoning as an aspect of governance.

Eyebrows have been raised in the past when occasionally U.S. presidents have pardoned former contributors to their political campaigns or tried to avoid criminal accountability for those who tried to cover up presidential wrongdoing. Richard Nixon explored all his options in seeking to achieve impunity for those who carried out the Watergate break-in and his closest complicit aides. Nixon, apparently wary of partisan pardoning, even floated the idea among his aides of freeing the Watergate band of warriors from criminal accountability at the same time that he uncharacteristically pardoned an equivalent number of anti-war Vietnam protesters or issuing a pardon for all who left the country to evade military service during the Vietnam War. Nixon’s idea, never acted upon, seemed to assume that a show of political balance would quiet criticism of an inappropriate pardon. Obviously, such wheeling and dealing is not what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind. Gerald Ford, as president, issued a controversial pardon to Nixon in 1974 for all offenses against U.S. law committed during his time in the White House (1969-1974), understood to refer to the Watergate break in, and part of the arrangement to secure Nixon’s resignation.   

Now Trump comes along with a more coherent message of loyalty to followers and those beloved by the extreme right-wing and vindictiveness toward those who fall afoul of law and order militants. Love for those who stood by him, however disreputable their behavior or how gross their flaunting of the law, which even concluded in several instances consorting with America’s number one geopolitical rival, Russia. While so bestowing pardons as if thank you notes for evil deeds, Trump indulged  his seemingly gratuitous hatred toward those who were sitting on death row in Federal prisons sentenced to death, including in some cases where the evidence establishing guilt was flimsy or still under legal challenge, and often where the harshness of the sentence seemed to reflect considerations of race and class more than the gravity of the crime. Trump abandoned the practice of civility by past presidents, who suspended federal executions during the transition period between elections and inauguration. Instead Trump went to the perverse opposite extreme by ordering the fast-tracking of executions, presumably to take away the possibility of commuted sentences or eventual pardons. Any reliance on capital punishment is increasingly rejected by societies where democratic values and practices prevail, and it remains a substantive and symbolic concern for all of us who fear and oppose the violence of the state whether at home or abroad. No state is trustworthy enough, or even sufficiently competent, as to be empowered with the right to impose a death sentence even on those convicted of transgressing the criminal constraints of law in the most horrifying ways. It is not only a matter of being sure not to execute someone later shown to be innocent or of executing a convicted person who was subjected to a harsher punishment than the crime warranted. The rejection of capital punishment is an expression of a societal commitment to the sacredness of every human life, whatever the offending behavior, expressing the view that a path to redemption should never be altogether closed off.

Unquestionably, the worst of Trump’s pardons involved Blackwater security guards who opened fire back in 2007 on unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad , killing 14 Iraqis including children aged 9 and 11, and wounding another 30. This event was viewed by the Iraqi population as a massacre of such gravity that it generated demands for legal redress from this people supposedly ‘liberated’ from the oppressive and dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and if not met, then to the steeper demand that the U.S. end its occupation and remove its troops and bases. Four of the Blackwater killers were indicted, and in 2014, three were convicted of ‘voluntary manslaughter’ and one of ‘murder,’ and all were given lengthy prison sentences. Trump’s pardons, apparently partly prompted by right-wing extremist agitation in ultra-conservative U.S circles, caused ripples of disapproval by the liberal media in America, but expressions of outrage and dismay in Iraq, especially by families of those killed or wounded. It reinforced an image of the occupation of Iraq as an imperialist venture, which devalued the lives of Iraqis, and completely discredited American claims of promoting the rule of law and a claimed commitment to criminal responsibility for its civilian security operatives. A widely quoted observation by a classmate of one of the young victims in 2007 expresses the toxic perception of the pardon by the Iraqi people, including anti-Saddam Iraqis who had initially welcomed the American intervention, although later living to regret their receptivity to a foreign regime-changing intervention: “The Americans have never approached us Iraqis as equals. As far as they are concerned, our blood is cheaper than water and our demands for justice and accountability are merely a nuisance.”

Of course, the pardon exposes the larger unindicted international crime of aggression against Iraq in 2003 followed by occupation, which with troublesome irony, was less supported back then by Trump than by the incoming president, Joe Biden. At the time of the Nisour Square Massacre there were over 160,000 American mercenaries in Iraq, a for-profit supplement to a troop presence of about the same number, a telltale expression of mercenary militarism disconnected from securing the homeland. As with other large-scale U.S. regime-changing interventions, the costs in Iraq have been incredibly high, and yet none of the promised positive results prompting the attack in 2003 have been achieved. Iraq became the site of one those ‘forever wars’ that causes the population to suffer for long periods, usually ending only when the imperial invader gets tired, and gives up the venture.

In Vietnam this intervention fatigue happened with memorable clarity, in Afghanistan periodic efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban point in the same direction. In Iraq, ISIS emerged in reaction to pro-Shi’ite occupation policies and sectarianism greatly intensified as a result of the American occupation. A national circumstance of bitterness, chaos, and unresolved political strife, is the legacy of 17 years of costly occupation that also diminished the overall U.S. reputation as a generally benevolent global actor entrusted with a leadership role. The pardons certify this underlying geopolitical refusal of the American ‘bipartisan consensus’ to live with the results of national self-determination in the post-colonial, post-Cold War era, where nationalist resistance to intervention is more intense and the ethos of exploitative occupation becomes manageable only by dehumanizing the indigenous population through intimidating violence and a regime of inequality that corrupts elites while making most citizens endangered strangers in their own homeland. The Palestinian ordeal is a gruesome variant, colonists displacing natives from which many forms of malevolence follow, including cycles of resistance inducing displacement and oppression. The Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish state in an essentially non-Jewish society almost inevitably led to racially tinged modes of oppressive internal security, which is best understood as a form of apartheid that the statute of the International Criminal Court has classified under the heading of Crimes Against Humanity in Article 7.

The Blackwater pardons occur just a short time before Iranians and others in the region pause to remember General Qassim Soleimani on the first anniversary of his drone assassination on the direct order of the U.S. President, not only an extreme example of targeted killing in the vicinity of the Baghdad Airport that violates international human rights law has been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnés Challimard, in her 2020 official report as amounting to an ‘act of war’ in violation of the UN Charter and customary international law. As Iranians and Iraqis have been quick to observe, the Soleimani assassination and the Blackwater pardon are two sides of the same coin, the geopolitical currencies of U.S. criminality abroad and impunity at home. As has been pointed out in an article on the blowback potential of the Blackwater pardons, the anger aroused among those in Iraq and elsewhere opposed to the American presence in the Middle East could retaliate in ways that put at greater risk the lives of American soldiers. [See Iveta Cherneva, “Soleimani’s Death Anniversary could Fuel Retaliation by pro-Iran Militias,” Modern Diplomacy, Dec. 30, 2020].

Nothing better reveals the Trump approach than the vindictive pursuit of Julian Assange despite his serious illness and prolonged confinement, the Obama period decision to not pursue prosecution despite an espionage indictment for revealing classified information, and in light of the essential nature of his whistleblowing undertaking that focused on the disclosure of war crimes in the WikiLeaks’ documents. The Federal Court in Virginia that found Assange guilty of 17 violations of the 1917 Espionage Law, subjecting him to a potentially absurd 175 years in a maximum security prison where he would be housed alongside the country’s most notorious criminals. His unjust confinement would likely be coupled with the added punishment of solitary confinement. Most worrisome as an example to others, it would be the first time ever that a journalist doing his job was prosecuted and convicted of espionage in the United States.

After seven stressful years of refuge in the London embassy of Ecuador, Assange was finally free to leave the without facing extradition to Sweden as dubious rape charges were dropped. It was at this point the the US requested the UK to extradite Assange, with a decision due from the London Central Criminal Court on January 4th of 2021, a. tribunal that seemed  hostile to Asssange in its administration of the extradition hearing, with the presiding judge reported to have close family ties to leading figures in British intelligence. Acts deemed ‘political crimes’ are normally. excluded from extradition. Assange’s allegedly criminal behavior was what journalism should be doing in democratic societies. It was clearly politically motivated. As such, Assange’s supposed ‘criminal’ offenses should be treated as non-extraditable, and on humanitarian grounds he should be released forthwith from Belmarsh Prison in London, and issued an official apology. Assange, along with others whistleblowers. who dared to reveal the hidden infrastructures of state crime, deserve to have statues in public squares, not prison cells.  

This notorious effort to criminalize the disclosure of state crimes strikes one more blow against truth-telling and the limiting of freedom of expression in countries that pride themselves by proclaiming democratic values. The scandalous abuse of Assange accentuates prior efforts to criminalize the whistleblowing exploits of Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning.  It is more evident than ever thar the future of constitutional democracy depends on the safety valve of an unintimidated media and the insulation of informants from criminal liability. This is not to deny the existence of tricky policy issues associated with protecting legitimate state secrets relating to homeland security, diplomacy, and law enforcement, but no such issue excuses either the treatment of Assange in Britain or his pursuit by the U.S. Government. 

There have been rumors that Trump might still use his authority to grant Assange a pardon, not so much for political reasons, as to avoid one more line of controversy. After all, it was Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign who encouraged WikiLeaks to release a batch of emails thought to be damaging to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There are others in the Trump entourage, most prominently Mike Pompeo, who support extradition and jail because the Assange disclosures allegedly weakened U.S. security. Whatever Trump does about Assange, it will not greatly alter this final chapter of his presidency, which exposes above all else, his warped attitudes toward life and death. 

If there is no pardon, Biden’s handling of this now incendiary pardon/impunity/capital punishment interface in relation to Julian Assange will give a strong clue to the kind of leadership he will provide. Unfortunately, Biden is on record as having compared WikiLeaks to a terrorist organization. No matter what happens on January 4th, drama will ensue.

There are lessons to be learned  and acted upon by progressives in reaction to these dual celebrations of death at this time of seasonal holiday at the end of a year of this strange year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic: demilitarize security at home and abroad, disarm America and Americans, retrain and restrain the police, abolish capital punishment, close hundreds of American overseas bases, bring the navy back to territorial waters, demilitarize and denuclearize as national priorities, rejoin and enhance global cooperation related to climate change, and shift resources from ‘national (regime) security’ to ‘human (people) security.’

Christmas in Turkey

27 Dec

[Prefatory Note: As my way of reaching out to the world of believers in the shared

spirituality of life, seekers of pathways of solidarity with others, learning to see through

a cosmic lens, wary of debates about the future while always receptive to dialogue.] 

Christmas in Turkey: a haiku    

Christmas in Turkey

Without decorated trees

Still sun shines skies blue

Yalikavak ,Turkey

December 27, 2020

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

25 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The challenge of transnational non-state violence, what the media dutifully criminalizes as ‘terrorism’ while whitewashing the abuses of state and state-sponsored violence as ‘counterterrorism’ or exercises of every state to act in self-defense. Language matters as those who wanted to sugarcoat ‘torture’ by such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ The pendulum of U.S. foreign policy is swinging back in the direction of geopolitical confrontation, given the prospects of the Biden presidency. Although it is the highest political priority to be done with Trump and Trumpism, the renewal of ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ under the guidance of the American version of the deep state is not good news. It could mean a new cold war tilted toward China, but with different alignments, possibly including Russia, filled with risk and justification for continuing overinvestment in a militarized approach to national security causing a continuing underinvestment in human security, exposing the root cause of American imperial decline. The post below addresses some of these issues, and was published in the Tehran Times (17 Dec 2020).]

From Counterterrorism to Geopolitics: Reviving the U.S. Deep State

  1. In 1972, a specialized Committee on Terrorism was set up at the United Nations, and member states made great efforts to provide appropriate definitions of international terrorism, but due to intense political differences, the actual definition of international terrorism and comprehensive conventions in practice was impossible. Security Council Resolution 1373 was the most serious attempt to define terrorism after 9/11, which evolved into UN Security Council Resolution 1535. Despite providing a definition of terrorism, countries approach it differently. What is the reason?

There exists a basic split between those political actors that seek to define ‘terrorism’ as anti-state violence by non-state actors and those actors that seek to define terrorism as violence directed at innocent civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. The latter approach to the definition reaches targeted or indiscriminate violence directed at civilians even if the state is the perpetrator. States that act beyond their borders to fulfill counterrevolutionary goals seek to stigmatize their adversaries as terrorists while exempting themselves from moral and legal accountability.

There exists a second basic split due to state practice following political rather than legal criteria when identifying terrorist actors. When the Taliban and Al Qaeda were opposing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan they were identified as Mujahideen, but when seen as turning against the West, they were put on the top of the terrorist list. Osama Bin Laden, once hailed as a Western ally deserving lavish CIA support became the most wanted terrorist after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Such subjectivity and fluidity makes it virtually impossible to develop a coherent and legal approach to ‘terrorist’ activity.

In essence, geopolitical actors have always sought to have international law regard the use of force by states acting on their own as falling outside the framework of terrorism while regarding transnational political violence by adversary or enemy non-state actors as terrorism even if the targeted person or organization is a government official or member of the armed forces, or if the non-state actor is resisting occupation by foreign armed forces. Before the 9/11 attacks Israel adopted influentially adopted this approach in its effort to portray Palestinian resistance as a criminal enterprise. After 9/11 the United States added its political weight to this statist approach to the conception of terrorism, which meant in effect that any adversary target that could be characterized as associated with a non-state actor that resorted to armed struggle was criminalized to the extent of being treated as unprotected by international humanitarian law. In practice, this subjectivity was vividly displayed in recent years by support given to anti-Castro Cuban exiles that engaged in political violence against the legitimate Cuban government, and yet were given aid, support, and encouragement while based in the United States.

The UN was mobilized after the 9/11 attacks by the United State to support this statist/geopolitical approach to political violence, which possessed these elements, and given formal expression in a series of Security Council Resolutions, including 1373, 1535: 

     –terrorists are individuals who engage in political violence on behalf of non-state actors;

               –states, their officials and citizens may be guilty of supporting such activities through money, weapons and safe haven, and therefore indictable under national law as aiding and abetting terrorism;

              –political violence by states, no matter what its character, is to be treated by reference to international law, including international humanitarian law, and not viewed as terrorism;

              –even if the non-state actor is exercising its right of resistance under international law against colonialism or apartheid, its political violence will be treated as ‘terrorism’ if such a designation furthers geopolitical ambitions.  

The alternative view of terrorism that I endorse emphasizes the nature of the political violence, rather than the identity of the perpetrator. As such, political violence can be identified as ‘state terrorism,’ which amounts to uses of force that are outside the framework of war and peace, and violate the sovereign rights of a foreign country or fundamental rights of citizens within the territory of the state. Such acts of terrorism may be clandestine or overt, and may be attributed to state actors when counterrevolutionary groups are authorized, funded, and encouraged directly or indirectly by the state. Non-state actors can also be guilty of terrorism if their tactics and practices deliberately target civilians or recklessly disregard risks of death or harm to civilians. 

  • How do you assess the role and position of Iran in the fight against terrorism in the region?

As far as I know, Iran has opposed non-state political violence of groups such as ISIS or Taliban that engage in terrorist activity by committing atrocities against civilians that amount to Crimes Against Humanity. Iran has also consistently condemned state terrorism of the sort practiced by Israel and the United States, and possibly other governments, within the region. In this regard, Iran has been active both in the struggle against non-state and state terrorism.

Iran has been accused of lending funding and material support to non-state actors that many governments in the West officially classify as ‘terrorist’ organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Part of the justification for U.S. sanctions arises from this allegation that Iran supports terrorism in the Middle East. These allegations are highly ‘political’ in character as both Hezbollah and Hamas engaged in violent resistance directed at unlawful occupation policies that denied basic national rights to the Lebanese and Palestinian people, including the fundamental right of self-determination, although some of their tactics and acts may have crossed the line of legality.

There are also contentions that Iran’s support for the Syrian government in dealing with its domestic adversaries involves complicity in behavior that violates the laws of war and international humanitarian law. This contention is a matter of regional geopolitics. As far as international law is concerned, the Assad government in Damascus is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and is treated as such at the UN. Iran is legally entitled to provide assistance to such a government faced with insurgent challengess from within its boundaries. If the allegations are true that Syria has bombed hospitals and other civilian sites, then the Syrian government could be charged with state terrorism. 

3- How do you assess the role and position of General Ghasem Soleimani in the fight against terrorism and ISIS in the region? 

Although a military officer, General Soleiman, was not in any combat role when assassinated, and was engaged in peacemaking diplomacy on a mission to Iraq. His assassination was a flagrant instance of state terrorism. With considerable irony, the truth is that General Soleiman had been playing a leading counterterrorist role throughout the region. He is thought to have been primarily responsible for the ending, or at least greatly weakening, the threat posed by ISIS to the security of many countries in the Middle East.

  • Given the conflict of interests of different countries, can we see the same action by countries against terrorism? What mechanism can equalize the performance of countries against the terrorism?

As suggested at the outset, without an agreed widely adopted and generally agreed upon definition of terrorism it is almost impossible to create effective international mechanisms to contain terrorism. As matters now stand, the identification of ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorism’ is predominantly a matter of geopolitical alignment rather than the implementation of prohibitions directed at unacceptable forms of political violence within boundaries and across borders.

To imagine the emergence of effective international, or regional, mechanisms to combat terrorism at least four developments would have to occur:

             –the reliance on legal criteria to categorize political violence as terrorism;

            –the inclusion of ‘state terrorism’ in the official definition of terrorism;

            –the inclusion of political violence within sovereign territory as well as across boundaries;

            –an internationally or regionally agreed definition incorporating these three elements and formally accepted by all major sovereign states and by the United Nation. 

In the present international atmosphere, such an international consensus is impossible to achieve. The United States and Israel, and a series of other important states would never agree. There are two sets of obstacles: some states would not give up their discretion to attack civilian targets outside their borders and would not accept accountability procedure that impose limits on their discretion over the means used to deal with domestic transnational non-state adversaries.

Under these conditions of geopolitical subjectivity such that from some perspectives non-state actors are ‘freedom-fighters’ and from others they are ‘terrorists,’ no common grounds for  meaningful and trustworthy intergovernmental arrangements exists.

It remains important for individuals and legal experts to advocate a cooperative approach to the prevention and punishment of terrorists and terrorism by reference to an inclusive definition of terrorism that considers political violence by states and by governments within their national territory as covered. 

It is also in some sense to include non-state actors as stakeholders in any lawmaking process that has any prospect of achieving both widespread acceptance as a framework or implementation at behavioral levels. It would seem, in this regard, important to prohibit torture of terrorist suspects or denial of prisoner of war rights. One-sided legal regimes tend to be rationalizations for unlawful conduct, and thus operate as political instruments of conflict rather than legal means of regulation.

Unless surprises occur, almost a probability, the Biden foreign policy will likely follow the George H.W. Approach approach more than the Obama approach, which continued to unfold as part of the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks. This means becoming again captive to the deep state’s approach to world order: global militarism, Euro-centric points of reference, predatory capitalism, and quasi-confrontational toward China, Russia.

Peace and Peacefulness: Reaching for the Stars

20 Dec

[Prefatory Note: Unlike most of my interviews, this one is not directly about current political concerns. It rather explores ‘peace’ in its manifold identity. The interview was conducted by Miguel Mendoça a couple of months ago for a book project consisting of such interviews from a variety of persons whose life and work touches on the theme of peace. Miguel has since abandoned the project in favor of producing his own poems. Whether such abstract ideas as peace can be usefully explored independent of concrete circumstances haunts this text. I accept most of the blame. The interaction made me realize how little thought I have given to peacefulness as a personal trait and peace as the core of benevolent political arrangements, whether local or planetary, and how their interaction may understood. I recall being rather bemused more than 25 years ago when a meditation practice was premised on the confidence that if enough people meditated for a few minutes each day on the reality of a peaceful world it would bend the arc of history toward peace. I know that spiritual attentiveness has wider implications but I find no evidence that links connect my meditation with the policies and actions of performers in ongoing world dramas.]

Peace and Peacefulness: Reaching for the Stars

What have been some of your most peaceful moments?

Over a long life I find such recollections somewhat arbitrary, with responses likely to change from day to day, and certainly from year to year. What comes to me most immediately on this particular day as a response are recollections of when I’ve had strong feelings of being in love. I associate love with peacefulness, as well as with turmoil and self-doubt. These positive feelings of peace are usually in relation to the loved one, and less frequently as experiences of cosmic awe, or of encounters with the wonders of nature, or the beauty of art, and even by way of meditating on an emancipatory collective destiny for the human species. I associate peacefulness with lovingness, to a great extent, but not exclusively.

In this regard, I’ve more and more academically rejected the common polarity of war and peace, which goes back to Tolstoy’s justly celebrated novel, and is very much ingrained in our Western civilizational political consciousness. I have written to the effect that for most of the peoples of the world the opposite of war is not peace but justice. Because such a large proportion of humanity lives under some form of oppression, and not only political repression, but more commonly under the stresses of poverty, disease, and ecological deterioration, or through enduring some kind of personal trauma. In all these instances, what counts for peace is something that will liberate the experience of a person from those feelings of injustice and suffering, and a form or closure, whether by the removal of the cause, its transcendence, or its Stoical acceptance as a condition of life that was my reality.

Another type of association with peace is learning to nurture the experience of living in the present, neither yearning for the future, or being overly nostalgic for the past. Lao Tzu put it well long ago: “If you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

     Such a celebration of the present embodies the preciousness of lived experience. The American meditative thinker Ram Dass called it ‘the everlasting now.’ In 1971 he published his book Be Here Now. I think D. H. Lawrence, the novelist and poet, had a similar way of formulating this affirmation of the present. This outlook was always resonant for me as a way of not escaping from the experiential vitality of the present, but somehow doing my best to be present, being here now, in Ram Dass’s terms. This is a more interior way of thinking about peace. It complements the other idea of peacefulness among individuals and groups, but is quite different in its existential impact on the unfolding of our lives. When we seek peace, we need to do no more than be alive to what is now present. This sounds easy but to achieve such a presence requires discipline and continuous vigilance. Otherwise we retreat to ponder the past or await the future, while acting and reacting mindlessly in the present.

What does peace feel like?

This touches very much on my responses to the first question. I hadn’t thought about how I might respond in advance, but love spontaneously came to mind when you posed the question on this particular day. Peace is the feeling of being in love, without specifying the object of that love. It could be a person, or nature, or the cosmos, or it could be myself I suppose. Or any kind of live or inanimate object. It could be an animal, a work of art, a piece of music. The potential of love is as limitless as the universe itself. And I think that’s the deepest meaning for me, of what peace, or an experiential immersion in peace, signifies. And it has a stronger resonance for me than, for instance, a formal meditation experience. Or being in a sacred place, which I’ve done quite a bit at different stages of my life, and have enjoyed and found satisfying. These calculated acquisitions of peace are not as integral and authentic as are spontaneous responses that are less structured, less framed to induce what might be described as ‘peacefulness.

Do you actively cultivate inner peace?

From time to time I have, but not consistently, or as an enduring self-conscious aspect of my daily existence. I’ve thought about this a little bit, and I don’t feel either drawn to or the need for setting aside some time or special setting in which to meditate or take deliberate steps to induce a sense of inner peace, be that a breathing exercise, or some kind of reflective quiet. I don’t dislike such methods, or disapprove of them. And when I’m exposed to such an atmosphere, as I have been on many occasions, I appreciate, even cherish the experience. I was a member for many years of the Lindisfarne Association. It was a group of out-of-the-box-thinkers put together by the spiritually inclined cultural historian William Irwin Thompson for the depiction and realization of a new planetary culture We used to meet annually for a few days at the Zen Center at Green Gulch in Marin County just outside of San Francisco. The weekend meetings set aside enclaves of time and hallowed spaces that facilitated achieving a meditative focus. Lindisfarne was mainly a dialogic community that brought together post-Enlightenment and post-modernity perspectives, but the discipline of meditative centering was part of the experience. And I’ve had other experiences, including in India, where I spent time in spiritually self-conscious surroundings that were meant to induce, and then explore various kinds of inner peace. I was always felt contented through participation in these spiritually charged settings, but I regarded these occasions. as discrete experiences, and never made any effort to integrate them into permanent features of my daily life. 

How do you pursue peace in your personal and professional relationships?

I don’t self-consciously pursue peace in my relationships, whether professional or personal. It would be more in keeping with my temperament I suppose, to say that I seek harmony, or mutual respect and social compatibility. This creates an atmosphere in which trust can develop, and learning can take place. And I think it influences the way I try to be an effective teacher, for instance. I would never have thought of the word ‘peace’ to describe it, but I try to create a classroom atmosphere of interactive harmony, mutual respect, friendliness, enjoyment, and reciprocity that encourages listening as much as talking. I tried my best to convey to students the understanding that learning should be fun and should not be hierarchically organized even in formal educational contexts, but that learning should always be experienced horizontally rather than vertically. A good teacher also learns from the student, and this should be acknowledged, and even discussed. I’m more comfortable thinking of teaching and learning along these lines, but there’s no reason to withhold the word peace from this kind of understanding of both professional interaction and the kind of classroom atmosphere I’ve tried to create and explore over many satisfying years of teaching.

Peace is treated as subordinate to war in our culture except in some strictly religious or anti-war circles. In modern societies, we generally find a much greater emphasis, academically and intellectually, on war studies – or what sometimes is called security studies – rather than on peace studies. The University of Bradford in England has a department of Peace Studies and International Development. They have both undergraduate and postgraduate courses on these topics, including a master’s degree in Advanced Practice in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. As far as I know there are no programs of study explicitly devoted to peace in the US, although there are individual courses here and there. Lots of the most prestigious universities devote a lot of attention to security, which is often used as a euphemism for national strategy and the international projection of military force, and ideas related to intervention and policing.

Going back to your question, one of the reasons I would hesitate to use the word peace in a teaching environment, is that in this common understanding, a peaceful classroom atmosphere seems to me something that should be taken for granted. I want our aspirations to aim higher than peace, and for me harmony is that something more. Because peace is mostly connected in the popular mind with the absence of war, an end of killing through a silencing of guns, but that’s not enough to create the kind of trust needed for sustainable and satisfying communities. I think that what is desirable in many interactive experiences is what I am identifying here as trust, reciprocity and harmony. ‘Peace,’ because of its multiple cultural, political, and psychological meanings, becomes vague and indefinite with regard to its generalized relevance.

The imbalance between studying war and peace in educational settings is an important issue and question, that I can only hazard a response to at the moment. I think it reflects the broader priorities and preoccupations of the culture and the civilization. Particularly in the West, and especially in the contemporary United States, there is a sense that identity, global status, and self-pride are connected with the outcomes of wars, and victories in war. As sometimes claimed ‘history is written by the winners in wars.’ By contrast, peace is seen as a kind of sentimental affirmation by those who can’t live fruitfully in what is posited cynically as the ‘real world’. The emphasis on war studies and security studies goes together with the academic orientation toward what is called ‘political realism’. Which is to say that in relations between your country and other countries, what counts is the hard power of militarism, not the soft power of morality, law, and cooperative action. And certainly, spirituality has no place in politically prevailing views of ‘reality.’ These intangibles are considered irrelevant, or worse, diversionary. The leading thinkers of my generation, including Henry Kissinger, George F. Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr, whose influence shaped the practice  of international relations, were very contemptuous of normative ideas that they felt confused clear analysis of real challenges, which was to figure out how prudently and effectively use national military, diplomatic, and economic capabilities for the benefit of your particular nation state. This way of thinking and acting is deeply ingrained in our political culture, including the pernicious idea that war can be a benevolent instrument for prosperity and provide occasions for replenishing national pride, and has sometimes historically functioned as the key to cultural flourishing, societal happiness, and even civilizational preeminence. And in that sense, one has to deconstruct this primacy of war and violence, and other related realities in order to gain an understanding of mainstream orbits of opinion. If you closely watch, for instance, mainstream media’s treatment of policy debates, you will notice that networks in the West rely almost exclusively on militarist experts, either retired intelligence officials or generals, or sometimes diplomats and think tank professionals. Persons who are self-consciously peace-oriented are almost never invited to present their views to the general public. It’s not considered ‘responsible commentary’ on the public issues of the day to question the militarist consensus that dominates the thinking of most political elites and politicians. You will almost never find a Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, or Naomi Klein invited to comment on controversial foreign policy issues by a mainstream media outlet.

I’m not sure it was ever true to say that peace was valued in and of itself, but I think there were two reasons why the peace discourse was seen as more relevant in the period after 1945. The first is the fear of a new war, and in particular, a war fought with nuclear weapons. And that made even self-styled ‘realists’ think about what can be done prudently to avoid war as the outcome of national policy. To this degree there was some temporary sense that a favorable turn toward peace thinking was taking place, and sometimes even rather utopian thinking was not scorned as previously. After Hiroshima and before the Cold War there were realists who advocated world government, or a much stronger UN conception, as the only alternatives to future catastrophe. However, these shadows cast by the ending of World War II and the terrible devastation which that war caused were soon swept away by the. geopolitical winds of renewed international conflict, and by the self-interest of bureaucrats and the arms industry. The outbreak of a new conflict configuration involving the Soviet Union, communism, the Cold War and so on fueled new fears and perceived threats, especially in the public, but the logic of conflict was given precedence. Even though the crises that were associated with the early period up through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were scary, the energies of government were concentrated on winning the Cold War, or at least not losing, and the risks of war were put to one side by leaders in Washington and Moscow. In this period, there remained a fear-driven interest in peace among sectors of the public, but it was no match for warmongering patriotic ideologically tainted discourse deployed by political leaders.

Secondly, coincident with this conflictual relationship with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, there was an understanding that many of these conflicts could only be acceptably settled by compromise. The risks of resolving international conflict in the traditional way, by separating winners from losers, had become too high. As a result, we find that the main conflicts after World War II, like the Korean War, ended in a stalemate. And the divisions of these countries, like Vietnam, Germany and Korea, all reflected that sense that this was a world where it had become necessary, wherever possible, to reach accommodations even with enemies, and it became widely accepted to regard such arrangements as ‘making peace.’ The alternative was to risk the unacceptable dangers of escalation that could easily lead to major wars, which almost none of the political leaders and intellectuals wanted at that point. A few so-called hyper-rational ‘war thinkers’ did believe that it was possible to win even a nuclear war at an acceptable cost, but by and large there was a sense that the avoidance of major wars was a prime objective of policy second only to holding the line of containment in relation to international adversaries. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, there was no longer an obvious brake on pushing advantages by the West toward aa global scale geopolitical victory. The interest in peace or compromise in these conflicts diminished, and the phenomenon of ‘forever wars’ emerged. To the extent that, for instance Barack Obama early in his presidency sought regional and global accommodations, hoping for a more peaceful world, his efforts were pushed aside by the militarized government bureaucracy. The Trumpist sequel represents more accurately a disturbing trend in world politics toward militarist, autocratic, chauvinistic, political arrangements. I would be careful about supposing that peace was a valued concept and goal in the past. I think it was more instrumental, because of fear and the need to compromise to avoid highly dangerous risks, although the early American experience was intent on avoiding the wasteful and costly wars that seemed to beset Europe so frequently.

How do you contribute to world peace?

I can claim a number of contributions, but all have an uncertain and often frustrating character on the unfolding of world history. Put in perspective, my ‘contributions’ can be most accurately seen as well-intentioned failures rather than policy successes. I’ve worked over the years to oppose the militarist premises of American foreign policy, both as an intellectual and activist/advocate. This started for me with the Vietnam War in the mid-60s, lasting until the mid-70s, and persisted as a central concern long after Vietnam. I continued opposing military interventions around the world, especially by the United States. For some years I concentrated all my efforts on opposing external intervention by the U.S., pushed by Israel and later Saudi Arabia, to reverse the 1979 outcome of the Iran revolution. I testified before congressional committees and in many other public events, to explain the grounds of my opposition to militarist approaches to foreign policy being pursued by my own country, the US., seeking governmental support for my views, which was rarely forthcoming. 

These concerns were evident in my writing, scholarship and in transnational intellectual projects, such as the World Order Models Project, and collaborative scholarly work supported by the UN University in Tokyo. I worked for many years on developing models of global governance that would minimize violence and maximize social justice, economic wellbeing and ecological sustainability. I tried to identify the elements of what might not qualify as perfect peace, but produced conditions that seemed capable of producing a more peaceful, less militarized world. And I published work in this spirt, including two books in the 1970s, one called A Study of Future Worlds, and the other called This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival. I have continued my anti-nuclear activity, both writing and advocacy, including collaborative undertakings with David Krieger, the longtime president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. I suppose my two most persistent academic themes with immediate policy relevance have been anti-nuclearism and anti-interventionism. My scholarly activity has been characterized by a pro-human rights and anti-oppression slant. I’ve been quite active in anti-apartheid political engagements, especially with respect to South Africa and Israel. I’ve recently finished a political memoir, and in the course of this effort have been rethinking the role and value of advocacy scholarship with respect to some of these issues.

Just to clarify my own perspective, I’ve been consistently an opponent of world government and of world citizenship, with which my quite different views are often confused. I am critical of any current advocacy of world government as it tends to be a disguised, and perhaps naïve and innocent, scenario for Western hegemony, given the various disparities in diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities that exist. Given the world as it is, world government in any form seems a premature proposal without prospects of gaining political traction among either the public or leaders. Similarly, with citizenship, which to be meaningful, presupposes participation within a global community of shared values and overlapping interests. Since a world community in terms of shared values and identities does not exist, the assertion of ‘world citizenship’ is sentimental and apolitical. I do endorse the goal of becoming ‘citizen pilgrims,’ persons that seek to establish a world community in the future and works toward this end. The UN can stake some claims to prefigure a world community, but after 75 years the UN remains primarily a vehicle for the pursuit of national interests of Member states an arena for geopolitical manipulation, although its mainly off-camera contributions to health, culture, human rights, environment, development, and norm creation have improved many facets of life throughout the world.

The general receptivity to ideas of global federalism has become both more and less. Issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it clearer to a much greater degree that ‘we are alI in this together,’ than what was described earlier as fear-induced peace idealism associated especially with anxiety about a major war fought with nuclear weapons. It’s partly this emergence of ‘global realism,’ but it also partly the recognition that we’re living in a time where the scale of problems cannot be addressed successfully at the level of the nation state, even by those, such as the United States, with a geopolitical global reach. This means that we need a sense of both human identity and of global interests in order to handle the bio-ecological challenges that are being generated that will transform the way we live on this crowded planet if we are to survive as a flourishing species. This revolutionary situation is partly a reflection of emerging technology and of the earlier unanticipated dangerous effects of greenhouse gas emissions on global climate. This underlying sense of overwhelming challenge and impotent response was given a charismatic formulation by the Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, whose message to diplomats when she talked at the UN, “You will die from old age, I will die from climate change.” This simple accusatory assertion is a metaphor for the understanding of a negative globalist inter-generation mentality, which must surely be overcome if problem-solving in the 21st century is to be successful. And this kind of confrontation between worldviews and generations will hopefully increase a comprehension of the urgencies facing humanity.

However, less receptivity than might otherwise occur currently exists, because in almost every important country now, you have autocratic leaders whose outlook is shaped by variations of a toxic ideology that I characterize as ‘ultranationalism.’ These leaders are temperamentally and ideologically opposed to global cooperation, and disregard the functional imperative that make such cooperation necessary. Again, Trump is the most blatant example of this disastrous response pattern whose worldview is not interested in any horizon longer than their own life expectantcy. Even when the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest was imperiling biodiversity on the global scale, Trump opposed, on principle, any challenge to Brazilian sovereign rights. There was no recognition of a global interest in ecological sustainability, that goes beyond sovereignty or present conditions. Humanity faces this terrible paradox: At the very moment when we most need globalist thinking and long-range problem-solving, the leading governments are almost uniformly governed in this ultranationalist spirit, and that paradox really bedevils anyone who really thinks that the future can be successfully negotiated in some simple way. It seems plausible that dialectical ways of thinking and reasoning are more responsive to this complexity that we find associated with the contradictions that exist in the present global setting. By ‘dialectical thinking’ I am calling attention to contradictions that are so historically present at the current stage of social, cultural, and political evolution, but should not be viewed as having the character of finality. Such contradictions are unfolding, and may be receptive to reconciliation through synthesis, a transcendence of contradiction that is better understood and far more evolved in Eastern thought than in the West. 

What do you think world peace would feel like?

It is first necessary to define what you mean by world peace. If you just mean the absence of war, or even the absence of conflict that threatens to become a war, I think there would be a very strong popular support for that even among the strongest states as measured by military capabilities, including the United States. If you mean a renunciation of the quest for security based on military capabilities and superiority, and celebration of the military role in political society, I think there would be an ambivalent response from national citizenries. And there would be a lot of resistance from aa variety of patriotic perspectives, but also from the private sector and militarized parts of government bureaucracies. The war industry is a very powerful force in many leading countries, and it exerts a strong warmongering influence. Sustaining a large military budget has depend on war or its imminence. The threat of war has become a necessity for the permanently militarized state that the United State has become. Washington thrives on exaggerated security requirements, and embraces ambitious security missions. By ‘ambitious’ is here meant the adoption of foreign policy goals that entail gratuitous global projections of force for questionable security objectives. These considerations make it obvious that the transition to a peaceful world involve a revolutionary transformation of the inner dynamics of society, as well as the elimination of war as the defining feature of international life. In the U.S. this would almost certainly be coupled with substantial domestic demilitarization, presupposing a frontal challenge to ‘gun culture’ and the ethos and legal interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What is the relationship between inner peace and world peace?

I think that those who have inner peace are more endowed and more disposed to producing outer peace, and therefore if the qualification of political leadership involved some kind of established credentials of inner peace, we’d have a more peaceful world, in my view. And for this reason, your question quite naturally brings up feminism. I think that women are more disposed to achieving inner peace, perhaps biologically endowed through childbearing and child rearing, and possibly by being traditionally excluded from the more militarist spheres of human activity. In my experience women are more genetically and culturally inclined to appreciate the virtues of peace more deeply and naturally than do men. I am not referring to the women who have so far succeeded in becoming leaders in a man’s world, who in order to qualify have had to demonstrate that they are more militarist than the men, like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, or Indira Gandhi. I’m talking more generally of the more profound identity of women as nurturing. The gatekeepers of the citadels of power are wary of this kind of nurturing feminine sensibility when encountering in women, and even in men. I would be more optimistic about the future if these kinds of nurturing tendencies that women have to a greater extent than men, were to become the criterion for candidacy for elective office, somewhat replacing the role that credentials of being a churchgoer have in the United States. It is time we replaced the gatekeepers! Or at least changed the nature of their role.

What is the relationship between peace and love?

As I indicated at the beginning of our conversation, my first response was that real peace is indistinguishable from real love. You can’t have real love without real peace, although the terrain of love can induce turmoil if the love is not shared or is somehow resisted, or a misunderstanding of reality arouses feelings of distrust and jealousy. When you have real love, you almost necessarily have real peace. And so, to some extent, there is a twinning, so to speak, of peace and love, that needs to be understood unsentimentally. It’s not a matter of a kind of sentimental or highly romanticized sense of love, but a deep affirmation of otherness and selfhood that implies a willingness or even a desire to share that reality with others, and in some fuller sense to share it with all others, including building organic mutual connections with nonhuman others, with nature and the cosmos. Inspirational mystics, where monks or poets, are the great teachers of love, and for this reason the great teachers of peace.

I think that most political leaders of today are the products of the denial of love and peace, as far as I can tell. They will use the language of peace, even love, instrumentally when it serves their purposes, but I would contend that they lack compassion, even empathy. And without compassion you cannot have genuine love or peace. You certainly can’t have those qualities embodied in your political persona. Maybe in some cases there is what my friend Robert Jay Lifton, a pioneering psycho-historian, calls ‘doubling’. This psychological phenomenon described his interpretation of interviewees who served as Nazi doctors by day, and at night after going home were untroubled, generally behaving as devoted husband and father. This kind of sociopathic bipolarity is undoubtedly present in every society, and is a perverse way of reconciling inner and outer experiences that would superficially seem to be in tension.

    We lament the social tragedy that is produced by leaders who lack access to either inner or outer peace. The example of Trump is exemplary. For someone like Trump to overcome his multiple manifestations of sociopathic and narcissistic behavior, traceable to his childhood, is unimaginable unless he experiences major traumatic jolts. I would point out that many people experience a cruel and loveless childhood, but most take responsibility for what they become and do in their life. And so, despite his abusive childhood Trump should be held fully accountable for the choices he has made throughout his life. He made choices that have harmed many people, and are exploitative, domineering. More than most persons, Trump has been given many chances for redemptive behavior. He had the resources, the admiration, the opportunities to withdraw from the conditioning derivative from childhood. His father seems to have been monstrous to Trump when he was child, and that probably explains these character traits that psychiatrists, and even close relatives have written and talked about in incriminating detail.

On a small scale I experienced some psychological abuse in my own past, so I have some understanding of both sides of the experience. It exerts influences, but it doesn’t relieve a person from taking responsibility for the kind of life that someone chooses to lead. All of this horrible behavior by Trump and many others in history, including Hitler, can be traced by back to deformities that are inflicted at a very early age. It is partly societal failures that we don’t have constructive maturing experiences that includes teaching us that with the gift of freedom comes the burden of responsibility. And that includes getting professional help if you need it to overcome dysfunctional behavioral pattern that are hurtful to self and to those who are closely engaged and in relation to the social dimensions of our lives. An ethics of responsibility seems to me to be complementary to an ethics of empathy and a politics of freedom, and without both responsibility and empathy there will be no hope, individually for either inner or outer peace. Even in repressive societies freedom and responsibility are never banished from private realms of existence, and we encounter kind and cruel persons, extreme narcissists in every kind of society.  

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Palestine Legal: Please Support & Donate

18 Dec
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Will China Run the World? Should it?

14 Dec

[Prefatory Note: Interview Responses to Questions of Javad Heiran-Nia on world order in the time of COVID-19, with emphasis on China & United States, especially as reflected in the restructuring of the world economy. The underlying issue is whether the Chinese or U.S. approach to global policy and world order will gain the upper hand, and at what costs to humanity. The interview will be published in a forthcoming issue of Age of Reflection, a monthly magazine. (http://www.asreandisheh.com/). This post adds some observations at the end that do not appear in the interview.]

  1. In recent years, and especially with the spread of the Corona virus and the way China and the United States have dealt with this virus, the issue of Chinese and American order has received more and more attention. Do you think it is relevant to talk about Chinese order?

Yes, I think it has become extremely relevant to talk about the comparative approaches of China and the U.S. to problem-solving and political order, both their differences and similarities. There exists a preliminary question relating to the seemingly unusual character of American political leadership during the past four years of the Trump presidency, and the probability that it is about to change in style and substance shortly after Joe Biden is inaugurated as the next president. Trump is the first American leader to reject the authority of science and expert guidance in a period of national crisis, greatly aggravating the harm caused by the Corona-19 virus through the advocacy of behavior that contributes to the spread of the disease rather than to its containment. It is also notable that other illiberal leaders of important states have also acted in extremely irresponsible ways during the crisis, including Bolsonaro, the leader of Brazil, and to some extent, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, among others.

The comparison between China and the United States, current leadership aside, suggests some important differences. The most important difference relates to the role of the central government, and in China’s case, the state. China has more of a unitary system in which policy is set in Beijing for the entire country. In the United States, the reality of federalism means that all 50 internal states enjoy a measure of autonomy, which results in diverse responses to the COVID challenge, some following the approach taken by Trump while others following health guidelines and produce overall better results.

In general, it is possible to suggest that the role of the state is more effectively and efficiently deployed in China in response to COVID, although exhibiting a disturbing disregard for the freedom of citizens and their human rights, especially with regard to political dissent and peaceful opposition. The extraordinary success of the Chinese economy over the course of the past 50 years, confirms the importance of providing centralized guidance in promoting technological innovations and in managing the allocations of capital investment in rapid and sustainable patterns of development. 

The U.S. has long suffered from the effects of massive over-investment in military capabilities, which has led to a series of costly foreign policy failures going back to Vietnam, compounded by a refusal to adapt to a global setting in which the politics of national resistance prevails over the superior weaponry of the United States, producing endless wars with unfavorable political outcomes for the intervening. So far China has avoided this trap, expanding through reliance on a variety of soft power instruments, but whether it can maintain this posture in the face of the U.S. current disposition toward confrontation and the initiation of a second cold war is not clear.

The U.S. also suffers from ideological inhibitions that are leftovers from the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Any reliance on government to perform roles relating to health, education, and social protection are labeled as ‘socialism,’ which is treated as such an evil mode of governing as to foreclose serious discussion. The result has been disinvestment in the social justice agenda, which is compounded in bad effects by the continuing over-investment in the militarist agenda.  

  • Liberal order after World War II, with Trump coming to power, became more and more threatened, and Trump weakened the institutions and organizations that were the manifestation of economic liberalism; Like the World Trade Organization. China, meanwhile, is currently benefiting from a liberal order in the international arena. What is the reason for this?

This is a crucial question. There is no doubt that neoliberal globalization led to a surge in international trade and investment, fueling sustained economic growth, but it also led to great inequality of benefits from economic development, sharpening class tensions, and in the American case caused acute alienation among workers and rural communities. The Trump phenomenon arose as an ultra-nationalist impassioned backlash to these negative domestic impacts of liberalism. Trump’s insistent call for ‘America First’ coupled with a rejection of all phases of globalism resonated with many Americans. Such a strident outlook struck heavy blows against global cooperation and hospitality to asylum-seekers and refugee, and even immigrants, at the very time these more cosmopolitan behavioral patterns were most needed to address such serious challenges as climate change and migration flows that could not be handled satisfactorily by states acting alone. In some respects, this retreat behind borders worked politically and economically for Trump until the unanticipated COVID pandemic came along. Trump missed no opportunity to boast about the stock market reaching historic highs, low unemployment figures, and somewhat rising wages for workers. The down side of Trump’s approach led to repudiations of the authority of international economic institutions, produced accelerating inequality, and was accompanied by ugly reactions against immigrants and people of color who were denied the full benefits of citizenship and were treated as hostile threats to nationalist identities of supremacy claimed by discontented white Americans who felt understood, energized, and supported by the Trump leadership.

In contrast, China was able to benefit from market forces while simultaneously overcoming the impoverished condition of more than 300,000,000 of its citizens and rapidly building an efficient modern market society on the largest national scale ever known. China’s state-guided public investment policies have seemed very well coordinated to develop an economy that is not only remarkably productive in industrial era manufacturing, but has started to dominate the technological frontiers that have military and reputational implications as threatening to the West as was post-1945 decolonization. China managed to combine taking advantage of liberalism while avoiding most severe forms of domestic alienation, and found win/win ways to help with infrastructure development of less developed countries without seriously interfering with their sovereign rights or political independence, thereby raising its status internationally. From a human rights perspective, China built an impressive record with respect to economic and social rights, while limiting political and civil rights rather severely, and imposing an unacceptably discriminatory regime on the large minority Uighur population in Xinjiang province. 

  • The Biden team is set to amend the World Trade Organization’s constitution to make trade more profitable for the United States. They seem to be looking to make tariff changes and a kind of economic protectionism so that China does not benefit much from free trade. What is your assessment?

The Biden approach to China reflects a bipartisan, and largely mistaken, view that China has taken unfair advantage of world economy through improper subsidies of exports and by way of strict regulation of imports and foreign investment in China, including with respect to technology. I am not equipped to assess the reasonableness of these grievances, nor of the Chinese concerns with unfair responses to their activities in global markets. There is a danger arising from this attempt to control Chinese economic behavior that it will lead China to retaliate and give rise to the sort of protectionism that caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, characterized as a ‘beggar thy neighbor’ ethos in foreign economic policy. There is also present an impression that the United States is neglecting its own economic shortcomings by shifting blame to China rather than making reforms such as a more prudent allocation of resources and a more effective and equitable public allocation of public sector revenues to promote research and development in non-military projects. The U.S. political taboo preventing even discussion of the shrinking the military budget and the worldwide network of overseas bases is more explanatory of American decline than are accusations of improper behavior directed at China. The U.S.’s military budget is larger than the combined military expenditures of the next ten countries, and yet the U.S. has never felt more insecure throughout its entire history. It is these realities that are at the root of the relative world decline in the economic sphere, and the overall crisis confidence, currently besetting  the United States.

  • Fifteen Asia-Pacific economies formed the world’s largest free trade union, an agreement backed by China that does not include the United States. The Economic Partnership brings together the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The pact came as the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pact that Obama believed would establish the Asian trade order in the 21st century and would not allow China to do so. China is now shaping the Asian order with a new treaty. What is your assessment?

This question points to another major deficiency in the global turn toward economic nationalism and away from economic multinationalism during the Trump presidency. China has taken intelligent advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which incidentally excluded China reflecting Obama’s interest in containing China’s regional outreach. China has helped fill the cooperation vacuum by adopting a multilateral framework designed to facilitate Asian growth of trade and investment. Trump’s preference for ‘transactional’ bilateral deals over negotiated cooperative frameworks seems ‘ is very shortsighted, and is almost certain to be rejected as an approach during the Biden presidency. But it is probably too late to reverse these regional developments by U.S. inclusion unless Biden’s leadership moves away from confrontation and toward accommodation, which seems unlikely. This China-led 10 country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership includes Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei is off to an impressive start. This arrangement has been under negotiation since 2012, and just now formally endorsed by member governments. India had been expected to become a member, withdrawing recently because the expected lowering of tariffs was thought to harm Indian producers. As it is this Asian bloc comprises 30% of the world’s population, and just under 30% of the world’s GDP. 

  • With Biden coming, it seems that we will see a kind of limited liberalism in the international system. What is your assessment?

I anticipate a double movement with regard to the world economy: one movement would be toward restoring the spirit and substance of market driven transnational agreements and frameworks designed to encourage trade and investment within a rule governed framework that is mutually beneficial and inclusive; the second movement is more ideologically delimited, seeking frameworks that are ideologically and geopolitically more closely aligned, excluding China, and possibly Russia. This post-Cold War restructuring was somewhat anticipated by the Obama ‘Asia reset’ that deliberately excluded China from the TPP, and Biden is likely to go further in Asia, and possibly joining with India in adopting a new containment approach to foreign policy and world order. It is difficult at this stage to know how China will react if it is faced with geopolitical encirclement and a more exclusionary economic atmosphere. It is possible that China, which is more pragmatic and opportunistic than the West, will do its best to encourage a less conflictual new phase of economic globalization, which would spread benefits worldwide, is also responsibly concerned with the global public good, which translates into greater support for clean energy, environmental protection, human rights, denuclearizing initiatives, and a more equitable distribution of benefits of economic growth. 

  • Trump received over 70 million votes. This is almost equal to Biden, especially if Biden’s big margin in California is discounted. That means almost half of American voters like Trump. That is, his views on nationalism in all its dimensions, and his economic protectionism and unilateralism, are popular with the American people and are tied to the interests of the people. How can Biden balance the values of liberalism, of which globalization is a manifestation, with this demand of Trump supporters at the domestic level?

Biden’s efforts to find a consensus on foreign economic policy will definitely pose a crucial test for his presidency. If he seeks to act on the basis of domestic unity, policymaking will likely be paralyzed, especially if Republicans remain able to put roadblocks in the path of Democratic proposed initiatives. If Biden decides to ignore the priorities of this lingering large Trump support he will be confronted by resentment and disruption. It is a dilemma no recent American president has faced. Whether the dilemma can be overcome also depends on whether Trumpist Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate, and that seems to rest on the Georgia reruns of the two senatorial elections, which will be decided in early January. Unless the Democrats win both races, the Republicans will control the Senate, and as they did with Obama’s second term, be in a position to obstruct and block most legislative initiatives that are seen as antagonistic to the Trump approach. Biden’s pledge to be president for all Americans sounds good, but whether it will be a successful governing style remains in doubt. My understanding is that most Trumpists want power not compromise or responsible government. In this regard, restoring civility to the American political scene will be welcomed even by some Trump supporters, but to uphold his policy goals it may well be necessary to confront Republicans and mobilize the support of the citizenry. With the recent election revealing the depth of polarization, further revealed by the Trump refusal to accept the outcome as certified by the long reliable voting schemes operative in the 50 states, including those presided over by Republican officials, there are many signs of domestic trouble ahead for Biden whether he gives way on his policy agenda or tries to have it fulfilled. Biden may have more success in reviving the bilateral consensus on foreign policy that existed during the Cold War, and would be now focus on restoring European alliance relations and challenging China regionally in South and East Asia, and globally with regard to a U.S. oriented revision of rule-governed globalization. Again, much depends on the degree to which the Biden leadership with continues to address global security through a militarist optic. Early indications suggest that the demilitarization of the American political and moral imagination will not be forthcoming in the near future whoever is president. 

  • If Biden wants to deviate from the principles of free trade in order to contain China, he has deviated from one of the main principles of economic liberalism. This means that liberalism has faced a serious challenge in practice, especially at the international level. What is your opinion?

Again, I think the way to consider such a departure from global scale, inclusive liberalism is to reevaluate the operation of the world economy during and after the ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s. On the basis of my prior responses is a return to a modified Cold War orientation toward foreign economic policy. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s participation in the world economy is indispensable for world stability and sustainable development, which creates a realization of mutual benefits. There is no realistic prospect of resurrecting the ‘Washington consensus’ shaped by the Bretton Woods institutions as projecting American values onto the global stage as the more legitimate future than that projected by Moscow. What might be feasible is some reform within the neoliberal framework that gained certain concessions from China but more or less retained the inclusive structures of neoliberal globalization that have controlled the world economy since the Soviet collapse in 1992. Thinking optimistically, we might even witness an upgrading the quality of Chinese participation. If reform fails and geopolitical confrontation occurs, then a lose/lose future for the entire world looms as the likely outcome, which could work more to the disadvantage of the West than to China. It needs to realized that China has been adapting its public investment priorities in light of expanding the economic performance of its huge domestic market, including satisfying rising consumer demand, as well continuing with the largest international/transnational development in world history, The Road and Belt Initiative or One Belt, One Road (OBOR), a new Silk Road adapted to the circumstances of the present. As Deepak Nayyar has shown in his breakthrough book, Asian Resurgence (2019), China is no longer dependent on Silicon Valley and Europe for technological progress, but the West, including the United States, may increasingly look to China for the latest technological innovations. Undoubtedly, part of the rising tension with China reflects the threatening reality that the country has graduated from its non-threatening role as ‘the factory of the world’ to becoming dominant on some of the most dynamic technological frontiers, which is a symbolic as well as a substantive blow to America’s reputation and leadership credentials, and possibly even to its dominance with respect to innovations in military technology.  

8. Given that liberalism is not in America’s best interests internationally, and theorists such as Prof. John Mearsheimer warn the US government against pursuing liberalism globally, what do you think will replace the current liberal order?

John Mearsheimer has long intelligently stressed the geopolitical dimensions of world order, which inevitably emphasizes patterns of conflict between major actors. As an extreme realist he regards ‘liberalism’ as naïve, and a sign of weakness, which invites cynical adversaries to take advantage economically and diplomatically. Mearsheimer is convinced that history is shaped by those political actors that prevail militarily, and as adjusted for present realities, the first priority of foreign policy should not be cooperation with rivals but their deterrence. He has gone so far as to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III during the Cold War.

A complementary view to that of Mearsheimer has been influentially formulated by Graham Allison in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ (2017), which puts forward the thesis that high risks of war occur when the hegemonic hierarchy is challenged by an ascending actor in international relations. The present ascendant political actor that perceived a rising challenge from below is likely to provoke war rather than give way, which according to Allison is what has almost happened throughout world history.

Whether such abstractions should be given much weight considering several factors:

–the globalizing adaptations in the post-COVID world, giving increased role to WHO, and UN

Generally, as offset by persisting ultra-nationalist governance trends, despite defeat of Trump;

–a growing anxiety about global warming producing climate change with many harmful effects, including dangerous erosions of biodiversity;

–the Chinese challenge to American global primacy arising in a manner unlike earlier geopolitical confrontations, most notable with respect to economic performance, technological ascendancy, and soft power expansionism rather than by way of military challenge and territorial ambitions;

–U.S. relative decline globally, reflecting a continuing over-investment in military capabilities, a militarized permanent bureaucracy entrapped in an outmoded political imagination with a disposition that exaggerates security threats and under-invests in domestic infrastructure and social protection of its citizenry;

–a resulting intensification of uncertainty about the future of world order, some recovery of functional multilateralism under Biden leadership accompanied by increased reliance on coercive geopolitics involving relying on military ‘solutions’ for political problems. 

Qatar: Between the Scylla of Coercion and the Charybdis of Accommodation: aan inquiry into sub-regional geopolitics

11 Dec

[Prefatory Note: Responses to Interview Questions on Sub-Regional Geopolitics in the Persian/Arab Gulf countries, Qods News Agency, 10 Dec 2020. Qatar is caught between seeking the end of the coercive diplomacy led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and not wanting to end its necessary cooperation with Iran, especially with respect to large maritime natural gas deposits. The efforts at accommodation can turn out to be either a lessening of a confrontational approach to Iran or its intensification. Coming months, perhaps weeks, will be clarifying.]

Qatar: Between the Scylla of Coercion and the Charybdis of Accommodation: aan inquiry into sub-regional geopolitics

Q1: What is the role of Saudi Arabia in the structure of countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or even Lebanon? 

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia seeks to spread its influence throughout 

the Middle East, both to enhance the regime stability of the monarchy and to contain challenges of Iran arising in the countries mentioned in the question. Saudi Arabian security is also linked to sectarian identity, not only to give hegemonic legitimacy to its particular version of Islam but to express its view that Shi’ism is responsible for turmoil and strife throughout the region, and is the basis of Iranian influence beyond its borders. These issues cause political controversy and explain external intervention in the four countries mentioned. In each one Iran is perceived by the Saudi government as blocking national ambitions in Riyadh to be the regional leader, but also of the perceived threats to Saudi security and legitimacy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is seen by Saudi Arabia as being not only a challenge to Sunni dominance of Islamic allegiance and identity in the region but also as an abiding threat to domestic security due to the strategic presence in the society of discontented and radicalized Shi’ite minorities and by Shi’ite insistence, clearly articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, that monarchy is not compatible with Islamic values.

Q2: Given the fact that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE obey the US policies, what is your assessment of the current dispute among them? 

It is a mistake to assume that the U.S. controls all aspects of Gulf country behavior. I believe that Saudi Arabia and UAE were disturbed by what they regarded as Qatar’s independent line of political behavior that collided with their policy preferences. These governments wanted there to be unity of purpose and policy with Gulf Cooperation Policy under their reactionary leadership, and opposed Qatar’s normalized relations with Iran, their openness to giving asylum and diplomatic support to Muslim Brotherhood leaders and prominent Hamas leaders living in exile, as well as their relative openness to ‘modernity’ with regard to freedom of expression and independent media, particularly Aljazeera, which carried articles that were critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in relation to the Syrian strife and otherwise. From available information, the U.S. never was comfortable with this split among Gulf countries, except at the very outset when the Saudi anti-Qatar received the obviously ill-considered blessings of President Trump while he was in Riyadh. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Government realizing its strategic interests, quickly shifted its position and began using it diplomatic leverage to encourage reconciliation. It is plausible to believe that U.S. influence might have discouraged more aggressive moves against Qatar. The large U.S. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar undoubtedly was a factor leading Washington to promote accommodation and at the same time likely inhibiting the Saudi/UAE led coalition from making any serious effort to implement their reported intention to achieve regime-change in Doha. It is likely that the Biden presidency will persist in its efforts to restore harmony among the Gulf monarchies, which is also what Israel seeks.

Q3: What reasons caused the shift of Arab world leadership from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar? What were its effects?

Egypt, Syria, and Iraq exhibit national situations that each have their own special features generating distinct atmospheres of national emergency. At the same time, they share all-consuming preoccupations associated with domestic turmoil, strife, and conflict within their respective countries. These crisis situations dominates the energies of the political leadership of these governments. It is hardly surprising that the search for stability at home take precedence over the regional agenda. As well, these countries are not nearly as worried as are Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Iranian expanded influence in the region, or particularly threatened by anti-Sunni sectarianism. In contrast, as suggested above, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are relatively stable domestically, while giving greater attention to developments within the regional context of the Middle East. Qatar seems differently motivated, and can be best understood as asserting its independence as a sovereign state, thereby overcoming being in the shadows cast by its larger neighbor. Qatar uses its fossil fuel wealth and active political imagination to overcome its subordinated and mini-state reality, which it did so successfully as to provoke Saudi and Emirate elites, apparently particularly annoyed that Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.


Q4: What are the reasons for the current regional security and political crises in the Middle East?

There are four principal reasons for these serious, prolonged crises: first, the various regional reverberations of the Iranian Revolution that has generated since 1979 a counterrevolutionary series of responses led, and even financed by Saudi Arabia and regional allies, and strongly endorsed by Israel and the United States. Each of these political actors has their specific motivations and priorities, as well as convergent policy objectives; secondly, the regionally destabilizing impacts of the Arab Uprisings of 2011, and the various efforts to reverse, or at least neutralize, those challenges directed at the established economic and political order. As well, the severe unresolved civil strife in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have offered occasions for competitive interventions that have led to several proxy wars; thirdly, the U.S./UK attack on and regime-changing occupation of Iraq in 2003 had the effect of intensifying sectarian tensions and contributing to political extremism, dramatized by the rise of ISIS, and other manifestations of transnational terrorism; fourthly, the outside reactions to these developments in Iraq increased the scale of regional and international interventions in Syria and Yemen, produced oppression in Egypt, and led to frequent unlawful military actions by Israel in Syria. Such turmoil was aggravated by various U.S. undertakings designed to destabilize Iran, including by covert actions and sanctions maintained during the COVID pandemic despite international appeals to suspend sanctions and mitigate acute civilian suffering and adverse humanitarian consequences. The United States and Israel have given a high priority to curbing Iranian regional influences in relation to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and more recently, Lebanon, as well as in Gaza.  

Q5: What is your opinion about the role of the Persian Gulf Arab countries in the formation of terrorist groups?

I am not an expert on this topic, nor is it easy to assess, given the role of secret and disguised behavior of Persian Gulf Arab countries. For many years, Saudi Arabia invested many billions in support of madrassas in Asian Sunni countries that encouraged Salafi versions of political extremism that

inspired terrorist organizations and political agendas, and also led to an increased reliance on state terrorist tactics and weaponry in carrying on counterterrorist warfare regionally. It is my impression that the lower profile military engagement by the U.S. during the Trump presidency led the Gulf Arab governments to be more regionally cautious, seemingly worried about escalation that might lead to war if Iran was unduly provoked, with the assumption that a full-fledged regional war would produce catastrophic results for all sides. Illustrative of a more cautious Gulf style of confrontation was the muted response to the drone attack attributed to Yemen, but with Iranian weaponry and alleged political support,t on the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities located at Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia. Whether Biden will revive American participation in the 2015 Nuclear Program Agreement in Iran, ending sanctions, will affect how Persian Gulf Arab governments deal with anti-Iranian terrorist organizations. As always, expectations about such behavior in the region should be tentative as many uncertainties loom on the road ahead.