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9/11 + 9/12: COMPOUNDING TRAGEDY

22 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies threats and confines the political and moral imagination. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and faced with the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure.

[Prefatory Note: This post is the second part of my interview with Daniel Falcone that was published by CounterPunch on

September 12, 2021. It explores further the effects of the attacks and ongoing sequences of reactions, which were appropriately attributable to the events of 9/11 and those internal moves of surveillance and detention that were independently favored by the U.S. governmental leadership, but were too controversial to take until they were able to make to claim the cover of the War on Terror. A similar, even more pronounced dualism, is helpful in distinguishing the 9/12 developments that were plausible responses to the mega-terrorist transnational attacks and those escalated responses that reflected a preexisting disposition of the neoconservative foreign policy advisory circle around President George W. Bush to use American military capabilities against governments that were geopolitical outliers with respect to the neoliberal consensus on globalization or were hostile to American alignments in the Middle East and elsewhere.]

                             Part Two

International and Internal Impacts of 9/11, 9/12

Daniel Falcone: How has foreign policy and institutional approaches to global diplomacy changed over the past two decades in your estimation?

Richard Falk: The most notable change in American statecraft during this period is the abandonment of a core emphasis on economic globalization, with a corresponding swing in national security policy to counterterrorism, tactics and technological innovations that minimize visible U.S. warfighting and casualties on distant and dispersed combat zones situated within foreign sovereign states. While this counterterrorist impulse prevailed during the Bussh presidency, it placed heavy reliance on torture to obtain information relating to potential terrorist operations and the identity operatives. In the process, it turned official policy to ‘the dark side’ of counterterrorism, which meant a dismaying repudiation of international humanitarian law with respect to the belligerent conduct, and a total denial of human rights to those accused of a terrorist connection, however remote. It was contemptuous toward those who urged compliance with international law and human rights standards. The detention center at Guantanamo became

a word of international opprobrium, dehumanizing conduct, shaming the nation, and forever tarnishing its liberal credentials.

As well, declaring a war on terror made the entire world into a potential battlefield featuring the targeting of individuals or their places of habitation as suspected of terrorist affiliation. It also foregrounded reliance on unmanned drones for attack and surveillance, the deployment of small special operations detachments with capture or kill missions in 85 countries, whose governments often were not consulted or asked for permission with respect to penetrations of their sovereign space to engage in non-accountable acts of political violence. The execution of Osama Bin Laden, given safe have in Pakistan, by such a mission was the most significant and publicized instance of this form of counterterrorism.

Other changes in warfare unrelated to 9/11 involve the use of features of digital networking to disrupt, steal industrial or state secrets, attack vital electric grids, disrupt nuclear facilities through computer viruses. In other words, cyber age conflict is characteristically carried on in mostly settings other than territorial battlefields.

During the Trump presidency these doctrinal and ideological tendencies were carried further as alliances were deemphasized and bilateral transactional relations and the search for ‘deals’ with adversaries were given high profiles. Multilateralism declined, and a chauvinistic, territorial nationalism was raucously promoted, and affected many countries, explained in part as protection against immigration by the forces of ‘radical Islam,’ but additionally as a reaction against the perceived failures of globalization, with its privileging of capital at the expense of people.

The Biden presidency commencing in January 2021 seemed to revert to the pre-9/11 and pre-globalization Cold War approach to foreign policy, reviving and initiating alliances, championing an emerging geopolitical rivalry with China, and configuring military capabilities toward more traditional forms of warfare, as well as continuing the non-territorial concerns addressed under the label of cyber security. Biden seems to view international relations through an ideological lens that seeks to align ‘democracies’ for a great struggle with ‘autocracies,’ above all with allegedly ‘socialist’ China, but secondarily with once socialist Russia. In this sense, there is a foreign policy transition under way from counterterrorism to geopolitical rivalry, although this shift could be reversed or modified by new mega-terrorist events that recalled the spectacle and trauma of 9/11. The stakes are high—global hegemony more politely described as ‘global leadership.’

What is lacking in the political scene, sadly, is any strong moves toward the demilitarization of foreign policy or related adjustment to the failures arising from the militarization of political challenges. There seems to be no discussion of what we can learn from the methods and results of China’s remarkable achievement of economic development, which overcame the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of Chinese and spread its influence and achievements to many other countries by a win/win foreign economic policy that did not engage in intervention or state-building with respect to the internal politics of foreign countries. China’s Road and Belt Project that has brought many tangible developmental gains, especially in infrastructure, for countries throughout Africa and Asia, and virtually no military intrusions. The post-colonial West has developed nothing comparable, and is as reliant as ever on its military capabilities to hold its own geopolitically.

Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how certain terminology has evolved in the context of the post 9/11 world? For example, “terrorism,” “extremism,” “state building,” “legitimacy,” and “international community” are all words that change meaning within the discourse, correct?

Richard Falk: Yes, language always reflects changing patterns of hegemonic politics, and this was certainly true in the aftermath of 9/11, more so than in 9/12 contexts. The overall effort was to stigmatize certain behaviors as beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior while legitimating other patterns of action as providing justifications for previously dubious claims to encroach upon the sovereign rights of others or ignore the human rights of adversaries. Not since the death camps of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union has there been comparable image of abusing prisoners held in captivity. As suggested, Guantanamo is a name that defames America throughout the world. In effect, the discourse of international relations tries to provide geopolitical actors with ethical and legal justifications for their policy agendas and to discredit behavior adverse to their interests. This is especially true when new challenges emerge that make frameworks of permissible response seem insufficient.

Of the words in your question that acquired new relevance after 9/11: ‘terrorism,’ ‘state-building,’ and ‘extremism’ are particularly salient, and seem to describe the U.S. counterterrorist long-range efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, although there were antecedents for each pre-9/11. The words ‘legitimacy’ and ‘international community’ were useful in evading the strict prohibitions of international law as with respect to ‘torture,’ further disguised as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ ‘International community’ was also helpful in suggesting that the political backing of the UN reflected an anti-terrorist consensus that created an almost unconditional mandate for pursuing counterterrorist tactics without questioning their impacts on innocent civilians, in effect, an implied license to kill on suspicion or to intervene to replace governments accused of being connected with 9/11 either by providing safe haven or material support.

The most radical idea accompanying counterterrorist intervention entailed replacing the former regime with a governing process thatth would fit the broader, longer range policy priorities, political ideals, and material interests of the intrusion on sovereign space.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how Bush 43 through Biden have navigated the presidency while implementing select 9/11 narratives as a backdrop?

Richard Falk: Bush rallied the country primarily by demonizing the perpetrators of the 9/11 events, characterizing them as sub-human, to be ‘hunted’ as if wild animals. More than this he lent credence to the idea that non-state political violence was inherently extremist, wherever it occurred and regardless of justification, as posing a terrorist threat to all ‘civilized’ countries. Calling upon governments throughout the world to join with the US in this war on terror, or if unwilling to do so, be treated as siding with terrorism. In effect, Bush unilaterally by geopolitical fiat invalidated a neutral diplomacy as a legitimate policy option in the context of ‘the war on terror.’ Bush also, whether knowingly or not, allowed counterterrorist foreign policy to be converted into a vehicle for executing the pre-9/11 neoconservative agenda of regime change, state-building, and democracy promotion in the Middle East where the terrorist allegations or links to 9/11 were tenuous or non-existent, yet alleged. In Afghanistan the links to 9/11 seemed self-evident and rationalized a limited counterterrorist operation against al-Qaeda. It should have not surprised any close student of American foreign policy to take note of the speed with which the initial counterterrorist justification morphed into a failed twenty year politically, materially, and psychologically failed and expensive war against the Taliban.

Next Obama came to the White House as of 2009 with a pledge of a more restrained foreign policy approach, which meant operationally that Bush’s war on terror would go on but with more outward respect for international law and a less grandiose conception of an extended counterterrorist mission in the Middle East. Obama wanted to limit counterterrorism to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Manifesting geopolitical ambivalence, Obama favored a troop surge in Afghanistan, apparently believing that the state-building mission was on the verge of success. Obama also rejected the regime-changing, democracy-promotion neoconservative hijacking of the 9/11 provocation for its preoccupation with restructuring the politics of the Middle East in a manner that was particularly responsive to Israel’s goals, angering Netanyahu especially when extended to Iran. A highlight of the Obama presidency was the diplomacy that produced an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015, known as Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (or JCPOA) that was designed to give assurances that Iran would not cross the nuclear threshold and the United States would over time reduce the sanctions it had imposed.

Obama went along with stretching international law so as weaken some restraints on the use of force, especially by an increased reliance on attack drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda operatives were active. Obama supported the 2011 intervention in Libya, although demeaned by Republicans for ‘leading from behind’ when it came to the controversial NATO-led regime changing military operation that left the country at the mercy of prolonged violent ethnic strife. Qaddafi’s Libya although autocratic, had high ratings for social development, and is a further confirmation that intervention rarely achieves its purported goals.  

When Trump’s turn came in 2015, there was a confusing mix of policies. Trump went further than any prior president in shaping American foreign policy in the Middle East to accord with the regional goals of Israel and the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. This led to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the adoption of a policy toward Iran of ‘maximum pressure.’ At the same time, Trump set the stage for withdrawal from Afghanistan, denouncing forever wars as a waste of money and lives that were costly as well as tarnishing the US reputation as a fearsome hegemon. Trump’s America first, anti-immigration, pro-military policies were less a security posture directed at would be terrorists than an effort to build a right-wing, autocratic political movement in the United States that was hostile to all forms of internationalism, including multilateral diplomacy. Trump and Trumpism intensified a nativist Islamophobia that blamed ‘radical Islam’ for terrorism and generated a related negative form of identity politics that gave aid and comfort to the white supremacy movement. This was exemplified by Trump’s comments on a neo-fascist march through Charlottesville that was resisted by protesters, contending that there were ‘good people on both sides.’ Despite the home scene, geopolitical concerns about a rising China began displacing counterterrorism at the top of the foreign policy agenda, a dynamic already started during the Obama presidency under the rubric of a ‘pivot to Asia.’

The Biden presidency is still new, and its record mixed. It has moved to correct the criminal failures of Trumpism in dealing with the COVID challenge and climate change but has irresponsibly intensified rivalry with China and has exhibited continuity with much of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East despite reaffirming the moribund two-state approach to peace between Israel and Palestine. Biden deserves credit for pushing ahead with steps to end the war in Afghanistan, despite the unnecessarily humiliating and reckless final act, and maybe finally bringing to an end the debilitating intervention/state-building cycle. One hopes he recollects and builds upon his opposition to Afghanistan troop surge and Libya policy while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration rather than recalls his enthusiasm for embarking upon the Iraq War in 2003/.   

Daniel Falcone: Scholars and writers such as Noam ChomskyLawrence Davidson and Isabel Allende have written about 9/11 – and September 11, 1973 in Chile. Can you talk about this historical analogue? 

Richard Falk: The most illuminating insight drawn from a comparison between 9/11 and the Pinochet coup against the elected Allende government in Chile 28 years earlier encouraged and then supported by Washington, relates to the humanitarian and political costs for the United States of intervention in foreign societies. The whole 9/11 impetus for the U.S. to engage in state-building overseas in the aftermath of regime-changing interventions led to an estimated 929,000 deaths, more than eight trillion dollars of wasted expenditures, counterterrorist operations in 85 countries, and an estimated 38 million displaced persons according to the Cost of War Project of the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs. This background of post-9/11 war-making is a major explanation of the unmistakable imperial U.S. decline abroad and alienating polarization within America. These failed efforts to control adverse political and economic tendencies at their source, often as in Chile were motivated by the pressures mounted by large corporate investors. They involved assaults on the most fundamental of human rights, that of the right of self-determination acknowledged as constitutive of more specific rights by being highlighted as a common Article 1 in both human rights Covenants.

This ‘war’ waged against the exercise of the right of self-determination did not begin with 9/11 but was a feature and legacy of the Cold War, receiving a second life thanks to the response of neoconservative Republican leadership to 9/11 as abetted by a history of complicit bipartisan passivity on the part of the Democratic Party opposition. We should pause in our reckoning and thank Barbara Lee as the sole member of Congress to vote against the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001’ legislation that to this day gives executive leadership a green light to wage war at will without either domestic constitutional oversight or respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

The United States should have learned the blowback consequences of interfering with the internal dynamics of self-determination when it conspired back in 1953 to overthrow the elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, supposedly to bolster the geopolitics of containment of the Soviet Union, but at least as much to satisfy the greed and ambition of ‘big oil.’ The whole political turn toward Islam, eventuating in the mass movement of 1978-79 led from exile by Ayatollah Khomeini, can be traced to the unifying impact on diverse strands of Iranian society due to the restored imposition of the Shah’s regime as a result of externally motivated and sustained intervention. The same lesson was made even plainer for detached observers to learn in the 1970s as a consequence of the Vietnam War where the intervention was overt and massive, and yet in the end led to a humiliating defeat.

Of course, the most relevant geopolitical pedagogy should have been absorbed as a result of the long experience of the West in Afghanistan stretching back to the time of ‘the great game’ of colonial competition to control the country. The recent post-colonial variation on the great game started with the effort to mobilize resistance to a Kabul government in the 1980s that was seen as leaning toward Moscow. With a cavalier disregard of consequences, the U.S. stimulated and supported the Islamic resistance to Afghanistan’s first secular modernizing elected government with training and weapons, including strengthening and emboldening the militia that evolved into al-Qaeda under the leadership of a charismatic religious ideologue, Osama Bin Laden! As hardly needs mention, it was this chain of imprudent moves that provided the proximate causes of 9/11 (together with the imprudent Western encroachments on the course of self-determination in the Middle East, including support for the colonizing project that produced decades of Israel/Palestine struggle with still no end in sight).

Why does this manifestly destructive and self-destructive cycle American foreign policy continue and repeat itself despite consistent failure? How can this cycle be disrupted? The political class in the United States and elsewhere in the NATO West, adheres to a worldview commonly identified as ‘political realism.’ Its central tenet is to link national interests to military superiority, with the tacit corollary that force and its threat is essential to uphold the global financial interests of neoliberal capitalism. Experience of the last 75 year increasingly demonstrates that political realism, while providing efficient geopolitical guidance during the colonial period, is dangerously out of touch with reality in the 21st century. Yet zombie-like obsolescent realism lingers because its worldview remains largely unchallenged by anti-imperial, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist ideas and oppositional politics. A new political realism, responsive to world conditions, would espouse a foreign policy that affirms the right of self-determination, shows respect for sovereign rights and international law, and recognizes the urgency of implementing human solidarity by establishing effective global problem-solving mechanisms, including the strengthening of international institutions, above all the United Nations. It would be equally important internationally, to restore trust in a humane democracy that serves the citizenry as a whole and moves to repudiate current plutocratic distortions of the social order as reflected by gross inequalities in the enjoyment and distribution of the benefits of growth and profits.

It is late in the day but let’s hope that seeds of transformative change have been planted both by the chaotic and discrediting withdrawal from Afghanistan and this anniversary occasion giving us one more opportunity to assess both the causes of and excessive 9/12 reactions to the 9/11 events. A step in the right direction would be the much belated willingness to engage in strategic self-criticism rather than to be distracted by partisan Republican accusations of tactical failures or a mind-numbing invocation of ‘American exceptionalism.’ More concretely, subjecting regime change and state-building to critique rather than focusing all attention on the bungled withdrawal dynamics might have a lasting impact on the political imagination. Such a willingness to learn from failure might actually rid the American political psyche of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ which has functioned as a huge dose of poisonous “kool-aid.” A benevolent 21st internationalism would instead give tangible expression to the imperatives of global solidarity, seeking governmental and civil society collaborators in meeting the tragic manifestations of such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, nuclearism. migration.

American democracy is under bipartisan threat due to its militarized state that orients the media propaganda machine to view internal and global security through a lens that magnifies international threats and confines the political and moral imagination to the realm of coercive responses. Those who dare leak ‘truths’ are criminalized and then face the vindictive choice of exile or prison (Snowden, Assange), as were those young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden rather than fight in an immoral and unlawful war in Vietnam. A democracy that does not treat its heroes well, will not and should not endure. Daniel Ellsberg delivered a vital message 50 years ago–the citizens of a democracy deserve to be told the truth, and a government that refuses, deserves resistance not mute obedience–that continues to be unheeded by the enforcers of the political class.


The Bipartisan Demise of American Democracy

16 Sep

There are several fissures in the democratic fabric that exhibit the domestic facets of imperial decline. The Republican Party contempt for liberal American values, traditions, constitutionalism, the findings of science and truthfulness, became routine features of the presidency of Donald Trump. This radical style of right-wing politics became more flagrant during the long aftermath of Trump’s defeat in the November elections, going to bizarre lengths of trying to foment a violent insurrectionary event in the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2020 after a series of legal challenges of the election results in state courts on the basis of ‘stolen votes,’ ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘warped fantasies’ of fraud. Such pervasive posturing by demagogic leader should scare the anti-fascists among us, especially as almost half of Americans voted in favor of such an sustained assault on democracy. Shamefully, most Trumpists have yet to abandon this unprecedented threat to the political identity of the country.  

And yet the alternative mainstream vision of democracy, while a relief, is disappointing, especially as it tries to appeal for support on the issues and in statewide elections. The Democrats offer the citizenry such a demeaning, tedious, and dangerous sense of an alternative political style as to demobilize all but diehard liberals and movement radicals. Is it any wonder that the Democrats are poised to do poorly in the 2020 midterms despite this dark long shadow of Trump hanging over the future of the republic. Trump, part demagogue, part entertainer, at least while President kept us politically attentive, if only to wonder what would be his latest mishap or to learn about fabrication of the day. With the Biden presidency, we switch channels out of boredom, even when his sentiments are decent and compared to what passed for leadership in the preceding four years, seemed mostly sensible. But being ‘sensible’ compared to Trump is hardly an achievement. I attribute this dramatic downturn in the quality of American democracy mainly to the interaction between the elite political structures of the two main political parties, its removal from the needs and desires of the citizenry, and a distorted sense that it is money, not ideas, that wins elections. The effect of this incessant badgering for donations for the sake of political ads is to reduce the electoral process to cash on hand.

On any given day I get upward of a hundred emails soliciting funds to support candidates or legislation that Democrats favor, and are generally deserving of support. But the approach adopted in these electoral pleas are so cheaply demeaning, disingenuous, and even degenerate as to be alienating. Instead of support, I find myself pushing the delete button frustrated and disgusted with the tenor of the appeals. First of all, I don’t like being called by my first name by automated strangers; this faux intimacy is a definite turnoff, especially when it is followed by admonishing tone—donate, or else. It is, as well, a metaphor for a cynical politics of manipulation.

Secondly, our attention is grabbed by idiotic exaggerations such as ‘STUNNING update-Amy Klobuchar just broke McConnell’s heart,’ ‘H.R. 1 Miracle—We’re weeping with joy,’ ‘Richard, humbly asking,’ ‘HUMILIATED Arizona—Donald Trump CRUSHES Mark Kelly,’ ‘desperate plea—Rep. Val Deming is in BIG trouble,’ ‘Rush a donation now to TANK the filibuster and pass H.R. 1,’ ‘Shocking Report—Obama SLAMS McConnell..YES RICHARD,’ and on and on. The uniform bottom line for these urgent inflated appeals has to do with pleas for donations. Typical of the hyped rhetoric: If we don’t hit our $100,000 goal by midnight, we’ll never have the resources we need to fight McConnell’s Filibuster, which is RUINING H.R.1’s chances of becoming law. Can you chip in just $100 now to help us make our next ad payment?”’

It is true that the Democrats are more dependent on grassroots funding than are the Republicans who can rely on super-rich donors and big ticket fundraising extraganzas to finance their campaigns to a much greater extent. Yet this does not validate the cheapening of the political process as the Democrats have done where their hysterical language about the ups and downs of their candidates or legislative projects. Although ‘the system’ is primarily to blame, and needs fundamental reforms, in the meantime politics in America seems destined to be stranded indefinitely at low tide.

We can assign some blame to social media for making it seductively easy to do mass messaging, symptomatic of the wider phenomenon of the overall dumbing down effect of the digital age. Digital successors to the sinister, cynical mavens of Madison Avenue are now using crude algorithms to bend our thoughts, empty our wallets, and deprive many of sovereignty over their own mind. It is rot at the core of American political life that unapologetically equates politics with money. We are made to think that ideas, character, and past performance matter less than fundraising acumen. The corrupting impression is powerfully implanted in the citizen that the side with more bucks deserves to get the win.

Of course, the messaging is about power, and this means that mainstream media and social platforms reflect the wishes of Wall Street and the Pentagon as much for Democrats as for Republicans. Pacifying the citizenry so that markets and militarism can continue their dirty work is an assignment accepted by both political parties, and backed up by the most influential media platforms. As the infrastructure of the country falls to new lows, the bloated military budget remains sacrosanct. Billionaires roam the solar system as if planning their getaway from a failed planet, exploring new terrains as they peer down on an overheated, burning planet unwilling to risk their fortunes for the sake of species survival.

My objections to this ultra-materialist and hyped style of political campaigns can be summarized:

1-elections for Democrats have become primarily about fundraising capabilities, not qualifications, values, ideas, performance;  

2-hypocritical gestures of intimacy in this monetized culture of political appeals are deemed necessary to induce in ordinary citizens the illusions of ‘participation’ and even personal access to the candidates;

3-Beyond the hypocrisy, secondary efforts seek to make recipients feel guilty because they have not contributed, or not responded to rhetorical requests for support or opposition; I find myself daily scolded for not responding or accused because of not donating of supporting the dreadful Republican alternative;

4-There is an impression created that only ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ matter, and thus devotion to one side should unconditional, and more or less unquestioning, although the Democrats are more naïve, preaching ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘national unity,’ which is the last thing the Trump extremists want.

Such a decline of democracy is strongly reinforced by the reactionary unwritten ground rules of mainstream media, which dutifully exposes the citizenry to a spectrum of opinion that stretches from the dead center to the extreme right. The progressive left, whether socialist or ecological, is erased, as if it has nothing to add to the marketplaces of ideas and interpretations. The media dominated by large corporations and billionaires is willing to self-censor to protect the capitalist consensus being eroded or just challenged.

Perhaps it is time to try something different, starting by ending the three-ring circus of private funding of political campaigns. Of course this will not happen until the Achilles Heal of capitalism and militarism are found and struck with decisive force, which would almost certainly be the result of an empowering nonviolent movement, which unlike its Pentagon variant, is genuinely over-the-horizon.

What Are We to Think?

29 Oct

 

 

A cascade of developments should make us afraid of what seems to be emerging politically in the United States at this time. Although politicians keep telling us how great we were or will be or are. Donald Trump has ridden a wave of populist enthusiasm touting his brand with the slogan ‘make America great again’ emblazoned. One wonders whether he means ante-bellum America, Reagan America, the America that decimated native Americans, the Indian Nations, or more likely, militia America.

 

By contrast, Hilary Clinton reassures her rallies that is ‘America is great now’ but it can be made even better. She foregoes any criticism of the America of drones, regime-changing interventions, hazardous no-fly zones, special forces, and counterterrorist terrorism, views Israeli behavior through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses, promises to do more militarily than Obama in the Middle East, blows hot and cold the trade winds shift from Sanders to Wall Street, and only has hard words for the banker and hedge fund operators when voters are listening.

 

This is a sad moment for procedural democracy where voting was once seen as the indispensable guaranty of vibrant republican governance. When money and mediocrity controls the process, and we are forced to choose between the lesser of evils, and even the lesser of evils generates nightmares, there is serious trouble brewing in the body politic.

 

The maladies are not just on the top of the socioeconomic pyramid, although there is plenty of sickness at the lofty heights of wealth and power. The political culture is sending warning sign after warning sign without giving rise to the slightest sign of restorative energies.

 

A few of these telltale signs can be mentioned to provide content to an insistence that a condition of societal urgency exists:

 

–When massacres of innocent persons occur in public places (schools- Sandy Hook; theaters-Aurora; night clubs-Orlando), gun sales surge in the days that follow; we are in the midst of a populist climate that has embraced ‘Second Amendment fundamentalism,’ so much so that Trump when asked at the third presidential debate what he hoped the Supreme Court would do, responded by declaring his priority to be upholding an unrestricted right to bear arms; Hilary Clinton was deemed brave and an anti-gun militant because she favored background checks and closing of gun show loopholes, hardly prospects that would send the NRA to the trenches except to tighten further their already firm grip on the political process!

 

–When a group of armed white militia members, led by the Bundy brothers (Ammon and Ryan) take over a Federal wildlife reserve in eastern Oregon in January of this year, using threats of violence prevent its operations for several days, initially vowing to die if necessary to oust the Federal Government from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge before eventually backing down, the jury in a criminal trial with mistaken foregone conclusions, astoundingly and unanimously found them not guilty of any crime, we know that the hour of violent populism is upon us. Simultaneously in Standing Rock North Dakota hundreds of unarmed native Americans and their supporters are being arrested and charged with trespass and riot crimes for protesting an oil pipeline being constructed near to their reservaion;

 

–When it looked like Trump would be defeated in a Clinton landslide, the election was, according to Trump, ‘rigged’ in favor of the Democrats, and the option of rejecting the outcome was kept wide open by the Republican candidate. Trump supporters were not shy about thinking that even violent resistance would be justifiable to keep ‘a criminal’ out of the White House. Trump even vowed in their TV debate to put Clinton in prison for corruption and her violation of classification laws shortly after he is sworn in as the next president. He does not object when his revved up crowds chant ‘lock her up’ or ‘jail her.’ If nothing else, Trump’s campaign reminds us that legitimate political competition presupposes a certain framework of civility and a clear willingness to part company with populist violence. Such minimal civility doesn’t have to concede much about the character and record of the opponent, but it does need to avoid language and sentiments that signals extremists to man the barricades. When Trump gives overt permission to his followers to remember their second amendment rights he is encouraging violence to overcome the problems of governance if he should lose the election. With such guidance, the country would mount a train that has only one stop—fascism in some form.

 

My claim here is not only the tainting of the electoral process, but the violent disposition of the political culture. It is not even necessary to invoke growing nativist hatreds directed at immigrants, Muslims, family planners, adherents of Black Lives Matter, and transgender and native American activists to recoil from this inflamed cultural moment. Underneath, yet integral, are the wider structural issues associated with neoliberalism, inequality among and within states, wage stagnancy, impotent labor movement, collapse of socialist alternatives, and the right-wing overall monopoly of visionary, highly motivated politics. Trump supporters are wildly enthusiastic about their candidate, while Clinton backers are under motivated and lacking in conviction.

 

This is not only an American problem. Similar patterns are visible in all parts of the world, although there is everywhere a national coloring that produces significant differences. In this regard, the structural pressures dispose politics in all parts of the world to move in authoritarian directions as conditioned by a wide diversity of national circumstances.

 

Yet the United States does pose a special threat of its own world wide, and is not only menacing its own future. It controls the dominant arsenal of nuclear weapons, it maintains a network of bases spread around the world, militarizes oceans and space, sends its predator drones and special ops kill squads to find prey wherever on the planet it perceives threats. This militarized and unaccountable global security system is reinforced by preeminent diplomatic and economic leverage, and emboldened by a self-serving ideology of ‘American exceptionalism,’ What happens in the United States is of great, often decisive, importance to the wellbeing of the many countries, especially in the global South, that lack both voice or exit capabilities (Hirschman), and thus find themselves captive of history’s first, and possibly, last ‘global state.’      

Are We Heading Toward Global Autocracy, Ecological Collapse, Political Malaise?

29 Jun

 

 

What follows are preliminary reactions to both the BREXIT vote and the world according to Trump, but also a commentary on the related alienation of large segments of the public that are being badly served by both the established elites and their demagogic adversaries. The failures of neoliberalism, the successes of digitization, the scourge of random violence, and more broadly, the dilemmas posed by late modernity are among the root causes of this global crisis of legitimate governance, which is deepened while being mishandled by unprecedented ecological challenges, extremely irresponsible geopolitical leadership, and a variety of ultra-nationalist backlashes against the encroachments of economic globalization.

 

 

Imagining the World After the Cold War

 

After the end of the Cold War there were various projections that tried to anticipate the likely future of the world in broad interpretative strokes. Three of the most influential conjectures by three prominent American authors received attention in the public sphere: those of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.

 

Fukuyama challenged conventional political imagination with his provocative claim that with the collapse of the Soviet version of state socialism and the triumph of capitalist liberalism the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ It was also somewhat dubious that Fukuyama validated his views by reference to the Hegelian contention that history is made by the march and interplay of ideas rather than through the agency of material forces. In this respect history came to a supposedly glorious end because there was no grander possible political vision than that of market-based constitutionalism, epitomized by the American political system. Even the most casual observer of the global scene must have noticed the befogged Western optic through which Fukuyama saw

the world.

 

Huntington, no less provocative or biased, although less comforting for the West, anticipated a ‘the clash of civilizations’ as the sequel to the Cold War, especially stressing the confrontation between the liberal West and the non-West or simply ‘the rest.’ His suggestive emphasis was on blood-soaked fault lines between states, civilizations, and peoples associated with Islam and the Western polities descending from the Enlightenment tradition as it unfolded in Europe, taking root in North America and elsewhere.

 

Kaplan, also punctured the Fukuyama triumphalist tone of geopolitical serenity, by writing of ‘the coming anarchy,’ the breakdown of order at the level of the state. His views were shaped by perceptions of decolonization leading to ungovernable and essentially non-viable political spaces, particularly in Africa where he regarded many of the post-colonial states as incapable of achieving minimum order within territorial space.

 

25 years later it appears that each of these authors saw part of the elephant, but none of the three managed to capture this imposing animal in its majestic totality. Fukuyama was importantly correct in positing market-driven liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of the global future for decades to come, and especially so with respect to the ascendancy of the transnational private sector as shaped by financial flows in a borderless world. The universalization of the liberal international order was devised by and for the West after World War II with the overriding goal of avoiding a return of the Great Depression and retaining as many of the benefits of colonialism as possible in the aftermath of its collapse. This globalizing arrangement of economic and political forces proved robust enough to generate sustained economic growth, as well as to crowd out rivals, thereby making itself into ‘the only game in town.’ That this phase of globalization was grossly uneven in the distribution of benefits and burdens was generally overlooked, as was its predatory character as viewed from the perspective of the economic losers.

 

At the same time, the idea of reaching an endpoint in history even if conceived in Hegelian terms of ideas seemed rather absurd, if not grotesque, to many from its moment of utterance. Given the ideological assault on modernity that has been mounted from the perspective of religion, drawing into question secularism and rationalism, the liberal vision was indeed being challenged from a number of angles. In this regard, transnational terrorism viewed in isolation is a less radical repudiation of Fukuyama’s blueprint for the future than are the various associated challenges to Westphalian territorial sovereignty that have been mounted by Islamic leaders, articulated clearly by both Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. Both insisted that the territorial sovereignty was not the primary legitimate basis for political community, and indeed put forward less convincing claims to political community than were the organic identities that had been shaped by centries of religious and civilizational traditions and devotional practices.

 

ISIS added its own version of this world order stance in a less reflective modality. Its leaders gave voice to the view that in the Middle East, in particular, armed struggle was undoing the harm done a hundred years earlier. ISIS bluntly repudiated the territorial legacies and authority of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 had carved up the Ottoman Empire to satisfy British and French colonial ambitions. Such European hubris had cast the region adrift by creating governance zones that were, at best, artificial political communities that could only be held together by the iron fist of state power, which if removed would lead to chaos. The effect of giving over the fate of the peoples to the mercies of European colonial powers fractured the natural community of Islam and did away with the more ethnically constituted units (or millets) established by the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to be confident about whether the peoples of the region as of 2016, if left free to choose, would prefer the distortions of imposed Westphalian states or opt for boundaries that better reflected the existential sentiments and values of the current national majorities among those living in the region.

 

 

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

 

Perhaps, more fundamental in its implications for the future, is the shifting ground shaking the foundations of the edifice of ideas and interest upholding neoliberal globalization. That the ground is shaking has been revealed for most crisis deniers by the surge of populist support that allowed Trump to crush a wide field of Republican presidential aspirants with mainstream party credentials. This astonishing outcome has been strongly reinforced by the electrifying vote by Britain in June 2016 to exit the European Union, so-called BREXIT, and what that portends for Britain, the EU, and even the world.

 

We can also throw into the new mix the Sanders Phenomenon, essentially a youth revolt against what the man from Vermont kept calling ‘a rigged system’ good for the 1%, horrible for the other 99%, and especially for the bottom 40-60%. We will not grasp the full meaning of what has occurred for years to come, and surely the November 2016 American presidential election will either be a restorative moment for the established socio-economic order or a death warrant portending that radical, most likely disruptive, change is on its way. Should Hilary Clinton win, especially if she wins decisively as even most of the Republican leadership fear and some even wish for, it will quiet some of the voices on right and left calling for change, but only temporarily, and this is the point as the roots of the crisis are far deeper than this or that election or referendum result.

 

 

An Establishment Out of Touch

 

What strikes me most forcefully, aside from these unexpected outcomes, is how out of touch liberal, urban elites seem to be with the sharply alienated mood of the populace as a whole. This first struck me while visiting Cairo in the months after the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011 when Egyptians across a wide spectrum welcomed change, and were naively expecting the political transition to be managed according to the will of the people by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The political analogue to this trust displayed by the leaders of the uprising in the military wing of the former oppressive regime was the widespread expectation that Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and once the Foreign Minister under Mubarak e would overwhelm opponents in the promised presidential elections.

 

Many in Cairo voiced their personal doubts about Moussa’s suitability, complaining of his complicity with the prior regime and wondering whether he had a genuine willingness and capability to push through a liberal agenda of national reform and manage an economic program that offered some hope to the poor and marginalized Egyptian masses. What representatives of the Cairo establishment and even its critics didn’t disagree about was the near certainty of a Moussa victory in the scheduled 2012 presidential elections because no other candidate had comparable name recognition or possessed elite credibility. As it turned out Moussa, despite his acceptability to urban elites, ended up with less than 12% of the vote in the first round, disqualifying him from competing in the second and final round of the electoral process that surprisingly pitted an undisguised Murarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafek, against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. There has been much commentary on this sequence of developments, but what I want to stress is how out of touch the Cairo policymakers and media were with ‘the people’ of Egypt, especially the poor and those living around the country outside the two urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

 

Losing it in America

 

The utterly unanticipated success of Trump, Sanders, and BREXIT left those who earn their livings by telling us what to think and what will happen in an apparently shell shocked. Because policy wonks can lose their relevance quickly, and maybe their jobs, if they are honest enough to dwell upon their mistaken judgments, they tend to shift the conversation to what these unexpected developments tell us about the vagaries of mass public opinion. They continue to write with the same old assurance and command over details, articulating anew as (un)knowingly as ever their views about what is to come, earning them invitations to influential talk shows and the like. They have no shame. At this moment the prevailing wonk consensus is that Trump cannot possibly win in the national elections next November, and will probably lead the Republicans to a devastating national defeat leaving the party discredited even among its most faithful followers. This scenario has become the latest American version of the liberal wet dream.

 

What is so far missing, or almost so, from the public discourse is a soul searching assessment of why the underclass anger, why the magnetic appeal of political personalities who are ‘outsiders,’ and why the loopy defensiveness and seeming irrelevance of those who speak softly, wrongly supposing that the voice of reason and moderation will win out. Even now there is little discussion of how best to account for this ‘revolt of the masses,’ why it is happening now and not earlier, as well as what can and should be thought and done.

Sanders alone pointed to the relevance of acute inequality as discrediting the prevailing political order and what the two political parties were offering the American people. He was sensitive to social dislocations caused by this inequality being closely linked to the declining real incomes of the middle classes and the poor. He also recognized that such a downward spiral is further aggravated by a dysfunctionally expensive health system, intolerable burdens of student debt, and a bipartisan willingness to sacrifice the fundamental wellbeing of workers in a deindustrializing America on the altar of free trade. In effect, Sanders was putting before the American people a sharply critical diagnosis of the ills besetting the country together with a laundry list of social democratic correctives.

 

Trump, despite being himself a major economic predator, has enjoyed this surge of fanatical backing due to his diabolical talent for blaming ‘the other’ for the failures being experienced by large disaffected sectors of the American people. From this paranoid standpoint it becomes almost logical to threaten China with a trade war, to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a high wall that keeps illegal Latinos from coming across the Mexican border as well as getting rid as rapidly as possible all those who managed to enter illegally in the past, and to accomplish this massive dispossession through the medium of cruel and indiscriminate deportation. All of this negativity is given a smiling face by the catchy, yet vauous, Trump slogan “to make America great again.” Such a heartwarming slogan makes Trump into a kind of political alchemist transforming the base metals of xenophobic negativity into the glow that will follow from recovering a lost never existing American positive exceptionalism, which if decoded simply promises to restore a social order presided over by white men.

 

 

The Global Landscape

Looking around the world is a disquieting complement to myopic readings of these potentially earth shattering recent developments as happening only in Anglo-American political space. What seems evident is that there are throughout the planet converging trends reflecting some widely shared societal grievances coupled with a mood of disillusionment about the purported achievements and promises of democratic forms of governance. It is difficult to recall that after the Cold War a major aspect of American triumphalism was the confidence that the political embrace of American style democracy (what was then being called ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’) would spread to more and more countries in the world, and that this trend should be welcomed everywhere as an irreversible sign that a higher stage of political evolution had been reached. Bill Clinton liberals were forever talking up ‘enlargement’ (the expanding community of democratic states) while subscribing to the tenuous and vague claims of ‘democratic peace’ (the Kantian idea that democracies do not make war against one another).

 

Later George W. Bush neocons more belligerently pushed ‘democracy promotion,’ being impatient or distrustful of leaving the future to the workings of internal political dynamics and the flow of history. They held the geopolitically convenient, yet totally ahistorical, belief that military intervention would be popularly received as a liberating gift even by peoples newly freed from the shackles of European colonialism. In 2003, this commitment to coercing a democratic future was put into practice in Iraq, failing miserably and in an incredibly costly manner. Again what should be a cause for reflection is the misperception of the historical circumstances by the American establishment. This belief is abetted by the accompanying false assumption that if democracy is formally established, ex-colonial societies will docilely accept a prolonged foreign occupation of their country while continuing to endure high levels of chronic unemployment and mass poverty, a situation inflamed by national elites wallowing in luxury, having often gained their wealth by rapacious levels of corruption, rewards for serving the foreign occupiers and associated representatives of global capital.

 

 

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

 

If democratization seemed the wave of the global future as seen from the perspective of the 1990s there are now different horizons of expectation that darkly dominate the political imagination with a blending of fear, rage, and despair. What has so far emerged is a series of drastic political moves in a diverse group of countries that is cumulatively leading national governing processes in inward-looking authoritarian directions. Each national narrative can offer its own plausible explanation of such developments by focusing on the particularities of the national situation without paying much attention to external factors.

 

Yet the fact that such diverse countries share this experience of diminishing democracy and increasing authoritarianism suggests that wider systemic factors are at play. To some extent, this disturbing set of developments is disguised in the constitutional societies of the West where these trends are being validated by popular forces, that is, in full accord with the discipline and legitimacy of what might be understood as procedural democracy, that is, free and fair elections as supplemented by rivalry between political parties, a seemingly free press, referenda, legislation, judicial action, and executive initiatives that appears respectful of the constraints of the rule of law. These authoritarian outcomes should be interpreted mainly as failures of substantive democracy as obscured by the persistence of procedural democracy. This reality is beginning to be perceived by large portions of the population, especially those struggling with poverty, joblessness, and declining standards of living, although it is not articulated by reference to the substantive shortcomings of contemporary democracy. What makes this context so confusing is this tension within democracy between its procedural and substantive dimensions.

 

These substantive democratic failures of equity and performance are not generally experienced by those leading comfortable lives even if unlike earlier generations, expectations about the future at all levels of society are far less hopeful than during the last decades of the 20th century. Gone are the days when it was widely believed that children would almost certainly fare better than their parents. Those who are experiencing this sharp downturn in expectations are just now awakening to insist upon answers, and the easiest place to find them is through scapegoating. In this regard, the influx of foreign cheap labor is believed, and not always inaccurately, to exert downward pressures on wages and cause disquieting increases in the local crime rate. It also tempts many to regard the present challenges to homeland security as the work of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ while the widening gap between rich and poor is depicted as a mixture of corruption and free trade that pushes jobs out of the country to foreign labor markets with low wages, weak or no unions,lax safety and environmental regulations, and bribery as a way of life.

 

Although this shift from democratization to autocratization is being mainly experienced as a national phenomenon or as a series of distinct national dramas, the systemic aspects are crucial. An essential part of the socio-economic mixture of causes is the replacement of human labor by machine labor, a process that is accelerating via automation, and likely to increase at a geometrical pace for many years to come. As a result, a new source of chronic unemployment affecting all classes is occurring. Another aggravating feature results from migration flows escaping from war torn regions or from ecological collapse brought about by climate change. Further, the rise and manipulation of transnational terrorism and counterterrorism gives priority to the security agenda, lending support to a vast expansion of state police powers at the expense of societal autonomy and personal freedom.

 

What such developments portend is the presence of large numbers of desperate people within most national spaces who are blocked in their search for a decent life, are made to feel unnecessary and unwanted or treated, and are regarded as a burdensome democratic surplus by the established order. All that most of these persons want is social change and a recovery of their sense of societal worth, creating a frightening vulnerability to the siren calls of demagogues. Such a pattern is already visible on the global stage, although it tends to be blurred by relying on this still dominant optic of state-by-state developments that suppresses the reality of systemic pressures, and diverts attention from the kind of radical political therapy that is needed.

 

Current global trends exhibit two equally devastating approaches, which are in some settings combined. The most prevalent tendency is to mandate the state to impose order at any cost involving increasing levels of coercion, reinforced by intrusive surveillance, seeking its own legitimacy by claiming fear-mongering alarmism and through scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, and all outsiders, those ethnically and religiously ‘other.’ A complementary tendency is associated with the demagogic arousal of populist masses that also mandate the state to carry out similar kinds of order-maintaining policies. In effect, the somewhat more cosmopolitan middle is being squeezed between the elites seeking to withstand anti-establishment politics and the aroused masses eager to smash the established order. Both sources of anti-democratic pressure favor closing borders, building walls, and deporting those whose very existence assaults nativist conceptions of the nation.

 

As previously assessed, procedural democracy is not currently much of an obstacle in the face of various populist embraces of proto-fascist political appeals that is offering aspiring demagogues a field day. The advocacy of extremist, simplistic, and violent solutions to complex problems is on the rise, and yet we should know that the present agenda of concerns cannot be effectively addressed until a structural analysis is acted upon and the neoliberal underpinning of the status quo is significantly adjusted. A correct political diagnosis would emphasize the alienating shortcomings of substantive democracy given the degree to which neoliberal capitalism is seen as responsible for accentuating inequality, corruption, and downward standards of living for the majority leaving many without adequate material security as it relates to employment, shelter, health, and education.

 

Overall as the world confronts such challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and nuclear weaponry that are cumulatively threatening humanity with catastrophe, this emergent reality of global autocracy may be the worst news of all.

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monetizing Political Discourse in America

14 May

For some time I have been disturbed by the constant flow of emails from notables in the Democratic Party that tie substance and politics to money, specifically in the form of soliciting donations. The style of such messages is offensive to me. Complete strangers address me in the first person, and assume I share their political outlook, which paints a dark picture of liberal values at risk while never mentioning the illiberal policies of the Democratic presidency. Such messages are signed in a disingenuous manner of faux familiarity, and this includes messages from either President or Ms. Obama, writing to me as if there existed a personal connection between us. The bottom line is a plea ‘to chip in’ by donating $3, $10, or more. See below for a typical such personal message sent to me by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. I wonder if I am alone in being put off by this way of passing the hat in the digital age.

 

It is not just a matter of personal annoyance about being badgered several times a week. It is much more about making politics and policies seem to depend exclusively on who contributes the most money. The Democrats purport in most of these appeals to be fending off reactionary billionaires, such as the infamous Koch Brothers, who are portrayed satanically as using their fortunes to buy elections and tilt the country even further to the right. Underneath this crude reduction of the political process to which party can purchase more TV prime time is the apparent realization that American democracy is no longer a marketplace of ideas, perhaps, never was. The impression I receive from these email messages is that American democracy has become an auction in which elective office and public policy automatically goes to the candidate able to pony up the most lucre, however filthy. Underneath such attitudes is the dangerous belief that the ordinary citizen has no mind of his/her own, and will most likely vote for whomever Is most often seen on TV. This kind of thinking is especially demeaning to the so-called independent voter trying to make up his/her mind in the final days of a campaign.

 

Of course, there is some truth, and even a principled rationale, for this incessant barrage of funding appeals. If the Republican side is spending in great amounts as a result of support from the ultra-rich, then symbolically it is important to suggest that a government responsive to the people means that the Democratic opposition needs to mobilize ordinary citizens who are struggling daily to make ends meet, and yet still greatly prefer political leadership in the White House and Congress that is broadly in accord with their liberal ideas about fairness and decency. Up to a point this way of interpreting political conflict in the United States is convincing.

 

My concerns are mainly of a different order. There is an implicit disempowerment of the citizen whose identity is associated with her or his bank account rather than with the substantive agenda of politics and a more public engagement with political reform. There is embedded in these messages a loopy good/evil imagery of American political realities, whereas the appeal in recent decades of the Democratic Party has been for me and many others reduced to being the lesser of evils on most, yet not all, issues. Consider the treatment by the Democratic leadership of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, drone warfare, silence about the Egyptian coup and Palestinian ordeal, a slide toward Cold War II in response to the complexities of the Ukraine, and on and on. In other words, it may be pragmatically important to avoid Republican political leadership, but there are many reasons to be disappointed by and even oppose the policies and practices embraced by the current Democratic leadership.

 

Of course, underlying this objection to the sort of either/or choices is a feeling that what is being suppressed is the word and consciousness associated with ‘neither,’ that is neither Republican nor Democrat. But then what? There was that brief rush of fresh air that was brought into the political arena by the Occupy Movement, but without staying power. Subsequently, there has been regression on the public stage. America is not yet a choiceless democracy, but the choices offered do not give much ground for hope in relation to the main challenges facing

either this country or the world, for example, in relation to challenging the excesses of world capitalism, and its byproduct of unsustainable and growing inequality.

 

Getting back to the particulars of this screed, I paste below the latest specimen of this type of political solicitation. Is my reaction naïve, unfair, out of touch? Comments are particularly welcome. And more to the point what might be done to improve the quality of political democracy in this country? How can we as citizens become more effective, not just locally, but nationally and internationally, in this era of the dumbing down and crude monetizing of representative government?

 

 

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The Text of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ letter:

 

 

Richard —

 

The most thrilling, rewarding, and (sometimes) challenging job I’ve ever had is being a mom — between the twins and my youngest there is never a dull moment.

 

But lately, when I think of my kids, I consider all of the things Democrats are working for that would support my fellow moms and their families the most. We’re the party fighting for equal pay legislation, for raising the minimum wage, protecting Obamacare, and fixing our broken immigration system to keep more moms with their kids. These policies aren’t just good for moms, they’re good for the economy, too.

 

Chip in $10 or more to support Democrats fighting for policies that support moms and families.

 

 

 

We’re celebrating Mother’s Day soon, and I hope we’re all thinking of the millions of moms out there who are doing all they can to raise their kids, support their families, and contribute to their communities. What Democrats are fighting for is personal to me, and probably for you, too.

 

Donate to elect more Democrats who are fighting for policies to support moms:

 

https://my.democrats.org/Stand-with-Moms

 

Thanks,

 

Debbie

 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Chair

Democratic National Committee

 

P.S. — To all my fellow moms, Happy Mother’s Day this weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citizens versus Subjects in a Democratic Society: The American Case

10 May

 

“Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t

Escape from silence?…”

                        Robert Bly, “Call and Answer”

 

            In my understanding silence is passivity as a way of being. Silence can be much more than the avoidance of speech and utterance, and is most poignantly expressed through evasions of body, heart, and soul. Despite the frustrations and defeats of the period, America was different during the years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was then that alienated gun-wielders assassinated those among us who were sounding the clearest calls for justice and sending messages of hope. In a perverse reaction, Washington’s custodians of our insecurity went to work, and the sad result is this deafening silence!

 

            I have long felt that most American ‘citizens’ increasingly behave as ‘subjects,’ blithely acting as if a love of country is exhibited more by obedience than conscience. In my view the opportunity to be a citizen is a precious reality, a byproduct of past struggles. Genuine citizenship remains possible in the United States, but has become marginal, and is not much in evidence these days. I am identifying the citizen as an ethically sensitive and responsible member of a political community, most significantly of a sovereign state. In contrast, the subject conceives of upright standing in a political community by the willingness to go along with the group and to obey the directives of government and those exercising formal authority.

 

            The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

 

            Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the republic understood that liberty is a process, not an event, which can only flourish if the citizenry as a whole is actively engaged, and above all is vigilant in relation to abuses attributable to the state. Citizenship was better understood in the late 18th century when the struggle against the pretensions of monarchy was vibrant. Today it is irresistibly tempting for ambitious political leaders to encroach upon the liberties of the people by insisting that national ‘unity’ and ‘patriotism’ are practical necessities at times when the country is at war or confronting enemies. And by a convenient Orwellian trope, wartime has become the norm rather than the exception, and peacetime is mainly a memory of ancient times that even the oldest citizen now alive never really experienced. Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ended once and for all the illusions of peace as the normal condition of a democratic society. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not restore ‘peace’ except in the misleading senses of the absence of war. This enthronement of war in the permanent collective imagination of the country was vividly re-inscribed by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush response of declaring a global war on terror and terrorists. Bush’s instinctive stroke of political ingenuity was to devise a new kind of war that never needs to end. Obama despite some ritual reassurances to the contrary has not broken faith with the militarist mentality and seems comfortable with treating war as the new normal.

 

           This vulnerability of democracy to the siren song of security has been effectively exploited by power-wielders for decades in the United States. Not only do politicians and militarists sing this song, but also private sector moguls whose primary amoral motivation seems to be the maximization of profits. This weakening of the substance, structures, and spirit of American democracy partly reflected the militarizing impacts of World War II and its Cold War sequel, but also the related extension of the American sphere of direct concern and involvement to all corners of the earth. This unprecedented global force projection coincided with the collapse of European colonialism, the ideological consensus affirming neoliberalism, and the backdrop of a globalizing world in which critical resources, sea lanes, and markets needed to be protected if the world economy was to flourish. This American transformation from being ‘a hemispheric state’ to becoming ‘a global state’ has had an extraordinary impact on national identity, especially giving rise to a self-anointing mission of global leadership that depends on military dominance. Such a mission has also witnessed a promiscuous reliance on ‘American exceptionalism,’ often at the expense of respect for the authority of the United Nations and international law. The claim is that America can set aside rules of behavior at will to meet the challenges confronting the country and the world, but that antagonistic others cannot.

 

            It is true that early in the American experience the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) signaled a national ambition to reign supreme in the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada), which expressed an early refusal by the U.S. Government to confine its definition of national interests to the territorial boundaries associated with being a normal sovereign state. But the strains of extra-territoriality were minimal compared what they became in the 20th century, especially with the onset of World War II. For one thing, the challenge of imposing control was far simpler and cheaper in the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ which enabled a small input of military power to achieve the political objectives of intervention under most circumstances. Since 1945 the mobilization of national resistance around the world has been very effective in raising the costs and risks of intervention, and neutralizing many of the advantages that had made it so easy to translate military superiority into desired political results during the colonial era.

 

            Also relevant for a discussion of the deteriorating quality of democratic life in the United States are expansions of scale and surveillance as byproducts of becoming a global state. To project power globally requires a global network of military bases numbering in the hundreds, a navy that patrols every ocean, missiles that can strike the most distant targets, attack drones that can be programmed to kill anyone anywhere on the planet, and the most extensive information-gathering capability that technology can provide and money can buy. This raises to astronomic levels the investment of energy and resources in sustaining such a global role. Unsurprisingly there are byproducts, including a militarized state at home and the assumption of associated custodial duties related to the protection of the American people against real and imagined enemies and the pursuit of national interests relating to wealth, influence, and prestige. To enhance security in this global setting pushes surveillance toward totalization as the Snowden disclosures began to reveal. It also creates a logic that views domestic opposition with grave suspicion, and leads to finding and destroying ‘the enemy within’ before it gains the leverage to unleash its assault of the established order.

 

            The American global state is different than past empires, which were explicit in projecting their hard power, and insisting upon overt allegiance of those whom they rule. As Rumsfeld succinctly remarked some years ago, “we do not do empire.” What do we do? It is to manage a global state that seeks to meet hostile challenges wherever they emerge, and give a high priority to the maintenance of a trade, investment, and navigational framework that reflects the guiding assumptions of neoliberalism in the networked digital age. And because the most threatening hostile challenges seem currently mounted by non-state actors that have no particular territorial base of operations, the battlefield has been quietly globalized to encompass the economy, the surveillance panopticon, and the counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation sites of intervention and resistance.

 

            What then does American citizenship mean under these altered domestic and global conditions? It should be acknowledged that not all recent developments are negative with respect to the quality of democratic life in America: slavery was overcome, racism diminished, women’s rights strengthened, sexual preferences increasingly respected. Taking these concerns into account has meant that there many avenues that remain open for the expression of conscience in the United States, which entails the non-acceptance of various facets of the status quo: struggles against militarism, surveillance, plutocracy, global warming, poverty, inequality, human insecurity, class warfare, as well as the residues of racism and patriarchy.   Citizens should be selectively active in response to these challenges, while the subject is passive or a regressive champion of the status quo, and at best an advocate of incremental change (as Yeats reminded the world almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The most effective forms of citizen action depend on popular mobilization and the adoption of nonviolent forms of collective action. The subject stands by sullenly, applauding the suppression of dissent and resistance by security forces.

 

            The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, referred to ‘the democracy to come’ as achieving a far higher degree of social justice than has ever existed in any country. In my view, fulfilling this potentiality would mean the enlargement of the role of the citizen, the decline of the subject, and a much more critical interplay between society and the state, making democracy a participatory process that did not consider itself fulfilled by periodic free elections and functioning representative institutions. Such practices associated with procedural democracy have recently lost most of their charm due to deforming impacts of money, lobbying by special interests, and the virtual disappearance from the political landscape of a progressive option. In effect, the future of American democracy will necessarily now depend on the activity of people of conscience, and the rebirth of a progressive vision that is made attractive across class, race, and geographic lines.

 

            Such a prescription for hope has its own shortcomings and difficulties. Are not the members of the Tea Party composed of those whose conscience leads them to defy the state? Are they not fulfilling the role of citizen, shunning the passivity of the subject? There exists an inevitable clash of values between those who seek a compassionate government that is inclusive as to its nonviolent ethos of hospitality and those who seek an ethnically delimited social order that is xenophobic, exclusivist, and militia-minded in its orientation. In the end such a clash involves sorting out the balance of passions that shape the political culture at a given point in an unfolding national narrative. And this balance may not turn out very well for progressive citizens of conscience, depending on the mix of attitudes and fears that animate the masses at a given historical time.

 

            There is one further consideration bearing on the democracy to come. It must not only be spatially minded about the world, it must also be temporally oriented about past and future. It must learn from the glorious and inglorious episodes of the past, but even more importantly, be alert to the need to live beyond the present, to take responsibility for ensuring that the future is not being diminished in serious and irreversible ways by current policies and practices. Such temporal urgency is currently especially compelling in relation to the environment, the treatment of animals, and above all, the multiple challenges of climate change. Humanity is faced at this juncture with a choice of heeding the scientific consensus on the need to reduce sharply the emission of greenhouse gasses or to live in the false consciousness of pretending that the future can be safely secured by either a technological fix (often described as geo-engineering) or by a guardian god or gods that will not permit an apocalyptic catastrophe to doom the human species. In other words, the conscience of the progressive citizen in our time must not only be globalized in the form of being a ‘world citizen;’ it must also be projected through time, adopting futurist modes of feeling, thinking, and acting,

 

            It is against this background that I have previously suggested an identity shaped through an appreciative reference to ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ that is, to the citizen whose conscience is directed at others without heeding boundaries of space or time, or such contingent features of identity as nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, class. The citizen pilgrim is embarked upon what is essentially a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, seeking an inspirational future that seems neither feasible nor impossible. Such an inspirational dedication also minimizes the imaginative foreclosures of mortality, making the certainty of death a part of life, and accepting this destiny without seeking the comfort of metaphysical fictions, and thus not deeply disconcerted by ‘the dying of the light.’