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20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a somewhat edited post-publication version of Part One my responses to questions posed by Daniel Falcone, published in CounterPunch, September 12, 2021, with the title of “9/11: Doctrines of Bush, Obama, Trump & Biden.” Although online the interview was schedule in response to the national attention understandably given to the 20th annual observance of the 9/11 attacks. The focus of my response follows a different line of reasoning. In this sense, my response, as suggested by the title give to Part One, can be read as suggesting that greater transformative effects resulted from 9/12 than the tragic events of 9/11 due to the vengeful recklessness of the U.S. response, partly pushed to excess by a belligerent neoconservative pre-9/11 agenda, which became politically viable only after the provocation of the attacks. It is a reflection of the deficiencies of political pedagogy and journalistic priorities in the United States that despite all that has happened at home and abroad in the course of the last twenty years, virtually no distinct attention is given to 9/12]

9/12: Reacting to Crime by War(s)

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on September 11, 2001 as a historical event and provide how this day continues to shape the way the United States sees itself in the world?

Richard Falk: The attack itself on 9/11 was a most momentous event from the perspective of international relations, with the salient initial effect of further undermining the dominating historic role of hard power under the control of national governments in explaining historical agency. That role was already eroded as a result of high-profile anti-colonial wars being won by the weaker side militarily, principally as a result of the mobilizing effect of the soft power stimulus of nationalist fervor and perseverance in achieving political self-determination by resisting foreign intervention and domination.

Dramatically, 9/11 revealed the vulnerability of the most powerful country, as measured by military capabilities and global security hegemony, in all of world history, to the violent tactics of non-state combatants with comparatively weak military capabilities in coercive interactions labeled by war planners as ‘asymmetric warfare.’

On the basis of minimal expenditures of lives and resources, al-Qaeda produced a traumatizing and disorienting shock on the United States and the American body politic from which it has yet to recover, generating responses in ways that are fundamentally dysfunctional with respect to achieving tolerable levels of global stability in a historical period when security threats were moving away from traditional geopolitical rivalries so as to respond to climate change, pandemics, and a series of systemic secondary effect. While not fulfilling its goals, the launching of a ‘war on terror’ produced great devastation and human suffering spread far and wide, distant from the American homeland, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

Such an efficient use of terrorist tactics by al-Qaeda, not only as an instrument of destruction, but as a mighty symbolic blow directed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, embodiments of American economic ascendancy and military hegemony. These material effects were further magnified by the spectacular nature of visual moment unforgettably inscribed on the political consciousness of worldwide TV audiences, above all conveying the universal vulnerability of the strong to the imaginative rage and dedicated sacrifice of the avenging weak who were induced to give the lives to make a point and serve a fanatical cause.

Of course, the ‘success’ of this attack was short-lived, producing an initial wave of global empathy for the innocent victims of such mayhem, heralding widespread support and sympathy to the United States, exhibiting an outburst of internationalist solidarity, including widespread support from governments around the world and at the UN for greatly augmented efforts at criminal enforcement of anti-terrorist policies and norms. Yet this early international reaction sympathetic to the U.S. has been erased in the American memory and international perceptions, as well as long overshadowed internationally by dual damaging effects of the American over-reaction that claimed during the next twenty years many times the number of innocent victims than were lost on 9/11, but also was on the losing end of prolonged, costly interventions and state-building undertakings that went along to show that the American imperial prowess was indeed a paper tiger. This over-reaction has also contributed to counterrevolutionary impacts worldwide that are still reverberating.

The seemingly highly impulsive and reactive responses to 9/11 by the American leadership was to herald the immediate launching of ‘the war on terror,’ which should be understood as a generalized forever war against a generic type of political behavior rather than declaring was on an adversary state. Before 9/11 terrorist tactics even if prolonged and threatening to the stability of the state, were regarded as a severe type of crime or anti-state criminal enterprise, with serious policing and paramilitary implications but not a matter of military engagement on conventional battlefields. Of course, on many prior historic occasions a political movement engaged in terrorist activity as a prelude to a sustained insurrectionary challenge to the prevailing government. This U.S. response by way of war, directed not only at the al-Qaeda perpetrators mainly situated in the mountains of Afghanistan, but potentially against all forms of non-state and foreign political extremism directed at the interests of Western states, made the historical effects of 9/12 far greater internally for America and externally for the world than the grim event of the prior day when the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, killing 2,997. The ‘forever wars,’by comparison killed as estimated 900,000 (at a cost of $8 trillion) [conservative estimates of ‘The Costs of War Project’ at Brown University].    

It is crucial to remember that 9/11 from the moment of the first explosion was politically much more than a mega-terrorist attack, however spectacular. It quickly provided a pretext for projecting American military power and political influence that the dominant wing of the political class then in control of the White House was awaiting with growing signs of impatience. It was no secret that the chief foreign policy advisors of George W. Bush wanted and needed a political mandate that would allow the U.S. to carry out a preexisting neoconservative agenda of U.S. intervention and aggression, focused on the Middle East that prior to 9/11 lacked sufficient political backing among the citizenry to become operative foreign policy. This earlier neocon foreign policy agenda was set forth in the reports of the Project for a New American Century (1997-2006), prepared and endorsed by leading foreign policy hawks with global hegemony, Israel, and oil uppermost in their thoughts. For those seeking even earlier antecedents “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for the Security of the Realm,” an Israeli policy report of 1996  prepared by influential American neocon foreign policy experts at the behest of Netanyahu is worthy of notice. The haunting reality that the 9/11 attack was masterminded and orchestrated from remote sites in Afghanistan reinforced the globalist ambitions of militarists to the effect that U.S. was significantly threatened by non-state enemies situated in geographically remote places on the planet, that deterrence and retaliation were irrelevant against such foes, and that preemptive styles of warfare were now necessary and fully justified against government that willingly gave safe havens to such violently disposed political extremism. New tactics seem needed and justified if the security of a country, however militarily capable, was in the future to be upheld against remotely situated non-state enemies. This post-9/11 strategic discourse produced a sequence of forever wars, most tellingly in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria and Libya, which were quite unrelated to al-Qaeda rationale for expanding prior notion of the right of self-defense, whether understood with reference to international law or geopolitics.

Another legacy of 9/11, although also evident in the outcome of the Vietnam War, is that the side that has the military superiority no longer has reason to believe that it will attain a political victory at an acceptable cost. “You have the watches, we have the time” vividly imparts the largely unreported news that perseverance, commitment, and patience, more than military hardware however sophisticated, shape political outcomes in characteristic conflicts for the control of sovereign political space in the 21st Century. Whether this trend will continue is, of course, uncertain as war planners in governments of geopolitical actors are devoting resources and energies to devising tactics and weapons that will restore hard power potency.

The message of a changed balance of power at least temporarily, despite the startling consistency of the evidence, is one that the political class in the West, especially in the U.S. refuses to heed. The militarization of the foreign policy establishment of Western states over the course of the Cold War, is also reflective of the ‘political realist’ ideological consensus led to a costly and futile process in which security challenges were predominantly seen through a reductionist lens that impoverished the political imagination by ignoring the shifting power balances that have favored the politics of post-colonial nationalism. The previously hidden weaknesses of external intervenors were exposed. These weaknesses included the onset of geopolitical fatigue in these combat zones distant from the homeland coupled with a lack of political success at all commensurate with the effort. The military prowess of the foreign intervenors being more than offset over time by nationalist perseverance, although at great costs for the resisters. The intervenors strain to justify these foreign missions to a domestic public that gradually comes to understand that the security claims used to ‘sell’ the war were all along a phony façade partly erected to hide the benefits to special interests within and outside the governmental bureaucracy, including the defense industry and private contracting firms that complemented the explicit military presence, and were economic winners even if the government was a political loser. Although brainwashed over the years, with the help of a corporatized media, there remained a remnant of accountability to the citizenry if American lives were sacrificed in a lost war that also revealed itself to be quite irrelevant from a security perspective. The victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or of the Taliban this year is not likely to alter the regional status quo to any great extent further demonstrating that the war strategy was not only a failure but superfluous from a traditional security perspective, although consequential geopolitically.

It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal from ongoing forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere leads to a belated recognition of what I have in the past called ‘the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War.’ So far, this is far from clear as the inflated level of the U.S. military budget, with its huge negative domestic opportunity costs, continues to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support. Also telling is the tendency to meet the rise of China by bellicose posturing that may have already generated a second cold war that neither the country nor the world can afford or risk turning hot. Perhaps, the American political class has temporarily learned the lesson that state-building interventions do not work under current world conditions, but still harbor reckless beliefs that geopolitical ‘wars’ remain viable options, thereby providing continued validation of inflated military spending and consequent policy orientations toward conflict and rivalry rather than conciliation and compromise. China, admittedly bears some responsibility for escalating tensions due to its provocative militarist moves in the South China Seas and economistic provocations. The Biden foreign policy has clearly designated China as a credible geopolitical rival that threatens U.S. geopolitical primacy, and hence must be confronted as well as contained, even resisted by force of arms if necessary.   

We should not overlook the lingering skepticism surrounding the official version of the 9/11 events. The official inquiry resulting in the report of the 9/11 Commission convinced few of the serious doubters as it put to convincing rest none of the reasons for doubt. As long as this, doubt remains embedded in a portion of the citizenry, no matter how castigated they may be as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and routinely maligned by mainstream media, a shadow of illegitimacy will be cast over the U.S. body politic. A truly independent second 9/11 investigation backed by the government is long overdue, but seems highly unlikely to happen. If given unrestricted access to FBI and CIA records and subpoena powers such an authentic processs could clear the air, and a crucial regenerative future for American democracy that might finally overcome the legacies of both 9/11 and 9/12.

Challenging Nuclearism: The Nuclear Ban Treaty Assessed

14 Jul


On 7 July 2017 122 countries at the UN voted to approve the text of a proposed international treaty entitled ‘Draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.’ The treaty is formally open for signature in September, but it only become a binding legal instrument according to its own provisions 90 days after the 50th country deposits with the UN Secretary General its certification that the treaty has been ratified in accordance with their various constitutional processes.

In an important sense, it is incredible that it took 72 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reach this point of setting forth this unconditional prohibition of any use or threat of nuclear weapons [Article 1(e)] within the framework of a multilateral treaty negotiated under UN auspices. The core obligation of states that choose to become parties to the treaty is very sweeping. It prohibits any connection whatsoever with the weaponry by way of possession, deployment, testing, transfer, storage, and production [Article 1(a)].

The Nuclear Ban Treaty (NBT) is significant beyond the prohibition. It can and should be interpreted as a frontal rejection of the geopolitical approach to nuclearism, and its contention that the retention and development of nuclear weapons is a proven necessity given the way international society is organized. It is a healthy development that the NBT shows an impatience toward and a distrust of the elaborate geopolitical rationalizations of the nuclear status quo that have ignored the profound objections to nuclearism of many governments and the anti-nuclear views that have long dominated world public opinion. The old reassurances about being committed to nuclear disarmament as soon as an opportune moment arrives increasingly lack credibility as the nuclear weapons states, led by the United States, make huge investments in the modernization and further development of their nuclear arsenals.

Despite this sense of achievement, it must be admitted that there is a near fatal weakness, or at best, the gaping hole in this newly cast net of prohibition established via the NBT process. True, 122 governments lends weight to the claim that the international community, by a significant majority has signaled in an obligatory way a repudiation of nuclear weapons for any and all purposes, and formalized their prohibition of any action to the contrary. The enormous fly in this healing ointment arises from the refusal of any of the nine nuclear weapons states to join in the NBT process even to the legitimating extent of participating in the negotiating conference with the opportunity to express their objections and influence the outcome. As well, most of the chief allies of these states that are part of the global security network of states relying directly and indirectly on nuclear weaponry also boycotted the entire process. It is also discouraging to appreciate that several countries in the past that had lobbied against nuclear weapons with great passion such as India, Japan, and China were notably absent, and also opposed the prohibition. This posture of undisguised opposition to this UN sponsored undertaking to delegitimize nuclearism, while reflecting the views of a minority of governments, must be taken extremely seriously. It includes all five permanent members of the Security Council and such important international actors as Germany and Japan.

The NATO triangle of France, United Kingdom, and the United States, three of the five veto powers in the Security Council, angered by its inability to prevent the whole NBT venture, went to the extreme of issuing a Joint Statement of denunciation, the tone of which was disclosed by a defiant assertion removing any doubt as to the abiding commitment to a nuclearized world order: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.” The body of the statement contended that global security depended upon maintaining the nuclear status quo, as bolstered by the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 and by the claim that it was “the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.” It is relevant to take note of the geographic limits associated with the claimed peace-maintaining benefits of nuclear weaponry, which ignores the ugly reality that devastating warfare has raged throughout this period outside the feared mutual destruction of the heartlands of geopolitical rivals, a central shared forbearance by the two nuclear superpowers throughout the entire Cold War. During these decades of rivalry, the violent dimensions of geopolitical rivalry were effectively outsourced to the non-Western regions of the world during the Cold War, and subsequently, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation for many vulnerable peoples inhabiting the Global South. Such a conclusion suggests that even if we were to accept the claim on behalf on nuclear weapons as deserving of credit for avoiding a major war, specifically World War III, that ‘achievement’ was accomplished at the cost of millions, probably tens of millions, of civilian lives in non-Western societies. Beyond this, the achievement involved a colossally irresponsible gamble with the human future, and succeeded as much due to good luck as to the rationality attributed to deterrence theory and practice.

NBT itself does not itself challenge the Westphalian framework of state-centrism by setting forth a framework of global legality that is issued under the authority of ‘the international community’ or the UN as the authoritative representative of the peoples of the world. Its provisions are carefully formulated as imposing obligation only with respect to ‘State parties,’ that is, governments that have deposited the prescribed ratification and thereby become formal adherents of the treaty. Even Article 4, which hypothetically details how nuclear weapons states should divest themselves of all connections with the weaponry limits its claims to State parties, and offers no guidance whatsoever in the event of suspected or alleged non-compliance. Reliance is placed in Article 5 on a commitment to secure compliance by way of the procedures of ‘national implementation.’

The treaty does aspire to gain eventual universality through the adherence of all states over time, but in the interim the obligations imposed are of minimal substantive relevance beyond the agreement of the non-nuclear parties not to accept deployment or other connections with the weaponry. It is for another occasion, but I believe a strong case can be made under present customary international law, emerging global law, and abiding natural law that the prohibitions in the NBT are binding universally independent of whether a state chooses or not to become a party to the treaty.

Taking an unnecessary further step to reaffirm statism, and specifically, ‘national sovereignty’ as the foundation of world order, Article 17 gives parties to the NBT a right of withdrawal. All that state parties have to do is give notice, accompanied by a statement of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ that have ‘jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.’ The withdrawal will take effect twelve months after the notice and statement are submitted. There is no procedure in the treaty by which the contention of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ can be challenged as unreasonable or made in bad faith. It is an acknowledgement that even for these non-nuclear states, nothing in law or morality or human wellbeing takes precedence over the exercise of sovereign rights. Article 17 is not likely to be invoked in the foreseeable future. This provision reminds us of this strong residual unwillingness to supersede national interests by deference to global and human interests. The withdrawal option is also important because it confirms that national security continues to take precedence over international law, even with respect to genocidal weaponry of mass destruction. As such the obligation undertaken by parties to the NBT are reversible in ways that are not present in multilateral conventions outlawing genocide, apartheid, and torture.

Given these shortcomings, is it nevertheless reasonable for nuclear abolitionists to claim a major victory by virtue of tabling such a treaty? Considering that the nuclear weapons states and their allies have all rejected the process and even those within the circle of the intended legal prohibition reserve a right of withdrawal, the NBT is likely to be brushed aside by cynics as mere wishful thinking and by dedicated anti-nuclearists as more of an occasion for hemlock than champagne. The cleavage between the nuclear weapons states and the rest of the world has never been starker, and there are absent any signs on either side of the divide to make the slightest effort to find common ground, and there may be none. As of now, it is a standoff between two forms of asymmetry. The nuclear states enjoy a preponderance of hard power, while the anti-nuclear states have the upper hand when it comes to soft power, including solid roots in ‘substantive democracy,’ ‘global law,’ and ‘natural law.’

The hard power solution to nuclearism has essentially been reflexive, that is, relying on nuclearism as shaped by the leading nuclear weapons states. What this has meant in practice is some degree of self-restraint on the battlefield and crisis situations (there is a nuclear taboo without doubt, although it has never been seriously tested), and, above all, a delegitimizing one-sided implementation of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. This one-sidedness manifests itself in two ways: (1) discriminatory administration of the underlying non-proliferation norm, most unreservedly in the case of Israel; as well, the excessive enforcement of the nonproliferation norm beyond the limits of either the NPT itself or the UN Charter, as with Iraq (2003), and currently by way of threats of military attack against North Korea and Iran. Any such uses of military force would be non-defensive and unlawful unless authorized by a Security Council resolution supported by all five permanent members, and at least four other states, which fortunately remains unlikely. [UN Charter, Article 27(3)] More likely is recourse to unilateral coercion led by the countries that issued the infamous joint declaration denouncing the NBT as was the case for the U.S. and the UK with regard to recourse to the war against Iraq, principally rationalized as a counter-proliferation undertaking, which turned out itself to be a rather crude pretext for mounting an aggressive war, showcasing ‘shock and awe’ tactics.

(2) The failure to respect the obligations imposed on the nuclear weapons states to negotiate in good faith an agreement to eliminate these weapons by verified and prudent means, and beyond this to seek agreement on general and complete disarmament. It should have been evident, almost 50 years after the NPT came into force in 1970 that nuclear weapons states have breached their material obligations under the treaty, which were validated by an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 that included a unanimous call for the implementation of these Article VI legal commitments. Drawing this conclusion from deeds as well as words, it is evident for all with eyes that want to see, that the nuclear weapons states as a group have opted for deterrence as a permanent security scheme and nonproliferation as its management mechanism.

One contribution of the NBT is convey to the world the crucial awareness of these 122 countries as reinforced by global public opinion that the deterrence/NPT approach to global peace and security is neither prudent nor legitimate nor a credible pathway leading over time to the end of nuclearism.

In its place, the NBT offers its own two-step approach—first, an unconditional stigmatizing of the use or threat of nuclear weapons to be followed by a negotiated process seeking nuclear disarmament. Although the NBT is silent about demilitarizing geopolitics and conventional disarmament, it is widely assumed that latter stages of denuclearization would not be implemented unless they involved these broader assaults on the war system. The NBT is also silent about the relevance of nuclear power capabilities, which inevitably entail a weapons option given widely available current technological knowhow. The relevance of nuclear energy technology would have to be addressed at some stage of nuclear disarmament.

Having suggested these major shortcomings of treaty coverage and orientation, can we, should we cast aside these limitations, and join in the celebrations and renewed hopes of civil society activists to rid the world of nuclear weapons? My esteemed friend and colleague, David Krieger, who has dedicated his life to keeping the flame of discontent about nuclear weapons burning and serves as the longtime and founding President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, concludes his informed critique of the Joint Statement by NATO leaders, with this heartening thought: “Despite the resistance of the U.S., UK and France, the nuclear ban treaty marks the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.” [Krieger, “U.S., UK and France Denounce the Nuclear Ban Treaty”]. I am not at all sure about this, although Krieger’s statement leaves open the haunting uncertainty of how long it might take to move from this ‘beginning’ to the desired ‘end.’ Is it as self-styled ‘nuclear realists’ like to point out, no more than an ultimate goal, which is polite coding for the outright dismissal of nuclear disarmament as ‘utopian’ or ‘unattainable’?

We should realize that there have been many past ‘beginnings of the end’ since 1945 that have not led us any closer to the goal of the eliminating the scourge of nuclearism from the face of the earth. It is a long and somewhat arbitrary list, including the immediate horrified reactions of world leaders to the atomic bomb attacks at the end of World War II, and what these attacks suggested about the future of warfare; the massive anti-nuclear civil disobedience campaigns that briefly grabbed mass attention in several nuclear weapons states; tabled disarmament proposals by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s; the UN General Assembly Resolution 1653 (XVI) that in 1961 declared threat or use of nuclear weapons to be unconditionally unlawful under the UN Charter and viewed any perpetrator as guilty of a crime against humanity; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that scared many into the momentary realization that it was not tolerable to coexist with nuclear weapons; the International Court of Justice majority opinion in 1996 responding to the General Assembly’s question about the legality of nuclear weapons that limited the possibility of legality of use to the narrow circumstance of responding to imminent threats to the survival of a sovereign state; the apparent proximity to an historic disarmament arrangements agreed to by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986; the extraordinary opening provided by the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which should have been the best possible ‘beginning of the end,’ and yet nothing happened; and finally, Barack Obama’s Prague speech is 2009 (echoing sentiments expressed less dramatically by Jimmy Carter in 1977, early in his presidency) in which he advocated to great acclaim dedicated efforts to achieve toward the elimination of nuclear weapons if not in his lifetime, at least as soon as possible; it was a good enough beginning for a Nobel Peace Prize, but then one more fizzle.

Each of these occasions briefly raised the hopes of humanity for a future freed from a threat of nuclear war, and its assured accompanying catastrophe, and yet there was few, if any, signs of progress from each of these beginnings greeted so hopefully toward the ending posited as a goal. Soon disillusionment, denial, and distraction overwhelmed the hopes raised by these earlier initiatives, with the atmosphere of hope in each instance replaced by an aura of nuclear complacency, typified by indifference and denial. It is important to acknowledge that the bureaucratic and ideological structures supporting nuclearism are extremely resilient, and have proved adept at outwaiting the flighty politics of periodic flurries of anti-nuclear activism.

And after a lapse of years, yet another new beginning is now being proclaimed. We need to summon and sustain greater energy than in the past if we are to avoid this fate of earlier new beginnings in relation to the NBT. Let this latest beginning start a process that moves steadily toward the end that has been affirmed. We know that the NBT would not itself have moved forward without civil society militancy and perseverance at every stage. The challenge now is to discern and then take the next steps, and not follow the precedents of the past that followed the celebration of a seeming promising beginning with a misplaced reliance on the powers that be to handle the situation, and act accordingly. In the past, the earlier beginnings were soon buried, acute concerns eventually resurfaced, and yet another new beginning was announced with fanfare while the earlier failed beginning were purged from collective memory.

Here, we can at least thank the infamous Joint Statement for sending a clear signal to civil society and the 122 governments voting their approval of the NBT text that if they are truly serious about ending nuclearism, they will have to carry on the fight, gathering further momentum, and seeking to reach a tipping point where these beginnings of the end gain enough traction to become a genuine political project, and not just another harmless daydream or well-intended empty gesture.

As of now the NBT is a treaty text that courteously mandates the end of nuclearism, but to convert this text into an effective regime of control will require the kind of deep commitments, sacrifices, movements, and struggles that eventually achieved the impossible, ending such entrenched evils as slavery, apartheid, and colonialism.