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Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

The abrupt announcement that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and the eastern government in divided Libya have broken all economic and political ties with Qatar has given rise to a tsunami of conjecture, wild speculation, and most of all, to wishful thinking and doomsday worries. There is also a veil of confusion arising from mystifying reports that hackers with alleged Russian connections placed a fake news story that implicated Qatar in the promotion of extremist groups in the region. Given Russian alignments, it makes no sense to create conditions that increase the credibility of anti-Iran forces. And finally the timing and nature of the terrorist suicide attacks of June 7th on the Iranian Parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini adds a particularly mystifying twist to the rapidly unfolding Qatar drama, especially if the ISIS claim of responsibility is substantiated.

 

Four preliminary cautionary observations seem apt: (1) the public explanation given for this rupture is almost certainly disconnected from its true meaning. That is, the break with Qatar is not about strengthening the anti-ISIS, anti-extremist coalition of Arab forces. Such an explanation may play well in the Trump White House, but it is far removed from understanding why this potentially menacing anti-Qatar regional earthquake erupted at this time, and what it is truly about. (2) Any claim to provide a clear account of why? And why now? should be viewed with great skepticism, if not suspicion. There are in the regional context too many actors, crosscurrents, uncertainties, conflicts, mixed and hidden motives and contradictions at play as to make any effort at this stage to give a reliable and coherent account of this Qatar crisis bound to be misleading.

 

(3) Yet despite these caveats, there are several mainly unspoken dimensions of the crisis that can be brought to the surface, and sophisticate our understanding beyond the various self-serving polemical interpretations that are being put forward, including the centrality of Israeli-American backing for a tough line on Iran and the realization that Gulf grievances against Qatar have been brewing for recent years for reasons unrelated to ISIS, and led to an earlier milder confrontation in 2014 that was then quickly overcome with the help of American diplomacy.

 

And (4) The anti-Iran fervor only makes sense from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies (other than Qatar) and Israel, but seems radically inconsistent with American regional interests and counter-ISIS priorities—Iran is not associated with any of the terrorist incidents occurring in Europe and the United States, and ISIS and Iran are pitted against each other on sectarian grounds. Intriguingly, neither Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nor Israel, that is, the principal antagonists of Qatar, have been ever targeted by ISIS.

 

The main contention of the anti-Qatar Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, is that this coordinated diplomatic pushback is motivated by anti-terrorist priorities. On its face this seems to be a ridiculous claim to come from the Saudis, and can only make some sense as part of a calculated effort to throw pursuing dogs in the hunt for ISIS off a course that if followed would inevitably implicate the Riyadh government. It has long been known by intelligence services and academic experts that it is Saudi Arabia, including members of its royal family, that have been funding Jihadi extremism in the Middle East and has for many years been spending billions to spread Salifist extremism throughout the Islamic world.

 

By comparison, although far from innocent or consistent of terrorist linkages, as well as being internally oppressive, especially toward its migrant foreign workers, Qatar is a minor player in this high stakes political imbroglio. For the Saudis to take the lead in this crusade against Qatar may play well in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London, but fools few in the region. Trump has with characteristic ill-informed bravado has taken ill-advised credit for this turn against Qatar, claiming it to be an immediate payoff of his recent visit to the Kingdom, ramping up still further the provocative buildup of pressure on Iran. To claim a political victory given the circumstances rather than admit a geopolitical faux pas might seem strange for any leader other than Trump. It is almost perverse considering that the al-Udeid Air Base is in Qatar, which is the largest American military facility in the Middle East, operated as a regional command center actively used in bombing raids against Iraq and Afghanistan, and serviced by upwards of 10,000 American military personnel.

 

Netanyahu warmongers will certainly be cheered by this course of events and Israel has not hidden its support for the anti-Qatar moves of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It achieves two Israeli goals: its longtime undertaken to encourage splits and disorder in the Arab world and its campaign to maximize pressures on Iran.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the week when the momentous British elections are scheduled to take place, called on Teresa May to release a report (prepared while David Cameron was prime minister), supposedly an explosive exposure of Saudi funding and support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. All in all, a first approximation of the Qatar crisis is to view it as a desperate move by Riyadh to get off the hot seat with respect to its own major responsibility for the origins and buildup of political extremism in the Middle East, which has indirectly produced the inflaming incidents in principal European cities during the last several years. Such a move to isolate and punish Qatar was emboldened by the blundering encouragement of Donald Trump, whether acting on impulse or at the beckoning of Israel’s and Saudi leaders, confusing genuine counter-terrorist priorities with a dysfunctional effort to push Iran against the wall. Trump seems to forget, if he ever knew, that Iran is fighting against ISIS in Syria, has strongly reaffirmed moderate leadership in its recent presidential elections, and if Iran were brought in from the cold could be a major calming influence in the region. True, Iran has given support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but except in Syria not with much effect, and on a scale far smaller than what other actors in the region have been doing to maintain their control and push their agendas. In effect, if Washington pursued national interests in the spirit of political realism, it would regard Iran as a potential ally, and put a large question mark next to its two distorting ‘special relationships,’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel. In effect, reverse its regional alignments in a way that could replace turmoil with stability, but this is not about to happen. The American media, and thoughtful citizens, should at least be wondering ‘why?’ rather than staring into darkness of a starless nighttime sky.

 

But this is not all. The Saudis, along with the UAE and Egypt, have long resented and maybe feared the early willingness of Qatar to give some sanctuary and aid and comfort to various elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is hardly farfetched to assume that Israel is outraged by the Emir of Qatar’s friendship and earlier support for the Hamas exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal. Saudi Arabia strives to obscure its incoherent approach to political Islam. It loudly proclaims Sunni identity when intervening in Syria, waging war in Yemen, and calling for confrontation with Iran, while totally repudiating its sectarian identity when dealing with societally or democratically oriented Islamic movements in neighboring countries. Such an anti-democratiing orientation was dramatically present when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi scolded Washington for abandoning Mubarak’s harsh authoritarian secular rule in Egypt back in 2011 and then welcoming the anti-Morsi coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi two years later, even welcoming its bloody suppression of Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As has been long obvious to close and honest observers of the Kingdom, the Saudi monarchy has become so fearful of an internal uprising challenging its oppressive rule that it will oppose any liberalizing or democratizing challenge anywhere in its neighborhood. The Kingdom is particularly wary of its Shia minority that happens to be concentrated in locations near where the main Saudi oil fields are located. Similar concerns also help explain why Bahrain behaves as it does as it also fearful of a domestic Shia led majority opposition, which has made it a strategically dependent, yet ardent, adherent of the anti-Qatar coalition.

 

Also far more relevant than acknowledged is the presence of Al Jazeera in Doha, which at various times has voiced support for the Arab Uprisings of 2011, criticism of the Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians, and provided an Arabic media source of relatively independent news coverage throughout the region. Qatar is guilty of other irritants of the dominant Gulf political sensibility. It has arranged academic positions for such prominent Palestinian dissidents as Azmi Bashara and more than its neighbors has given welcome to intellectual refugees from Arab countries, especially Egypt. Given the way the Gulf rulers close off all political space within their borders it is to be expected that they find the relative openness of Qatar a threat as well as consider it to be a negative judgment passed on their style of governance.

 

Qatar is very vulnerable to pressure, but also has certain strengths. Its population of 2.5 million (only 200,000 of whom are citizens), imports at least 40% of its food across the Saudi border, now closed to the 600-800 daily truck traffic. Not surprisingly, this sudden closure has sparked panic among Qataris, who are reportedly stockpiling food and cash. The Doha stock market dropped over 7% on the first day after the Gulf break was announced. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and is a major source of Turkish investment capital. Western Europe is wary of this American project to establish an ‘Arab NATO,’ and sees it as one more manifestation of Trump’s dysfunctional and mindless impact on world order.

 

What this portends for the future remains is highly uncertain. Some look upon these moves against Qatar as a tempest in a teapot that will disappear almost as quickly as it emerged. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, have urged mediation and offered reassuring comments about anti-ISIS unity remaining unimpaired. It is true that the existence of the Udeid Air Base in Qatar may in time dilute deference to the Saudi-led desire to squeeze the government in Doha, possibly to the point of its collapse. A more fearsome scenario is that the Trump encouraged confrontation sets the stage for a coup in Qatar that will be quickly supported by Washington as soon as Riyadh gives the green light, and will be promoted as part of the regional buildup against Iran. The notorious ceremony in which King Salmon, Trump, and Sisi were pictured standing above that glowing orb with their arms outstretched can only be reasonably interpreted as a pledge of solidarity among dark forces of intervention. Many of us supposed that George W. Bush’s policy of ‘democracy promotion’ that provided part of the rationale for the disastrous 2003 attack on Iraq was the low point in American foreign policy in the Middle East, but Trump is already proving us wrong.

 

While this kind of ‘great game’ is being played at Qatar’s expense in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely that other major players, especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey will remain passive observers, especially if the crisis lingers or deepens. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammed Zarif, has non-aggressively tweeted to the effect that “neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stating his view that the occasion calls for dialogue, not coercion. If the isolation of Qatar is not quickly ended, it is likely that Iran will start making food available and shipping other supplies to this beleaguered tiny peninsular country whose sovereignty is being so deeply threatened.

 

Russia, has been long collaborating with Iran in Syria, will likely move toward greater solidarity with Tehran, creating a highly unstable balance of power in the Middle East with frightening risks of escalation and miscalculation. Russia will also take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity to tell the world that the U.S. is seeking to raise war fevers and cause havoc by championing aggressive moves that further the ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Such Russian diplomacy is likely to play well in Europe where Trump’s recent demeaning words in Brussels to NATO members made the leading governments rethink their security policies, and to view the United States as an increasingly destabilizing force on the global stage, such feeling being reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

Turkey seems to believe that its immediate effort should be similar to that of the Tillerson and Mattis approach, having tentatively offered to mediate, and advocates finding a way back to a posture of at least peaceful co-existence between Qatar, the Gulf, and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey has had a positive relationship with Qatar, which includes a small Turkish military facility and large Qatari investments in the Turkish economy.

 

To cool things down, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while denying the allegations, has also joined in the call for mediation and even reconciliation. Bowing to Gulf pressures, Qatar has prior to the current crisis withdrawn its welcome from Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood exiles, and seems poised to yield further to the pressures of the moment, given its small size, political vulnerability, and intimations of possible societal panic.

 

While the civilian population of Yemen is faced with imminent famine as an intended consequence of the Saudi intervention, the Saudis seems to be again using food as a weapon, this time to compel Qatar to submit to its regional priorities and become a GCC team player with respect to Iran—joining in the preparation of a sectarian war against Iran while maintaining a repressive hold over political activity at home. One preliminary takeaway is that ISIS dimension is serving as a smokescreen to draw attention away from a far more controversial agenda. The Saudis are deeply implicated in political extremism throughout the region, having likely paid heavily for being treated, temporarily at least, as off limits for Jihadi extremism. Qatar, too is tainted, but mainly by being a minor operative in Syrian violence and in 2015 paying ISIS an amount rumored to be as high as $1 billion to obtain the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the royal family, taken hostage while on a falcon hunting party, of all things, in Iraq. We can gain some glimmers of understanding of what is motivating these Arab governments to act against Qatar, but little sympathy. In comparison, the new U.S. foreign policy in the region defies any understanding beyond its adoption of a cynical and unworkable geopolitical stance, which certainly does not engender any sympathy from the victimized peoples of the region, but rather fear and loathing.  

Trumped Up Diplomacy in the Middle East

20 May

 

In his first overseas trip since moving into the White House, Donald Trump is leaving behind the frustrations, allegations, rumors, and an increasing sense of implosion that seems to be dooming his presidency during its second hundred days. At the same time, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension awaits this new leader wherever he goes making his visit to the Middle East and Europe momentous occasions for the host governments, wide eyed public, and rapacious media. We need to remember that in this era of popular autocrats and surging right-wing populists, Trump is a ‘hero of our time.’

 

Even if all had gone smoothly for the new president in his home country, there should be expressions of deep concern about his travel itinerary. He visits first the two countries with which the United States has ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel. What has long made them ‘special’ are a series of pre-Trump departures from realist and normative foreign policy orientations by successive American presidencies. These departures were motivated by oil geopolitics, arms sales and strategic alliances, hostility to Iran, and a disguised American sweet spot for foreign royalty. It is has long been obvious that uncritical deference to Israeli priorities has seriously undermined U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which would have benefitted much more from policies designed to encourage peace and stability by refraining from regime-changing interventions, massive arms sales, and a diplomacy of respect for the politics of national self-determination.

 

Most remarkably, the U.S. Government has for decades winked at the billions of support given by Saudi members of the royal family to Wahabism, that is, to promote fundamentalist Islam, throughout the Muslim world. The first words uttered by Trump on his arrival in Riyadh were that it ‘an honor’ to be visiting.

Then came signed deals adding up to $110 billions in arms sales and the declaration of a common strategic vision, that is, a super-alliance, called an ‘Arab NATO’ in some circles, a dagger aimed at Iran’s heart. Why turn a blind eye toward the Saudi role in fanning the flames of jihadism while ramping up a military threat to relatively passive Iran that reelected Hassan Rouhani as its president, who has consistently championed moderation at home and normalization abroad.

 

How can we explain this? Trump has been critical of most aspects of the foreign policy agenda of his predecessors, but on the promotion of the special relationships he seems intent on doubling down on the most misguided aspects of earlier approaches to the region. The shape of his travel itinerary during his days confirms this impression. In this regard, Trump repudiates Obama’s hesitant, but in the end successful, efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, while trying to please Saudi Arabia by ignoring its extreme denial of human rights to its own people as well as its contributions to anti-Western terrorism.

 

If Trump was truly intent on putting America first, as he insistently asserts, then he could do so very directly and effectively by taking three major steps toward the protection of national interests: first, demand a firm commitment from the Saudi government to cease using private funds and public diplomacy to spread Wahabism beyond its borders. Any credible public statement along these lines would weaken ISIS and other terrorist movements throughout the world far more than cascades of Tomahawk missiles dumped on a Syrian airfield. Such a challenge to Saudi policies also raises the possibility, however remote, of an endgame in the ‘war on terror.’ If such a reset of Saudi relations could be coupled with an indefinite freeze on arms sales to the Gulf countries that would have been even better, sending a signal throughout the region that America will no longer engage with the bloody conflicts that have brought so much suffering and devastation to the Middle East. This might give some belated meaning to ‘America first.’

 

The second step would have been even harder for an American president to take. It would require Trump to tell Mr. Netanyahu that no further military assistance for Israel would be authorized until an unconditional freeze on settlement expansion was in place and enforced, and the blockade of Gaza lifted once and for all.

 

It does not require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to appreciate that the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region and the adoption of effective steps to minimize the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam would improve future prospects for this horrendously disrupted political realities, at last reducing tensions and risks of wars. Nor does it require special knowledge to identify the obstacles such actions—the one government that already possesses nuclear weapons and the government that feels threatened by a challenge to its regional preeminence. Saudi Arabia and Israel both regard Iran as enemy number one, although it poses no existential threat to either one, and Israel will not even discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal despite being assured by Washington that its qualitative edge in conventional weaponry relative to its neighbors will be upheld.

 

The special relationships block even the consideration of enlightened initiatives, take them entirely off the table. This contrasts with the American proclivity for coercive diplomacy, which always assertively leaves the military option on the table. Without tension-reducing measures, a few false moves could easily give rise to a major war with Iran, which might bring smiles to leaders in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would be disastrous for the societies involved and for the United States, as well as for the region.

 

Given the leverage and militancy of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, more realistically pursuing American national interests toward Israel and the Middle East, seems tantamount to issuing invitations to Trump’s beheading, and despite his wildly gyrations of policy and mood, he has shown no disposition whatsoever to take on AIPAC, inc.. Quite the contrary.

 

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that the advocacy of rationality in foreign policy will have the slightest echo in Washington in the course of Trump’s current diplomatic foray into uncharted territories. What I wish to point out is that this kind of foreign policy fantasy, however desirable if it were to be enacted, has become a species of political suicide. Any political leader who moved in more rational directions would be risking his own life, at least politically. The proposals mentioned above tells us what an American president should do if a rational and humane political system was in place and organized in such ways as to allow the pursuit of national interests, the realization of values associated with peace and human rights, and to attain the benefits of just and sustainable Isreali/Palestinian peace arrangements.

 

As long as these dysfunctional special relationships are relied upon to define American national interests in the Middle East, violent extremism and turmoil will persist, the authority of the United Nations and international law will suffer, and the credibility of American regional and global leadership will further erode. And maybe worst of all, the mounting ecological and nuclear challenges of global scope and apocalyptical risk will be remain unattended in what has become the greatest display of species indifference to its own survival throughout human history.

 

Mainstream advice on the Middle East being proffered to the Trump presidency by Beltway sharpshooters takes for granted the geopolitical status quo questioned above. The problems presented by the two special relationships are not even mentioned. Given these perspectives there are three broad kinds of approaches recommended for the region: (1) don’t aim too high, lower expectations, and don’t touch raw nerves in Israel or the Arab world (e.g. moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or telling Israel to dismantle the separation wall, stop expanding settlements, or handle the ongoing hunger strike humanely)[See Aaron David Miller, “From My Twenty Years of Failing at Middle East Peace,” Foreign Policy online, May 19, 2017]; (2) gang up on Iran, which will please both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and will have some positive resonance back in the United States [e.g. Michael Doran, “A Trump Plan for the Middle East,” NY Times, May 19, 2017]; (3) adopt the Israeli hard right view, now pushed within the United States, that the best road to ‘peace’ is to give Israel a green light to exert even greater pressure on the Palestinians to the point of their surrender. [a position repeatedly advocated by Daniel Pipes on the online listserv Middle East Forum and elsewhere, see Pipes, “The Way to Peace: Israeli Victory and Palestinian Defeat,” Commentary, Jan. 2017; Pipes boasts of his work with the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus that wants the U.S. Government to stop talking about ‘the two state solution,’ and support an Israeli shift from managing the status quo to launching a campaign to defeat Palestinians so decisively as to end the conflict.]

 

The first of these approaches is a cautionary warning to Trump the maker of grand deals not to exceed the boundaries of the feasible. The Israel/Palestine conflict is not ripe for resolution, Israel has no incentive or inclination to reach a fair compromise and even if it were, the Palestinians are currently too fragmented and poorly led to provide a reliable negotiating partner. The second geopolitically oriented approach makes matters worse, pushing the sectarian and secular divides in the direction of a regional confrontation, even combat. The third is geopolitically triumphalist, assuming that the Palestinians can be induced to give up their century old struggle, and go the way of other indigenous lost causes that have succumbed to predatory settler movements.

 

As Trump dominates the news by his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel we should not be tricked into thinking that his ‘achievements’ are hopeful developments. The only true beacons of hope for the peoples of the Middle East are the contrarian affirmations of the Palestinian hunger strike, the Rouhani electoral victory, and the BDS Campaign. The fact that such developments are ignored or condemned by the dominant political forces in the West should at least alert us to gathering storm clouds in that tormented region and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should the Palestinians Seek Justice NOW at the International Criminal Court?

23 Feb

Should the Palestinians Seek Justice NOW at the International Criminal Court?

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified version of an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on February 20, 2017. It calls particular attention to the punitive treatment of recourse to international law tribunals to address perceived grievances that is meant to discourage Palestinians from seeking relief at the International Criminal Court. On one level this form of lawfare underscores the weakness and vulnerability of Israel when the conflict is shifted from the battlefield to the courtroom. On another level it is meant to deny the Palestinian people, and their representatives, all legitimate amd moderate options by which to pursue their claims and address their grievances. It signals that the ‘enforcers’ of world order repudiate their own accountability with regard to the rule of law, while purporting to hold others to account, for instance, by criminalizing all forms of violent resistance to prolonged and abusive occupation as ‘terrorism.’]

 

 

Weakening the Two-State Consensus

 There is little doubt that the mid-February Netanyahu/Trump love fest at the White House further dampened already dim Palestinian hopes for a sustainable peace based on a political compromise. The biggest blow was Trump’s casual abandonment of the two-state solution coupled with an endorsement of a one-state outcome provided the parties agree to such an outcome, which as so expressed is a result almost impossible to suppose ever happening in the real world. Israel would never agree to a secular one-state that effectively abandons the Zionist insistence on a Jewish state with deep historical roots and biblical validation. The Palestinians would never agree to live in such a Jewish one-state that essentially abandoned their long struggle to achieve national self-determination, thereby gaining liberation from the last major remnant of the colonial era.

 

With geopolitical bravado suitable for the real estate magnate that he remains, despite the presidential trappings of his formal role, Trump also vaguely promised to negotiate a grand deal for the region that evidently reached beyond the contested territory of Palestine so long locked in conflict, and thus encompassed neighboring countries or possibly the whole region. It is easy to speculate that such murmurings by Trump were not welcomed in either Jordan or Egypt, long favored by rightest Israelis as dumping grounds for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Such added ‘political space’ is attractive from an Israeli perspective, both to ensure that Israel maintains a comfortable Jewish majority if the one-state solution were ever forcibly implemented by Israel. At the same time the prospect of population transfer would allow Israel to achieve a higher degree of racial purity, a feature of the dominant Zionist imaginary long before Israel became internationally recognized as a state.

 

An inflammatory part of this new political environment is the accelerated expansion of the existing network of unlawful Israeli settlements located in occupied Palestine. Although near unanimously condemned in Security Council Resolution 2334 last December, Israel responded by defiantly announcing approval of thousands more settlement units, endorsing plans for an entirely new settlement, and by way of a Knesset initiative provocatively legalized settlement ‘outposts,’ 50 of which are distributed throughout the West Bank in direct violation of even Israeli law. It is possible that the Israeli Supreme Court will heed anticipated judicial challenges to this latest move, and eventually void this Knesset law, but even if this happens, the passage of such a law sends a clear message of iron resolve by the political forces currently steering Israeli policy never to permit the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

 

In these circumstances, it becomes incumbent upon the Palestinian Authority to show the world that it is still alive, and it currently has few ways of doing this. Given these realities it would seem a no brainer for the PA to light up the skies of public awareness of the Palestinian plight by vigorously demanding justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC). After all there is a wide consensus on the global stage that all the settlements, and not just the outposts, are in violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. These settlements have for decades served as a major obstacle in the search for a satisfactory diplomatic solution of the conflict. Of course, it would be naïve to expect Israel to comply with an adverse judgment of the ICC, or to participate in such a proceeding in ways other than by challenging the competence of the tribunal, but a favorable outcome would still be of great value for the Palestinians. It would cast Israel in an unfavorable light in relation to the UN, international law, and world public opinion, and undoubtedly encourage the further development of the already robust global solidarity movement.

 

Yet, despite these circumstances that makes the ICC seem such an attractive option, a PA decision to take this path is far from obvious. The former Foreign Minister of the PA and member of Fatah’s Central Committee, Nasser al-Kidwa, effectively dismissed the ICC option by calling it ‘complicated’ without any further explanation, leaving the impression that the costs of taking such a step were too high. However, the issue is not yet settled as mixed signals are emanating from Palestinian leadership circles. For instance, the PLO Secretary General, Saeb Erekat, in contrast to Kidwa, minced no words in his insistence that the ICC investigate “the colonial settlement regime.”

 

It seems useful to speculate on why there should be this ambivalence among Palestinian leaders. After all, international law, international public opinion, and even most European governments are all supportive of Palestinian claims with regard to the settlements. Israel remains more defiant than ever, and shows every sign of further expansion, possibly with an eye toward soon unilaterally declaring an end to the conflict, a move that Washington might find temporarily awkward, but in the end, acceptable. At the core of this debate about recourse to the ICC is the tricky question as to whether deference to the muscular vagaries of geopolitics serves Palestinian interests at this time.

 

Recourse to the ICC: Pros and Cons

 

The argument favoring recourse to the ICC is almost too obvious to put forward. It would back Israel into a corner. The Netanyahu government is certain to react with anger and concrete expressions of hostility to any such move by the PA. Such a reaction would be widely seen as a convincing confirmation of Israel’s vulnerability to any impartial test as to whether its settlement policies meet the minimum requirements of international law. And most importantly for the PA it would demonstrate that despite recent political disappointments the Ramallah leadership was prepared to embark upon a controversial course of action that displayed political courage, including a willingness to endure expected vindictive acts of retaliation. Recourse to the ICC would play well with the Palestinian people, especially those living under occupation. They experience daily tensions with violent settler groups and see no future for themselves absent confrontation with Israel. If the PA chooses such a course, it would help restore support for the flagging claims of the PA to serve as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the global level. This is turn could lead finally to durable arrangements of unity as between Hamas and Fatah, which would raise confidence levels that the Palestinians were prepared for this latest, difficult stage of their national movement.

 

The arguments against going to the ICC are somewhat more elusive. There is no doubt that Palestine, recognized by the UN as a state now enjoys the jurisdictional qualifications to participate in ICC proceedings. What is less clear is whether the ICC would be responsive, and able to circumvent technical obstacles, such as finding suitable Israeli defendants. During its 15 years of operation the ICC has been very reluctant to be pro-active except in Africa, and even there it has been recently stung by an intense pushback by African governments and the African Union. The ICC has been reluctant to stir up political opposition in the West, which would certainly occur as soon as the ICC launched a full investigation of Palestinian criminal grievances against Israel.

 

There is also the reverse problem of ICC action that might disappoint the PA. To appear balanced, the ICC would probably extend its investigation to include allegations relating to indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza. It could then decide that a strong case of probable criminal responsibility attributable to Hamas existed, while allegations against Israel failed because of the inability to establish criminal intent. Although a setback for the PA, such an outcome at the ICC would be internationally criticized as contrary to reasonable interpretations of international law, and be widely regarded as a reflection of political pressures exerted by Washington.

 

Likely, the PA is most inhibited by the ‘lawfare’ campaign being waged by Israel and the United States. Already during the Obama presidency there was Congressional legislation terminating financial assistance to the PA in the event of any recourse to the ICC. Since Trump these warnings have escalated, including the total suspension of financial aid, the closing of the PLO offices in Washington, and threats to put the PLO and Fatah back on the US list of terrorist organizations. It is evident that the PA is taking these unseemly threats seriously.

 

There are also PA fears that any ICC initiative would induce Israel to move more quickly toward closure with respect to the underlying conflict, annexing most or all of the West Bank. Such a reaction would both be in keeping with Israel’s tendency to respond disproportionately to any formal action directed at the legality of its policies and practices. Israel is particularly sensitive about war crimes charges, and vows extraordinary measures should any of its citizens be so charged. Now that Netanyahu can count on unconditional support in the White House and the US Congress it would not be surprising to see him use the occasion of an ICC initiative to proclaim Israeli sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine.

 

Conclusion

 

In light of the above, it seems almost certain that the PA will not act take advantage of the ICC option any time soon. The PA is likely to adopt a posture of neither/nor, that is, neither explicitly ruling out recourse to the ICC, nor activating the option. This reflects the reality that the PA is caught between the rock of US/Israel bullying tactics and the hard place of an increasingly restive Palestinian population, being acutely reminded of its ordeal by the grim realization that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation.

 

The United States posture, although somewhat more belligerently pro-Israel as a result of the Trump presidency, is really nothing new except in style. Even during the Obama presidency the US opposed every attempt by the PA to rely on international law or the UN to advance its national struggle. Instead of welcoming the use of law rather than weapons, the US Government castigated efforts of Palestine to gain membership in the UN System or to seek even symbolic relief for its grievances in international venues. This turn against international law, as well as against the UN, is clearly a signature issue for the Trump presidency, and not just in relation to Palestine, and this is not good news for the world.

Israel’s Legalizes Settlement Options as a Prelude to the Netanyahu Visit to Trumpland

13 Feb

Responses to four questions posed by Rodrigo Craveiro, a journalist from the Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense

 

1- How do you see the decision of the Knesset taken last night about legalizing settlement outposts and what are the likely consequences of this legislative initiative? 

It is one more act of defiance by Israel that is both a repudiation of international law relating to settlements in Occupied Palestine and of the UNSC, which in December passed Resolution 2334 condemning settlement expansion and reaffirming their illegality. Whether Israel experiences adverse consequences depends especially on the reaction of European governments and of civil society. Israel expects that Trump’s presidency will insulate the country from any show of real pressure at the UN or via sanctions, but there are mixed signals as usual emanating from the White House. The Knesset’s provocative move of legalizing the 50 or so settlement ‘outposts’ that were previously illegal even under Israeli law, an internationally controversial move that may in due course be nullified by Israel’s judiciary. Actually, the move was not so radical as the Israel state had long accommodated the outposts by providing them with subsidies and security, and overlooking their formally unlawful status in domestic law.

 

2– Do you believe Israel is interested in annexing West Bank? Why?

Israel’s leadership and public seems split on this. The most vocal leaders of the settler movement and the extreme right in Israel favor annexation, and always have and always will. Netanyahu and the Israeli center right prefer to keep their true intentions ambiguous, that is, proceeding with de facto annexation while continuing to maintain an international diplomatic posture that claims a willingness to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions implying an eventual willingness to accept at some point the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Some in Israel favor annexation for historical/biblical reasons associated with their convictions that Israel should embrace the whole of ancient Palestine, with the West Bank known as Samaria and Judea. Other Israelis favor annexation as the fulfillment of the project of secular Zionism, and also contend that a greater Israel will enhance the security of the state of Israel. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, has long favored annexation of the entire West Bank to complete the Zionist project, and couples this forthright rejection of a two-state solution with a controversial commitment to treat Palestinians as fully equal citizens in such an expanded Jewish state, accepting even the possibility that Palestinians become at some point a demographic majority, and manage to achieve an electoral mandate for  a Palestinian political party to govern the country.

 

3– In what ways do you believe Netanyahu is taking advantage of the fact that Trump is in the presidency of US for taking polemical measures?

It would appear that Netanyahu is proceeding on the basis that whatever Israel chooses to do, even if in the Obama years it might have produced disapproval, will in the Trump presidency be fully supported. Netanyahu may be testing how far he can go with such an approach without generating a costly diplomatic backlash by Arab neighbors, a new cycle of violent resistance by Palestinians, and an escalation of global civil society pressures taking the form of a more robust Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign. In my view, Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game, and for the sake of Israeli expansionism and one-statism, maybe overstepping prudent limits. Perhaps, the biggest and most dangerous test of all is Netanyahu apparent desire to heighten tensions with Iran, leading possibly to the repudiation of P5 + 1 Nuclear Agreement negotiated by Obama presidency in 2014 and to a military confrontation. Trump called for the repudiation of the agreement during his campaign, but has been urged not to carry out the pledge by many, including senior former Israeli security experts and government officials. It will be of the greatest importance that this agreement with Iran maintained, and not undermined by any ratcheting up sanctions and an increased confrontational diplomacy.

 

4– Do you believe Trump could be seen as a source of influence in favor of Israel, due to his adherence to conservative positions that are the same as those favored by Netanyahu?

 There appears to be a natural affinity between these two leaders based both on their autocratic approach toward governance and reactionary substantive positions. I would not call their ideological outlook genuinely ‘conservative’ as it seeks to create ruptures with prior political, social, and cultural values. Although both leaders are demagogues and ideologues, they also act in opportunistic and impetuous ways. Both are swayed by considerations of expediency, and so their apparent marriage of convenience to one another could easily be broken. Perhaps, after their meeting this week, it will be clearer as to whether their personal chemistry is sufficiently positive to sustain their relationship over time. For the sake of peace and justice, I would hope that tension rather than harmony develops as they come to know each other better. It is certainly time for the US Government to realize how much damage its ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia have contributed to the tensions and turmoil that currently beset the region.

 

 

Open Letter to President-elect Donald Trump on Nuclear Weapons

8 Jan

[Prefatory Note: The text below is an Open Letter to the next American president urging complete nuclear disarmament as an urgent priority. The letter was prepared under the auspices of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and its current list of signatories are listed below. It is hoped that concerns with nuclear weapons policy will rise to the top of the global policy agenda and will engage people everywhere. It is our view that the elimination of nuclear weaponry is a matter of upholding the human interest of all peoples, as well as promoting the national interest of each country.]

 

https://www.wagingpeace.org/open-letter-trump/

 

Open Letter to President-elect Trump: Negotiate Nuclear Zero

As president of the United States, you will have the grave responsibility of assuring that nuclear weapons are not overtly threatened or used during your term of office.

The most certain way to fulfill this responsibility is to negotiate with the other possessors of nuclear weapons for their total elimination.  The U.S. is obligated under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in such negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.

 

A nuclear war, any nuclear war, would be an act of insanity.  Between nuclear weapons states, it would lead to the destruction of the attacking nation as well as the attacked.  Between the U.S. and Russia, it would threaten the survival of humanity.

 

There are still more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, of which the United States possesses more than 7,000.  Some 1,000 of these remain on hair-trigger alert.  A similar number remain on hair-trigger alert in Russia.  This is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

 

Even if nuclear weapons are not used intentionally, they could be used inadvertently by accident or miscalculation.  Nuclear weapons and human fallibility are a dangerous mix.

Nuclear deterrence presupposes a certain view of human behavior.  It depends on the willingness of political leaders to act rationally under all circumstances, even those of extreme stress.  It provides no guarantees or physical protection.  It could fail spectacularly and tragically.

You have suggested that more nations – such as Japan, South Korea and even Saudi Arabia – may need to develop their own nuclear arsenals because the U.S. spends too much money protecting other countries.  This nuclear proliferation would make for a far more dangerous world.  It is also worrisome that you have spoken of dismantling or reinterpreting the international agreement that places appropriate limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and has the support of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

 

As other presidents have had, you will have at your disposal the power to end civilization as we know it.  You will also have the opportunity, should you choose, to lead in ending the nuclear weapons era and achieving nuclear zero through negotiations on a treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

 

We, the undersigned, urge you to choose the course of negotiations for a nuclear weapons-free world.  It would be a great gift to all humanity and all future generations.

 

To add your name to the open letter, click here.

Initial signers:

 

David Krieger

President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Richard Falk

Senior Vice President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Daniel Ellsberg

Distinguished Fellow, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Noam Chomsky

Professor Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 

Oliver Stone

Film director

 

Setsuko Thurlow

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Survivor

 

Anders Wijkman

Co-President, Club of Rome

 

Helen Caldicott

Founding President, Physicians for Social Responsibility

 

Ben Ferencz

Former Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor

 

Robert Jay Lifton

Columbia University

 

Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C.

Former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament

 

Martin Hellman

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

 

Robert Laney

Chair, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Rick Wayman

Director of Programs, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Ruben Arvizu

Latin America Representative, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Jonathan Granoff

President, Global Security Institute

 

Medea Benjamin

Co-Founder, Code Pink

 

Peter Kuznick

Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University

 

Barry Ladendorf

President, Veterans for Peace

 

Dr. Hafsat Abiola-Costello

Founder and President, Kudirat Initiative for Democracy

 

Marie Dennis

Co-President, Pax Christi International

 

Elaine Scarry

Professor, Harvard University

 

Richard Appelbaum

Board of Directors, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

 

Sandy Jones

Director of Communications, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Joni Arends

Executive Director, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety

 

Sergio Grosjean

Instituto Mexicano de Ecologia Ciencia y Cultura

 

John Avery

Associate, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Leonard Eiger

Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action

 

April Brown

Marshallese Educational Initiative

 

Jill Dexter

Board of Directors, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Robert Aldridge

Associate, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Charles Genuardi

Board of Directors, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Bill Wickersham

Associate, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

John Hallam

People for Nuclear Disarmament

 

Mark Hamilton

Board of Directors, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Mary Becker

Former Board member, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Judith Lipton, M.D.

Security Committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility

 

Sherry Melchiorre

Board of Directors, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Elena Nicklasson

Director of Development, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

 

Daniel Smith

Appellate Lawyer

 

 

Cletus Stein

The Peace Farm

 

 

Mario Fuentes

Sector Salud

 

Jim Knowlton

Blue Ocean Productions

 

Peter Low

Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Canterbury

 

Jenny Maxwell

Hereford Peace Council

 

Rodrigo Navarro

Comunicar para Conservar

 

Sergio Rimola

National Hispanic Medical Association

 

Julian Rodriguez

#Revolucionando

An Open Letter to Myself

30 Dec

An Open Letter to Myself on New Year’s Day 2017

 

Forebodings

Trump 

I have a politically active liberal friend who in the aftermath of the Trump victory believes rather fervently that ‘clarity,’ not ‘hope,’ is the opposite of ‘despair.’ To be awake to unpleasant, even dire, realities and resist the temptations of denial demands increasing resolve in the face of the mounting evidence that the human species is facing a biopolitical moment threatening civilizational collapse and species decline and fall as never before. Wakefulness can give rise to mindfulness, encouraging radical choices of right action individually, and even possibly collectively. My friend’s clarity was more narrowly focused—limited to recovering and carrying on in America after the unexpected electoral victory of Trump. For those of us living here, the fear of what Trump will do ‘to make America great again’ is overwhelming and deeply depressing without taking the slightest account of the biopolitical crisis threatening the future of the human habitat as well as already producing the extinction of many species that are being swept away by forces beyond their, and more often, our control.

 

The wonderful Euromed Team that lends valuable civil society support to the Palestinian people and their prolonged struggle, counsels a different spirit in their holiday message: “Keep Calm, Stay Human.” I will do my best to heed this advice. Calmness rather than hysteria, human as profiled by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially in the often neglected, yet aptly visionary, language of its Preamble. Treat others, near and far, with the dignity they and you deserve, and do your utmost to protect those vulnerable within your reach whether family, community, country, world.

 

Another source of insight relevant to this moment comes from the brilliantly progressive Jean Bricmont, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain and author of Humanitarian Intervention: Using Human Rights to Sell War (2006) and other books, who insists that all positive political action rests on a foundation of ‘hope and indignation.’(p.7) I view ‘hope’ as a matter of informed will as contrasted with optimism, which is often an escapist refusal to acknowledge surrounding risks, harms, and dangers. Optimists too often greet the future with a vacuous benign smile as if there is nothing to worry about so long as you meditate twice a day. To be authentically hopeful under current conditions presents a difficult essentially spiritual challenge, which depends on some form of faith, given the depth of the multiple crises that imperil human and non-human futures. ‘Indignation’ is an appropriate response to the pervasive wrongs associated with corruption, exploitation, patriarchy, and unjustifiable discrimination, and serves as a necessary foundation for raising political consciousness, making mobilization feasible and transformation possible.

 

 

Right-wing Populism: A Vehicle for 21st Century Fascism?

 

Others are sounding various alarms in anxious response to the rise of right-wing populism in a series of countries around the world, warning us that a 21st century fascist virus is viciously attacking hearts, bodies, and minds, often with a democratic mandate, giving rise to a new generation of popular autocrats. This virus is dangerously contagious imperiling the body politic of an increasing number of societies. It appeals especially, even if unconsciously, to those escaping from the discontents of and alienation brought about by the predatory effects of neoliberal globalization. In Europe and North America, especially, these discontents are being dangerously aggravated by anti-immigration nativism, hysteria, demagoguery, libertarian gun policies, and monetized politics. Some perceive fascism in different guises emerging in a variety of societies, capturing and magnifying state power, scapegoating minorities, reversing feminist gains, encouraging a science-defying consumerism, and diverting attention from the menaces posed by the possession, development, and deployment of nuclear weaponry, as well as by a planetary temperature that is pushing against thresholds of irreversibility.

 

I found the following cautionary list composed by the eminent Yale historian, Timothy D. Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015), perceptive, instructive, and above all, a stimulus of further thought. Pondering Snyder’s list of 20 lessons is to be forewarned. The intended audience seems to those of us living in the West, either Europe or North America.

 

 

Snyder List of 20 Lessons (dated Dec. 1, 2016)

 

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

 

  1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

 

  1. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

 

  1. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

 

  1. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

 

  1. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

 

  1. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

 

  1. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
  2. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

 

  1. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

 

  1. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

 

  1. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

 

  1. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

 

  1. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

 

  1. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

 

  1. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

 

  1. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

 

  1. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

 

  1. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

 

  1. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

 

  1. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.”

 

[Snyder suggests that if this list seems useful, print it out and pass it around!

 

I find this list of concerns to be suggestive and useful, despite not perceiving quite the same trajectory of political threat. In some respects, the vigilance proposed by Snyder is summarized by Pastor Martin Niemoller’s extraordinary poem written beneath the crushing weight of Nazi Germany:

thFirst They Came

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

 

**************************************

 

 

What seems beyond questioning in the present context within the United States is the political imperative to become maximally engaged. It is crucial that there be many highly visible citizens of conscience and that we all remain on high alert with respect to the dangers posed by a governing process dominated by a media oriented demagogue that has mobilized right-wing populism in the US as never before and is surrounding himself with dedicated reactionary ideologues.

 

Although this last commentary narrows concerns to American forebodings, the intended and unintended consequences are certain to be much broader. The United States acts as a global state. When Washington makes mistakes they tend to reverberate around the world. This is most obvious with regard to the economic, environmental, and security policy agendas, and also there are likely to be various negative impacts on geopolitical behavior raising risks of international warfare, although this is not entirely clear at this stage. If Trump’s opening to Russia is not thwarted by the American national security establishment, which is how I mainly interpret the Obama move to sanction Russia in retaliation for the recent hacking episode. The American reaction of outraged innocence seems wildly overblown considering our own cyber attacks on Iran and the many flagrant interferences over the years under CIA auspices with foreign elections and even elected governments. Thankfully Putin is so far repudiating the tit-for-tat game, and would deserve credit, along possibly with Trump, for halting this disastrous push by the deep state in the United States to revive the cold war, this time with high hot war risks.

 

 

The Calmer Liberal Option

For still others, for whom political activism in a largely liberal mode is the key to avoiding a deeper descent into a planetary inferno the call is: ‘don’t despair, organize and resist.’ The brilliantly attuned filmmaker and cultural critic, Michael Moore, offers Americans a five-point plan for resistance worth reflecting upon: 1) visit local congress representatives to express concerns; 2) insist on the drastic reorganization of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) taking the form of progressive leadership; 3) form local rapid response teams of 5-10, consisting of friends, neighbors, family that can protest adverse developments as they occur; 4) Participate in the protest events in Washington relating to the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next American president, as well as protests elsewhere; 5) Devise a Plan B because as bad as you think things will be, they will actually will be worse. Moore’s proposal is very much responsive to the peculiarities of the current American political landscape, essentially relying on liberal values and associated procedures for energizing constructive forms of participation in this type of constitutional democracy. Whether it goes nearly far enough to counteract the Trump surge is a question not likely to be answered by the end of 2017 at the earliest, but I have my strong doubts. Without addressing the roots of the malaise, which are shaped by neoliberal capitalism, militarism, nuclearism, and patriarchy, we are, at best, in my view, playing for time. At worst, fiddling while the planet burns.

 

 

The Progressive Case for Trump: Abstractions Lost in the Ruins

I have several admirable overseas progressive friends that continue to rejoice in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, equating the rejection of her candidacy with a major defeat for the US national security establishment. It is important not to dismiss these views. It is well to remember that during the electoral campaign most Republican defense stalwarts and high profile neocons denounced Trump and threw their support to Clinton. Added to this were several substantive issues. Trump’s campaign calls for an end to regime-changing interventions and state-building ventures throughout the Middle East. If implemented, this seems to presage a kind of welcome geopolitical retreat from the region. And, of course, Trump’s much publicized support for a cooperative relationship with Russia, despite the crimes of Vladimir Putin, angered and worried the establishment consensus. It should be appreciated that Trump seems to be stepping back from Obama’s irresponsible diplomacy with respect to Russia, a dynamic that Clinton would certainly have accelerated against a background of Beltway applause.

 

The most telling opposition of security insiders to Trump’s candidacy arose in my view because he seemed to be proposing an abandonment of what I have in the past called the ‘Global Domination Project,’ which was the grand strategy associated with American ambitions to play a hegemonic security role associated that was to be expected of the first global state in human history. Anti-Trump militarists should not be too discouraged as Trump promises ‘to rebuild the American military’ and has appointed a series of notorious militarists to the most critical security positions, making his ‘America First’ rhetoric unlikely to be translated into policies associated with lowering the American security profile around the world. There are likely to be ambiguous and questionable responses to Trump’s encouragement of foreign governments to invest more in their own defense and his seeming complacency about the further proliferation of nuclear weaponry.

 

Despite these weighty considerations I feel strongly to that Trump’s ascendancy to power is posing apocalyptic risks that all sane persons should act to avoid. Also Trump’s victory overlooks the likely impact of his domestic policies on the vulnerable (immigrants, minorities, women, especially African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics) and poor, a prospect given frightening potency by an irresponsibly right-wing Congress and a supportive Supreme Court. It also fails to take account of Trump’s counter-terrorist extremism (‘crush ISIS,’ revive waterboarding, and authorizing even worse forms of torture) and seeming casual embrace of nuclearism, both by seeming to tell allies to consider developing their own nuclear weapons arsenal and promising to retain a position on top of nuclear weapons pyramid even if means unleashing an expensive and dangerous arms race.

 

There is bound to be uncertainty and confusion associated with the early stages of the Trump’s presidency. Despite trembling at the prospect, no one knows exactly what to expect. For one thing, Trump contradicts himself frequently, or restates his most provocative proposals with decidedly more moderate ideas about implementation. For another, there is a tension between his primary persona as an exemplary entertainer of the digital age and his hard line cabinet and staff appointees who seem primed to actualize a reactionary agenda. Whether the president as commander-in-chief will turn out this time to be the entertainer-in-chief is at this point anyone’s best guess. And just maybe, given the alternatives, the world will be better off with an entertainer, especially if the political class steps back to let the show go on! What might be most toxic would be a kind of collaborative governing process that provides media performances as spectacular distractions (bread and circuses of our time) while an unfolding assortment of regressive programs, policies, and practices were being enacted.

Turkish Realignment: Prospects amid Uncertainty

3 Dec

In recent months the Turkish President, Recep Teyipp Erdoğan, and his principal advisors have not made it a secret that they are reconsidering Turkey’s relations with neighbors, with the countries of the region, and with leading geopolitical actors.

 

The Early Agenda of AKP

 When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 it set about almost immediately to fashion a post-Cold War foreign policy based on the idea that it was time to supersede the Cold War posture of almost total Turkish deference to the United States, especially within NATO and bipolar contexts, and depict a conception of Turkish interests developed in Ankara rather than adhere to Washington’s blueprint. In its early period of national leadership, the AKP seemed to pursue four interrelated international goals:

            –resolve the Cyprus conflict;

            –give priority to seeking full membership in the European Union (EU);

            –improve diplomatic and political relations with Arab World;

            –seek continuity in U.S./NATO/EU relations, but with overall independence.

 

During the Foreign Ministry of Abdullah Gul, reflecting and incorporating some of Ahmet Davutoğlu ideas and his ambitious conception of the proper Turkish international role, this new assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy achieved with impressive results. Turkey’s signature approach of ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ (ZPN) was initially seen as the adoption of a regional conflict-resolving perspective, and given early credibility by transforming relations with Syria from hostility to harmony. Syria became the poster child of ZPN, and the new approach was reinforced by a rapid expansion of economic and cultural relations with countries throughout the Arab World. Beyond this, Turkey extended its foreign policy with substantial economic and diplomatic success to the non-Arab parts of the Islamic World, as well as to sub-Saharan Africa. Istanbul, rather than Paris or London, quickly became the preferred hub for a wide variety of international political gatherings of interest to the Global South.

 

There was also a large emphasis placed by during the early AKP years on the acceleration of accession diplomacy with the EU, leading to an unexpected civilianizing of the Turkish government in ways that reduced the leverage of the armed forces in domestic politics and definitely moved in the direction of meeting the preconditions of human rights, democratization, and secularity that would seem to qualify Turkey to become an EU member, comparing favorably with the record of several East European countries that gained membership in the EU without confronting strong accession obstacles. The AKP also had domestic reasons to build a firewall against any future coup by the armed forces whose leadership was imbued with Kemalist belief, including a feared encroachment of political Islam on the governing process.

 

While developing a more pro-active and independent foreign policy, the AKP leadership continued to affirm its relationship with the United States, and as a staunch NATO ally. This affirmation was somewhat tested in 2003 when Washington pressed Turkey to allow a portion of the planned attack on Iraq to proceed from Turkish territory. The Turkish Parliament refused to give its consent, and the Erdoğan leadership under pressure from the United States, submitted the American request a second time with an executive recommendation of approval, but Parliament again withheld consent. It remains uncertain as to whether Erdoğan was pretending to seek parliamentary approval or was genuinely willing to allow Turkey to become directly involved in the attack upon neighboring Iraq. When the attack against Iraq proceeded without UN authorization, Turkey adopted a low profile approach that included a readiness to cooperate with the American-led occupation of Iraq, which sought to restore stability to the country. In effect, the new AKP foreign policy wanted to achieve freedom of maneuver for Turkey but without shaking the foundations of the foreign policy that had guided the ardently secular leadership of the country since the origins of the republic.

 

 

Revising AKP Foreign Policy

 Five major changes of circumstances undermined this early AKP approach to foreign policy: First of all, the deterioration of relations with Israel that became dramatically manifest at the 2009 Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum when Erdoğan sharply confronted the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, on Israel’s massive attack (Cast Lead) on Gaza, and climaxed in 2010 when Israeli commandos attacked the humanitarian flotilla bringing medical supplies to Gaza, killing 9 Turkish nationals on the Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in the flotilla of ships challenging the Israeli blockade. Clearly, Israel was sending a warning message to Turkey that it would push back against any Turkish challenge, including those of civil society, to the Israeli approach to Palestinians living under occupation. This encounter challenged Washington to seek restored normalcy in Israeli-Turkish relations so that it would not have to choose sides or juggle relations with both. Energetic diplomatic efforts by Barack Obama sought to heal this breach between these two principal strategic American allies in the region.

 

The second development involved Turkish reactions to the 2011 uprisings in the Arab World, the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ It should be remembered that Turkey was among the first countries to affirm unconditionally these uprisings against authoritarian rule, treating the political upheavals as welcome expressions of democratizing passions on the part of the citizenry. Turkish prestige in the region reached an all time high, and there was talk throughout the Middle East of the applicability of ‘the Turkish model.’ It was often overlooked that Erdoğan went to Cairo in the Spring of 2011 to encourage Egyptian political forces to follow the Turkish example of political secularism, and not try to embody religion in the governing process. This view not appreciated at the time in Egypt being interpreted as a neo-Ottoman effort to interfere with Egyptian internal rights of self-determination.

 

The third development was the gradual Turkish realization that their prospects for EU membership were declining despite their internal good faith efforts to comply with accession expectations. The main explanation for this decline involved the rise of Islamophobia in several key countries in Western Europe whose political approval by national referendum would be necessary before Turkish membership could be formally approved. With the virtual disappearance of this European option, the pragmatic case for internal political reform in Turkey was weakened while making the benefits of a geopolitically more equi-distant diplomacy more evident, being implemented through Turkish openings to Iran, Russia, India, and China. In other words, facing a demeaning rejection by the EU even if not directly expressed, Turkey partially turned eastward, or at least contemplated such a turn away from Europe and the West, given dramatic emphasis by Erdoğan’s display of embittered anger in reaction to EU criticism. This dynamic was further aggravated by the controversial 2015 agreement with the EU by which Turkey would slow the flow of Syrian refugees across its borders in exchange for a monetary payment and visa-free travel to Europe for Turks. From a human rights perspective, it should be noted, this kind of treatment of refugees, misleadingly called ‘migrants,’ is highly questionable, instrumentalizing their destiny as an inter-governmental bargaining chip rather than respecting their vulnerability by establishing a humane protective regime.

 

The fourth development relates to the various signs that Erdoğan was assuming a more authoritarian role in the Turkish governing process, especially in the aftermath of the AKP electoral victory in 2011. In these years Erdoğan overtly embraced a majoritarian view of democracy weakening the republican character of the Turkish government. This dynamic was accentuated after he became President of Turkey in 2014, and in response to a renewal of hostility with the large Kurdish minority, especially as represented by the Peoples Workers Party (PKK). Erdoğan’s blunt political style, combined with Turkey’s earlier shows of independence and break with Israel, encouraged a much more critical tone in the international media treatment of the AKP leadership in Turkey. This shift amounted to a sea change if compared to the more balanced approach taken between 2002-2011. The anti-Erdoğan hostility peaked in response to the Gezi Park incident in 2013 when Turkish police used excessive force to break up a series of Istanbul demonstrations by opposition forces. It seems notable that the criticisms of Turkish encroachments on human rights were given far greater international attention than the far worse contemporaneous encroachments by the Sisi regime in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy. This difference in international perceptions reflects the overseas influence of anti-AKP activists as well as the divergence of policy as between Ankara and Washington, Brussels, and Tel Aviv.

 

The fifth development is associated with the failed coup of July 15th.

The Turkish Government and internal Turkish public opinion were strongly convinced that the coup perpetrators were linked to the Fetullah Gülen (or Hizmet) movement, and that the United States Government had some prior knowledge, and if circumstantial evidence is to be trusted, quite possibly signaled a green light to the perpetrators. In the course of the coup, and during its aftermath, neither the US nor Europe expressed their support for the democratically elected government of Turkey, adopting a wait and see attitude that seemed poised to accept, if not welcome, the outcome had the coup been successful. Beyond this the US Government has not been responsive to the Turkish formal extradition request, failing to detain Fetullah Gülen while the legal process proceeded. Again international coverage of post-coup Turkey gives almost all of its attention to the Erdoğan crackdown on those suspected of involvement with the Hizmet movement, which while excessive and troublesome, does not depict the context in which it is reasonable for the AKP leadership to feel threatened from within by the continued Hizmet penetration of the organs of government and as a result of Kurdish militancy and ISIS terrorism. At the same time, it is fully understandable that international forces hostile to the AKP should highlight the massive dismissals from academic institutions and widespread media closures as amounting to a witch hunt.

 

 

A Turkish Foreign Policy Reset?

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that Turkey should in this period be exploring its foreign policy options. Indeed, the exploration preceded the coup attempt of the past year. The impulse to reset Turkish foreign policy reflected a retreat from the more principled and rigid foreign policy positions associated with Davutoğlu’s influence and the endorsement of a pragmatic attempt to minimize hostile regional and global tensions.

 

Most controversially from an American perspective, the pragmatic turn seemed to regard as its centerpiece improved relations with Russia. The goal was broad based cooperation with Russia in recognition of shared interests, including a possible compromise on how to establish a sustainable ceasefire in Syria. From the perspective of the American national security establishment cooperative Russian/Turkish relations were viewed as an unfavorable development at least until the electoral victory of Donald Trump. When the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the next America president was a near certainty, there existed a general expectation that the West would soon confront Russia in a more determined way than during the Obama presidency. In Turkey this encouraged the belief that the US national security establishment was sufficiently opposed to any closeness between Russia and Turkey as to have explained its possible support for the coup attempt of last July, or at minimum, its ambivalence toward the outcome. This suspicion, although widely shared in Turkey, remains without evidence, and is purely conjectural.

 

With Trump becoming the next American president it seems more likely, but by no means assured, that relations between the West and Russia will again be guided by a realist logic of mutual interests. This prospect is also encouraged by the recent emergence in Europe of several political leaders that favor accommodation with Russia. There may be an initial collision of policies if Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to renounce the nuclear agreement with Iran or significantly increases pressure on its implementation.

 

Tensions with the EU over the migration deal and in reaction to freezing accession talks also inclines Turkey to evaluate various additional forms of realignment, including a reported consideration of joining informal international groupings that are led by China and Russia.

 

In the end, if Trump follows through with a non-interventionist approach to the Middle East, and Turkish internal stability is restored, it seems most likely that there will be a weakening of relations with Europe and the United States, but no break, and no move that deserves to be labeled as ‘realignment.’ Turkey will probably place greater emphasis on economic and diplomatic relations with Asia, as well as with a renewal of interactions within the Middle East and North Africa, minimizing ideological differences.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

There is more uncertainty with respect to global politics than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This uncertainty reflects the rise of authoritarian leaders in many important countries that enjoy the backing of a mobilized right-wing populism that pushes against economic globalization and gives an impetus to exclusionary forms of nationalism. Turkey is part of this wider international trend, and seems caught between contradictory pressures toward continuity and discontinuity in the conduct of its foreign policy. With Trump’s ascendancy the same can be said of the United States.

 

In general, it seems encouraging that Turkey has again seems to be opting for a foreign policy that is pragmatic rather than programmatic and normative, although it is not at this time exerting the kind of wider influence and leadership in the region and beyond that characterized the Davutoğlu approach. The times are different, calling for less ambition and greater stability.

 

How this pragmatic repositioning of Turkey in relation to East and West, North and South, will finally crystallize remains highly uncertain. Whether it results in major changes in orientation depends largely on whether Turkish ties to the West are maintained, Middle East turmoil is contained, and Turkish internal politics calms down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.’      

Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep

 

 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.

 

Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.

 

It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!

 

It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.

 

In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.

 

The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.

 

What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.

 

Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.

 

At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.

 

Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.

 

Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!

 

 

Clinton versus Trump: How It Might Matter for the Middle East

3 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published on September 1, 2016 in Middle East Eye. This version is modified, and its title slightly changed.]

When it comes to foreign policy, it seems at first glance to be a no brainer. Hilary Clinton is experienced, knowledgeable, intelligent, an internationalist, known and respected around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump repeatedly shoots himself in the foot and others elsewhere, seems clueless on the complexities of the world, makes such reckless hyper-nationalist boasts about how he will crush enemies and make allies squirm. Such posturing makes people everywhere fearful, hostile and even wondering whether the American citizenry as a whole is collectively experiencing a psychotic episode by taking seriously such an outlandish candidate.

 

Choosing Between Militarism or Isolationism

Yet a closer look makes the choice between these two candidates less obvious, and more interesting, although not more encouraging, especially if the focus is what the election might mean for the Middle East. One of the few consistent positions taken by Trump is to voice his deep skepticism about regime-changing interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Libya, and the accompanying expensive delusions of former presidents, as well as Clinton, about policies aimed at producing democracies. As expected, Trump has some awkward inconsistencies in his earlier pronouncements on these issues if you bother to check out what he had to say a few years ago. Still, his present opposition to military interventions in the Middle East has been consistently expressed throughout the presidential campaign. His essential position is summarized by his own words: “After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.” What follows, then, is the likelihood that Trump will oppose intervention in the Middle East unless there is a clear connection present with a terrorist threat directed at the United States posed by ISIS, and maybe al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

 

Clinton has a consistently hawkish record in foreign policy, which she tried her best to put out of sight during the primary competition with Bernie Sanders, whose progressive views were surprisingly similar to Trump on this central question of military intervention in the Middle East. During her time as Secretary of State (2009-2012), including shaping policy toward Russia, China, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East, Clinton over and over again pushed President Obama hard to adopt more militarist and confrontational positions, most visibly in the region with respect to American military involvement in Libya and Syria. When visiting Libya shortly after Qaddafi was brutally executed in 2011 by rebels when captured in a Libyan town, Clinton chillingly observed, “We came, we saw, he died.” It was a revealing comment, a kind of cold-hearted gallows geopolitical quip.

 

 

Stability First or America First?

 

It is also relevant that Clinton’s regional grand strategy was premised on keeping friendly dictators in power even in the face of overwhelmingly popular uprisings, disclosed rather starkly in her lobbying efforts to stand by Mubarak in his hour of troubles with the Egyptian people back in 2011. Although she now downplays her support for the 2003 aggressive war in Iraq launched against the regime of Saddam Hussein, she clearly supported at its outset the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since the United States committed itself in the mid-1960s so heavily to the losing side in the Vietnam War. Not only did the attack on Iraq bring many deaths, much devastation, massive displacement, and lasting chaos to Iraq and its people, but the long American-led occupation spread disorder beyond Iraqi borders, and was an important contributing cause to the origins and rise of ISIS.

 

Yet, despite these Clinton policy misjudgments in the Middle East, isn’t the world still better off with the steady hand of Clinton than the wildly impulsive Trump. Her morbid quip struck hard at what this distinction could mean: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Such anxiety is intensified as soon as we realize that there are no political checks limiting the capacity of an American president to use nuclear weapons. This makes us aware of how people everywhere despite their huge stake in prudent American leadership, play no role in determining the outcome of a presidential election in the United States. It may be time to consider a plan to enfranchise the whole world to have a vote of some kind in American national elections if the ideal of global democracy and the rule of law are ever to achieve political traction.

 

Trump has made a number of assertions about nuclear weapons that not only challenge decades of Western conventional wisdom, but also strike fear in the hearts of people wherever they are, including the Middle East. In his preoccupation with conserving American financial resources Trump has suggested that it might not be a bad thing for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, and then take over responsibility for their own security. Supposedly he asked a friend, “Why can’t we use nukes?” True, such assertions are not necessarily indicative of what Trump would do as president in the Middle East but neither should they be ignored. Trump seems neo-isolationist in overall outlook, which means fewer international commitments and a desperate search for ways to cut overseas expenditures. It is possible that his unwillingness to give unquestioned support to the nonproliferation regime that has frozen the nuclear status quo for decades might generate a renewed push for phased, total nuclear disarmament, the only decent and reliable long-term solution.

 

There are other worries. Trump opposes the Iran nuclear deal, probably the most constructive diplomatic initiative taken during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Trump thinks it was a terrible deal since it “gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing.” Scrapping the agreement, or even failing to live up to its commitments, endangers an unraveling of the whole normalizing relationship of Iran within the Middle East, and could tempt Israel to launch some kind of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or even give rise to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. It should be noted, in passing, that both Trump and Clinton have tied themselves so firmly to the mast of pro-Israeli alignment as to be blind to the desirability of promoting a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, a proposal that enjoys the support of every Middle Eastern government except Israel, and would probably do more to stabilize the region than any other single initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

Regressive Ideology

 

Thinking that Clinton is more reliable than Trump may be more a matter of style than substance. Supposedly she did not oppose giving Israel a green light to attack Iran during her period as Secretary of State. Also worrisome is her long undisguised admiration for the warped wisdom of Henry Kissinger, and even Robert Kagen, considered the most militarist member of the neoconservative inner circle, and despite being closely identified in the past with Republicans, has endorsed Clinton, and reportedly acts as the most prominent advisor in her foreign policy braintrust. It is hardly a surprise that 50 self-proclaimed Republican national security specialists publicly endorsed Clinton over Trump, but it is a marker of how unusual this contest for the American presidency has become. As has been often observed, Clinton is of the foreign policy/national security establishment that has brought to where we are now, while Trump is seen as a potential spoiler who might pursue policies that would cause structural disintegration and with it, the collapse of the neoliberal economic order, that is, ‘the Washington consensus.’

 

Trump, too, boasts of his meetings with Kissinger, as some kind of certification of his worthiness that overcomes his amateurish qualifications for high political office. Yet his opinions adopt lines of thought that are probably an anathema to this aged master of real politik. Clinton, of course, has reflected more and longer on such matters, and in an effort to please all sides opts for what she is calling ‘smart power,’ a customized blend of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power that is supposed to be responsive to the complexities of shaping foreign policy in the early 21st century. The Clinton formula, not unlike that of other recent mainstream candidates in the U.S., is designed to please as much as possible the warlords of the Pentagon, the wizards of Wall Street, and the champions of Israel, or at least not distress any of these three nodes of American geopolitical primacy.

 

With these profiles as a background, can we predict the foreign policy of a Clinton or Trump presidency in the Middle East? It is possible to make more reliable guesses about Clinton because she has made some of her positions already clear: an escalation of support for anti-Assad Syrian forces (except ISIS), a hardening of diplomatic bargaining with Iran in carrying out the nuclear agreement, a further upgrading of the ‘special relationship’ with Israel, and no change of course with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Western-leaning autocracies in the region. In addition, a possible recommitment of American military forces in Iraq, and especially robust military action against political extremism throughout the region,

 

Trump can be expected to indulge his neo-isolationist inclinations, likely moving policy in an opposite direction, withdrawing American combat forces and downgrading military bases in the region, in effect, a pivot away from the Middle East. The exception would seem to be his extravagant pledge to crush ISIS, whatever that might mean in practice, especially as it already seems almost crushed. The related idea of imposing an absolute ban on Muslim immigration to the US, if enacted, is likely to have disastrous blowback effects, fanning the flames of Muslim civilizational discontent.

 

If voting for an American president was only about the Middle East, I would rate the candidates as a tossup, but it isn’t. When the American domestic scene is taken into account, as well the rest of the world, Clinton holds the clear edge unless one feels so disgusted her candidacy as to write in Bernie Sanders on the ballot or cast a vote of conscience for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I remain uncertain as to which of these choices to make.

 

My liberal friends become angry when even such a possibility is mentioned. They still blame the Ralph Nader candidacy in the 2000 election for depriving Al Gore from a victory in Florida, and thus a national victory over George W. Bush. I remain puzzled by and opposed to such a logic. Why allow third party candidates to seek public office if the pundits view it as irresponsible, or worse, to vote for them if the best candidate? Or maybe, it is okay to vote for them if your state is not ‘a swing state,’ but that again means that it is more important to vote for the lesser of evils to avoid the greater of evils rather than to vote for the best candidate. I take a more nuanced position. It depends on how evil is the greater of evils compared to the lesser evil, and whether this seems to matter. At present, if I were in a swing state I would vote for Clinton, although reluctantly (domestic issues and nuclear weapons policy), but since I live in California I will probably vote for Jill Stein. Somehow I wish Bernie Sanders had wrestled with this dilemma rather than uncritically adopting the liberal consensus, which given Clinton’s slide to the right since the Democratic Party convention should keep him awake some nights.