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Interpreting the U.S. Election Results: Preliminary Observations

9 Nov

The victory by the Biden/Harris ticket in the 2020 American National Elections are basically good news for the country and the world, although not as good as expected (by pollsters or enthusiasts) or nearly as decisive as desirable given the dreadfully regressive behavior of Trump and the Republican Party over the past four years. And there is some bad news, as well, lurking just beneath the surface. Not only the strength of Trumpism in America, but the likely drift toward the center-right of the Biden presidency

Why Good News?

Above all, Trump’s reelection would have meant a tighter embrace of an American version of fascisim with constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human rights repudiated, and an autocratic/plutocratic style of leadership consolidated around an ideology of chauvinistic or nativist nationalism. 

The vote was not as one-sided as anti-fascists might have hoped, but the Biden ticket did prevail in the popular vote by an almost 5 million margin, and won the electoral college by a comfortable margin. This achievement is even greater than the statistical results if account is taken of the various Republican voter suppression efforts.

In policy terms, the result seems clearly beneficial with respect to the short-term domestic agenda. The CORONA pandemic is likely to be immediately handled in accord with guidelines by health specialists rather than by the macho whims of the Trump White House, which means that the virus is likely to be brought under control as rapidly and humanely as possible, assuming that the inauguration of Biden occurs on January 20th. Beyond this, presuming some Congressional flexibility, a stimulus package beneficial to the poor and unemployed, as well as to small businesses is likely to be quickly forthcoming. Such policies should pave the way to a broader, more sustainable and fairer economic recovery, although the second wave COVID spike in Europe warrants caution as to what the future will bring.

Looking beyond these immediate challenges, it would seem reasonable to expect improvements in health care, public education, judicial appointments, racial and gender equality from the Biden presidency, with a realistic prospect of progress toward realizing such goals, especially if the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5th go the Democratic Party way, which seems possible, but not yet probable.

Internationally, the Biden victory will be greeted by world leaders around the world with a huge sigh of relief. It will have, additionally, some positive impacts on global problem-solving, giving rise overall to a more cooperative atmosphere. A revived posture of U.S. global activism is certain to be welcomed at first raising hopes of crafting  compromise solutions to common problems. It seems also like to produce some increased appreciation of the role of the United Nations and international law, highlighted by reactivating membership in and refunding of the WHO. This kind of participation by the United States is likely to a partial renewal of the global leadership role that the U.S. played in the decades after the end of World War II, although in a more muted manner, due to preoccupations with domestic challenges, and in a spirit more related to functional concerns, above all, climate change and health, than to ideologically adversary geopolitical relations.

Now, the Bad News

While the referendum on Trump as leader and fascism as ideology were formally repudiated, the threats posed remain existentially viral, likely to become entrenched in some kind of organizational Trumpist format that will stalk the future of governance and quality of political life in the United States during the years ahead. It is chastening to acknowledge that if the pandemic had not struck the country so hard or Trump had handled it more prudently, he likely would have been reelected. The stock market would have attained a record high, while unemployment would have remained at record lows. As it was, as Republicans gleefully point out, their party won the 2020 elections except for the presidency—so far holding their Senate majority, even picking up several seats in the House of Representatives, gaining in Federal contexts, meaning greater influence among the legislatures and leadership in the 50 states. I can only imagine the dire morning after had there been no health crisis, no economic downturn, and no crazy leader in the White House!

Less obvious, but no less serious, the Biden victory is also a victory for the American deep state, which has presided over the implementation of an evolving bipartisan consensus that has shaped American foreign policy ever since the wartime unity governments of 1941-1945. This foreign policy consensus can be identified with four overlapping dimensions: (1) a global military security system consisting of hundreds of overseas military bases, all-oceans naval presences, operational intelligence capabilities in every strategically important country in the world, and a hegemonic control of nuclear weaponry; (2) a string of formal and informal alliances and special relationships that connect U.S. diplomacy and geopolitical muscle with strategic priorities such as the defense of Europe, Taiwan, and Israel; (3) a shifting continuing need to identify sufficient global security threats and interest to satisfy private sector arms sales interests and to ensure Congressional support for high defense budgets; the promotion of such goals tend to magnify security threats and induce geopolitical confrontations; (4) a support structure for a market-driven world economy premised on ‘Neoliberal Globalization,’ premised on facilitating transnational capital investments and beneficial trading frameworks, and backed up by international economic institutions (World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization), and supplemented as necessary by various hostile responses by the U.S. Government in reaction to displays of foreign economic nationalism, including reliance on sanctions, covert interventions, and coercive diplomacy.

It is notable that the bureaucratic managers of the deep state, retirees from the CIA and Pentagon, were not comfortable with the Trump presidency because its leadership lacked a disciplined adherence to these four dimensions of the deep state consensus that had managed the transitions from World War II to the Cold War, from the Cold War to the War of Terror, and hopes perhaps for a new transition that generates tensions with Russia and/or China. It is not that Trump defied the consensus at the level of policy, but that he led with an unsteady hand less responsive to the nuances of geopolitical management of an increasingly complex global setting. With Biden the deep state has a reliable veteran adherent of the deep state consensus, someone who can be trusted to follow its signals as to policy initiatives, especially in the domains of foreign economic and security policy. In the present setting, Biden has almost total freedom to opt for the center-right on foreign policy as the political mood is currently dominated by how he delivers on the home front.

Finally, on the domestic scene, there is now a probable surfacing of post-Trump strife among the Democratic winners in the recent elections. The issue is one of policy influence as reflected by high profile appointments, policy priorities, and presidential tone. Will the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that preferred Bernie Sanders over Joe Biden as the anti-Trump candidate be given its due or will it be boxed in by the center-right leadership that blames the center-left for its setbacks in the 2020 elections? These self-styled Democratic moderates insist that progressive advocacy of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, debt forgiveness for student loans were ‘socialist’ or hard left proposals that drove many Independents to vote Republican except for Biden/Harris. It seems doubtful that ‘the center will hold’ as Democrats on the left and right vie for influence, and it is quite possible that The Squad will go it alone, championing movement politics, while almost giving up on the two-party approach to American politics. We already finding the two wings each claiming credit for the Biden victory. The center-right contending that only a candidate of Biden’s conservative record could have won, and all other Democrat alternatives would have gone down to defeat. The center-left counters with the claim that without the progressive ground game and mobilization of voter turnout among minorities and youth, Biden/Harris would have been beaten by Trump/Pence.

Leading Where?

Too many uncertainties exist to support any confident assessment as to how these clashing tendencies will play out. What seems clear is that there were two outcomes of the American elections: Trump was beaten, but Trumpism was not, garnering the support under the most unfavorable circumstances of over 70 million voters and a heightened sense of militancy under circumstances of higher political stakess. Will Trumpists, and the Republican leadership, interpret the election as a defeat because Trump lost or as a mandate because Republican conservative policy positions despite the adverse presidential tide made gains at the Congressional and federal levels of government. 

One unknowable issue is whether Trumpism can flourish without Trump in the White House, and closely related, whether Trump after returning to private life will seek to lead the movement he inspired or resume his life as freewheeling business magnate.

Another area of uncertainty is whether the deep state will opt for a geopolitical confrontation with China or will be content to promote economic growth and political stability at least for an interim period during which the U.S. recovers its geopolitical composure. It seems safe to assume that Biden will govern in light of a new articulation of a deep state consensus responsive to its reading of the global scene, but how that will be weighted is far from clear at this time. 

Biden’s clarion call has been to bring civility, if not a spirit of unity, back to the ebb and flow of American politics. This is an understandable response to the slash and burn presidency of Trump, but if it persists, it could lead to some discrediting compromises, with respect to stimulus, health care, immigration, unlikely to appease Trumpists or even non-Trump Republicans, and foster an image of the Biden presidency as out of touch with the harsh realities of American politics in their present configuration. Obama made this mistake, and was outmaneuvered by Republicans who took all they could get without giving away anything in return. It will be important to watch closely Biden’s attempts to induce a more cooperative atmosphere and, especially, how he handles a non-responsive Republican Senate. Indications remain strong that the last thing Trump-oriented Republicans want is compromise. Forgetting that it takes two to tango could quickly alter the welcome image of Biden the unifier into that of Biden the dangerous fool who fails to understand the ethics and politics of polarization. Unless a presently unseen and almost unimaginable will emerges on the political right to seek some level of reconciliation with the Democratic establishment, wasting energy on finding common ground is like looking for sunlight deep inside a cave.    

Interview on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

2 Nov

[Prefatory Note: a short interview on Election Day in the United States, a momentous test of whether the Trump challenge to constitutional democracy will be decisively repudiated by the American people and whether Republicans will mount a perverse challenge via the judicial system to deny the majority of the people their choice of leadership. The system is structurally rigged against democratic values by enabling Trump to be reelected via the anachronistic Electoral College even if he loses the popular vote by 5,000,000 or more. Beyond this, a Biden presidency will not address the deeper flaws associated with U.S. global militarism and predatory neoliberalism but it will respond responsibly and empathetically to a country gravely wounded by the pandemic and it will moderate the toxic political atmosphere that Trump and Trumpists have so stridently championed. For the first time ever in American political history, the aftermath of the election is likely to be more consequential than the election itself! The full meaning of this electoral experience is more likely to be disclosed on November 4th and the following weeks than on November 3rd when voting comes to an end. This interview was conducted by a journalist representing the Mehr News Agency in Iran.]   

Q: Will US foreign policy towards the Middle East change with the possible change of US president? What about US policy toward Iran?

A: While it appears as if Biden will be elected, dark clouds of uncertainty hover over the American elections as never before in the country’s history. The possibilities of a paralyzing constitutional crisis and serious civil strife cannot be excluded. At the same time, if Biden enters the White House, U.S. foreign policy will not change dramatically, at least in the beginning. For one thing, the domestic challenges are too great. The COVID health crisis and the troubled US economy are likely to dominate presidential politics during Biden’s first year of so. The emphasis would be placed on strictly American issues including imposing strict regulation of health guidelines, stimulus initiatives to help ease economic hardships especially among the jobless, minorities, and the poor, while calming racial tensions and lessening political polarization.

Against this background, if as expected, Biden is elected, and a proper transfer of political leadership by Trump, then it is likely that in the short run US foreign policy toward the Middle East will be moderated, but not fundamentally changed. It is likely that Biden’s approach to Israel/Palestine will remain highly partisan in Israel’s favor but with somewhat less disregard of the UN and the EU on issues such as annexation and settlement-building, but will allow the US Embassy to remain in Jerusalem, will endorse the recent normalization agreements with UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan, and will not challenge the Israeli incorporation of the Golan Heights into its territory. 

The Biden approach will likely be instructively revealed by its approach to Syria, which in turn will reflect the willingness of Russia, and Iran, to help manage a transition to peace and stability, including elections and arrangements for the removal of foreign armed forces, an autonomous region set aside for the Kurdish minority, and reconstruction assistance. More than Trump, if geopolitical frictions arise with Russia and China, the Biden center/right approach to foreign policy is highly likely to intensify geopolitical tensions with Russia and China with risks of dangerous incidents and an overall slide into a second cold war. 

Similarly, with respect to Iran, I would expect Biden to pursue a somewhat less confrontational policy, exhibiting a greater concern about avoiding policies that might provoke war in the region. A test will be whether the Biden presidency take steps to revive American participation in the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action), the International Agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a step Israeli supporters in the US opposed in the past and would oppose in the future, but some Democratic advisors and officials are likely to favor. Of course, Iran’s diplomacy in this period will be an important factor, especially if it signals its willingness to seek accommodation within the region and beyond, and expresses hope for a new approach to its relations with the West. How Israel behaves directly and through its levers of influence in Washington will also be highly relevant, especially, the intelligence consensus on the nature of Iran’s intentions with respect to nuclear weaponry. 

A Biden presidency might push Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward a compromise in Yemen, motivated by humanitarian as well as political considerations, which include an end to military intervention and encouragement of a negotiated end of the civil war. If something along these lines occurs, it would be a sign that significant changes in US foreign policy in the Middle East might be forthcoming. At present, the most responsible analysis of the future of US foreign policy in this critical region would emphasize continuity with some attentions to marginal variations. This expectation of continuity also reflects ‘a bipartisan consensus’ that had its origins in the anti-fascist consensus during World War II, the anti-Communist consensus during the Cold War, and the anti-Islamic consensus during the ‘War on Terror.’ Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Middle East has been the region, more than any other, where the playing out of this consensus has been most evident. It has had particularly adverse consequences in relation to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and for Iran’s defense of its sovereignty.    

  
Q: Some experts warn that the US is on the edge of political unrest and riots. What is your taking on it?

A: There is no doubt that the internal realities in the US are quite frightening at this stage, and that a contested election might be the spark that sets the country aflame. It is difficult to predict what forms this violence would take, and whether Trump would incite unrest in the aftermath of his defeat, or at least fan its flames, as part of mounting an ill-conceived challenge to electoral results that voted him out of power. If this were to happen, widespread right-wing violence could occur with very mixed efforts to exert control over lawless behavior verging on domestic terror, and undoubtedly accompanied by massive responses from the left side of the political ledger, involving both peaceful protests and more radical actions of resistance throughout the entire country. The future of US constitutional democracy could be at risk as never before, or at least not since the American Civil War of the early 1860s. And not far in the background is a judicial system, presided over by the U.S. Supreme Court that is inclined toward Trumpism, and reactionary modes of legal reasoning and constitutional interpretation.

  
Q: How will the US political and security structure react to any possible unrest (if happens)?

A: Many expert observers believe that the responses of governmental authorities and police forces will depend on whether the presidential election is being seriously contested by Trump, and conceivably also by Biden. The prospect of serious unrest seems also less likely if the results are one-sided in Biden’s favor, a so-called landslide

victory, which would weaken, if not undermine, arguments that the election was ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen,’ and make the losers less motivated, except some extremists, to cause civil strife and property damage. Much depends on how Trump handles defeat, and whether he can gain support for an electoral challenge from the military leadership of the country and from the US Senate, which will still be under Republican control from November 4th until inauguration of the president on January 202021 even if control of the Senate is lost, as the outcome of the election is not given immediate effect.

It should also be remembered that the US is a federal country with 50 distinct jurisdictions for handling ‘law and order’ issues, and great variations in behavior regionally and depending on which party controls the machinery of government in these sub-state units. There is also a Federal layer of law enforcement that can be invoked by the national government, giving the White House a means to counteract behavior within any of the 50 states that it opposes. As there is very little past experience, there is little

understanding of how the aftermath of the election will be handled in the US, and this should worry not only Americans but the world. 

Living in Dystopian Times

3 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The text below is drawn from a talk given at the Spring Festival of the Arts in Beirut, Lebanon on 15 June 2017. Comments welcome]

 

Living in Dystopian Times

 

How can we understand the present unfolding world order, with special reference to its relevance for developments in the Middle East? In my view a fundamental reversal of political expectations has taken place that calls for a new assessment of what is going on, and where the region and the world seem to be heading. Twenty-five years ago there were three widely held beliefs about future trends on a global level: the assured preeminence of the United States; the continuing globalization of the world economy; and the expanding democratization of national governance arrangements. It was also assumed that these trends were more or less descriptive of regional realities, including the Middle East. Each of these trends that seemed so descriptive 25 years ago now seems to be completely out of touch with what is happening around us that is very disappointing when compared with earlier expectations, no where more so than in the Middle East. These disillusioning changes of perception are contributing to a growing anxiety about what the future portends for all of us.

 

In addition to these changes of expectation as to international behavioral patterns, there exist a cluster of deeper tensions that concern the very nature of the human condition, extending to challenges directed at the sustainability and quality of life on the planet. One unfortunate consequence of the preoccupation with these disturbing recent international political realities is much needed attention is diverted away from these more fundamental issues of an ecological, technological, and cultural character. As an American, I am especially conscious of the enormous and costly diversionary impact that the Trump presidency is having in weakening the understanding and planning needed if humanity is to have any realistic chance of coping with these emerging threats of great magnitude that have never been confronted in the past. The most serious menace posed by Donald Trump, who is most accurately regarded as the first right-wing populist tweeting demagogue of the digital age, is his extraordinary talent to shift the conversation from the awkwardly significant to the banal trivial. He is exerting a great influence on public discourse not only in America but in the world, especially by diluting our perceptions of crucial issues affecting the human species as a whole, including climate change as connected to the related decline of biodiversity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the destabilizing effects of these technologies of the digital age especially when applied to security arrangements and the broad spectrum of societal policies bearing on individual and collective human wellbeing.

 

Under the weight of these threats it is not surprising that a dystopian moment is beginning to dominate the cultural imagination. It discloses itself through a fascination with post-apocalyptic films and an interest in older literary dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. These books that imagined a future that is in some respects our present are being widely read and discussed as if guidebooks to a set on conditions that were not anticipated. Within American political space the fragility of American democracy was prefigured in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here as well in scary premonitions of the imminence of digital age fascism put forward in the recent radical feminist post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Joan (2017), of Lidia Yuknavitch. Also indicative of the foreboding quality of the prevailing zeitgeist is a bestselling booklet that is a collection of identifying markers of tyranny by the prominent historian, Timothy Snyder, with a deliberately provocative title and a pedagogical rationale, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017).

 

This ‘dystopian moment’ is reinforced by the absence of positive scenarios of the future, and the dismissal of the utopian imagination as worse than irrelevant because it allegedly created receptivity to promises that when translated into political reality produce totalitarian nightmares. In effect, utopias, correctly understood, have themselves become in these dark times a disguised form of dystopia. A recovery of societal confidence is a key precondition of envisioning a better future. Its loss is one dimension of the crisis confronting humanity at this time, and these days such failures of moral and political imagination are generally overlooked in the public sphere that is obsessively focused on the latest daily episode in the Trump political soap opera.

 

Naomi Klein reminds us in a recent interview, “Trump is not the crisis but the symptom of the crisis.” The point is that we must make the effort to grasp the social and political forces that gave rise to Trump and Trumpism. Klein also insisted that the negativity of progressive thinking in recent decades has had little political traction because it fails to present a positive alternative to the angry negativity of right-wing populism that targets the established order. Klein’s new book has the title No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Her text impressively couples a necessary critique of Trump’s pernicious leadership with an affirmative vision of how to move the political process in emancipatory directions. Gilad Atzmon’s Being in Time argues we are living in a post-political atmosphere dominated by money and finance that have made neither the political left nor right possessing the capability to reconnect social experience with the most crucial realities of the lifeworld.

 

I am aware that depicting the challenges facing society in this sweeping way will strike many as being out of touch with the more immediate urgencies and concerns of those living here in Beirut, and for that matter, or anywhere among the devastated and collapsing ‘failed states’ of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as many other parts of the world. I acknowledge reflecting my own engagement with the stressful situation in the United States associated with the early months of the Trump presidency, and its wider implication for the future, taking note of its drift toward the apocalyptic precipice of nuclear war on the one side and catastrophic climate change on the other side. Particularly relevant is Trump’s own incoherent worldview that combines a sociopathic and anachronistic nationalism with an arrogantly reckless repudiation of international responsibilities. Of course, such an outlook enjoys a supportive resonance in several parts of the world, including giving rise to a spontaneous bonding dynamic among the growing number of autocratic leaders that govern an increasing number of major countries.