Remembering George Shultz

10 Feb

Remembering George Shultz After 53 Years

The academic year of 1968-69 was a consequential year for me. I had visited North Vietnam a few months earlier, coming away with a deeply altered view of that pivotal conflict that put a roadblock in the path of United States global ascendancy that has yet to be removed. This roadblock will not be taken away so easily, and certainly not by the timidity of the recent welcome leadership changes in the White House. As long as the U.S. throws its geopolitical weight around in conflicts distant from its homeland, its declining reputation will reach new depths. A beginning of restorative diplomacy for the country would be to stop overinvesting in global militarism and cease lecturing, and worse, sanctioning foreign governments on their departures from democratic practices or their failures to uphold human rights. I mention this only to underscore the disastrous consequences of failing to learn the lessons of defeat in the Vietnam War, and hence to reenacting this most dismal experience in other foreign settings.

The academic year I spent at Stanford started in September of 1968, and was memorable for three separate reasons. I spent an intellectually stimulating year at the Standard Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences as a Visiting Fellow during which I discovered the relevance of ecology and eventually wrote This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival (Random House, 1972); I was allowed to witness the breathtaking birth of my wonderful son Dimitri who arrived on the planet after a long and difficult delivery process; and I became a temporary friend of George Shultz who was the only other devoted tennis player among the 50 fellows at the Center that year, several of whom became more durable friends.

George never seemed entirely comfortable with the cloistered, scholarly atmosphere at the Center, and as the months passed, it seemed more as though he was waiting for his call to serve in the Nixon Cabinet than working on some publishable manuscript. Indeed, the call to Washington came in the Spring of 1969, and George, a labor economist, was appointed to become the new Secretary of Labor. I had bonded briefly and temporarily with George partly due to this shared love for tennis, and perhaps more so because I was on faculty leave from Princeton for the year, which was his beloved alma mater where he had been a standout football player, a nostalgic start of his amazing career as academician, high government appointee, business leader, and at the end of his life, a public source of wonkish wisdom on a range of issues, including the advocacy of denuclearization in collaborative efforts with colleagues at the Hoover Institution, which became notorious in the 1980s as the home of the Reagan brain trust, and later sanctuary for former government stalwarts, a kind of West Coast Brookings Institution, which featured good weather and right-wing politics.

George came across to me as a principled conservative, currently an endangered species, who was decidedly mainstream in his Cold War thinking, comfortable interacting with a wide range of persons, never dogmatic, more gifted at listening than talking, and a person who believed above all in the pragmatics of trust and trustworthiness in his relationship, including with those who were on the other side of the aisle. During the Cold War, he was adept at making positive relationships with prominent Soviet leaders, putting aside own conventional anti-Communist worldview. If George had a distinctive approach it was to balance his ‘free world’ orthodoxy with an abiding commitment to work toward a more peaceful world without ruffling establishment feathers. From my perspective, ‘a mission impossible.’ 

After our tennis matches, we often had rambling conversations about current events always accompanied by a soothing gin and tonic. What I remember best, even now with an affectionate smile is that George would ask me more than once to explain my opposition to the Vietnam War, the intensity of which he found surprising. He confessed that part of his curiosity about my views was selfish–possibly helping him understand better why his children had become so anti-war. I explained that visiting North Vietnam helped me see the war from the perspective of the totally vulnerable Vietnamese people. I had the impression back then that my views neither angered, moved, nor convinced him. Perhaps, this quality of serenity was the secret of George’s extraordinary success in the disparate university, government, and corporate worlds. Or maybe they are not as disparate as I would like to believe!  Anyhow, to live productively until the age of 100 among clashing views and egos that inhabit the pinnacles of these domains of power, wealth, and influence undoubtedly called upon George’s uncommon qualities of composure amid stress.

After enduring the Trump style of malicious bombast, I recall nostalgically, George’s civility, which according to reports, nevertheless required backbone, resisting the Nixon’s tactics that prefigured Trump’s antic presidency. George impressively stood his ground firmly whenever political leaders asked him to cross his red lines of law and morality, so unlike the Republicans who inhabit Congress, and toe the Trump line no matter what. Perhaps, the most relevant compliment I can pay this man who lived such a fulfilled, successful, and long life is that he would have likely been appalled by Trump’s sense of ‘America’ long before the outrages of January 6th awakened some long slumbering Trumpists. My biggest reservation about George is an assumption that he would have found the ultra-conservative community of the Hoover Institution more to his liking that the adventure in ideas encountered in the generally liberally inclined Stanford Center where we met.   

Iran’s Islamic Republic Celebrates its 42nd Anniversary

9 Feb

[Prefatory Note: Iran is in the process of celebrating the 42nd Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that led to the downfall of the Shah of Iran’s dynastic rule and its replacement by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has defied the odds by resisting successfully a variety of attempts to restore the old established order either by an Iraqi encouraged war in the 1980s, destabilization efforts all along pushed by the U.S. and Israel, and an undisguised goal of regime change. It should also be remembered that the U.S. helped restore the Shah to his imperial  crown in 1953 by helping to engineer a coup against the democratically elected Mohamad Mosaddeq. Months after the Shah abdicated and revolutionary supporters took over the Iranian government, Iranian students seized control of the American Embassy in Tehran and held the staff, including diplomats, hostage for more than a year. Such an event escalated the confrontation between Iran and the United States, which has risen to war-threatening heights at times, and veered toward normalization at other times. With a new American president in the White House who seems eager to promote a more moderate atmosphere in the Middle East there were widespread hopes for accommodation, but so far there are as many signs of continuity with the Trump years as indications of seeking accommodation based on equality and respect. 

I am aware that it is ‘politically correct’ in the West to comment favorably on this anniversary occasion, but I continue to view Iran as practicing the politics of post-colonial self-determination that has made it a target for hostile forces in the Middle East and elsewhere, and that hopes for a peaceful regional future rest on the further dewesternization of liberal secular criteria of governmental and behavioral legitimacy. I would not minimize Iran’s bad record when it comes to human rights, but its emphasis in the Western media is more a matter of geopolitics than empathy for victims, especially if compared with the silence about much worse infractions by regional allies of the Wesst, and taking account of the tendencies of even the purist of democracies to become paranoid and repressive when threatened by intervention and a counterrevolutionary crusade. Surely, maintaining comprehensive sanctions on Iran by the United States despite humanitarian appeals for their suspension during the COVID pandemic because of the massive harm done to the Iranian people should also be taken into account.]   

Q. 1: The anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is coming up. Many argue that the Iranian revolution, besides having internal effects, has affected the region and the international community. If you are positive with this viewpoint, what are its major international effects?

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions about cause and effect in international relations as there are many factors interacting at that same time. It seemed clear that the Islamic Revolution posed a challenge to Western vital strategic and economic interests that were tied closely to the Shah’s regime. It should be remembered that Henry Kissinger reminded the world that the Shah was “that rarest of things, an unconditional ally.” More broadly, the Islamic Revolution created the perception that the U.S. had a new adversary in the Middle East additional to, and perhaps more threatening, than the Soviet Union and the ideology of Marxism/Leninism. Its regional policies had previously emphasized, other than the containment of Soviet influence, access to oil at affordable prices and the security of Israel. This belief in Iran as a strategic threat was interpreted in the West as an ideological threat, as well, giving rise to Islamophobia that reached its peak in the United States after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, primary symbols of American economic and military power. 

Imam Khomeini reinforced Western and regional anxieties by his insistence that the transformation of Iran was an ‘Islamic Revolution,’ nor a ‘Iranian Revolution’ or a ‘Sunni Revolution,’ implying strong concerns beyond the borders of Iran. Such a sentiment had an electrifying and mobilizing effect on Islamic thought and action throughout the Arab world, and recreated the idea that territorial states within enclosed borders were a European conception of community imposed on the Middle East after World War I, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Nationalist thinking and organization inauthentically displaced the primary existential community of shared adherence to Islamic beliefs, the umma. Such an interpretation of community undermined the legitimacy of many governments in the Arab/Islamic context that relied on nationalist and secular sources of legitimacy while actually serving the interests of the West. 

The Western views of the Khomeini impact were highlighted by such phrases as regarding Islamic countries as the new ‘arc of crisis,’ or more memorably as ‘the clash of civilizations,’ the sequel to the Cold War, and the basis for a new phase of ideological and geopolitical confrontation. 

The Israeli dimension of the effects of the Islamic Revolution in Iran should not be overlooked. Israel was regarded as an alien force in the region, anti-Islamic, secular, and a lingering remnant of the colonial era. For the West it was an outpost of enlightenment, modernity, and shared goals, and after the fall of the Shah the became the leading strategic ally of the United States, a relationship that continues to haunt the region with intervention and political violence, as well as the denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people in their own homeland.

 Q. 2: Imam Khomeini, as the founder of the Islamic Revolution, unified the Muslim community towards certain causes, while before the Iranian revolution, there was not a dynamic wave of the Muslim community. What reasons caused that situation before the revolution?

Before the Iranian developments in 1978-79, the Middle East in particular was governed by authoritarian regimes that were on one side or the other of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Many regional leaders in the Islamic world were fearful of the Islamic orientation of their own people, portraying Islam as anti-modern and an enemy of progress, and potentially threatening to the economic elites bonded with international capitalism. The Shah’s Iran typified this orientation and exhibited an acute form of civilizational alienation.

Imam Khomeini arrived on the political scene with a different vision of a political community animated by the resurgence of Islam as tradition and the foundation of ethically grounded governance. Because Iran faced counterrevolutionary threats from within and without, the governing challenges in Iran gave priority to protecting the revolution from its enemies, with a harshness often relied upon by the West to contend that the Islamic Revolution was a regressive development, a view encouraged by many of the Iranians who fled the country for various reasons. It is notable that these harsh tactics allowed the Islamic Revolution to survive and evolve, and contrasts with the experience of other efforts to achieve transformation, even reform, in Islamic countries, for instance, Egypt. The achievement of the Islamic Revolution is to persist in such a hostile environment suggests the skills of its leaders and the support of the great majority of its people.  

Q. 3: Experts on the Palestinian issue argue that the Islamic Revolution changed the direction of fights against Israel. What is your opinion about this matter?

In a few words, whereas before the Islamic Revolution support for the Palestinian struggle was pragmatic and opportunistic, while afterwards identification with Palestine became a matter of fundamental principle and a source of authentic identity. The Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter what pressures it was subjected to during the last four decades, has never wavered in support for the rights of the Palestinian people. 

Such speculation is difficult to be sure about as many forces were at work, but certainly the Islamic Revolution was one factor that altered the character of the struggle over the future of Palestine. From an Israeli perspective, Iran posed an increasing threat not only to its internal security and nationalist claims of legitimacy, but also to its regional and expansionist ambitions. At the same time, Iranian hostility to Israel reinforced Western hostility to the Islamic Republic. It also had the effect of leading the Gulf countries, with the exception of Qatar, to believe that their own legitimacy and stability was more threatened by the Islamic Republic than by Israel. These regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, also emphasized sectarian identities, insisting that only Sunni Islam was the true faith and that Shi’ia Islam was a deviation. At the same time, these Arab elites became persuaded that their rivalry throughout the Middle East with Iran was their primary concern, shared with Israel (and the United States), and that tensions and opposition to Israel no longer served governmental interests despite the persisting identification of their citizens with the Palestinian struggle. The climax of this revision of priorities became evident when the anti-Iran diplomacy was recently signaled to the world by the normalization agreements reached with several Arab countries, encouraged by others, and celebrated as a triumph of Trump’s pro-Israel foreign policy.

The Palestinian movement for self-determination was always viewed as problematic, and potentially dangerous, by the top-down governing processes in Iran and throughout the Arab world. Any bottom-up popular democratizing movement, epitomized by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and later by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was opposed by these repressive government scared of their own people. The Palestinian movement was deemed threatening in two of its dimensions—as putting forth political demands from below (a polar opposite from dynastic claims to rule from above, and so condition the role of Islam) and as challenging the links to the West to sustain internal security through weaponry and counterinsurgent tactics.

 Q. 4: Was Imam Khomeini, as a spiritual leader, effective in changing the status of the Palestinian issue?

I think Imam Khomeini did give the Palestinian struggle a higher status than it had earlier possessed, particularly within the region, it became a matter of ethics, not just politics. His emphasis on Palestinian self-determination, the illegitimacy of the Zionist Project, was treated as a fundamental commitment of the Islamic Republic from its inception, and Israel was viewed as a distinctly Western challenge to the prevalence of his sense of the Islamic community of peoples. In the course of my meeting with Imam Khomeini he made very clear that in his view of the illegitimacy of a Jewish state based on claims of ethnic superiority coincided with his great respect for Judaism as an authentic religion. He expressed his hope at that time in 1979, that the Jewish minority in Iran would disentangle itself from identification with and support for Israel and the Zionist Project, and if this happened, he declared his view that it would be a tragedy for Iran if Jews did not remain in the country after the revolution. 

This distinction between Israel and Judaism is crucial, and is the opposite of what the Israeli leadership and its more militant followers want the world to believe, which is that Israel, Jewishness, and Zionism are one, and that any criticism of Israel necessarily exhibits a form of anti-Semitism. Recently, the world respected Israeli human rights NGO issued a report that confirmed the view that Israel was an apartheid stated, premised on the efforts to make Israel ‘a Jewish supremacy state.’ As apartheid in any form is an international crime, listed as a Crime Against Humanity, in Article 7(j) of the Rome Statute governing the framework of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the views of Imam Khomeini accord with basic principles of law and justice on this crucial matter of distinguishing between the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  

Q. 5: It is widely believed that Iran’s resistance against international pressures has shifted the international order and has created a new resistance force against world powers. Can we connect this process to the current undermined position of the United States?

I believe it is correct that the failure of the United States to overcome Iranian resistance to its destabilization and counterrevolutionary efforts is viewed as one dimension of American imperial decline. Military intervention and even coercive diplomacy by way of sanctions and threats is far less effective than in the colonial era, and is unable to control the political outcomes of many internal struggles for the control of States. It has contributed to what is generally viewed as a much more multipolar world. New patterns of alignment are emerging globally and regionally. The Biden presidency will try to restore the Cold War Euro-centric pattern of alliances, with China as the new principal rival, with Russia also on the outside looking in. There are many uncertainties in all domains of international life that will reshape world order in coming years. Of especial importance will be the management of climate change, health hazards, and global economic policy. There are several lines of uncertainty, including whether a new form of ideological tension arises and inhibits global cooperative problem-solving. There is a need for stronger institutional mechanisms at all levels of political interaction to safeguard and promote the global public good. The United Nations could be reformed to play a more central role in moderating diversities of interests and values, while protecting the sovereign rights of States and extending a greater effort to impose UN Charter Principles on the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. The UN would benefit for greater funding independence and less tolerance for geopolitical impunity.  

THE B’TSELEM REPORT ON ISRAELI APARTHEID

3 Feb

[Prefatory NoteThe post below consists of my responses to questions posed by Merve Ayadogan of the Anadolu Agency in Turkey, focused on the significance of the B’Tselem Report that recently concluded that Israel imposes an apartheid regime to sustain Jewish supremacy on both Israel itself and the all of Occupied Palestine. The Published version on Februrary 3, 2021 was crafted for the readers of the news agency.]

            THE B’TSELEM REPORT ON ISRAELI APARTHEID

Q 1: An Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem has labelled Israel as an “apartheid state” over its policy of favoring Jews over the Palestinians earlier this month. How would you comment on this declaration? Could it ease the Israeli aggression on Palestinians?

It is definitely an important development when Israel’s most respected human rights organization issues a report that confirms earlier UN reports and allegations that the Palestinians are victimized by an apartheid regime that seeks to impose policies and practices that ensure the supremacy of Jews by victimizing the Palestinian people throughout the whole of historic Palestine. Such a de facto one-state reality of unified Israeli control suggests that the internationally endorsed goal of a negotiated two-state solution has been superseded by Israeli ambitions to complete the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish exclusivist state on the entire  ‘promised land’ of ‘biblical Israel.’ These ambitions were implicitly acknowledged by Israel in 2018 when it enacted a Basic Law that asserted that only the Jewish people had a right to self-determination within the state of Israel, that the internationally unlawful settlement enterprise deserved national support, and that Hebrew was the only official language. Not only were Palestinians being subordinated despite being citizens, but so were Druze and Christian minorities.

It should be appreciated that ‘apartheid’ is listed as a Crime Against Humanity in Article 7(j) of the Rome Statute governing the activities of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Although the crime of apartheid is derived from the South African racist regime that proudly declared itself to be a governance structure based on apartheid ideas of separate and unequal development, it has become a generic crime given an authoritative definition in the 1976 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The Government of Israel, especially in international settings such as the UN, is outraged by allegations of apartheid that it repudiates as nothing other than a vicious form of anti-Semitism. The internationally acclaimed Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, goes beyond the B’Tselem Report in his insistence that Israel plus the territory it occupies is an apartheid regime: “The reality of apartheid and Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the sea is hidden only from the blind, the ignorant, the propagandists and the liars.”

One of the contributions of the Report is to identify the elements of Israeli apartheid by reference to specific policies and practices that are relied upon to maintain Jewish supremacy over non-Jews within its sovereign territory. Among these are discriminatory standards applicable to immigration, giving Jews worldwide an unrestricted ‘right of return’ while denying Palestinian any immigrations rights even if parents or grandparents were born within its territory. Other important instances of discrimination based on ethnicity concern land tenure, citizenship and nationality rights, freedom of mobility, security of residence, administration of law, and issuance of building permits. It is clear that these apartheid features vary from domain to domain, from Israel proper to East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza, but the core undertaking is stable: exploitative domination by Jews over non-Jews, especially Palestinians.

There is one mysterious weakness in my reading of the B’Tselem Report: the erasure of seven million or so Palestinian refugees and involuntary exiles. The Report deals with apartheid. only in the context of the control of territory rather than its deliberate and intended design of exerting control of people, and yet from 1948 to the present, Palestinians have suffered as a people, whether subject to Israeli territorial control or not, with hundreds of thousand  being displaced and dispossessed from 1948 onwards as integral to the 

Israeli overall plan to be a Jewish majority state that could lay a legitimating claim to being a democracy. In effect, ‘ethnic cleansing’ was a necessity, given Israel claims to legitimacy as a democracy. Palestinian forced to abandon their homeland by becoming refugees or exiles are at least as much a victim of apartheid as are Palestinians living under Israeli territorial control.

I have no reason to believe that Israel will act more humanely toward Palestinians as a result of the B’Tselem Report, but will condemn the report, as has already happened, as an instance of ‘Jewish anti-Semitism.’ As with BDS, Israeli first defenders will deliberately confuse criticism of criminally unlawful governing policies in Israel with hatred of Jews. A peaceful and secure future for both peoples will not arise until Israel dismantles apartheid and agrees to treat Palestinians in accordance with human rights standards, including respect for the Palestinian right of self-determination, as well as a genuine endorsement of racial equality.

  • Q 2: Despite pledging a new beginning in the Middle East, during Obama-era we saw a rise in conflicts and emerge of Daesh terror. Then came the Trump administration and we saw an atrophy in US-Palestine relations due to former president’s controversial decisions in favor of Israel. Now the newly-elected US President Joe Biden has directed his administration an immediate renewal of relations with Palestine and its people, what do you think of Biden administration’s policy regarding Palestine, the Middle East and wider region? Could we expect an “unseen” US policy for the region?

It is basically too early to tell whether the Biden presidency will do more than roll back some of Trump’s extremist moves. My best guess would be continuity with the approach to Israel/Palestine taken during the Obama period, with the special relationship fully reaffirmed, and Israel protected against censure and nonviolent pressures of the sort associated with the BDS Campaign or at the UN. Much will be revealed by how the Biden administration approaches Iran, particularly whether it attaches new conditions to the revival of Nuclear Program Agreement (JCPOA) of 2015 from which Trump withdrew. The suspensions of arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are welcome signs that Biden’s foreign policy might be directed at achieving some demilitarization of the Middle East with special emphasis placed on ending chaos and strife in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, as well as promoting stability in Iraq and Lebanon. It seems likely that Israel will continue to exert a strong influence on U.S. policy toward the region, and the Biden leadership has promised to consult with Israel before making any new policy moves in the region. At the same time, it is my impression is that Biden’s priorities will be overwhelmingly domestic (COVID, economic recovery), and that he will try hard to avoid the distractions of adopting controversial foreign policy positions. Even more troublesome than the Middle East, is an escalation of tensions with China and Russia, which definitely seems to be on the radar screen of Antony Blinkon and other top foreign policy advisors.

Q 3: Former US President Trump announced a “peace plan” which is widely known as “the deal of the century.” Do you think it was a realistic initiative?

The Trump plan was essentially a demand that Palestinians agree to political surrender with respect to their struggle for basis rights in exchange for economic assistance in improving the quality of their daily lives. In the post-colonial age of robust nationalism to expect a people to accept subordination in their own homeland and 

The renunciation of their inalienable right of self-determination is unrealistic, besides being contrary to the spirit of the post-colonial ethos. Such a one-sided proposal as put forward by the Trump presidency was nothing other than a tactic of geopolitical bullying, and should not be confused with genuine peacemaking. 

Q 4: How would you comment on the position of international community regarding Palestine conflict?

The international community seems stuck in a time warp by its continued adherence to the totally discredited Oslo diplomacy, which was premised on a two-state solution. As B’Tselem Report clearly demonstrates, the one-

state reality has become the only foundation of any future meaningful peace process, posing a challenge of how to arrange for future governance on a basis of true ethnic equality. Until this happens, UN and internationalist initiatives will be irrelevant. It is my belief that what hope exists for a just solution will arise from Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives exerting sufficient pressure on the Israeli leadership so as to cause a recalculation of national interests. It is useful to remember that it was this combination of developments that explains the abrupt and unexpected collapse of the South African apartheid regime.

Q 5: Though UN has commented on the illegality of the settlements that Israel continues to develop on the occupied Palestinian territories, the organization still falls short in bringing about a peaceful solution. What should the UN do to ensure security, accountability, human rights and dignity for the Palestinian people?

The UN did pass a strong anti-settlements resolution at the end of 2016 by a 14-0 vote in the Security Council, with the U.S. abstaining, during the last days of the Obama presidency. [SC RES 2334, 23 Dec 2016] It was the strongest reassertion of UN authority in recent years, yet it led nowhere when it came to implementation. As Israel has repeatedly demonstrated over the course of its history, it will not be swayed by international law or UN directives, and will experience no adverse consequences for such defiance. It has now provocatively challenged the Biden presidency by approving 3,000 new permits for unlawful settlement construction, many of the approved new structures are situated deep in the West Bank, signaling Israel’s continuing establishment of unlawful facts on the ground to reinforce its refusal even to consider the negotiated emergence of a viable Palestinian state. It is important that the UN agenda continue to document Israeli wrongdoing as this will encourage and legitimize civil society activism. It is only Palestinian resistance from within and global solidarity from without that can have any prospect of achieving Palestinian rights and a peaceful future for both peoples. 

Is There An American ‘Deep State’?

23 Jan

Is There An American ‘Deep State’?

When a society is deeply troubled, and governed in ways that seem under the influenceof dark forces and disinformation becomes part of everyday life, it seems natural that all sorts of explanations will flourish. Few of us can handle uncertainty, and so many affirm falsehoods for thesake of achieving a specious clarity about the unknowable, or at least convert uncertainty into congenial forms of certainty, a dynamic that explains the rise of cultic thinking in our time and the spread of extremist versions of religious teachings. One variant of this phenomenon that has gained salience during the Trump presidency was supposedly pernicious role of the American ‘deep state.’ Trumpists complaining that unelected bureaucrats were subverting the great leader’s agenda while anti-Trumpists were disappointed that this source of influence didn’t find ways to remove such a political imposter given the damage he was doing national self-confidence and to the international rendering of the previously high end American brand. Some asked in exasperated tones ‘why is the deep state asleep?’  

The sharp divisions of race, class, and ethnicity in American society explain much of the confusion surrounding this dangerously imprecise terminology of ‘deep state.’ It is crudely used by polarized adversaries to identify hidden forces that are regarded as the marionettes manipulating the puppets, we the people. And these marionettes in their turn, when they don’t like what they hear from deep staters, insult their accusers by dismissing their allegations as the work of ‘conspiracy theorists,’ which is a way of discrediting explanations they do not like, and in the process dispensing with any need for a well-reasoned and serious response. Those who challenged the official version of the 9/11 attacks were quick to be defamed by the mainstream media, derided as ‘truthers,’ without even a glance at the evidence that led many responsible political observers to harbor many suspicions from day one.

More sophisticated academic commentators on U.S. foreign policy, especially progressive critics on the left, have recourse to a deep state hypothesis to account for the absence of significant debate on core national and global security issues throughout the more than four decades of Cold War. A typical definition of the deep state—‘a hidden government within the legitimate government’—creates a convenient shorthand, but seems too concrete to capture the reality. The word ‘government,’ an abstraction never easy to tie down with specific attributes, and unlike the open state is amorphous without even buildings, documents, briefings, and visible leaders. The terminology seems derived from some special features of the Turkish experience during the 1990s. The Turkish deep state refers to undisclosed anonymous high-level permanent bureaucrats in the intelligence and military sectors of government who act in concert to uphold their views of legitimate government, and step in when red lines are crossed. Such a process made no attempt vaguer to portray itself as ‘a hidden government.’ I believe the spread of the deep state rhetoric can be explained as an instructive way to take note of elites acting together in private to achieve informal agreements on crucial aspects of national security policy. The consensus reached is then loosely formulated to exert influence on the elected government to keep policies and practices within its boundaries. This dynamic gives rise to a certain atmosphere of ‘group think’ that discourages policy divergencies and proceeds without much relationship to partisan and overt party differences. [See Irving L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos, Boston, Wadsworth Learning, 1982]

The more emotive political uses of ‘deep state’ are associated with conspiratorial beliefs of individuals or groups in society that attribute official behavior to the sinister power and influences, attributions with little or no credibleevidence, e.g.QAnon! Such deep states are usually connected by sensation-seeking or culturally paranoid observers. Often such explanations of public behavior is blamed on the opinions of entrenched elite that are vehicles for a range of dark forces, including CIA, Council on Foreign Relations, the Rockefeller family, Goldman Sachs, Silicon Valley, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or even such secretive foreign entities as Mossad, the Bilderberg Group, World Economic Forum working either independently or collaboratively. The basic idea behind such assertions is that the will of the people or citizenry is being secretly and effectively perverted and exploited by anti-democratic elements that do not operate openly.  

Conjectures about the deep state have been more responsibly used to explain the behavior of many governments around the world, including Turkey, Colombia, Italy, Egypt, and others, and in each national situation particular characteristics of the phenomenon have been stressed. In recent times, a left version of such an outlook were given prominence in the U.S. by the constant drumbeat of Bernie Sanders’ denunciations of the tyranny of the 1%. The main reference here is a Wall Street financial and corporate elite that has manipulated the U.S. government into becoming a vehicle for perpetuating and extending the grossest forms of wealth inequality. It also propagates a public policy biased toward the rich, swayed by money in disregard of the collective will or overall wellbeing of the citizenry, and makes a shambles of Main Street.

A second left variant, which assumed prominence during the Cold War, blames the national security state for working behind the scenes to keep American global militarism and worldwide alliance networks as the apolitical centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy no matter what the real security needs of the nation or the case for allocating more resources to social protection goals. This kind of deep state elite seems guilty of grossly exaggerating and militaryzing international security threats to the U.S. homeland and global economic and diplomatic interests. The underlying materialist motivations for a critique of such policies is the allegation that these bureaucratic operatives are dedicated to maintaining support for a very high peacetime military budget and a robust private sector flourishing arms industry that captures resources from other uses and securitizes the federal bureaucracy. [For effective documentation and analysis see Christian Sorensen, Understanding the Arms Industry (Clarity Press, 2020)]

During the Cold War there emerged agreement among the leadership of both political parties that the Soviet Union was a dangerous ideological and geopolitical rival that threatened American global leadership, its economic and diplomatic interests around the world, as well as its ideological leadership. Such an agreement within the country became widely known as a ‘bipartisan consensus,’ which mysteriously survived even the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been its animating rationale in the late 1940s. There was an immediate search for new enemies that posed threats, allowing new prospects of warfare to emerge that reflected clashes of interests, ideas, and values. After the Cold War, Japan was posited as outperforming the U.S. economically in ways that supposedly threatened its primacy in the Pacific. Then the Iranian Revolution turned attention to Islam notoriously depicted by Samuel Huntington as generating a formidable challenge as ‘the clash of civilizations,’ given its time in the sun after the 9/11 attacks, the provocation that launched the notorious worldwide ‘war on terror’ that also posed unprecedented threats to homeland security. Now there is reemerging hostility toward Russia based on its reabsorbing of the Crimea and interference in the Ukraine, and it is being superseded by magnifying a series of grievances involving China. The purveyors of such militarized views of security are coming to the rescue of would be warriors occupying the many Washington office buildings and Beltway think tanks where its mostly anonymous occupants spend their working days validating the need to maintain American military dominance in all regions of the world or otherwise Americans will have to learn to live with the misfortunes of systemic decline. Leading academic experts on foreign policy and world politics, to varying degrees, endorse this continuing bipartisanship as the only game worth playing in international arenas, thereby situating views favoring a peacetime budget and domestic priorities as falling outside the boundaries of responsible debate in mainstream venues. When you find conservative and liberal voices raised on behalf of the plight of the Uighors, while being silent about the Palestinians it should be obvious that something is fishy. 

Among the most intelligent non-governmental participants in these circles of geopolitical consensus formation, Stephen Walt denies the fact that such bipartisanship is the work of a ‘secret conspiracy.’ In Walt’s words, “..to the extent that there is a bipartisan foreign policy elite, it is hiding in plain sight.” In other words, the bipartisan consensus, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, does not reflect the nefarious priorities of the deep state, but is the considered judgment of objective specialists, politicians, media, and the most informed and influential segments of the citizenry in and out of government. Such a view does not dispose of the deep state role in shaping and sustaining the bipartisan consensus for several reasons that can be summarized. The absence of a downward shift in military expenditures after the Cold War; the continued refusal to learn lessons of military frustration in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the exaggeration of international terrorist threats as acts of war; and the refusal of mainstream media venues to include anti-militarist commentary that suggest alternatives to or weaknesses of the bipartisan consensus. Incidentally, if some peace minded Democratic Party candidate were to emerge who advocated deep cuts in the military budget, geopolitical reconciliation with Russia and China, nuclear disarmament, and the closing of foreign military bases, there is little doubt in my mind that an equivalent group of former national security officials who had been lifelong Democrats would quickly form to explain in a public forum why they could never vote for such a candidate. It is this likely symmetry of outlook, reinforced by mainstream media, that makes the bipartisan consensus more than the figment of a disenchanted imagination, but what Noam Chomsky christened long ago as ‘indoctrination in a liberal society.’

And then came Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he was initially perceived as an opportunistic and comedic business billionaire and TV reality show personality (‘The Apprentice”), but as he began putting himself forward as an outsider with the intention and talent to become a populist leader. When Trump began pledging his raucous rallies that he would ‘to drain the swamp,’ he began to be seen as what he was, a potent ideological threat to the bipartisan consensus. Such a perception led many visible members of the national security component of the Republican elite to break ranks during the 2016 campaign to publicize their worries about Trump and explain to the citizenry their decision not to vote for Trump although it meant breaking ranks with their lifelong Republican allegiance. They did the unthinkable, indirectly throwing support to that nemesis of most Republicans, Hillary Clinton. This unusual rejection of the Republican candidate from within was given great attention by the mainstream media when expressed through the release of an Open Letter to the American People in 2016. Trump’s strategic consultants were seen as dangerous adversaries of the deep state of unelected bureaucrats who had held government positions that exerted influence in government and had enjoyed widespread outside support from mainstream media, Washington think tanks, and the academic establishment. What worried these Republican former bureaucrats who made a point of highlighting their past consistent support of Republican candidates were the hints that Trump would seek some sort of geopolitical realignment bypassing the Atlanticist alliance that had been the centerpiece of American foreign policy ever since the end of World War II. Trump was also critical of regime-changing interventions of the sort that led to ‘forever wars’ with no discernable benefit to U.S. interests, but helpful in inflating military expenditures. Trump was also unfavorably seen by this group as an opponent of global cooperation and neoliberal globalization, which they regarded as a key element in America’s worldwide success after 1945. Trump’s formula for making America great again involved a transactional and ultra-nationalist approach to trade, investment, and immigration, with a decidedly pointed withdrawal from foreign entanglements, cooperative frameworks, and global leadership. Although it was this challenge to the Cold War enactment of global militarism and alliance diplomacy, the Open Letter rested its disapproval mainly on Trump’s lack of experience and impulsive temperament than on the more arcane issues of global policy. As his years in the White House have demonstrated, these fears of former Republican officials were not misplaced. If anything, Trump’s repudiation of guidance from the intelligence services and controversial connections with Putin’s Russia went beyond these 2016 fears, and led to a second Open Letter by discontented former Republican national security officials during the 2020 campaign, including cabinet level figures such as Colin Powell and former directors of the CIA and FBI. [For texts see [“Open Letter to Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders,” Texas National Security Review, March 2, 2016; “More than 70 former GOP National Security Officials wrote an Open Letter backing Biden, calling Trump corrupt and unfit to lead,” Business Insider, August 21, 2020.]  

Despite these concerns about Trump wandering off the reservation, many deep state priorities were actually upheld: the military budget was sustained, geopolitical confrontation with China was endorsed, special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia were pushed further than ever, relations with Iran were stressed in ways that reverted to the pre-Obama Bush years of hostility and sanctions. Even U.S. military disengagements from overseas arenas such as Iraq and Afghanistan were slowed, and Trump momentarily pleased the old consensus when he retaliated with a military strike against the Syrian government after what appears to be a fabricated claim that Damascus was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018. Yet his Lone Ranger style of diplomacy continued to worry the overseers of a governing process that became deeply troubled by Trump’s highly erratic one man’s show, which did collateral damage by depriving the ‘permanent government’ of its policy roles. In addition to these matters of style and procedure, the Open Letter signatories were opposed to the implications of downgrading NATO, Atlanticism, and Europe generally, especially the seeming soft, even deferential, approach taken toward Putin’s Russia, and the unseemly withdrawal by such breakthrough global agreements in 2015 as the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that addressed the Iranian nuclear programs, enjoying the blessings of all five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. 

Trump was unintimidated, mounting a populist pushback against these deep state outbursts. The Trump worldview was initially most coherently articulated by Steve Bannon, and transmitted to the grassroots by Trump’s rally rants and nighttime tweets. The pro-Trump counterattack alleged that within the government itself are a Euro-centric gang of unelected bureaucratic operatives that had been calling the shots, especially on foreign policy, ever since 1945. This cabal was also held responsible by Trumpists for embracing ‘forever wars,’ not charging allies for military protection in the form of military bases, deployed troops and weapons, and a total securitization of foreign policy, subverting the true interests of the American people, and abetted by the Wall Street crowd that sent millions of manufacturing jobs abroad and in the process alienating much of the American working class. This rightest version of populism subscribes to the litany of anti-liberal scapegoats ranging from alarmist environmentalist to asylum seekers from South of the border, a variety of hidden forces within the government that are conspiring with the cancel culture to destroy the once virtuous white America.

As suggested at the outset allegations of a deep state can serve contradictory ideological perspectives. Some versions are highly speculative, even paranoid, others seem grounded in reality and substantiated by convincing evidence, backed up by open avowal and careful analysis. The core idea of the deep state as a hidden government is far too concrete in its imagery. I prefer to think of a preferred delineation of the deep state in America as a metaphor that encompasses both the internal agreements prevailing among career and appointed national security officials who exert great influence with public opinion due to their media credibility. This type of deep state is a confluence of influential persons who owe allegiance to shared ideas about the role of military and diplomatic capabilities that emerged out of World War II, persisted throughout the Cold War, and managed to dominate the formation of foreign policy despite repeated performance failures that badly tarnished the U.S. reputation and imposed heavy costs without achieving any of its proclaimed goals. In effect, Trump’s foreign policy was indeed disastrous, but it did somewhat illuminate the anachronistic character of the zombie like ‘bipartisan consensus’ that yet be revived in the course of reaffirming the old Cold War/neoliberal globalization orthodoxy of pre-Trump America.   

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

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

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

The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on January 6, 2021 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage, and more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend permanently his account was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable, and if anything long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s  megaphone’ that facilitated reaching his millions of followers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Terrorism: Remembering General Soleimani

8 Jan

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

Remembering General Qassim Soleimani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trump Pardons and Fast-Tracking Capital Punishment

31 Dec

Measuring Trump the Man: Pardons and Capital Punishment

Among the disquieting dimensions of this strangest of all Christmas holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas in Turkey

27 Dec

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

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

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

Christmas in Turkey: a haiku    

Christmas in Turkey

Without decorated trees

Still sun shines skies blue

Yalikavak ,Turkey

December 27, 2020

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

25 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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