Tag Archives: Middle East

A Conversation at the Edge of the Human Future

12 Sep

[Prefatory Note: I am posting below a long interview with Konrad Stachnio on a wide-ranging questions, which stretched by knowledge past its breaking point, especially in assessing where the technological innovations on the horizons will lead us. It is one of 17 conversations published by Clarity Press under the title, Civilization in Overdrive: Conversations at the edge of the Human Future. Preface by Stachnio after interview.

 

I recommend the book strongly. It can be ordered using the following url:

https://www.claritypress.com/product/civilization-in-overdrive-conversations-at-the-edge-of-the-human-future/ ]

 

 

 

Civilization in Overdrive, edited by Konrad Stachnio

 

“If a digital Fukuyama tells the world that ‘the end of history’ has been reached, he should be scorned this time around.”

KONRAD STACHNIO: Do you know what is the role of the so-called Black Budget in building the power of the USA as a global security state?

RICHARD FALK: It is not possible for someone without access to highly classified materials to assess accurately the policy significance and content of the Black Budget in the years since 1945, including the financing of a range of intelligence activities and a variety of covert intervention projects. It is possible to put forward the view that the CIA and special operations forces are both partially financed by the Black Budget that has been integral to the formation and execution of American grand strategy since the end of World War II, building its unaccountable claims on government spending for global security as a byproduct of Cold War imperatives. The Black Budget has, above all, provided a cover for unlawful encroachments on the sovereign rights of foreign countries, mainly those of adversaries, but also extending to thwarting leftist political movements from controlling governments in countries whose foreign policy was under the tutelage of the United States. The Black Budget has also evidently been used to keep secret the financing of the research and development of new weapons and surveillance technologies. As with other bureaucratic innovations, the removal of an original justification for an undertaking does not easily lead to its abandonment or even downgrading, especially if shielded from

scrutiny by its secrecy and related non-accountability. In this respect, although the size of the Black Budget steadily grew as one side effect of the Cold War, its ending in the 1990s did not lead to reduced appropriations.

Most modern states finance their secretive activities through some form of “Black Budget.” What distinguishes the U.S. Black Budget is its scale, global projection dimensions, and integration into an overarching design for establishing and maintaining a global state, and its ties to unlawful policies and practices outside the domain of territorial sovereignty, and most of all, its linkages to sustaining the United States as the first “global state” in history. It is not just a matter of its planetary interpretation of American security, but of its subsuming under the banner of security a wider hegemonic agenda of economic dominance, cultural hegemony, and ideological influence. There is no serious pretension that after the Cold War the U.S. Government was taking over responsibility for global peace and security as envisioned in the Charter of the United Nations, although there was a brief claim to this effect in 1990–91 when the American president, George H.W. Bush, proclaimed “a new world order” based on UN authority and international law in response to defending Kuwait against Iraqi aggression. Such a claim was never subsequently repeated.

The idea of the U.S. as a global state is a geopolitical endeavor related to power and wealth rather than on any normative (based on law and morality) or cosmopolitan (meta-nationalist) conceptions of security. It is rationalized and justified by reference to national interests as measured by military superiority, economic advantage, alliance cohesion, and by the exercise of global leadership supposedly for the benefit of all humanity. The substantive priorities of the Black Budget are designed by American political realists who are by training and disposition distrustful of any loss of sovereign control over national policies and practices, are suspicious of the UN and international law, and seek to validate foreign commitments by reference to the promotion of national interests.

There is every indication that the Black Budget has been over the years “bipartisan” in the sense that it receives equal support from the U.S. Congress whether the occupant of the White House is a Democrat of a Republican. This bipartisanship extends to overall support for the defense budget and for a capitalist approach toward financial and labor markets, environmental protection, and corporate regulation. Donald Trump was opposed by part of the national security establishment when he sought the presidency in 2016 because he was perceived as a threat to this bipartisan consensus, and especially the commitment to maintaining control over a global security system. Trump did challenge aspects of the consensus, but when it came to militarism there has been no rupture since he entered the White House. The Black Budget has been rising during his presidency, reaching $81.1 billion in the last fiscal year,

suggesting that Trump, despite withdrawing from economic, humanitarian, and environmental internationalism and asserting a belligerent brand of chauvinistic nationalism, is not willing to dismantle the American state apparatus of global surveillance, secrecy, and control, and even more tellingly, to abandon the network of overseas military bases, the far flung naval presence in the world’s oceans, and even the militarization of space.

Underlying questions arise as to whether the Black Budget of the United States and others is an inevitable implication of the military technology now available to many states, its range and accuracy that overcomes distance and time, precluding targeted states from defensive responses to threats. These conditions create multiple vulnerabilities of societies throughout the world, however powerful, to subversive violence from within and transnational violence from without, making readiness for war a permanent feature of political life. The global security state is reinforced by a trend toward autocratic national leadership throughout the world. It is important to associate the Black Budget with both innovative military software and hardware as well as with the surveillance/secrecy impulses of governance at the national, regional, and global levels of political organization. More concretely, the threats of terrorism and more recently, of contagious disease, give surface rationalizations for security capabilities that penetrate the most private activities of citizens as well as the secret undertakings of foreign governments, whether friendly or not. Such technologically driven circumstances bearing on the shrinking of time and space, if correctly and humanely interpreted, would encourage rapid shifts in emphasis and ideology from national and militarized security to human and ecological security. There are no signs that this desirable shift is happening, and so the roots of militarism grow deeper into the soil of political life in all its operational contexts.

KS: Are we currently entering the era of global digital dictatorship? Over those who colonize other countries technologically as well as on those that are colonized?

RF: I am not convinced that the core reality of this epoch will be shaped by “digital dictatorship,” and I am not entirely sure what is meant by the term. There seem to be contradictory tendencies arising from digitization, providing pathways to both domination and autonomy. It is true that vulnerability to cyber-attacks will give potential dictatorial control to the more technologically sophisticated political actors, but to what ends is impossible to anticipate, as well as what counter-moves might be taken by less digitally sophisticated states. There are also possibilities of non-state actors acquiring control or neutralizing capabilities with respect to such technologies. I suspect that the greatest dangers will arise at the interface between artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, with drones already prefiguring such militarized applications of digital technology. As with other weapons innovations, it is not at all clear that political outcomes will be determined by military superiority. The historical novelty of the anti-colonial wars of the last century was that they were won by the side that possessed inferior military capabilities. There is as yet no evidence that digital technologies will be able to impose stable dictatorial governance at home or compliant colonies abroad. The dynamics of national resistance must be taken into account. What could happen is a weakening of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the state-centric world order, which has dominated the international scene since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Digitization could result in new configurations of authority and power, mergers of weaker and more vulnerable states to augment postures of digital anti-colonialism.

The near future of geopolitics may be shaped by the agendas and undertakings of the two global states, U.S. and China, the former declining, the latter ascending, and poised for rivalry, if not confrontation. The dynamics of their interaction is likely to shape the geopolitical structure of world order, at least for the remainder of the first half of the 21st century. Which of these two global states comes to possess superior mastery of digitization may give a clue as to how this rivalry will play out historically, but still may not reveal whether digital dominance will be translated into usable forms of geopolitical leverage or transnational structures of political dictatorship both within sovereign territory and within the sovereign domains of foreign countries or regions. For the foreseeable future there will be a variety of intensifying tensions between the territorial dimensions of authority and the non-territoriality of influence and behavior. At present, autocratic nationalism is obstructing transnational flows of people (walls at militarized borders, anti-immigration policies and practices), capital (retreat from neoliberal globalization), and goods and services (trade wars, sanctions). What the prospects are for digital internationalism, especially if hegemonically motivated, remains obscure.

KS: Will the new apartheid of our time be division into people who are “technologically enriched” (through, for example, embedded microchips or gene editing, thus being more adapted to the technological environment) and those who do not have these embedded enrichments?

RF: At present, the clearest historical examples of apartheid involve race and nuclear weaponry, although the structures of domination and victimization are specific to each instance in both categories. The idea of apartheid derives from South Africa’s racist political regime of a white minority imposing its

exploitative will on a large black majority. It has been applied in two different ways to Israel’s control over Palestine: territorially by reference to Israel’s occupation policy as implemented in the West Bank since 1967 exemplified by applying Israeli law to Jewish settlers and military administration to the Palestinians; ethnically by reference to Palestinian people whether living in refugee camps in neighboring countries or as involuntary exiles, or in pre-1967 Israel as a minority in East Jerusalem, or in Gaza under occupation. This is a dynamic of ethnic domination that generates structures designed to subjugate the Palestinian people as a whole, however dispersed, and not as in South Africa under the territorial control of the Afrikaner government.

Nuclear apartheid relates to the Nonproliferation Treaty and its implementing geopolitical regime. Despite treaty provisions calling for nuclear disarmament as urgent priority, the existing nuclear weapons states retain possession, development, and deployment options while other states are prohibited from acquiring the weaponry even if possessing convincing security reasons for gaining a deterrent capability (as could be argued on behalf of Iran), and risk an aggressive regime-changing intervention if perceived as seeking to cross the nuclear threshold. This provided the rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003. In effect, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the self-appointed custodians of the weaponry, and all others are subject to an unconditional prohibition relating to their acquisition and possession, and selectively subject to geopolitical enforcement. Various exceptions to the prohibitions exist, including Israel, India and Pakistan, and more ambiguously for North Korea.

The prospect of a technological apartheid is situated somewhere between envisioned scientific capabilities and science fictional fears (e.g. of designer genetics; mass produced clones or warrior robots) and dreams (e.g. of eternal life, perfect health, and supplanting God as the master of the universe). There is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether countries that are geopolitically dominant in the world will also be able to control the frontiers of technological innovation in a number of areas. Religious scruples and legal prohibitions might also dissuade a political actor from acquiring those technological capabilities that are premised on hegemonic control, exploitation, and victimization. Unlike apartheid as an international crime, the metaphoric suggestion of a technologically based apartheid, is not based on race or religion, and therefore the emotive relevance of the allegation of apartheid seems less justifiable. Nuclear apartheid is metaphorical but it is premised on clear demarcation lines between having and not having the weaponry, although the distinction is blurry with respect to countries such as Japan and Germany that have the technological capabilities to become a nuclear weapons state in a matter of months. Unlike the racial and religious forms of apartheid, its metaphorical extensions do not have clearly identifiable boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Despite its lesser technological capability to cross the nuclear threshold, Iran is treated as a greater threat to the nonproliferation regime than is Germany or Japan.

Against this background, I am not sure that “technological apartheid” is a helpful way of distinguishing between beneficiaries and victims of various technological innovations. Class may be the biggest divider as it has been for many devices associated with the digital age. The impact of technology on state/society relations via face recognition surveillance is another dimension of hegemonic control, but again a thin application of the apartheid metaphor as the markers of differentiation are unclear and contested. Unlike “nuclear apartheid,” which considers a single menacing technological sector, the projection of “technological apartheid” projects technological domination across the spectrum of human concerns, which somewhat characterized the colonizing period following the Industrial Revolution, which gave Europe control over both military hardware and navigational maneuverability.

It may be timely to worry about “digital dictatorship,” and I am sure its attainment is on the secret long-range operational investigations of geopolitical actors, both to avoid being left behind and potentially subjugated, as well as to achieve a controlling upper hand.

KS: How do you perceive the future of Fatah and Hamas?

RF: It is a difficult time of challenge for the Palestinian struggle, which casts a dark cloud of uncertainty over the future of both Fatah and Hamas. This uncertainty pertains, especially, to Fatah, which provides the main organizational underpinning for the Palestinian Authority that has represented the Palestinian people on an international level ever since the Oslo Framework of Principles was agreed upon in 1993. This framework presupposed a negotiating process that was widely expected by the UN, governments, and the general public to be committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian sovereign state on the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 War. This solution was accepted internationally, giving rise to the two-state consensus on how the conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs could be resolved and the competing claims of self-determination accommodated.

If the formal annexation of a substantial part of the West Bank takes place in coming months it will not only be the final nail in the two-state coffin, but also draw into question the viability of the Palestinian Authority as the voice of the State of Palestine. There are other relevant arenas that give the PA a rationale for a continuing existence, especially if it can find alternate funding for its rather elaborate governmental structures, including the pursuit of its grievances in the International Criminal Court, but most of all, by taking advantage of the situation to seek joint and unified leadership of the Palestinian struggle and arrange more authentic representation in international arenas, which would involve bringing Hamas in from the cold. The representation of the Palestinian people has been weakened by the persisting inability to obtain sufficient political unity to establish legitimate leadership of the Palestinian struggle for rights. Israel has contributed to this Palestinian diplomatic weakness by its continuous efforts over the years to keep the Palestinian movement factionalized and the Palestinian people ideologically, geographically, and diplomatically fragmented.

Hamas, in contrast to Fatah, and the PLO, has never endorsed the two-state approach as a tenable basis for reaching a sustainable peace between the two peoples. Hamas has challenged the underlying legitimacy of the Israeli State, and its exclusivist claims to be the State of the Jewish people. In recent years, following the electoral successes of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 and its takeover of governance from Fatah in 2007, it has claimed and controversially exercised a right of resistance, but most characteristically in defensive and retaliatory modes, and not as a strategy of liberation through armed struggle. Hamas has also negotiated, usually by way of Egypt, several short-term ceasefires with Israel, and in recent years, has proposed publicly and by back channels long-term ceasefires, including in a proposal for a 50 year ceasefire, although conditional on Israel lifting the blockade on Gaza and withdrawing to 1967 borders, an action long ago unanimously prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Hamas also apparently reached out by discreet diplomacy to the Bush presidency in the years after its electoral successes in 2006 to exert pressure on Israel to agree upon some kind of long-term pause in hostilities with respect to Gaza. Yet neither Israel nor the United States, nor the PA, seemed at all interested in any kind of accommodation with Hamas if it did not include a recognition of the legitimacy of the Israeli State and a renunciation of any Palestinian right of resistance. It should be remembered that the U.S. Government had encouraged Hamas to participate in the 2006 elections, to shift their behavior from a reliance on armed struggle to the pursuit of its goals on a so-called “political track.” It was believed at the time that Washington assumed that the people of Gaza would repudiate Hamas, and this would solidify the political control of Occupied Palestine under Fatah influence and control, which was viewed as more moderate in relation to both means and ends. When these expectations were frustrated, the U.S., together with Israel, refused to treat Hamas as a legitimate political actor. Hamas was blacklisted as a terrorist organization that engaged in unlawful violence, pointing to the rocket attacks directed at Israel following the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which involved withdrawing IDF troops across the border and dismantling the Israeli settlements. The time line between Israeli provocation and Hamas retaliation remains contested, and hard to unravel and. resolve, but what seems evident is that the Hamas provocations were indiscriminate, yet doing far less damage and being much less intrusive with respect to the Israeli civilian population than did the Israeli attacks and indirect control mechanisms continuously imposed on the people of Gaza often in the form of harsh collective punishment prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is now difficult to tell whether various developments in the present context will bring about any changes relevant to Fatah and Hamas. It is possible that Israeli annexation of large portions of the West Bank will give rise to renewed and more successful efforts at achieving political unity among Palestinian political factions. Given the failure of several past attempts, it would be irresponsible to predict success for such an effort, although a sustainable achievement of political unity with respect to representation, leadership, and the tactics of struggle would be a very favorable development from a Palestinian perspective, improving prospects for some sort of eventual political compromise. The issues facing the Palestinians have taken several turns for the worse in the last few years, principally due to overt and unconditional support given to unlawful Israeli expansionism by the presidency of Donald Trump and shifts in the regional balance as a result of Arab priorities now emphasizing the rivalry with Iran as to regional supremacy and an accompanying willingness to abandon support for the Palestinian struggle. For Israeli politicians, there is present the window of opportunity provided by Trump’s unconditional support of Israeli ambitions, but this window could close, at least part way, if Trump loses to Biden in November. Similarly, unrest in the Arab World could at any point lead to a second phase of the Arab Spring, possibly bringing to power a leadership in either Egypt or Saudi Arabia more responsive to renewed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. How Fatah and Hamas will relate to such future developments remains a black box at present. Also, whether the experience of the COVID-19 health crisis alters Palestinian priorities relating to their political alignments, agenda, and tactics is impossible to discern at this stage as is its impact on the regional and global play of relevant geopolitical play of forces.

KS: Will Hezbollah become the biggest threat to Israel in the future? Because of military training in Syria and the weakening role of the U.S.?

RF: My understanding of these issues is limited. Although Hezbollah has had the benefit of battlefield experience in Syria, I think this enhanced capability would be relevant more to discourage Israel from repeating its 1982 ground inducing Israel to withdraw in 2000. I believe that Israel is mostly concerned at present about Hezbollah’s augmented defensive and retaliatory capabilities if Israel were to launch the kind of land invasion that culminated in the siege of Beirut that occurred almost 40 years ago. It is my understanding that Hezbollah has acquired accurate long-range missile capabilities that could cause heavy damage to Israeli cities, but if used offensively, it would likely bring about a disproportionate Israeli response with ruinous consequences for Lebanon. Hezbollah has demonstrated its capabilities to maintain a sustained campaign of territorial resistance, and possibly possesses a sufficient deterrent capability to discourage Israel from mounting an aggressive military campaign even from the air and sea. Overall, with the internal strife and tensions experienced by Lebanon in recent months, and still unresolved, Hezbollah seems to have become a weaker political actor in the internal Lebanese balance of forces, and highly unlikely to take any initiative that would provoke Israel to take major military action. An aspect of Hezbollah’s apparent political decline in Lebanon is the perception among the Lebanese people that Hezbollah became too close to Iran, which funded its activities and was a principal supplier of its advanced weaponry.

KS: How do you see Europe’s future in the context of Islamic fundamentalists returning to their home countries in Europe after the defeat of ISIS?

RF: Much depends on whether the “victory” over ISIS as projected is seen as the end of the story. If perceived as only a pause in violent challenges directed at Europe, or even with uncertainty as to the future, there will be public hostility to readmitting such individuals, especially former ISIS fighters. ISIS was itself a reaction to the U.S./UK occupation of Iraq after 2003, suggesting that such fundamentalist responses can arise whenever civilizations clash, and particularly when the West seeks to assert control over the political life of a non-Western society in the post-colonial era.

Against this background, the repatriation of ISIS fundamentalists is a very difficult issue to speculate about, and is likely to reflect diverse national policies that are put in practice rather than a common European Union approach. The treatment of ISIS applicants for reentry will likely depend on whether the vetting process will be willing and able to draw reliable distinctions between hardened militants and disillusioned recruits, and how families of ISIS fighters will be viewed in the overall context. It is likely that most European governments will be reluctant to issue visas to those ISIS families who are without valid passports, yet seek to return to their native countries. There are issues associated with uncertainty as to how particular individuals participated

in ISIS, what sorts of connections they have with their families in Europe, what job opportunities would await them, what effects their repatriation would have on domestic political tensions. Some of these issues are explored fictionally, with great intelligence, by Kamila Shamsie, in Home Fire (2017). My guess is that there will be a great reluctance by most European governments to permit the return of anyone closely associated with ISIS, and over the age of 18. A problem of their statelessness is likely to emerge.

KS: Would you agree with the statement of Chris Hedges that currently the only way to survive as human beings is disobedience to the elites?

RF: I think there is provocative value in taking seriously this injunction from a commentator on the current scene who is as thoughtful and justice-oriented as is Chris Hedges, and yet to serve as any guide to action, or even as a source of reflection, there is a need for greater particularity. Such a general call for disobedience is vague, and dependent on interpretation within a great variety of contexts. We need to know far more clearly what Hedges means by “survive as human beings” and by “disobedience to the elites.” Is it a call for the defense of human dignity against the state by establishing appropriate and effective forms of resistance? Is resistance limited to nonviolent tactics or does it depend on the context? Is the primary concern here with the word “human” (as in the quality of life) or with “survival” (as “bare life” in terms of subsistence)? Above all, is it a clarion call for the transformation or abolition of predatory capitalism and global militarism?

If we try to respond more concretely to Hedges based on personal perceptions and circumstances we will end up with a wide array of responses. From my perspective, I think Hedges is speaking within an American context, and delivering a central message that our constitutional democracy is faltering, and needs renewal by way of a movement of radical reform, possibly in imitation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s as guided by Martin Luther King, Jr.. In my darker moods I think even this degree of reformism is not sufficient, and that the challenges faced need to be conceived in the more activist framework of radical social action associated with the thinking and tactics of Malcolm X. Even in the somewhat less polarized times of the 1960s both of these charismatic leaders were assassinated, although King’s demands for access and equality became more fully realized and endorsed by elites than were the economic and social demands of Malcolm. Many might have thought that King’s vision was fully realized by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, but such an assessment overlooked King’s anti-militarism and planetary humanism. These earlier expressions of semi-authorized “disobedience to the elites,” even when seemingly effective, can be reversed. The very success of anti-racism occasioned racist reactions, exemplified by the Trump presidency and the accompanying revival of a white supremacy movement to previously unimagined heights of influence.

If the idea of disobedience and resistance is directed at American militarism and foreign policy via a renewed peace movement, it evokes memories of the anti-war movement that became influential in the final years of the Vietnam War and in reaction to fears of nuclear war that emerged at various stages of the Cold War. Again, as with civil rights, short-term policy modifications were achieved, but the structures of militarism adapted, and regained control over policy and behavior in ways that resumed the old patterns only recently deemed unacceptable. Adjustments were made to remove the triggers that arouse popular opposition and unrest, but the structures of abuse are resilient, and can be imaginative in evading mandates for change. Militarists reestablished their influence after the Soviet collapse by exaggerating a range of security threats and identifying new enemies, exerting greater control over media coverage of war zones, and by professionalizing the armed forces and modernizing its tactics so that the politically sensitive draft could be ended. The justifications for inflated military budgets gained political support, and the former patterns of military intervention, thought to be discredited after the Vietnam experience, were re-stabilized.

Underlying Hedges’ call to action by citizens is his acute distrust of and opposition to the status quo, and his lack of confidence that political elites can be persuaded to adopt policies and programs that benefit the majority of American citizens, let alone humanity in general. National challenges, whether climate change, pandemics, or social justice, are not being properly addressed, and reliance on the traditional constitutional correctives of electoral politics seems to lack the vision and leadership needed. The critique of “choiceless democracy” strikes many of us as convincing given the absence of proposals for structural change by the major political parties. In this respect, an “extraordinary” politics of a people’s movement needs to challenge the established order of elites by embracing a transformative vision that transcends the “legal” channels of Congress and electoral politics to win its mandate for revolutionary change. Arguably, Bernie Sanders was somewhat animated by such an assessment of the political situation and recognized the need for movement politics more than trusting traditional electoral politics to get desired results. His goal of gaining the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2016 and again in 2020 was fueled by the hope that the imbalances of society, dramatized by gross inequalities, would lead the DNC gatekeepers to permit entry to a candidate advocating the necessity of a certain amount of structural change. Despite his popularity as a candidate, Sanders’ defeat was a recognition that he posed too great a threat to the established order regarded as beneficial to the political and economic elites of both political parties to permit his candidacy. Sanders was seen as posing a structural threat, whereas Obama was not, despite the color of his skin. In this sense, race is less structural than capitalism, militarism, or even support for Israel in the current American scheme of things.

Keeping the focus on the American setting, the central force of Hedges’ outlook is to remind the citizenry that the party system will not generate the leaders or policies required to achieve necessary and desirable change. And feasible change is not enough, nor even durable, as Obama’s presidency confirmed. My own way of interpreting this condition of political closure at the policy levels of governance is to make reference to the “bipartisan consensus” that joins Republicans and Democrats on the most crucial policy issues of the day. This consensus emerged as the Cold War produced common ground between the mainstream elites of both political parties as a sequel to the politics of national unity achieved during World War II. The bipartisan consensus had three pillars that had ups and downs as to the extent and character of its leverage, but enjoyed basic continuity of support: (1) trust and deference to the priorities of Wall Street in managing the economy; (2) full funding of the military, diplomatic, and ideological infrastructure required to oversee global security by becoming the first “global state” to remain vigilant during times of peace and war; and (3) uphold the “special relationship” of unconditional support for Israel, with special implications for engagement and alignments in the Middle East.

The pragmatic and normative limitations of the bipartisan consensus have not yet shattered the Satanic grip of this marginalization of democratic choice. The idea of living in “a choiceless democracy” reflected the weight of the bipartisan consensus on the political life of the country. Donald Trump seemed to challenge this reality when a presidential candidate in 2016, but despite his assault on the post-1945 traditional verities of presidential leadership, the bipartisan consensus has been as powerfully implemented during his years in the White House as previously.

The pragmatic shortcoming of the bipartisan consensus is most vividly revealed in the consistent inability to translate military superiority into successful political outcomes. This is the great unlearned lesson of the last half of the twentieth century. Military superiority based on technological innovations and battlefield tactics lack their earlier capability of imposing Western dominance. The Asian resurgence of the last half century was based not on countervailing military capabilities but on superior economistic relations between the state and society, exemplified by China’s rise to ascendancy through mastery of the instruments of soft power expansionism. The West, especially the U.S., is entrapped in an outmoded and self-destructive militarist paradigm that no longer is capable of maintaining American geopolitical interests at acceptable costs, and is experiencing imperial decline due to the weakening of geopolitical morale at home and a dispiriting series of foreign policy defeats when relying on its military superiority. The crucial uncertainty is whether this dynamic of decline will at some point engulf the world in an apocalyptic war or whether the political will needed to reconstruct the geopolitical agenda along more constructive lines emerges as if by magic.

KS: Are we now at the end of the unipolar world and entering the multipolar era? Or are we rather heading towards a world completely centralized like never before in history by combining military power and technology? As we know, some countries in the Middle East where war was, and North Korea as well, do not belong to the Bank for International Settlements.

RF: In my view, the image of a “unipolar world” was a mistaken interpretation of world order after the Soviet collapse in 1992 that nonetheless correctly marked the end of the “bipolar world.” Such conceptual metaphors were based on the salience of the superpower military standoff and ideologically charged geopolitical rivalry that was at the core of the Cold War, especially as it played out in Europe. The limits of such metaphors should have become evident after the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War, the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the remarkable rise of China after the Cultural Revolution.

There was a period in the U.S. during the 1990s when neo-conservatives criticized the Clinton presidency for its reliance on an economistic geopolitics of neoliberal globalization at the cost of foregoing its earlier emphasis on a more militarist foreign policy. Neoconservatives were arguing that American foreign policy in the 1990s missed opportunities to take advantage of the removal of the Soviet Union from the geopolitical equation by recognizing the unipolar moment of military dominance as a window of opportunity to extend the reach of its global security system, especially urging “democracy promotion” schemes in the Middle East to be achieved if necessary by forcible intervention. This triumphalist atmosphere was epitomized by Francis Fukuyama’s insistence that the defeat of the Communist challenge was tantamount to reaching the end of history. Such an illusion was soon shattered forever by the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, although these attacks were the apparent work of a non-state actor with minimal military capabilities, and no sovereign territorial base, thus eroding the major premise of state-centric world order.

Trump’s seeming retreat from the U.S. role as global leader has been evident since 2017. Trump made this point by over and over declaring himself elected president of America and not of the world, a message clearly signaling the end of any pretension of geopolitical unipolarity. This assessment was underscored by rising chauvinistic nationalism in many leading countries, which expressed a trend toward less hierarchical structuring of global security policy, more dependence on national self-reliance, less on multilateral alliances. After the Cold War, alliances played a much smaller role except possibly in Europe, giving world order a more statist character, which resulted in increased decentralization of international authority at the level of the state. Also, by and large, the global security agenda was far less concerned with great power competition than in earlier decades. Prolonged major violent conflict came to be preoccupied with the interplay in these countries of civil strife and regime- changing geopolitics (as in Syria, Yemen, Congo, Libya). It was also associated with transnational violence taking the form of the threats mounted by non- state actors (al Qaida, ISIS). In neither setting did the rhetoric of geopolitical polarization seem illuminating.

Perhaps, this will change with the waning of the global war on terror launched by the United States in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. This dynamic is partly a reflection of the reduction of terrorist incidents in the West and partly the reenergizing of great power rivalry, with China now somewhat displacing post-Soviet Russia. Whether this rivalry will be perceived as a new phase of bipolarity is doubtful as the confrontation is not shaped, as was the U.S./Soviet standoff, by reciprocal threats of annihilation—partly because there is, at this stage, much less at stake with regard to ideological differences and also less emphasis on militarized conflict, alliances, and Europe, which was the former locus of direct confrontation. The U.S./China rivalry seems to be most intense around issues of trade and investment, with much less emphasis on the militarist preoccupations with defense of homeland, superior battlefield capabilities, containment, and competition with respect to new weaponry than was the case during the 45 years of U.S./Soviet confrontations. For this reason, it seems unlikely that the language of polarity will be relied upon to describe the new geopolitical alignment of principal adversaries on a global scale. To be sure, there are contentions, based on historical analogies, that China as an ascending great power is threatening to the United States in its role as preeminent great power, posing what Graham Allison has labeled “The Thucydides Trap” in a book bearing this title.

By projecting these concerns to the future, we do receive an impression of increasing multipolarity with respect to the world economy, taking the primary form of greater regionalization of trade, investment, and technological transfer. Whether this will produce a corresponding retreat from Bretton Woods and World Trade Organization frameworks, the institutional foundations of the American-led establishment of a rule-based liberal international order is not yet clear. If such a retreat occurs and is accompanied by a new wave of regional institution-building, it will lead to a new kind of multipolarity resting on the leveling of the technological foundations of power, having a depolarizing and equalizing impact, the opposite of the feared digital dictatorship and technological categorization of have and have not societies.

What can be said with reasonable confidence is that the language of unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity is unlikely to be widely employed to describe the currently emergent central conflict patterns within global settings. Multipolarity as an alternative rhetoric to that of regionalization possesses somewhat greater relevance, although in contexts other than war/peace which had given rise to reliance on notions of bipolarity and unipolarity to capture the central feature of the Cold War. In this regard, future developments bearing on world order are most likely to be depolarized, either emphasizing global patterns of cooperation (climate change, biodiversity, global commons, migration, s) and statist patterns of self-reliance (border control, import substitution, restrictions on investment, trade barriers). In this respect, the near future of international relations seems most likely to resemble geopolitics of prior eras but in a technological environment dominated by transnational networking, automation, and digitalization.

KS: Would you agree with the statement that the control system in its nature is always analog and not Digital? Therefore, all Digital systems such as blockchain, Bitcoin, etc., can exist only until control is exercised analogously by the army? If any government wants to outlaw a given crypto currency, it can be done very easily, because in the last instance, control is always analog, on the ground, i.e. military force. Is therefore the concept of so-called “decentralization” a fiction?

RF: Yes, in the last analysis, so far as we know, the side that succeeds in controlling the armed forces in a revolutionary situation almost always determines the political outcome and exerts control over markets, including the authentication of currencies. This was one of Lenin’s greatest contributions to revolutionary thought. Digital modes of resisting and mobilizing can challenge the established analogic structures of control, and even gain temporary victories, but transforming these structures is often a very different story. This was illustrated rather spectacularly during the course of the Egyptian political unfolding of what was being called the Arab Spring in 2011, and seemed for a short period to signal the potency of digital agency through the dynamics of mass mobilization through the Internet on behalf of freedom and democracy. It did not take long for analogic forces to regroup under the aegis of armed forces and elements of the former Mubarak rulership in the bureaucratic setup, likely prodded and guided by external actors. In the end, the digitally powered challenge was brutally and effectively crushed. The political outcome restored a harsher form of repressive autocracy than what had been generated by the seemingly irreversible digital rising against the Mubarak regime of repression and elite corruption. Yet we still do not know for sure whether this return to autocratic governance will last. It is possible that future digital challenges will be mounted in ways that are transformative, as well as merely disruptive, and that such a movement will be alert and adept enough to defeat countermoves by analog forces seeking to regain control of the Egyptian state and society once again.

We need also to inquire whether the analysis of political conflicts can be usefully reduced to the analog/digital divide as it has operated up to now. Digital organizing has so far been ineffectual from the perspective of historical transformation, but this could change. As recent elections in the United States and elsewhere have shown, digital platforms are sites of struggle. Trump’s use of Twitter-fused digital agitation with analogic state terror as earlier pioneered by pre-digital forms of European fascism. It should also be kept in mind that digital activism is still in a rather primitive phase of development, and is being exploited by a wide range of extremist political movements on both the right and left, by libertarians as well as by anarchists and others dreaming of emancipation from analogic modes of control.

Whether or not digital politics has revolutionary and transformative potential is a matter that can only be resolved in the future. The uprisings comprising the Arab Spring were blocked partly because of organizational failings related to program and leadership, as well as due to its vulnerability to the pushback of political forces, which retained control of the apparatus of state power and never genuinely subscribed to the democratizing goals despite pretensions to the contrary. Lenin’s valuable insight rested on an understanding that a revolutionary movement could not hope to sustain a challenge to the status quo unless it smashed the old state, and reconstructed a new state in its image from top to bottom. Without any outward show of allegiance to Leninism, the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 achieved its goals in ways that contrasted with the failures of the Arab Spring. The essential learning experience of this early phase of digital politics is that it is not enough to overthrow an autocrat unless there also occurs a drastic reconstruction of analog structures of control. In this respect, the tragic error of those who so bravely massed in Tahrir Square to demand the end of the Mubarak dictatorship was to accept the good faith of the institutions of Egyptian governance against which the masses had risen up in passionate resistance. This is not to ignore other factors at play, including above all the degree to which this spontaneous uprising heralded a new leadership under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the secular supporters of the anti-Mubarak movement had grossly underestimated.

I remember having a meal with a Russian friend in Moscow during the early period of Gorbachev’s reformist efforts. His assessment bears on aspect of digital politics. He said we in Russia now have glasnost but not perestroika. He meant that now we can talk freely and critically, but we still lack the capacity to change the repressive and corrupt structure of the Soviet power machine. This will be the agency test for digital politics. Can digital transformative visions go beyond rhetoric and mobilized enthusiasm to get their followers to mount the barricades, at least figuratively? So far, the organized military, para-military, police, and propaganda capabilities and long experience of the analog world has prevailed, but the final interplay of this interaction awaits disclosure in the future. If a digital Fukuyama tells the world that “the end of history” has been at last truly reached, he should be scorned this time around.

For the present, although worried by the recent erosions of democratic governance, I would not foreclose the prospect of digital radicalism in forms capable of recovering revolutionary charisma. It is unlikely to resemble past radicalism, and is more likely to be a set of reactions to the bio-ethical crises of neoliberal modernity (climate change, biodiversity, migration, statism, militarism, inequality, alienation) than to reflect the growing influence of a digital proletariat faced with dark destinies of ecological collapse and worsening labor conditions in an increasingly automated future, perhaps accompanied by fears of species extinction. In this respect, overcoming the deficiencies of analog politics rests on a struggle in the domains of the unknown, forging a politics of impossibility that defies the expectations of think-tank gurus and societal life coaches.

We should have learned by now that the future is not only unknown and unknowable, but full of good and bad surprises, giving an edge of uncertainty and destiny to our individual and collective lives. To recall a few momentous examples, the outcome of colonial wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transformation of apartheid South Africa into a multiracial constitutional democracy, the Arab Spring, the presidency of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 Pandemic—each seemed impossible until it actually happened, and was only anticipated by a handful of oddballs.

KS: Can Transhumanism be the new totalitarianism of our time after Nazism and communism? Previous totalitarian ideologies only wanted to change the social structure. The ideology of Transhumanism goes much further, wants to change the structure of life itself.

RF: There is no doubt that the totalitarian potential of Transhumanism is more radical than any previous political ideology, but is it a realistic prospect at this time? In theory, robotics, AI, and genetic redesign seem capable of producing whatever kind of being is sought after, whether creative genius or destructive monster, but will it happen? The time lines are difficult to discern, partly because the research and development of transhuman innovations are undoubtedly hidden in the black budgets of governments and the even blacker budgets of a variety of private sector actors, including rogue scientists and mad engineers, as well as the grandiose fantasies of eccentric billionaires and their underworld counterparts. There is money to be made, power to be achieved, and fantasies to be realized in these domains.

From one historical perspective, all that was possible by way of technological innovation relevant to power and wealth has been in the past actually developed. The most apocalyptic examples are drawn from the military realm. Weaponry of mass destruction and demonic manipulation of human behavior has long been the subject of secret research and development carried on without moral scruples or respect for legal and political restraints, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry. The horrors of chemical weapons in World War I and atomic bombs and biological weapons in World War II created some pushback in the form of taboos, regimes of prohibition, and technical safeguards against accidental use, but research especially on the control of nuclear weapons during the Cold War has shown how precarious are these restraints, and the record of non-use, as documented in relation to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, reflects luck more than it does the effectiveness of arrangements designed to avoid use. There is a race of sorts between perfecting spyware and surveillance technology and the efforts to transcend what were hitherto the limits of the human through the magic of technological innovation, including more and more sophisticated brain implants as well as the prospect of highly cerebral robots.

The threat of gangster Transhumanism has long been a central theme of science fiction, and now more recently with cloning and genetic manipulation becoming technically feasible, it has become an ambition of science and probably of individuals who seek absolute peace or total domination, with maybe some aspiring to harvest the fruits of artistic or scientific genius. It would seem that to preserve the human species as it has naturally evolved, including its mental qualities, urgent steps need to be taken to discourage some further technological developments, but whether this is practical in a politically decentralized world is doubtful. The fear that technology would create a dystopian reality for humanity is of pre-modern origins, and can be traced back to the Greek figure of Prometheus who stole “fire” from the Greek pantheon or Daedalus who crafted wings of wax and feathers for his son Icarus, whose flight led to the melting of his wings when he flew too close to the sun, sending him plunging toward earth. It was given a. powerful literary expressions in 1818 by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and more recently in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. Transhumanist discussions are often dialogues between utopian expectations of life without end, prosperity for all, a Shakespeare in every household and dystopian fears of mass slavery under the watchful evil eye of technological elites or of a global dictatorship crafting policies in accordance with robotic algorithms.

Whether freedom can withstand either Transhumanism or the effort to con- trol the bio-technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of the future without creating intolerable totalitarian surveillance and suppression is itself uncertain. There seems a likely circumstance where efforts to provide protection against the advent of Transhumanist forms of governance gives rise to an emancipatory political ideology. Contending that itself presupposes plan- etary domination. Such a liberating humanistic movement would likely under- mine freedom because of its unavoidable reliance on subversion, secrecy, and lawlessness to establish a political order that preserved the human and limited the relevance of the transhuman

Perhaps, Transhumanism should sever its imaginative ties with science fiction and lend support to more modest goals that do not purport to shake the foundations of the human condition. We are accustomed to life-enhancing technological innovations to improve health, fitness, and comfort without encountering many red flags. Although TV, smart phones, computing, and social media have raised concerns about sociability, the encouragement of passivity of lifestyle. and political pacification, as well as declining reading and writing skills, there is no movement to prohibit Transhuman expectations. The humanistic fundamentals of contingency, individuality, and mortality are not at risk. Designs and invention that allow us to live longer and better seems fine. The haunting question is whether our health and enjoyment and our collective existence as a species can continue to be improved without crossing the boundaries to the never-never land of technologies that transform our brains and deprive our lives of freedom, responsibility, mystery, and spirituality.

Perhaps, the best stance to take with respect to the Transhuman challenge is to apply the Precautionary Principle, which counsels extreme caution in the presence of incalculable risks of great harm. This Principle has been adopted in authoritative formulations bearing on climate change, and environmental risks more generally, but its implementation has been disappointing because government and the private sector are preoccupied by short-term performance and profits, and are not subject to accountability procedures when it comes to long-term harm, however foreseeable. It is one thing to welcome software that can defeat the best chess player the world has ever known, and another to genetically design or clone with the objective of eliminating creativity, resistance, empathy, and conscience. To discuss the dangers, while appreciating the contributions, neither rejects nor succumbs to the alluring promises and alarming pitfalls of Transhuman advocacy.

On the basis of my limited knowledge, the transition to an existential, as distinct from an imagined, transhuman future remains quite remote, although various technological advances are likely to arouse hopes and fears in the context of AI, robotics, genetic engineering, surveillance, and virtuality. There are already debates and dialogues about what it means to be human, as well as whether it is desirable and practical to prohibit certain forms of technological activity by national and international regulation. On the one side are life enhancing breakthroughs in health, education, entertainment, and communications, and on the other side are troublesome “improvements” such as the dehumanization of policing and warfare, through a reliance on drones, robots, bio-weapons, incapacitating chemicals, and the like. A serious concern is the lack of transparency with respect to research and development, as well as the agenda of “deep state” maneuvers seeking global domination and the possibility of rogue breakaways of varying scale.

KS: How do you perceive the future of Mega-cities? The Pentagon clearly states that this is the greatest military challenge of the future and that the strategies previously used in Iraq or Afghanistan are ineffective in mega- cities. In this context, how do you perceive the privatization of military forces serving international corporations?

RF: These questions relate to the fundamental nature of conflict in the 21st century, which tend to involve internal struggles for control of state power or tensions between states and extremist non-state actors. In both settings traditional means of waging war are rarely of decisive relevance if the principal sites of struggle become large urban conglomerates. Military superiority and battlefield superiority rarely any longer control the outcome of protracted conflict whether involving conflicts in the countryside or cities. This shift in the balance of power became clear, as earlier suggested, in anti-colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s that were won by the militarily inferior side because it could mobilize popular resistance by appeals to national identity with dedication so strong as to be able to absorb heavy losses and outlast the “foreign” adversary.

Two categories of conflict are of particular interest. The first category involves a largely internal struggle between the state and an insurgency, which may have its base area in less accessible parts of the countryside. Such struggles often go on for decades, and if ended, it is usually by a negotiated agreement that represents a political compromise. This happened in the Philippines. and Colombia, but without addressing the roots of the conflict, and hence what was heralded as “peace” achieved nothing more than a ceasefire. The second category involves an internal struggle that also features military intervention by a regional or global political actor as was the case with the colonial wars of the last century and the geopolitical wars of the past twenty years.

The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates this new reality, as does the strife in Syria and Yemen, in which the capability to destroy without limit does not lead to effective pacification of violent political resistance. The adversary can “hide” in the city, and resume the fight on another day. The foreign intervening power or the state is faced with the dilemma of prolonged insurgency and resistance or destroying a city, dispossessing and killing large numbers of civilians and devastating the city to the extent that it becomes an urban ruin as in Falluja or Aleppo.

The city is also filled with soft targets whose destruction can inflict fear and a sense of vulnerability on the urban population, and yet not dislodge the current regime’s elites. A permanent condition of insecurity does not usually lead to peace or change.

KS: How would you comment on the statement of the Italian writer Roberto Saviano, the author of the book Gomorrah, that now we are dealing more with clash of criminal mafia groups than a clash of civilization. According to Saviano, the European financial system (Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, London) is funded by the mafia’s money, where cocaine generates the same profits as crude oil.

RF: I think the transnational rise of criminal Mafia groups is a shadowy reality that is difficult to depict accurately, partly as a result of fuzzy boundaries between what is criminal and what is legal. The behavior of banks and corporations around the world cannot be separated from the activities of criminal syndicates. Even the relationship between crimes of states and private sector crime cannot be sharply demarcated, and many of their linkages are kept secret. Of course, Saviano as a writer has alerted us to the criminal penetration of the economic life of society in Mafia formats, but by treating the Mafia phenomenon as a particularly reprehensible feature of European modernity, we are exposed to the middle and lower-end of for-profit private sector operations. My main point is that predatory capitalism, through its alignments and standard operating practices, involves crimes against humanity and crimes against nature, and should be the central point of inquiry to gain a proper understanding of what has gone wrong in the contemporary world, including the dangerous disregard of ecological limits. We need to reformulate our understanding of the nature of “business” and the character of “crime.”

Whether it is useful to draw a comparison between the clash of civilizations and the clash of Mafia criminal groups can be debated. There is no doubt that comparing Mafia earnings with the revenue earned from oil sales catches our attention, but is it illuminating, and is it really true? As suggested, if the systemic distortions arise from the policies, practices, and logic of neoliberal capitalism, then focusing on the challenge posed by the Mafia underworld is mostly a distraction even if their abusive ways of dominating certain supply chains, e.g. drugs or garbage collection, is dangerous for human security. Maybe calling attention to the magnitude of the challenge will over time help people recover control over the social forces that demean and dominate so many societies in the world. Again, we have to ask whether the “legal” opioid crisis bringing billions to big pharma is worse than the trade in cocaine that lands its principal operatives in jail for life. Is this not a matter of lifestyle for different strata of the social and economic order?

KS: What can we, what will we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic? How can we explain the unexpected interim result of the pandemic as exposing American greater unpreparedness and incompetence in responding to the challenge than that of almost any other country? How will the opposed tendencies of overall species vulnerability and chauvinistic nationalist social control be resolved in a post-pandemic atmosphere? Will the experience of the pandemic incline governments toward great reliance on globalized mechanisms of problem-solving or toward a further retreat in the direction of ultra-nationalism and self-reliance?

RF: In the midst of this unprecedented COVID-19 experience, generalizations about what has happened and what is to come, should be put forward cautiously, and in a spirit of humility.

Several observations seem helpful points of departure. (1) Although there were some warnings about the likelihood of a lethal pandemic sounded in the last several years, they were not heeded by almost all politicians. (2) The COVID-19 outbreak was a grim reminder of the precariousness and vulnerability of contemporary life on the planet, and the deficient attention accorded to human security as distinct from national security, and as a result reinforced dire parallel warnings of ecological instability and potential collapse. (3) The degree of competence exhibited in responding to the health challenge reflected both the varying strength of national health systems and the uneven quality of national leadership, perhaps highlighted by the irresponsible and militarist style of autocratic figures such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro as contrasted with the impressively disciplined responses of such countries as South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. (4) Even more than war, the COVID pandemic produced sudden and drastic economic and social dislocations that seem unlikely to be fully overcome even quite long after the health crisis has ended, if ever. (5) During the pandemic there was evident a clash between the logic of global cooperation, including granting resource and respect to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the divisive logic of autocratic nationalism, exhibiting the absence of empathy for the suffering outside the borders of the state, and in some instances, even for socio-economic sectors of the national citizenry.

Thinking ahead to imagine the consequences of the COVID-19 is, of course, beset by various levels of uncertainty. On one level it will make a great difference for the global response if Trump is reelected rather than replaced. If reelected, there will continue to be a leadership vacuum at the global level, and only the most cosmetic adjustments at the national level, at least in the United States.

It is to be expected that European countries that endured high rates of fatalities will remedy the deficiencies of their readiness to meet such health challenges in the future. Sweden is likely to rethink its permissive response in light of the number of fatalities relative to population size. In effect, those countries that did well in meeting the COVID-19 challenge are likely to reinforce their capabilities to do the same in the future, and those that did poorly are more likely to invest more heavily in their national health system if funding is authorized. Most governments are driven by short-term performance goals, which works against such health threats that are generally perceived as occurring beyond the normal political horizons of accountability.

If we extend our conjectures beyond health there are three broad lines of possible impact of the pandemic on the politics of the near future. First, there is what might be called a restorative approach that places emphasis and hope on getting back to the “old normal” without attempting social and economic reforms to address the disproportionate vulnerability of the poor and ethnically marginalized parts of society. In effect, capitalism and militarism will continue to provide the main organizing forces of world order. Political and economic elites can be expected to favor restoring the pre-pandemic realities, and in the process inadequately responding to the urgencies of the ecological policy agenda.

Secondly, there is the reformist approach that seeks a new normal that exhibits meaningful recognition of the need to address inequalities that deprive parts of society of an equitable share of national wealth and income, and make a concerted effort to create social harmony and ecological stability, which might be proclaimed “a social contract for the digital age.” While this might increase taxes on corporations and wealthy persons, it will not challenge the legitimacy or operational modalities of either militarism or capitalism. The reformist momentum is likely to vary from country to country, but in its more successful examples, it will soften the sharp edges of capitalist modes of accumulation and somewhat reallocate funds to welfare, infrastructure programs, and environmental priorities. This reformist approach is likely to win support from liberal elites in the West, especially if these elites become worried about the twin challenges of fascism and socialism to their values and self-interest.

And thirdly, the transformative approach directs its attention to the structural excesses exposed by the pandemic. It directs its energy toward reconstructing the economic and social order in ways more responsive to the issues of justice and equity, as well as addressing ecological challenges as prime threats to humanity. It is likely to seek a stronger UN as well as a political culture more respectful of international law. Transformative perspectives are likely to meet resistance from economic and political elites and find support from disadvantaged sectors of society expressing their discontents through a movement approach to political change that is skeptical of relying on electoral politics as a trustworthy source of authority. Whether the transformative movement emerges and sustains itself is currently unknowable, as is whether it would be expressed by way of left populism or through some kind of merger of national and transnational movements for a sustainable and just human future.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic will either be remembered by future generations as a notable global health emergency that once over, passed quietly without leaving a lasting imprint on world history or as an unexpected revolutionary moment that made previously unattainable fundamental political developments start to happen. The deeply flawed and contentious American response to the extraordinary health crisis took a further decisive turn in an unexpected direction in response to a video capture of the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 occurring in one of America’s most progressive cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota. There has not been such an earth-shattering lethal event since an angered and humiliated young street fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, in an interior Tunisian town, set himself on fire to protest his hopeless socio-economic circumstances, leading to an explosive national and transnational outpouring of empathy, hope, and rage on city streets across the Middle East and beyond. As an occurrence comparable to a societal volcano, Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation on December 17, 2010 produced a national upheaval that not only ignited the Tunisian uprisings at the end of 2010 that led to the fall of the corrupt dictatorial leader Ben Ali, but inspired uprisings across the Arab world of masses of people chanting slogans against injustice, abuse of state power, and widespread corruption.

As with Bouazizi, the death of George Floyd, a previously obscure individual, inflamed public consciousness and illuminated and exposed the criminal cruelties of “law and order” governance. The unexpected results were riots, looting, and demonstrations that continued for many days in cities across the length and breadth of the United States (and spreading to many foreign venues), stimulating strident calls for an end to racism in all its manifestations, as well as defunding of police forces, and even their disbanding. Floyd’s last telling words, “I can’t breathe,” as a police officer kept his knee on his throat for more than eight minutes, 46 seconds, with three other policemen lending assistance while Floyd lay helpless and handcuffed on the ground, gave his death an unforgettable vividness, at once tragic and epic. Unlike earlier similar recent instances of police murder (including Michael Brown, Trayyon Martin, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor) Floyd’s dying ordeal will not be forgotten, even as racism and injustice persists, and new provocations occur.

As might be expected, the events also magnified the polarization that has been the defining feature of the Trump presidency, with the leadership relying on law and order and the folks in the streets calling for an end to police brutality and, more generally, for greater equality with respect to persons of color in American society, especially African Americans as still suffering from some of the ugliest residues of slavery including being lynched by mobs or killed without reason or mercy by police who act confident of impunity, if coverups by police departments should somehow fail to hide their wrongdoing from any scrutiny. If the Floyd video didn’t remove reasonable doubts about the allegations of murder, there might have been a much more muted response. As it was, this incident occurred against the background of a series of recent police killings of innocent black men, making the call of Black Lives Matter this time resonate strongly even with many white middle class Americans who had previously been silently compliant, or at least passive when it came to police or criminal justice reforms. The highly charged present atmosphere emboldened Muriel Bowser, the embattled African American mayor of Washington, DC, who dared oppose Trump’s militarized responses to the protests, to have the words “black lives matter” painted in large bright yellow letters on an avenue passing close by the White House. It was akin to a declaration of cultural war against Trumpism, quite unimaginable a month ago.

The response to Floyd’s death was undoubtedly magnified by the social and economic societal trauma created by COVID-19, providing disoriented citizens with a worthy rationale for venting frustrations after weeks of prolonged self- isolation. Focusing on this racial incident offered the public temporary respite

from the more private anguish of lost jobs, bleak future employment prospects, and the deaths of friends and relatives. The sustained display of anger and solidarity over Floyd’s death amounted to an electrifying outpouring of massive grief and outrage, coupled with a growing antagonism not only toward the police, but also toward Trump’s lethal antics, and toward municipal, state, and federal authorities who have been speaking out against racism and promising reform for decades, but doing too little to bring about change. It should surprise no one that the atrocities keep happening and a badly broken criminal justice system has become a flourishing for-profit business.

The lingering question on the lips of many is: “what will come of this?” Will the momentum be strong and deep enough to lead American politics in a robustly progressive direction? Or will the system in place be able to wait out this interlude of storm and fury, and resume a relentless slide toward a fascist future for the country and ecological disaster for the world?

Racism in America has proved itself resilient and opportunistic ever since it was forced into hiding briefly in the shadows of political life after the American Civil War. We need to remember the racist torments of the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizen Councils, continued lynching, Jim Crow Laws, and the vicious tactics used against activists during the Civil Rights Movement. Will these current uprisings survive the storm after Floyd’s death to become a movement that is strong enough to avoid the recurrence of abusive behavior not just toward black Americans but toward all persons committed to the human dignity of all who share life on the planet and need to learn the art and benefits of peaceful coexistence? Will the current arisings lose their momentum while the old order regroups or even mounts a pro-police campaign? The months and years ahead will determine whether the country has a “soul,” and if has, what is its core reality?

We all know that what happens in the United States has multiple implications for the world. This is more the case in this instance as widespread anguish about Trumpist world politics occurred amid the pandemic igniting solidarity events in many of the world’s major cities, and worries spread about a second cold war between China and the U.S. as Trump irresponsibly shifted blame for American COVID deaths to Beijing, and even to the WHO. If the American election goes forward as scheduled in November 2020, Trump is defeated, and lets a new leadership take over, the international situation will likely appear somewhat calmer, but it will still be treading water with respect to racism, militarism, and predatory capitalism, devoting its main energies to overcoming the economic damage from the pandemic that has undermined the livelihoods and wellbeing of vulnerable people throughout the world. It is too soon to see a humane future for global governance on the political horizons of struggle, but it remains more reasonable than a while ago to recognize a renewed plausibility of drastic change, given a societal mood far more receptive to messages of resistance and transformation, and taking into account the severity of the mounting eco- bio-ethical crisis that is warning us not to settle for restoring pre-pandemic normalcy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTERVIEWS:
1. Alexandr Dugin . . . . .
2. Alain de Benoist. . . . .
3. Andrei Raevsky . . . . .
4. Carine Hutsebaut . . . .
5. Catherine Austin Fitts
6 Douglas Rushkoff . . . .
7. Erik Davis . . . . . . . . .
8. Sheikh Imran Nazar Hosein. . 9. Rabbi Joel David Bakst . . . .. 10. Jack Rasmus. . . . . . . . . . . .. 11. John Perkins . . . . . . . . . . . .. 12. Mikhail A. Lebedev, PhD .. 13. Paul Craig Roberts. . . . . . .. 14. Richard Falk. . . . . . . . . . . .. 15. Tim Draper. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 16. Thomas Campbell . . . . . . .. 17. William Binney . . . . . . . . ..

INTERVIEWEE BIOGRAPHIES
INDEX ……………………………….

. . . . . .

……

……

……

……

……

……

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

…………….

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

v

Preface

When I started working on this book, the idea seemed a little crazy—even to me. Because here, I was embarking on a journey to answer the question of what our future would look like. We live in exceptional times full of chaos, full of rapid changes that take place so quickly that we don’t stop to even think about them, treating the world more and more as a simulation that we can no longer influence. “Reality has long since outrun fiction,” as a friend of mine once said.

In such conditions, aiming at answering how our future will look may seem like madness, like something impossible. But this was a deliberate madness that I imposed upon myself, just to see if it was possible to achieve. I truly didn’t know where this path would lead. However, I knew that in order to start seri- ously at all, I had to fully immerse myself in the areas I was studying: NBIC (Nanotechnology, Biology and medicine, Information sciences, and Cognitive Sciences), AI (Artificial Intelligence), geopolitics, religion, philosophy, sociolo- gy, and economy. Not so much to sink into it, as to be able to synthesize it.

It took me hundreds of hours to prepare for the conversations with my guests.

I did not want to create an easy book where my interlocutors would repeat clichés and already trending messages. I also didn’t want to create another politically correct book. That was precisely why I invited such diverse people to talk with me.

Such diversity is what freedom of speech and real discussion are all about. Everything else is—for me—more or less a mental prison, the Thought Police à la 1984. It is these sometimes extremely divergent points of view that are, in my opinion, the narrow and dangerous paths that can lead you to the truth, when at some point you see how everything in some strange and unexpected way intertwines into one whole.

I knew that in order to study the subject in depth, I had to talk to people from various worlds, from various cultures, who sometimes almost appeared to each other as species from different planets. Only in this way did I think I could manage to pick out some particles of truth.

vii

When I started my work, I also thought that I knew more or less where it would lead me. How wrong I was. As each conversation progressed, my own views began to change, directing me to tracks I would never have thought of. And this is probably the biggest reward, that these conversations changed me that they led me straight to the rabbit hole and into a world whose existence I could never have forseen.

At some point, I decided to stop.

While I had permission for further interviews, I felt that there was nothing to add and the next conversation would just be venturing toward “entertainment.”

I regard this book as bearing witness to the very special times in which we lived. A testament from a former world where nothing will remain as it was.

Did I succeed? You will have to judge for yourself.

viii

—Konrad Stachnio

Did the West Win the Cold War?

6 Nov

Did the West Win the Cold War?

 

 Posing the Question

 Such a question seems little more than a provocation until the effects of the interval between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the present are critically examined in relation to their principal effects. On closer inspection I am not quite prepared, although almost so, to say that the peoples of the world lost ground as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the United States as the so-called ‘sole surviving superpower.’

 

Generally, it was rather automatically assumed almost never challenged, that the outcome of the Cold War was a victory for liberal values, including human rights, political democracy, economic growth, and certainly world peace. There was the added popular view that since democracies supposedly do not go to war against each other, and if Communism was discredited on both ideological and materialist grounds, then democracy would spread naturally and quickly, and the world would become in the process more peaceful and its people better off.

 

It was also assumed with the end of strategic conflict among the most powerful states that substantial resources would be freed to devote more generously to improving the social and economic wellbeing, end extreme poverty, protect the environment, and invest in the renewal of aging infrastructures of countries in the West long stressed by the security rigors of the Cold War.

 

This positive sense of the end of the Cold War was powerfully reinforced by the ideological self-confidence that produced such triumphalist expressions as ‘the end of history’ or ‘the second American century.’ The outcome was seen as a moral victory for capitalist democracies and a defeat for socialist authoritarian states. Even China seemed throw in its red towel, zestfully embracing its new role as a rising star in the capitalist world market, and many countries, especially in Asia did grow at unprecedented rates, raising living standards beyond all expectations and attaining a higher status as international actors. The legitimacy of capitalism and constitutionalism were not seriously challenged as the legitimate foundations of world order for the first time in 150 years, underscoring the demoralization of the political left, and its disappearance of the left and fascist right as political forces almost everywhere.

 

Without doubt, the United States could have taken advantage of this global setting to champion a post-Cold War global reform movement in ways that would in all likelihood have been benevolent, but it chose not to do so. Instead, it gave its energies to taking short-term materialist advantage of the geopolitical vacuum created by the abrupt Soviet withdrawal from the global scene. One can only wonder how the world might have evolved if a Gorbachev-like leader who espoused a global vision was running the show in Washington while Russia produced someone with the mentality of Reagan or the elder Bush, neither of whom embraced ideas any more enlightened than making the world safe for American economic, political, and cultural hegemony.

 

 

American Geopolitical Myopia

 

In more concrete terms this meant giving priority in American foreign policy to such retrograde global goals as ‘full-spectrum dominance’ with respect to military superiority and in solidifying its global sphere of influence, what was sometimes given historical specificity as ‘the globalization of the Monroe Doctrine.’ George H. W. Bush did use the occasion of the First Gulf War in 1991 to proclaim ‘a new world order,’ by which he meant that the UN could become the geopolitical instrument of the West that it was intended to be in 1945—a peacekeeping mechanism to promote Western interests, which in that instance meant restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty after Iraq’s aggression and annexation. Washington, soon worried by seemingly vesting authority, responsibility, and expectations in the UN, even as as a geopolitical legitimating tool, and quickly abandoned the new world order, put the idea ‘back on the shelf’ as a prominent American diplomat at the time put it. Bush’s Secretary of State told a private gathering shortly after the First Gulf War that his boss made a mistake by connecting the new world order with UN peacekeeping rather than with spread of neoliberal globalization to the four corners of the planet. American global idealism, always hedged by a realist calculus, was definitely undergoing a normative eclipse.

 

If the elder Bush had seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as something more than a geopolitical checkmate, we might be living in a different, more hopeful and responsible world. He had the visionary opportunity to strengthen the UN in a variety of ways, including weakening the right of veto, increasing popular participation by establishing a world parliament, proposing a global tax to achieve more independent financing, and calling for a serious world nuclear disarmament conference that might also have directed attention toward the broader horizons of global demilitarization, but it was not to be. Militarism was too entrenched in government and the private sector. More generally, capitalism was seen as having proven itself the most robust and creative means of fostering wealth and growth, and creating decent societies, that the world had ever known. Unlike World Wars I & II, the Cold War despite the language and periodic crises and dangerous confrontations, didn’t end with widespread elite or public anxieties that it was necessary to adopt important measures to avoid any repetition, which could be construed either as Cold War II or World War II. The triumphalist mood engendered an unchallenged mood geopolitical complacency toward the future, which had the ironic effect of creating a materialist obsessiveness, a kind of market-driven Marxism (that is, neoliberal globalization) that celebrated and depended upon a consumerist ethos that disregarded the damage being done to the physical, cultural, and psycho-political environments of humanity.

 

 

 

 

Why the West Lost the Cold War

 

Why, then, even if account is taken of these emergent patterns, should we take seriously my provocation that more critically considered, the West actually lost the Cold War? I will give my responses in abbreviated form.

 

–the end of the Cold War created an open road for predatory capitalism: the collapse of socialism as an alternative approach to economic development and state/society relations cleared the ideological path, leading Western leaders to be comfortable about regarding capitalism as ‘the only game in town.’ Without the ideological challenge of socialism, backed by the geopolitical leverage of the Soviet Union, capitalism felt a declining need to show a human face, becoming a victim of its own success. In practice, this meant rolling back social protection, weakening regulation, and privileging the efficiency of capital over the wellbeing of people. [See my Predatory Globalization: A Critique, Polity Press, 1999] In other words, capitalism needed the challenges posed by socialism and a vibrant labor movement to realize its own humanist potentials. In its post-Cold War enactment, preoccupations with economic growth were useful political distractions from the rising inequality and the adoption of a precautionary approach to increasing ecological concerns.

 

–the end of the Cold War induced after twenty years a process that led to the legitimation of democratically elected autocratic leadership that manipulated public outrage over failures to raise lower and middle class living standards, while catering to the ultra-rich. In this respect, due to the disappearance of ideological cleavages, the phenomenon of ‘choiceless democracies’ discouraged political participation, making political parties unsatisfactory vehicles for divergent political views and as sources of creative solutions for societal challenges. The Democratic Party seemed pragmatically as tied to Wall Street and Goldman Sachs as were the ideologically aligned Republicans.

 

–the end of the Cold War led the United States to lose a sense of direction, seemingly adrift when it lost the Soviet Union as its ‘indispensable enemy,’ seeming essential for achieving social cohesion and a wider sense of purpose. This loss was most controversially, yet effectively, articulated by Samuel Huntington in his Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations.” His postulate of ‘the West against the rest,’ with particular attention to political Islam exerting pressures along the fault lines of Western Civilization, was given aa decisive, although misleadinng credibility by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the two symbolic embodiments of American power—trade and war-making. In some respects, the anarchic character of global terrorism was a more disruptive threat to the security of the established order than was the Cold War. Insecurity became pervasive, verging on hysteria, complicating lives and underscoring that after the Cold War the world had become a global battlefield with no place, however well protected by military means escaping the torments of vulnerability and the inconveniences of ‘watch lists,’ intrusive surveillance, security checks at airports, public buildings, and even hotels and stores. In this context Iran has become the statist embodiment of the indispensable enemy, with China and Russia as default options. When the indispensable enemy lacks deterrent capabilities, dangers of military confrontation heightened, especially as her, that the enemy is pronounced ‘evil,’ and such a tag is reciprocated by the weaker adversary.

 

–the end of the Cold War strengthened the political will in Washington to make the world order more congenial in light of the foregoing considerations, with particular attention to the Middle East due to a sense of dependence on access to the oil reserves of the region. What was championed as ‘democracy promotion’ was tried in the Iraq War of 2003, generating a series of disastrous reactions ranging from a costly intervention and occupation that achieved none of its strategic goals relating to democracy, containment of Iranian influence,  permanent military bases, reduced oil prices, and a victory over counterterrorism. In fact, the American occupation of Iraq was administered in a highly dysfunctional manner that not only generated national resistance, but gave rise to the most extremist non-state political formation the modern world has ever known, ISIS or Daesh, as well as to the disruptive intensification of sectarian tensions within Iraq and regionally. In effect, the end of the Cold War leading to Soviet collapse and disengagement, allowed the United States to pursue in a less restrained manner more ambitious goals, yet still leading to disastrous results. Regime-changing interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya resulted in quagmires or in political outcomes that undercut the initial goals, spread turmoil and distrust of American global leadership. Only late in 2019 does there seem to be some hope for restored regional stability due to the frustration of U.S. goals, Russian reinvolvement during the terminal stages of the Syrian ‘international civil war,’ and Saudi moving toward a possible accommodation with Iran. The unappreciated irony is that the last best hope for stability in the region is to restore a geopolitical discipline that encourages all actors to behave more cautiously.

 

–the end of the Cold War has serious diminished the quality of world order in several crucial dimension, including even the likelihood of war fought with nuclear weapons. With less incentive to ensure war prevention and maintain alliance cohesion and in light of greater political independence by many states, international cooperation has declined at the very time when it is most needed in relation to ecological protection (climate change, biodiversity, acidification and rising sea levels). Combat and climate change have induced large-scale migratory movements that have pushed many more affluent countries in ultra-nationalist directions with adverse consequences for human rights, democratic forms of governance, international law, and the authority of and support for the UN System (as expressed by withheld dues and budgetary stresses). When the Cold War raged, the West used internationalism and humanitarian diplomacy not only as venues for propaganda, but to gain the higher moral, ideological, and political terrain in relations to the Soviet Union and socialist management of the economy. With the Soviet collapse, countries pursued economic gains in imprudently in ways that produced the current crises of inequality and corruption in many countries and a general situation of ecological malaise.  

 

 

 

 

 

A Concluding Note

 

This contrarian argument does not contend that the Soviet Union (or Russia) won the Cold War, although after a period of decline and austerity, the return of Russia to the ranks of geopolitical leaders with less ideological and imperial baggage (considering the independence of countries in East Europe and Central Asia), such a case could and perhaps should be made.

 

The main claim in this essay is that the end of the Cold War was not, as triumphalists claimed, so much of a victory for world capitalism in its neoliberal modes and of constitutional democracy as it was assumed to be in the early 1990s. It became an occasion for less regulated economic globalization and for new violent political encounters that has made the world into a global battlefield in an unresolvable struggle between non-state extremist multinational networks and various established sovereign states. In the process, due to internal and international moves away from global responsibility by the United States, a global leadership vacuum has emerged while a variety of unchecked dangerous trends imperil the human future.

 

The initiial, and perhaps decisive failure to assert global leadership after the end of the Cold War involved a failure at a moment of global fluidity to seek reforms to facilitate various forms of environmental protection, denuclearization and demilitarization, and the enhancement of the normative order via a stronger UN and a greater acceptance of international law as serving the national interests of geopolitical actors. The United States enjoyed the historic opportunity to lead such an effort, but other countries were remiss in not putting forward proposals and creating pressures that might have induced more constructive American behavior at such a potentially opportune time. It seems especially a lost opportunity from the perspective of the present in which cosmopolitan sentiments have been so pervasively pushed aside by nativist forms of ultra-nationalism.

The Gulf Crisis Reassessed

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The dysfunctionality of the Gulf Crisis, pitting a coalition of four countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt against tiny Qatar, is emblematic of the descent into multi-dimensional chaos, conflict, and coercion that afflicts much of the Middle East. Qatar may be tiny, but it is wealthy and has chosen for itself a somewhat independent path, and for this reason has experienced the wrath of the more reactionary forces operative in the region and world. At the center of the dysfunction is the manipulation of the political discourse on terrorism, pointing accusing fingers without any regard for evidence or fabrication.

 My text below seeks to put forward a dispassionate and objective analysis from the perspective of international law and diplomatic protocol of the so-called ’13 Demands’ (appended as an annex) directed at Qatar by the coalition almost a year ago. Despite having its own internal problems and challenges, Qatar has provided a relatively open political space compared to the rest of the region, encouraging media and educational diversity, giving asylum to political exiles and refugees, and showing sympathy, although inconsistently, for the aspirations of the Arab masses. This makes the Gulf Crisis a further setback for those seeking regional empowerment, sustainable development, and social, political, economic, cultural, and climate justice for the region as a whole. The intrusion of Trumpian geopolitics, especially the escalating confrontation with Iran, aggravates the disorders and dangers posed by the conflict patterns and irresponsible allegations with regard to terrorism now playing out in the region. I believe that by reflecting on the unreasonableness of the 13 Demands of the coalition it is possible to understand better the maladies affecting the entire region.]

 

 

A Normative Evaluation of the Gulf Crisis

 

The Gulf Crisis erupted on June 5 2017 when a Saudi Arabian led coalition of

four countries broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia closed its sole land border to Saudi Arabia and refused to allow their national air spaces to be used by flights from or to Qatar.[1] The imposition of a blockade is generally regarded as an act of war in contemporary international law, which is also a violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition of recourse to international force except in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. (UN Charter, Article 2(4), 51) These unilateral moves were then given a more concrete form on June 22 in the shape of ’13 Demands’ that instructed Qatar to comply within ten days, or face indefinite isolation. There followed failed attempts by Kuwait to mediate. From the start the leadership of Qatar expressed its immediate willingness for dialogue as the correct way to resolve the Gulf Crisis; as well, the United States and several principal countries in Europe urged a diplomatic resolution of the dispute as being in the interest of the Gulf region and the Middle East generally.

 

In this paper the 13 Demands of the Saudi coalition (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt) are considered from the perspective of international law (including the UN Charter), the protocols of international diplomacy, and the framework of cooperation associated with the GCC framework. The paper analyzes these normative dimensions of international relations with special attention to the specific context associated with Qatar and the Coalition. This analysis is supplemented by a consideration of whether there are grounds for making some adjustments in Qatari policy based on its affinities with other states that are member of the GCC, including a large number of shared policy goals. From the outset, it seemed as if all sides in the conflict, at least outwardly, favored a prompt resolution of the crisis, but how this could be achieved given the sovereignty concerns of Qatar remains elusive 8 months later. The formidable obstacles to normalization are evident from the nature of the 13 demands of the Coalition and Qatar’s unshakable resolve to defend its independence and uphold its sovereign rights.

 

Attention is also given as to whether Coalition grievances have some policy merit if treated as a matter of ‘reasonableness’ within the GCC framework even if the 13 demands do not make the case that Qatar should change its behavior because its policies have been violating international law. Are there ways for the government of Qatar to alter its policies to satisfy the Coalition without sacrificing its fundamental identity as a fully sovereign state and member of the United Nations in good standing? In this regard, the internal values and expectations of the GCC with respect to the degree to which diversity of public order internal to the state is permissible and the extent to which domestic and foreign policy of a GCC member state needs to avoid causing impacts on the security of other GCC members are relevant considerations.

 

 

The 2014 Gulf Crisis

 

It seems important to realize that tensions between GCC members and Qatar have been present since the time of the GCC’s formation, but for reasons of internal cohesion these disagreements were for years kept below the surface. However, as these underlying tensions greatly intensified after the Arab Spring of 2011 it became increasingly difficult to maintain confidentiality as to policy differences. These differences climaxed as a result of the regional growth of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was regarded as a serious threat by the Coalition states while being viewed rather more favorably by Qatar. It was hardly a secret that this rise of the Brotherhood was perceived as a hostile and potentially dangerous development by several GCC countries, and especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as Bahrain.

 

In this regard, Qatar’s sympathy for the Arab uprisings and its relatively positive relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood struck a raw nerve in relations within the GCC, raising serious questions about the workability of the GCC as a collaborative alliance in the future. This discord broke into the open in March 2014 when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in an obviously coordinated move. In response, Qatar sought dialogue and reconciliation, and decided to leave its ambassadors in place rather than engage in reciprocal withdrawal. The Emir, Sheik Tamim, took a diplomatic initiative by seeking reconciliation in the course of several meetings with King Abdullah in Riyadh.

 

The Qatar position in response was articulated at the time by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khaled bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, who stressed early in the 2014 crisis that Qatar would not compromise with respect to its insistence on ‘independence’ for itself and other GCC members and in relation to showing support for peoples in the region seeking ‘self-determination, justice, and freedom.’ [Interview, Al-Arabiya, 5 March 2014] Such a position, especially after the MB did better than expected in elections, especially in Egypt, sharpened the tensions, with the Saudi-led Gulf monarchies being determined to do all in their power to promote counter-revolution in the region to the extent of criminalizing the MB as a terrorist organization. Qatar’s refusal to go along with such aggressive moves prompted the rupture in relations, but only temporarily.

 

With the encouragement of the non-aligned GCC members, Kuwait and Oman, there took place a GCC Summit in November 2014 that agreed to the Riyadh Supplemental Agreement that reaffirmed the GCC norms of non-interference and avoidance of behavior that poses a threat to the political stability of other members. GCC diplomatic relations were restored, and this first Gulf Crisis unrealistically viewed as having been resolved. The GCC was widely praised for surmounting its internal differences, and recognizing the strength of its fraternal bonds. Some optimistic commentators viewed this closing of ranks as a sign that the GCC had attained ‘maturity,’ but in retrospect the conflict was not overcome or compromised, but swept under the rug for the moment. The Riyadh Supplemental Agreement, although not a public document, apparently contains contradictory principles that allow both sides to find support for their positions. The Coalition can take heart from the commitment of participating governments not to adopt policies and engage in behavior that threatens other GCC members. Qatar can feel vindicated by the recognition and affirmation of the sovereign rights of GCC members.

 

Despite the formal resolution of the 2014 crisis it was evident even at the time that UAE, in particular, continued to be deeply opposed to what it regarded as Qatar’s positive relations with and public support for the MB. It was this rift as filtered through later developments, especially the sectarian and regional geopolitical opposition of the Coalition to Iran even in the face of difference of policy nuance among Coaltion member. The Coalition is not monolithic.. Nevertheless, certain tendencies are evident. Post-2014 Iran replaced the MB as the main adversary of the Coalition, while Qatar for entirely different reasons found itself in an economic and political position that demanded a level of cooperation with Iran, centered on the world’s largest natural gas field being shared by the two countries.

 

 

 

The Onset of the 2017 Crisis

 

While the American president, Donald Trump, was in Saudi Arabia for a formal state visit in May 2017, there were strong accusations directed at Qatar as funder and supporter of terrorism, not doing its part in the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East, views that were blandly endorsed by Trump without any plausible grounding in evidence. Following Trump’s departure, the Coalition hostile to Qatar was formed with the same GCC alignment of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as antagonists and Kuwait and Oman as non-aligned. A major difference from 2014 was that the GCC initiative this time included the participation of Sisi’s Egypt, the new leader who had in 2013 overthrown the MB elected government and

who received major economic assistance from GCC governments.

 

On 6 June 2017 the anti-Qatar coalition announced intention to confront Qatar because of alleged support of terrorism throughout the Middle East. This declaration included the announcement that diplomatic relations would be suspended and Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia would be closed, air space blocked; in addition, 19,000 Qatari individuals given two weeks to leave Coalition countries, and 11,300 Coalitional nationals living in Qatar were ordered to return home or face serious penalties, an unusual example of ‘forced repatriation.’ Unlike 2014, Qatar withdrew its ambassadors from the three coalition members plus Egypt.

 

These actions met with strong Qatari objections, although coupled with an offer of dialogue and advocacy of a political solution. Qatar’s initiative did not lead to a favorable response from the Coalition membership. In fact, the Gulf Crisis was actually aggravated when the Coalition tabled its 13 Demands with an ultimatum demanding compliance within ten days.

 

It should be pointed out that this unilateralism by the Coalition, especially on the part of countries with many shared interests, common undertakings, and overlapping relationships, is directly opposed to the letter and spirit of Article 2(3) of the United Nations Charter: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” Here, the Coalition made no effort whatsoever to resolve the crisis peacefully, either by way of a call for diplomacy prior to taking coercive steps or through agreeing to mediation in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. Instead, these Coalition’s coercive moves caused harm to both the public interest of the state of Qatar and to private citizens of Qatar whose professional and personal lives were disrupted in serious ways that constituted violations of international human rights standards.

 

 

’13 Demands’ of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE

 

The explicit focus of the 2017 crisis shifted its main attention to the campaign against terrorism, with a background allegation that Qatar had been funding and supporting terrorism in the Arab world for many years, and was thus an outlier in the GCC context. There were two dubious major assumptions accompanying the Coalition demands: (1) that the MB is correctly identified as a ‘terrorist organization;’ (2) that the members of the GCC Coalition, despite their own extensive funding of radical madrassas throughout the Muslim world, were less guilty than Qatar, of nurturing the terrorist threat in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East. In this respect, playing ‘the terrorist card’ by the Coalition obscured the extent to which the real explanation of the crisis had little to do with suppressing terrorism and much to do with confronting Iran, and thus disciplining Qatar in reaction to its disproportionate influence in the region, and controlling the terrorist discourse in a manner that corresponded with their strategy of considering as ‘terrorist’ any political movement that challenged in any way the legitimacy of Islamic dynastic rule. It is highly relevant that Qatar also is governed by dynastic monarchy, but in a manner that is far more consonant with international law than are its Coalition neighbors. Qatar is also more tolerant of diversity and dissent internally than other Coaltion members, but faces serious human rights challenges with respect to its non-Qatari residents who comprise the majority of the population.

 

The 13 Demands are set forth in a document released on June 6, 2017, giving a formal character to the Coalition’s disregard of international law and diplomatic protocol in its undertaking to control Qatar’s domestic and foreign policy. These demands can be examined from the perspective of international law and international human rights standards. It should be observed that the 13 demands are not presented in a reasoned way or with any attempt to be reconciled with either international law or diplomatic relations between sovereign states, especially here, where the relations are especially close given the juridical and practical collaborative activities of members of the GCC. As earlier comments make clear, there were clear tensions associated with Qatar’s perceived support for the MB, especially in Egypt, and its relative openness on issues of freedom of expression, which included criticism of Coalition countries.

 

What follows is brief commentary from the perspectives of international law and international diplomacy on each of the 13 demands:

 

  1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iranand close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.

This primary demand may be the most important political item on the list of 13, but it has no foundation in international law. Qatar as a sovereign state has complete freedom to establish whatever relationship it chooses to have with Iran.

From a diplomatic perspective this ‘demand’ can be interpreted as a request from the closely aligned states that constitute the Coalition, but if so construed, it is an occasion for discussion, and policy coordination, not coercive threats and actions.

As for the obligations associated with sanctions, there is no legal reason for Qatar to implement U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran. Qatar does have a limited obligation to uphold UN sanctions, but the Coalition has no standing, except possibly within a UN setting, to raise such an issue.

 

  1. Sever all ties to “terrorist organisations”, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.

Formulating this request in the form of a ‘demand’ seems an inappropriate intrusion on a matter within the sovereign discretion of Qatar. As with the first demand, the call for severance of ties with the MB and Hezbollah are of great importance to the Coalition, but this is a political matter to be discussed either within the GCC or some other forum. For the Islamic State and al-Qaida there is little disagreement about there character as a ‘terrorist organization,’ but for the MB and Hezbollah the assessment is more contested, and thus a demand that they be “formally declared” as a terrorist organization is inappropriate from perspectives of international law and international diplomacy.

 

  1. Shut down al-Jazeeraand its affiliate stations.

Such a demand is in flagrant violation of the right of freedom of expression as embodied in authoritative international law treaties and part of customary international law relating to human rights. In effect, Qatar is put under pressure to commit such a violation. It is especially objectionable as al-Jazeera and its affiliates conform to high standards of journalistic professionalism, and do not open their media outlets to hostile propaganda or hate speech. Demand (3) contravenes Articles 18 & 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

  1. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

The same legal rationale applies as set forth in response to Demand (3). Further, here there is an attempted interference with Qatar’s support for high quality media elsewhere that is a public good, giving the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere exposure to alternative viewpoints on the main public issues of the day.

 

  1. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presencein Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.

This demand attempt to intervene in the internal security arrangements of Qatar, and as such challenges its sovereign rights on a matter of prime national concern. It is an attempted violation of the central norms of peaceful relations, as set forth in the influential Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relation and Co-Operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Resolution 2625, 1970, especially principles b-e, stressing sovereignty and non-intervention.

If Turkey was somehow posing an existential threat to Coalition countries, then a diplomatic appeal to a fellow GCC member might be a reasonable initiative. As matters now stand Turkey has a diplomatic presence in all Coalition members, except Egypt where relations are kept at the level of Charges d’Affiares. There is some friction between Turkey and the UAE on various issues, and so tensions exist, including in relation to resolving the Gulf Crisis. On its face, Demand (5) is entirely unreasonable from both the perspective of international law and normal diplomacy.

 

  1. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terroristsby Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.

This may be the most extraordinarily inappropriate demand of all for two reasons. First, it removes from Qatar’s discretion the designation of “individuals, groups or organisations” that are deemed to be “terrorists.” This is an unacceptable intrusion on Qatar’s sovereign rights. And by including the United States it moves the source of Coalition grievance outside the framework of both the GCC and the Coalition. Egypt is also not a member of the GCC but at least a member of the Coalition.

It seems obvious that the effort here is to brand as terrorists those individuals and organizations associated with the MB and Hezbollah as directly targeted in Demand (2).

 

  1. Hand over “terrorist figures”and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.

Demand (7) suffers from the same deficiencies as (6) plus the added indignity of such vague and inflammatory designations as “‘terrorist figures’ and ‘wanted individuals.’” Such a demand could be formulated in acceptable diplomatic language as pertaining to those who had been convicted of crimes by courts in Coalition, and were subject to extradition following formal requests made to the Government of Qatar. Extradition would not be available if the person requested was convicted of ‘political crimes’ or if the trial process was not in accord with international standards, or if no extradition treaty or practice exists.

 

  1. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.

 

Again as in Demand (7), the demanded action is a clear interference with core sovereign rights pertaining to the grant and withdrawal of citizenship of the State of Qatar, and as such an attempted violation of the norm prohibiting intervention. It seeks such a crude disregard of Qatari sovereignty as to constitute a grave diplomatic insult, which is a breach of protocol, especially inappropriate for countries supposedly collaborating on the basis of shared interests and common values within the GCC framework.

 

  1. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.

As with Demand (8) to make such a demand public is to breach diplomatic protocol, as well as to express in this context of threat and insult issues that are within the sphere of Qatar’s internal security policies and practices. If the context were different, it might be that Coalition could make confidential requests to Doha institutions and officials for cooperation with respect to specific individuals deemed dangerous to one or more GCC member states, and even to Egypt. It might also be observed that reliable reports by the BBC and elsewhere that the UAE was holding a Qatari prince captive as a possible replacement for the Emir of Qatar. Such reports make this demand particularly objectionable and hypocritical.

 

  1. Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policiesin recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.

Demand (10) is on its face vague and unacceptable from the perspectives of international law and diplomacy. It is formulated as if “Qatar’s policies in recent yIears” can be assumed to be wrong and unlawful to such an extent as to justify a demand for “reparations and compensation.” This is not only an unlawful demand, it is irresponsibly asserted in a manner that any government would find to be insulting and totally unacceptable.

  1. Consent to monthly audits for the first yearafter agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

As with the prior demand, Demand (11) seems such a departure from the canons of public diplomacy as to be inserted as a deliberate provocation on a fundamental matter of Qatar sovereign rights. In effect, Demand (11) is seeking a humiliating public surrender of Qatar’s sovereignty, and a basic repudiation of the most fundamental standard of international diplomacy—the equality of sovereign states. Under no conditions, short of terms imposed on a defeated government after a war can such a requirement of “monthly audits” for a period of ten years be deemed reasonable or acceptable.

 

  1. Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Unlike other demands, especially Demands (9)-(11), Demand (12) on its face seems relatively unobjectionable, and can be understood as a mere call for greater collaboration. It can also be read as unacceptably putting Qatar in a subordinate position of ‘aligning itself’ on policy matters with Coalition and unspecified other “Arab countries” rather than seeking policy coordination on the basis of sovereign equality and mutual respect. To the extent that it uses coercive language, it is diplomatically unacceptable.

 

  1. Agree to all the demands within 10 days Agree to all the demands within 10 daysof it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.

Such an ultimatum is an unlawful challenge to the sovereign rights of Qatar and a serious breach of diplomatic protocol in relations between sovereign states, accentuated by common membership in the GCC. There is no rationale or justification given for this kind of hegemonic language or attempted control of Qatar’s lawful and discretionary policies and practices. Although rendered invalid by its language if not accepted within ten days, its renewed assertion by the Coalition makes Demand (13) incoherent, and of ambiguous relevance to efforts to resolve the Gulf Crisis.

 

Conclusion:

The analysis and appraisal of the 13 Demands from the perspective of international law and diplomatic protocol reaches the conclusion that not one of the demands is reasonable, in accord with respect for the sovereignty of Qatar, and respectful of the proper canons of diplomacy governing relations among sovereign states that are based on equality and mutual respect. In summary, the 13 Demands are incompatible with the principles set forth in GA Res. 2625, referenced above, that sets forth the principles for lawful and friendly relations among sovereign states, as well as with Article 2 of the UN Charter. Take as a whole, the demands seem so incompatible with respect for Qatar as a sovereign state as to appear intended to isolate the country or even create an atmosphere that prepared the way for regime-changing coup. Such a scenario, even if not executed, is incompatible with international law and the norms of friendly relations among states, especially, as here, among aligned states.

It might be useful at some point to make public use of this point-by- point analysis of the 13 Demands to underscore Qatar’s strong and unassailable position in refusing to accede to these demands. The fact that the Coalition has recently affirmed their insistence that Qatar accept the 13 Demands as the precondition for resolving the Gulf Crisis suggests the importance of a convincing set of explanations for Qatar’s refusal to respond favorable to the 13 Demands either singly or collectively.

This seeming effort to compel Qatar to except external pressures, including a demand of compliance with U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran sets a precedent that could work against the sovereignty of other GCC members in the future. The diplomatic posture with respect to Qatar seems t0 assert a collective right of GCC members to intervene in internal affairs of another member to a far greater extent that present supernational actors have ever in the past claimed.

It seems doubtful that the 13 Demands have any constructive role to play in a diplomacy of reconciliation among Gulf countries. Indeed, it would seem that a necessary first step toward the initiation of a diplomacy of reconciliation would be for the Coalition to abandon any further reference to the 13 Demands as possessing any relevance whatsoever in shaping future relations between Qatar and the GCC and Coalition.

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

 

Annex: The 13 Demands

  1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iranand close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.
  2. Sever all ties to “terrorist organisations”, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
  3. Shut down al-Jazeeraand its affiliate stations.
  4. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
  5. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presencein Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
  6. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terroristsby Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.
  7. Hand over “terrorist figures”and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.
  8. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
  9. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
  10. Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policiesin recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
  11. Consent to monthly audits for the first yearafter agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
  12. Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
  13. Agree to all the demands within 10 daysof it being Agree to all the demands within 10 daysof it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The Gulf countries, in addition to Saudi Arabia, were the UAE and Bahrain; the fourth member of the Coalition was Egypt. This group of four is referred to as ‘the Coalition’ in this text.

Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

7 Dec

[Prefatory Note: The post below is an introduction to a series of articles on the theme of assessing the Arab Spring jointly written with the prominent Turkish scholar, Bülent Aras, whose bio-sketch appears below. It was published in the Third World Quarterly, 37 (No. 12): 2258-2334 (2016).]

 

Five Years after the Arab Spring: A Critical Evaluation

Bülent Aras  and Richard Falk

a Professor of International Relations, Sabancı University, Turkey bRichard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, United States.

[Abstract: A new political geography has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after the Arab Spring. The transformative impact of the popular upheavals appeared to put an end to long-term authoritarian regimes. Today, the region is far from stable since authoritarian resilience violently pushed back popular demands for good governance and is pushing to restore former state structures. However, the collective consciousness of the popular revolts endures, and a transformative prospect may emerge on the horizon. The chaotic situation is the result of an ongoing struggle between those who seek change and transformation and others in favor of the status quo ante. A critical evaluation of the Arab Spring after five years indicates a continuous process of recalculation and recalibration of policies and strategies. There are alternative routes for an eventual settlement in the MENA region, which are in competition against both regional and transregional quests for a favorable order.]

 

 

The transformative impact of the Arab Spring on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) symbolizes a turning point in the recent history of the region. The change is obviously visible, although five years is not long enough to see the full effects of a popular movement with the transformative goals of the Arab Spring. The protests and the immediate aftershocks remain confined within regional boundaries, which affect only Arab countries, although the anti-authority discourse has reached a wider resonance. In this sense, one obvious dimension of this novel political development has been the “Arabness” of its core mobilization.

In more specific terms, the MENA region faces transformations on a range of fronts, from state-society relations to resilience of authoritarian regimes, from state failures to shifting alliances in the region. This complex picture is the result of interaction and socialization of new and old actors in the domestic to regional and regional to global flows. The domestic environments in the regional contagion range from failed transitions to civil wars, while regional order as a whole is almost a perfect example of “the anarchical society” without the existence of any overarching authority and institution capable of enforcing rules and establishing order.

On the domestic fronts, the Arab Spring brought the analyses of democratization and robustness of authoritarianism to the fore with a rich variety of cases for discussion. We put forward the idea that the Arab Spring represents a search of the masses under authoritarian regimes for honor, dignity, liberty, good governance, and accountability of rulers. These uprisings created a new collective consciousness or subjectivity strongly influenced by the transnational diffusion of international norms of governance, freedom, and equality. The uprisings in various authoritarian states thus made sense beyond the geography of immediate impact and created a strong transnational impetus for change in a series of countries outside the Arab World. The demands for change, search for representation, and struggle for honor created a new collective consciousness that provides motivation, solidarity, belief, and strategy in various national contexts to engage in similar struggles against rulers. Societal groups enjoy the empowerment of sub-state actors and benefit from state vulnerabilities in undertaking political initiatives within authoritarian settings. The opposition to authoritarian rule also finds its expression in a relatively democratized context, giving rise to further political demands, especially for stronger societal participation. Throughout the different phases of the Arab Spring, the masses have faced several challenges and difficulties associated with imposing their new collective consciousness on rule and transforming authoritarian regimes in desired directions.

The first challenge was the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East and the differential ability of rulers to learn and recalibrate policies to preserve their hold on power. Second has been the lack of support from the international community in the struggle for freedom and liberties despite the fact that these ideas have been promoted with “universal” validity. The third challenge has been the fragility and fracturing of the societal consensus that has unleashed the uprisings, which underscores the vitality of sustainable coalitions that could have functioned as a social glue for realizing the transformative goals in its aftermath. The original consensus that gave rise to the new collective consciousness was severely challenged and even broken in some cases when it came to reforming the governing process along more democratic lines. When the popular expectations accompanying the uprising were dashed, active social forces backing the revolution became divided and certain elements indeed turned against the revolution to settle for what has been a reversal of the uprisings in the form of a counterrevolutionary backlash. This was actually what happened in Egypt after the election and overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reactions of the ruling regimes vary according to their receptivity and resistance to the transformative claims set forth by the new collective consciousness. The Arab Spring has also been a learning process for all sides in terms of new calculations, recalibration of policies, and the development of effective strategies to cope with the new political atmosphere. The rulers and establishment elites as well as the popular movements also face fundamental challenges. Above all is the challenge of meeting societal demands for change in the domestic political order and the governing process. A second challenge concerns the transnational nature of the Arab Spring. This makes countries vulnerable to the potentially subversive transnational diffusion of the new collective consciousness. Inside/outside differences in policy-making have been more fluid than ever during this period. A third challenge has arisen when Arab rulers have found themselves with a capacity and incentive to exert an influence for or against the transformation of other states while at the same time facing a similar situation at home. Attitudes toward transformation of neighbors usually conform to the positions adopted at home. Rulers tend to support resistance to change outside if they adopt status quo policies at home: Most leaders seek outcomes that resemble as much as possible their domestic policies and are in conformity with their interests.

The fourth set of challenges may be the most confusing. The new transnational web of regional and international relations occurs within an atmosphere of flexible alliances and shifting alignments and priorities. Yesterday’s enemy may selectively become today’s friend. The contradictions and multiple dimensions of conflict that have risen to the surface in Syria during the last five years highlight this concern. A number of countries in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, have reacted to the situation elsewhere in the region to raise firewalls to protect their hold on power at home. A fifth set of challenges follows from the involvement of global political actors, mainly Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The aspirations of these actors are not always clear, and may alter under pressure and in response to national shifts in the balance of forces. This further complicates an assessment of internal strife, exhibiting both mixed signals coming from some of these actors and rigid attitudes from others. The relations of Middle Eastern countries with these external actors have often become strained by the shifts and turns in response to the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring is now at a critical phase as both popular forces and the ruling elites are recalculating their policies and reshaping attitudes toward change and the option of resistance. This is a distinctive moment in history that is showing the limits of creativity to meet the challenges of the Arab Spring, which ranges from the particularistic such as determining the future of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to broader issues of the role of Islamism such as the legitimacy and role of the pro-democracy Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The mobilization of new political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria, or the Saudi attempts to empower the administration in Bahrain and shape an anti-Houthi outcome in Yemen also undermine the political order of the region in different ways. It is possible to analyze the Arab Spring within four subsystems, categorizing their adaptability and resistance to the diffusion of transnational values. The four categories that we set forth are the Arab I and Arab II, Turkish-Iranian complex, and Kurdish de facto autonomy systems.

The Arab System I refers to those Arab states that share the commonalities of high population and low natural resources. These countries have been vulnerable to popular revolts and possess a limited ability to address societal challenges through peaceful means. The Arab System II consists of Arab states having a small population and a strong resource base. They exert more control over societal demands and also enjoy surplus financial capacity to influence political outcomes in other countries. The societal demands are more basic in terms of democratization and appropriation of civil rights and liberties. The state-society tension, in general, has risen to unstable levels and in some cases has led to the outbreak of civil war. One could depict several sub-regions within these subsystems. Furthermore, these two Arab configurations of states are not mutually exclusive. There occur complex and multiple interactions with each other that are further complicated by extra-regional involvements. The “Syriraq” crisis, the rise of Daesh, and the Saudi-led coalition’s air war against Yemen, among others, are issues concentrated in the Arab System I, although these events are also of clear relevance to the Gulf Kingdoms of the Arab System II that are preoccupied with maximizing authoritarian survival beyond their own borders, and devote resources to ensuring the persistence of an authoritarian neighborhood.

The Turkish-Iranian system is different than the Arab systems in reference to political institutions and societal demands. The 1979 revolution put an end to the authoritarian monarchy in power, replacing it with Islamic rule. Iran has regular elections, a diverse civil society, and a functioning parliament. Despite these moderating features of the governing process, the Iranian opposition seeks greater democratization, protection of human rights and basic freedoms. Thus the fundamental questions in Iranian politics are how to secure free and fair elections, political liberalization, the empowerment of civil society and politicians, and normalization of relations with the West against the stronghold of the establishment. In 2009, people protested against the presidential elections with the slogan “Where is my vote?”, yet were suppressed in the name of raison d’etat. The Iran nuclear deal seems to be a game changer since it carries the potential to put an end to Iran’s international isolation and turn Iran into a legitimate actor in regional politics. Iran’s new status helped it to have a psychological upper hand in the course of the scaling down of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which lessens the likelihood of any new hegemonic order in the region for the foreseeable future. The region will now become even more prone to rivalries, conflicts, and protracting crises as regional actors pursue contradictory goals. This is what has happened during the five years after the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of the Middle East is now being manipulated predominantly within a framework of sectarian conflict and the overall rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

The Turkish situation is more about the enhancement of democracy, fine-tuning, and active participation in decision-making processes and a fundamental emphasis on economic development.. The societal demands are centered on the call for transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and further civil rights. There is also an issue of cultural and language rights sought by Kurdish political forces. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 are exemplary in this sense of Turkish unrest. Young people resisted the building of a shopping mall in one of the few green parks in the urban center of Istanbul. The Turkish subsystem, compared to the others, despite its shortcomings, comes closest in the region to institute a democratic order. Turkey has taken strides in good governance and economic development, but has ever since been haunted by the quest for sustaining a democratic transition. In that sense, societal demands for better representation, checks on the political leadership, and the desire to control and limit political excesses fits into the general spirit of the new collective consciousness that has already been in motion within the dynamics of the Turkish system. The challenging issues for Turkey are responding demands for wider representation, addressing growing societal polarization and consolidating democratic institutions against a counterproductive trend in favor of reaching political goals through violence in the Kurdish problem and an undefined social call for security in the face of terrorist attacks launched by the extremists including Daesh.

The failed attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey can be connected to the Arab Spring experience, including the aftermath, in several significant ways. The most obvious reverberation of 2011 was the degree to which the leader was able to summon the people of Turkey to exhibit historical agency by displaying their support for the existing government and sacrificing their bodies to uphold the elected political leaders of the country. At first glance, the contrasts with Egypt are most striking. In 2011, the Egyptian masses in their revolt against Mubarak’s rule proved themselves and to the world their historical agency by opposing an unelected authoritarian government, and following the overthrow of the regime in Tunisia, catalyzed uprisings throughout the region. Then in 2013, disappointed by the failures of the elected leadership to perform, the Egyptian people were again mobilized effectively, this time to support a military coup against the elected leadership. In these fundamental respects, what happened in Turkey on July 15th is the exact opposite of the second Egyptian uprising that brought General Sisi to power, an outcome later ratified by elections conducted unreliably in a post-coup atmosphere of repression focused on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the prior nationwide elections held in 2012.

The situation in Turkey remains uncertain as the aftermath of failed coup has created contradictory signals about what to expect from the perspective of stability, human rights and democracy. In the early post-coup atmosphere in Turkey was dominated by a problem unique to the region, the deep penetration of all governmental institutions by the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen who resides in the U.S. This left the Turkish government led by its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with the formidable task of rebuilding the Turkish state without destroying Turkish democracy. On the one side, there are encouraging signals suggesting a new and welcome willingness of the main political parties to work together to preserve constitutional democracy in the country while restoring confidence in the security apparatus of the state. On the other side, there is challenging task of dealing with the detentions of Gülenist suspects from the various branches of government including the armed forces along with mass dismissals from educational institutions and an array of interferences with journalists and writers in a situation of state of emergency.

How these dramatic developments will play out in the region remains to be seen. Even before the coup, Turkey was engaged in a foreign policy reset, featuring successful efforts to renew normal diplomatic relations with Russia and Israel, which had become antagonistic in the prior five years. The Turkish relationship with the United States is also under unprecedented pressure due to the coup as its accused leader, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the United States. The Turkish government has formally requested extradition in accordance with a bilateral treaty, and whether it is granted or denied could affect the future of U.S./Turkish relations, as well as the coherence of NATO.

The Kurdish system is the most problematic challenge confronting Turkey. Although the Kurds do not have a state of their own, they have been empowered in their respective geographies during the Arab Spring, which has raised their expectations. Kurds are a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There are three Kurdish sub-systems emerging within the atmosphere of change and transformation in the Middle East. First is the Syrian-Iranian sub-system, which seems best characterized by war and survival. Second is the Iraqi subsystem, which is a quasi-state structure that faces the challenges of securing the autonomy and consolidation of political and economic order, which may require an opening up of its political structure to satisfy societal demands. Third is the Turkish subsystem, which oscillates between war against the PKK and a peace process with Kurdish political representatives in an environment of a relatively advanced political structure. In the last year or so there has been a definite move away from peace and diplomacy and a firm embrace of armed struggle tactics.by both sides

Against this backdrop, Emirhan Yorulmazlar and Bülent Aras deal with the geopolitics of the Arab Spring and develop a framework to combine the factors that brought the previous regional order to an end. The domestic to regional and regional to global flows are examined in detail as the authors analyze and assess the regional disorder that emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Ever since the regional political landscape appears to have been completely altered. The article identifies the emerging subregional systems in the Middle East, which could pinpoint the basis for further changes and evolve to constitute the prospective regional order.

Fuat Keyman deals with the regional crisis and explains how this contributes to global turmoil. In this regional to global flow, regional problems are elevated to matters of international security. Keyman analyzes Turkey’s dilemma specifically, facing both the rise of Daesh and the refugee problem. He rejects the idea that Turkey is a buffer zone and encourages a more constructive and integrative dialogue between both Turkey and EU and Turkey and the U.S. with the objective of addressing these issues.

Pınar Akpınar focuses on the limits of mediation with respect to conflict resolution in the five years of Arab Spring. Akpınar’s focus on the effects of the multi-actor environment, the results of various trials of mediation, and a particular consideration of the mediation attempts in Syria underlines the necessity to rethink the means, nature, and capability of mediators as an alternative to chaos and armed struggle.

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün explores the repercussions of the purported failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy during the Arab Spring in terms of the inclusion-moderation hypotheses with a specific focus on the Egyptian case. He puts forward that moderation can only go so far because of the relevance and limits of Islamists’ political theology and further democratization may be dependent on a more viable Islamist political theology that accords better with rights and freedoms than a simplistic understanding of majority principle.

Richard Falk evaluates the aftermath of the Arab Spring through the dual optic of a regional phenomenon and a series of country narratives. These narratives are categorized by reference first to the secular states that found a path to stability after experiencing strong uprisings that drove rulers from power , second to the states in which the uprisings generated prolonged resistance and continuing acute instability, and third to the monarchies that neutralized the uprisings at their inception and restored stability. When other dimensions of conflict are taken into account it seems likely that the Middle East will continue to experience chaos, intervention, and counterrevolution for years to come, and possibly even a second cycle of uprisings directed at the evolving order.

 

Notes on Contributors

Bülent Aras is Senior Scholar and Coordinator of the Conflict Resolution and Mediation stream at Istanbul Policy Center, Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University and Global Fellow at Wilson Center. He is Academic Coordinator of POMEAS (Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring). His current research interests include geopolitics of Arab Spring, non-state actors in peacebuilding and bridging the gap between theory and practice in foreign policy. Recent work has been published in Middle East Policy, International Peacekeeping, Political Science Quarterly, International Journal, Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies, Journal of Third World Studies, Third World Quarterly.

 

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University where he was a member of the faculty for forty years (1961-2001). He is Chair of International Board of Advisers of POMEAS. Between 2002 and 2013 he has been associated with Global & International Studies at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California, and is continuing to direct a research project on ‘Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy’ in his role as Fellow of the Orfalea Center. Professor Falk has been the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine for the United Nations Human Rights Council between 2008 and 2014. He served as Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2004-2012, and is now its Senior Vice President. In 2008-2009 he was appointed expert advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly. Over the years, Falk has published more than 50 books. The most recent one is Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016).

 

* Corresponding author. Email: bulent@sabanciuniv.edu

An Unlikely AMEXIT: Pivoting Away from the Middle East  

14 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published by Al Jazeera English on July 10, 2016; it examines the argument for disengagement from the Middle East by analogizing a plausible AMEXIT to BREXIT.]

 

The Case for Disengagement

 

A few years ago Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect. The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly and unsuccessfully engaged in Middle Eastern politics creating incentives to adjust foreign policy priorities. The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W. Bush that reached its climax with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq, which continues to cause negative reverberations throughout the region. It was then that the idiocy of ‘democracy promotion’ gave an idealistic edge to America’s military intervention and the delusion prospect of the occupiers receiving a warm welcome from the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unanticipated resistance.

 

In retrospect, it seems evident that despite the much publicized ‘pivot’ the United States has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and its fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against DAESH. In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob, proposes a gradual American disengagement from the region. He makes a highly intelligent and informed strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major American engagement in the region, and that to maintain the commitment at present levels adds to Middle East turmoil, and its extra-regional terrorist spillover, in ways that harms American interests.

 

Why Disengagement Won’t Happen

 

Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognize changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment based on an assessment of changed geopolitical circumstances. Actually, the high degree of American involvement in the Middle East was itself the result of an adjustment to changed circumstances. After the Soviet collapse, the earlyier geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed superfluous and outmoded, and the Middle East with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence, risky nuclear proliferation potential seemed then like a region where a strong American commitment would solidify its role as global leader. This perception was reinforced after the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq, which the neocons hoped was but a prelude to a more elaborate political reconfiguring of the region by way of regime-changing interventions. [See ‘Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ (1996) for a fuller understanding of the Israeli oriented neocon mindset] The Iraqi undertaking failed miserably during the state-rebuilding occupation that followed upon the attack and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The master plan involved reconstructing the government and economy of Iraq to serve Western interests while at the same time supposedly democratizing the country. It totally backfired. This American pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of a persisting failure to understand the changing circumstances of the post-colonial world, and especially the altered balance between the military superiority associated with foreign intervention and the resourcefulness of territorial resistance.

 

So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings immediate major practical advantages? Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favorable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement seem geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘losing the Middle East,’ as if it was ever America’s to lose!

 

More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps, most significant, is the militarist bias of American foreign policy that is even unable to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures. This refusal to think outside the military box prevails in American policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or DAESH center on the single question of how much American military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts. What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11. Real threats to American interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for the resolution of most disputes, virtually requires the United States to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily whenever the occasion arises.

 

Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over American domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies. Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence. As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too uncertainty to risk any further disengagement. This is coupled with the claim that the rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq was actually premature, and led to a resurgence of civil strife that has persuaded the Obama administration to redeploy American troops both to aid in the fight to regain territory occupied by ISIS and to help the government to establish some degree of stability.

 

Why Disengagement Should Happen

 

Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue American disengagement. Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (e.g. DAESH) magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place. In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.

 

Unfortunately, for America and the peoples throughout the Middle East the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire that is partly responsible for generating extra-regional terrorism of the sort that has afflicted Europe in the last two years. And so although disengagement is a sensible course of action, it won’t happen for a long, long time, if at all. Unlike BREXIT, for AMEXIT, and geopolitics generally, there are no referenda offered the citizenry.

 

##

 

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

29 Jun

 

 

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

 

 

Imagining the World After the Cold War

 

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

 

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

the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

 

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

 

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

 

 

An Establishment Out of Touch

 

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

 

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

 

 

Losing it in America

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

The Global Landscape

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

 

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

 

 

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

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

 

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

 

After World War II

 

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

 

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

 

After the Cold War

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

 

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

 

 

 The Arab Spring

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New World Order? ISIS and the Sykes-Picot Backlash

17 Dec

 

I

 

One of the seemingly permanent contributions of Europe to the manner of organizing international society was to create a strong consensus in support of the idea that only a territorially delimited sovereign state is entitled to the full privileges of membership. The United Nations, the institutional embodiment of international society recognizes this principle by limiting membership in the Organization to ‘states.’ Of course, there is an enormous variation in the size, population, military capabilities, resource endowments, and de facto autonomy among states. At one extreme are gigantic states such as China and India with populations of over 1 billion, while at the other are such tiny countries such as Liechtenstein or Vanuatu that mostly rely on diplomacy and police rather than gun powder and armies for security. All four of these political entities have the same single vote when it comes to action in the General Assembly or as participants at global conferences such at the recently concluded Paris Summit on climate change, although the geopolitics is supreme in the Security Council and the corridors outside the meeting rooms.

 

From the point of view of international law and organizational theory we continue to live in a state-centric world order early in the 21st century. At the same time, the juridical notion of the equality of states that is the foundation of diplomatic protocol should not lead us astray. The shaping of world order remains mainly the work of the heavyweight states that act on the basis of geopolitical calculations with respect for international law and morality displayed only as convenient. Yet the political monoculture of territorial states remains formally the exclusive foundation of world order, but its political reality is being challenged in various settings, and no where more so than in the Middle East.

 

This is somewhat surprising. It might have been expected in past decades, especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the ‘states’ were often arbitrarily imposed a century or more ago to satisfy colonial ambitions and took little or no account of the wishes and identities of the people living in a particular geographic space. Yet without exception nationalist movements and their leaders throughout the world, although aware that the colonial demarcations of boundaries were arbitrary and exploitative, thus lacking the legitimacy of ethnic, religious, and historic experience, nevertheless refrained from challenging the idea that a politically independent state should be delimited by the same boundaries as the prior colonial state. It seems that this worldwide acceptance of the territorial status quo reflected two different considerations. Questioning colonial boundaries would open a dangerous Pandora’s Box filled to overflowing with nasty ethnic conflicts and contradictory territorial claims. Beyond this, achieving control over an existing territorial state was seen in international law as the proper fulfillment for a people seeking liberation through the exercise of their right of national self-determination. Such an outcome was increasingly endorsed as the proper goal of nationalist movements throughout the global South, regardless of whether the ideological animus of a given movement leaned left or right. This conception of self-determination was also endorsed at the United Nations, thereby reversing the earlier acceptance of colonial rule as consistent with international law.

 

Of course, here and there were some rough edges and intense splits at the dawn of the post-colonial era, but surprisingly few of such a character as to produce new delimitations of territorial domain. Malaya split into Malaysia and Singapore, and more significantly, Pakistan broke off from India, and then Bangladesh later split from Pakistan in a bloody struggle. Yet in all these instances the result of political fragmentation was the establishment of an additional coherent territorial sovereign state that had some sort of cultural, religious, or historical rationale. There remain several thwarted movements of national liberation, most notably Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan, that is national movements to create independent states that have been under prolonged occupation. It is appropriate to regard these peoples as living in ‘captive nations’ contained by oppressive structure imposed by the dominating state. There is a small degree of ambiguity present as the right of self-determination cannot supposed be validly exercised in any manner that results in the fragmentation of an existing sovereign state. For clarification see UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on International Law Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, with particular attention to the commentary given with respect to the principle of self-determination. In practice, however, when fragmentation results from successful movements of secession, the new political entities are accepted as ‘states’ for purposes of membership in international society. The breakup of Yugoslavia into component parts illustrates the subordination of the legal principle of state unity to the political realities of fragmentation.

 

There seemed to be no other concept of sovereign political community that challenged the European notion of the state as it evolved out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Again there are a few inconsequential exceptions. The Vatican despite being an essentially religious community is acknowledged for some purposes as a state, although denied full membership in the UN. More recently, as a result of decades of frustration, Palestine has succeeded in being accepted by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, but without any right to vote or participate as a member in debates within the General Assembly or Security Council. Palestine as a kind of ‘ghost state’ is accepted as a member of UNESCO, as a state party at the International Criminal Court, and even allowed to fly its national flag outside of UN Headquarters.

 

Perhaps, the most fundamental formal challenge to a purely statist world order arose from the emergence of the European Union. The EU does represent the interests of its 25 member states for many purposes, including at some international conferences. And yet the EU has not been given membership or an independent vote at the UN, nor have there been objections to the permanent membership of both the United Kingdom and France in the UN Security Council. Despite recent tensions associated with fiscal policy, counter-terrorism, and statist reactions to refugee flows, the EU retains the possibility of evolving at some point into some novel kind of post-Westphalian regional polity that represents its members in a variety of global venues, and thus challenges the foundational principles of state-centric world order. Just now the European Commission has issued new rules strengthening European border control in a manner given precedence over Westphalian traditions of national border control.

 

More challenging at present is the meta-territorial operational provenance of the United States, with its vast network of foreign bases, its naval and space capabilities able to target any point on the planet, and its claim of ‘presence’ in all regions of the world. The United States is the first ‘global state’ in world history, with its territorial sovereignty only the psychophysical basis of its non-territorial global reach. It is not an empire as that term was understood to rest on formal and overt control, yet it far from being a normal state that generally confines its security operations and diplomatic claims to its geographic boundaries unless it finds itself involved in a distant war.

 

Sporadic efforts to endow civil society with international status have not gained political traction despite widespread support for the establishment of a ‘global peoples parliament’ modeled on the European Parliament. Populist support for some kind of policy role for civil society at a global level has been reffectively esisted by governments and international institutions opposed to any dilution of the Westphalian template.

 

II.

 

It is against this statist background that some recent Islamic practices with regard to political community and world order is innovative and challenging. When explaining the revolutionary process in Iran that unfolded in 1978-79, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that what was happening in Iran should be treated as an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ What was being asserted was that the most relevant community was the Muslim umma, which has not been actualized in recent times but deserves the primary loyalty and adherence of believers whatever their location in national space happens to be. Such a view was more aggressively articulated in the declarations of Osama Bin Laden whose worldview was Islamic, transcending the secular realities of statehood and nationalism, and expressing what might be described as an Islamic Cosmopolitan worldview.

 

The most significant challenge of all directed toward state-centricism has been mounted by ISIS, and especially its proclamation of a new caliphate in the Middle East, whose contours were based on its de facto territorial governance patterns in Syria and Iraq rather than on the boundaries of existing sovereign states. ISIS leaders also boasted of ‘the end of Sykes-Picot,’ the Anglo-French originally secret agreement in 1916 that led to the formation of the modern statist Middle East in the territories formerly administered by the Ottoman Empire. It was this Sykes-Picot colonialist vision that successfully undermined Woodrow Wilson’s post-colonial advocacy of self-determination as the organizing basis delimiting the Middle East after World War I. So far, ISIS has made good on its claim to govern the area it controls by sharia law strictly applied, and has thus managed to defy the sovereign territorial authority of both Syria and Iraq. ISIS is sometimes described as a ‘quasi-state’ because of its territorial control but utter lack of international diplomatic legitimacy, and perhaps because its durability has not been established for a sufficient length of time.

 

There are at least three elements of this non-state pattern of control that are worth noticing. First, ISIS seems to have no current goal or prospect of being internationally accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority. ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian Sunni claim to be applying sharia to those living under its authority. Secondly, by discrediting those Sykes-Picot states that were imposed on the region after World War I ISIS is claiming for itself a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations, and the claim has some resonance for those living under its dominion. Thirdly, significant portions of the Sunni population that is dominant presence in the ‘caliphate’ welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level.

 

In effect, ISIS has effectively, if harshly, raised questions about the political legitimacy of states imposed by colonial authority and accepted by indigenous nationalist movements during the process of achieving political independence. This questioning of European statism in the Middle East is likely to be more enduring than ISIS itself. From an ethnic angle, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, never having been content with Sykes-Picot borders are now constituting new ethnically delimited political communities that in Iraq and Syria possess the attributes of de facto states. As with ISIS, these emergent entities are being called quasi-states or states within states. In other words we are so entrapped in statist language that we must misleadingly link these innovative political realities to the statist framework.

 

From this perspective it is worth noticing the double proposal of the neocon former American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. [See “To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State,” NY Times, Nov. 24, 2015] As a resolute interventionist, Bolton wants the West to go all out to destroy the ISIS caliphate, but couples this militarist initiative with the rather startling assertion that Iraq and Syria have lost their statist entitlement to reclaim these territories. Instead, “Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and Western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” As might be expected, Bolton’s rationale is totally neo-colonial in conception and implementation, proposed by a Washington insider, designed to keep Moscow out, to restore U.S. influence in the region, and to support indirectly the anti-Shiite goals of the Gulf monarchies. In other words, what Bolton favors is remote both from Westphalian logic and from the practice of self-determination.

 

True, Bolton’s Sunni state is an externally imposed political construction that is expected to be accepted as a traditional state with authority limited to its international borders. This contrasts with the ISIS caliphate that claims authority based on its extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam, and while it maintains and guards the borders that define the territory under its control, its claimed community of adherents is non-geographical, and notions of citizenship and nationality do not apply. It is suggestive that even Bolton opposes an American approach based on “striving to recreate the post-World War I map.” What makes Bolton’s proposal of interest is only that it unwittingly confirms the ISIS challenge to the legitimacy of how Europe constructed the post-Ottoman Middle East in the colonialist atmosphere that remained dominant after World War I.

 

III

 

It seems obvious when considering the complexity of the world as it now functions that the Westphalian model of state-centricism is no longer, if it ever was, descriptive. To take account of the realities of the U.S. global state, the EU, and ISIS requires a more hybrid framework of concepts, policies, and practices that also is more sensitive to multi-level linkages of authority and power, as well as the elaborate patterns of transnational networks and localized systems of control that produce the complex governance structures that provide billions of people with order and stability on a daily basis. A fuller inquiry into these diverse organizational structures would also need to incorporate the role of transnational corporations and financial institutions that create the operational and exploitative realities of neoliberal globalization.  

 

Al Jazeera Turka Interview on Turkish Foreign and National Policy

28 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This is a modified text of an interview conducted by Semin Gumusel Guner of Al Jazeera Turka, and published online in abbreviated form on October 19, 2015. The situation in Turkey is increasingly precarious and troublesome: extremist violence; intensifying polarization; governmental uncertainty due to absence of electoral majority for governing AKP, and inability to form coalition; obsession with leadership issues associated with the controversial personality of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the refugee spillover from the Syrian War; the revived violence and strife associated with the unresolved conflict with the Kurdish national movement. The interview touches on many of these issues, indicating my own distance from either pole presently seeking to control Turkish destiny. I have spent part of each year during the past 20 in Turkey, and have observed as closely as possible the simultaneous parallel developments of an unyielding and dogmatic opposition giving way to a dangerous spiral of polarization. In my view, the prevailing leadership of the AKP, governing Turkey since 2002, has made its share of mistakes, but it has put the country on a course of development that raised living standards, improved public services, exhibited sensitivity to minority rights, and did its best to reconcile the secular orientation of the constitution with a broadened conception of religious freedom. Compared to other countries in the region, and indeed worldwide, this is a record to engender pride, but increasingly it gives rise to bitter recrimination, a variety of conspiracy allegations, and an atmosphere inimical to compromise and the public good. It is a truism that the rotation of governing parties is a sign of political health, suggesting that it makes sense to seek alternative leadership after 13 years of AKP governance, but it makes greater sense not to express this desire by a change through a predominantly negative approach that seems to be lurching toward a crisis of political legitimacy. Just as there is wisdom in the conventional wisdom of the saying, “the best is the enemy of the good,” so is there reason to ponder whether change for change sake is not irrational when there is no political alternative to AKP leadership, possibly best exercised at this stage in coalition with the CHP, in sight.]

 

 

Syria has become gridlocked. Following the West’s operation against ISIS, now Russia is conducting an air operation claiming that the operation is against ISIS. However, it is openly saying “I am here”. What does Russia want to do? Tense messages are being exchanged among NATO, Turkey and Russia. Are you worried about these developments? How long can Russia continue to cause this tension? For example, what would happen if Russian warplanes, that have violated the Turkish airspace for the last few days, shoot down a Turkish warplane?

 

Of course it would be a catastrophe to widen the Syrian combat zone to include a confrontation between Turkey and Russia: it would be politically catastrophic for a region already suffering from multiple conflicts and in danger of producing a larger war zone. In order to understand Russian foreign policy in Syria, it is necessary to realize that after the Cold War, Russia was more or less pushed out of the region. In the Cold War, it was a player, US and Soviet Union were more or less balancing each other in the spirit of bipolarity. I think Putin is a strong leader now, and has done his best to make Russia to be taken as seriously globally as the Soviet Union was taken. I would interpret this Russian move as part of a broader pattern of reassertion of Russian influence in the world. But it’s a dangerous game because of the fragility of the situation in Syria, the multiple players in this complex game, states, non-states, regional actors, non-regional actors, as well as the bad record of military intervention in the region, and beyond. It is always destabilizing when major states seek to alter their relative status in the geopolitical hierarchy. In the Asian setting this kind of issue takes the form of China’s rise and America’s decline, always believed since ancient times to be an occasion for war-generating confrontations.

 

I think there never has been a conflict such as Syria in the modern world that has such a complex cast of characters or political actors on all sides giving rise to many contradictions of alignment and opposition. One particularly dismaying contradiction is of course between the so-called opposition to Assad and the attack on ISIS since ISIS is also seeking the overthrow of the Damascus regime.

 

The US and Turkey trapped by similar contradictions. Turkey has the problem on the one side of not wanting its Syrian policies to have the side effect of strengthening the Kurdish movements in the region while at the same time wanting to cause the downfall of the Assad regime. So multiple contradictions, multiple tensions are present. One can only hope that Russia, the US, and Turkey each act prudently and sensibly, and don’t push their various involvements across thresholds where a regional war of even greater magnitude results.

 

To what extent Russia could increase the tension? What’s the plan of Russia? Why now?

 

These are difficult questions that are virtually unanswerable at this time. I think there is a danger of misinterpreting the Russian point of view, especially given American behavior in the world, which has included the marginalization of Russia in the period since the end of the Cold War. US behavior has been provocative on Russia’s borders with respect to Georgia a few years ago and more recently in Ukraine. Again maybe this Moscow diplomacy is nothing other than an attempt for Russia to say to the West, “If you don’t want a second Cold War, you better respect our vital security interests. You are not the only country with security interests. We have interests too. We’re tired of being ignored, and put under pressure. We are not a minor power, and seek to resume our rightful place in world politics. We have long been a great power and we demand to be taken once more as a great power. And that requires mutual respect.” I think this is the main goal of Russian policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

The encounter with Turkey seems to be a sideshow, it’s not the main priority of Moscow, whose main objective is the reset of the relationship with the West, particularly with the US., but also Europe. We need to keep in mind that the US and NATO has not taken appropriate account of Russian interests since the end of the Cold War, promoting policies that from Moscow’s perspective were aggressive and provocative, including weapons deployments in neighboring countries including Turkey. Of course, these comments on Russia’s intention is speculation on my part. Overall, it’s much too soon to tell what really Russia wants, which may depend on how the West reacts, which so far has been ambiguously.

 

There is another line of speculative interpretation that pays more attention to the Syrian situation. It calls attention to recent reports that Russia had privately or secretly offered an accommodation on Syria to the West two or three years ago. That was the period when Turkey and the US believed the Assad regime was about to collapse, and there was thus no reason to compromise. In such an atmosphere, Washington and Ankara refused even to consider such a Russian initiative. One way of understanding the recent Russian involvement is to say “This time you better accept a political compromise or the situation in Syria is going to get even worse”.

 

Whether such a compromise emphasizes agreeing on a ceasefire but leaving Assad in power remains unclear. The US, NATO, and Turkey have been saying “we can’t tolerate Assad as the leader.” In the background are some bad memories. Earlier Turkey made a major mistake by embracing too quickly the Assad regime. It was never a good decision to make Syria the poster child of the zero problems diplomacy. The Turkish leadership tried to persuade Assad to undertake democratic reforms after the outbreak of an anti-regime uprising in 2011. When Assad evidently failed to follow through on informal agreements to do so, an extremely awkward challenge was presented to Davutoğlu and Erdoğan. They had taken a controversial step by promoting accommodation with Syria and then in 2011 when Assad reacted in a very harsh way to the Arab Spring uprising that started in Dera’a shortly after the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. It seems important to take this history into account in grasping the evolution of Turkey’s policy toward Syria.

 

It should be appreciated that Turkey has played, in my view, an admirable humanitarian role with respect to Syrian refugees that now number over two million. It has done so far more for refugees than any other country in the region or in Europe, and it has done so quietly and in a humane way. I think the Turkish government has not been given proper credit for its various humanitarian initiatives. For instance, its support for Somalia several years ago was a notable contribution to avoiding a human catastrophe. At the time the rest of the world refused to do anything, regarding Somalia as a failed state and hopelessly chaotic situation. Despite the challenge, Turkey took this bold initiative; with impressive commitment, they tried to restore some kind of normalcy to Somalia, financing some major civic projects.

 

I would make the general point that Turkey has done some very good things internationally and regionally during the period of AKP governance for which the government, and especially its leadership, has not received deserved credit. Such a withholding of credit is one symptom of severe polarization that is destructive of the kind of policy debate and political conversation that is a sign of a functioning democracy of high quality.

 

Turkey’s reaction to Syria seemed emotional as it stopped all the relations when Assad refused to make the agreed reforms. Finally Turkey lost its chance to be in a position to influence Assad. 

 

I agree. I think Turkey resorted to a kind of impulsive diplomacy, which is not a good idea in international relations. It is true that not only did Ankara shift its policy when Assad failed to follow through after seeming to agree leading the Turkish leaders to interpret this failure of diplomacy as a personal betrayal of trust that ended any possibility of cooperation and compromise. We should remember that Assad did repress the early uprisings in Syria very brutally, including widely confirmed reports of the torture of Syrian children who had been part of the protest activity. It was morally unacceptable behavior on Assad’s part. I think the Turkish official reaction was understandable on a moral level, but did not provide a calculated basis for the interventionary policies that followed. Ankara jumped too quickly given the realities of the situation and seems to have misunderstood the Syrian internal conflict, badly underestimating the capabilities of the Damascus regime to withstand these challenges to its authoritarian and minority rule. The Turkish leadership seemed to act and think that Syria was similar to Libya, supposing Assad to be as isolated and weak as Qaddafi turned out to be, and would quickly collapse in the event of a small push from below and without.

 

At this point, don’t you think that Turkey underestimated Russia and Iran in their role as the main supporters of Syria? 

 

Yes, without a doubt, but it goes deeper. It’s not only Iran and Russia that lent Damascus support, but also the non-Sunni minorities within Syria that make up almost half of the population, and who believed they would be at risk if the Assad regime was overthrown. It was even clear to an outsider like myself that the Syrian government was also well-armed and trained, and quite relevantly possessed modern and extensive anti-aircraft capabilities. Even without taking account of Iran and Russia as allies of Assad, regime change in Syria should never have been perceived as a foregone conclusion. Turkish policy was mistaken during the early stages of Syrian strife when a quick victory of the sort that NATO achieved in Libya was anticipated. In retrospect, given the chaotic aftermath, observers now question whether the Libyan outcome, considered four years later, should ever have been treated as ‘a victory’ for the regime-changing intervention.

 

If the involvement of Iran and Russia are added to the political mix in Syria, Turkey’s Syrian policy becomes even more problematic as it seemed to assume that by helping in a minor way the array of anti-regime forces it would be enough to change the political balance, and produce the collapse of the Syrian state. Actually, the Turkish policy had the unintended effect of expanding the conflict.
In my judgment this failed policy reflected Ankara’s mistaken assessment of the power relationships in Syria and the region. Given the way the conflict in Syria has evolved the Turkish interpretation of the Syrian developments seemed quite unreliable, and not knowledge based. The Turkish approach especially tarnished the previously high reputation of Davutoğlu that had been built during his period as foreign minister, and even earlier when he served as chief advisor on foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s energy and intelligence were widely admired in this pre-Syrian period, and this had a major beneficial impact on Turkey’s standing in the region and world. His diplomatic skill put Turkey on the international diplomatic map. This was no small achievement, helping to modify the prior image of Turkey as the passive and subordinate junior partner of US, an image that lasted during the entire Cold War period. Despite the somewhat more independent foreign policy of the Ozel period, Turkey was widely perceived before Davutoğlu exerted his influence as having no significant foreign policy goals on Middle East issues that transcended Turkish borders.

 

Davutoğlu’s personal efforts really made a difference, which was confirmed for me by the reaction of some of the foreign officials who had related to him.

I had conversation with the Brazilian foreign minister who was deeply impressed by Davutoğlu’s statesmanship, by his search for a measure of independence in the face of America’s domination of the geopolitical scene, and by his intelligent understanding of diplomacy displayed during the joint Brazil/Turkey bold initiative to resolve the dangerous conflict associated with Iran’s nuclear program. As well, a leading Egyptian diplomate who had become foreign minister immediately after the overthrow of Mubarek and is currently serving as Secretary General of the Arab League, held a similar view of Davutoğlu. He was particularly impressed by Davutoglu’s intelligence, energy, social skills, and constructive diplomatic initiatives.

 

Syria was the first real break in that positive image, which was given greater weight for a series of reasons unrelated to Syria. Turkey began experiencing an unfair negative backlash in the media because of its clash with Israel. Until 2009 -2010 Turkey had very positive international image despite the intensity of the domestic polarization that has existed ever since 2002 when the AKP came to power. After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, which followed upon Erdoğan‘s confrontation with Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009, the international media and diplomatic treatment of Turkey shifted abruptly. Israel pushed back hard using its considerable influence within the international media, and giving adding weight to the preexisting secularist critiques of the AKP, which were especially prominent among the diaspora of Turkish academics and think tank experts living in Europe and North America. The failure of the Syria policy and the deterioration of relations with Israel need to be taken into account in understanding how Turkey is now perceived internationally.

 

Do you think this misperception is linked to Israel’s reaction?

 

It’s a complicated situation as my prior response tried to suggest. Many Turkish intellectuals overseas are very strong Kemalists, or at least ‘secularists,’ who have always been opposed to and threatened by the AKP. Ever since 2002, they tried their best to discredit Erdoğan and the AKP from the outset. I have had contact during the past 20 years with the secular elites here, regarding the ascent of the AKP as doomsday for republican Turkey. There is some tendency in 2015 to say that from 2002 until 2011 the AKP did fine, but since 2011 there has been a sharp decline. This kind of secularist revisionism will not withstand scrutiny of the pre-2011 political debate in Turkey, and is deeply ideological, seeking to insist that after 2011 Erdoğan changed his identity or revealed his true identity, namely the pursuit of authoritarian goals. I share some of this sense that the AKP political direction after 2011 moved toward the embrace of ‘majoritarian democracy’ as conferring a mandate to govern in accord with the values and expectation of the electoral majority without sufficient sensitivity to minority views and anxieties. In other words, what is most misleading is not the critique of recent policies and style, but the false claim that this attitude should now be given special credibility because earlier the current critics claim to have been positive about AKP governance during its early years in power.

 

The confrontation with Israeli expanded the political space for the articulation of anti-AKP points of view. Such a consideration puts the extremity of criticism of Turkey in its proper context. These Turkish intellectuals who were always been against this government were granted greater access to the international media. This intensified the already difficult situation in Turkey, and shaped what I regard as a distorted image Turkey’s political realities.

 

It is perverse to compare Erdoğan with Putin given the radical differences in the manner in which they shape their role as political leaders, as well as the great differences in political background and current agendas. Such a comment is not meant to whitewash the record of Erdoğan and the AKP or to deny that he exhibits some authoritarian tendencies, and has engaged in some unpardonable wrongdoing, including the endorsement of the police tactics used to control the Gezi Park demonstrations.

 

I just spent most of the day in the main immigration office in Istanbul trying to correct my own visa problems. I was struck by the presence of a huge portrait of Atatürk in all these government offices and not a single picture of the current Turkish leadership. This made a strong impression, reminding me of one dimension of Turkish originality that rarely attracts commentary. It is impossible to find another country where a dead leader continues to be the dominant and essentially uncontested iconic image of national political identity. Such reverence is especially striking given the degree to which the approach to Turkish identity associated with the AKP is at variance with

the Atatürk legacy as championed by the secularist opposition.

 

Atatürk’s lingering legacy was undoubtedly even greater in 1990’s when I first came to Turkey. Yet it is still rather unprecedented to have the current supposedly authoritarian figure without a portrait in government offices, and seen only in public spaces Turkey in the posters of political parties. Only Atatürk’s picture is omni-present in Turkish society. People should think about this. Such a visual imagery is important in the shaping of public consciousness, and invites claims by various oppositional groups of being the true heir of the Atatürk legacy.

 

What is going on in Syria? Is the country splitting up?

Certainly I am not intelligent or clairvoyant enough to peer into such a fogged up crystal ball. Only a fool would give a clear answer to such a question. We need to acknowledge that the Syrian reality in late 2015 is far too confused, too complicated to lend itself to a predicted future. And in fairness to Turkey and the criticism made earlier about misinterpreting the Syrian conflict it is helpful to realize that all the political actors who became involved either misinterpreted or manipulated the conflict. Turkey wasn’t alone. It was more intimately involved in Syria than most other countries. But all of them misunderstood the situation. So we have to conclude that what has been happening in the region during the last several years was not predictable. Even the most respected experts did not anticipate the convulsive events that have shaken the foundations of the region since 2011. This includes the extraordinary events that led observers to speak about ‘the Arab Spring.’ The Arab Spring surprised the world. No one predicted it and few predicted its counterrevolutionary aftermath.

I was in Egypt in February 2011, right after Tahrir Square. I felt at the time that the Egyptians didn’t understand that getting rid of an individual autocrat while leaving the whole bureaucracy, including the armed forces, in place was unlikely to produce the desired political changes. Hence, I was not surprised by the counterrevolutionary developments that followed, but I never expected the restoration of authoritarian rule to be as bloody, as sectarian as is turned out to be.

With respect to Syria, I think the best hope remains some kind of inclusive diplomatic process at the earliest possible time that searches for enough common ground to establish a durable ceasefire along with a political atmosphere that encourages compromise and patience. Nothing less will save the remnants of what was a country with a deep historical and cultural past.

Do you think there is hope for a ceasefire and diplomatic solution? Or is only solution partition at this point?

I think the most probable futures are either some kind of partition or some kind of inclusive diplomatic process. And I think the fragile diplomatic process is probably better of the two options but at this point it may be the less likely one. I think that Russia and the US at least under the Obama presidency – it’s not clear what will happen afterwards – have come to two connected conclusions about Syria: “it’s better to get a political compromise, it’s better not to allow ISIS to spread beyond its present area of control.” The Russians have their own worries about a further spread of Islamic extremism to their Central Asian region. Moscow faces a continuing challenge in Chechnya that could explain part of the motivation for their risky and controversial Syrian intervention.

Turkey too has been accused of claiming to be fighting against ISIS but really giving military priority to its effort to contain the Kurdish movements in and around Turkey. I would need an operational awareness of the battlefield realities to assess such an argument. Part of what makes Syria so confusing is that all the various actors have disclosed and undisclosed complex, contradictory agendas. Reductive binary formulas such as state v. society, Sunni v. Shia, Saudi Arabia v. Iran, United States/Turkey v. Assad regime all evade the centrality of this complexity that follows from the multi-dimensionality of the various overlapping tensions and interests.

I know of no other political conflict that has had such complexity and contains so many contradictory and hidden elements. This feature alone is worth pondering. Maybe the Syrian anticipates the characteristic way we will come to understand conflict in the 21st century: patterns of multiple involvements by states, non-states and movements pursuing contradictory and cross-cutting goals, augmented or obstructed by the active participation of a range of regional and global actors. This kind of configuration may increasingly become the bewildering shape of warfare as the century continues to unfold.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Is the map of the Middle East being redrawn?

I think that the Sykes-Picot agreement is responsible for some of the present troubles in the region because it helped to form political communities that were convenient for the colonial powers but didn’t reflect the national identities and the affinities of ethnic and religious communities that had long existed in the region. This current turmoil can be interpreted as a deferred revolt against the colonialist legacy of Sykes-Picot, which offers an example of extreme Orientalist diplomacy with disastrous results for the societies affected.

But having emphasized this revolt as being partly against those boundaries imposed a century ago, I think for state system remains quite strong in the Middle East given the absence of viable alternatives. There is lots of pressure not to revert to some variant of the pre-state fragmented international world that preceded the modern state system. And if the politics of fragmentation succeeds in this region, there are many other subnational movements in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America likely to seek their own sovereign destiny. I think a strong geopolitical interest persists for better or worse to keep the borders of the Middle East more or less as they are even while acknowledging their inadequacy, but less so than the turmoil associated with conscious efforts to break up the existing sovereign states. Whether the state system survives its various challenges in the Middle East will also depend on the wisdom and prudence of territorial governments in protecting the rights of distinct ethnicities and religions, and more generally the extent to which these governments respect the rights of all who live within their boundaries.

It is certainly true that if I were a Kurdish nationalist, I would see this as an opportune moment to achieve the national goals for Kurdish movement. And I think the Iraqi and the Syrian Kurds have taken advantage of the fluidity of the situation to further their ambitions. The success of Kurdish movements in neighboring countries partly explains the breakdown, at least temporarily, of the so-called peace or reconciliation process here in Turkey. It is my suspicion that the PKK decided at some point that it should be able to achieve as good an outcome in Turkey as the Iraqis and the Syrians seem to be getting in their struggles. Further, it seems plausible that the PKK current leadership decided HDP was not a suitable vehicle by which to reach this desired outcome as it was committed to some sort of accommodation without exerting sufficient pressure on the Turkish government.

So as an outsider to Turkey, I don’t have any claims to special knowledge. Nevertheless, according to my observations, I think there exists a split in the Kurdish movement. Part of the reason for this belief is that the ceasefire was repudiated by the PKK shortly after the June elections in which the HDP had performed so impressively. The repudiation doesn’t make sense unless the PKK wanted to spoil that political victory of the HDP. From this angle the renewal of violence that has emerged in recent weeks is a tactical move by the PKK reflecting its more ambitious agenda for resolving the conflict with the Turkish state that has lasted for decades.

In my opinion, the AKP also shares some responsibility for this renewal of violence as between the PKK and the Turkish state. Erdoğan cast doubt on the legitimacy of the reconciliation process by the way he campaigned before the June 7th elections. In this period he seemed often to be appealing to the MHP constituency in an effort to attract ultra-nationalist votes. And by adopting such an approach, Erdoğan definitely created the impression, whether or not intended, that he was no longer committed to the reconciliation process that he himself had earlier initiated. Under these circumstances, it would be quite natural for Kurds to react by themselves withdrawing from such unpromising negotiations. Kurdish reactions can be summarized: “We don’t want to get tricked and fooled by engaging in a reconciliation process that will go nowhere,” especially as led by someone who is a Turkish nationalist that does not want to solve the Kurdish problem in a manner that respects Kurdish hopes and reasonable expectations.

PYD is trying to establish cantons on Turkey’s southern border. It has become an ally of the US in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, the ceasefire with the PKK has ended. The opposition movement against Barzani has become stronger in Northern Iraq. Barzani’s chair is shaking. What do the Kurds want to do in the current conjuncture?

 

I think the situation is fluid as I said, can go in many directions. It’s like a river with no clear riverbanks. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I believe it is important to realize that the Kurdish movement has always been quite divided and there are several diverse tendencies within the Kurdish national movement. The fact that Öcalan who remains in prison – despite this, he remains the only potentially unifying and authoritative Kurdish voice. Whether he still has this credibility with the PKK and HDP leadership is rather uncertain as of 2015. If Öcalan were to deliver a moderating message at this time that was received as an authentic expression of his views, it could help end this recurrence of civil strife. If he was released from prison or shifted from prison to house arrest it could allow him to play a more active constructive role that might calm the broader situation while furthering Kurdish attainable goals. It’s in Turkey’s great interest, in my view, to solve the Kurdish problem in a durable way. And I think the government and the Kurdish people seemed to have been on a path to find a solution. It should be appreciated that the AKP has made a stronger effort than any earlier political leadership in the country to address the Kurdish challenge through a process of humane accommodation. Now sadly we must ask whether the Turkish president in his ambition to control the June elections spoiled this possibility. It’s hard to tell what will happen but there are several reasons to fear that the renewal of Kurdish violence is spinning out of control. If this is so it will have very serious repercussions, and not only Turkey but for the whole region. You may be familiar with the expression ‘perfect storm’ to describe a situation in which several adverse developments come together at the same time. I am afraid that such a perfect strorm is enveloping the region, and threatens the relative calm of Turkey.

 

Do you think the Kurds in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey have as a goal the creation of a new Kurdish entity in the form of a state? Is it possible that we will witness the emergence of a Kurdish state?

I think this is certainly the dream of some Kurds, which indeed has been the case ever since the end of World War I. Yes, the emergence of a Kurdish political entity remains a possibility but seems unlikely to happen because of a lack of flexibility in these three countries to allow some kind of autonomous of confederal association of these distinct Kurdish national movement to come into being. It is possible that the best solution for all sides would be to invent a new and creative form of political association for the Kurdish peoples in the region that enjoyed transnational autonomy, but did not undermine territorial sovereignty. In an extreme form Kurdish nationalism could force the redrawing of existing state boundaries so as to delimit an emergent Kurdish state. As mentioned earlier such a development would be resisted vigorously both by the three governments of the present states faced with secessionist threats and also by the international community that is generally opposed to any further fragmentation of existing territorial states. India, Russia, and China are confronted by secessionist movements that pose threats to territorial unity.

Today non-state actors are very active in the Middle East and the most important of them is ISIS. Hezbollah, the al-Nusra Front and ISIS are major players in the main continuing struggles in Syria and Iraq. As the media frequently says, ISIS in the Middle East now controls a piece of land bigger than the UK, so it is very dominant. What do you think about ISIS? In your opinion, how strong is this non-state actors’ effect? How long can ISIS continue to exist?

I think the salience of these non-state and often transnational political actors is a 21st century phenomenon. It reflects the impact of the new technologies, the social media, and the discovery that you don’t need to be a government to organize widely, effectively, and inexpensively. Every country is vulnerable to such challenges. The most important disclosure of this new political situation took place in 2001 in the form of the 9/11 attacks on the US. Prior to these shocking attacks the US projected itself as the most powerful country in the history of the world, seemingly invulnerable to any attack by another state. What these attacks demonstrated was that despite the mighty American military machine the country was acutely vulnerable, but not from traditional adversaries. These 19 unarmed extremists who were prepared to give up their life exposed this vulnerability for the world to witness. These al-Qaeda hijackers were able without any weapons to cause a major trauma in West with lasting radical effects on security policy, and not only in US. The US Government aggravated the situation by reacting inappropriately, declaring a global war on terror rather than treating the attacks in a similar way to how terrorism had been treated in past—namely, as a crime. In my opinion, if the US had adopted such an approach it would have produced a very different set of outcomes, and that in my view would have enhanced rather than diminished national and global security. To understand why the war option was chosen it is necessary to consider the wider political context. The neoconservative Bush presidency was intent on finding a convincing pretext for launching an attack on Iraq, and this was provided by 9/11. In other words, the US sought to bring into being a war mentality so as to be in a position to pursue its preexisting foreign policy goals that were present quite independent of responding to the al-Qaeda challenge. This reality of the situation was most unfortunate, and many societies in the Middle East and Asia are living with the tragic consequences of this unduly militarized response.

Particularly in the Middle East, this role of non-state movements and organizations has turned out to be historically influential. To comprehend this development it is helpful to consider the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. At the time few observers expected the regime of the Shah to collapse in response to such an unarmed populist challenge. The government was very well equipped and quite brutal, repressive and violent in reacting to oppositional activity. Few observers expected the movement against the Shah to be so successful. This surprising outcome in Iran inspired movements elsewhere in the Islamic World

On one side, you have a popular movement of radical discontent from below as in Iran, and on the other side, you have the kind of 9/11 scenario where a small number of people are capable of disrupting a major modern country and permanently revising its whole approach to security and stability.

These developments have altered the nature of international conflict in fundamental ways. And again Syria as with so many other current issues helps us understand this new set of circumstances: when Hezbollah entered the war on the side of Assad it shifted the balance, at least temporarily.

How can we explain this seemingly sectarian response? There are present these crosscutting dimensions of conflict that make any interpretation contingent and complex. It’s not just state against state as in traditional forms of international conflict. Additional dimensions include the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia, and also a resurgent tribalism, revealing its relevance in Yemen and in Libya, as well as in Iraq (and also Afghanistan). Political leaders have underestimated the degree to which these old forms of political organizations and collective loyalty have reasserted their relevance in conflict situations, both assuming a religious form as here in Turkey and political forms as in these other countries. A major aspect of this mishandling of the post World War I diplomacy was to treat tribalism and religion as irrelevant to the establishment of stable and legitimate political communities. The region is living with these fundamental oversights of a hundred years ago.

ISIS? They’re so brutal, and also exhibit a sophisticated approach to media. What does ISIS symbolize in Middle East? Will they survive?

 

I hope that ISIS will disintegrate or disappear, but this may be wishful thinking. At this time it is difficult to tell. One thing that’s very interesting about ISIS in comparison to Al Qaeda is that while its modes of combat and tactics are barbaric, its operational sensibility is more modern in the sense of being in tune with the digital age. It has demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of new communications technologies that Al Qaeda never possessed. ISIS represents a strange new phenomenon in the contemporary world, but we should be careful about considering it unique with respect to the depravity of its behavior. We need to take some note of comparable behavior by governments that are accepted as legitimate members of international society. We can ask in this spirit “Is ISIS really more barbaric than Saudi Arabia that has presided over more than 100 beheadings in the first six months of this year, that is, more than two a day.” There is a relevant saying “It’s not where you look, it’s what you see”. There are public lashings in Saudi Arabia. Saudi judicial authorities just sentenced a 17-year-old boy who participated in a demonstration that was critical of the monarchy. He was sentenced to death, but that is not all. It was officially decreed that he be crucified in public. You rarely hear anything at all about that kind of state barbarism, and even the UN signals its indifference. Saudi Arabia has just been elected to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and beyond this, their ambassador has been selected to chair the most influential committee within the organization. This is just one small illustration of the many contradictions we must live with given the way the world is organized.

 

There is something else that deserves comment. We need to remember that it is not only these non-state organizations that are engaged in terrorism. If you look at the suffering Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza, it becomes clearer that state terrorism also is a part of the picture, especially if you want to understand the process by which political violence has escalated beyond reasonable limits in many different conflict settings.

 

ISIS has shocked us most. It is not only the way they entered the political stage and behaved, but the alarming realization that ISIS was able to develop so quickly an effective military and political capability. This contrasts with the US experience. US spent billions in Afghanistan and in Iraq to train national armies but they have ended up being almost useless. We need to reflect upon how ISIS managed to produce seemingly overnight this extraordinary military capability. How did they do it?

And why – which is another thing I can’t explain – why is ISIS not more vulnerable to the kind of weaponry that the US, Russia, and Turkey each possess? If, as seems to be true, that it is possible to target an individual car, and the news media shows ISIS convoys moving from one place to another in areas under its control. You would think that these convoys offer an easy target, but they never seem to be attacked. There is also drone warfare that seems to have not affected the level or nature of ISIS combat activity. This is a mystery.

 

From what we know, Saudi Arabia had some role in the emergence of ISIS by way of early financing, and according to some reports, struck a deal with ISIS leadership– in exchange for support ISIS promised not to attack anything directly involving Saudi Arabia. Was this true? What is perplexing is that we have no way of confirming or disconfirming such reports. It is more conclusive that the US contributed to the rise of ISIS through its encouragement of sectarianism as a tactic of its ill-fated occupation in Iraq. This sectarian move took the form of purging the top Sunni military leadership from the Iraqi armed forces. Many of those purged apparently later provided the personnel to shape the military command structure of ISIS. There is much conjecture about how Turkey and the US acted toward ISIS in its early period when the Western priority was the overthrow of the Assad regime, and ISIS seemed to offer the most effective anti-Assad military option. As of now this attempt to explain the underpinning and background of ISIS is based on conjecture and bits of information, and is in no way reliable.

 

Recently we have seen Iran’s nuclear deal and the likelihood of re-participation in the Western system, no embargoes, Tehran gaining respect, etc. What changed on Iran’s side to make them accept this deal? What’s Iran’s next step?

 

You can’t think of Iran in isolation from the Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is not acting in a political vacuum. In recent years Iran was being threatened over and over again with unlawful military attacks on its nuclear program and it was subjected to harsh international sanctions that were having a major impact on the economy and on the people. From Iran’s point of view, especially after the elections of Rouhani on 2013, and with the support of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, a calculation was evidently made that the country and its people would be better off with an accommodation with the West and normalization than by a continuing confrontation. Further, as seems probable, Iran never intended to have nuclear weapons, beyond creating some kind of option to protect against being bullied or attacked. From this perspective Iran gave up nothing that mattered to get out of this trap, although it will be obliged to accept a more intrusive and rigorous inspection regime than has been established for any other country. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons contradict the values of Islam. It would be wrong to disregard something as clear as this from a religious leader. My view is that there is little evidence that Iran was an aspiring nuclear weapons state, and even if it was, there is no legal bar to acquiring nuclear weapons under the circumstances, especially if Iran exercised its NPT treaty withdrawal option. At the same Iran undoubtedly felt that it was prudent to create at least some kind of non-nuclear deterrent force sufficient to offset the aggression of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and US consisting of destabilization interferences in its domestic life as well as threats of future large-scale attacks.

 

I view this agreement as a constructive development for the Middle East and I think that overriding the intense opposition to the agreement from Israel and Saudi Arabia is significant. For the first time it puts limits on these two special relationships with the US that have proved so harmful to the Middle East, and displayed a capacity to override a determined effort by AIPAC, the Israeli lobbying group that has been so effective in the past.

 

The region is very complex, filled with tensions and contradictions and uncertainties and unknowns and unknowable factors. As I said earlier, anyone who sets forth and unqualified answers to these policy questions seems to me a dogmatic fool out of touch with the confused, contradictory, and overlapping layers of complexity.

 

Everybody agrees that the world order established after World War I is collapsing. We have been suffering from pains of that since the Arab Spring, right? How long will this suffering last? Where do you think this will lead? Where is the region heading? How you expect to be the Middle East in 2025?

 

The regional order imposed and established after World War I is being tested as never before. During the Cold War there occurred many internal revolts, coup d’etats, but never this kind of turmoil and complexity, and never the current forms of proxy warfare engaging external actors. And this political reality must also be combined with the behavior of elites in these countries whose destinies are tied closely to the world economy. Economic globalization is part of this picture that has created a very unfair distribution of wealth as between the upper classes and the rest of the population in many countries. Such a pattern is an essential feature of the Egyptian reality and is characteristic of the situation that exists in most Arab countries. To alter such a structure depends on the success of a radical transformative movement. To maintain this inequitable structure of power and wealth presupposes autocratic, and often highly repressive, control of the society. The notion that you can bring Western liberal democracy to these countries with such an unfair economic structure is quite delusional. Throughout the Bush presidency that featured democracy promotion goals its preferred national candidates failed consistently to win much political support. The same thing occurred in Egypt after 2011 when the hopes and expectations in the West was focused a known secular liberal figure like Amr Moussa. It was hoped and widely believed by the Cairo elites that the Egyptian people would elect Moussa as their president. This expectation grossly underestimating the strength of Muslim Brotherhood, which was further enhanced at the time by the Salafi entry into the political arena.

 

There were many geopolitical miscalculations. It was thought that the displacement of Saddam Hussein in Iraq would produce a major political and economic victory for the West with positive regional reverberations. Instead it produced strategic gains for Iran and national chaos in Iraq that shows few signs of abating. In other words despite the battlefield dominance surrounding the American military intervention the result has been the direct opposite of what was intended–chaos in the country and alignment with Iran.

 

A similar reversal of expectations has resulted in Egypt. Instead of Western style secular democracy Egypt is experiencing worse autocracy than during the period of Mubarak’s rule. The Sisi government is more repressive. The governmental alternatives for the states in the Middle East at this time seem to be chaos or autocratic government. Turkey is so far a major exception to this dismaying regional pattern, although sadly many Turkish people don’t realize this, or appreciate their relatively good fortune. In the current political environment it is very dangerous for Turks not to protect the gains that have been achieved in Turkey during the last 13 years, and indeed since the establishment of the Republic. Such an assertion is mindful of the failures of AKP leadership and governmental policies, especially since 2011, but the potentiality for constructive governance in an essentially democratic framework remains, and should not be further jeopardized by irresponsible opposition tactics.

 

How these various conflicts in the region will work out is impossible to predict at this point. We can venture the opinion that unless some radical challenge leads to a second Arab Spring there seems no way to escape the terrible dilemma confronting the region as between chaotic conflict and authoritarian order. A popular saying that I quote in my book [Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring] on the region: “The people prefer a 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos” Overcoming this dilemma, which has terrible consequences for ordinary human beings is a great challenge that anyone who seeks to envision and realize a better future in the region. I don’t pretend to have the political imagination that can identify how this challenge might best be met, and those political actors that have intervened, trumpeting such democratizing intentions, have consistently made the situation worse. Only Tunisia where the West has remained mainly aloof seems to have some chance of making the transition from corrupt autocracy to a governance structure that is somewhat more equitable and less repressive.

 

In your last book you say: “The sharply falling price of oil in recent months has led to further uncertainties in the region and world and, if this continues, will likely somewhat diminish the geopolitical importance of the Middle East.” If the oil prices continue to fall, what could happen in the Middle East?

 

This assertion didn’t mean to suggest that the Middle East becomes unimportant, only somewhat less geopolitically contested. Besides the energy dimension there are other reasons to think that the region will remain important, including tensions surrounding the role of Israel and efforts to contain the further spread of Islamic radicalism. And then there are geopolitical habits that do not change quickly. The West has been involved for so long in seeking to control the region that it is unlikely to suddenly abandon the region. I think what I meant to express by pointing to the falling price of oil is that oil had been the most important economic and geostrategic interest in the entire world, and this salience might lessen given the expansion of non-Middle Eastern energy sources. Europe could not maintain its economy without reliable access to Middle Eastern oil during the Cold War and the last portion of the 20th century. More recently, with the development of alternative energy capabilities in Germany and France, there is a reduced feeling of dependence on Middle Eastern oil than existed earlier. The West seemed ready to fight World War III to prevent Saudi Arabia oil reserves from falling into Soviet hands. Jimmy Carter made it clear in 1979 that the US would use nuclear weapons to defend the Western interests in the Middle East in reaction to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan invasion.

 

Also relevant here is what Obama has called “the pivot to Asia” expressive of a sense that the new center of world politics is likely to be the contest for control of the Asia Pacific region. First there was a shift after the Cold War, from Europe to the Middle East and now the next shift of emphasis may be from the Middle East to Asia, although this is far from clear at this point. But that should not be interpreted to mean that the Middle East will lose its importance as a zone of turmoil and rivalry.

 

Turkey’s biggest ally, the US is cooperating with the PKK which Turkey is at war with. Its biggest neighbor, Russia is militarily standing behind a regime Turkey is trying to topple. Do you still think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is successful?

 

Unless I misunderstand your intention, this strikes me as a loaded question. First of all, I am not clear that you can say that the US is in really active collaboration with PKK. NATO and the US continue to view the PKK as a terrorist organization. This unexpected convergence of interests between adversaries does produce temporary impressions of collaboration, which reflects the contradictory and crosscutting patterns of overlapping conflicts in the region. It is an aspect of this bewildering new phase of international relations. For the US this is strange and unfamiliar territory. It claims to be fighting a war against terror, but at the same time it tacitly allies with terrorist organizations yet continues to classify such expedient allies as ‘terrorist.” This seems self-contradictory. All of the political actors in the region are somewhat engaged in this self-contradictory geopolitics which, as I say, seems to be the new signature of 21st century conflict. These kinds of questions did not arise to any serious degree throughout the Cold War that was dominated by the bipolar standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. Prior to this, during the first half of the 20th century, the colonial system still controlled the region, although confronted by various types of sporadic resistance.

 

There is one important facet of the situation in the Middle East that we haven’t touched on, namely, the reality of a post-colonial world. And this means, above all, that there is far less West-centric control of what’s going on in this region. The West has lost most of its capacity to shape the politics of the region, which it retained until the end of the Cold War. I think the US Government, especially under the banner of neo-conservatism and ‘democracy promotion,’ was primarily responsible for the idea that it could and should establish a new political architecture in the region after the Cold War. The failure of the 2003 Iraq intervention also confirmed that this vision of a new future for the region was driven partly by Israeli priorities, being responsible for a terrible geopolitical disaster that deeply discredited American foreign policy in the Middle East, and has continued to have detrimental effects. If we are reluctant to treat the Sykes-Picot Agreement as the root cause of the regional turmoil, then we should probably point the finger of blame at the Iraqi war, especially because it greatly intensified the sectarian dimension of the overall İslamic configuration of forces during the American led occupation that lasted more than a decade. This sectarian occupation policy arguably led indirectly to the emergence of ISIS, created or at least strengthened Al Qaeda of Iraq and Al Qaeda of the Arab peninsula, which seems now to be the strongest and most active branch of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. There are many wrongdoing actors in the region. It is misleading to assign causal primacy to any one issue. Many irresponsible and destructive actions were undertaken by the variety of actors pursuing their own agendas without regard for the general circumstances prevailing in the region.

 

There are additional unresolved problems in the region: above all the Israel-Palestine encounter that for the people of the Arab world is a very important part of the explanation for why Israel becomes so nervous whenever there is a democratic movement in its neighborhood. Israel realizes that the more democratic an Arab government becomes, the more likely it is that it will be exert pressures on its leadership to adopt a stronger anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian position. These overlapping complexities makes it difficult to the point of impossibility to interpret in any useful way how the interplay of forces will play out in the future.

 

To summarize, Davutoğlu couldn’t be expected to have anticipated this present set of circumstances in the Middle East. The supposed collaboration between the US and the PKK in the context of the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS struggle is something that continues to work against a coherent depiction of the conflict pattern. When evaluating Davutoğlu’s foreign policy record it seems appropriate to distinguish the period before the Arab Spring from what came later. I believe that Davutoğlu’s diplomacy was extraordinarily successful up to the Arab Spring. It is also helpful to realize that no political leader could be expected to have anticipated the ruptures brought about by the Arab Spring. The unfolding developments were not grasped by the political imagination of any the actors, and the events confused and surprised academic experts, as well. Davutoğlu’s affirmative reaction to the Arab Spring does now seem premature and overly optimistic. It included the faulty assessment that the mass dissatisfaction with authoritarian government exhibited by the various uprisings was irreversible. He was enthusiastic about the events in Egypt and Tunisia as heralding inevitable further transformations in the region. He was particularly positive about the agency or the new role of Arab youth in transforming the politics of the region.

 

What Davutoğlu and others underestimated, which bears comparison with his miscalculations in Syria, is the strength, resolve, and effectiveness of counterrevolutionary forces in the region. In fairness to him, others also didn’t anticipate the convulsive aftermath of 2011, although some wise voices were more cautious in their efforts to depict what to expect, realizing that the fragility of the uprisings and their supportive movements made the future opaque. He along with others in the region were also mistaken in the belief that it was possible to create a coherent policy to moderate the counterrevolutionary developments that have been dominating the political scene since 2011.

 

I continue to believe that Turkey had persuasive principled reasons for opposing the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt. Unfortunately, given the balance of regional forces led by Saudi Arabia and international forces led by the United States, the Sisi coup was widely encouraged by an array of forces that were deeply opposed to the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt. As a result, Turkey found itself at odds with the new regional consensus, led by the Gulf monarchies and quietly endorsed by Israel and the United States, which welcomed this counterrevolutionary backlash. One consequence has been the decline of Turkish influence in the Middle East.

 

It should be recalled that in the months during and after the Arab Spring, Erdogan was the most popular political leader in the region and indeed in the world. He was greeted very positively when he visited Egypt in the spring of 2011. While there he even annoyed the Brotherhood by encouraging Egypt to adopt a secular approach to its political future in a speech given at Cairo University. Erdoğan’s advocacy of such an inclusive and pluralist approach to the post-Mubarak situation was ignored in Turkey where it should have been welcomed by the secular opposition. Looking back, it seems evident that what Erdoğan was then advocating, if followed, would likely have produced a more moderate and less stressful future for Egypt. There were thus two misfortunes: Turkish polarization turned a deaf ear to Erdoğan’s message, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s triumphalism repudiated his counsel of secular pluralism.

 

Before passing any adverse judgment, as I have been saying, it is only fair to take account of the fact that no one has successfully ridden this wild horse that emerged from the Arab Spring. It is certainly true that Davutoğlu hasn’t been successful in riding it, nor has Erdoğan. It seems appropriate to be critical in a constructive way by understanding that faced with such an unpredictable set of developments it is impossible for anyone to comprehend how the situation will evolve, and therefore it is wise to be cautious and non-committal while voicing hopes amid such fluidity. At this point the challenge facing the Turkish government is how to recover some kind of control over events that is firm while opposing the brutal and violent tactics of both ISIS and the Assad regime. Both of these political actors, and others, are guilty of massive atrocities. It suggests the distortion of perception that is produced by anti-terrorist propaganda. If ISIS is made the focus of condemnation, as in the recent Western media coverage of conflict in the region, the effect is to downplay the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, the wrongdoing of the Saudi government, and the unacceptable behavior of a range of other political actors. Tragically, there is throughout the region much blood on many hands.

 

In an interview you gave in 2010 you said “Everyone in the world admires Turkey. Turkey has achieved what the UN could not do”. What do you think about the situation now? Does the world still admire Turkey?  Turkey was a role model, a success story for many countries in the Middle East. With their support of Palestine, with the soft power they created, zero problems with neighbors, developing trade and investments with neighbors, etc. How about now? How is Turkey seen now in Middle East?

 

I don’t recall my statement in 2010, but it strikes me now as an unfortunate exaggeration on my part even in the atmosphere of widespread admiration and respect for Turkey that existed back then. There are many reasons for the international shift in the attitude toward Turkey that has taken place in the last five years. More than anything else, it is important to realize that Arab elites are primarily preoccupied with their own survival. These elites believe that their survival is threatened by democratic nationalist movements in the region, whether in Egypt with the Tahrir uprising or the Palestinian movement. They view stability as the prime value and in this post Arab Spring period the Turkish government is regarded as following a different agenda, more oriented around ideological issues of Sunni nationalism than supportive of the Arab consensus seeking to restore political quietism. Because Turkey favored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and is supportive of Hamas in Gaza it is treated as an unreliable collaborator by these Arab elites.

 

On a popular level, there’s a much more mixed perception and Turkey is generally appreciated for its support of the Palestinians. Turkey is more likely to be seen as following a principled position in relation to Egypt and in relation to some of the other conflicts in the region. If a sustainable diplomatic solution can be soon found in Syria, a big if, then I think Turkey could very quickly recover its positive image in the region, and a renewed effort by other Middle Eastern governments to emulate its economic growth policies and its political stablity. Although the economy and the political situation have definitely deteriorated, Turkey still remains the only genuine success story in the region. Despite all the efforts to discredit Turkey, if you look beneath the surface of the barrage of current criticisms, Turkey is, on balance, by far the most promising country in the region. And one hopes and even prays that Turkey can overcome its immediate challenges with respect to the Kurds, ISIS, and the Syrian spillover. If these challenges can be met Turkey will be able to resume the role that it had played so promisingly in the years preceding the Arab Spring.

 

According to you, what’s the biggest success of Turkey since 2002?

 

The most obvious answer is to put restraints on the role of the Turkish military with respect to the governing process. This is a domestic development, but it affects Turkey’s international behavior because it means that policy formation became more subject to civilian control. Despite all the criticisms of the Turkish leadership, Turkey is no longer the sort of national security state that it used to be. It is well to recall that the international discourse on the ‘deep state’ arose to describe the degree to which Turkey’s foreign policy was shaped by unaccountable and unelected forces hidden from public view within its security and intelligence bureaucracies, a set of circumstances incompatible with the functioning of democratic governance.

 

The fact that in 2003 – 2004 a coup against the AKP did not happen represented an extraordinary achievement by the Erdoğan leadership for which he and the party have been given almost no credit, especially by the internal opposition in Turkey. As far as foreign policy concerned, I think Ankara’s most impressive achievement was to depart from the Cold War passivity of Turkey and to create an independent and constructive regional and even global role that was tied to Washington. Along these lines, especially given the contentious mood of the present, it should be remembered that Turkey emerged between 2002 and 2011 as the most trusted, intelligent, reliable international voice for much of the non-aligned movement. Quite remarkably Turkish influence was felt not only in the Middle East, but in Africa, and to some extent in parts of Asia.

 

Turkey along with Brazil even challenged U.S. strategic dominance in this period. While it was not an accident, it came as a surprise that these two countries could emerge from the shadows so impressively, and despite the stark differences in the orientation and outlook of their respective leaders, the conservative Erdoğan in Turkey, and the leftist Lula in Brazil. It was in this period that the proactive foreign policy of the AKP were put forward, gaining widespread respect for Turkey. As mentioned earlier, after 2011 this positive image of Turkey’s assertiveness lost its glamor, and was even discredited in some quarters. I think this loss of influence was partly a side effect of overconfidence on the part of the AKP and Erdoğan, who after winning eight consecutive elections became more antagonistic at home and more controversial abroad. Erdoğan may have become exasperated by the relentless criticism of an opposition never acknowledged the impressive successes of the early AKP years. In an unfortunate display of defiance Erdoğan seemed to embrace so-called majoritarian democracy, apparently believing that because he had won all these elections he could justifiably claim a mandate to govern from the Turkish people, and could overlook the objections of an embittered opposition that was determined, whatever he might do, to denigrate and undermine the policies being pursued.

 

And what’s the biggest mistake?

 

Jumping on the Syrian horse too quickly and then jumping off too abruptly. Beyond this, Erdoğan abandoned his earlier political style of compromise and pragmatic goals. He increasingly vented controversial opinions that enraged the opposition and overreacted, as with respect to Gezi in 2013, to challenges from the Turkish citizenry that contributed to a worsening of polarization.

 

What are the main criticisms of AKP’s foreign policy. Do you think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy was enacting a Pan-Islamist ideology? Do you think Turkey is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East? Is Turkish foreign policy sectarian?

On the question of pan-Islamic ideology, I think Davutoğlu may be sympathetic with such a vision but his understanding and world view as embodied in his Strategic Depth book, is one that is both multicivilizational and transcivilizational, as well as being deeply rooted in a strong sense of the distinctiveness of Turkey’s national culture and political history. I find it misleading to accuse him of pursuing as Foreign Minister a pan-Islamic ideology. I think it is more accurate to think of Davutoğlu as a visionary and ethical nationalist who looks back upon the Ottoman period mainly as a time of Turkish achievement and glory. And now he looks forward to a Turkey that doesn’t dominate other countries, leads by example, and is on the giving and receiving end of mutual enrichment through cultural contact. He favors an international role for Turkey that is inconsistent with a pan-Islamic approach and from its outset gave the highest priority to an all out Turkish effort to be accepted as a full EU member. His animating dream was for Turkey to participate meaningfully in Europe, Africa, and Asia, serving as an intercivilizational hinge, but without the promotion of a pan-islamic agenda.

As far as sectarianism is concerned, I think Turkey did its best in this first years of AKP ascendancy to avoid any kind of sectarianism in shaping its policies within and beyond its borders. In this regard it is notable that reconciliation with Assad was the first notable initiative of the Zero Problems foreign policy that Davutoğlu initiated. If Turkey had pursued a strictly Sunni dominated agenda, surely they would have chosen Qaddafi or some other leader in the region but surely not the Alewite led regime of Assad.

And if you remember, it was Turkey, jointly with Brazil, that took the initiative with Iran on the nuclear issue in 2010. Turkey was heavily criticized in the West for exceeding its proper place in the geopolitical problem-solving hierarchy applicable to the region. Turkey was guilty of stepping on sensitive geopolitical toes by acting without a green light from Washington. Overall, I think it is completely inaccurate to blame Turkey for sectarianism in the pre-Arab Spring period.

In the post-Arab Spring period, there was a convergence of views as between the democratic tendencies in some countries and the rise of Sunni movements in Syria, in Egypt and in Yemen. There seemed present a temptation to align Turkish foreign policy with support for these Sunni movements. But as I say, such support was a consistent response to democratizing tendencies and opposition to cruel authoritarian regimes that used great violence against their people. This was Ankara’s original argument for turning against Assad. In reaction to what took place in Syria Davutoğlu was compelled to refine and clarify his doctrine. Now it became zero problems with people rather than governments, and if governments kill their own citizens then problems with inter-governmental relations will emerge. In retrospect, we can criticize Davutoğlu for not making this distinction evident from the outset.

If you consider the Sisi coup against the Brotherhood, it was the overthrow of an elected government and the commission of atrocities that are offer the best justification for Turkey’s hostility to the military takeover. On the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy record, I find this justification persuasive.

I think Erdoğan’s reaction, going back to World Economic Forum, against Shimon Peres was a genuine and spontaneous expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people. And for better and worse, Erdoğan says what he feels and gets himself in lots of trouble as a result. But on that occasion, he was expressing a widely shared moral and political repudiation of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. Erdoğan was voicing his opposition to the kind of tactics Israel used in Gaza, including its reliance on excessive force and the repeated attacks directed at the civilian population.

As far as I know, in each of these situations, Turkey has opposed leaders that massively attack their own people or engage aggression against a foreign people in ways that are inconsistent with international humanitarian law and normal moral principles.  

Turkey claims that it is pursuing a foreign policy based on ethics and conscience. And it is insisting on this policy saying such an approach is compatible with the Zeitgeist and the course of history. Is Turkey strong enough to continue this policy?

 

I hope so. It is very important for a peaceful world order that an ethics driven foreign policy not be discredited as being naïve or sentimental. I think Davutoğlu is genuine when he professes these commitments. From long experience of personal contact, I believe him to be a person who combines a measure of realism with a strong ethical commitment and as someone who also holds the view that politics endeavor to the extent possible to merge ethics with a realistic understanding of national interests. In that sense I think Turkey has been very fortunate to have someone of his character and intelligence in such an influential position. Very few countries can claim to have that quality of leadership near the top of the governmental pyramid.

Of course the current relationship between the prime minister and the president is complicated, and may even have become problematic. The Turkish political future may hinge of whether these leaders are able to distribute power and authority among themselves in ways that promote stable governance and are responsive to the democratic requirements of accountability, transparency, and adherence to the rule of law.

Do you think Erdoğan has become more authoritarian? There are critics claiming that Turkey turned out to be a tyranny because of Erdoğan? What do you think about these critics?

 

I think that while this criticism of Erdoğan has not been convincingly demonstrated, there are some disturbing signs of authoritarian tendencies, especially in the 2011–2015 period. I think Erdoğan did give the impression of shifting from being a rather prudent constitutionally oriented leader to invoking a mandate from the Turkish people and insisting on the prerogatives of majoritarian democracy. I find it helpful to distinguish majoritarian democracy from what I called republican democracy that is restrained by checks and balances, separation of powers, and respect for fundamental rights. The American political system illustrates the republican model when it functions properly.

 

I believe it is that grossly misleading to equate Erdoğan with either Putin or Sisi. Turks who do make such comparisons are being irresponsible and provocative, unintentionally inviting a future that they will regret if it were to come about. At the same time, I agree that in a democracy it’s important not to be silent when an elected leader seems to be ignoring constitutional constraints. Let’s remember that Erdoğan made in 2014 the most forward-looking and sensitive statement about the Armenian issue of any Turkish leader.

 

Again one needs to look at both the dark and the light sides. They are both real. Erdogan is a gifted political leader and despite all the attacks, he continues to enjoy by far the strongest popular following of any individual in the country. That should count for something in a constitutional democracy. Of course, it doesn’t count for everything. Erdoğan should be held accountable for upholding the rule of law and I think he has been damaged by the corruption allegations leveled against him and his family. We haven’t mentioned the split with Hizmet. I think that has been a difficult issue for the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu leadership, especially deciding how to deal with what they call ‘a parallel government,’ resulting from alleged penetration of the governmental bureaucracy, but exhibiting primary loyalty to the movement rather than to the government.

 

So Turkey has faced a series of challenges that very few governments could handle successfully in this period, regional challenges, domestic challenges and discovering a significant disloyal presence within the Turkish police and judiciary. Such questioning of the integrity of your own government is extremely threatening to any political leadership, and has been deeply upsetting to the AKP leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

In the last days, we see some positive news about Erdoğan and Turkey in the Western media which are normally criticizes Erdoğan. Can we interpret this by the argument that Europe needs Erdoğan because of the refugee crisis? Do you think Europe needs Erdoğan to handle this problem?

 

Yes. I think Europe’s renewed friendly approach to Turkey is opportunistic, pragmatic. And one more thing, I always say to my anti- Erdoğan Turkish friends. What if Erdoğan disappeared, would Turkey’s array of problems disappear with him? It seems far easier for the opposition to concentrate all blame on Erdoğan than to wrestle with the serious problems confronting the country. There is a national obsession with him. He is far from completely innocent with respect to this obsession. He has sought to accumulate power and to associate his person with the destiny of the country. Yet, even when he was being a careful political leader in that post 2002 period during a time when the AKP leadership was properly worried about being overthrown by a military coup he was the target of unremitting hostility. Irresponsibly he was being falsely accused of trying to produce a second Iran in Turkey, a very divisive message and without any credible supportive evidence.

 

Did Arab Spring end? What has Arab Spring changed in the Middle East?

 

The process that originated with the Arab Spring hasn’t ended. It is important to compare the Arab Spring with Iranian revolution of 1979. The leadership in Tehran understood that it was necessary to transform the bureaucracy to make the revolution. It is unrealistic to adopt revolutionary goals without adopting revolutionary means. In Egypt it was not enough to get rid of autocratic leaders and their immediate entourage. The Egyptian movement didn’t understand that trusting the national armed forces and relying on the former governmental elites that ran the government was not going to achieve their ends. When it turned out that the people selected the Brotherhood as their democratic choice this accentuated the problem of not going far enough in mounting a challenge to the established status quo.

 

Such thin transformations also underestimated the political will of forces of reaction that wanted to retain the old system. Those who had benefitted in the Mubarak period were unwilling to accept a new system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic radicals that threatened their economic privileges as well as their political and cultural ascendancy. This turned out to be a tragic political miscalculation on the part of the activist leadership that had been the spearhead of the anti-Mubarak movement.

 

But the Arab Spring has had some durable consequences. Above all, it changed the political subjectivity of the people, and its associated former consciousness of fear. Before the Arab Spring, there was no confidence or belief that people by their actions could change politics, and there existed widespread fear that any attempt to do so would produce disastrous results. Since the Arab Spring, this understanding that people can have agency in history, that they can actually make history is widely held. History in the past had always been made from above, but now it could also be made from below. In the second phase of the Arab Spring, it is clear that in the Egyptian development, the Sisi coup was not an isolated military phenomenon but was conditioned and prepared, in the end enjoying broad popular support. Undoubtedly this show of support was manipulated and orchestrated from above, but it gave the appearance of being mandated from below. In my view this more robust Arab subjectivity remains a source of potential change in the region.

 

A third factor that we should consider is the manipulation by external forces of neoliberalism and its relation to economic globalization and the geopolitical links to Israel and the US who were very nervous about impending political changes that seemed to follow from the Arab uprisings. There exists a great amount of what I describe as “popular discontent” in the region. The entrenched elites are aware that this popular discontent could now be translated into a political movement that would be very dangerous for their strategic, economic, and political interests. But there are also very big obstacles in the way of reform, much less revolution: Strong security forces with a large economic stake in the old order, an apparatus power imbued with the belief that state terror works, and if pursued vigorously enough will be successful. There are also many destabilizing extremist forces in the region, as well as the renewal of the rivalry between the United States and Russia.

 

Can we say that Tunisia is a successful result of Arab Spring?

 

We should hesitate before making this affirmation. It seems too soon. Tunisia’s experience since 2011 can be situated somewhere between what happened in Egypt and what happened in Libya. In a stunning reversal, the citizenry elected a leadership for the country that has returned the old order to power by peaceful means. We must ask whether this is transformation, or even serious democratic reform? Is this development evidence of change or merely the restoration of the old arrangements? The Islamic movement in Tunisia has been led by Gannushi, and has been far more open to dialogue and pluralism than its Islamic counterpart in Egypt. Tunisia has a decent prospect of stability and moderation, but it still has to cope with some problematic elements like a dissatisfied Salafi movement, the restored Ben Ali elites, and tensions between secularists and Islamists. Tunisia is not a clear success, certainly not yet, but it has also avoided chaos and sustained violence.

 

Is there a winner after Arab Spring?

 

The temporary winner is the counterrevolutionary forces that have restored the pre-Arab Spring autocracies and the monarchies, the Gulf monarchies, Morocco, they have survived the political storm very well up to this point. These governments made some small, little cosmetic adjustments but nothing really fundamental with respect to either the distribution of power or wealth.

 

The West especially US didn’t support the movement, the yourh at the streets. Finally they all preferred Sisi to Morsi. Why did they afraid from this movement and not support?

 

I think there was a fair amount of support in America for the Arab Spring in its early phases. But there was a fear that the movement in Egypt was more radical than turned out to be the case, and that the new leadership was poised to pursue policies threatening to Western economic and strategic interests. There was also concerns that the unexpected strength of Muslim movements would lead to a second and third Iran in the region. There were those anxieties about changing the status quo. America had lived relatively happily with the former status quo for a long time. I would describe the early reaction to the Arab Spring as one of ambivalence, uncertainty, a worried wait and see approach. It wasn’t outright opposition, but it was certainly not strongly in favor of what was happening. There were some inconsistencies within governments in the West as to how best to respond. The American president, Barack Obama epitomized this posture of uncertainty by the indecisiveness of his reactions and policies, especially played out in relation to Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

 

What has happened to American values, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights?

 

American policy toward the region reflects what I call ‘the primacy of geopolitics.’ I keep coming back to Saudi Arabia. If America and the West can partner with Saudi Arabia, they can live with any political order, however distasteful to Western liberal values, if it serves major strategic interests.

 

But Washington didn’t want to live with Morsi.

 

Yes. The US can live with anything that is perceived to be consistent with their interests, but the American government is far less insistent on compatibility with its professed values. Values are largely window-dressing, interests account for the real policy of nations. The American public is quite unsophisticated about its understanding of the Middle East. And the people that know more are mostly people who are very pro-Israeli. Jewish public opinion is important in big cities in America, and there is evangelical Christian support for Israel in other parts of the country. After the American failure in Iraq many people have privately come to the conclusion that Iraq and American interests would better off with Saddam Hussein in power than they were after this regime change in Baghdad with its radiating detrimental impact on the stability of the region.

 

A Third Intifada? Do you think this might happen?

 

It is certainly possible, and maybe we are witnessing these days its first phase. The political will is certainly present because there’s a great deal of frustration and despair among the Palestinians, especially among young people who increasingly feel that resistance is their only and last hope. Beyond this, they feel discouraged, if not dismayed, by the Palestinian Authority and the quasi-collaborative kind of leadership that Abbas has provided. I think there will be very serious bloodshed if there is a third Intifada, that is, if Palestinian resistance takes the form of a sustained and widespread form of popular resistance. The current leadership in Israel is very far to the right and exceedingly violent itself. Any harm on Israelis that the resistance produces will lead Israel to try to do something 100 times worse. Israel consistently overkills when they feel challenged and endure losses.

 

On the other hand, if the Palestinians are remain passive, they’ll soon confront a situation in which Israel will likely declare the conflict over and incorporate the whole West Bank or most of the West Bank and proclaim the establishment of a greater Israel. So both sides face a fork in the road, the situation can either witness intensified struggle or an Israeli fait accomplis. There is an international mood that has concluded that diplomacy has failed, and some confusion about what to do in light of this.

 

 

 

 

And what about the insufficiency of UN?

 

The UN is no better or no worst than its powerful members. It was setup to operate in this way. Conferring the veto right on the five most influential states in the world in 1945 delivered a somewhat coded message: “You’re not bound by international law or UN authority, you are fully sovereign, you’re not accountable.” The structure of the system makes this reality unavoidable if the big states are not by their own choice acting in a responsible and constructing way. The UN system is fully dependent on how these leading governments behave. Of course, there is the second set of issues associated with the reality that the geopolitical landscape in 2015 is not what it was 70 years ago, and yet the structure of influence has not changed. The same five permanent members of the Security Council have exclusive rights to exercise the veto power for themselves and their friends.

 

You cannot blame the UN for not doing more because it was created not to do more than these big states wanted it to do. When geopolitics supports a UN initiative, it can be act powerfully, maybe too much so as it did in Libya in 2011. It’s the primacy of geopolitics that is the real explanation of why international law and the UN are not more effective. At the same time we couldn’t live in this complicated, globalized world without an operationally reliable legal framework governing trade, investments, diplomacy, communications, travel, and many other spheres of transnational activity. Considering the role of the UN and international law only in relation to war/peace issues is misleading, and ignores the importance of its contributions to reliable order for routine transnational interactions of many varieties.