Tag Archives: Trump

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: Responses to an Iranian journalist, Javad Heiran-Nia Interview Questions on U.S. Elections (8 Oct 2020).]

Why Biden Must Win: It is not about Democracy, its about Fascism

  1. What is the most important issue affecting the upcoming US presidential election? (Economy; Foreign Policy; Domestic Policy; etc.)

For the voters in America the most important issues at this time are the (mis)management of the health crisis by Trump and the impact on the recovery of the U.S. economy. At this point there is a surge of criticism directed at the present U.S. leadership with respect to the Coronavirus pandemic: more infections and deaths per capita than almost any country in the world, intentional disregard of guidance by health specialists, dishonest and irresponsible reassurances, and economic relief favoring the rich and influential while understating the economic distress caused others by the loss of jobs, food insecurities, and threats of eviction. There is little interest, at least up to this point, in foreign policy with the single exception of international economic relations and geopolitical tensions with China. Both candidates for the presidency seem to adopt anti-Chinese positions, but Biden seems less militaristic and provocative than Trump. Biden refrains from blaming China for the virus, and seems somewhat less likely to embrace a strategy in East Asia that will lead to a second cold war.

For the peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere, the foreign policy implications of the elections assume greater importance. As with China, Trump seems more inclined than Biden to push the anti-Iran coalition of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia toward the brink of war, with the hope that the persistence of ‘maximum pressure’ will cause destabilization in Iran, and if possible, regime change. Biden would not likely change very much in terms of alignment, but might be expected to be more cautious in endorsing aggressive policies, and might even restore the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program negotiated toward the end of the Obama presidency. At the same time, Biden might be more inclined than Trump to push an anti-Russian approach that could take the form of regional and global confrontations, as well as arms races in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.  

One cost of such foreign policy initiatives is to weaken the attention given to challenges  that can only be solved by multilateral cooperation at a time when it is most needed, especially in relation to climate change, the control of nuclear weaponry, migration flows, and health issues. As noted above, Biden is much more likely to renew American support for ‘liberal internationalism’ than Trump, and can almost certainly be expected to do so unless geopolitically distracted.

There are other hot spots around the world that are capable of generating dangerous foreign policy crises, especially in relation to Korea or India/Pakistan.

2. Which candidate has the best chance of winning? (Trump or Biden)

As of now, it appears that Biden will win the election rather decisively, but in 2016 there existed a comparable clear outlook close to vote, reinforced by public opinion polls. It created a strong impression that Hillary Clinton would win easily over Donald Trump, a view almost universally shared by the media, and reportedly even by the Trump campaign. The American political mood is unstable, and could be influenced by developments in the coming weeks as the date of the election approaches that are supportive of Trump’s campaign for reelection as, for example, violent riots in American cities, a further surge in the financial markets, a crisis in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. .

Additionally, there are a series of factors that sow doubt about present expectations of a Biden victory that go beyond which candidate will gain the most votess: first of all, Biden could win the popular vote by a wide margin, and yet lose the election because of the way in which the peculiar American institution of the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections by counting the results on a federal state by state basis rather than nationally. This happened in 2016, Hillary Clinton winning by wide margins in New York and California, but losing close votes in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. According to the Electoral College a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes assigned to a state if he wins by one vote or 10 million votes. The value of the vote in states where one party dominates, an individual vote becomes of diluted value, whereas if both parties are more or less of similar popularity, the value of an individual vote is inflated. The question posed is whether the Electoral College vote will again override the popular vote as it did in 2106.

Secondly, it is well known that Republican control of governments in the 50 states making up the U.S. has resulted in a variety of voter suppression schemes that make it harder to vote, and particularly affects African Americans and the very poor, making voting more difficult i cities and the rural South. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting as subject to mass fraud although the evidence in no way supports the accusation. Less votes are seen as helping Trump. Republicans are better organized and more disciplined than Democrats, although the Democrats have devoted great energy this year to getting out the vote.

Thirdly, Trump has intimated that he can only lose the election if it is has been ‘rigged’ by the Democrats. The reality seems to justify a different complaint that targets the Republicans. Much of the rigging that occurred in 2016 was attributable to Russia, and definitely worked in Trump’s favor, being intended to do so. Back then such partisan interference seemed welcomed by the Republican campaign, and likely would be again.  There are concerns that similar interferences might occur again this time around as Russia continues to prefer Trump to Biden, although there seems to be a greater effort in 2020 to insulate the election process from outside interferences, especially in relation to social media.

It is important to grasp a basic ideological feature of recent American elections of the presidency. Ever since the unified response to fascism during World War II the political parties have accepted a ‘bipartisan consensus’ that almost completely excludes certain crucial policy commitments from political controversy. The most important of these is overinvestment in the military, the predatory features of global capitalism, and so-called ‘special relationships’ with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and European alliance partners. This consensus held up throughout the Cold War, was sustained during the banner years of neoliberal globalization in the decade of the 1990s, and reinvigorated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon after George W. Bush launched the war on terror, and Barack Obama continued it. 

Bernie Sanders challenged this consensus as it impacted upon policy discourse during his two campaigns to obtain the Democratic Party nomination, but his efforts were rejected by the party elite because he threatened the consensus, defied the ‘deep state,’ worried the Washington foreign policy establishment, and frightened the large private sector donors whose funding support depended on respecting the bipartisan consensus. In this sense, the Democrats successfully subordinated in their own party all radical elements that enjoyed movement support, especially among youth. The Republicans sidelined their moderate leadership, giving over control of the party to extremists that formed the base of Trump support. And so while the Democratic Party establishment neutralized the progressive Sanders’ challenge the Republican Party was radicalized from the right giving Trump control over all mechanism.

In part, it is this issue of party identity, and its relation to the governmental structures of power, that may be the most important effect of the November elections. If Biden wins, the bipartisan consensus is reaffirmed, while if Trump somehow prevails, the bipartisan will be further weakened, and even threatened by replacing the consensus with a right-wing policy agenda. If Biden loses, the consensus will be further discredited by its mistaken view that moving toward the political center is what wins election. What evidence exists by polls and other measurements of public opinion suggest that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but for reasons suggested above, adhering to the bipartisan consensus was more important or Democrats than winning elections. 

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Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

8 Aug

Trumpism: What Will 2020 Bring?

 

During the height of the Cold War when it was viewed as disloyal and compromising to show a sympathetic interest in Marxism or sympathies with Soviet ideology, someone at the U.S. military base at Frankfurt distributed to the soldiers stationed there, a handwritten version of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in the form of petition. Very few of the soldiers approached were willing to affix their signatures, most alleging that this seemed a subversive document circulated by enemies of the United States, and was Soviet propaganda. Somehow the Western propaganda message that the Cold War was about the defense of ‘the free world’ against a totalitarian enemy had made no impact, or alternatively, that the free world had nothing to do with the substantive elements of freedom as social practice.

 

For me, and for the person who was using the petition to assess the commitment of Americans to the values of a free and democratic society, it conveyed the reality that what freedoms exist can be easily swept aside by an opportunistic or autocratic leadership. This perception has been confirmed, at least provisionally by Trump’s extreme encroachment on American institutions and civil liberties during his first term as president. A final confirmation would occur if Trump is able to hold onto power either by being reelected in November or by somehow managing to remain in the White House even if defeated by his electoral opponent.

 

There is another more subtle interpretation of the Frankfurt test. The political reality of systemic racism and discriminatory practices is so engrained in the lived experience of America as to make the U.S. Constitution seem indeed a radical document that must represent the views of an adversary ideology intent on undermining the American way of life. In effect, to implement fully the Bill of Rights would require nothing less than a revolution, and in this sense aa cross section of American soldiers were undoubtedly not so minded, and acted appropriately by refusing to endorse such drastic departures from their experience.

 

More disappointing to me is the degree to which Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 exhibited massive support for a regressive and demagogic leadership by an alienated American electorate. Of course, there were attenuating factors. Hillary Clinton, despite a poor campaign and a militarist foreign policy profile, won the popular vote by three million votes. Part of the

rightest populist backlash reflected a global trend, which was a result of the alienating impact of neoliberal globalization, and its production of drastic forms of inequality and its tendency to homogenize identity. Additionally, the American experience emphasized hostility to immigrants and Islam blamed for destroying the quality of life and bringing terrorism, crime, and drugs to the country, as well as losing a white identity for America as prefigure by the Obama presidency.

 

Now almost four years later, there is even less reason than in 2016 to regard Trump as an acceptable candidate even for Republicans who subscribe to a social contract that is based on a governing process of laws not men, and upholds ideas of separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial independence, as well as the Bill of Rights. On matters of material interests the two party system is hobbled by the persistence of the Cold War ‘bipartisan consensus’ that creates commonality of views on militarism, Wall Street capitalism, and Israel/Saudi Arabia. Such a consensus means that there is no pragmatic reason for Democrats or moderates to vote for Trump to uphold liberal/moderate self-interest and worldview. Although Republican campaign strategy and Trump rally rhetoric uses inflammatory rhetoric to portray Biden and the Democratic Party as ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ to make the middle of the voting spectrum to fear the material threat to their class interests if Democrats control the White House and Congress. In reality, only progressive have reason to ponder not voting or voting for a third party candidate as Biden, seen in abstract, offer little to hope for and nothing to inspire.

 

In the end, the future of the United States, and indirectly the world, rests on whether the fear of fascism exceeds the fear of left liberalism, as the balance plays out given the peculiarities of the electoral college system. It seems clear that the Trump base responds positively to Trump partly because he offers the prospect of a fascist future for the country premised on white racial supremacy and partly because of indifference to his ideas, giving their support having succumbed to the numbing excitement associated with his demagogic style of leadership even if it could cost them their life. For many in the muddled political middle, distressed by the Trump base but also wary of the more radical demands of Black Lives Matter and AOC Squad, the challenge is one of choosing the lesser of evils, which is analogous to the dilemma of progressives who wonder whether they can persuade themselves to pull levers that favors Democrats and Biden. The difference being that the moderates believe that the Democratic Party even with Biden will be pushed toward adopting the progressive agenda while many progressives believe that Biden will be ‘a feel better’ version of Trumpism, leaving the plutocratic and militarist pillars of neoliberal capitalism, somewhat deglobalized, but as sturdy as ever.

 

The immediate future of the United States will likely be determined by the results of the November election. For the first time in my life the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power respectful of the will of the people cannot be taken for granted. Unless Trumpist support shrinks dramatically the fascist threat will remain part of the scene even if Trump loses and leaves the White House without putting up a fight. If Trump should lose the election, despite rigging and gerrymandering, and yet refused to leave the White House, the resilience of the constitutional order will be severely tested, and left to the tender mercies of the military leadership, the deep state, and private sector elites, which in turn will assess the intensity of public outrage and the risks of civil strife. Trumpism will also be tested as to. whether its fascist leanings and demagogic submission are sufficiently belligerent to launch a second American civil war rather than loosen their grip on state power.

 

 

Is the United States a Failing State? A Failed State?

22 Jul

Is the United States a Failing State? A Failed State?

 

To ask whether the United States, the world’s dominant military power, is ‘a failing state’ should cause worldwide anxiety. Such a state, analogous to a wounded animal, is a global menace of unprecedented proportions in the nuclear age. Its political leadership is exhibiting a reckless tendency of combining incompetence with extremism. It is also crucial to ascertain at what point a failing state should be written off as ‘a failed state’ for which there is no longer a clear path to redemption. The November elections in the United States will send a strong signal as to whether the United States is failing or has failed.

 

Even raising these issues suggests how far the United States has fallen during the Trump years, despite already being in sharp decline internationally ever since the Vietnam War, and continuing, despite a few redemptive moves (now renounced), during the Obama presidency. The responses of the Trump presidency to the two great crises of 2020 were helpful in solidifying the image of the world’s #1 state as truly failing, and not just sour grapes taking the form of an expression of partisan frustration with an appalling leadership. It was appalling because it was affirming the most regressive features of the American past while unconvincingly claiming credit for the stock market rise and low unemployment. The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter campaign against systemic racism gave Trump the opportunity to exhibit his lethally systemic incompetence as a crisis manager producing thousands of deaths among his own countrymen. He also seized the occasion to show the world his seemingly genuine racist solidarity with the Confederate spirit of the American South that tried to split the country and preserve its barbaric slave economy and supportive culture in the American Civil War 150 years ago, and has been a sore loser ever since.

 

With these clarifying developments, it no longer captures the full reality of this downward trend to be with content by calling attention to America’s ‘imperial decline.’ In the present setting, it seems more relevant to insist on describing America as ‘a failing state,’ and try to understand what that means for the country and the world. To make the contention more precise, it is instructive to realize that the United States is not only a failing state, but the first instance ever of a failing global state, which takes due account of its multi-dimensional hegemonic status as concretized by the planetary projection of its military might to air, land, and sea, to space and cyber space, as well as by its influence on the operation of the world economy and the character of popular culture whether expressed by music or cuisine.

 

There are several measures of a failing state that cast light on the American reality:

functional failures: inability to respond adequately to challenges threatening the security of the society and its population against threats posed by internal and external hostile political actors, as well as by ecological instabilities, by widespread extreme poverty and hunger, and by a deficient health and disaster response system;

normative failures: refusal to abide by systemic rules internationally as embedded in international law and the UN Charter, claiming impunity and acting on the basis of double standards to carry out its geopolitical encroachments on the wellbeing of others and its disregard of ecological dangers; patterns of normative failures include endorsements of policies and practices giving rise to genocide and ecocide, constituting the most basic violations of international criminal law and the sovereign rights of foreign countries; the wrongs are too numerous to delimit, including severe and systemic denials of human rights in domestic governance; economic and social structures that inevitably generate acute socio-economic inequalities on the basis of class, race, and gender.

 

Some additional considerations accentuate the failing state reality of the U.S. due to the extensive extraterritorial dimensions that accompany the process of becoming ‘a failing global state.’ This new type of transnational political creature should be categorized as the first historical example of a ‘geopolitical superpower.’ Such a political actor is neither separate from nor entirely subject to the state-centric system of world order that evolved from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and became universalized in the decades following World War II. Although lacking a true antecedent, the role of European ‘great powers’ or ‘colonial empires’ give clues as to the evaluation of the U.S. as a global state or geopolitical superpower;

effectiveness: the loss of effectiveness by a failing state is disclosed by its inability to maintain and exert control over challenges to its supremacy. Such an assessment if vindicated by failed military operations (regime-changing interventions) and the inability to learn from and overcome past mistakes, disclosures of vulnerability to homeland security (9/11 attacks) and overly costly and destructive responses (9/12 launching of ‘war on terror’; declining respect and trust by secondary political actors, including close allies, in the context of global policy forming arenas, including the United Nations; as a further reflection of this failing dynamic of lost control is the pattern of withdrawal from arenas that can no longer be controlled (Human Rights Council, WHO) and the rejection of agreements that appear beneficial to the world as a whole (Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement-JCPOA;

legitimacy: the legitimacy of a global state, which by its nature potentially compromises the political sovereignty and independence of all other states, reflects above all else, on its usefulness as a source of problem-solving authority, especially in war/peace and global economic recession settings; the degree of legitimacy also depends on perceptions by political elites and public opinion that the assertions of global leadership are in general beneficial for the system as a whole, and as particularly helpful to states that are vulnerable due to acute security and development challenges; in this regard, the U.S. enjoyed a high degree of legitimacy after the end of World War II, as a source of security, and even guidance, for many governments in most regions of the world throughout the Cold War, and was also appreciated as the architect of a rule-governed liberal economic order operating with the framework of the Bretton Woods institutions charged with avoiding recurrences of the Great Depression that undermined stability and economic wellbeing during the 1930s, developments that then contributed to the rise of fascism and the outbreak of a systemic war costing upwards of 50 million lives. The American leadership role was also prominent in achieving global public order in such settings as the management of the oceans, avoiding conflict in Antarctica and Outer Space, establishing international human rights standards, and promoting liberal internationalism as a way to enhance global cooperative approaches to shared problems.

 

As suggested, the United States as a failing state has been graphically revealed as such by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic: refusal to heed early warnings; unacceptable shortages of equipment for health personnel and insufficient hospital capacity; premature economic openings of restaurants, bars, stores; contradictory standards of guidance from health experts and from political leaders, including falsehoods and fake news embraced by the American president in the midst of the health emergency. Beyond this, Trump adopted an inappropriate nationalist and commodifying approach to the search for a vaccine capable of conferring immunity from the disease, while at the same time immobilizing the UN, and especially the WHO, as an indispensable venue for dealing with epidemics of global scope, including its role in dispensing vital assistance to the most disadvantaged countries. These failings have shockingly resulted in the United States recording more infected persons than any country in the world, as well as having the highest incidence of fatalities attributable to the disease.

 

In contrast, has been the responses of several far less developed and affluent countries that effectively contained the disease without incurring much loss of life or severe economic damage by way of lost jobs and diminished economic performance. Judged from the perspective of health such societies are success stories, and instructively, their ideological identity spans the political spectrum, including state socialist Vietnam to market-driven countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Such results parallel the finding of Deepak Nayyar who reports in his breakthrough book, The Asian Resurgence (2019), that the remarkable growth experience of the 14 Asian societies that he empirically assesses, supports the conclusion that ideological orientation is not an economistic indicator of success or failure. Such findings are relevant in refuting the triumphalist claims of the West that the Soviet collapse demonstrated the superiority of capitalism as compared to socialism. The crucial factor when it comes to economistic success is the skilled management of state/society relations whether in relation to investment of savings in prioritizing development projects or seeking to impose a lockdown to curtail the spread of a deadly infectious disease.

 

Yet, there is a normative side of response patterns as suggested above. China treats the desperate search for a workable vaccine as a sharable public good, while the United States under Trump maintains its standard transactional approach despite issues of affordability for many countries in the South, as well as the poor in the North. From a 21stcentury perspective, the ethos of being all in this together is the only foundation for grappling with the increasingly challenging dilemmas of world order. It is a sign of a failing state, whatever its capabilities and status, to use its leverage to gain national and geopolitical advantages. Along this line, as well, is the normative disgrace of refusing to suspend unilateral sanctions imposed on countries such as Iran and Venezuala, already stressed, for at least the duration of the pandemic in response to widespread humanitarian appeals from civil society actors and international institutions.

 

A final observation as to whether the U.S. vector points toward a failed or redemptive future. If Trump loses the election and gives up the White House to his opponent the prospects for reversing the failing trend improve, while if Trump is reelected in November or succeeds in cancelling the electoral outcome then the U.S, will have moved closer to being a failed state as the citizenry would have endorsed failure or the constitutional order shown to be enfeebled, insufficiently resilient to reject failure. Even if Trump is replaced and Trumpism subsides, the momentum behind predatory capitalism and global militarism will be difficult to curtail without a revolutionary push that rejects the bipartisan consensus on such matters and challenges the sufficiency of procedural democracy centered upon the role of political parties and elections. Only a progressive movement from below will shatter that consensus, ending laments about the U.S. being in transition from failing to failed. Whether the BLM leadership of a movement alternative is robust and comprehensive enough to end American freefall will become clearer in coming months.      

Post-COVID Prospects Assessed

8 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a slightly edited interview on post-COVID prospects that was published in Mutekabiliyet, a Turkish student online journal, July 3, 2020]

Post-COVID Prospects Assessed

Question 1: I​​n the past few decades, the world has been heading towards more globalisation, more openness, more interconnectedness and there were more bridges between the civilisations and countries. However, with the rise of US President Donald Trump to power, the far-right started to gain more momentum all over the world. For instance, in France, Marine Le Pen got around 33% which was unprecedented and never happened before. In Germany, Neo-Nazi AfD got around 25%. These are the powers of convergence. Powers that are closing up the countries and not building bridges with the countries. In light of this, what are we going to witness after COVID-19? Are we going for more convergence or divergence? More nationalism and divisiveness or more connectedness?

Response: ​As there are contradictory tendencies present, and their relative strength difficult to evaluate, speculation about post-COVID-19 realities remain highly conjectural. I can offer more or less informed opinions setting forth hopes, fears, and assessments of what we expect in light of what we should have learned from the planetary scope of such an exceptionally dislocating pandemic experience. Also, some alternative scenarios suggest that there are events that might bear heavily on what we expect will happen in the aftermath. Maybe reflecting my identity as an American, although presently residing in Turkey, I regard the American upcoming presidential elections six months away as highly significant, maybe the most significant of my lifetime. It is not only a question of a referendum on the national leadership provided by Donald Trump, but also whether the United States will continue to withdraw from its pre-Trump internationalist role of encouraging global cooperation to achieve shared results that are somewhat reflective of ​human interest at stake as well as of ​national​ and ​geopolitical​ interests.

The earlier Obama role in championing a UN approach to climate change that led to the Paris Agreement in 2015 and his promotion of a deescalating agreement on the nuclear program of Iran in 2015 are illustrative of pursuing national interests by way of global multilateral diplomacy. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. participation in relation to both of these agreements, previously internationally praised as benevolent breakthroughs for a more positive ecological approach in one instance and a laudable attempt to replace conflict with accommodation in the other, highlights the difference between these two statist and globalist approaches to global problem-solving. During the period of the current health crisis the absence of global leadership by the United States has been a pronounced negative element that has aggravated efforts to combat the disease, with leading countries engaging in blaming rivals rather than promoting cooperation, and some governments even seeking to gain national and commercial advantages by commodifying medical supplies and vaccine research and development.

I would venture the view, that the extension of Trump’s presidency to a second term will mean that nothing fundamental will change with respect to the absence of global leadership attuned to challenges facing humanity as a whole. If Trump is defeated in November 2020, then a vigorous resumption of American internationalist leadership is almost certain to occur, but containing some new and different dangers of geopolitical confrontation. As matters now stand, this dimension of steering the global ship of state remains overly dependent on the U.S. as no alternative leadership is now visible on the horizon, although this could change, yet not likely for some years. China or a conceivably resurgent European Union are the most likely political actors that might become politically assertive in global settings if unresolved issues reached crisis levels of perception. The UN is institutionally situated to play such a role, but so long as geopolitics retains primacy with respect to global policy formation, the UN will remain marginal when its leading members disagree and instrumental only when they agree.

Aside from leadership, another area where conjecture seems helpful, if read with caveats in mind, is with respect to preparedness for future health challenges of pandemic magnitude. It seems tragically evident that many countries, including some of the most affluent and technologically sophisticated were both grossly unprepared with respect to medical supplies (ventilators, ICU units, test kits, personal protective equipment), hospital facilities, and governmental knowhow (timing of lockdowns, social distancing). It would seem likely that the experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic would encourage two sets of adjustments: increased investment in national health systems and an expanded role for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations generally. The U.S. formal withdrawal from WHO in mid-2020 will create a funding crisis and a loss of universal support. It can be expected that pressure from the public to institute these health-oriented reforms will be considerable in the aftermath of the current crisis, but whether it will lead to major improvements in preparedness remains in doubt as some contrary elements are in play.

On the one side, national leadership, as with wars, learn from disasters to address past mistakes, often without an accompanying realization that future health challenges might not resemble COVID-19. As health crises have tended to be inter-generational, there is are strong temptations for politicians, once the crisis atmosphere passes, to concentrate resources on existing or very short-term public policy challenges. Their performance is not judged by their degree of preparation for longer-term threats but what they do in the span of their term in office, and if a crisis should materialize, then their handling of the situation, not their failure to prevent or prepare, will be the focus of evaluating their leadership. Beyond this, so many governments around the world are stretched thin to a point of being unable to devote resources and energies to the sort of health infrastructure that would put a society in a better position to minimize damage if faced with future viral epidemics.

Such considerations build a strong case for a global approach as it would seem much more economically efficient than expecting the almost 200 countries in the world to make prudent national adjustments, especially those that are poorest, densely populated. and most vulnerable. It would seem sensible to increase the budget of the WHO and assign it major responsibilities with respect to detection and early warning mechanisms, as well as to formulate guidelines as to prevention, treatment, and recovery, and possibly with regard to stockpiling of medical supplies and the subsidizing of regional hospital capabilities. Although this would seem a rather uncontroversial post-pandemic response, it is far from assured. Trump has been attacking the WHO for incompetence and complicity with the alleged early coverup by China, has defunded the agency in the midst of the crisis, and has alone blocked support for the UN call for a global ceasefire that had the support of the other 14 members of the UN Security Council. It seems true that the WHO has not enjoyed the sort of leadership that appears above politics, operates transparently, and commands a high level of professional respect. Additionally, the ultra-nationalist trend in so many countries, unless reversed, is hostile to globalizing solutions to policy challenges, and seems content to let severe problems simmer rather than empower international mechanisms beyond their national governance structures to seek and implement solutions.

In general, what should be the major learning experience from COVID-19 is the significance of what is called the Precautionary Principle (PP) in environmental policymaking. The PP privileges ​prevention​ over ​reaction,​ and encourages action to reduce risks of severe harm before the extent or timing of the risk can be conclusively established. Such an approach rests on heeding warnings from science and relevant experts. The failure to apply the PP has been frequently discussed in recent years with respect to regulating the dissemination of greenhouse gasses, especially CO2, so as to avoid global warming beyond a certain threshold. The reasoning that applies to climate change would also encourage preventive behavior in other areas of concern, such as risks of major wars fought with nuclear weapons or the further increase in transnational migratory flows. Each challenge has its distinctive features, but each would benefit from the application of the PP, but is blocked and resisted by short-termism and by leaders and segments of the public that prefer to leave the future in the hands of God, bestow confidence in the belief that technology will come up with solutions when the risks materialize, or indulge conspiracy theorists that reject all claims of governance structures to limit individual freedom, whether involving pollution or disobeying lockdown decrees.

And, of course, sometimes even well-evidenced risks do not materialize, and the prophets of doom are discredited as was the case of the warnings about Y2K destroying bank records and computer files at the turn of the century or the dire predictions of famine, over-population, and resource depletion by the Club of Rome fifty years ago. The COVID-19 experience underscored the precariousness, fragility, radical uncertainty, and deficiencies of governance at all levels of social action, but what to do poses daunting challenges to the moral and political imagination of all of us. The meme ‘we are all in this together’ has never rung truer, but so has the inverse, as the bodies of the poor and marginalized pile far higher than those of the rich and racially/religiously dominant who minimize the gravity of the crisis because for them it is not as serious as is the economic challenge.

Finally, is the perplexing challenge of interpreting the impacts of interconnectedness, and the contrary moves involving various retreats from globalization. Technological trends in relation to networking and digitalization are certainly heightening the sense of interconnectedness, and the varieties of vulnerability associated with the ease of transnational communication, commuter hacking, and cyber warfare. The degree of networked interaction is creating a new human imaginary. The post-9/11 combat zone pitting non-state extremists against the ‘global state’ of the United States encompasses the entire planet as a global battlefield. Both sides targeted their enemies, with low technology ‘terrorists’ relying on box cutters for weapons and high technology counter-terrorists relying on drone attacks from the air and infiltrated special forces units on the ground. Such interconnectedness erodes greatly international boundaries as markers for a disconnected world order, while the connectedness that arises is a kind of lawless anarchy with no acknowledgement of shared respect for international law, sovereign rights or the authority of the United Nations.

In addition, there is the kind of retreat from globalism that is expressed by the references in your question to a generation of autocratic leaders elected to preside over important states on the basis of an ultra-nationalist, nativist, and chauvinistic message. Such a Hobbesian contrast between order and community within the state and chaos without represents a reaction against the excesses of neoliberalism, especially gross inequality and severe social alienation subject to manipulation by aspiring demagogues. These developments bear witness to the dialectical relations between the pulls toward ​connectedness​ for the sake of market gains and global cooperation to meet systemic challenges such as climate change and migration and ​separation and ​self-reliance​ for the sake of identity, tradition, and community. We can wonder now whether the COVID-19 ordeal will revive the globalizing dynamic seemingly the wave of the future in the 1990s or will intensify the reactive reaffirmation of the statist benefits of disconnectedness that attained such prominence in the decade preceding the pandemic.

Question 2: ​The legitimacy of the international organizations is decreasing as they were not able to do much during pandemic. Some leaders like Trump are threatening international organizations to cut funds which would mean that these organizations would shut-down. What future would IOs have after COVID-19 is over? Is it something that would reinforce their legitimacy and their functioning or something that decreases the legitimacy?

Response: ​My response here again emphasizes the dialectical flow of history, but in a lesser key than with respect to the complex interactions between states and markets in the period following the end of the Cold War. I disagree somewhat with the premise set forth. I think that both the. WHO and the Secretary General demonstrated an importance that came as a surprise to many observers. It is well to remember that COVID-19 became ‘a pandemic’ only when WHO so declared  on March 11th​ and this designation was accepted as authoritative by the entire world. Such deference is a sign of legitimacy and speaks to the need for having responses unified in relation to a shared assessment of the nature of the challenge. Similarly, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum mentioned above, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, filling the void, receiving attention and respect as the world’s leading moral authority figure when he spoke in favor of unity and a people-first perspective. More than any political voice, Guterres seized the historic moment to call in late March for a global ceasefire for the duration of the pandemic that gained at least rhetorical support from most of the world’s government and almost unanimous approval from world public opinion, although with somewhat mixed behavioral results.

At the same time, it is true that the most publicly visible elements of the UN, the Security Council and the General Assembly, have been up to this point largely missing in action during the pandemic. The silence of the Security Council during the health crisis has been deafening, confirming that if any action had been attempted it would have floundered due to U.S./China tensions. This silence is also a result of the stubborn refusal of the U.S. to allow a Security Council resolution to go forward because of an indirect positive reference to the WHO that would have been an important geopolitical endorsement of the Guterres call for a global ceasefire in a text that embodied six weeks of work to find political compromises that succeeded in satisfying all 15 members of the Security Council except for the U.S.. This unfortunate confirmation of the degree to which the U.S. is prepared to oppose even symbolic moves expressing global solidarity in responding to the pandemic curtails the relevance of the UN even as people are dying the world over from this lethal disease.

The less geopolitically accountable General Assembly did manage to pass two constructive resolutions calling for sharing of medical supplies and vaccines as well as emphasizing the globality of the crisis, accentuating the human solidarity rather than nationalist factionalism, but were largely ignored because without authoritative force and not embraced by major governments or the media. On reflection, it should be understandable that the political organs of the UN are by design of its founders, shaped mainly to be instruments of Member states and especially the uber-states that are given privileged P-5 status with an unrestricted option of obstructing UN responses by casting a veto whenever their leaders are better off with silence rather than action.

With respect to legitimacy considerations, any assessment must be alive to the contradictions present. Among the most salient of these are the tension between Trump’s hostile actions toward the WHO and the widespread public appreciation of its role and essential contributions for countries with less sophisticated health systems. So long as nationalist and geopolitical turns in world politics remains influential among leading states, the relevance of the UN and internationalism generally is likely to remain at the margins of world politics, not so much with regard to legitimacy, but more with regard to effectiveness as assessed by behavioral impacts. If as mentioned in my response to the first question, Trump is defeated in 2020, and a more internationalist leader takes over control of the U.S. Government, there will be a strong push toward the reaffirmation of globalism in many of its dimensions, including the institutional dimensions exemplified by the UN System. International institutionalism as part of global governance is far more extensive than the UN if regional, economic, civil society institutionalization is taken into account. As matters now seem, the short-term aftermath of COVID-19 is likely to disappoint globalists hoping for a major transformative impact that lessens the statist nature of world order, and legitimates the UN as confirming that ​the whole has at last become greater than its parts​. This cautious view would seem to hold even if more globalist leadership from the United States is forthcoming as of 2021. This is because the public sentiments, as present in legislative and executive organs, tend toward affirming sovereign rights and dismissing externally imposed duties or accountability procedures.

If the dialectical interpretation of historical process is correct, then we can expect before too long a reaction against ultra-nationalism and chauvinistic styles of leadership of sovereign states, which will translate concretely into a new dawn for globalism, and especially for the UN. The material explanation for this anticipated sea change in political atmosphere is the near certainty that global scale challenges will grow more menacing in the course of the coming decade, and could induce a post-catastrophe mood that has been the only historical circumstance in which global reforms of any magnitude have any hope of gaining sufficient support from heads of the more influential states. Given the disparity of wealth and capabilities among states, such pressures could work in the opposite direction, intensifying inward and selfishly oriented national political postures, although a problem-solving approach would produce a growing recognition of the need for globally structured solutions, but quite possibly along hierarchical or even hegemonic lines.

Question 3: I​​n case we are heading for more convergence, more right-wing and nationalism, are we going to have head towards more wars, more clashes, more proxy wars like in Syria or larger scale wars? What are we most likely heading to?

Response:​This is a fundamental question, yet formulating a coherent response is not a simple matter given the radical uncertainty arising from the complexities and contradictions of the historical circumstances. A haunting unknown is whether the turmoil of the Middle East is a special case or a foretaste of what will happen in other parts of the world, and has already been causing prolonged havoc in several sub-Saharan African countries despite arousing far less concern in the West for a variety of reasons. The Middle East has several defining features that are not reproduced elsewhere to nearly the same degree: artificial states created on the basis of European colonial ambitions after the Ottoman collapse at the end of World War I; the primacy of oil as a the indispensable source of energy in the modernizing process of the industrial age and still crucial in the digital age; the inflammatory support given to the Zionist Movement by Europe in the early 20th​ century leading to the success of its settler colonialist project at the time when European colonialism was collapsing in the rest of the world; the fact that the region was perceived as the epicenter of both political Islam (after the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and Western grand strategy after the Cold War (replacing Europe), and then became the main crucible of transnational terrorism after 2001. Given the frustrations of prolonged acute strife in Syria, Yemen, as well as discrediting regime-changing interventions in Iraq and Libya, one wonders whether the geopolitical appetite for engagement in the region will persist. A further regional concern is whether the United States and Israel will press Iran to the point that provokes a major war that neither side wishes.

The other dangerous global hotspots in East Asia and South Asia seem to involve unresolved inter-governmental conflicts of a more traditional type familiar throughout world history. The question posed as to whether the U.S. and China can escape ‘the Thucydides trap’ by which ascendant hegemons have historically tended to go to war rather than risk being displaced by rising rivals seems like a central concern over the course of the next decade, and tensions between these two dominant world powers rose to a fever pitch of mutual recrimination during the pandemic. Much may depend whether the rivalry remains centered on economic competition or takes the form of military encounters. A second concern, also in East Asia, is whether the denuclearizing pressure on North Korea exerted by the United States so as to maintain its global security framework anchored in a regime of ‘nuclear apartheid’ will cross the military threshold, and bring about a possibly devastating war on the Korean Peninsula that engages China and Japan, and possibly Russia. A third concern is whether India and Pakistan will turn their conflict over Kashmir in a direction that erupts in a war fought between two states possessing nuclear weapons.

 

The Politics of Kneeling: A Tribute to Colin Kaepernick  

22 Jun

 

 

 

The Politics of Kneeling: A Tribute to Colin Kaepernick

 

I had long held the image of kneeling as primarily ritual behavior in placesof religious worship, a sign of reverence for the sacred and divine. More broadly, getting down on one’s knees is an expression of submission associated withformal meetings between those of unequal social rank—as when commoners or even nobles interact with kings and queens. In a more metaphoric, and somewhat hypocritical spirit, kneeling has traditionally often been associated with assuming a submissive posture as when men have conveyed marriage proposals to the woman of their dreams, a pre-marital gesture of supplication. A more pragmatic recourse to kneeling is often the sign of a beseeching or well-trained street beggar, seeking our sympathy, most of all a bit of our money. We kneel or crouch, when performing as a grandparent, seeking to be less intimidating to our young and small grandchild. Whatever else, it is perverse to consider a kneeling person to be a defiant or subversive citizen. When citizens are denied the right to exhibit their deepest concerns about injustice democracy is dead! When citizens are punished or chastised for kneeling democracy is dying!

 

When the NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem during the 2016 season, his announced intention was to call attention to racial inequality in the United States, and its ugliest manifestations via excessive uses of deadly force by police against African Americans. Kneeling, for the reasons noted above is a respectful and dignified way for a public figure to communicate their deepest felt concerns to a wider public, and contrasts with turning one’s back while the National Anthem is playing, and is a far more gentle reminder of injustice than raising a defiant clenched fist as the African American Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, did during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as is customary at the medal ceremony to honor the country of the athlete winning a competition as occurred in Mexico City after the 200 meters race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Such a deliberately militant show of identification by way of the Black Power Salute was at the time controversial (supposedly politicizing the Olympics as if tallying the overall winner by the number of medals a country has won is apolitical!). It should also be remembered that 1968 was a tumultuous year during which both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It struck me at the time as an effective nonviolent means of conveying an urgent moral, social, and political message that all was not well when it came to race relations in the United States, and if racial injustices were not addressed, massive suffering would persist, and could give rise to bloody conflict and strife. Smith later explained that the clenched fist was meant as  ‘a human rights salute’ rather than a ‘black power salute,’ but the distinction was hardly noticed at the time, and even had it been, I doubt that its intention would have been to shift our perception from ‘militant’ to ‘liberal’ or from ‘political’ to ‘humanitarian’?

 

Such displays of outrage by prominent athletes or entertainers are often denounced, especially by reactionary talk show hosts and reactionary politicians, insisting that athletes and entertainers are being paid millions for doing what they are superbly skilled at doing, but they have no credibility when it comes to declaring their unwelcome opinions on controversial societal issues. Such individuals are even instructed to renounce normal rights as citizens because speaking out would be taking unfair advantage of their notoriety. To engage in political advocacy or to promote a social cause such as racial equality or justice and equality for gay and trans people is treated by such monitors of propriety as crossing a red line. I would contend the opposite. Athletes and entertainers of conscience are the canaries in the mines of modern societies in North America and Europe, bearing witness often to their own unhealed wounds received from childhood experiences, neighborhood encounters, and personal struggles that many of us have been spared.

 

Kaepernick’s act was brave and had an impact, and partly because it dared violate sports etiquette by putting at risk his professional life, and also served as an early warning of the kind of volcanic feelings of pent up anger and distrust that came from generations of racial abuse in America. It is not surprising that Kaepernick’s ‘statement’ should now be remembered and intoned by protesters in the streets, but that it is also being reevaluated in the board rooms of NFL billionaire owners and league officials is less a surprise than a sign that the protest sweeping America might be beginning to make difference. It also should be appreciated that it took the martyrdom of George Floyd to redeem Kaepernick’s initiative that should have been heeded in the manner intended rather than shifted to a trivializing debate about whether kneeling during the National Anthem was a form of wrongdoing rather than what it was, a dignified exercise of the right of free expression on an unresolved issue of great gravity. We in America need to grasp our crucial dependence on acts of conscience by public figures and by whistleblowers with insider information about state crime if we have any hope at all of preserving democracy in the face of fascist style assaults on the rule of law and citizen dissent.

 

Of course, do not wait for Donald Trump to rethink any of his past appalling behavior on matters of either race or justice. Trump has made it a signature trait to double down on his worst missteps in these domains. It was Trump who called a player who kneeled ‘a son of a bitch,’ who deserved to be fired by club owners. He insisted that Kaepernick was showing disrespect for flag and country by kneeling, which he with typical unknowing arrogance compared to ‘sitting.’ He urged suspensions and disciplinary action, leading Trump’s fan base to boo whenever any player knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick. Trump showed no remorse when Kaepernick’s exercise of free agency resulted in no offers of a contract from any NFL team, and he soon discovered that he was improperly rendered unemployable. Such a punitive pushback was so excessive and abusive that Kaepernick filed a formal complaint in accord with the League’s grievance procedures, negotiating a confidential agreement, presumably a financial settlement that avoided a costly legal battle over innocent behavior that severely damaged his professional reputation with the result that he was unable to continue his outstanding career as a football player.

 

Thankfully, Roger Goodall, the Commissioner of the National Football League, is not Donald Trump. He has at least and at last issued an apology, belatedly urging teams to hire Kaepernick,  and even acknowledginging the impropriety of his past actions. This reappraisal has been reinforced by the comment of Kaepernick’s coach, Chip Kelly, who said that his protest move had a ‘zero distraction’ effect on the team. Kaepernick, even before Floyd’s death, received several awards from many human rights NGOs, in recognition that his action were justified, and deserved commendation not censure. The players on the San Francisco 49ers’ team likewise recognized his contributions by naming Kaepernick the recipient in 2016 of the Len Eshmont Award for best epitomizing the courageous and inspirational play of Len Eshmont, a beloved former player for the 49ers. A comprehensive assessment of the incident by two psychologists in the Scientific American ended with these words from its authors, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Kettner: “Will Americans one day look back on Kaepernick’s symbolic act as a moment when we started to understand each other just a little bit better?” [“The Psychology of Taking a Knee,” Scientific American, June 2020]

 

Of course, there have been many Kaepernick moments that stretch back to the era of slavery, and forward to Rosa Parks’ 1956 refusal to go to the back of the bus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott , King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail, and the death of George Floyd, some more resonant than others, but none have been enough to remove the darks stains of systemic racism from the fabric of daily life in America, and elsewhere in the world. It takes a dedicated movement, not a string of moments, no matter how searing and memorable, to achieve the deep structural changes that will allow all persons of color to be treated as equal citizens with equal rights, and until that feeling exists among those previously victimized, there will be inter-racial ceasefires, but no enduring peace.

 

The challenge is resoundingly clear, but up until now the response is not.  Racism in America has over and over again proven its lethal resilience.     

 

World Order and Covid-19 Pandemic

19 Apr

[PREFATORY NOTE: THE POST BELOW IS A SLIGHTLY MODIFIED TEXT OF AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY DANIEL FALCONE, AND PUBLISHED ON APRIL. 17, 2020 IN COUTERPUNCH.]

World Order and the Sars-Co2-Virus

 Daniel Falcone: Carlos Delclós, a sociologist based in Barcelona has highlighted the need for bottom up responses for social solidarity in Spain when compared to the unity declarations put forth by the monarchy. Further, journalist Ben Ehrenreich cites that while there are severe problems with the government, remnants of a democratic spirit and mutual aid keep optimism and hope alive within their system of universalized healthcare. Can you comment on the greater European response to pandemic?

 

Richard Falk: I am aware of the greater strength and role of cooperative movements in European countries, a residue of the socialist movements of the prior century, that give rise to more spontaneous approaches on local levels to immediate threats to well-being, exhibiting both less trust and less dependence on governmental undertakings.

 

Furthermore, European health systems are more evolved, fewer people left out, and more sense of public responsibility, although some deficiencies also emerged. Italy and Spain lacked sufficient governmental capabilities to cope humanely with the challenge of a pandemic, although the epicenter was initially in Lombardy, the richest part of the country.

 

Given the urbanization and social complexity accompanying modernity, the need for intelligent, imaginative, and humane governance is a necessity in times of societal crisis, and its absence magnifies suffering.

 

Daniel Falcone: The World Bank is reporting that Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a drastic economic downturn and the first in more than a couple of decades. Can you explain the unfolding in this region, which is fairly under reported by western democracies?

 

Richard FalkSub-Saharan Africa is still heavily dependent on the exports of resources rather than on the provision of services and high-end manufacturing, and as a result is exceedingly vulnerable to changes in the adverse terms of trade that arise whenever “deglobalization” trends are present. It would seem that the rise of ultra-nationalism, as highlighted by “Trumpist” economic nationalism, have negative impacts on sub-Saharan African development prospects.

 

 

Daniel Falcone: Recently, I spoke with John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus and he explained how the pandemic has impacted globalization in regards to a “slowbalization.” He has commented on additional dimensions of this elsewhere. Could you elaborate on the anti-globalization and ultra-nationalist worldview wave that autocrats around the world are riding currently? This looks as dangerous as the pandemic.

 

Richard Falk: There is no little doubt a rise of autocrats, elected and non-elected, in what seemed entrenched democracies (U.S., UK, India, Brazil), in faux democracies (Russia, Hungary, Egypt), and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco). This authoritarian surge, which came initially as a surprise to most of us, superseded expectations associated with the end of the Cold War that were triumphantly interpreted as an ideological victory for the West and its values, and especially for the American political economy.

George H.W. Bush, president at the time of the Soviet collapse, proclaimed ‘a new world order’ in which the geopolitical hegemony of the U.S. now was unopposed, and would no longer be challenged in global arenas. This meant that the UN could function as intended on the basis of consensus in a world without ideological rivalry, which allowed the UN to sponsor the Iraq War of 1992 designed to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty by compelling Iraq to abandon conquest and annexation.

 

Then Bill Clinton came along promoting a foreign policy based on a doctrine of ‘enlargement,’ shorthand for predicting and promoting the spread of democracies. It was accompanied by the optimistic belief that an era of peace and prosperity would follow the further spread of democratically governed states. It was widely believed that democracies do not go to war against one another and capitalism is the best engine of growth the world has ever known. From such perspectives the post-Cold War world was envisioned as becoming increasingly both peaceful and prosperous.

Such a worldview was supportive of regime-changing interventions, especially in the Middle East, to get rid of the more strategically troublesome remnants of autocratic regimes and reflected the prevailing enthusiasm about the growth potential of neoliberal globalization, an approach long championed by the neoconservative movement.

 

To become operational such a policy outlook needed both the 9/11 attacks to re-securitize American foreign policy and the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush. The decisive test of this proactive outlook occurred in the Iraq War of 2003. Expressing this jubilant mood, Bush II introduced a government report on national security in 2002 with an assertion of faith in the singularity and superiority of the American form of governance that went largely unchallenged at the time. He contended that market-oriented constitutionalism (as exemplified by the USA) had demonstrated to the world that its form of democracy (elections plus capitalism) was the only legitimate way to organize the political life of a sovereign state in the new century.

 

So, the haunting question remains, ‘what went wrong’? The most obvious explanation rests on the alienating impacts of neoliberal globalization that seemed to heap its rewards on the very, very rich while leading to stagnation or worse for the multitudes.

 

This structural explanation of the rise of autocracy is certainly a large part of the story as predatory capitalism in this period gave rise to gross inequality on all levels of social order, symbolized by the 26 richest individuals controlling more than half of the world’s wealth. Another part of this story, less frequently acknowledged, is that the socialist alternative to capitalism was successfully discredited by falsely representing the Soviet political and economic failure as a decisive and sufficient test case of the viability of a socialist alternative.

 

This ideological supremacy of neoliberal capitalism facilitated two regressive developments: first, leading neoliberal globalization to privilege capital over people, or put differently, to choose economic efficiency over human well-being. Secondly, creating a political consciousness that fed the illusion that there were no tenable alternatives to the existing mode of political economy, completely ignoring the kind of autocratic state capitalism that flourished so remarkably in China in an ideological atmosphere that presented itself as fulfilling the hopes and dreams of socialism, experiencing a remarkable modernizing facelift under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping that had did not rest its claims on the virtues of democracy.

 

For most of the world, the Chinese phenomenon, while mesmerizing, was seen as not generalizable beyond China, or at least not beyond Asia. In such a setting there was a very unhealthy political situation—the dominant practices and policies of neoliberal globalization were not delivering material benefits to most people living in democratic societies, and the excesses of this stage of capitalism were left unchallenged, and hence unmitigated, by socialist challenges that had since Marx led the most adept masters of capital to seek accommodation with the laboring classes and create an image of an ethical capitalism that was inclusive of the great majority of people in their respective national societies.

 

With that humanistic imperative of ideological rivalry pushed aside, the path was cleared for the emergence of demagogues, and those who found scapegoats to blame for the widespread distress among the public, especially foreigners. This new kind of political appeal produces a blind kind of trust in the leader, however misleading the diagnosis, and feeds a nationalist frenzy at the very time that the world needs recognition of a cooperative global order to address such challenges as climate change. It is not without irony, that the U.S., which had long lectured the world on the many virtues of democracy, should voluntarily succumb to the autocratic ‘charms’ of Donald Trump.

 

It is notable to take account of the existence of some dissenters from ‘slowbalization,’ the most prominent is Richard Haass, former government official and currently President of the Council of Foreign Relations. He anticipates a recovery process that involves an ‘acceleration’ of pre-pandemic trends, including a concerted effort to restore the neoliberal world order with especial emphasis on its orientation toward limitless growth based on technological innovation and capital efficiency, but revamped in the precarious context of continuing American decline, which includes an absence of the kind leadership required to address global problems through multilateralism.

 

In the background of the Haass view of the post-pandemic world is an intensifying geopolitical rivalry producing conflict and increasing dangers of strategic warfare, presumably featuring a standoff between the U.S. and China.

Henry Kissinger, a stalwart of the triumphalist outlook that followed the Soviet collapse, is more hopeful than Haass, projecting the period after the pandemic subsides as a call for the reassertion of robust American leadership on the global policy stage. He believes that the openness of trade and the transnational mobility of people depend on the renewal of confidence in the neoliberal world order that proved so successful after World War II, and was constructed on the basis of Enlightenment values emphasizing the fusion of political stability, confidence in science and technology, and market-driven economic growth

 

In the background of the restoration of the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is the ecological illiteracy of supposing that maximizing economic growth via globalization, or otherwise, can proceed without respect for the limits on carrying capacity of the earth. Frank Snowden, the widely respected expert on epidemiology in an illuminating interview (Il Manifesto, Global Edition, April 11, 2020) suggesting that COVID-19 virus and earlier flu epidemics (SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu) can all be traced to zoonotic transfers of the virus from animals to humans, expressing spillovers that he argues are bound to occur when animal habitats are encroached upon by spreading urbanization and industrialization.

 

A more reconstructive post-pandemic approach would strive for ‘a new normal,’ which combined the health imperative of sensible preparedness and universal coverage with an ecological sophistication that sought to mitigate inequalities among peoples and societies by addressing poverty as a health issue, including the recognition that diseases are more lethal in relation to vulnerable peoples, who suffer as victims and victimize others by becoming agents of contagion.

Daniel Falcone: After the dust settles from the pandemic, if it does, can you attempt a forecast of how global powers will align or realign?

Dealignment’ is more likely than ‘realignment.’ I am assuming here that either that the nationalist retreat from neoliberal globalization will continue or there will be strong moves, hard to forecast, in the direction of regional and global cooperation in key sectors of policy, with international institutions given important coordinating roles. In either alternative alliance, diplomacy seems not likely to reemerge in any manner comparable to what it was in the prior century. Trump has already significantly weakened the Western alliance structure, and except for the forays of “coercive diplomacy” contra Iran (in concert with Saudi Arabia, Israel), seems to have adopted a unilateralist foreign policy course supplemented by transactional bilateralism in which the interaction seeks win/lose outcomes based on hard power disparities.

 

Reverting to Haass and Kisssinger, it is worth noting that the pessimistic assessments of Haass are explicitly linked to his anticipation of the post-pandemic world order as resembling what happened in the decades after World War I, that is, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and a second world war. Kissinger, although habitually associated with a fatalistic view of the international scene, somehow strikes more hopeful notes by advocating and somewhat anticipating a post-pandemic recovery that resembles the dynamics of world order following World War II with the U.S. playing its former leadership role by recognizing the opportunities and needs for a more cooperative approach to global problems.

 

Daniel Falcone: Are there any chances for United States reform at a local or even an institutional level that can offset the political capital maintained by autocrats both here and around the world? Are we in fact, a “failed state?”

You raise an interesting question. A response must start with the disappointing observation that the 2020 election is between Trump and Biden, a familiar political figure who shaped his career around the bipartisan Cold War consensus of militarism, neoliberalism, and pro-Israeli absolutism. This orientation is what I have called elsewhere ‘the three pillars of American foreign policy’ that only Sanders dared challenge (and paid the price) as one sees what was done to his frontrunner status by the guardians of the established order. Sanders’ response that he lost the primary campaign, but his movement will go on fighting, is suggestive of the gap between the establishment world of political parties and his movement consisting of various societal domains of people that seems openly hostile to the bipartisan consensus, the deep state, and the special interest lobbies that continue to dominate not only the governing process, but also the electoral process

What is worth noticing is that even Trump despite his bombastic claims during the 2016 presidential campaign has as president paid his dues to the bipartisanship in foreign policy with his enlarged military budget, tax cuts for the richest and rollback of regulatory interferences with predatory capitalism, and the greenest light ever given to Israeli expansionism and one-statism. His only halfhearted departure from bipartisanship has been the downplaying of Euro-American alliance geopolitics.

Possibly, the autocratic edge of American politics would be dulled by a Biden presidency by more moderate judicial appointments and some effort to address gross inequalities, student debt, infrastructure, and an improved health system that encompasses the whole society. Yet, it would seem absurd to expect more from Biden, given that his principal message is ideational, a promise to restore national unity by reaching out so far as to include so-called ‘moderate’ Romney Republicans, who have never struck me as moderate except in comparison to their alt-right Republican leadership of the Trump era.

Biden’s unity message is also code language for restoring the bipartisan consensus in an overt form that would counter some of the ultra-nationalist retreat from globalization. In foreign policy we could expect a shift in tone from ‘America First’ to ‘NATO First’ as a way of differentiating his approach from that of Trump and of reaffirming faith in the Western alliance as once again the centerpiece of American foreign policy. It would be foolhardy to expect Biden after a centrist lifetime political career to pursue a progressive social and ecological agenda, yet without such an agenda we can be thankful to Biden for ending the reign of Trump while renewing our severe worries about the social and ecological shortcomings of the American governance experience given 21st century urgencies.

 

 

COVID-19: Present, Past, and Future

17 Mar

COVID-19: Present, Past, and Future

 

A few days ago when WHO officially declared the COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’ a Rubicon of consciousness and global governance was crossed. Hundreds of millions of individuals around the world are coping physically and mentally with what that word never before used in my lifetime means for themselves and those they care most about. The mental dimensions of self-isolation may turn out to be a big challenge almost as big as the disease itself. For once, government officials seem to be heeding the warning of health specialists rather than dutifully than scurrying about to address market signals of distress with public funds. At least this is the public face we see on our TV screens, although in Trump’s case even the appearances are mismanaged, considering the corporate smirk at his Rose Garden press conference when several CEOs pf prominent companies received better free PR that not even their most energetic publicist ever imagined attainable. There is a silver lining: if the American elections are actually held in November, we should see the fall of Trump, and as importantly, the end of Trumpism, that is, unless there is a quicker return to normalcy than now seems possible. Although one thing we might learn from how our lives changed overnight is to stop trying to outguess the future. Economists and future studies consultants may have their super-sophisticated models and graphs, but some of the most significant surges of history have a will of their own that often makes the most mathematically advanced computer models seem out of touch with transformative social forces that remain hidden until a shockingly unexpected eruption occurs.

 

If nothing else, COVID-19 reminds us of the perils and possible promise of radical uncertainty. As this mysterious deadly mutation of the Coronavirus suggests, our powers of anticipation are not much more impressive than those of our brothers and sisters in the jungle, and I am referring mainly not to tribal peoples looking up at the sky for signs of what is to come, but also of elephants and lions roaming freely on the savannas and grasslands of the world, yet suffering mass killings when wild fires rage out of control. What this uncertainty mandates above all else is preparedness and the acceptance as a matter of urgency of the Precautionary Principle as the long overdue Eleventh Commandment of our civilization. The Precautionary Principle should guide us to take steps to avoid known thresholds of irreversibility or curves of rising risks. The message is this.  Don’t wait until the predictable crisis is at hand, and don’t build on or near the known fault lines of the planet.

 

COVID-19 also suggests something else that is both instructive and worrisome. We as a species react to crises when their impact is immediate and lethal, and sometimes compensate for earlier complacency by over-reacting when widespread fear spirals out of control to produce panic, and in the process lurid memories of past failures are dredged from the depths of collective consciousness. The Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-19 is a current example of a past event I never heard discussed during my childhood, or throughout my adult life, but now is on the lips of many. While still a child this earlier flu pandemic was almost as recent then as the 9/11 attacks are now. We forget quickly past urgencies until replaced by new urgencies.

 

Another lesson here is that we cannot afford to treat climate change as we are treating this pandemic. Once the concreteness of climate change is revealed so that none can plausibly deny, or escape, or turn away from what happens at a distance, or be explained away as an anomaly of nature, or a danger that technology will address before the great collapse will occur, it will be probably too late to halt the downward trend.  For now, despite the fires, floods, and droughts the sky above remains as blue as ever in most places, the stock market showed no abiding concern about global warming, and the whole societal ecosystem lurches forward, producing the latest digital device and AI advance, without blinking. Even Brazil and Australia, scenes of catastrophic fires, seem to view these occurrences as one-time events that should not in the first instance interfere with neither sovereign rights nor with profit-making deforestation and cattle ranching, and in the second, with expanding coal production and exports. The short-termism of how we live our ordinary lives and how political leaders and corporate moguls are judged, makes it difficult to combine democracy and accommodating the global and the long-term, especially if its destructive impact can be imagined as always occurring to others far away or in the distant future. When we read of the ordeal of those living in prolonged subsistence confinement in Gaza or in the misery of refugee camps and border assaults, we may lament the news, and even sign petitions and make donations, but our nighttime sleep is rarely interrupted the way it would be if a next door neighbor or a loved one was so severely infected by the virus as to be carried off to a hospital, hopefully one with enough beds and ventilators, which in a matter of weeks might itself become a vain hope for many older infected people.

 

COVID-19 also further tears at the fabric of democratic governance. Israel reveals that it has elaborate secret files for the surveillance of all mobile phone users in the country, supposedly to help with counterterrorist efforts, but now to be used in identifying, locating, and confining those believed to be infected or having had recent contact with carriers of the disease. When Orwell imagined a tormenting Big Brother, it was read as an indictment of totalitarian systems of governance, specifically the Soviet Union, or at most a warning of a world in the making, an imagined dystopia that would hopefully never become actual. What the imagination could only worry about the technologists have now achieved. Are we safer, more secure and content when all of us have become suspects and our lives transparencies subject to the discretion of unaccountable bureaucrats?

 

As with the delusions of the militarist, excessive investments in weapons brings insecurity, not enhanced security. America is the best example in all of history. While our military arsenals grow, we shackle ourselves with more and more restrictions on our freedoms, which has been translated by our minder into electronic monitoring, long lines, and countless hidden cameras. Instead of improving lives by investing in social betterment through health, education, culture, parks and natural preserves, we spend public monies collecting meta-data and insist on a military capability that is dominant globally, able to strike catastrophic blows anywhere on the face of the earth from land, air, and sea platforms, and even from space. China, with all its imperfections, demonstrates to the world that the way to gain power, prestige, and influence is to manage clever fusions of state and market, taking advantage of soft power opportunities wherever they are found. By way of contrast, America is demonstrating that the way to lose power, prestige, and influence is to rely on geopolitical muscle through threat and coercive diplomacy, sanctions, and intervention. The result has been repeated frustration by striking its blows in dead end misadventures, yet learning nothing from each failure because the whole edifice is militarized, paralyzing the moral and political imagination, and the high-priced gurus offer tactical adjustments that misinterpret past failures, and thus prepare the way for new failures..

 

The democratic fabric of many countries was fraying badly long before COVID-19 added to the wear and tear. The end of the Cold War brought with it the expectation that the material and political benefits of democratic forms of governance would become so obvious to everyone as to produce a global tsunami of democratization, and to some extent it did during the 1990s. Bill Clinton spoke of ‘enlargement’ by which he meant that more capitalist democracies would emerge, and that this would be good for both economic prosperity and world peace as democracies do not make war on one another, especially when trade and investment are robust. Then came 9/11, the counterrevolutionary moves after the Arab Spring that caused severe civil strife and mass displacement, refugees and asylum seekers, ultra-nationalist reactions to neoliberalism, and now COVID-19 comes along. A mixture of alienation, scapegoating, and identity politics gave rise to the still bewildering phenomenon of societies freely electing, and even reelecting, autocratic demagogues that take away basic liberties without disguising their acts or intentions. A leader as regressive from the perspective of democratic values as Rodrigo Duterte enjoys an 80% approval rating in The Phillippines despite being responsible for as many as 20,000 extra-judicial executions, as well as numerous flagrant violations of human rights standards and disregard  of constitutional limitations on the exercise of state power. Modi remains popular in India despite his crude and cruel encroachment on the autonomy of Kashmir coupled with inflaming attitudes toward the large Muslim minority.

 

It is to be expected that there are no real democracies during wartime or in the midst of crises that give governments, regardless of ideology, a free hand to do whatever they proclaim as helpful in the name of national security, and now public health. During World War II the United States Government interned its West Coast Japanese minority without the slightest attempt to proceed in accord with the rule of law or even due process, and yet a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court had no trouble upholding this repressive undertaking as a reasonable security precaution given wartime apprehensions of disloyalty among Japanese citizens and residents. At least, the decision was controversial at the time, and there were dissenting opinions in the high court. Later on official apologies followed, especially 25 years after the end of the war when wartime fevers had dissipated. Now the U.S. government seeks to expel rather than intern, to keep the poor and unwanted out whether by erecting walls or imposing anti-Muslim bans and the like. Instead of global democratization, the recent international experience has been one of the previously unforeseen popularity of radical forms of de-democratization, proliferating ultra-nationalist outlooks, and the erosion of respect for the UN, international law, and global cooperation when such instruments of good order are more needed than ever. Also present in this anti-democratic ‘perfect storm’ is the penchant for undermining independent journalism and academic freedom, banishing free expression of ideas to private conversations among dissidents.

 

The cumulative effect of these political tendencies to weaken trust, and even draw the possibility of truth into question, making governance into a series of opportunistic fabrications. When scientifically backed opinions and unwelcome evidence can be dismissed as ‘hoaxes’ and ‘fake news,’ we no longer know what to believe, and most of all view skeptically what the government and its leaders tell us. Democracies depend for their legitimacy and effectiveness on trust as well as an atmosphere of normalcy, and when neither exists, there is confusion and chaos, and demagogues comes forth with self-confident and often malicious propaganda that is swallowed whole by large sectors of the population, however divorced from reality is the promise of rescue. One transcription of the message is this: making America ‘great’ again is being achieved at the price of inducing planetary collapse. This is the dark logic of our time that needs to be countered by a dialectic of resistance and transformation.

 

Interestingly, COVID has temporarily restored the stature and influence of the expert, at least for this current state of emergency. Can you imagine a future Trump press conference on climate change featuring the head of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and having Greta Thunberg share the platform with the experts. However absurd such a. musing, this  seems more or less how the American president seeks now  to reassure the public that despite some early stumbles, citizens can now have confidence that everything recommended by the best experts is being done to minimize the harm resulting from the global virus. Trump no longer appears in front of the TV cameras and assembled journalists as the preeminent know-everything leader. Instead he is flanked by health experts, corporate managers, and cabinet member to whom he regularly defers whenever a question by a journalist raises a technical issue. In this ironic turn, the supreme leader has become the novice, and hopefully will soon receive a pink slip of the kind he so gleefully issued while weekly performing on The Apprentice.

 

Of course, experts have their limits as well, and relying on the authority of the measurable is not a humane path to the future. Ethical sensitivity, especially empathy, is more important than following the evidence as interpreted by many experts, who are often hiding their own questionable policy agendas or career ambitions behind a flurry of numbers and graphs. So somewhere between banishing reality as fake news and worshipping the dapper expert as our supreme guide we need to find the courage, wisdom, and humility to reach difficult decisions that move humanity forward. Yet we are a long way from generating the political choices that include such constructive voices. So far what opposes the entrenched autocrat seems an improvement worth supporting, but It doesn’t even pretend to transform the system.

 

Without overdoing it, the real lessons to be learned are well depicted in a fine essay by Bruce Franklin, an admired friend and long one of the most perceptive and humane interpreters of the political scene, whose virtues have unfortunately automatically relegated him to the outer margins of public awareness. His piece, https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/13/what-is-covid-19-trying-to-teach-us/  stresses the idea that continuing to rely on state-centric world order and transactional geopolitics is to choose a doomsday destiny not only for country, but for the human species. If we cannot learn from the COVID-19 experience of our dependence on global cooperation, and a win/win approach to global problem-solving, the human species is far along on bio-ecological death march. As Franklin makes clear, in responding positively to a pandemic we help ourselves by helping other, and we hurt ourselves when we refuse to do so. His crucial point is that climate change, extreme poverty, biodiversity, global migration, nuclear disarmament, demilitarization are essentially the same: challenges of global scope that will not be resolved except by global win/win responses on a comparable scale.

 

 

Dumping Sanders: A Provocation

6 Mar

Dumping Sanders: A Provocation

 

I suppose it was all over after the Biden blowout victory in South Carolina, inducing the leading remaining ‘never Sanders’ moderates, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, to drop out of the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Biden’s dominance on Super Tuesday sealed the deal, and adding one more to his extravagant array of futile gestures, Bloomberg could withdraw with satisfaction as his anti-Sanders dirty work had been completed by others. It now seems like there will be no brokered Democrat Convention in Milwaukee, as Biden is almost certain to earn majority support well before the opening gavel is pounded, avoiding the embarrassment of handing the Sanders’ assassination dagger to the superdelegates. Wall Street emitted a giant sigh of relief registering a gain of more than 800 points on the Dow, and even forgetting about COVID-19, at least, for an interval of 24 hours.

 

The evasive rationalization by many faux moderates is that the swing toward Biden was based on electability, and as Bloomberg explained, Biden had ‘the best shot’ to beat Trump. Never a word about those polls that gave Sanders the nod in the November faceoff. For those more sophisticated, who realized that the electability issue was cloudy and that Biden seemed at best the winner of a race to the bottom, stress a shift to governability concerns, that is, even if Sanders were to push Trump off his throne, he would be stymied once he arrived at the White House, never able to get anything done for the American people, as he supposedly would remain an alien outsider even for Democrats. Ultra-establishment stalwarts like Tom Friedman, whose unsurprising first choice for the nomination was the stop-and-frisk billionaire, painted a grotesque picture of Sanders being so slaughtered by a Trump landslide that all branches of government, including both houses of Congress, would be under the thumb of a reelected Trump, which while not as bad for such ‘thinkers’ as the prospect of a Sanders’ presidency, is to be avoided if at all possible. If that is not enough, Americans were reminded over and over again that the last time the Democrats nominated as an outsider, George McGovern, he was crushed by a consummate insider, Richard Nixon, who unlike Trump slid off the impeachment block by resigning, not trusting a more conscientious Senate to let him stay in the Oval Office he did so much to discredit.

 

Sanders is a threat, not only to portfolio (stocks & bonds) Democrats, but also to the super-glue that has manged this three-pillar foreign policy consensus that has held up through many international twists and turns ever since 1945. To the surprise of many insiders it did not lose much ground during four years of Trump’s disruptive and narcissistic style of leadership, and with Sanders all but beaten, its adherents in and out of government can again breathe easily regardless of who wins in November. Trump was barely tolerated at first but became tolerable in the end, including to most denizens of the deep state, because in his own idiosyncratic tweeting style he upheld the three pillars. Indeed, if considered closely, Trump even added to their ideological hegemony and policy realization: he celebrated and strengthened the military without wasting lives and trillions in failed wars; his policies propelled the stock market to record highs, while keeping employment high while lowering taxes on the rich; and he pushed Israel’s maximal agenda to a point that probably exceeded Sheldon Adelson’s wildest dreams, confronting Palestinians with a surrender ultimatum, while giving Netanyahu at least as much as he sought on a series of sensitive issues. What worry about Trump lingers along the corridors of power is no longer about ideology, but about fears that his personality disorders might one day erupt with catastrophic fury. There are genuine secondary concerns about Trump held especially by more traditional Republicans, including his dog whistles to white racists, contempt for NATO, loving embraces of brutal autocrats, Iran warmongering, wall-building, cutting to the bone benefits to the poor, along with the most wretched Supreme Court appointments of all time. This is what makes portfolio Democrats more or less comfortable with Biden as an alternative to Trump. Most such Democrats, along with the Party establishment, sincerely believe it crucial to rid of Trump as his craziness might any day turn apocalyptic. While Trump represents the worst of America, he turns out for a plurality of the citizenry to be not as bad after all as Sanders confirming that class and portfolio issues are the bottom line with electorate, with a bit of demagoguery thrown in to please the alienated underclass.

 And what of Sanders who wants health care and education to be treated as public goods, who favors cuts in the military budget, and might create programs that would produce inflation, deficits, and higher taxes for the rich? Is the progressive populist base strong and disciplined enough to get the job done? It doesn’t seem so, although for most Americans Sanders’ policies would be highly beneficial, and well worth operationalizing, although it would somewhat weaken each of the three pillars. If today’s view holds, as now seems a near certainty, darkness will descend even assuming, what is far from assured, that Biden will win on Election Day. Even Biden’s most reluctant supporters do not feel that way. They are mostly cheered by the fact that Biden is not Trump. Beyond this, many feel confident Biden can steer the American ship of state toward calmer waters while making them comfortable by reenchanting the bipartisan worldview that Trump also affirmed, but without his diversionary and unconstitutional pyrotechnics. And if Biden should fall to Trump next November, there will be regrets and there will be many moans and tears among portfolio Democrats, but no tears will be shed on behalf of Sanders even if the evidence demonstrates that he would likel have been a stronger candidate than Biden. Quite the contrary. Blame for Biden’s defeat will angrily focus on die hard Sanders supporters who stayed home rather than vote or had the banal audacity to exercise their democratic prerogative by voting for a third party candidate.

 

The media labels for the various candidates accentuate the distorted mainstream dialogue. The Democratic primary struggle was not really between moderates and progressives, at least when it comes to foreign policy. There is no moderation among the ‘moderates,’ and Sanders was the only true moderate. His positions while threatening to the guardians of the three pillars really advocated rather mild reforms—small cuts in the military, modest tax increases on the richest among us, and some small moves toward balancing partisanship on Israel/Palestine with calls for accountability by Israel and empathy for Palestine. This is not the stuff of revolution. It strikes me as a truly moderate reformist agenda, and even Sanders’ domestic agenda, which is indeed progressive, is in the spirit of Scandinavian democratic socialism, light years away from the Soviet model of socialism, much less a communist state.

 

And as for Trump, he does project as immoderate worldview, but more as a matter of style than substance. His domestic policies seem mean-spirited and divisive, while his foreign policy seems somewhat innovative, casting China in the role that Bidenites would assign mainly to Russia. Both Biden and Trump seem to see the world through a geopolitical lens that stresses hard power rivalries among principal states, putting the 9/11 counterterrorist preoccupation to one side, although this could change quickly with one large incident. Biden might be slightly more internationalist that Trump, but I would be astounded if he would do anything as provocative (and appropriate) as moving the American Embassy now in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, an act that would show both policy discontinuity with the Trump presidency and respect for the UN consensus.  

 

Those critics who bemoan living in a choiceless democracy, best conceived as a plutocracy, will feel vindicated, while pragmatic liberals who are either content with the three pillars or only give attention to the domestic agenda will also feel encouraged if Biden prevails although possibly expressing slight disappointment that Sanders and Warren were so abruptly swept aside. I will be surprised if there is solidarity on the more progressive side, which would have meant an earlier withdrawal by Warren coupled with a strong endorsement of Sanders. Given what has happened in recent days, I expect Warren to play her remaining cards astutely, which would mean withholding any endorsement of Biden while campaigning hard against Trump and treating Sanders as a lost cause by not endorsing his candidacy, and thereby keeping her future options open by signaling a willingness to accommodate the DNC and the Democratic Party Establishment.  

 

How Sanders Wins and Governs–Winning and Losing in 2020

24 Feb

How Sanders Wins and Governs–Winning and Losing in 2020

 

Anyone sensitive to the American political scene has become aware of an emerging collision between surging citizen support for Bernie Sanders and the lamentations of portfolio (stocks & bonds) driven Democrats who purport to question Sanders’ electability, and even if they now most reluctantly acknowledge the robustness of his electoral challenge to Trump, contend that he will be never be able to govern given his left agenda and considering the likely embitterment of the DNC establishment.

 

Admittedly, in my voting lifetime there has never been a credible candidate that is disliked by Wall Street, the Pentagon, and AIPAC. Yet, until now over many decades there has also never been a candidate that has been so ardently affirmed and trusted as Sanders by those who are tired of this regressive electoral hegemony achieved by these three pillars of the bipartisan American establishment. The person who came closest in the past to posing a similar challenge was, of course, Sanders in 2016, which had his challenge back then been allowed to happen, we might have been relieved of the present agonizing prospect of the renewal of Trump’s electoral mandate. The Sanders challenge is long overdue, and yet the Bloomberg millions and the wish for establishment continuity should not be underestimated. It is certainly not underfunded. These pale blue forces, although anti-Trump, are determined to spend and intensify their anti-Sanders campaign until they achieve their goals. They are down, but far from out, and seem in the end to care more about securing ‘a three pillars candidate’ (whoever it might be) than defeating Trump. For Trump, despite his explosive bombast and crazy tweets has pandered to Wall Street (tax breaks for the ultra-rich), Pentagon (highest budget ever in peacetime), and AIPAC (Israel gets green light for settlements, Jerusalem, Golan Heights that even prior pro-Israel partisan presidents held back on). In this sense, despite the ridicule of liberals, ‘Trump gets American politics.’

 

Against this background, principled pragmatism suggests a formula: Elizabeth Warren soon withdraws from the primary battle, despite her admirable campaign, throwing her support to Sanders. In turn Sanders pledges compatibility with her programs on health, education, and immigration, or proposes ways to blend her detailed proposals with his proclaimed objectives; he also promises her selection as his chief economic advisor throughout his presidency, while indicating an unconditional commitment to be at most a one-term president, coupled with some language suggesting that he will do all in his power to secure the 2024 Democratic Party nomination for Warren.

 

Such a formula is likely to be difficult to make operational, but if the alternative is a blue-tinged red billionaire becoming either candidate or kingmaker, we will be living under Trump in what amounts to a choiceless democracy for at least another four years. If portfolio Democrats win this battle, as they did in 2016, we might as well reconcile ourselves to an ‘always Trump’ future, dimming the lights of genuine democracy for a long, long time. They will express shock and regret as the Trump victory becomes apparent, but will unusually sleep well that night!

Will Confronting Iran Lead to War or Peace?

1 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of an interview published in The Nation on September 25th, following the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. It follows a pattern with respect to Iran of accusations, denials, and public uncertainties. This combination of elements, given the leadership in Washington and Tehran, one blustering, the other inflexible, can easily produce an unintended stumble into war. A second shorter interview is appended, conducted prior to the attacks by an Iranian journalist, M.J. Hassani of Tasnim News Agency. It illustrates the seeming rigidity of Iran’s Supreme Guide, considered as having the final word on government policy, exceeding that of the elected leadership.]

 

Daniel Falcone Introduction to the Interview: After accusations of Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Iranian officials and authorities indicated that “full-fledged war” with the United States could be imminent, prompting Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, to suspend oil production by nearly 6 million barrels per day. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the purported aggression as an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The allegations caused other countries to ostracize Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and significantly complicated the prospects of a multilateral nuclear deal.

 

Falcone: Can you provide some context for this latest series of headlines regarding the “Iranian threat.” Is this just “old wine new bottles?”

 

Falk: The magnitude of this attack on Saudi oil facilities makes the situation more dangerous even if it is considered as nothing more than a quantitative escalation of Iran’s response to US sanctions and other provocations, an Iranian version of Trump’s proclaimed policy of applying ‘maximum pressure’ to bring Iran to its knees. Yet it could be a qualitative escalation if the attack is treated as the biggest test of the US commitment to dominance in the region since 1956 when the US sided with the UN in calling for France, the UK, and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez Operation. As Falcone suggests, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made war-mongering remarks, including calling the attacks ‘an act of war.’ It is hard to deny that such an attack is an act of war, but against whom, by whom, has not been firmly established.

And yet, the hawks in the room clamor for blood, and do not seem to mind if the result is an all out regional war. Stephen A. Cook, the respected Council on Foreign Relations Middle East expert, endorsed this qualitative line of interpretation when he ended his analysis of the attack with some inflammatory words: “If Trump does not respond militarily, the United States should just pack up and go home.” [see Cook, “This is the Moment that Decides the Future of the Middle East,” Flash Points, Sept. 18, 2019]

 

At the same time, Trump seems to be inclined, at least for the present, to regard the attacks on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field as a big serving of the old wine. Trump in typical fashion has displayed both bluster and restraint. At least verbally Trump has spoken in a muscular vein, insisting that if Iranian responsibility for the attack can be demonstrated, then he will retaliate in some proportionate manner. Even under these circumstances, possibly with his eye on November 2020, Trump seems determined to avoid acts that would start an unwanted war. Although ambiguously, Trump still somewhat surprisingly appears to be keeping the diplomatic door ajar. He has been quoted as saying, probably much to Israel’s chagrin, “I know they [the Iranians] want to make a deal..at some point it will work out.” It will not work out if Trump uses this transactional language when approaching the religious leadership of Iran, even if directed at President Rouhani who leads the moderate forces in Tehran. To talk of ‘a deal’ is to demean the process, and helps explain the deep distrust of any American move toward negotiation that was unreservedly expressed recently by Iran’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei. U.S. leaders and diplomats should by now have learned that the language of the bazaar does not work if the objective is to find an agreement that serves the interests of both sides.

 

 

Falcone: With Iran, Trump seems to be caught in a pickle. On the one hand, he needs to undo the Obama legacy in the region with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the other hand, he runs the risk of looking like a neoconservative. What’s going on in your estimation?

 

Falk: I think you are correct in sensing the conflicting pressures on Trump. He cannot go back on his repudiation of the JCPOA agreed upon in 2015 and its Obama approach without seeming to be giving in to Iran’s pressure. At the same time, he evidently does not want to follow the Bolton/neocon/Pompeo path that leads to open military action, and most likely followed by a devastating war. In this sense, Trump’s ideal outcome would be some sort of diplomatic accommodation that he could ‘sell’ as a demonstration that ‘maximum pressure’ has yielded results. Whether he could spin such an outcome as a victory outside of his base seems doubtful as there would be many critics who would insist that any such result, even if it disguised the revival of JCPOA with another round of negotiations and a new name, would be viewed as at best a repetition of what had been achieved by the P5 + 1 Obama diplomacy of 2015. In fact, it now seems that to get any agreement with Iran there would have to be a much more solid commitment by the US and its allies that sanctions could not be again re-imposed on Iran in the future without a collective decision by the parties to the agreement. Such a condtion might possibly also be reinforced requiring a confirming decision on sanctions by the UN Security Council. If I were negotiating on Iran’s behalf, I would certainly insist on ironclad assurances that sanctions could not be renewed by a unilateral decree issued in Washington. Perhaps, Iran could be persuaded to accept some joint arrangements on regional peacekeeping and nonintervention that could be sold in Washington, and maybe even in Jerusalem and Riyadh as curtailing Tehran’s projection of regional power.

 

Falcone: John Bolton was recently fired. Can you talk about his role in the administration to get us to this point. I’m wondering if his dismissal is mere optics and the Bolton-Pompeo foreign policy is firmly in Trump’s hand.


Falk: We should realize by now that Trump’s highly quixotic style is resistant to all attempts at rational analysis. We do not really know whether Trump was reacting to Bolton’s belligerence with respect to foreign policy or to his aggressive, pushy personality that has long offended many prominent persons without achieving promised foreign policy victories. For instance, his advocacy of maximum pressure did not produce the desired regime change in Iran, or even a pullback on its regional involvements as in Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. All it did was to raise regional tensions to dangerous heights.

 

It does not appear that there is any sign of an ideological shift in the White House, although there does seem to be a more complex approach preferred by Trump, which fuses bluster and threats with this resolve to avoid outright combat, war, and any course of action that might lead to American casualties. This zigzag pattern of diplomatic maneuvering has so far seemed capable of absorbing Trump’s drastic mood swings and off the chart impulsiveness. The fact that it drives crazy the rational think tank gurus who dominate the Beltway can be regarded as a plus for Trump. Perhaps, the best explanation of Bolton’s dismissal was his fiery independence, which must have been fundamentally at odds with Trump’s insistence on low-profile deference from his top advisors and the shaping and reshaping of foreign policy on the basis of a constant search for transactional gains (even at the cost of diplomatic setbacks), which treats global policymaking as if it is just a replica of how to succeed in the urban real estate market without trying too hard.

 

It is lamentable that Bolton’s successor as National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, seems to be a milder version of the same hawkish pedigree, although seemingly more bureaucratic, less ascerbic, in style. A few years ago, O’Brien published a book of essays [While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis] that was highly critical of the supposed passivity of Obama’s foreign policy. In recent years, as State Department coordinator of hostage releases O’Brien has proven his value by being a Trump enthusiast, which in the present climate is the best credential a person can have who seeks a promotion to a high-status position in the federal government.

Falcone: How does oil, sanctions, and our relations with the Saudis contribute to the rising tensions in the region and the dangerous possibility of escalations?

 

Falk: There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Iran, coupled with the repudiation of the JCPOA, has escalated the conflict, and resulted partly from Washington seeking to please the Saudis and Israelis by adopting a more confrontational approach to Iran. As well, in the background is the dream scenario of toppling the regime, or at least forcing it to plead for mercy. There is no doubt that sanctions have caused great harm as measured by social and economic conditions in Iran, a collective and indiscriminate punishment mainly inflicted on the Iranian civilian population. Such coercion violates the UN Charter and international law. This punitive behavior against Iran resembles what was done to the Iraqi population in the twelve years after the First Gulf War. The frustrations with this reliance on sanctions eventuated in a devastating attack and occupation of Iraq initiated by George W. Bush in 2003. The Iraq War ended in a costly strategic failure given its supposed goals, including a boost to extremism concretely exhibited by the rise of ISIS almost in direct response to the heavy-handed American occupation policies in Iraq.

 

The prolonged strife in Yemen is part of this mindless militarism. It has included strong American backing for a brutal Saudi intervention from the aiir that has caused widespread suffering on the part of a largely helpless society, posing serious threats of massive famine and disease epidemics

Falcone: I’ve noticed whenever Trump wants to avoid delivering a foreign policy message and tone that sounds like Bush or Clinton he trots Pence out there to do the dirty work. Is this, in your view, to promote war with Iran yet try to create an intentional distance from neoliberals and neoconservatives?

 

Falk: As always, it is hard to interpret the logic behind Trump’s moves, or even to believe that a discoverable logic exists. He seems to act without calculating gains and losses unless money is involved, but is focused on trying to achieve immediate results that bring him notoriety if not glory. If there is a policy failure, then Trump does his best to shift the blame to others. Perhaps, because confronting Iran is a risky kind of diplomatic venture, it is best to put Pence out in front as often as possible, and thus seek to distance himself from responsibility if and when policy breakdowns occur. Trump consistently personalizes foreign policy and his leadership role demands above all that media attention is focused on himself. Trump stretches the reality of almost any situation to implausible extremes making it necessary to exonerate himself from distasteful and dysfunctional behavior by inverting and inventing facts, lying when it seems helpful, and disseminating fake news without blushing.

Falcone: Of course Israel will always be pertinent in figuring out the US method to the madness concerning Iran. How can following the US-Israeli alliance help us to get a sense of potential war with Iran. Or has this war already been underway?

 

Falk: The connections with Israel are vital to an understanding of the US role in the Middle East, and especially in the context of Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Israeli relationship is more deeply rooted in American politics than is the Saudi connection, which seems interest-based, relating not only to oil but also to its status as the world’s primary arms purchaser. With respect to both countries, it is arguable that these special relationships are contrary to American national interests in the Middle East, and also lead to behavior contrary to America’s professed values. With regard to the Saudis, their huge investment in the dissemination worldwide of a fundamentalist Wahabist doctrine of Islam would seem radically at odds with the US counterterrorist strategy, especially since 9/11. If Iran’s indirect involvement in the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities is established, then it would allow us to make a challenging comparison with the Saudi direct and indirect involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which according to the official version of the events implicated 15 Saudis of the 19 hijackers.

 

Most damaging is the FBI evidence of Saudi support for the attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans that has been withheld all these years until families of victims finally obtained their release. The efforts of the presidency of George W. Bush with inappropriate help from the FBI director at the time who happened to be Robert Mueller, to shield Saudi embassy officials and others close to the royal family from any accountability, or even scrutiny. Only the pressure of survivors and survivor families seems finally to be prying some of this information loose in the course of a law suit charging Saudi complicity in 9/11. Shockingly, yet to be expected, hardly a word appears in the mainstream media, and even now Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, is invoking the state secrets act to justify on national security grounds withholding evidence that evidently would further incriminate Saudi Arabia. These developments coming to light 17 years after 9/11 should give pause to those who still question the primacy of geopolitics and the unacceptable behavor of the deep state when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy or even the protection of national interests and the wellbeing of American citizens. It also raises haunting questions about the effects of these two special relationships, and reminds us of the ugly connivance and coverup of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty back in 1967 that killed 44 American naval personnel. For those who seek the full exposure of this incident, I urge a reading of Joan Mellen’s Blood in the Water, written with the cooperation of leading officers of the Liberty who survived the attack. In effect, bad as Trump is on these issues, he cannot be blamed for everything. These pernicious special relationships long preceded his presidency, and were bipartisan.

 

As for Israel, the relationship has definitely turned Arab public opinion and popular sentiments strongly against the US, and made the US continued dominance in the region depend on propping up anti-democratic autocratic leaders. The whole policy of confronting Iran has for many years been driven by the Netanyahu leadership, gravely weakening America’s role as a responsible global leader, and risking a war that would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.

 

How far Israel, as a state, and Netanyahu, personally, are to blame for the escalated confrontation with Iran is difficult to assess, but it would seem to be substantial. What stands out for me is how supposed American ‘patriots’ can continue to swallow the toxic kool aid of these two special relationships. It may be time to reconsider what constitutes patriotism and what constitutes treason. In a world where Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning,  and Julian Assange are viewed as criminals but John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump are viewed as national patriots there is something terribly wrong with our political language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasnim News Agency Interview Questions, M.J. Hassani, 17 Sept 2019

Hassani: On Tuesday, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei deplored the US’ calls for talks with Iran as a trick and said that Tehran will not negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally with Washington at any level. What do you think about Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks?

Falk: With all due respect, I think that Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks are phrased in too unconditional language. I believe that it is not desirable to shut the door to what I call ‘restorative diplomacy,’ and thereby avoid any further devastation caused by the current reliance on ‘coercive diplomacy’ by the adversaries of Iran and by Iran’s ‘active resistance.’ Trump is unpredictable and impulsive, and should not be challenged so directly as he might act irrationally in ways that could be mutually catastrophic. At the same time, the Iranian religious leader is correct to express the view that Iran will not engage in normalization talks so long as the United States and Israel seek to impose unacceptable restraints on Iran as a sovereign nation, while they engage in unrestrained and unaccountable military action throughout the entire Middle East.

 

Hassani: The reason behind this approach is that Iran sees the US calls for negotiation as a trick aimed at imposing its demands on the Islamic Republic and pretending that the “maximum pressure” policy has worked. This is while Iran has not given in to the US pressures so far. Is the reason justified? How do you assess Iran’s policy of “active resistance” against the US?

I agree with the view that Iran should not be lured into a negotiation that gives the US a public relations victory by claiming the success of its ‘maximum pressure’ approach, but this should be done by Tehran in ways that also expresses Iran’s search for an improved regional and global political atmosphere that is geared toward peace and co-existence rather than war and hostility. I believe Iran has effectively made its point that it will not back down in the face of harsh sanctions and other hostile acts that are contrary to international law. Now it can seize the initiative by proposing a constructive approach that shows that it seeks normalization on the basis of sovereign equality, and is not seeking confrontation for the sake of confrontation.

 

Hassani: Iran has described the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the removal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic as the only way that Washington can hold talks with Iran. How do you see the prospect of open diplomacy between Iran and the US as well as the other parties to the JCPOA?

Falk: Trump has wrongly, and for regressive political reasons, condemned the JCPOA, but would have incredible political difficulty and embarrassment if he now were to affirm it. The motivation for condemning JCPOA had to do with his efforts to repudiate Obama’s diplomacy and to show total solidarity with Israel, and is not really about the 2015 agreement, except incidentally. I think Iran should propose to reconvene the countries that negotiated in 2015, and produce a new agreement based on intervening developments, but making it clear that this would not be an acceptance of any preconditions put forward by Washington, and would not relate to non-nuclear issues.

 

Hassani: Can we regard the Islamic Republic’s strategy of “active resistance” against the US pressures as successful given Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertions?

Falk: I think ‘active resistance,’ depending somewhat on how it is defined has been successful so far, but in some ways a dangerous and high risk policy if adhered to much longer. Iran, having made its point effectively, should move to higher ground by proposing constructive deescalating steps such as reconvening the P5 +1 group to come up with a new framework agreement covering Iran’s nuclear program and the ending of US sanctions. The way forward should not be a continuation of the present, but an effort to occupy this high ground of law, morality, and peaceful conflict resolution. It may also be appropriate at this time to propose an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which likely would be rejected by Trump, but would put Iran in a favorable light internationally as creatively engaging in restorative diplomacy. Taking a longer view, Iran should consider reviving discussion of a nuclear free zone for the entire Middle East, including Israel, a country that acquired nuclear weapons by stealth and covert assistance from those states now most objecting to Iran’s nuclear program.