Cobban, Falk react to Trump’s “Deal”

On January 28, Pres. Trump rolled out his long-threatened “Deal of the Century” on the Palestine Question– in a White House event alongside Israeli POM Netanyahu and before a glittering audience in whose front row sat pro-Israeli mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. The “Deal” offered Palestinians even less than the Apartheid government in South Africa once offered its local clients in their ill-fated “Bantustans” plan, and had not been pre-negotiated at all with any Palestinian interlocutors.

JWE President Helena Cobban was quick off the mark with this tweet:

For his part, the day before the release of the “Deal”, JWE board member Richard Falk previewed its likely impact in an interview with Correio Brazilense‘s Rodrigo Craveiro. He described the plan as “substantially an imposed Israeli victory, not in any reasonable way the basis for reaching a political compromise.” He noted that, “It is unfair to the Palestinian people and completely ignores their fundamental rights,” and said it “seems designed to declare a victory disguised as a diplomatic accommodation, trading Palestinian political defeat for some promised promise of improved living standards.”

The following day, after the release of the plan, Falk described it “the Farce of the century”, and added:

What seems clear from the timing and mode of release is that the Trump/Kushner plan is intended to help Netanyahu prevail in the upcoming Israeli elections, and will also be useful to Trump with respect to Evangelical and hard-core Jewish support in the presidential election in November. There is some reason to believe, whether knowingly or not, the plan, and the pre-release one sidedness was designed to ensure a Palestinian rejection, allowing Israel to embrace the plan and claim to seek peace, as well as go forward with unilateral moves such as annexing the Jordan Valley.

On January 29, Cobban noted on her personal “Just World News” blog that a substantial group of Democratic members of the U.S. Senate had been swift to issue a public criticism of the plan– and that this group included all three of the Senators who are possible (and credible) Democratic candidates in this year’s presidential race.

The Senators’ letter, and signatories

In her blog post, Cobban provided some background to the historical shift this represents, away from the era when leading Democrats would line up behind any pro-Israeli position without thinking twice about it.

The next day, she was pleased to note this tweet from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s account, which indicated that Warren was still eager to publicize her criticisms of the Trump “Deal:

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The Decline of International Law: Reflections of a True Believer

by Richard Falk

This piece is crossposted from the personal blog of JWE Board member Richard Falk.

[Prefatory Note from R. Falk: This post was initially published on January 27, 2020 in a Turkish online publication, Fikir Turu, and is slightly modified below.]

The Decline of International Law

There is widespread agreement that international law is experiencing a sharp decline in relevance when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the eye of the public. At first glance, this seems surprising. The digital age and economic globalization require more than ever a reliable regulatory framework to enable international transactions of many types. The growing complexity and networked style of international relations would lead most observers to anticipate an increased role for international law, and in many spheres of transnational activity, this has happened. In this respect, the public is somewhat misled when it generalizes its impression of decline to the whole of international law.

The impression of decline derives from high profile issues of governments acting without regard for international law, especially in the area of peace and security. A recent such example is the drone killing of a leading Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, while on an apparent diplomatic visit to Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister. More revealing, perhaps, is the seeming international disregard of flagrant war crimes by the Assad Government during the civil strife that has brought such mass suffering to the Syrian people since 2011. Also, the genocidal massacres of the Rohingya people in Myanmar or the military coup staged by General Sisi in 2013 against the elected Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi raised few cries of official protest about such flagrantly unlawful behavior. Even the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year, while bringing tears to the eyes of many, brought no meaningful international response to such an outlandish state crime.  

The Trump presidency has reinforced this impression of decline, bordering on irrelevance, by its unilateralism in foreign policy—the 2018 move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in violation of the UN consensus that the future of the city be determined by negotiations; the legalization of Israeli settlements in the West Bank despite their clear violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention and prior Washington policy, the disruptive withdrawal from the from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) and the Paris Climate Agreement finalized the following year. Overall, global issues that are reported on by the media strengthens this impression that international law is not respected by many governments, and nothing adverse happens to them as a consequence.

Yet there is more to international law than this negative impression leads us to believe. The entire fabric of the modern world is dependent on a generally respected international law framework. Without this framework every standard activity from tourism to diplomacy to trade and communications, as well as maritime and commercial air safety, would produce chaos on a grand scale. The reality is that we take most of the international law dimensions of the modern world for granted, never think about it, or if we do, we are grateful for bringing this kind of order into our everyday activities. On a larger scale governments and businesses plan many large-scale long-term operations on the assumption that international law guidelines can be relied upon. In other words, in many spheres of international life, international law is dependable, and is mutually beneficial both for ordinary people and for powerful actors.

Yet, the impression of decline is real when it comes to peace and security, human rights, and cooperative global problem-solving for such challenges as climate change and migration. It was not always quite this way. The United States, in particular, but many important countries believed in extending the rule of law as far as possible in international arenas. There was a widespread belief about World War II that a law-governed world order was essential to avoid the disastrous recurrence of major warfare and another economic collapse of the magnitude that brought on the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unregulated nationalism was seen as a severe threat to a peaceful and prosperous future for humanity, including those states with a geopolitical agenda. Even the development of a human rights architecture within the UN embodied the liberal faith that adherence to a common set of legally grounded values, as qualified by civilizational diversity, would be of benefit to the whole of humanity.

Yet, there were always major limitations to what could be achieved by a law-oriented approach to world order. Even the UN was framed in such a way that it exempted the most powerful, and generally the most dangerous states, from an obligation to comply with international law, including even the UN Charter. This exemption was signaled to the world by making the five dominant governments in 1945 permanent members of the UN Security Council, and more consequential, conferring on them a right of veto, which was a way of making international law inapplicable whenever it was really needed to curb the behavior of these large states and their smaller friends who could always be shielded from legal obligations. Such shielding has been long done most spectacularly by the United States in relation to Israel. The best takeaway is that for geopolitical political actors, international law is a matter of convenience, not obligation.

There are also issues bearing on the effectiveness of international law that arise from the decentralized nature of world order. States even in the aftermath of a great war that caused widespread forebodings about the future were never willing to entrust the UN with enforcement capabilities. What enforcement occurred was the work of geopolitics, the willingness of large states to intervene for the sake of preventing severe criminality, itself usually instances of dubious legality. Arguably, this was what happened in 1999 when NATO acted to prevent Serbian criminality in Kosovo or when international sanctions were imposed by various countries on South Africa to bring apartheid to an end can be used as examples of extending international law in the face of state sovereignty and through circumventing a geopolitical veto. Yet depending on geopolitics to uphold international law is generally not a good idea. Geopolitical motivations are self-interested, strategically contoured, and ideologically driven, with the language of international law, democracy, and human rights often used as a cover to soften criticism. Over the decades, American sanctions were imposed on Cuba because of its Marxist orientation toward governance while countries with far worse human rights records, such as Guatemala or Chile under Pinochet, were not punished because they were allies. In other contexts, such as the struggle of the people of Tibet, Chechnya, and Kashmir, the costs of confronting China, Russia, and India were deemed impractical, with costs far too high to justify intervention, and to the extent concerns were expressed, it was done by way of hostile propaganda in which the moral message was submerged beneath clouds of partisanship.

Yet these structural problems of world order are also not the whole story. World history, which seemed in the struggles against fascism and colonialism and, later, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, to be heading toward greater reliance on international law, the UN, human rights, and the belief that only constitutional democracies were legitimate, but something happened to reverse these trends. What has happened in the 21st century is the rise of authoritarian leadership in virtually every important country on the planet, often by anti-democratic governing processes, but more surprisingly, by electoral choices in functioning constitutional systems such as India, Brazil, Philippines, and the United States, among others. The trend is global, which suggests structural dimensions, but each national narrative reflects particular conditions. Some explanations have stressed populist backlashes against neoliberal globalization and the impact of many dimensions of inequality it has brought about or the related effort to strengthen feelings of national identity and community in the face of migrants or the homogenizing impacts of transnational franchise capitalism. The cumulative effect of these developments is to elevate even the most arbitrary authority of the national leadership beyond any notion of accountability to international rules and institutions, making the perception of decline real, alarming, fostering a nihilistic mood at the very historic moment when constructive cooperative action is desperately needed. Added to these negative features of the present reality,  current prospects for reversing this decline are not favorable seem virtually non-existent.

Yet we can take a small comfort in the radical uncertainly of the future in which what is anticipated rarely happens. Less visible contradictory forces are present, mostly below the surface, making despair inappropriate, and calling on all of us to act on and struggle for the future we seek. It is this uncertainty that alone allows us, even mandates us, to be hopeful about the future, and to act as citizen pilgrims seeking a better future for humanity.

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Barometer: US-Iran war prospects

by Helena Cobban

This piece is crossposted from the Just World News blog of JWE President Helena Cobban

Three weeks after the United States’ January 3 assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, how likely is the eruption of a US-Iran shooting war, what paths might lead to it, and what factors might brake or reverse the trend towards war?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how, despite the extremely sharp escalation in tensions that immediately followed Soleimani’s killing, five days afterwards it became clear that Washington and Tehran had stepped back– for now– from the brink of cataclysmic outright war. Principally, that outcome was the result of Tehran’s carefully calibrated crisis management. Iran’s response to Soleimani’s killing was an almost (though not wholly) symbolic attack on the US base at Ain al-Asad in Western Iraq… and Tehran gave Washington enough advance warning to allow US personnel on the base to get to their bunkers, thus avoiding any serious US casualties.

At that point, the threat of an outright shooting war receded considerably. But on January 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sharp new economic sanctions on an Iran already reeling under under the effects of existing US sanctions, and Washington has continued to employ other elements of what Max Blumenthal has dubbed “hybrid warfare”– incitement of opposition movements, repeated provocations, information operations, etc– against Iran. For example, in 2018, the DC-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) budgeted $872, 400 for various, mainly opposition-boosting projects within Iran, and those funds likely became disbursed throughout 2019.

And the military situation inside (and alongside) the Persian/Arabian Gulf and neighboring waterways remains tense. 2019 saw a number of localized attacks and flare-ups in that region in which the US and allied navies have a large on-sea presence and sizeable bases, and in which air-defense systems are often poised on a hair trigger. The most significant of those attacks was September’s “swarming” attack by around two dozen attack drones that put Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil field offline for several weeks. (The effectiveness of that attack powerfully demonstrated to the super-vulnerable Saudis and their GCC neighbors that any shooting war against Iran could bring massive, possibly catastrophic, blowback against themselves. It powerfully buttressed the deterrence Iran was able to project toward the GCC states and thus greatly reduced the incentive those states had to provoke– far less to join– any US attack against Iran. The widely noted accuracy of Iran’s January 8 attack against the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq underlined that message.)

Meanwhile, in Iraq– a key locus of chronic political and paramilitary competition between pro-Iranian and (often US-backed) anti-Iranian factions– that competition has definitely heated up over the past ten days. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatolloah Ali Khamene’i, has insisted that he wants the 5,000-plus US troops who deployed back to Iraq in 2014 to meet and help destroy the ISIS threat there, to leave as soon as possible.

Two days after the Soleimani killing, the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the US troops to leave. US officials insisted that the troops are not leaving; and an intense struggle has erupted in many parts of Iraq over this issue. The largely anti-Iranian protest movement in southern Iraq, that had muted its actions immediately after the Soleimani killing, has now resumed its mobilization. (In 2018, NED  budgeted $2.570 million for activities inside Iraq that included many linked to just such a mobilization.)

US-Iranian “shadow wars” for influence also continue in Syria and Lebanon. Iran has powerful local allies in both those countries who are well embedded in the national governments and whose sway the United States (and Israel) have been working hard to reduce for many years now. A rapid escalation of tensions in either Syria or Lebanon, or in Iraq, could easily spur a rapid eruption of new tensions between the US and Iran itself.

Robert Hunter’s scenarios

So, taking the above into account, what are the current prospects for war or de-escalation between Iran and Washington?

One person who has attempted to answer that question is Amb. Robert E. Hunter, someone who combines the experience he gained when he was director of Middle East and North Africa affairs in Pres. Carter’s White House with the experience he later gained as Pres.Clinton’s Ambassador to NATO. In this recent article, Hunter laid out four possible scenarios for how the dynamic might evolve. (Though later in the piece, he expands one of them into a fifth.)

These are:

  1. Iran’s clerical leadership might be overthrown, a scenario he describes as “possible but not yet likely.”
  2. Iran’s leadership might respond to American pressure “by agreeing to negotiate a new nuclear agreement” that would include other Western objectives beyond what was agreed in the derogated-by-Washington JCPOA. (“This is a tall order… But Iran’s leadership, facing a rising internal, regime-threatening crisis, might be open to at least some” of Washington’s additional demands.)
  3. Washington might, essentially back down significantly by offering to remove “major elements of sanctions, as well as the goal of outside-provoked regime change.”
  4. Iran might now move rapidly toward getting its first nuclear weapon.”

He describes this fourth scenario as carrying the greatest risk, namely that, “Iran’s renewed nuclear work could progress to the point that the U.S. would need to redeem Trump’s pledge that ‘Iran Will Never Have A Nuclear Weapon!’ That means war.” Then, he immediately introduces his fifth scenario: “Another Afghanistan or Iraq.” He writes that,

War would lead to a fifth scenario: “now what?” Nearly 19 years of experience in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq should breed caution in Washington and a fundamental calculation of all U.S. regional interests that has so far been lacking. This experience should mandate all efforts possible to get out of the accelerating move toward the fourth scenario. 

Deterrence theory from the perspective of the deterree

Hunter’s article brings to mind a field of study that hasn’t been pursued much in the United States until recently, namely “deterrence theory from the perspective of the deterree.” Because of course, in all the interactions the Iranian government and its close allies have had with their regional (and international) rivals it is not only the GCC countries that have, as noted above, been deterred by the prospects of the Iranian alliance being able to inflict unacceptable damage on them. Israel has also been similarly deterred— especially by Hizbullah, in Lebanon, since 2006. And for at least 17 years now it has been clear that, despite all the swagger and bravado with which US naval vessels roam the Gulf, their leaders have also understood that it is impossible to “win” in an outright shooting war against Iran. That was the lesson brought home by the extensive (though ultimately, rigged) “Millennium Challenge” war-games the U.S. military ran in the Gulf in 2002. Both sides have doubtless worked hard to improve their planning and performance in the years since then. But the capabilities, especially in targeting and in command-and-control of complex operations, that Iran and its allies demonstrated at Abqaiq and Ain al-Asad certainly gave any strategists planning  a future large-scale attack against Iran whole new layers of extremely tough scenarios to worry about.

“A game-changer,” was how MIT’s Prof. Ted Postol summed up the lessons from Abqaiq. And that was before Ain al-Asad.

War risk not gone

Most people around the world breathed a sigh of relief as the intense war-worries that assailed us on January 3 started dissipating rapidly after January 8. But Iran’s 83 million people are still hurting very badly, as a result of the “maximum pressure” sanctions that Pres. Trump has imposed on them. So are Iraq’s 39 million people– from a multiplicity of causes, not least Washington’s policy of deliberating breaking up their country’s capabilities after its invasion in 2003… And Syria’s 17 million people have suffered extremely grave damage from Washington’s feckless, years-long waging of hybrid war against their government. So we cannot yet say that the war between the United States and the Iranian-led alliance has ended. We can say that the US campaign against Iran and its allies has for now has been pushed into forms that are less immediately lethal and disruptive of international peace and security than an outright war would have been.

But sanctions kill! As we should all remember from the tragic history of the sanctions that the US persuaded the UN to maintain against Iraq, 1991-2003. The UN estimated those sanctions killed more than 500,000 Iraqis. Now, Washington wants to enforce an equally tight set of sanctions against Iran and against Syria– and Trump has even threatened to impose tight sanctions against Iraq if the Iraqi government insists on expelling the US military forces and contractors who have been there since 2014.

(We would be remiss if we failed to note that the Israeli government which, along with its many acolytes inside the United States, has been a big driver of many American anti-Iran campaigns over the course of many years, has also pioneered the use of “maximum pressure” sanctions against the two-million population of Gaza throughout the past 13 years, to quite devastating effect.)

What can break the stand-off?

So what can break the current standoff between American and Iranian power? It is highly unlikely that any European powers will play this role. As I see it, the best hope for the kind of leadership in international diplomacy that is needed to break the current logjam is the hope that some combination of Russia, China, and the smaller “BRICS” powers can broker a peace between the parties that will allow all foreign fighting forces to return home and allow the peoples of the region to start to heal their wounds and rebuild countries devastated by war, sanctions, and harsh internal divisions.

Obviously, this will not be easy. The international community has a lot of other issues to worry about, including the various trade wars launched by Pres. Trump, the challenges of negotiating a viable peace (at last!) in Afghanistan, and the continuing threats– including in Iraq and Syria– from ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other takfiri forces.

But there are some modest reasons to think that some form of an internationally brokered deal between Washington and Iran might be possible:

  1. The United States is not nearly as commanding a force inside the UN now as it was in the 1990s. Back then, it could often bend the UN to its will, including over the issues of sanctions against Iraq. Now, in contrast, many (though not all) of the current rounds sanctions against Iran and Syria are unilateral US sanctions, that are enforced by Washington through its command of the SWIFT system for international payments. Russia and China have talked about setting up an alternative to SWIFT, and have also been exploring various barter arrangements with Iran.
  2. Russia has demonstrated a sure grasp of the complex diplomatic skill and breadth of understanding of the region’s dynamics that can enable its diplomats to contribute creatively to the required diplomacy. Russia has good working relations with all the relevant actors (except, perhaps, today, with Washington; a situation that needs to change.)
  3. China brings its considerable economic heft to the table, as well as a non-trivial diplomatic presence in this region, which lies at the western end of its own home continent. Beijing has been careful not to over-extend itself in the region. But it has considerable interests in the countries both north and south of the Gulf. In 2016, Pres. Xi Jinping made prestigious visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Last year, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi visited Beijing.
  4. The GCC states, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, were until recently seen as major forces critical of the JCPOA and urging greater US pressure against Iran. After the attack on Abqaiq, and even more after the tensions stoked by the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that stance seemed to change. Given the power that Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s de-facto leaders exert on decisionmaking in Washington, including through the personal relationships they enjoy with members of the Trump-Kushner clan, it is possible that they might both help persuade the President to back down some from his policy of suffocating “maximum pressure” on Iran and help him find a face-saving way to achieve this…

Thus, as I said above, it is possible that a serious de-escalation between Washington and Tehran might be achieved through smart, engaged international diplomacy. (Note that I don’t even mention any European role in the above list… ) If this does happen, regarding the oft-hyped Iranian nuclear issue, we might see something like a reinstatement of JCPOA. But numerous other issues of contention would need to be resolved as well. Any such negotiated stand-down would involve some pain for all parties. But such is the nature of negotiation.

And the alternative to that would be… ? A continuing, quite horrendous risk of a cataclysmic regional or global war.

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Facing the Global Crisis

by Richard Falk

This piece is crossposted from a portion of the interview as published on the personal blog of JWE Board member Richard Falk.

[Prefatory Note by R. Falk: The post below is a somewhat amplified version of an interview with C. J. Polychroniou, journalist and professor of political economy at West Chester University, which was published on January 7, 2020 in the online journal, Global Policy. As the interview was conducted in December 2019, it fails to address the various disruptive consequences of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, including the violation of Iraqi sovereignty, Baghdad being the site of the drone attack, as well as the risks of war arising from an escalating tit-for-tat cycle of actions and reactions. Given growing tensions between the interconnectedness of the world and the state-centric character of international law, including contradictions between totalizing and disregarding territorial sovereignty, state-centric world order is being increasingly marginalized by geopolitical behavior that both generates and suppresses transnational political violence. A normative crisis with structural implications exists, and is not even being widely appreciated much less adequately addressed. The continuing disregard of this crisis adds to grave risks of a catastrophic future for humanity, with severe spillover to the natural surroundings shared with non-human species.]

Facing the Global Crisis

Q1. I want to start this interview on the state of global affairs near the end of the second decade of the 21st century by moving from the abstract to the concrete. To begin with, it’s regarded as axiomatic that the postwar international liberal order is fracturing and that we are at the same time in the midst of a geopolitical transition where the most prominent characteristic seems to be the decline of the United States as a global superpower. With that in mind, can you offer us a panoramic perspective on the contemporary state of global affairs? What do you consider to be the primary changes under way, and the emerging challenges and threats to global peace and stability?

Response: There are many crosscutting tendencies now evident at the global level. At the very time when globalizing challenges are intensifying, the mechanisms available for regional and global cooperation are becoming dangerously less effective. The failure to address climate change, so clearly in the global public interest, is emblematic of a dysfunctional world order system. This failure can be further delineated by reference to two distinct, yet interrelated developments. The first characterized by a vacuum in global leadership, which reflects both the overall decline of the United States as well as its explicit renunciation of such a role by the Trump presidency. Trump proudly proclaims that his political agenda is exclusively dedicated to the promotion of American national interests, declaring defiantly he was elected president of the United States, and not of the world. The second broader development is the rise of autocrats in almost every important sovereign state, whether by popular will or through imposed rule, resulting in the affirmation of ultra-nationalist approaches to foreign policy, given ideological intensity by chauvinistic and ethnic hostility toward migrants and internal minorities. This kind of exclusionary statism contributes to the emergence of what might be called ‘global Trumpism’ further obstructing global problem-solving, shared solutions to common problems, and global expressions of empathy for human suffering. A discernable effect of these two dimensions of world order is to diminish the relevance and authority of the United Nations and of international law, as well as exhibiting a decline in respect for standards of international human rights and a disturbing indifference to global warming and other global scale challenges, including toward maintaining biodiversity and upholding the stability of major global rainforests.

Overall, what has been emerging globally is a reinvigoration of the seventeenth century Westphalian regional system of sovereign states that arose in Europe after more than a century of devastating religious wars, but under vastly different conditions of connectivity that now pose dire threats to maintaining minimum world order and to the wellbeing of peoples throughout the world. Among these differences are the dependence upon responsible internal behavior by governing processes at all levels of social interaction in an era of growing ecological interdependence. The tolerance of fires in the Amazon rainforest by the Brazilian government, supposedly for the sake of economic growth, by indulging the interests of agrobusiness and logging, endangers a vital global source of biodiversity as well as depletes essential carbon capturing capabilities of this vast forest area, yet there is no way under existing international norms to challenge Brazil’s sovereign prerogative to set its own policy agenda, however irresponsible with respect to its own ecological future, as well as that of its region and the world.  

At the same time, there has emerged doctrine and technology that defies territorial constraints, and gives rise to contradictory pressures that subvert the traditional capabilities of states to uphold national security on the basis of territorial defense. On the one side, transnational extremism and criminality exposes the symbolic and material vulnerability of the most militarily powerful states as the United States discovered on 9/11 when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were allegedly attacked by a small group of unarmed individuals. Added to this are threats to all people from hacking and surveillance technologies that are not subject to territorial regulation. Responses by way of retaliatory strikes or covert operations directed at the supposed extraterritorial source of these attacks and threats, according to a global mandate associated with counterterrorist warfare and transnational law enforcement generate new patterns of lawlessness in the conduct of international relations. Technological and doctrinal innovations associated with the use of precision guided missiles, cyberspace, and pilotless drones, as well as satellite surveillance are producing new conceptions and experiences of boundaryless war zones. The world is becoming a battlefield for both geopolitical actors and a variety of non-state actors in a series of unresolved transnational struggles and undertakings. Additionally, there are opening new uncertain frontiers for 21st century warfare involving cyber assaults of various kinds, evidently already tested and used by the U.S. and Israel in their efforts to destabilize Iran, as well as new initiatives by a few states to militarize space in ways that seem capable of threatening any society on the face of the planet with instant and total devastation. One salient feature of these developments is the unacknowledged significance of neither adversary being a Westphalian sovereign state as generally understood by international relations theory and practice, while ‘political realism,’ which remains largely unchallenged, is more and more out of touch with these political realities subverting statist world order.

Under analogous pressures, the world economy is also fragmenting and seeking a reterritorialization of trade and investment, not only behaviorally but doctrinally. Trump’s transactional mode of operations challenges the rule-governed global system established after World War II, which relied on the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organization. The economic dimensions of resurgent nationalism also give rise to trade tensions, with real prospects of major trade wars, reminding expert observers of the ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ atmosphere in the early 1930s that gave rise to the Great Depression. Underneath this reterritorialized approach to political economy seems to be what amounts to a mostly silent revolt against neoliberal globalization, and its encouragement of transnational trade and investments based on market-based opportunities, as guided by the transnational efficiency of capital and openness of national markets rather than the wellbeing of people, including environmental protection. A major source of dissatisfaction with traditional politics in democratic societies seems associated with increasing economic inequality, causing stagnation, or worse, of middle and lower class living standards, while producing incredible accumulations of wealth at the very apex of society. These trends have unleashed an enraged populist assault on establishment institutions, including traditional political parties, being blamed for enriching upper elites while suppressing the wellbeing of almost entire societies, with an astonishing 99% being left behind. In the American setting, the left/right expression of this new classism is reflected in the Trump proto-fascist base and the Sanders mobilization among youth and disaffected constituencies.

In this downward global spiral, additional negative factors are associated with poor management of ending the Cold War, and the accompanying collapse of the Soviet Union. I would point to three principal negative impacts: (1) the failure of the United States as triumphant global leader to seize the opportunity during the 1990s to move the world toward greater peace, justice, and prosperity by strengthening the UN, by reallocating resources from defense to civilian infrastructure, and by initiating denuclearization and demilitarizing policies regionally and worldwide; (2) the degree to which the Soviet collapse led to a world economic order without ideological choices for political actors (‘there is no alternative’ mentality). This pushed the logic of capitalism toward the kind of inhumane extremes that had existed in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. As long as socialism was associated with Soviet leadership it offered an ideological alternative to alienated segments of society, which created strong political incentives in the West to exhibit ethical concerns for human wellbeing, and social protection frameworks moderating the cruelty of minimally regulated market forces; in effect, for its own sake capitalism needed the rivalry with socialism to maintain an ethically acceptable ideological composure; (3) the sudden withdrawal of Soviet balancing influence in several regions of the world, especially the Middle East, led to order-maintaining cycles of oppressive patterns of governance, U.S. regime changing interventions, and political turmoil and prolonged strife causing massive suffering, famine, and devastation.

This combination of domestic authoritarianism, transnational conflict configuratons, and state-centric foreign policy is inclining the world toward ecological catastrophe and geopolitical uncertainty, even chaos. This pattern is accentuated by world economic orientations that are oblivious to human and global interests, while slanting national interests toward the ultra-rich. In effect, the political future for formerly leading democratic states is now more accurately described as a mixture of autocracy and plutocracy with fascist overtones of the strong leader and the stereotyping of ‘the other’ as an enemy to be excluded or destroyed.

One symptom of these implosive developments is to call attention to the altered role of the United States in this overall conjuncture of historical forces. On the one side, is the reality of U.S. decline, accentuated by the behavior of Trump since 2016 and the rise of China, which reflects the impact of this impulsive and anti-globalist leader and national mood, but also exhibits some longer deeper trends that transcend his demagogic impact. The most important of these is the failure to learn from the reduced effectiveness of military force with respect to the pursuit of foreign policy goals, given changes in the nature of political power and international status, especially in relations between the West and non-West. Costly interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all ended in political failure, despite U.S. military and battlefield dominance and a strong political commitment to the mission. The U.S. reaction has been to reframe tactics rather than to appreciate the enhanced capabilities in the post-colonial world of militarily vulnerable countries to mobilize prolonged and eventually effective resistance to interventions from the West. Such reframing has led to the repetition of failed interventions in new contexts. In this narrow regard, Trump’s seeming repudiation of regime-changing wars was and is more realistic than the Pentagon’s tendency to return to the drawing counterinsurgency and counterterrorist drawing boards to figure out how to do the job better next time.

Yet Trump’s militarism is evident in other forms, including seeking to extend military frontiers to outer space, by boasts about investing in producing the most powerful military machine in human history, and by the reckless war-mongering diplomacy toward Iran. In this respect, the U.S. not only is increasing risks of global catastrophe, but also inadvertently helping its international rivals to gain relative economic and diplomatic advantages. A crucial explanation of America’s likely continuing decline results from two refusals: first, a recognition of the neutralization of military power among major states by the mutually destructive character of warfare and secondly, an appreciation of the nature of asymmetric conflicts resulting from the rising capabilities of national resistance frustrating, and generally defeating, what had once been relatively routine and cost-effective colonial and imperial operations.

Another source of decline is that the kind of confrontations that existed during the Cold War no longer seems to exert nearly as much influence on security dimensions of world order as previously. Most European states feel less need for the American nuclear umbrella and the safety afforded by close alliance relations, which translates into reduced U.S. influence. This shift can be observed by the degree to which most states currently entrust their defensive security needs to national capabilities, somewhat marginalizing alliances that had been formally identified with U.S. leadership. In this regard, the bipolar and unipolar conceptions of world order have been superseded by both multipolarity and statism in the dynamic restructuring of world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.

The profile of American decline, with respect to the international policy agenda could be rather abruptly altered, if not reversed, by an internationalist post-Trump foreign policy. This would be particularly evident, in all likelihood, with respect to reaffirming cooperative efforts regarding climate change, reviving the 2015 Paris Agreement, and calling for a more obligatory approach to international regulatory arrangements. Of course, a revived American bid for global leadership would be further exhibited by certain foreign policy moves such as seeking balance in addressing Israel/Palestine relations, lifting economic sanctions from such countries as Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, renewing adherence to the JCPOA (Nuclear Agreement) with Iran, and urgent calls for strengthening the role and relevance of the United Nations and respect for a global rule of law reconfigured to take account of the transnational features of the digital age with its connectivities and networks joining non-state actors.

In a sense, the assessment and contours of American decline, reflective of so many factors, will become clearer after the 2020 elections. If Trump prevails, the decline thesis will be confirmed. If a centrist Democrat, say Biden, prevails, it will likely create a sense of relief internationally, along with a temporary suspension of doubt about the reality of U.S. decline, but will not end the credibility of the longer run decline hypothesis as a Democratic Party president, such as Biden, will not challenge the Pentagon budget or the militarism that underpins American policy for the past 75 years. If, as now seems highly unlikely, the Democrats nominate a progressive candidate, say Sanders or Warren, and (s)he is able to gain enough support in Congress, the trends pointing to further decline might not only be suspended, but possibly reversed. Addressing inequality arising from the plutocratic allocation of benefits resulting from neoliberal globalization and undoing the excessive reliance on military approaches to foreign policy are the only two paths leading to a sustainable renewal of American global leadership and prospects for a benevolent national future.     

Q2. Do you detect any similarities between the current global geopolitical condition and that of the era of imperial rivalries prior to the outbreak of World War I?

Response: The imperial rivalries, at the root of the stumble into major warfare, were much more overt in the period preceding World War I than is the case today. Now imperial strategies are more disguised by soft power expansionism as is the case with China or geopolitical security arrangements and normative claims as is the American approach, but the possibility of an unwanted escalation in areas of strategic interaction are present, especially in areas surrounding China. Confrontations and crises can be anticipated in coming years, and without skillful diplomacy a war could result that could be more destructive and transformative of world order than was World War I.

There is also the possibility of hegemonic rivalry producing a major war in the Middle East, as between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States on one side and Iran and Russia on the other side. The Syrian War prefigured on a national scale such hegemonic rivalry that could now recur on a regional scale. A more optimistic interpretation of developments in the Middle East is to suggest that the stability of the Cold War era might soon reemerge in light of Russian reengagement, which could restore the balance imposed earlier, and seems preferable to the turmoil and confrontations of the last 25 years. It would be prudent to take note of the World War I context to remind political leaders that they risk unwanted sequences of events if promoting aggressive challenges to the established order in regional or global settings. Yet the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in early January 2020 came close to setting off a chain reaction of escalating violent incidents that could have ended in a major war between Iran and the United States of intensity and indefinite scope.

Of course, triggering conditions prior to World War I were concentrated in Europe, whereas now it could be argued that the most dangerous situations are either geographically concentrated in the Middle East or in a variety of regional circumstances where coercive diplomacy could trigger an unintended war either  on the Korean Peninsula or in relation to China where interests and ambitions collide in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

Graham Allison has written a widely discussed book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap? (2017), which argues that throughout history when the dominance of a state is challenged by a rising power a major war has frequently resulted to establish geopolitical ranking. Of course, circumstances have changed drastically since the time of Thucydides, due to the possession of nuclear weapons on both sides, a fact that is likely to encourage geopolitical caution as risks of mutual catastrophe are quite evident. At the same time complacency is not warranted as governments have not changed their reliance on threats and bluffs to achieve their goals, and the possibility of miscalculation is present as antagonisms climb escalation ladders.

More broadly, the existence of nuclear weapons, their deployment, and doctrines leading to their use in certain situations create conditions that are very different than what existed in Europe more than a century ago. Yet there is one rather frightening similarity. Threat diplomacy tends to produce conflict spirals that can produce wars based on misperception and miscalculation, as well as accident, rogue behavior, and pathological leadership. In other words, the world as now  constituted, as occurred in 1914, stumble into an unwanted war, and this time with casualties, devastation, and unanticipated side effects occurring on a far greater scale.

Finally, there were no serious ecological issues confronting the world in 1914 as there are at present. Any war fought with nuclear weapons can alter the weather for up to ten years in disastrous ways. There is the fear validated by careful scholarly study that ‘a nuclear famine’ could be produced by stagnant clouds of smoke that would deprive the earth of the sunlight needed for agriculture for a period of years. In other words, the consequences of a major war are so much more serious that its avoidance should be a top priority of any responsible leader. Yet, with so many irresponsible leaders, typified by Donald Trump, the rationality of caution and that would seem to prevent large scale war may not be sufficient to avoid its occurrence. Also, the mobilization of resources and the focus of attention on an ongoing war, or even its threat, would be so occupying as almost certainly to preclude efforts, however urgent, to address global warming and other ecological challenges.

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As U.S. Congress votes on war powers, Falk & Cobban join the discussion

This afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives is due to vote on a resolution (PDF text here) that, in the wake of the United States’ killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani would direct the President “to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military”  unless either Congress has declared war or “such use of the Armed Forces is necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent armed attack… “

Voting on this resolution is expected to take place later this after (EST). This is the most serious attempt Congress has made to assert its constitutionally mandate power to declare war since it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution of Octo0ber 2002, which authorized the President to launch the invasion of Iraq five months later. Since then, the military operations that successive presidents have authorized in the Middle East have been bundled and justified under that AUMF.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched this new legislative initiative in response to the assassination of Gen. Soleimani in the early hours of January 3, Baghdad time, which sparked widespread fears of the kind of serious Iranian response that might catapult the Middle East and indeed the world into a conflict of apocalyptical proportions.

In response, a group of eminent American intellectuals led by Professors Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk and veteran antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg issued a stirring public letter calling on Congress to, “fulfill its most solemn constitutional responsibility, and impose effective restraints on the war-making actions of this impeached president.”

This, the letters’ signatories noted,

is a moment when partisan politics should be put aside, not only for the sake of national interests but for the benefit of humanity – -we should realize that these unilateral actions by the United States have put the entire world at risk. It is also a moment when Republicans as well as Democrats must stand up for a sane foreign policy, and for diplomacy and peace instead of aggression and war, and fulfill their duties as Members of Congress.

Just World Educational is proud that Richard Falk is a member of our Board of Directors. Another JWE leader, President Helena Cobban, has also been working actively on the US-Iran issue over the past ten days, in her capacity as an expert analyst of Middle eastern and strategic affairs.

Ms. Cobban published two timely analyses of the US-Iran confrontation on the “Responsible Statecraft” site:

Most recently, yesterday (January 8) she published this commentary, Trump and Khamenei de-escalate. Political struggle inside Iraq continues on her personal “Just World News” blog.

(The image at the head of this blog-post is a satellite image published by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey that shows the precision with which Iranian missiles hit unmanned facilities in the U.S. Ain al-Assad base in Western Iraq, on the night of January 7.)

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In Jesus’s birthplace, Palestinian Christians mark Christmas behind a Wall

by Helena Cobban, JWE president

In 2019, the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem– many of them descendants of some of Jesus’s or his disciples’ first converts– spent their 58th Christmas under Israel’s hostile military occupation. Bethlehem’s mixed, Christian-Muslim population is encased more tightly than ever by the Israeli-built Wall, which prevents them even from making the four-mile journey to Jerusalem, where many of them have close family members, schools, or businesses to stay in touch with.

Last Saturday, I was blessed to take part in a simulcast church service held jointly in Washington National Cathedral and the Evangelical Lutheran Church “Christmas” Church in Bethlehem. It was a powerful and moving experience, as congregants in both locations participated in the traditional Service of Lessons and Carols, some of it in Arabic, some in English. The archived version of the simulcast can be viewed here.

Three of the five rooftop singers in Bethlehem

Later, I discovered this beautiful video that the Bethlehem Municipality made for Christmas last year. In it, five accomplished vocalists sing a special arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy”– while standing on a rooftop overlooking much of the city! Their sing evocatively in a mix of English, Arabic, and Italian as a drone camera records them from many angles.

Either of these two videos (or anyway, some excerpts from the simulcast one, which at present is unedited) could make a wonderful centerpiece for congregations or other groups wanting to understand the experience of Christian Palestinians more deeply.

Maryam, Joseph, and their donkey, handmade by young women from the East Jerusalem YWCA, 1988.

And before I dive a little deeper into the highlights of these two videos I want to re-up this blog post that I published here at JWE in December 2016: “The Story of Christmas told for everyone (especially my grandkids)”, which I hope you will also enjoy.

So first, the archived video of the simulcast church service:

This one runs at 1 hr 31 mins– but the first 25 mins of this version are all “technical prep”, so to have a good viewing of the whole service, you can just cut those out, leaving you with a video that runs just over one hour. You can also download the whole Order of Service here, which means you can follow along with everything.

One of the screens in the cathedral, where we could see what was happening in the Bethlehem church.

The technical people at both ends, by the way, are to be applauded for managing everything brilliantly. It was the first time I’d ever participated in any simulcast church service and by watching the big screens set up in our portion of the “choir” area of the cathedral, I was able to have a rich sense of worshipping “with” the participants in Bethlehem.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has a small sanctuary, and not a whole lot of seating space. But the front row of seats was filled with dignitaries from the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in the region, and the small brass band provided a couple of musical interludes.

Their pastor, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, spoke the opening words. “Christmas reminds us,” he said, “to look for God in a cave with a homeless family, to look where there are refugees… where there is a Wall.” (He is in the center in the photo at the head of this blog post.)

At our end, the congregation(s) were welcomed jointly by Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the Dean of the Cathedal, and Rev. Leila Ortiz, the Bishop of the Washington DC synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Part of the Washington DC congregation.

Washington National Cathedral is an airy, towering structure built along the lines of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Our whole congregation of around 200 people fit into the “choir” portion of the sanctuary, which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. We were also lucky enough to have an actual human choir of 16 members of the cathedral’s professional singing corps, who contributed some very moving hymns and carols.

… And, talking of people with great singing voices, do try to download and enjoy the video of the five Bethlehemites singing “The Little Drummer Boy”, if you get the chance.

Five wonderful Bethlehem vocalists, with their cityscape behind them.

These singers are, in order of appearance: Nathalie Murad, Fouad Moubassaleh, Milad Fatouleh, Amjad Khair, Fadi Ghattas. Nathalie sings in English, Milad in Italian, and the other three in Arabic. It is an exceptional a capella performance by these five, which clearly must have been recorded separately, given the lovely quality of the recording.

A view the drone-camera took from high up, looking down on the singers and the city streets beneath them.

If you scroll down in the comments under the video, you’ll find more details about the recording– and also, a translation into English of a portion of the words sung in Arabic by the fourth and fifth singers. The fourth singer is singing this:

The children of Christmas [(Bethlehem)] have two faces:
One face smiles; the other is sad.
Sadness comes out from their viscera;
It screams: We have famine.
No one’s listening.
And the scream is muffled [by the festivities].

And the fifth singer, this:

In a small cave, a poor child was born.
He proclaimed that great happiness is ahead.
That they will be “saved” from their sadness and pain.

As the Christmas season proceeds, according to both the Latinate and Orthodox calendars, I am pleased to be able to share with you these resources about the city of Jesus’s birth and some of the Christian people who still live there, despite all the hardships they face.

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“S” is for State Responsibility

By Raed Jarrar (@raedjarrar)

For years, many Palestine solidarity advocates have been hesitant to call for US sanctions on Israel because it has been considered too “unrealistic.” Instead, most have been calling for consumer boycotts and corporate divestments, and those who lobby the US government have mainly focused on challenging it to re-think the massive foreign military assistance it provides to Israel.

Using US-based legal frameworks, activists have been trying to pressure the US government to exercise responsible oversight of that aid. Although this oversight has never actually been applied to Israel, it is important for activists to understand what these mechanisms are, what they have the potential to achieve, and what additional new mechanisms can be explored and utilized. 

Existing mechanisms 

Since 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) has explicitly barred the United States from providing assistance to any country that engages in gross violations of human rights. In the mid-1990s, Congress added a small but extremely important amendment to the FAA: Amendment 620M, also named the Leahy Law, after Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), who worked tirelessly for its passage. 

The Leahy Law bars the US Department of State from providing foreign aid to security force units that have committed gross violations of human rights and mandates a vetting procedure to ensure that units have not committed such violations. A parallel, though slightly different, provision is included in the annual funding legislation that governs the Department of Defense’s portion of foreign military assistance. Nearly 100 countries around the world receive Foreign Military Finance (FMF) assistance from the US. Of the total sum allocated, Israel gets more than half– currently, $3.3 billion/year.

Failure of accountability 

A 2014 report found that between 2011 and 2013 the US government implemented Leahy Law vetting on 530,000 foreign units, ultimately finding that 2,516 of these units were credibly linked to gross violations of human rights in those years. Not one of those units was in Israel. Even more astounding is that unlike every other country in the world, the US government has no mechanism to track or vet US military aid to Israel

US government spokespeople claim that Washington complies with the requirements pertaining to training programs the US runs for Israeli units – which might be true — but the cost of these training programs is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall $3.3 billion of FMF spending. For example, in 2018, the US government spent $885,459 (using FMF) to train 66 Israelis – that is %0.02 of the FMF aid, leaving %99.98 unaccounted for. 

Oversight attempts

In February 2016, Sen. Leahy and ten other members of the US Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asking the State Department to implement the Leahy Law for units receiving US military aid in both Egypt and Israel. The letter was met with swift pushback, including from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, and the issue was never fully addressed by the US government. 

Some members of Congress, meanwhile, have been trying to draft and enact new laws to increase Israel’s accountability. One of them is Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) who introduced H.R. 2407, also known as the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. The bill seeks to stop one small but important subset of Israeli abuses by prohibiting any US military aid from being used “to support the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of children in violation of international humanitarian law.” Realistically, however, there is little prospect that H.R. 2407 will become law any time soon. 

What can we do to hold the US government accountable if it is failing to hold itself accountable? 

The answer to this question might be a combination of continuing to pressure the US government through all the tools that have been previously utilized, and adding new options to our toolbox. This would include other mechanisms that could be employed under international law, rather than US law, by invoking nation-states’ responsibility to impose sanctions on Israel (or on the US for failing to hold Israel accountable). 

State responsibility

There are binding requirements under international law for the US and all other states to not recognize as lawful any “illegal situations,” such as Israel’s settlements outside the Green Line. This obligation prohibits not only explicit recognition of illegal settlements, but extends also to actions that would imply recognition — such as trading with these settlements. The international community and expert bodies, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and United Nations Human Rights Council, have long considered Israel’s settlement building outside the Green Line as unlawful, mostly because it is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. 

All parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention are obligated to “ensure respect” for the Convention. As a signatory to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which refers to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and defines humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone, the US government has an obligation to “ensure respect” for the Convention which defines Israel’s settlement-building as unlawful. Other governments have an obligation to hold the Israeli government accountable, as well as the US government for its role in supporting an “illegal situation.”  

In addition, the International Law Commission (ILC), produced what is referred to as the “Draft articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts” in 2001. They are considered to be customary international law. The articles, although not specific to Israel or the US, also discuss nation-states’ responsibility to uphold and protect international law and not encourage violations of international humanitarian law. In fact, nation-states are called upon to exert their influence to stop such violations.

Putting this into practice

Operating within the binding context of state responsibility, it is incumbent upon the US government to ban all Israeli settlement goods from entering US markets. It must also prevent US-based companies from operating in these illegal settlements or trading settlement goods. By allowing settlement goods, which sustain settlements, into US markets, the US government is providing implicit recognition of the illegal creation of the settlements. By doing this, the US is also providing assistance to the illegal settlement project and contributing to the maintenance of the settlement economy, which helps finance their continued existence and expansion. The burden in this case falls on the US government — and when the US government fails to hold itself accountable, other governments should step in to stop the US and Israeli governments.

It will take an orchestrated effort by US-based activists and organizations to work with international and regional bodies, or even with other governments taking unilateral or multilateral steps, to compel the US and Israel to abide by international law.   

The same logic can be applied to US military aid to Israel that is being used to violate international law on a daily basis – it is the US government’s responsibility to vet and suspend its aid because it is contributing to an illegal situation.  If the US government doesn’t do that, other governments should step in to stop both the US and Israeli governments from violating international law. 

Getting to “S” 

Most US-based supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights have focused their energies so far on the “B” (boycott) and “D” (divestment) prongs of the campaign. Pursuing the “S” has seemed like a difficult stretch if we were to define it as “Sanctions,” such as the ones that were enacted against pre-1992 South Africa for its commission of the crime of apartheid.

If we reconfigure the “S” to mean compelling the US government to fulfill its State Responsibility while dealing with Israel – or ask other governments to step in and compel the US – then we already have some of the tools needed, in both national legislation and international commitments, to push this campaign forward. In this way, adding “State Responsibility” to the movement’s toolbox can be an important asset in the campaign for Palestinian human rights.

Raed Jarrar (@raedjarrar) is a Palestinian-American political analyst and advocate. 

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Algerian protest movement update

by William B. Quandt*

On December 12, 2019, Algeria held a presidential election. Americans
may not have noticed, since hardly any news from Algeria reaches our shores. And
the election itself may turn out not to have been a very important moment. But
the larger picture of what has been happening in Algeria is certainly worth our
attention.

First the election: an ageing technocrat, Abdalmajid
Tebboune, received some 58% of the votes cast. Participants in the country’s mass
protest movement had vigorously called
for a boycott of the vote. In the end, just under 40 % of eligible voters took
part– if official figures are to be believed, which many Algerians do not.

Tebboune is very much a figure of the old guard, but with a
few possibly important differences. He has had a lot of experience in governance
at the local, provincial, and national level, having served as Prime Minister
in the last phase of the Bouteflika presidency. But he was also Algeria’s
shortest-serving Prime Minister ever. He reportedly fell out with the former
president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, when he tried to move against some of the
corrupt businessmen who were his allies and was unceremoniously dismissed after
just six weeks in office. Still, he is widely perceived as a pillar of the old
system and he will have to go quite some distance to win the confidence of most
ordinary Algerians.

The protest movement, or hirak, had called for a
boycott. These millions of Algerians who have been peacefully flooding the
streets, all across the country, each Friday since last February, were calling
for fundamental change, not a pseudo-election that they feared could bestow
legitimacy upon the same old army-backed system that has been in charge in the
country since 1962.

Since the election, there have been a few indications that both le pouvoir (that is, the powers-that-be) and some of the opposition demonstrators have been thinking about how to get out of the political impasse that has been in place for years.

Tebboune, to his credit, made some conciliatory comments in
his inaugural speech, including by noting the legitimacy of many of the hirak’s
demands. He also said that henceforth he did not want to be addressed as “Your Excellency”:  “Mister” would be just fine.  More concretely, he immediately replaced the
very unpopular Prime Minister and Minister of Interior.

It is early days to judge the reaction to these moves from
skeptical Algerians, but two currents are already visible. One, especially
prominent in the Berber-speaking areas of Kabylia, where almost no one
participated in the election, has been to reject any idea of dialogue or
negotiation with “the gang” in power. Before December 12, a popular slogan in
the weekly street demonstrations was “No elections with the gang.” Now, that
has been tweaked into “No negotiations with the gang.”  Sometimes this call is augmented with demands
that political prisoners must be released before any negotiations or dialogue,
and that the restrictions on the media that have been tightened over recent
months should first be lifted.

While these generally rejectionist views seem widespread, there is also a current of opinion being expressed by some of the oft-quoted intellectuals – academics, political figures, members of civil society groups – that reflects a shift of emphasis in the hirak’s current phase. One tendency is saying that the hirak needs to begin to establish its priorities and to develop forms of representation through countrywide deliberations. The goal here might be an eventual unified platform of demands for change in the constitution, elections to a constituent assembly, and so forth. All of that is still, however, predicated on significant gestures from the pouvoir in the form of releasing prisoners and freeing up the media.

There is clearly still some suspicion among many in the hirak that any move to “structure” the movement could prove divisive. It sometimes seems that anyone showing an inclination for a leading position or claiming to speak for the hirak is automatically suspect. We have seen something like this in other mass protest movements around the world, but in the Algerian case the distrust of anyone seeking power is profound and is exacerbated by the absence of well-established political parties. Still, at some point these very horizontal movements do need some form of structure if they are to succeed in forcing change from the highly institutionalized bureaucratic and military establishments that have dominated Algerian political life for so long.

UCP leader Zoubida Assoul (r.) listens as another hirak participant expresses her views in a street meeting.

To give you a sense for how this debate may unfold, we can look at a few excerpts from recent on -the-ground commentary.  For example, Zoubida Assoul, the president of a political group called the “Union for Change and Progress”, argued in an intra-hirak street gathering held December 20 that the hirak needs to “self organize”  and “structure itself to formalize its own platform of demands in order to block the path of any attempt at infiltration or cooptation that would destabilize or break the unity of the movement.”  (See this short video of Assoul discussing these ideas with others in a small corner of the 44th Friday street protest. As is common in Algeria, she speaks in a mixture of dialectical Arabic and French and her interaction with the crowd is interesting to watch. The images in this blog post are stills from the video.)

Another articulate commentator on current events is Amine Khene, an intellectual and former diplomat, who recently wrote his 107th short essay on the events of the past ten months.  Having noted just after the election that it changed none of the fundamentals, Khene now writes that “the formal dialogue between the people and the power holders cannot take place before the powers-that-be respond positively and with concrete actions to the demands that have been expressed for the past ten months by the popular movement.”  

It is worth noting that while Khene, along with many others such as the legendary freedom fighter Zohra Drif Bitat, forthrightly opposed the December 12 election, they also urged Algerians not to try to block those of their compatriots who chose to vote. This insistence on maintaining the peaceful and rights-respecting nature of the protests and the unity of the country has been one of the most impressive parts of Algeria’s recent experience. 

I urge anyone reading this to stay tuned, to keep an eye on what is happening in this second largest Arab country. It is possible that, somewhat along the model of Tunisia, we could see in Algeria another promising move toward a decent outcome of this inspiring example of sustained, peaceful political protest.  However, there still remain many worrisome signs that the old order will not give way without a fight.


William B. Quandt is a scholar, author, and professor emeritus in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. He previously served as senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and as a member on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations. His areas of expertise include Algeria, Middle East issues, and U.S. foreign policy.


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Omar Barghouti on BDS Success and How to Respond to Criticism of the Movement

By Eli Gerzon (@EliGerzon)

In part one I wrote about participating in an Eyewitness Palestine tour this fall 2019. Twenty-two of us met with many amazing people, but when Omar Barghouti walked in, our tour guide said, “From my view, this man is one of the best and most important people in Palestine.” 

Throughout our tour we met people who spoke about agriculture, the wall, specific minority groups, refugees, etc. Many of them said BDS is the best way we can support Palestinians when we return home.

BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. In my last piece I wrote about the history, goals, and strategies the movement uses. One strategy is to target and hold accountable  organizations that claim to be progressive but actually engage in work that harms Palestinians, directly or indirectly. 

Omar Barghouti said: “One example: the Gates Foundation always talks about civil rights. So we are able to use that against them. We worked with an artist in Italy to create excellent memes for social media. It only took four months to get the Gates Foundation to divest from G4S.” 

G4S is the largest security company in the world. They have worked with the Israeli government for years and help operate prisons in Israel where people are held without trial. The company supports the Israeli military and the wall which impedes Palestinians’ movement and steals land. BDS campaigns throughout the past decade caused churches, government bodies, unions, companies, and other organizations to cancel contracts with G4S and divest from the company. That included the Gates Foundation in 2014. In 2016, G4S announced they were no longer working in Israel. See the G4S Timeline via the BDS Movement here. Unfortunately, they reversed that in 2017: G4S is working with Israel and back on the BDS list again

Barghouti cited many clear BDS wins. He highlighted this win in 2014: “The Presbyterian Church divested from Hewlett Packard (HP), Caterpillar, and Motorola. This was a big tipping point: it’s one of the largest mainline Protestant churches.” 

“Veolia is a major BDS win.” Barghouti said, referring to the French utility and railway company selling off all of its projects in Israel/Palestine in 2015. A Veolia official admitted the BDS campaign “has lost [them]important contracts.”

According to Barghouti, very few companies are bidding on new Israeli projects. He added: “We don’t want to exaggerate. The Israeli economy is still thriving. But it is mostly supported by the US. That includes military aid and tax free donations, mostly to settlements.”

The backlash against the BDS campaign is an indication of how effective it is, according to Barghouti. “There is an entire ministry of the Israeli government devoted to stopping BDS. We don’t know but it maybe has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.” Later he added, “They are fighting BDS with smearing campaigns. The anti BDS branch of the Israeli government advertised for a position in 2016 called ‘Tarnishing Unit.’ They are totally open now.”

If backlash is an indication of success, then Barghouti himself has been very successful: in April 2019 the US denied entry to Barghouti without explanation. In October 2019, Israel announced they intend to deport Barghouti because, according to the Israeli government: “This is a man who does everything to harm the country and therefore must not enjoy the right to be a resident of Israel.”

But Barghouti didn’t mention any of this when we met with him in November 2019. Instead he focused on the success of the BDS movement:

“BDS is growing in many places, the fastest in the US. According to a University of Maryland poll: 88% of Democratic members who know about BDS support it or don’t oppose it. Overall 48% of Democratic members support BDS. 70% in the US support the right to BDS.”

And he noted the fact that Rep Ilhan Omar and Rep Rashida Tlaib strongly support BDS. “That’s totally new to have members of Congress supporting BDS. And it’s progress.”

Barghouti also saw progress in the US presidential election: “It used to be that Senator Sanders was the only politician who spoke about conditioning aid to Israel. Now that’s mainstream Democrats. Only Biden is really against that.” In October 2019, a headline in the Jewish Daily Forward read: “Israel Aid Cuts ‘On The Table’ For 3 Of Top 4 Democratic Candidates.” They were referring to Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) I was excited when he said: “JVP is our biggest partner in the US. And they are the fastest growing Jewish group in the world. They don’t talk about it but we see it.” Of course, this also counters the criticism that this is a religious conflict and all Jewish people support Zionism and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. 

Responding to Criticisms of BDS

At the end of the talk Barghouti asked for questions from the group. People were interested in how to best respond to criticisms of BDS. 

Joke Williams, one member of the delegation, is an electrical engineer and member of Black Lives Matter – DC. She asked: “As someone who went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), what would you recommend I say to an institution like MIT which has a good relationship with Israeli institutions as part of their summer study abroad programs? They have a good relationship partly because of the high caliber of Israeli universities like the Weizmann Institute of Science.”

Barghouti responded with a demand that we act ethically: “South Africa was the most advanced country for technology in Africa. Would you have an academic relationship with them? Actually many people did. But they did eventually divest. Also, Germany was the most technologically advanced country before World War II. They were also very culturally advanced. So what? Ethical responsibility says we must boycott. Germany forced Hollywood to censor positive depictions of Jews. It was a very big market. You can make many excuses. But we must act ethically.”

One person in our group, also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, asked, “‘I’m thinking of my relatives who are Jewish who say ‘We need a Jewish homeland.’ How do you recommend responding to that?”

“Of course, that is a racist idea.” was Barghouti’s response. 

Many people think of what’s happening in Israel/Palestine as a conflict between two groups who can ‘never get along.’ They also believe that the Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination. What Omar Barghouti said next challenged that outlook: 

“Of course, Jews are part of the indigenous population of Palestine. But so are many other people. We are the most ‘impure’ country: we are a mix. No one group should have supremacy over the many other groups. And kicking people out of their homes: that’s not self-determination, that’s colonization.” 

Another common idea: “BDS actually hurts Palestinians.”  Again, Barghouti was forthright in how to respond to that: 

“That is complete racist patronizing by liberals. They are assuming they know better than us. The same was said to MLK, South Africans, and others. We are used to white liberals thinking they know better than us.”

Thankfully, many people around the world are listening to Palestinians and not dismissing BDS. The demands are basic and in line with international law: end the occupation, end racist discrimination against Palestinians, and allow refugees to return to their homes. Divestment has been successful many times before and can be successful again in Israel/Palestine. 

If you want to get involved with BDS you can find an organization in your area of the world via the BDS Movement website.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer and social media consultant born and based in Boston, MA, USA. They use they/them pronouns. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @eligerzon.

The post Omar Barghouti on BDS Success and How to Respond to Criticism of the Movement appeared first on Just World Educational.

BDS: History, Misconceptions and Successes – Omar Barghouti Speaks with Tour Group (Part I)

By Eli Gerzon 

For about twenty years Eyewitness Palestine has organized travel tours for people to see first-hand what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I attended the Climate Change and Olive Harvest themed tour this October-November 2019. For 11 days our group of 22 people met with organizers, farmers, lawyers, and elected officials. One highlight of the tour was a talk by Omar Barghouti about the movement known as BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. BDS is a global movement initiated by Palestinian civil society calling on people and organizations around the world to put pressure on Israel until it complies with international law.

I’ve been active in Palestine solidarity work, including BDS, for several years. I’m from Boston and I’m a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The Boston chapter of JVP is one of the most active in the country. I volunteer as the person in charge of social media, which I also do for a living: social media consulting for organizations and individuals focused on social justice. Most of my fellow travelers on the delegation are activists and organizers from the USA who also already knew a lot about Palestine. But we all learned a huge amount of new information every single day on the trip. 

This was particularly evident during a talk by Omar Barghouti at the Al Haq office in Ramallah, West Bank on November 4th. Barghouti addressed misconceptions about BDS and quickly cut through seemingly difficult questions with a direct and ethical approach based in history. He also talked about the impressive successes of the BDS movement, while acknowledging the challenges ahead.

History of BDS 

The BDS movement started in 2005 when 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations initiated a campaign calling for a boycott, divestment and international sanctions against Israel until it complied with three basic demands:

1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall

2. Ending racial segregation: recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Granting the right of return for Palestinian refugees: respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Barghouti emphasized that the BDS movement is modeled on the divestment against apartheid in South Africa, but, he said, “It’s important for local BDS campaigners to adapt their tactics to their local context.” Many people, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, have credited the international divestment movement for playing a vital role in ending apartheid in South Africa. 

“We let people run their campaigns around the world as works for their context. We only intervene if they violate our principles including racism in any form. That includes anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT, anti-Latino etc.” Barghouti then cited one example where a BDS group shared anti-Semitic posts on Facebook. The BDS Movement asked them to remove that content. When the group didn’t reply within a week the BDS Movement released a statement disowning the group and denouncing their anti-Semitism. 

Clarity on Tactics and Strategy

Barghouti insisted that BDS targets complicity, not identity: “If they have a boot on our neck, we target them.” 

He explained if an Israeli artist is planning to perform somewhere in the US as an individual, that would not warrant being targeted by BDS. If the Israeli artist is racist, “and most of them are, it’s just a fact” according to Barghouti, that still wouldn’t warrant BDS. “If local organizers want to target the artist for their racism, that’s fine and good. We’d hope people would do that sort of thing anyway. But it’s not part of BDS.” 

“Now if that same artist is performing in the same place but the event is sponsored by the Israeli government – then that warrants BDS.”

I found those distinctions helpful, even as someone who has worked on BDS for years. I also learned from what he said about the academic boycotts and what’s happening on college campuses.

“Many academics have boycotted Israel academic institutions that are complicit in Israel apartheid. According to BDS principles you don’t reject articles by Israeli academics simply because they are Israeli. You would only do that if they are in the senior administration.” Again, he reinforced that BDS is not about going after individuals, it’s about the complicity of the institutions. And later on, Barghouti said, “Research is coming out soon showing every single Israeli university is complicit in the apartheid.”

Barghouti also said, “Nowadays many campuses have dozens of organizations supporting BDS. And only far-right groups are anti-Palestinian.”

Barghouti also emphasized the need to be strategic. “We prioritize certain companies as targets in the movement.” He shared these four criteria which people who want to organize BDS campaigns should consider:

1. Intersectionality – It’s more effective and powerful when we can work with other groups.

2. Well known target– It’s easier more significant wins and to get media attention when you pick a target that has a high profile, as opposed to something obscure.

3. Chance of winning – For example, Intel and Amazon are very guilty for their complicity in Israel’s colonization of Palestine, but they are are too big to boycott, and therefore not a strategic target.

4. Progressive organizations – It’s important to to go after organizations that claim to be progressive but actually contribute to the harm done to Palestinians. 

These criteria help address the argument, usually made in bad faith, that if you really support BDS you shouldn’t use iPhones because they have components invented in Israel. The BDS movement isn’t required to boycott everything associated with Israel in order to be legitimate or successful. 

In part two, I’ll share the successes of BDS that Barghouti highlighted and his recommendations on how to respond to common criticisms of BDS.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer and social media consultant born and based in Boston, MA, USA. They use they/them pronouns. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @eligerzon.

The post BDS: History, Misconceptions and Successes – Omar Barghouti Speaks with Tour Group (Part I) appeared first on Just World Educational.