Last week an Israeli helicopter gunship targeted Hizbullah outposts in Syria southwest of Damascus, near the front with the rebel Support Front (Syria al-Qaeda), which controls the Golan Heights on the Syrian side. These outposts were not in fact bordering Israel or likely aimed at Israel, but rather were intended to push back al-Qaeda from the outskirts of Damascus and ultimately to dislodge it from the Golan. Therefore, it is likely that the Israeli strike was merely opportunistic– Tel Aviv received intelligence that commanders who had humiliated them in 2006 were present and vulnerable, so they struck.
Ooops. Along with high ranking Hizbullah personnel, they killed a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was advising Syria and Hizbullah on how to roll back al-Qaeda in the Golan. Lebanon is a country of some 4 million and there are probably only 1.5 million Shiites there, and not all of them back Hizbullah. So it isn’t actually all that formidable for Israel (a country of over 7 million). But Iran is a country of 77 million. I think it is entirely possible that if the Israelis had known they risked killing an IRGC commander in this strike, they might not have done it.
As it was, the Israelis uncharacteristically conveyed to Iran a statement that they hadn’t intended to assassinate Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdad. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it was clearly intended to dial back the resulting tensions.
Nevertheless, Iran sent a message through the US to Israel that the latter had crossed a red line in killing Allahdad, and that Iran would find a way to retaliate.
Israel responded yet again, shelling Shiite villages along the Lebanon-Israel border. They killed a Spanish peacekeeping soldier, for which Spain angrily blamed Israel. Ironically, in this case, Israel and not Hizbullah was guilty of a war crime insofar as it directed arbitrary fire at civilian, non-combatant villages. If they killed a Spaniard they likely killed other innocents.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that the Lebanese should take a look at how he had reduced Gaza to rubble.
Quite apart from the war of words and a few shells between Israel and Hizbullah, it seems to me that Netanyahu just announced that he deliberately reduced Gaza to rubble and killed 2000 mostly non-combantants as punishment for its having defied him. If so, that would be a war crime.
But Netanyahu’s likely was an empty threat for the moment. With elections coming up, it isn’t the right time for Netanyahu to launch a new Lebanon war. And the fact is that Israel didn’t do very well in the 2006 war with Hizbullah, despite its overwhelming military superiority.
As for Hizbullah, its leader Hasan Nasrallah probably felt that he had no choice but to restore face by striking back at an Israeli target. But Hizbullah is bogged down in Syria defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and is in no position to fight both Syrian al-Qaeda offshoots and the Israeli army. Even Israel agrees that this is likely the case.
So likely the two sides will gradually wind down the confrontation and concentrate on bigger and more important enemies. At least for now.
En route back to Washington at the tail end of his most recent overseas trip, John Kerry, America’s peripatetic secretary of state, stopped off in France “to share a hug with all of Paris.” Whether Paris reciprocated the secretary’s embrace went unrecorded.
Despite the requisite reference to General Pershing (“Lafayette, we are here!”) and flying James Taylor in from the 1960s to assure Parisians that “You’ve Got a Friend,” in the annals of American diplomacy Kerry’s hug will likely rank with President Eisenhower’s award of the Legion of Merit to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” and Jimmy Carter’s acknowledgment of the “admiration and love” said to define the relationship between the Iranian people and their Shah. In short, it was a moment best forgotten.
Alas, this vapid, profoundly silly event is all too emblematic of statecraft in the Obama era. Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance.
Not one of the signature foreign policy initiatives conceived in Obama’s first term has borne fruit. When it came to making a fresh start with the Islamic world, responsibly ending the “dumb” war in Iraq (while winning the “necessary” one in Afghanistan), “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations, and “pivoting” toward Asia, mark your scorecard 0 for 4.
There’s no doubt that when Kerry arrived at the State Department he brought with him some much-needed energy. That he is giving it his all — the department’s website reports that the secretary has already clocked over 682,000 miles of travel — is doubtless true as well. The problem is the absence of results. Remember when his signature initiative was going to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? Sadly, that quixotic plan, too, has come to naught.
Yes, Team Obama “got” bin Laden. And, yes, it deserves credit for abandoning a self-evidently counterproductive 50-plus-year-old policy toward Cuba and for signing a promising agreement with China on climate change. That said, the administration’s overall record of accomplishment is beyond thin, starting with that first-day-in-the-Oval-Office symbol that things were truly going to be different: Obama’s order to close Guantanamo. That, of course, remains a work in progress (despite regular reassurances of light glimmering at the end of what has become a very long tunnel).
In fact, taking the president’s record as a whole, noting that on his watch occasional U.S. drone strikes have become routine, the Nobel Committee might want to consider revoking its Peace Prize.
Nor should we expect much in the time that Obama has remaining. Perhaps there is a deal with Iran waiting in the wings (along with the depth charge of ever-fiercer congressionally mandated sanctions), but signs of intellectual exhaustion are distinctly in evidence.
“Where there is no vision,” the Hebrew Bible tells us, “the people perish.” There’s no use pretending: if there’s one thing the Obama administration most definitely has not got and has never had, it’s a foreign policy vision.
In Search of Truly Wise (White) Men — Only Those 84 or Older Need Apply
All of this evokes a sense of unease, even consternation bordering on panic, in circles where members of the foreign policy elite congregate. Absent visionary leadership in Washington, they have persuaded themselves, we’re all going down. So the world’s sole superpower and self-anointed global leader needs to get game — and fast.
Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently weighed in with a proposal for fixing the problem: clean house. Obama has surrounded himself with fumbling incompetents, Gelb charges. Get rid of them and bring in the visionaries.
Writing at the Daily Beast, Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with “strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.” Translation: the sort of people who sip sherry and nibble on brie in the august precincts of the Council of Foreign Relations. In addition to offering his own slate of nominees, including several veterans of the storied George W. Bush administration, Gelb suggests that Obama consult regularly with Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Baker. These distinguished war-horses range in age from 84 to 91. By implication, only white males born prior to World War II are eligible for induction into the ranks of the Truly Wise Men.
Anyway, Gelb emphasizes, Obama needs to get on with it. With the planet awash in challenges that “imperil our very survival,” there is simply no time to waste.
At best, Gelb’s got it half right. When it comes to foreign policy, this president has indeed demonstrated a knack for surrounding himself with lackluster lieutenants. That statement applies equally to national security adviser Susan Rice (and her predecessor), to Secretary of State Kerry (and his predecessor), and to outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel. Ashton Carter, the technocrat slated to replace Hagel as defense secretary, comes from the same mold.
They are all “seasoned” — in Washington, a euphemism for bland, conventional, and utterly unimaginative — charter members of the Rogers-Christopher school of American statecraft. (That may require some unpacking, so pretend you’re on Jeopardy. Alex Trebek: “Two eminently forgettable and completely forgotten twentieth-century secretaries of state.” You, hitting the buzzer: “Who were William Rogers and Warren Christopher?” “Correct!”)
Members of Obama’s national security team worked long and hard to get where they are. Yet along the way — perhaps from absorbing too many position papers, PowerPoint briefings, and platitudes about “American global leadership” — they lost whatever creative spark once endowed them with the appearance of talent and promise. Ambition, unquestioned patriotism, and a capacity for putting in endless hours (and enduring endless travel) — all these remain. But a serious conception of where the world is heading and what that implies for basic U.S. policy? Individually and collectively, they are without a clue.
I submit that maybe that’s okay, that plodding mediocrity can be a boon if, as at present, the alternatives on offer look even worse.
A Hug for Obama
You want vision? Obama’s predecessor surrounded himself with visionaries. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, products of the Cold War one and all, certainly fancied themselves large-bore strategic thinkers. Busily positioning the United States to run (just another “i” and you have “ruin”) the world, they were blindsided by 9/11. Unembarrassed and unchastened by this disaster, they initiated a series of morally dubious, strategically boneheaded moves that were either (take your pick) going to spread freedom and democracy or position the United States to exercise permanent dominion. The ensuing Global War on Terror did neither, of course, while adding trillions to the national debt and helping fracture great expanses of the planet. Obama is still, however ineffectually, trying to clean up the mess they created.
If that’s what handing the keys to big thinkers gets you, give me Susan Rice any day. Although Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” may never rank with Washington’s Farewell Address or the Monroe Doctrine in the history books, George W. Bush might have profited from having some comparable axiom taped to his laptop.
Big ideas have their place — indeed, are essential — when the issues at hand are clearly defined. The Fall of France in 1940 was one such moment, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized. So too, arguably, was the period immediately after World War II. The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had left a dangerous power vacuum in both Europe and the Pacific to which George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and their compatriots forged a necessary response. Perhaps the period 1968-1969 falls into that same category, the debacle of Vietnam requiring a major adjustment in U.S. Cold War strategy. This Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger undertook with their opening to China.
Yet despite the overwrought claims of Gelb (and others) that America’s very survival is today at risk, the present historical moment lacks comparable clarity. Ours is not a time when we face a single overarching threat. Instead, on several different fronts, worrisome developments are brewing. Environmental degradation, the rise of China and other emerging powers, the spread of radical Islam, the precarious state of the global economy, vulnerabilities that are an inevitable byproduct of our pursuit of a cyber-utopia: all of these bear very careful watching. Each one today should entail a defensive response, the United States protecting itself (and its allies) against worst-case outcomes. But none of these at the present moment justifies embarking upon a let-out-all-the-stops offensive. Chasing after one problem would necessarily divert attention from the rest.
The immediate future remains too opaque to say with certainty which threat will turn out to pose the greatest danger, whether in the next year or the next decade — and which might even end up not being a threat at all but an unexpected opportunity. Conditions are not ripe for boldness. The abiding imperative of the moment is to discern, which requires careful observation and patience. In short, forget about strategy.
And there’s a further matter. Correct discernment assumes a proper vantage point. What you see depends on where you sit and which way you’re facing. Those who inhabit the upper ranks of the Obama administration (and those whom Leslie Gelb offers as replacements) sit somewhere back in the twentieth century, their worldview shaped by memories of Munich and Yalta, Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall, none of which retain more than tangential relevance to the present day.
You want vision? That will require a new crop of visionaries. Instead of sitting down with ancients like Kissinger, Scowcroft, Brzezinski, or Baker, this president (or his successor) would be better served to pick the brain of the army captain back from multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the moral theologian specializing in inter-religious dialog, the Peace Corps volunteer who spent the last two years in West Africa, and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur best able to spell out the political implications of the next big thing.
In short, a post-twentieth century vision requires a post-twentieth century generation, able to free itself from old shibboleths to which Leslie Gelb and most of official Washington today remain stubbornly dedicated. That generation waits in the wings and after another presidential election or two may indeed wield some influence. We should hope so. In the meantime, we should bide our time, amending the words of the prophet to something like: “Where there is no vision, the people muddle along and await salvation.”
So as Obama and his team muddle toward their finish line, their achievements negligible, we might even express a modicum of gratitude. When they depart the scene, we will forget the lot of them. Yet at least they managed to steer clear of truly epic disasters. When muddling was the best Washington had on offer, they delivered. They may even deserve a hug.
The audacity of Speaker of the House John Boehner colluding with the prime minister of a foreign country to undermine a sitting president is, I think, still not entirely appreciated. And the whole point of the plot with Binyamin Netanyahu is to stop a sitting president from successfully making an opening to a former enemy, reducing the likelihood of war.
Just think what the equivalent would have been.
It would be as though Rep. Joseph William Martin, Jr., the Speaker of the House after WW II, had managed to swing a visit to Congress in 1947 from Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish leader, to stop Harry Truman from promulgating his Truman Doctrine and including Turkey in the aid package that became the Marshall Plan.
Or, it would be as though Rep. John William McCormack, Speaker of the House in 1971, had without Nixon’s knowledge invited Spanish leader Francisco Franco to address Congress and warn against any deal with Communist China.
I think we know how Truman (a hothead) and Nixon (a sociopath) would have responded to that kind of, well, treason. And frankly I don’t think a Speaker would have dared try to treat a white president that way.
That Netanyahu gleefully joined in this naked power play for the Republican Party, moreover, signals a turning point in the partisan valence of Israel itself.
In a 2-party system, the parties are enormous big-tent conglomerations of groups. But at a certain point in the 20th century, the Democratic Party picked up as constituents, in addition to Southern Baptist rural whites, the urban working and middle classes, including religious minorities (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Jews were very disproportionately urban, while rural areas were largely Protestant). Among the Democrats, of course, were some wealthy traitors to their own class like FDR himself, who despite their privilege stood up for urban workers (even if they were not personally enthusiastic about Catholics and Jews). Those few middle class African Americans who could vote in mid-century tended to be Republicans, but most were excluded from the political system.
The narrative of the Democratic Party under the New Deal and after was government-backed uplift and opportunity for minorities and workers. That message resonated with the “Exodus” narrative of Israel as the creation of persecuted people reduced to the most straitened circumstances, who by forming a socialist state created the first modern industrial Middle Eastern nation– which perhaps even had the potential to modernize the feudal emirates and principalities still battening upon the oppressed Arab workers and peasants.
In contrast, the Republican Party was led by wealthy and established WASPs, who allied with upper middle class neighborhoods and some Midwestern farmers. Its message, even in the 1930s and 1940s, was that private business, if only untaxed and unregulated, could create a dynamic economy and a tide that would lift all boats. That discourse was completely unaffected by its utter failure in the Great Depression. The GOP was hostile to the kind of big government FDR championed and that the Israelis constructed in the late 40s and 1950s, and had vanishingly few Jewish or Catholic constituents.
A Republican like Eisenhower was as eager in the 1950s to have good relations with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as with Israel, and reacted harshly to Israel’s war of aggression, in conjunction with Britain and France, on Egypt in 1956. Eisenhower had few domestic Jewish constituents and did not care that they were disappointed when he made David Ben Gurion relinquish the Sinai Peninsula back to its lawful owner, Egypt, in 1957. He appears to have been afraid that Israel’s aggressive expansionism would drive Egypt into the arms of the Soviet Union, and with it much of the Arab world. Socialist Jews running about interfering in US Cold War aims did not exactly produce fanboy sentiments in the Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran businessmen and military officers at the top of the Republican Party.
In contrast, the Democratic Johnson administration was, in 1967, virtually a cheering section for Israel in that war, in which Israel also fired the first shot.
But from the late 1970s, the Israeli right wing began winning national elections. Some of it, as with the Likud Party, resembled Franco’s Spanish fascists, having a similar origin in the far right wing mass movements of the 1930s in Europe. It reached out to the Mizrahis or Jews from the Middle East who had fled or been expelled after the rise of Israel made them (quite unfairly) controversial at home. Then in the 1990s, a million immigrants came to Israel from the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, only about half of them actually what you might call Jewish. The definition of Neoconservatives, most of them wanted nothing to do with socialism or the Labor Party.
The old Central European Labor Party elite and its socialist institutions such as the Histadrut workers’ union, declined rapidly in influence. A new class of billionaires emerged, and workers began having difficulty paying rent. Class divisions increased. To deflect any backlash from downwardly mobile workers, the Right pushed the colonization of the Palestinian West Bank (socialism has always been acceptable to the European Right if deployed by imperial viceroys in the service of colonialism abroad). There, essentially subsidized housing on stolen Palestinian property kept living expenses bearable and had the further advantage of creating a new constituency that would vote for right wing pro-colonization governments.
Israel’s narrative today is much more like the grand Republican one than like that of New Deal Democrats. It is a land of capitalists and IPOs, of a handful of billionaires who buy Netanyahu his elections and increasingly poorly paid workers (who are still better off than the Palestinian underclass). A few years ago I went to a conference in Israel and they kindly put us up in a kibbutz. We got to see the communal dining halls and the exhortations to community. But the kibbutz was being sold off as vacation homes.
Republican ideology is latently about hierarchy. Older white wealthy Protestant males were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by younger white wealthy Protestant males and then by white wealthy Protestant females. More recently wealthy Jews and Mormons have been granted honorary “Protestant” status in the party, just as the Apartheid Afrikaners decided to proclaim Japanese as “white” for business purposes. For an African-American to be president deeply violates this unstated hierarchy, which is why they treat President Obama with such lack of respect; disrespecting someone in public in primate societies is a way of putting them in their place and restoring power hierarchies. Keeping African-Americans and poor Latinos from voting is not only a partisan strategy (they don’t vote Republican on the whole) but it also underlines the hierarchy, which assumes whiteness and property as connoting ‘real’ Americans. Famously, some of the white working class is attached to the Republican elite because they are told that thereby they become better than workers of the lower (as they think of it when not in public) races.
African-Americans are deployed in much Republican discourse just as Palestinians are deployed in right wing Israeli discourse, and racism functions the same way in making the Israeli working class unwilling to ally with Palestinian workers nowadays (Zachary Lockman showed that such alliances were common in the 1930s).
So for Israel to function as a Republican Trojan Horse in the debate on the Hill about Iran negotiations is an announcement that the old big-government socialist Israel of the Ashkenazi survivors of Nazism is over. Israel has about 1 million such Ashkenazis. But it has nearly 3 million Mizrahim, eastern Jews not steeped in Labor socialism. And it has a million recently arrived Eastern Europeans who were mauled by Soviet excesses and were pushed to the right, just as Hungarians have been.
The 1960s now look like the heyday of the congruence of the Democratic Great Society and the Israeli Labor Socialism of Levi Eshkol, both of them anti-Soviet but both of them standing against unregulated capitalism and in favor of using government to help people lift themselves up.
That American Jews are the religious group most enthusiastic about the Democratic Party and President Obama, yet also something like 63 percent of them are strong supporters of Israel, can only create a mammoth case of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance (mental stress from holding contradictory ideals simultaneously).
Now, with the long dominance of the Israeli Right and the attenuation of Labor and Meretz, Israel is a Republican project, and being deployed in American politics primarily for Republican purposes.
President Obama cut short his India trip to head off to Riyadh in the wake of the death last Thursday of King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. Some 30 members of the Washington elite came along, of both parties, including Sen. John McCain and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. This love fest underlined the close relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which are nearly as important for US Middle East policy as Washington’s special relationship to Israel.
Saudi Arabia gets special treatment from the US, with its arbitrary, absolute monarchy and extensive human rights abuses never being openly condemned by the US government. Iran, which for all the extensive faults of its theocratic government, is substantially freer than Saudi Arabia, is constantly hectored about its authoritarianism and attempt to export a radical form of Islam. But Saudi Arabia is held harmless in D.C. simply by never being brought up in this context. When asked by Fareed Zakaria about this issue of Saudi human rights, Obama took refuge in the close security cooperation between the two countries. He also maintained that the US does pressure Riyadh behind the scenes. But the US routinely complains about invidious policies pursued by European allies out in the open. That Saudi Arabia is treated with kid gloves only has one explanation: It pumps over 10 percent of the petroleum produced daily in the world.
One issue they discussed was the plummeting of oil prices, which is badly hurting North Dakota, where expensive hydraulically fractured petroleum may not be viable at $50 a barrel or less. US oil companies sent stock prices down in the US today by declining to buy new equipment from companies like Caterpillar, which took a hit. Saudi Arabia could put at least some upward pressure on prices by simply pumping a bit less petroleum daily.
But King Salman refused to change the current policy, of allowing the price of petroleum to fall dramatically rather than giving up Saudi oil market share. Saudi Arabia can just cut back on its infrastructure projects and spend less, and it anyway has an enormous surplus of some $750 bn in foreign currency reserves and another equally large sum available for foreign investments. The Saudis may lose $100 billion this year from budget shortfalls, but that sum can be cut if the low prices last (they will probably be with us for at least 3 years).
Obama and Salman also talked about the collapse of Yemen, about Daesh (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, and about US talks with Iran over its nuclear energy program. CCTV reports, below, that the US is playing down the links of the Zaidi Shiite Houthi movement in Yemen with Iran, while the Saudis see the Houthis as in Iran’s back pocket. As usual in Riyadh, the substance of the rest of what they said to one another could only be speculated on.
But one thing is clear: the Washington-Riyadh political alliance is extremely powerful.
In his visit to India, Barack Obama pressed unsuccessfully for India to set specific carbon limits. Nevertheless, he did get agreement from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the USA and India would pursue vigorously non-carbon energy sources, including nuclear and renewables such as solar.
That was a better outcome than would have been anticipated based on Indian cabinet members’ statements just last spring. They blamed most of the increased CO2 in the atmosphere on the wealthy countries and hinted that it would be unfair to impede Indian economic growth now, given that India had put relatively little of the extra carbon into the atmosphere.
This situation is sort of like if a bunch of people with water hoses were filling an inflatable swimming pool but were tied up so that if the water got too high they would drown. Saying that you didn’t help fill it at the beginning and so should be allowed to put extra water in makes no sense if that policy would drown you.
Modi is known as a proponent of solar energy, though like Obama he has an “all of the above” approach to energy, including an insouciant attitude toward deadly coal.
Alan Neuhauser writes: “Obama agreed to help finance Modi’s planned $100 billion expansion of solar power in the next seven years, from 20,000 to 100,000 megawatts.”
Just for comparison, note that the total US solar installed capacity today is also only 20,000 megawatts.
But the fact is that government policy and foreign aid will help along a process that will also grow because of market forces.
By the end of this year, 2015, commercial rooftop solar panels in India will be grid parity or less. That is, it will be cheaper to have solar panels on the roof of a business than to use coal or natural gas. Moreover, you don’t know how much natural gas will cost 20 years from now (especially if India starts using a lot of it), but you can lock in cheap solar rates for 25 years.
Since 2010, the cost of solar panels has declined 62 percent, and similar price falls are likely in the next few years. In sunny India, within five years it will be crazy for people not to put up solar panels.
25% of India still lacks electricity (i.e. some 300 mn. people), and if they electrify with coal that will be disastrous for climate change and human welfare. But if they get it from solar and wind, they will save money and the earth all at once.
In the United States, “Ferguson” — the name of the town where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by police last summer — has become a shorthand name for the free reign given to police officers to murder black people in the streets (and parks, stores, even their own homes) with impunity.
At the same time as Brown was murdered, the world watched as Israel was given free reign to murder Palestinian people in the streets of the Gaza Strip (and beaches, cafes, hospitals, even their own homes) with impunity.
In the US, people are therefore beginning to see the connections between Ferguson and Palestine. The fact that Israel and the US share police training and tactics, not to mention weaponry and military strategy, seems increasingly significant.
Residents of Ferguson describe their small Missouri town — largely black, run by a largely white police force via rampantly racist, economically devastating police tactics — as “occupied.”
Ferguson protesters were moved and taken aback when Gazans sent them messages of solidarity on Twitter along with advice about how to handle tear gas from militarized police.
Of course, the struggles of African Americans and Palestinians are not identical. African Americans are not occupied the same way as are Palestinians, who are being deprived of their land as well as their rights. The legacies of chattel slavery and colonial dispossession, however vile, are not interchangeable histories of oppression.
Nevertheless, yet another commonality faced by folks in struggle from Ferguson to Palestine is the all-too-frequent refusal to recognize their oppression as oppression.
For example, in public discourse, I have noticed a consistent rhetorical positioning of police officers and Israel — rather than unarmed black people and Palestinians — as the real victims of brutality and violence.
I first struggled with this rhetorical casuistry during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, back in 2008-09. In those days, any criticism of Israel’s actions — which included killing almost 1,500 Palestinians, leveling Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and residences, and unleashing illegal chemical weapons on noncombatants, amongst other atrocities — was met with the unmoved reply, “But what about the rockets?”
This past summer, as Israel re-visited genocidal terror on the Gaza Strip for the third time, “What about the rockets?” was updated to “But what about Hamas?” (Alternative versions of this question include the demand that anyone who criticizes Israel affirm that Hamas is a terrorist organization.)
An echo of Israel’s explicit rationalization of Operation Protective Edge, “But what about Hamas?” alleges that the people “in charge” of Gaza are terrorists. Therefore it is appropriate, even necessary, to destroy its hospitals, mosques, schools, and disabled persons facilities, as well as catastrophically traumatize, injure, and murder the people who live there.
(As we pass the 13th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and read the completely unsurprising if nevertheless still shocking Senate Torture Report, one shudders to think what Americans must deserve for having twice elected George W. Bush into office — much less Barack Obama, drone war trailblazer extraordinaire.)
Further proof that Gazans deserve the havoc and destruction visited upon them is the specious claim that they use children as human shields. To this day unproven, the human shields argument provided ideological cover for Israel’s extermination of more than 500 children during this war and solidified the empire-serving propaganda that Palestinians don’t value life, much less the lives of their children, the same way civilized Israelis do.
The human shields argument had particular resonance in the US, where it trickled down to street level protest. In Boston, Zionist counter-protesters assembled at every anti-Protective Edge demonstration, responding to our chants of “Free Palestine!” with “…from Hamas!” Most telling was the sign brandished by paid Zionist agitator Chloé Simone Valdary (who graced us with her presence more than 1,500 miles away from her New Orleans hometown, where she is also a student), clearly illustrating the difference between “us” and “them” on the issue of the value of human life:
I was reminded of these moments as I listened to reports of #Black Lives Matter counter-protesters who assembled in ostensible defense of police officers in New York City. In the frequent criticisms of Ferguson protesters as “violent” and the dismissal of street demonstrations as “looting,” I hear clear echoes of the criticism of Palestinians as “violent” and the dismissal of Palestinian political violence as “terrorism.”
For example, in response to the chant, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!,” a nationwide refrain of #Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country (and an invocation of Brown, who was shot dead by Officer Darren Wilson with his hands in the air in the universal sign of surrender), counter-protesters yelled back in response “Hands Up Don’t Loot!”
Further investigation on Twitter revealed an even more vicious version of this re-purposed chant: “Pants Up Don’t Loot!”
These street-level counter-protesters were matched by the higher-ups, most prominently former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who grabbed media attention by invoking the specter of “black on black” crime. Sidestepping the fact that Ferguson raises the issue of unaccountable state violence against black people, Giuliani changed the subject to focus instead on the criminal and dysfunctional nature of black people themselves (incidentally casting himself as a great savior of black lives along the way).
Indeed, remember the spinning of Michael Brown as “no angel” in the immediate aftermath of his murder? Without even a mention of the officer who killed him, the Ferguson police department proceeded to release surveillance video of Brown stealing cigarillos from a convenience store and accused him of smoking marijuana.
The implied conclusion of this line of reasoning is apparently that shoplifting and pot-smoking mean Michael Brown deserved to die. Or, more precisely, that he deserved to be murdered by police. (I wonder if the same holds true for Giuliani’s daughter.)
From Ferguson to Palestine, there are chilling parallels in these reactionary responses. One is the claim that the very nature of the people in question renders them deserving targets of state violence. Palestinians are terrorists who don’t love their children. African Americans are lazy, stupid criminals. The proliferation of tweets under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown highlights the rhetorical sleight-of-hand whereby black people are held responsible for their own deaths at the hands of police.
Another parallel is the suggestion that it is actually the marginalized and oppressed who are victimizing themselves.
Giuliani’s “black on black crime” talking point is not only a throwback to the “culture of poverty” thesis long ago abandoned by social science. It also suggests that cops aren’t really killing black people after all. It is actually black people who are killing black people.
This is structurally similar to Israel’s claim regarding human shields: it’s not Israel who is killing Palestinian children. In hiding weapons or fighters in civilian areas, it is actually Palestinians who are killing Palestinian children. Netanyahu made clear this was the force of the argument when he declared that Hamas sought “telegenically dead” Palestinians in order to score pity points from the world community.
Each of these “arguments” purports to justify state violence. In the first, Palestinians and African Americans deserve death because of their terrorist and/or criminal natures. Killing happens because the nature of the murdered invites it. In the second, Palestinians and African Americans are actually the ones doing the killing, not cops or Israel, so there’s not really a problem with state violence at all. Killing happens because the murdered are killing themselves.
It doesn’t matter that these arguments are inconsistent with one another, much less which one of them is, uh, “true.” Like a racist shell game, the only thing that matters is the one thing that is consistent between them: the reversal whereby the victim is portrayed as the aggressor and the aggressor, the victim.
For Giuliani, David Brooks, Darren Wilson, and the likes of FOX News, it is white people in general and white police officers in particular who are the victims of demonic, terrifying, criminal black people. For Netanyahu, Charles Krauthammer, and the rest of the Zionist lineup, it is Israel who is the victim of evil, terroristic, life-denying, Muslim/Arab Palestinians.
In another place, I have described arguments like these as a form of slave morality. They are reactionary attempts to portray oneself as a victim of forces beyond one’s control and a moralizing justification of extracting compensatory revenge against them.
The thing is, when it comes to American cops and Israeli soldiers, they are not the weaker power. They are avatars of the state — two of the most powerful and heavily armed states in the world at that. Their victims are the subordinated, segregated, and formerly enslaved, on the one hand, and dispossessed, indigenous refugees on the other. To drop the white hankie and play victim is fundamentally to obscure the unequal relations of power that characterize white supremacy in America and Zionist supremacy in Palestine.
Recently, a delegation of US black activists and youth leaders from Ferguson and beyond returned from a 10-day solidarity trip to Palestine. In crossing checkpoints, they were reminded of US prisons. In witnessing Palestinians’ limited freedom of movement, they gained new insight into apartheid and the seemingly infinite permutations of white supremacy
These are the kinds of connections African Americans and Palestinians are beginning to make, and they’re not on the wrong track.
The conservative guardians of the social order had best be on notice.
Heike Schotten is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches political theory, feminist theory, and queer theory (her work is available here). She has been active in the Palestine solidarity movement since 2006.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma’an News Agency’s editorial policy.
In a great irony, the Egyptian government attempted to cancel the commemoration of the January 25 revolution four years ago, on the grounds that the late King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia needed to be mourned. The Saudis played a sinister behind-the-scenes role in undermining budding Egyptian attempts at democracy, and appear to be complicit in the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi in 2013 (though to be fair, that government was very widely hated).
As it was, dissidents from the left and from the Muslim religious right did manage to mount rallies to protest the authoritarian turn of the current Egyptian government. The police reacted horribly, deploying live ammunition at the protesters– killing 18 and wounding 52.
National security police and plainclothesmen had a heavy presence throughout the capiteal of Cairo.
About 1,000 leftists marched in memory of secular activist Shaima al-Sabbagh, who was killed at a Talaat Harb Square rally in downtown Cairo on Saturday.
The government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has just banned protests by fiat in the absence of a parliament. It has also conducted a fierce and largely successful campaign to silence and marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood, which is being blamed for the violence in the Egyptian press. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers are in jail, in addition to some liberals and leftists.
Supporters of the revolution rue that two of its leaders, Ahmad Maher of the April 6 Youth Group and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a blogger, are in jail on charges of illegally protesting, while dictator Hosni Mubarak and his sons have been released from prison at least for the moment.
From 1967 to 1990, and again briefly in 1994, South Yemen was an independent country. In the first period, of some 23 years, it had a Communist government, the only one in the Arab world.
Today, South Yemen is again an independent state. Since the resignation of united Yemen’s president and prime minister last Thursday, in protest of the take-over of much of the north and the capital by Houthi militiamen, the provinces of the south have been issuing Fort Sumter-style declarations of secession. Aden, Maarib, Shabwah, Lahij, ad-Dali’ and Abyan provinces all refused to accept any military orders from Sanaa, the capital, in protest at its occupation by the Houthi militiamen.
In particular Maarib, which has some petroleum, dramatically announced its independence. The Houthis have made moves to occupy it.
The Houthis, or Ansar Allah, are members of the Zaidi Shiite branch of Islam. They hail from the northern city of Saadeh. Unlike Iraqis and Iranians, Zaidis do not have ayatollahs or a strong religious hierarchy. The Houthis, however, have been attempting to move Zaidism closer to Iran-style Shiism. People in the south are mostly Sunnis, the rival branch of Islam.
The USA will be worried that there are probably a couple thousand fighters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in provinces such as Maarib and Abyan in the south. Most South Yemenis, however, are not radicals but mainstream Sunni Arabs. Some of them are Sufi mystics. Others support labor movements and socialism.
On Saturday in the northern cities, thousands of youth demonstrated in Sanaa and some other places (Ta’izz, Ibb, etc.) against the Houthi take-over of the capital, asking the militiamen to depart quietly.
Meanwhile some reports say that the Houthi command is attempting to form a presidential council to replace Mansour Hadi.
Thousands demonstrated in Sanaa on Saturday morning against the Houthi take-over of the Yemeni government. Down south in Aden, there were big demonstrations on behalf of workers
The murky political situation in Yemen has left the US unable to continue its drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations, since Washington no longer has a partner in the Yemeni government to authorize them and provide key facilities.
On Thursday, the President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the prime minister resigned. Mansour Hadi had been the vice president of deposed dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh, who stepped down under street pressure and under the pressure of the Gulf oil states, in January, 2012.
Mansour Hadi was elected via national referendum by 80% of the voters in February 2012. He presided over a parliament dominated by the General People’s Party (of which Saleh remained chief even after he gave up the presidency, and to which Mansour Hadi also belongs). That parliament had been elected in 2003 for a six-year term. But as it was expiring in 2008, an agreement was reached among the political elite to extend it for two years. Then the massive street protests of 2011 led to its further extension. Presidential and parliamentary elections should take place in 2015, though that step may have just become impossible. Since he was elected by a healthy margin fairly recently, Mansour Hadi was probably the major political figure with the most legitimacy.
The constitution provides for Yahya Ali al-Ra’y, the speaker of parliament, to become president (there has been no vice president since 2012). But since his body was last elected in 2003 for a 6-year term, it and he have questionable legitimacy.
The Zaidi Shiite tribal confederation, the Houthis, swept into the capital in September, facing little opposition from the national military– even though the two had clashed since 2004. This week, the Houthis demanded the prerogative of appointing their own minders to each of the major political posts, including the cabinet members who oversee the ministries and make a good deal of public policy.
Mansour Hadi and his prime minister refused to be minded in this way, and they resigned.
In so doing, they cleverly deprived the Houthis of any real legitimacy. The latter are after all just tribesmen.
This article appeared at The Nation earlier this month. I’m reprinting an excerpt on the occasion of King Abdallah’s death
. . . the kingdom faces a severe budget shortfall because of the plummeting price of petroleum. All this instability takes place against a backdrop of substantial regional turmoil. Ailing King Abdallah look[ed] out over the region and s[aw] civil war in Syria, popular unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, democratic elections in Tunisia, the rise of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq and eastern Syria. He worrie[d] about the prospect of a warming of ties between the United States and Riyadh’s arch-enemy, Shiite Iran. The borders of the kingdom are insecure as seldom before in recent decades.
The typical Saudi way of dealing with such threats is to throw money at them, which is why it is significant that petroleum prices have hit five-year lows this month. When the Arab youth revolutions began in 2011, the Saudi Arabian regime reacted quickly to ensure that they did not spread to the kingdom. Its tool of counter-revolution? Domestic welfare spending in the tens of billions. That tool has been blunted by the prospect of an enormous budget deficit. Saudi Arabia pumps 9.7 million barrels a day of the some 93 mn. b/d produced in the world, and would rather run some deficits than lose market share. But the domestic implications of this export policy are a question mark.
In some ways, the very efforts of the Saudi regime to make the region safe for absolute monarchy and hard-line Wahhabi fundamentalism have boomeranged on the House of Saud. It probably is not the case that Riyadh ever directly supported Daesh, but it has supported rebels in Syria, and likely Iraq, that differ little from the latter in religious ideology. The Saudi princes are used to a domestic situation where ultraconservative religion is a pillar of support for the status quo and the monarchy. They seem not to realize that similar religious puritanism, when rebranded as “Salafism” in Sunni republics, has a tendency to turn radical and revolutionary, even to turn to terrorism. Martin Luther, after all, had not intended to provoke peasant revolts, and he ultimately denounced the Protestant revolutionaries.
In Syria, the Saudis are backing militias that hived off from the Free Syrian Army and declared themselves “the Islamic Front.” They are hard for outsiders to distinguish from the radicals, such as the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, which has affiliated with Al Qaeda) and Daesh. The Islamic Front now rejects democracy in favor of a state ruled by their medieval interpretation of Islamic law (sharia). While the Islamic Front has had some successes, it has suffered reversals at the hands of the other fundamentalists and could not be said to be the leading rebel force. In the past year, the regime that the Saudis are trying to overthrow, that of President Bashar al-Assad, has regained some momentum in the civil war, taking the central city of Homs decisively.
Even as the Saudi-backed Islamic Front has been confined to a few enclaves, its rival, Daesh, is expanding its territory in Syria and has taken over much of Sunni Arab Iraq. That expansion puts the “caliphate” of Ibrahim al-Samarra’i (who styles himself Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) on the borders of Saudi Arabia. Daesh would like nothing better than to infiltrate Saudi Arabia and get hold of its oil riches. It is thus ominous that on Monday, suicide bombers managed to kill the Saudi general, Oudah al-Belawi, who was in charge of security on the border with Iraq.
The Saudis are also concerned that if Daesh is defeated, it will be at the hands of the Shiite Iraqis and Kurdish fighters backed by Iran, and that with the subduing of the Sunni Arabs militarily, the country will become decisively an Iranian sphere of influence. In a bid to retain influence, the king is opening a Saudi embassy in Baghdad for the first time in twenty-five years and is pressing that the interests of Iraqi Sunnis not be sacrificed to the defeat of Daesh. In Yemen, the Saudis had long feared the Zaidi Shiites of the north, whose tribes predominated along the Saudi border. Saudi efforts to proselytize Yemenis and to convert them to hard line Salafi Sunnis, backfired when the religiously moderate Zaidis developed a radical wing led by Husain al-Houthi, which rebelled against the nationalist government a decade ago. The government was weakened by the 2011 revolution, with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi widely considered at most a transitional figure to democratic elections. Last fall, the Zaidi tribesmen took the capital, Sanaa, subordinating the government to themselves, and expanded their reach to major Sunni population centers. The Saudis, miffed at Houthi denunciations of Riyadh and Wahhabism, threatened to cut off aid to Yemen (one of the few things keeping the government afloat). The Zaidis are seen by Saudi Arabia as friendly toward Shiite Iran, and Riyadh is distressed that a hungry neighboring country of 24 million has been captured by a fierce critic…