Foreign Policy in Focus – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 16 Jan 2022 02:53:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bin Laden and Trump: Two Bookends to America’s Imperial Decline Sun, 16 Jan 2022 05:04:32 +0000

What we can learn from the 20 years between the 9/11 attacks and the January 6 coup attempt.

By Walden Bello | –

The end of 2021 and the beginning of a new year is a convenient time to take stock of the causes of America’s decline.

This past year saw both Washington’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan after 20 years in the country that had served as the launching pad for its direct military intervention in the Middle East and an historic insurrection at the very heart of the empire. Add to this the absolute lack of traction for President Biden’s recent “Democracy Summit” in contrast to Beijing’s surefooted diplomacy, the erosion of an already weak U.S. economy by COVID-19 followed by uncontrolled inflation, and the deepening of the country’s informal but very real civil war — and it is hard to avoid the sense that we are indeed at the end of an era.

Serving as the bookends of this era were two individuals that stamped their personalities on it: Osama bin Laden at the beginning and Donald Trump at the end.

Varieties of Imperial Decline

Ever since Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historians and others have tried to discover the universal elements of the phenomenon he called “imperial overstretch.”

This might, however, be a futile enterprise. Tolstoy said that all families are unhappy but each of them is unhappy in its own way. The same thing might be said of the end of empires. All empires end, but each exits in its own distinct unhappy fashion.

Bankrupt at the end of the Second World War and facing spiraling financial and political costs as independence movements challenged their hegemony from East Asia to Africa, the British chose to cut their losses and liquidate most of their holdings, passed the task of ruling to indigenous elites, and largely left the defense of global capitalism to the Americans.

The French chose to hang on despite defeat in Indochina and a bloody stalemate in Algeria and could only be persuaded to give the latter independence when renegade military men threatened to take over the government itself to continue the empire. The Soviet Union was largely dissolved by a domestic reform effort that ran out of control, though defeat in Afghanistan made a not insignificant contribution.

Like the ascent to the zenith of empire, the descent from it does not follow a predetermined path but one that is shaped by contingencies, many of them surprising and unexpected.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the U.S. had staved off the economic challenge of Japan and seen the political and military challenge posed by the Soviets dissipate. Moreover, it seemed to have thrown off the “Vietnam Syndrome” with its victory over Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. The American Empire appeared to be experiencing a second wind.

At this juncture, the choices for maintaining the empire boiled down to two. One, identified with the Democrats, favored the U.S. ruling via a multilateral economic order undergirded by the supremacy of its corporations and a liberal global political order propped up by unchallenged American military power and promoted by the “soft power” of liberal democracy. The other was championed by neoconservatives largely ensconced in the Republican Party who claimed the “unipolar” status of the United States provided a unique opportunity for reordering the world to the lasting advantage of the United States both strategically and economically — and demanded unilateral action to bring that about.

The debate between these two visions of the imperial future dominated American politics during the eight-year reign of the Democrats presided over by Bill Clinton.

Under the succeeding Republican administration of George W. Bush, US power was primed to do just what the neoconservatives wanted. It was, however, not predetermined that the Middle East would be the prime target of their global push to reorder the world. Tension with China was high in the first months of the new administration, with the Pentagon, in fact, identifying Beijing no longer as a strategic partner, as the Clinton administration did, but as a strategic rival. A new Cold War could have been launched at that juncture, with a China that was much, much weaker militarily and economically relative to the U.S. than it is now.

What made the difference in the fateful calculations of the neocons was one man: Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s Historic Role

Bin Laden puts paid to those historians who belittle the role of personality in history. For what he did, probably without intending it, was direct U.S. military power to Afghanistan and the broader Middle East with his attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Bin Laden hoped to create a hundred Islamic insurgencies by boldly baiting the Great Satan, much like Che Guevara hoped to create more Cubas in Latin America with his guerrilla experiment in Bolivia. Bin Laden failed in bringing about the purifying Islamic revolutions he sought, but he was wildly successful in a way he had not intended. For his move gave the American neocons the opportunity for the military action they had devoutly wished for to enable them to consolidate their new unipolar order.

Desire did not, however, end up with the object of desire, for the terrain in which the U.S. chose to wage an “exemplary war” to teach the rest of the world to get out of the way of America’s hegemonic mission turned out to be populated by people, Afghans and Iraqis, who were no pushovers.

Bush II got the war he wanted but not the outcome he sought. Instead of his legions coming back home in triumph, they were plunged into what quickly became a quicksand from which they could not be extricated for two decades, and then only in shame and defeat under a Democratic administration in 2021.

The Economic Consequences of the Forever Wars

Being pinned down in what critics called the “forever wars” in the Middle East had momentous political and economic consequences for the United States. Washington set aside its definition of China as a strategic rival and sought instead to enlist Beijing as an ally in its “war on terror.” China obliged, but devoted most of its efforts to economic diplomacy to gain markets and cultivate good relations with countries in the Global South, a contrast with Washington’s bellicose behavior that did not go unnoticed.

The U.S. wasted trillions on fruitless military adventures, but the main economic consequence of the Middle East wars was to boost China’s economic ascent at its expense.

With China reaffirmed as a political ally, the U.S. transnational corporations that had promoted the entente with China in their search for cheap labor during the Clinton presidency accelerated the transfer of their manufacturing processes to China, making the 16 years of the Bush II and Obama administrations a period of irreversible deindustrialization. Thousands of factories closed down in the industrial heartland in the Midwest and Northeast and at least 2.5 million high paying manufacturing jobs were lost to what some economists called the “China Shock.”

China’s rise to industrial prominence was not, in other words, predetermined. Bin Laden’s baiting the U.S. — and Washington taking the bait — was a major reason why the China-TNC alliance continued and gathered force during the Bush II presidency instead of being sidelined by strategic concerns about China that were prominent both at the Pentagon and the neocons during Bush’s first months in office.

Alternative Routes from Capitalism’s Crisis of Profitability

If the U.S. being bogged down in the Middle East and China’s benefiting from this were not predetermined, some would claim that the broad contours of economic change, at least in the U.S., were but the unfolding in time of contradictions already present at the heart of the premier capitalist country.

True, already in the 1970s and 1980s, the rate of profit had plunged from its postwar high of 16 percent in the early 1950s to around 6 percent. True, accessing cheap labor in the global South, where wages were a fraction of those in the United States, was certainly seen as a key solution. Still, breaking the social democratic compromise between labor and capital undergirded by Keynesian technocratic economics, where social peace was the quid pro quo for relatively high wages and limited profits, was no easy, largely predetermined process.

Even before China came into the picture in the 1990s, two “superstructural” factors were decisive in conditioning the way capital would respond to the crisis of profitability, one that would clear the way for the massive migration of U.S. jobs there.

The first was political in nature. The showdown between Ronald Reagan and PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, in 1981 became the key battle for U.S. labor’s future, and Reagan’s victory, like Margaret Thatcher’s triumph over the miners in Britain, made the rest of management’s campaign to break unions a mopping up operation. As in Britain, had the AFL-CIO come out in full support of the PATCO strike and had the air controllers won, it is conceivable that the right’s offensive to destroy labor’s power could have been slowed down, if not stopped, and neoliberalism’s triumph could have been averted or, at the least, been much less thorough. The political consequences of concrete class struggles can never be underestimated.

The other critical condition for capital’s triumph in the 1980s and 1990s was ideological in character. With the 1970s U.S. economy stuck in the “stagflation” whose underlying cause was the crisis of profitability, a revived classical market economics centered at the University of Chicago came to the rescue. Neoliberalism faulted state intervention as the central cause of U.S. economic stagnation, and capital, politicians, and academics united in a common cause for sweeping deregulation.

This political and ideological coalition was not, however, inevitable. Had the Democratic Party remained faithful to its New Deal roots and social democratic academics put up more of an intellectual fight, neoliberalism’s rise could have encountered more resistance that, at the least, could have made its hegemony more fragile, a point to which we will return later.

In any event, it was the virtually unopposed neoliberal counterrevolution that made possible the corporate capture of public policy in the 1980s and 1990s, a development that set the stage for the large-scale transfer of American factories and jobs to China over the next two decades. Moreover, with their assertion, more by fiat than by proof, that market forces had “determined” that the U.S. competitive advantage no longer lay in manufacturing, the neoliberals not only promoted deindustrialization but, equally significant, the wholesale “financialization” of the U.S. economy.

Financialization was a process that involved focusing on the financial sector as the cutting edge of the economy owing to the greater returns on investment it offered compared to industry; promoting debt-driven consumption as the engine of growth; and converting workers from wage-earners to “shareholders” in U.S. corporations, thus reconciling labor and capital.

This “new” American economy created by neoliberalism was alleged to have entered a “mature” phase of permanent prosperity known as the “Great Moderation” in the 2000s. It fell apart with a vengeance with the financial crisis of 2008, which ushered in years of stagnation and high unemployment that gutted the economy of what dynamism it had left.

By the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, China, while still just the world’s second biggest economy, had clearly displaced the U.S. as the center of global accumulation, accounting for 28 percent in global growth in 2019, more than twice the share of the U.S., according to the International Monetary Fund.

Trump and the Crisis of the Imperial Order

But endless wars and the unraveling of the financialized U.S. economy are insufficient to explain the drastic decline of the empire from “unipolarism” to severe dislocation in less than two decades. One must bring into the equation the unfolding of what I have called the informal civil war in the United States. Central to explaining this cancer eating at the heart of the American political system was the evolution of white supremacy as a political and ideological force.

While the Republican Party had exploited the racial insecurities of the white population successfully since the late 1960s through the so-called “Southern Strategy” and racist dog whistle politics, it was not predetermined that white supremacy would become the dominant stream in conservative, right-wing politics that would subordinate and fuse with other streams such as cultural and religious conservatism, anti-liberalism, and populist disdain for scientific expertise.

Again, this was not inevitable. A key contribution to the expansion and consolidation of white supremacy was the defection from the Democratic Party of large sections of its white working class base — the pillar of the once solid “New Deal Coalition” put together by Franklin Delano Roosevelt — as “Third Way” Democrats from Clinton to Barack Obama legitimized and led in promoting neoliberal policies that had such a damaging consequences on the jobs and income of workers.

The Democratic Party leadership’s surrender to neoliberalism has been well analyzed by Thomas Piketty, who noted that the base of the party from the 1960s on increasingly became composed of people with relatively high levels of education — professionals, academics, intellectuals, and even managers. The relatively well educated leadership of the party increasingly responded to the interests of these like-minded followers, resulting in many in the old union, working class base being steadily alienated from them.

Increasingly, what Piketty terms the “Brahmin Left” in the Democratic Party represented by the Clintons and Obama found a coincidence of intellectual and material interests with conservatives traditionally ensconced in the Republican Party. Their common agenda came to be espousal of neoliberalism, with the difference that the Democrats favored neoliberalism with “safety nets.” This ideological convergence assured that while the independent left would be loud in its denunciation of neoliberalism, the dominant political response to neoliberalism would not come from the left but from another quarter when the right conjuncture emerged.

That conjuncture came with the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008. Its volatile mix of high unemployment and high inequality provided an indispensable context for white supremacy’s breaking out to become the driving force of the politics of the white population, a development that took liberals and others by surprise.

Still, it could not have turned into the virulent, destabilizing movement it became were it not for one man. This brings us again to the role of personality, a factor that at certain historical junctures can become decisive. It was a volatile opportunist with weak ties to either the Republican establishment or Democratic establishment who elevated white supremacy from one of several streams of American right-wing politics to its hegemonic status.

In the 2016 elections, Donald Trump smelled an opportunity that a Democratic leadership tied to Wall Street ignored. By tying the crisis created by deindustrialization, financialization, and neoliberalism to anti-migrant rhetoric and dog whistle anti-black appeals in a boisterous, redneck-captivating style, he was able to break through to the white working class that had already given signals earlier that it was ripe to be mobilized along racial lines.

The culmination of that process was the January 6 insurrection, a battle that Trump lost which may actually serve as a prelude to his winning the war, just as the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 prefigured Hitler’s gaining power in 1933.

A Third Wind?

As the era 2001 to 2021 comes to an end, the American empire continues to be dominant, but its pillars have been severely eroded.

Its ability to discipline the rest of the world has been shattered by its defeat in Afghanistan. Its credibility even among its western allies as a reliable partner is at an all-time low. Its economy may still be the largest in the word, but it is no longer the center of global capital accumulation and confronts the prospect of its unraveling accelerating — especially now that the $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” social and climate public spending bill that was supposed to be its program for revitalization faces uncertain approval in a deeply divided Congress. Meanwhile white supremacist politics has become the hegemonic force in the politics of the white population, creating not only deep polarization but an existential threat to the world’s oldest democracy itself.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. empire seemed to have a second wind, appearing to have put the “Vietnam Syndrome” behind it and its economy apparently gliding into a prosperous maturity. As events proved, that illusory second wind was short lived.

A third wind is, of course, a theoretical possibility. But while we should be wary of deterministic projections, how such a rejuvenation can take place is much, much less evident today. Each empire descends from the zenith in its own unique way, but if there is one path that is broadly similar to that being trodden by the United States, it is that of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Like the Ottomans then, the United States now is a very sick empire, faced abroad by powerful challenges to its hegemony, eroded by economic stagnation, shorn of ideological legitimacy, and torn apart internally by a civil war in all but name.

FPIF commentator Walden Bello is adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and co-founder of the Bangkok-based research institute Focus on the Global South.

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Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal: Here’s how to ensure that a new agreement isn’t so easily cancelled Thu, 13 Jan 2022 05:06:57 +0000 By Abolghasem Bayyenat | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – As talks for reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, resume in Vienna, it has become increasingly evident that restoring the JCPOA is extremely challenging without ensuring its durability. The developments of the past several years—mainly Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and his pursuit of maximum pressure campaign against Iran, and Tehran’s retaliation by accelerating and expanding its nuclear program to unprecedented levels and dimensions—have rendered this issue all the more relevant and crucial.

Today, the nuclear negotiators have to tackle many thorny issues to come to an understanding on the terms of a return to full compliance with the JCPOA by all parties, especially the United States and Iran. Most notably, these issues include determining the list of sanctions that the United States needs to lift and developing formulas for measuring and verifying their effective removal. The agreement’s failure to prohibit the imposition of new sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear purposes has rendered these tasks more daunting, given the bulk of new sanctions that the Trump administration slapped on Iran. Although these issues pose serious obstacles to reviving the nuclear deal, they pale in comparison to the challenge of developing legal and political mechanisms or guarantees that would allay Iran’s concerns over the abandonment or a major violation of the deal by a future U.S. president.

As such, the main question facing policymakers in Washington and Tehran is how to make sure that the JCPOA, once revived, remains effectively in force for all its parties over its entire duration. Although some U.S. and Israeli politicians call for intensifying economic pressures and military threats against Iran to bring it into conformity with Washington’s line, these tools have proven counterproductive time and again and have led to dangerous mutual escalation in the absence of other favorable conditions. Rather, the best solution lies in strengthening the JCPOA in a manner that would minimize the possibility of defection by the parties.

It is no secret to legal and political experts who follow nuclear nonproliferation developments that the JCPOA should be more balanced in terms of enforcement mechanisms and overall costs and benefits. The history of the past several years has demonstrated that the JCPOA’s built-in imbalance is more of a curse than blessing for long-term U.S. interests and nuclear nonproliferation concerns. By far the most notable manifestation of this imbalance is the failure of this agreement to prevent either Iran or the United States from violating the terms of the agreement and quitting it altogether. Rather than establishing mutual deterrence, the JCPOA built one-sided deterrence against Iran by attaching the threat of the snapback of multilateral and unilateral sanctions against it and automatically triggering its referral to the UN Security Council as a threat to international peace and security should it violate the agreement or withdraw from it.

In contrast to Iran, the United States and other parties to the JCPOA faced no legal or political impediments to walking away from the agreement or otherwise violating it. As such, the only potential deterrent against defection by the United States and other members remained Iran’s nuclear program, which, if accelerated, would raise the costs of non-compliance for these parties. However, the huge power disparity between Iran and the United States and uncertainties about Tehran’s political will and capacity to resort to self-help measures left room for miscalculation and undermined Iran’s unilateral deterrence. This condition was compounded by what I have referred to earlier as the asymmetry of commitments reversibility, or the relative ease and speed with which Washington may snap back its sanctions against Tehran and the arduous and lengthy process of rebuilding its dismantled nuclear facilities by Iran.

This situation is clearly not in the best long-term interests of any JCPOA participant, as the developments of the past several years have demonstrated. Biden administration officials have frequently denounced the Trump administration’s withdrawal as a strategic mistake and as one of Washington’s worst foreign policy decisions over the past decade. All world powers as well as most regional countries, who were once apathetic toward the JCPOA, are now convinced that restoration of the agreement and a return to compliance by all parties is in the best interest of regional peace and security. Today, while Israel’s previous and current top leaders continue to dismiss the JCPOA as a dangerous agreement that paves Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, many former and some current senior Israeli security officials recognize that the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA was a grave mistake that has undermined Israel’s security, and as such have backed the Biden administration’s bid to rejoin the deal.

To correct this predicament and minimize the chances of yet another breakdown of the JCPOA, it’s necessary to build mutual legal and political deterrence into it. Any legal and political procedures that make the violation of and withdrawal from the agreement costly and cumbersome can contribute to this goal. For instance, the negotiating parties could add more domestic and international veto mechanisms in order for a withdrawal decision to become effective. Withdrawal would then require exhausting a rigorous internal review process within the JCPOA, plus the authorization of the UN Security Council and/or the national legislatures of the respective parties. Although these mechanisms could help lock in the parties’ JCPOA commitments by erecting legal and political hurdles against abandoning the deal, devising an international financial compensation scheme for the parties who suffer economic loss as a result of a member’s withdrawal can further raise the costs and lower the benefits of defection for the respective party. Granted, none of these mechanisms provides fail-safe deterrence against future U.S. withdrawal, but a combination of such legal and political procedures, a financial compensation scheme, and the credible threat of Iran’s more drastic nuclear expansion would minimize the chances of this scenario.

Although the absence of effective mutual legal and political deterrence remains the largest threat to the revival and durability of the JCPOA, other issues that diminish the actual economic benefits of the deal for the parties pose a similar challenge to the agreement by undermining popular and elite support for the deal. The record of the JCPOA’s implementation from 2016 to 2018 demonstrates that Iran was not able to fully access the international financial system to conduct its international trade due to lingering U.S. restrictions on Iran’s dollar-denominated transactions and the risks of navigating the legal minefield of what remained of U.S. secondary sanctions on foreign banks and companies. Although the application of these restrictions did not contravene the letter of the JCPOA, it was contrary to the spirit of the agreement.

Similarly, imposing new sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear purposes is not prohibited by the JCPOA as long as they do not nullify the effects of the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. Given other areas of dispute between Tehran and Washington, it is understandable that the US government would not want to give up the weapon of sanctions against Iran in light of their leverage value and their political function to satisfy domestic interest groups and serve symbolic and expressive goals. But these imperatives should be balanced against the far more important goal of nuclear nonproliferation toward Iran. Any new sanctions that erode the economic benefits of the deal for Iran runs the risk of harming the goal of nucler nonproliferation by undermining support for the JCPOA within Iran.

Overall, rather than insisting that the JCPOA be restored strictly in its original form and implemented per its letter, the parties should seek to redress the agreement’s imbalance in regard to its enforcement mechanisms and the delivery of its economic benefits. Failing to address these important deficiencies is likely to push Iran to pursue a far more advanced and unconstrained nuclear capability or trigger a disastrous military conflict with the potential to engulf the whole Middle East region and beyond.

Abolghasem Bayyenat is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Iran’s nuclear policymaking at Syracuse University. His earlier writings can be accessed on his website at

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Citizen Pilgrim: Richard Falk’s Breakthrough against Israeli Apartheid toward Palestinians Fri, 22 Oct 2021 04:06:28 +0000 A review of Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim, by Richard Falk.

By Walden Bello |

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – Richard Falk is universally regarded as one of the top minds when it comes to international law. Yet his views are not only unwelcome in establishment circles, but even among many left-leaning liberals.

Falk was once the darling of liberals, someone whose left-of-center views were seen as important in “balancing” conservative and centrist views in debates, seminars, and TV programs. He was, in short, one of the establishment’s favorite critics of American foreign policy.

That is, until he crossed several red lines. The most consequential of these red lines was moving from abstract legal critiques of Israel’s policies in the Middle East to one of active sympathy with the Palestinian people’s struggle, and especially when he had the temerity to call Israel’s fundamental strategy of governance by its name: “apartheid.”

Richard Falk. h/t Wikimedia. By Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

The Zionist Lobby’s Bete Noire

The Zionist lobby went after Falk with a vengeance, trying to systematically destroy his reputation by painting him as a “self-hating Jew” and as an ideological if not clinical outlier by twisting his stands on events like the Iranian revolution, which they maliciously sought to paint as support for Islamic theocracy.

When that did not work, they went on to wage a silent but effective campaign among both political and ideological powerbrokers to deprive him of opportunities to air his views in the liberal media. The vitriolic whispering campaign against Falk was a lesson in how power can derail challenges to its hegemony by reason in the service of a just cause.

And yet the very act of using political and ideological power to restrict access to the public has shown the attractiveness of Falk’s views. Like most efforts at censorship, the Zionist campaign ended up popularizing the ideas it sought to discredit.

Today, the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state is more widely accepted than ever, eroding further Israel’s legitimacy in the community of nations and making it more than ever dependent on the military support of its patron, the United States, on the deployment of indiscriminate brute force, even against children, and on the resort to assassination of foreign leaders and scientists as the principal arm of foreign policy. The effort to silence Falk and other pro-Palestinian voices, such as that of Phyllis Bennis, a brilliant colleague with whom he has worked closely, has merely given much wider credence to his characterization of Israel as a state gone rogue.

Richard Falk, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim. Click here to Buy.

The balance of the struggle between brute power and reason in the service of justice is assessed by Falk in his summing up of his stint as the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Occupied Territory:

“During these six years I often asked myself ‘was it worth it?’ and my answer was ‘yes, but…’ I was less interested in the personal costs associated with career and some friendships, than with whether I was actually making any sort of contribution to the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law, and more existentially, to the empowerment and emancipation of Palestine from a long period of collective victimization. On this question my conclusion was mixed. I felt that over the course of my mandate, the Palestinian reality on the ground had worsened and the chances for a negotiated, fair, and sustainable peace had almost disappeared. In this regard, my efforts as special rapporteur seem to have done nothing to reverse these Israeli behavioral trends adverse to Palestinian prospects.

Yet on the level of public discourse, which helps shape world opinion, I think my efforts had some effect in clarifying the real nature of what was at stake in these highly contested sets of circumstances where geopolitics was cruelly thwarting elemental justice. Public discourse is a vital site of struggle in this kind of situation, with ideas, images, and language exerting influence, and often eventually altering the balance of forces in ways that are hard to measure and discern but often seem decisive in shaping political outcomes… I felt I must be doing a good job when the Weizmann Institute in Los Angeles listed me in 2012 as the third most dangerous anti-Semite in the world on their list of ten. I trailed only the Supreme Guide of Iran and the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan.”

Falk’s struggle with the Zionist lobby is the centerpiece of this remarkable memoir of one of the most renowned civil society activists of our time, whose career spanned the Vietnam War, the rise of the environmental movement, the struggle against dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the massive U.S. intervention in the Middle East under George W. Bush, the rise of the far right in both the global North and the global South, and the climate crisis.

Like a moth drawn to light, Falk was involved in most of the burning issues of the last 60 years, as a much sought-after engaged academic and committed activist speaking truth to power. One can almost say that whenever injustice existed, it was difficult for Falk to resist fighting it.

Or as he puts it, controversy sought him out and he could not refuse its invitation:

“To some revealing extent I waited to be asked before immersing myself in these controversial issues of the day, especially Israel/Palestine. I did not go searching for controversy, and generally disliked public exposure. At the same time, I was afraid to be afraid, and so when asked or invited, I almost invariably responded affirmatively.”

Growing up Upper Middle Class

How did a Princeton academic destined for success within the liberal establishment end up being a pariah? Falk reaches back to his childhood to try to find psychological and sociological reasons that may have predisposed him to be receptive to the conditions of the oppressed and repressed.

The absence of a caring mother, he speculates may have been one factor, along with an adolescent disaffection with the conventional anti-communist prejudices that came with the affection bestowed on him by a caring father. Also important was his friendship with a talented gay black servant in the upper middle class household in the Upper West Side of Manhattan he grew up in, which enabled him to see the attitudes of upper and upper middle class whites for the prejudices that they were.

Exposure to a liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania gave him a liberal sensitivity that was reinforced by a values-driven approach to law that he absorbed as a student at Yale Law School in the early 1950’s under the famous Myres McDougall. Coming out of Yale, he seemed destined for confinement in the pleasant prison of mild left liberalism, which allowed for the private expression of more left-wing views but viewed public dissent from the reigning ideology unfavorably, when he went to teach at Ohio State University, then at Princeton.


It was at Princeton in the mid-1960s that the Vietnam War broke into his life, as it did in the case of many others, turning him first into an academic critic of the war specializing in providing international legal critiques of the U.S. aggression, then into an activist who went beyond the liberal position of seeing the war as principally a wrong war from the perspective of Washington’s “real” geopolitical interests to being an active sympathizer of the cause of national liberation that the Vietnamese were fighting for.

Wartime visits to Hanoi, where he saw both suffering and determination first hand, made him see the Vietnamese as people and see the war as wrong because of what it was doing to these human beings rather than simply a “mistake” from which the U.S. needed to be extricated at the pain of suffering more American deaths.

Mind, Heart, Soul, Friends, and Rivals

Falk portrays his journey from a left liberal critic of U.S. policy to a progressive identifying with the causes of its victims as a transformation taking place not through reason alone but through the heart and soul as well, as he took up cause after cause that he was invited to take up.

Then there was, of course, the influence of figures he worked with or met along the way.

One encounters in his memoirs a virtual who’s who of civil society activists who made their mark in the latter half of the 20th century, including Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, William Sloan Coffin, Yoshikazu Sakamoto, Daniel Ellsberg, Cora Weiss, Saul Mendlovitz, Noam Chomsky, and Ramsey Clark. Significant is the dearth of political leaders he developed good ties with, one of the exceptions being Ahmet Davutoglu, a controversial former prime minister of Turkey. Famous figures he truly admires are equally few, one of them being Nelson Mandela who exuded a “moral radiance” in Falk’s brief close encounter with him.

As an exponent of what were seen as ultra-progressive views, Falk tangled in talk shows with folks he disparagingly calls the “trapeze artists” of the right like Megyn Kelly, Alan Dershowitz, and Bill O’Reilly, experiences that he grew to regard as next to useless fencing matches with Neanderthals. Falk’s pages are also peopled with figures he had strong disagreements with, such as the former JFK and LBJ adviser William Bundy, who tried to buy off his opposition to Bundy’s appointment as editor of Foreign Affairs, the establishment’s foreign policy organ, by saying Falk’s pieces would continue to be welcome in the pages of that journal.

An instinctively fair and generous man, Falk is careful not to paint his opponents in black and white terms. Even Donald Trump, whom he otherwise excoriates, is acknowledged as having contributed to a slight lessening of Cold War tensions with moves such as his reaching out to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, though in these exceptional cases Falk wonders whether Trump really knew what he was doing.

There is one exception to his generosity of spirit: a “reactionary” Princeton academic who was prominent in sociological circles named Marion Levy. Falk could take political and personal attacks on himself with some equanimity, but not when his enemies took out their grudges against him on people close to him. Levy, who was Falk’s bete noire at Princeton, took special delight in giving an “F” to a brilliant paper by an outstanding student advisee for no other reason than to spite Falk, thus probably inflicting harm on that young person’s confidence in her abilities.

(Falk’s experience resonated with me, since the same Marion Levy did his best to try to get into my dissertation committee in order to destroy me academically for leading the seizure by Princeton’s anti-war movement of what was then known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an elite institution of which Levy, as a professor there, was quite possessive. Fortunately for me, others in my committee blocked Levy’s design to exact vengeance.)

Love and Politics

One of the more appealing features of Falk’s storytelling is his effort to integrate his personal journey into his political journey. He tries, but this comes across as one of the less satisfying dimensions of the book.

While he is generous in retrospective evaluation of some of his partners—he was married four times and involved with a number of women—the picture is, perhaps not surprisingly, rather blurry when it comes to how his previous emotional engagements contributed to or blocked his personal and political transformation.

But with his last relationship, with Hilal Elver, a prominent Turkish academic and activist to whom he has been married for the last 25 years, the political and the personal finally came together in a creative fashion. Elver, who also served as a UN Special Rapporteur (on Food Security), has clearly emerged as the steadying force of Falk’s life, his anchor, despite their occasional differences of nuance in political matters and their experiencing times of personal strain owing to Falk’s self-acknowledged tendency to come across as flirtatious to women with whom he finds himself personally and politically in sync.

One gets a sense that the parts on his relationships with the women in his life were much more difficult for Falk to write than most of the sections on his political engagements. But one must give him a B+ for effort, unlike others who either limit the personal parts of their memoirs to a few paragraphs or subject it to a stony silence, leaving biographers to unearth, like archeologists, the gems of scandal and acrimony that make biographies sparkle and sell.

Some Lessons

As he enters his 90s, Falk draws some key lessons from his life.

One is that he was lucky to be part of a class that was relatively materially well off (though Dad was relatively deprived when it came to cash and Mom was rich but not the generous type) and socially privileged to be able to do what he wanted to do and take path he took in defiance of orthodox liberal beliefs and not pay in material terms for the stands that he promoted during his long political journey.

Falk is honest enough to acknowledge what many upper middle class and elite intellectual radicals are often not even aware of: that moral courage and political integrity are often made possible by that base of relative material comfort that comes with membership in a comfortable class.

Another key lesson is that a better world will not come about owing to designs for a more rational world order. Falk’s theory of change is that it is propelled principally by eruptions from below, by the dispossessed and the marginalized, with all the unpredictability that comes with such events.

What one must do is to deploy one’s profession, in his case being an expert in international law, to help midwife these events, and once they occur, to help channel the energies released in the right direction — in his case, helping in the forging of legal regimes that are a step forward in the evolution of domestic and international law in terms of promoting social justice, democracy, and trans-national cooperation.

A third lesson is that one must judge political regimes nor only by their ability to protect classical political rights but also by their record in advancing the economic and social conditions of their people, especially their provision of the material conditions that will allow people to fulfill themselves as human beings.

Here Falk departs from a long list of western liberals who have been imprisoned in Isaiah Berlin’s doctrinaire championing of “negative liberties” while casting suspicion on government’s role in promoting “positive liberties.” Falk accepts that this may involve him in seeming inconsistencies that cannot be tolerated by traditional liberals such as his extolling the record of the People’s Republic of China in spectacular poverty reduction as a beacon for the global South even as he criticizes the Chinese government for its policies toward the Uighur minority.

The Turkish Enigma

The case of China, however, pales before the contradictions in which Falk is impaled when it comes to Turkey. One suspects that aside from his assessment of his personal relationships, the section that Falk probably found most difficult to write is the one on the politics of his wife’s homeland and his second home, which is appropriately titled “The Turkish Enigma.”

In his adopted country, Falk finds himself straddling a lonely middle position between the militant French-like secularism of the Turkish urban middle classes and his appreciation of the social and economic benefits and cultural valorization that the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought to the religiously oriented rural masses in his first decade of rule.

Falk’s initial openness to Erdogan and his allies, like the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davetoglu, owed itself to his democratic instincts. He seems not to have gotten over the shock of listening to patently politically incorrect statements from the urban middle class heirs of Kemal Ataturk’s militantly secular revolution, such as the one he heard from a neighbor who told him “rather proudly that his son’s vote should be counted as seven times more than that of those backward and uneducated persons living in Anatolia. Only thus, he argued, would it ever be possible to avoid the dumbing down of Turkey’s governing style that he believed resulted from allowing the vote of every Turk to be counted equally.”

At the same time, Falk is aware that democracy in Turkey, as in many other parts of the world, is becoming a double-edged sword, with democratic voting becoming the means by which charismatic authoritarian personalities have come to and stayed in power:

“Although I have been critical of Turkish pushback against the electoral majorities of the AKP [Erdogan’s political party] as creating doubts about the virtues of democracy, I now raise the same question in my mind as I witness in the United States Trump’s headlock on 40%+ of the American voting public. To me this does raise questions about enfranchising society as a whole under present historical circumstances. And looking around the world, I take note of free elections resulting in the leadership of such autocratic and dangerous leaders as Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, and others. Little wonder that the most admired thinkers in ancient Athens lost faith in democracy.”

Falk admits that Erdogan has become more arbitrary and authoritarian over the last decade and is worried about this trend, but he still finds it difficult to make an open break with the AKP government, apparently mainly because he still feels the pluses it has brought Turkey have outweighed its minuses.

Another reason is that he “truly didn’t identify with the hostility to Erdogan and the AKP that seemed to represent a shared consensus joining the odd pairings of displaced Kemalists, the old (Marxist) left, the new (pro-Kurdish, anti-authoritarian) Turkish left, and Hizmet/FETO followers and sympathizers.” What he fails to mention is a third, more mundane reason: many of his valued friends, such as Davetoglu, remain within the Islamist spectrum, though some have become critical of Erdogan. At 90, one is understandably less daring about risking breaking off friendships than when one is 40.

Regarding such concerns, one can only say three things. One is that in love and in politics, breaking up, as the old Neil Sedaka song puts it, is hard to do. Two, one seldom has the luxury of choosing one’s allies, and one must often endure old antagonists or strange bedfellows (as I have in my political life in the Philippines). And three, true friendships can endure even the worst bumps on the political road.

Falk is to be commended for his frankness about his dilemma. One can only hope that his trademark moral courage of coming down decisively on the right side of the equation will not fail him this time, as Erdogan’s rule becomes more and more authoritarian, intolerant, and repressive.

Making Sense of a Life of Commitment

In an attempt to give a name to the perspective or philosophy that has informed his lifetime of engagement, of “being-in-the-world,” as he puts it in existentialist terms, Falk invokes the concept of being a “citizen pilgrim” — that is, a citizen of both a particular society and the planet, a person with local, national roots that is at the same time cosmopolitan in orientation, that is on a pilgrimage where she encounters and seeks to overcome successive challenges to her project of expanding the realm of justice, social empowerment, and peace.

It is an attractive concept that is unfortunately given, in my view, a name that calls up the wrong connotations. My concerns may be unduly semantic, but “pilgrim” is a word that is much too religious for secular people like me; it connotes one headed for a fixed terminus whereas what Falk really wants to convey is an end that is shrouded in uncertainty, indeed, is open-ended; and it is a word that is indissolubly linked to the Mayflower, with all the tragic consequences that flowed from that religious expedition.

Breakthrough to Notoriety

Early on in the book, Falk provides us a candid assessment of what he feels is his place in the assemblage of 20th and 21st century people who have tried to change the world.

Speculating on what enables one to make an intellectual or social “breakthrough,” he writes:

“I have in mind breakthroughs of the sort achieved by such friends as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Dan Ellsberg, Graciela Chichilnisky, Mary Kaldor, Robert Jay Lifton, and Howard Zinn, each possessing a distinctive variant of a contrarian temperament combined with a sense of certitude about the rightness of their chosen path. This difference between academic excellence and a breakthrough based on innovativeness of thought and action has long intrigued me.”

Falk says his goal is to…

“situate myself in the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] separating intellectual excellence from societal salience, neither reaping the rewards of academic achievement within my reach nor gaining the plaudits of a positive public notoriety, yet managing a respectable academic, ethical, and activist presence among those who shared my progressive political and ethical agenda.”

He could not be more wrong in suggesting he has not been a breakthrough kind of guy, for he scored a breathtaking moral breakthrough by treading in an area where most of his peers have feared to tread — in the most booby-trapped field of western politics, the “Israel question” — and doing what only one or two other western intellectuals of his stature have dared to do: publicly calling the Zionist project by its name, an apartheid regime, and stubbornly bearing witness to this truth as a public intellectual.

For this act of moral courage, the gatekeepers of the western academic, political, and cultural establishment collared him, threw him out, closed the gates, and had their attack dogs hound him over the years and all over the world. If that is not a case of a breakthrough to “positive public notoriety” that provides tremendous inspiration for this and later generations in the West, I don’t know what is.

FPIF commentator Walden Bello is co-founder of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South and currently the Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

To end Fossil Fuels, take the Fight directly to the Corporations – That’s how Apartheid Fell Tue, 12 Oct 2021 04:02:12 +0000 By Donna Katzin | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – On September 9, Harvard University President Larry Bacow heralded the university’s commitment to shift its $41.9 billion endowment — the largest in the world — to “a portfolio of investments that support the transition to the green economy.” Two weeks later, September 23, Boston University announced a similar commitment.

The rhetorical battle over turning away from investments in companies contributing to climate change, it seems, has been won.

These moves came after more than a decade of broad-based campaigns against fossil-fuel investments, which at Harvard included petitions, protests, a legal complaint to the Massachusetts Attorney General, and storming the field during a Harvard-Yale football game.

And yet, as activists learned in the decades-long campaigns to disinvest from apartheid in South Africa, the implementation of commitments was often limited by fine-print qualifications or loopholes. Despite legitimate celebration of new momentum, many questions remained unanswered, as detailed in an analysis in Harvard Magazine.

The real test of success must be to what extent resources are actually removed from fossil-fuel production and reinvested in renewable energy.

On that front, Big Oil — like the planet — is beginning to feel the heat.

On one day in May, for example, climate campaigners won major victories at Exxon/Mobil’s and Chevron’s shareholder meetings, shortly after a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its 2019 carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Increasingly, investors themselves are recognizing the market risks involved in fossil fuel production. Some companies themselves are beginning to diversify their portfolios into renewable energy.

Yet, as of 2020, only seven energy sector companies had pledged to achieve net-zero emission targets. And despite the fact that renewable energy is cheaper, the fossil-fuel industry is still receiving a massive $6 trillion dollars in government subsidies, according to the IMF.

As the COP26 climate summit prepares to open in Glasgow on October 31, to evaluate progress toward the goals of achieving net-zero GHG emissions and limiting the rise in our atmosphere’s temperature to 1.5oC above preindustrial levels by 2050, the odds of success are still small. In August, the UN issued its latest UN Climate Change Report, which the UN Secretary General called a “code red for humanity.”

Yet cumulative pressures can reach a turning point, producing a cascade of effects. Many of us who utilized shareholder activism as part of broader campaigns decades ago recall the days when a 3 percent vote, permitting shareholders to resubmit their resolutions the following year, seemed an insurmountable hurdle. And the oil lobby appeared unshakable.

In New York City, during the anti-apartheid movement, activists led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and American Committee on Africa (ACOA) challenged Shell, Chevron, and Mobil Oil for supplying oil to apartheid South Africa — “fueling apartheid.”

Together we galvanized support for the international boycott of Shell Oil and launched the ImMOBILize Apartheid Coalition to press the companies to stop supplying oil to South Africa until apartheid was no more. We supported anti-apartheid shareholder resolutions, along with frequent demonstrations outside Mobil’s 42nd Street Manhattan headquarters and at Mobil-sponsored events, until the company withdrew its $400 million in assets from South Africa.

Elsewhere, other international struggles opposed the corporate quest for oil and fought to uphold peoples’ rights, such as the Ogonis’ campaign in Nigeria to protect their land, livelihoods, and lives from Shell Oil, and win justice for its collaboration in the murder of Ogoni leaders, including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. Such campaigns highlighted the disproportionate threat of Big Oil and climate change to the planet’s most vulnerable communities of color and food systems.

In the anti-apartheid movement, one of the major turning points occurred in 1985, when Chase Manhattan, one of South Africa’s major creditor banks, refused to roll over its maturing loans to South Africa — threatening an international “run on the banks” that South Africa could not afford and sought to head off by declaring a moratorium on debt repayments. The Chase Manhattan moment exponentially increased economic pressures on business and government and intensified corporate campaigns and sanctions that hastened the country’s first national democratic elections nine years later.

In 1994, many of South Africa’s supporters turned from disinvesting from apartheid to reinvesting in the new democracy through organizations like Shared Interest, which for 27 years has guaranteed South and Southern African bank loans to businesses, farms, and housing builders in low-income Black communities, benefiting 2.3 million people.

As more wealth is concentrated in fewer and larger companies, many of which are actually larger than some national governments, there is even more potential for corporate campaigns to add to the momentum for change from broader campaigns.

The environmental movement draws strength and urgency from the undeniable consequences already being felt not only in the most vulnerable countries but also in rich countries — depicted daily in the world’s media through uncontrollable wildfires and refugees from hurricanes, cyclones, floods, and drought. Spiraling racism and a virus that knows no borders compound damage and reinforce the need to take action.

But the positive vision of a fossil-fuel-free world can and should be sold not only to activists already receptive to a Green New Deal. It also makes sense in terms of hard-headed business logic, which can be understood by corporate leaders who are willing to think long-term rather than only of immediate profits.

As the Carbon Tracker initiative recently pointed out, the narrative of necessary pain to avert climate disaster has been made totally obsolete by the rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. Countries and companies alike must recognize the change for their own advantage, or be left behind by technological innovation.

Coordinated international campaigning of all kinds is essential to accelerate the pace. But the convergence of moral urgency and technological potential provides an opportunity that we must not fail to leverage by exerting unrelenting pressure on those in places of power to match words with action.

Historical turning points are most often visible only in hindsight rather than in the moment.

This can be one of them.

Donna Katzin is the founding executive director of Shared Interest, which she led for 26 years. This article is based on her essay “From Disinvestment to Reinvestment, published by the U.S.-Africa Bridge Building Project.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

ABC News Australia: “Power of investors to pressure company action on climate change | The Business | ABC News”

Collective Punishment as War Crime: 90% of Afghan Families Lack enough Food because the West is Punishing the Taliban Sun, 10 Oct 2021 04:08:51 +0000

The Taliban’s cruelties are horrendous, but withholding international support and maintaining blanket sanctions will only hurt the long-suffering Afghan people.

By John Sifton | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation is spiraling into catastrophe.

Millions of Afghans are now facing severe economic stress and food insecurity in the wake of the Taliban’s August takeover, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, and rising food costs. Officials with the UN and several foreign governments are warning of an economic collapse and risks of worsening acute malnutrition and outright famine.

Surveys by the World Food Program (WFP) reveal over nine in ten Afghan families have insufficient food for daily consumption, half stating they have run out of food at least once in the last two weeks. One in three Afghans is already acutely hungry. Other United Nations reports warn that over 1 million more children could face acute malnutrition in the coming year.

One main cause of the crisis is that governments in August stopped payments from the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, previously used to pay salaries to millions of civil servants, doctors, nurses, teachers, and other essential workers. Afghanistan’s health and education systems, among other sectors, are collapsing. Millions of Afghan families have lost their incomes.

At the same time, Afghan banks and global financial institutions, including Western Union, MoneyGram, and the Central Bank of Afghanistan, now lack enough paper currency to cover withdrawals. Account holders receiving foreign transfers or with “money in the bank” — ordinary Afghans, companies, UN agencies, humanitarian aid organizations — can’t access their money.

Donor governments are understandably concerned about actions that would bolster or appear to legitimate Taliban authorities who are arbitrarily arresting and attacking activists, journalists, and former government workers and adopting policies and practices that violate the rights of women and girls to education, employment, and freedom of movement. They have already imposed severe restraints on activists, women, and the media and resumed executions.

But Afghanistan’s underlying economic and humanitarian problems, which disproportionately affect women and girls, cannot simply be ignored because of the Taliban’s record.

The U.S. Treasury on September 24 did issue new guidance and licenses that authorize electronic transfers with Afghanistan banks and other entities for humanitarian purposes. The problem is that electronic transactions alone cannot address the crisis. The Afghan Central Bank needs to be able to supply physical dollars and afghanis.

But after the Taliban takeover, the New York Federal Reserve cut off the Central Bank’s access to its U.S. dollar assets and capacity to settle U.S. dollar transactions with other banks — and its capacity to purchase paper dollars from the Federal Reserve to ensure liquidity and currency stability. The World Bank also stopped the bank from accessing its assets held by the International Monetary Fund.

U.S. dollar transactions, including paper transactions, are integral to Afghanistan’s economy. Most of the country’s gross domestic product comes from outside the country in the form of dollars — donor money, remittances, export income. If the Afghan Central Bank isn’t provided with a method of settling dollar accounts and obtaining new paper currency in dollars, liquidity problems and cash shortages will only grow worse. Local currency issues also need to be addressed. Companies that print Afghan currency in Europe, concerned about sanctions, still cannot ship new bills to Kabul. Taliban authorities have no capacity to print money.

Afghanistan’s economy has a limited capacity for resilience. The new Taliban authorities, like the previous government, do not possess adequate revenue sources to fund basic government services. This is a country that has relied on outside donors to help with such services for most of its modern existence.

The UN has announced a plan to send $45 million to support the health sector via UN agencies — but this will not solve the paper and liquidity crises. It’s not the UN’s role to fly millions of physical U.S. dollars into Afghanistan. Foreign governments need to figure out how to restore funding to public services, not only health but also education, using the country’s banks and without enriching the Taliban or facilitating their abuses.

In doing so, the U.S. government and other main donors to Afghanistan will need to adjust sanctions policies and reach agreements allowing the Central Bank to process selected transactions and obtain paper currency. Donors and the Taliban will also need to agree on methods for supporting vital services through independent organizations such as the UN or non-governmental organizations.

The Taliban will have to accept that concerns about providing direct budgetary support, and preventing corruption, will require independent financial oversight of transactions — something UN and international financial authorities already do. The Taliban will also need to accept that donors will only support assistance and services that are equitably distributed to women and men, girls and boys, and allow systems to monitor and ensure that services benefit all Afghans.

Inaction is untenable. The Taliban’s cruelties are horrendous, but walking away from past support for vital services, politically and economically isolating the country, and maintaining overbroad, blanket financial restrictions, won’t mitigate the abuses, but only hurt the Afghan people more.

John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBC News: “Poverty tightens its grip on Afghanistan

For Afghan Women, the Frightening Return of ‘Vice and Virtue’ Thu, 30 Sep 2021 04:04:47 +0000

The Taliban are going back on their promise to respect women’s rights. What can the international community do?

By Heather Barr | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – There is no better symbol for the disappearance of women’s rights in Afghanistan than the end of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the return of the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. When the Taliban on September 7 announced their new interim government, the vice and virtue ministry featured on the list, with a cleric as its newly appointed minister. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs had disappeared, and there were no women in the new cabinet.

The situation has a feeling of impending doom as a largely unchanged Taliban comes into direct conflict with a generation of young women who grew up hearing about the abuses that the Taliban inflicted on their mothers and older sisters and seizing the opportunities those older women were denied. On a chat group of people who have worked many years in Afghanistan, a journalist friend wrote, “Does anyone else fear these protests are going to end in a massacre?” This possibility seems all too real.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was founded in 2001 with a mandate to “implement the government’s social and political policy to secure legal rights of women in the country.” The ministry has often struggled with a lack of influence and resources, but its existence was an important acknowledgment by and reminder to the government of its obligation under international human rights law to ensure gender equality. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2003.

The Ministry of Vice and Virtue existed during the previous Taliban period, from 1996 to 2001, when it became a notorious symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against women and girls.

The ministry ruthlessly enforced restrictions on women and men through public beatings and imprisonment. The ministry beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque; showing their wrists, hands, or ankles; and not being accompanied by a close male relative. It barred women from educating girls in home-based schools, from working, and from begging. Its officials also beat men for trimming their beards. An effort in 2006 to revive the institution was defeated, but these bodies have operated in recent years in areas under Taliban control.

These last weeks since Kabul fell to the Taliban have been a steady stream of bad news for women and girls. The Taliban, at their initial news conference on August 17, sought to reassure Afghans and the world that they would respect human rights, including women’s rights to gender equality. But even then these assurances were tempered by conditions — women’s rights would be respected “on the basis of our rules and regulations… within our frameworks of Sharia,” or Islamic law, they said.

The Taliban have yet to provide clarity on many questions about how they will rule, but every day brings further evidence that they are implementing a massive rollback of women’s rights:

  • Women journalists have been pushed out of their jobs.
  • Women have been advised by the Taliban spokesperson to stay at home and not go to work because Taliban fighters may mistreat them.
  • Women who taught in boys’ schools and universities have been dismissed.
  • Secondary schools are closed in at least some areas.
  • New onerous restrictions have been imposed on women and girls’ participation in higher education.
  • Services for women and girls experiencing gender-based violence have been targeted and closed.
  • Women’s rights activists and high-profile women have been harassed and many are afraid and in hiding.
  • Women’s sports are no longer permitted.

In the face of these attacks on their rights, women have been taking to the streets, protesting against their exclusion from the government and demanding their rights, including the rights to work and to study. Women have also been leaders in protests focused on other grievances including to support the Afghan flag and in solidarity with the forces fighting the Taliban in Panjshir province. The Taliban responded first by attacking, intimidating, and beating protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations, and then by banning unauthorized protests.

Women and girls are also in the crosshairs of a deepening crisis as Afghanistan faces a major economic collapse. The country’s health system and schools face collapse as donor funding, which paid for those services, has been cut off. Taliban policies on girls education and women’s freedom of movement could become beside the point if essential services no longer exist.

What can be done?

There are steps the international community should urgently take. The mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expired on September 17. The United Nations Security Council should renew the mission’s mandate and bolster its capacity to monitor, investigate, and report on human rights abuses in the country, especially violations of the rights of women and girls. Donor governments should strengthen the ability of the UN to deliver lifesaving aid.

The Taliban have made their contempt for the rights of women and girls crystal clear. The question now is whether the international community will treat this situation like the emergency it is and rally to protect Afghan women’s lives.

Heather Barr is associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Hindustan Times: “Taliban rob Afghan women of work, school, safety; activist gives firsthand account of ‘nightmare’”

Child Labor is Growing: Which Side Are Democracies On? Sat, 25 Sep 2021 04:04:34 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – This is the Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. What can democracies do to make this a reality? By | September 23, 2021

Two years ago, when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro favorably promoted the idea of labor for children as young as eight or nine, his minister for Human Rights, Family, and Women shot back: “Let us be clear that for children to work is a violation of their rights, something that cannot be allowed.” The Brazilian National Forum for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Labour publicly expressed “its vehement repudiation of the statement of Mr. Jair Bolsonaro…The declaration reveals a total disregard for the 1988 Federal Constitution…which prohibits all forms of child labour under the age of 16.”

According to the International Labor Organization’s latest report last fall, despite years of declining rates worldwide, child labor is indeed on the rise again. And the increase began before COVID exacerbated the situation.

Shortly before Bolsonaro issued his statement, more than a dozen anti-child labor organizations from Central and South America came together in Costa Rica to take stock of the struggle and make plans for 2021, the UN-designated Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. One challenge had become clear: the surge in right-wing authoritarian governments across Latin America has threatened years of progress.

“This is particularly worrying,” said Kailash Satyarthi, founder of the Global March Against Child Labor, in 2019, “since Latin America has seen some of the most significant progress over the past decade to eliminate child labor.” Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for his decades of rescuing tens of thousands of child laborers and advocating for the rights of children.

From the viciously anti-civil rights platform of Bolsonaro to the string of authoritarian governments coming to power in Central America, child labor activists in the region feel embattled and under pressure. The forum participants from Nicaragua said flatly they would not be able to hold such a meeting of child labor groups in the current atmosphere in their country. Fortunately, the government of Costa Rica remains committed to this process and aspires to be the first country in the world to eliminate child labor.

But this trend isn’t limited to the Americas. It’s been axiomatic that everywhere right-wing authoritarians have recently gained power they have attacked basic civil liberties including human and labor rights. And child labor is the canary in the coal-mine of all other labor rights violations.

This year’s focus on child labor by the UN affords organizations like the Global March important advocacy opportunities. Two that were discussed in advance of the UN General Assembly meeting in September, and one now on the agenda of the International Labor Organization, offer democratic countries the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the authoritarians and dictators.

The first of these, promoted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the trade union umbrella organization representing 200 million workers worldwide, is the Global Fund for Social Protection. This is an effort to institutionalize more defined social safety net investments by governments and help poorer countries to protect marginalized workers. “The time has come to extend social protection to the half of the world’s people who have none and to the almost 20 percent who only have only partial coverage,” says Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary. “Many governments are finally having to recognise the urgency of social protection—including unemployment protection for people who have lost their livelihoods, paid sickness benefits, and access to healthcare.”

The second campaign, led by Satyarthi and supported by child labor groups around the world including the Global March, is the call for a “Fair Share for Children.” Such provisions in the national budgets of all governments would address child rights, including child labor, and provide universal quality education for all.

The inequities and inequalities these initiatives were formulated to address were immensely important pre-COVID. Now with child labor again on the rise and the pandemic affecting hundreds of millions of workers and their families, the adoption of these policies is critical.

So, when it comes to child labor, this is an opportunity for democracies to demonstrate which side they are on. Although the challenge is steep for poorer countries, the issue here isn’t about rich countries versus poor countries—it’s about the values of liberal democracy and human rights versus totalitarian impulses in countries that may also be wealthy. Beyond the UN and the ILO, the G20 presents another challenge to address this issue. South Africa, the UK, Germany, and France are some of the democracies that presumably are taking these questions seriously. But the G20 also includes Brazil, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey where relative wealth has little to do with how repressive their regimes are.

With the new Biden administration bringing into the government many progressive voices on labor and human rights, it will be interesting to see which way the United States goes on these questions. The Department of Labor has demonstrated a long-term commitment to supporting organizations fighting child labor. But with these new policy options on the table, will democracies commit to practical, progressive alternatives or side with the authoritarians?

Timothy Ryan is the chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour. His labor journalism has appeared in Thomson-Reuters, Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and Harper’s.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CGTN America: “Child labor on the rise due to pandemic”

September 11 and the Debacle of ‘Nation-Building’ in Iraq and Afghanistan Sat, 11 Sep 2021 04:10:55 +0000

Nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq was the resurrection of a doctrine that should have been buried after Vietnam.

By Walden Bello | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – In one of his interviews before the Taliban retook Afghanistan, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, blamed the American failure in Afghanistan on a change in Washington’s mission from anti-terrorism to “nation building.” In his view, Washington should just have held strategic sites in the country to keep terrorists off balance and not engaged in an ambitious reconstruction of Afghan society.

Bolton, one of the hardline conservatives who served as a high level official in the George W. Bush administration that invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11, was engaging in what Americans call “Monday morning quarterbacking,” or declaiming in all-knowing fashion what “ought” to have been done. But it was all wishful thinking.

Like all other imperial powers, the US could not just wreck a society and engage in a purely military occupation of Afghanistan. Like all of them, it had to reconstruct a society, if only to reduce the costs of military occupation and give its venture a patina of legitimacy among both Afghans and Americans. And, like all, it could not help but attempt to reconstruct a society in its own image, even if the result was in reality a disfigured or distorted copy of itself.

In the case of the United States, reconstructing Afghanistan and later Iraq in its own image meant trying to create an avatar of American liberal democracy. The term for this process given by American policy makers was “nation-building.” However, a more accurate term to describe the American way of politically managing conquered societies is “liberal democratic reconstruction.”

The Philippines as Paradigm

A Cartoon Uncle Sam carrying weapons, books, and supplies strides toward the Philippines, circa 1900. (Wikimedia commons)

The American experiment in liberal democratic reconstruction dates back not to Vietnam in the mid-20th century but to the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in the last years of the 19th century. As in the case of Afghanistan, it was an afterthought following a brutal suppression of a nationalist movement, which in this case took the lives of an estimated 500,000 Filipinos.

Liberal democratic reconstruction had two objectives: 1) To justify to the people at home an operation that had been undertaken to expand American naval power and acquire a strategic archipelago off the Asian mainland in order to corner the China trade. And 2) to come up with a solution for how to manage a conquered people.

Ironically, to legitimize a colonial war of conquest, Washington came up with a rationale that reflected America’s origins in an anti-colonial, pro-democratic revolution: “to prepare Filipinos for democratic self-rule.” The contradiction was not lost on many Americans, including the writer Mark Twain, but they were overwhelmed by the outburst of nationalist mass hysteria celebrating the U.S. joining the ranks of colonial powers.

The U.S. succeeded in the liberal democratic reconstruction of the Philippines. But that success was predicated on two necessary conditions: total victory over the resistance and the cooptation and cooperation of credible local elites in the creation of the liberal democratic order.

The wholesale transplantation of formal political institutions began shortly after the conquest. American colonial authorities and Protestant missionaries served as instructors, and an indigenous upper class constituted a dutiful student body. By the time the country was granted formal independence in 1946, the Philippine political system was a mirror image of the American one, with a presidency balanced by an independent Congress and judiciary. A two-party system emerged in the next few years.

On the ground, however, reality belied democratic ideology. Formal democratic institutions became a convenient cloak for the continuing rule of feudal paternalism in the highly stratified agrarian society the Americans inherited from the Spanish empire.

Wealthy landowners, those whom the United States had detached from the national liberation struggle and formed into a ruling class, enthusiastically embraced electoral politics. But it was hardly a belief in representative government that turned the local elites into eager students. The reason they so easily adapted to the U.S. system of governance was that it allowed competition for power among themselves via elections at the same time that it united them as a ruling caste over the unorganized rural and urban lower classes.

Reconstructing Defeated Japan

A Springfield Union front page reports on the U.S. occupation of Japan, 1945. (World War II Museum)

The next U.S. experience in liberal democratic reconstruction took place in Japan in the aftermath of the latter’s total defeat in the Second World War.

In describing the American post-invasion effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials of the George W. Bush administration compared their political project to the post-World War II reconstruction of Japan by the United States under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur.

Noted Japan scholars like John Dower and Chalmers Johnson dissented, however, pointing out that there were conditions in Japan that were not present in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Japan was more like the Philippines in terms of possessing the two necessary conditions for the success of liberal democratic reconstruction: total defeat of the subject nation in war and cooptation and cooperation of the ruling elite with the occupying power.

A summary of a major talk given by Dower at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005, two years after the invasion of Iraq, laid down these and other preconditions of liberal democratic reconstruction’s “success” in Japan that were not present in Baghdad:

— “Legitimacy of occupation. A formal war was followed by a decisive defeat and unconditional surrender. U.S. allies also saw the occupation as legitimate. Serious planning for the occupation of Japan began in 1942.

— “Consistency. Japan had an intact government. Emperor Hirohito declared war, surrendered, and continued as head of state until 1971.”

— “Cohesion. While politically diverse, Japan was socially cohesive, without…religious, ethnic, and cultural conflicts.”

— “Security. Japan, an island, faced no domestic security issues. The hardships were staggering. But there was no terror.”

– “Exhaustion. Japan was at war from 1931 to 1945, leaving 3 million dead, 10-15 million people homeless, rampant unemployment, malnutrition, and disease. Defeat brought liberation from death. Suddenly, the air raids stopped. They could start over.”

From Afterthought to Mission in Vietnam


Liberal democratic reconstruction’s successes in the Philippines and Japan, coupled with turning a blind eye to what made them unique — the total defeat of the resistance and the cooptation of credible local elites into the liberal democratic project — were probably what accounted for its elaboration from an afterthought to military conquest into a full blown missionary doctrine to counter communist-led national liberation movements during the Cold War.

Competition with communism led to a fateful modification of Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “Our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe.” Jefferson was thinking of America as an example.

But as Frances Fitzgerald pointed out in her acclaimed book Fire in the Lake, Jefferson’s conviction was transformed in the 1950s and 1960s into the creed that “the mission of the United States was to build democracy around the world… Among certain circles it was more or less assumed that democracy, that is, electoral democracy combined with private ownership and civil liberties, was what the United States had to offer the Third World. Democracy provided not only the basis for opposition to Communism but the practical method to make sure that opposition worked.”

Liberal democratic reconstruction was turned from an afterthought to manage a conquered population into a universalistic ideology that sought to remake the developing world in America’s image.

Vietnam provided a rude shock to America’s ideology of missionary democracy. American empire builders learned the hard way the three conditions that made Vietnam different from the Philippines and Japan. One was a national liberation movement that could not be defeated politically and militarily. Two, the local elites the U.S. allied with to build liberal democracy, like Bao Dai Ngo Dinh Diem, were neither liberal nor democratic and had been discredited among the masses by their having supported or tolerated French colonialism. Three, the U.S. was seen by a people that had successfully expelled the French as stepping into the shoes of the latter.

The Republic of Vietnam was an ersatz state whose writ only extended to big cities like Saigon, while the countryside belonged to the communists. There was little doubt among the Americans that that state would collapse once the U.S. left. The unwritten goal of the 1973 Paris Peace Accord was to give the U.S. a decent interval for an “honorable exit” before the communists took over the whole country. The North Vietnamese were, in fact, generous, giving the Americans over two years to return home before undertaking their final offensive in mid-March 1975.

The debacle in Vietnam was so shattering that liberal democratic nation building should have been buried there and then. Despite the efforts of a few right-wing historians like Max Boot to rewrite history to show that the American model could have succeeded there had the U.S. persevered in devoting the resources to nation-building, the consensus is that the raw materials for a successful transplant of the U.S. model were simply not there.

A New Lease on Life: Nation Building in Iraq and Afghanistan

Village elders greet Afghanaid representatives in Nechem, Afghanistan, 2010. (Shutterstock)

The ideology of liberal democratic reconstruction had been merely shelved, not buried. It received a new lease on life in the early 2000s, after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. There were a number of factors that went into the invasions of both countries, including vengeance for 9/11, but both countries were essentially seen as providing Washington opportunities to reshape the global political environment after the Cold War.

The proponents of this strategy were the so-called “neoconservatives” that took over Washington with the triumph of George W. Bush in the 2000 elections, whose main personages were Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan provided the excuse for the invasion of that country, while the swaggering Saddam Hussein, whom Bush II was determined to link to September 11, presented the perfect reason for invading Iraq.

Afghanistan and Iraq were intended to be what the Romans called “exemplary wars” in the neoconservative playbook. They were the first step in a demarche that would eliminate so-called “rogue states,” compel greater loyalty from dependent governments or supplant them with more reliable allies, and put strategic competitors like China on notice that they should not even think of vying with the United States. The willingness to use force in Iraq and Afghanistan was designed to make future applications of force unnecessary owing to the fear they would engender in friend and foe alike. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s offered the neoconservatives the opportunity to make permanent a unipolar world and they were determined to take it.

The Vietnam debacle was forgotten and liberal democratic reconstruction was taken from the shelf and dusted off as the political project that would immediately follow the invasion. For the neocon Max Boot, U.S. leadership of the unipolar world was all about “imposing the rule of law, property rights, free speech and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be.” Military power would go hand in hand with political reconstruction to achieve “democratic transformation,” said another neoconservative thinker, Philip Bobbitt. “Or it might be called ‘liberal imperialism.’ What is wrong with that idea?”

Despite the hoopla about liberal democratic reconstruction, it never got off the ground in Iraq. Following the invasion, the U.S. flew in Iraqi exiles from the West to lead the effort, only to find out that these long absent members of the political elite had no base within the country. Then followed a massive insurgency led by former members of Saddam’s army that dispelled any illusions that Iraq was a defeated society, a “clean slate” on which a liberal democratic regime could be built. Then, taking advantage of the ousting of Saddam by the Americans, the long-marginalized Shiite majority utilized the electoral processes Washington promoted to set up an illiberal sectarian government that made the formerly ruling Sunnis second-class citizens.

Unable to stop the insurgency, the Americans made a deal with Sunni clan chieftains in the rural areas for them to use blood ties to bring the insurgents under control. But the aim of this arrangement, dubbed “counterinsurgency” and associated with Gen David Petraeus, was to allow U.S. troops to depart with the fiction of having stabilized Iraq. The dream of a liberal democratic Iraq was in shambles, and the chaos, instability, and power vacuum created by the invasion provided the opening for the Islamic State or ISIS that was eventually to take over wide swathes of the country.

Liberal reconstruction was even more of a botched up job in Afghanistan. The Taliban were not defeated, a precondition for a successful reconstruction. They simply yielded the cities but remained in control of the countryside. Nor were there credible local elites that would serve as reliable partners of the liberal democratic project. The regime that Washington tried to pass off as a democracy was really a deal among discredited, drug-dealing warlords based in fortified cities that had no traction beyond the city gates.

According to Richard Clarke, the top anti-terrorism official of the G.W. Bush administration, Washington’s handpicked head of state, Hamid Karzai, didn’t really have authority outside Kabul and two or three other cities. The U.S. ended up with an unworkable arrangement uniting the weak central government it had set up in Kabul and powerful independent warlords who engaged in extortion and drug dealing. For the latter, “insecurity,” as then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it, was a “business” and extortion “a way of life.”

Despite U.S.-sponsored elections, Annan predicted as early as 2004 that, “without functional state institutions able to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the government will be short-lived.” The U.S., in other words, substituted a failed state for a Taliban state that, for all its problems and sins in the eyes of the West, had worked.

As for the Taliban, they simply provided a parallel regime in much of the country that performed basic governmental functions such as dispensing justice. A leading women’s rights activist contrasted the effectiveness of Taliban rule with the U.S.-sponsored regime’s performance: “In the more remote provinces, in cases of theft or similar minor crimes, the Taliban’s justice system could act more effectively than the local police. While I am not supporting the Taliban’s practices, their so-called courts led by their elders would hold hearings to find the violator, and then force the thief to return the stolen goods, outcomes that were not possible with a corrupt local police force that was receptive to bribes because of poverty and other problems.”

Life for women was certainly better in the cities, but promotion of women’s rights suffered from the same problem as the rest of the paraphernalia of liberal democracy: To many Afghans it had the stigma of being associated with the invasion. As Rafia Zakaria pointed out, “both within and outside the U.S. government, the white feminists decided that war and occupation were essential to freeing Afghan women…The enduring logic was that if they thought military intervention was a good thing, then Afghan women would too.” The problem was “Afghan feminists never asked for Meryl Streep’s help — let alone U.S. air strikes.”

To a lot of people, the Taliban, for all their hostility to liberal democratic rights and practices, represented rough justice and security for life, limb, and property; the Kabul government, in contrast, stood for hopeless corruption. So with their prestige and firepower, the Taliban knew it was just a question of biding their time. And they could afford to play the long game while Washington could not, owing to the unpopularity of the so-called called “forever wars” in the United States. Like the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the peace deal to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban, was designed to provide a figleaf of a decent interval for the U.S. to leave “with honor” before the Taliban took over the country.

What probably surprised even the Taliban was the swiftness with which the ersatz regime simply gave up as the U.S. withdrawal got going in earnest. Contrary to the western press’ image of a “brutal offensive,” the Talibans’ retaking of the big cities was largely a peaceful walkover with just a handful of casualties on both sides.

The amazingly rapid collapse of the government Washington had propped up for 20 years created precisely the image the Trump-Taliban deal had been designed to avoid: that of Americans frantically hightailing it from the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of their Afghan allies and their families behind. It was not the Taliban but the U.S.-sponsored failed state that did not give the Americans the decent interval that would allow them to leave with honor.

End of the Line?

Nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq was the resurrection of a doctrine that had been discredited in Vietnam.

It should have remained buried, but it was dredged up to provide a justification for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and serve as a handbook for reconstituting the state following military victory in the Bush administration’s drive to reshape the global political environment in a unipolar direction. But lacking the preconditions for success present in the Philippines and Japan, the venture collapsed in Iraq and Afghanistan in much the same way it did in Vietnam.

Hopefully, this time around, nation-building or liberal democratic reconstruction will be buried once and for all.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello is senior analyst at Focus on the Global South and International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author or co-author of 25 books, including Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Washington Post: “How presidents and military leaders misled Americans about the war in Afghanistan”

Will the End of the Afghanistan War provoke Reconsideration of American Militarism? Fri, 03 Sep 2021 04:04:41 +0000

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should force a reckoning with a long history of military intervention.

By David Bacon | –

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – Many in the U.S. media continue to credit the good intentions of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, while belaboring its failure over 20 years to achieve any of them. But to say that the United States wanted a progressive, liberal democratic, and secular government in Afghanistan can only be believed by those who refuse to remember what Washington did when Kabul actually had one.

In the days following the attacks on September 11, the United States was called on to declare war against an enemy those in Congress who voted for it couldn’t even name. Policymakers asked American citizens to sacrifice civil liberties for security and give the military money that was so desperately needed to solve the country’s social problems.

Congress did those things with only one dissenting vote: Barbara Lee’s. Now it’s time to look at historical truth, to understand how the United States got this 20-year war, with its ignominious end at the Kabul airport, and how the overarching framework of U.S. policy was responsible for creating it.

Other countries facing similar traumatic changes wrenching them from the past have pioneered a way to examine their own history. El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa, and elsewhere established truth commissions to probe into and acknowledge each country’s real history. Such public acknowledgement is a necessary step towards change.

The United States is no stranger to this process. After the end of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it), Senator Frank Church held watershed hearings that brought some of the Cold War’s ghosts to public attention. But the process was cut short, the policies responsible for Cold War atrocities never fully questioned, and as a result, the ghosts were never laid to rest. Those ghosts still haunt the United States, and in Afghanistan hundreds of thousands died for them.

The massive social upheaval at home following the Vietnam War— and the deaths of over a million Vietnamese and 40,000 US soldiers—forced Senator Church’s examination. Before the people of this and other countries pay a similar price in yet another war, the United States need to reexamine that history.

The roots of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington lie in the Cold War. Without truly ending it and untangling its consequences, there will be no security for us.

The groups accused of responsibility for the attacks of September, which set off the most recent Afghan war, have roots in the forces assembled in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. That much, at least, has become openly discussed. But why did Washington seek to bring these forces together, including Osama bin Laden, then an upper-class Saudi youth?

In the 1970s, a moderately reformist government came to power in Afghanistan, a leftwing populist movement seeking to democratize Afghan society. It mounted literacy campaigns and built schools and clinics in rural areas. It sought to end restrictions on women in education and employment, and discouraged the use of the purdah, a practice that separated men from women and veiled the latter. It talked, although often little more than that, about land reform.

That was enough to earn it the enmity of traditional elements of Afghan society, which began organizing armed attacks on government officials, literacy workers, and people associated with the values the government promoted. Perhaps in another era, Afghans themselves might have resolved those internal conflicts. The forces of right-wing religious extremism might not have come out the better for it.

But Afghanistan’s common border and friendly relationship with the Soviet Union made it an attractive target for Cold War destabilization. British and U.S. intelligence agencies funneled money through the Pakistani intelligence service to groups opposing the government. When real civil conflict broke out, the Afghan government appealed for Soviet military help, and the war was on.

From that point forward, the United States spent more money building training camps for the fundamentalist forces and supplying them guns and missiles than it spent in the contra war in Nicaragua and the counterinsurgency in El Salvador combined. U.S. intelligence services dreamed of extending that war into Soviet Central Asia itself. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the conflict did in fact spread north.

Those who wanted a secular Afghanistan, social progress, and justice for its citizens were murdered or driven into exile or silence. Meanwhile, military leaders bent on using Soviet troops to pursue their side of the civil war replaced reformers.

U.S. aid fueled a philosophical movement that combined conservative religious doctrine with nationalism. Having defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, this movement eventually turned against the United States, as people that U.S. intelligence agencies previously considered “assets” began using weapons originally supplied by the U.S. government. This effort was fueled by the huge U.S. military presence in the Mideast and the oil interests it protects, its support for Israel, and the sanctions and subsequent war against Iraq.

What questions, then, would a truth commission ask, arising from the current tragedy of Afghanistan?

Was a policy bent on destabilizing the Soviet Union sufficient justification for the U.S. decision to support a war against a government that shared more professed U.S. values than the mujahideen that Washington financed? Will the national security advisors who made that decision now answer for its consequences?

In a supposedly post-Cold War world, the military interventions that characterized Cold War policy are far from over. This policy was basically unchanged in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Colombia and elsewhere.

And behind the soldiers and the guns, whose interests are being defended? Are we supporting those in other countries seeking social equality and social justice, or those fighting against them?

For the countries which have served as battlegrounds, like El Salvador, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan itself, what must be done to repair the damage of those decades and help create stable societies that function for the benefit of the vast majority of their citizens?

The United States could help to rebuild Afghanistan, after having bombed the country back to the stone age (to use the old Cold War idiom). Instead, it is now washing its hands of the situation and leaving. Similarly, Washington could end support for free-market policies that impose poverty on millions of people. But it shows no signs of shifting course. As such, both Democratic and Republican governments are set to continue the Cold War’s history of military intervention, with all the destruction and economic inequality that they entail.

David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. This article is based on a presentation given to a webinar organized by Global Exchange and the California Trade Justice Coalition, an affiliate of the Citizens Trade Campaign.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Vox: “How the US created a disaster in Afghanistan”