By Richard Falk
Considering the year that is about to end is a time to pause long enough to take stock of what went wrong. In the United States not much went right aside from Barack Obama’s surprising initiative to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 60 years of hostile and punitive interaction. Although the sleazy logic of domestic politics kept this remnant of the worst features of Cold War diplomacy in being for a couple of extra decades, it is still worth celebrating Obama’s move, which when compared to the rest of his record, seems bold and courageous.
As well, Obama exhibited a strong commitment to doing more than previously on climate change, using his executive authority to circumvent Congressional unwillingness to act responsibly. Obama’s immigration reform proposals also seem on balance to be positive, although whether they will be implemented remains an open question.
Drifting Toward Cold War II: Remembering World War I
There are several signs of a worsening global setting that seemed to gain an ominous momentum during 2014. Perhaps, worst of all, is a steady drumbeat of anti-Russian rhetoric backed up by Western sanctions, that seems almost designed to produce Cold War II.
No less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate an event observing the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, warned of a renewed Cold War, and wonder aloud as to whether it had already started. There is little reason to praise Vladimir Putin, but there is far less reason to transform the tensions generated by the confusing and contradictory happenings in the Ukraine into a renewal of high profile geopolitical rivalry, replete with crises and confrontations that pose world-shattering threats that could be actualized by accident, miscalculations, or the over-reactions of extremists bureaucrats and leaders.
In this year when the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is being observed in many countries it is helpful to remember that this ‘Great War’ was started rather frivolously and proclaimed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it is better remembered as the war that helped produced political extremism in Europe, unleashed forces that led to an even more devastating Second World War, and created the conditions that brought the nuclear age to the world.
Perversely, as well, the origins of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East today can be traced back to the world war one diplomacy that produced both the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the region by establishing artificial states to satisfy the greedy appetites of British and French colonial ambitions and the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish homeland in the heart of historic Palestine without ever bothering to consult the indigenous population.
Although some of the mistakes associated with the punitive aspects of the peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty were corrected after World War II, these colonialist moves converted the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into an ongoing regional catastrophe that shows no signs of abating in the near future. We cannot rewind the reel of Middle Eastern history to learn if things would have turned out better if things had been handled more in accord with Woodrow Wilson’s premature advocacy of a self-determination ethos as the foundation of legitimate political communities deserving of membership in international society as sovereign states. These developments of a century ago are to an extent lost in the mists of time, but we should at least be alert about the roots of the present ordeal of chaos, strife, and oppression.
On December 9th after months of delay and controversy, the 500 page Executive summary of the 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture was released. It contained some grizzly additional information and interpretations to what had been known previously, adding such practices as ‘rectal re-hydration’ to the repertoire of state terrorists, and indicating that there were at least 26 individuals tortured by the CIA who were improperly treated as suspects.
Perhaps, the most disturbing feature of this phase of the controversy about the treatment of terrorist suspects is the absence of remorse on the part of those associated with the policies relied upon during the Bush presidency in the period of hysteria following the 9/11 attack. Dick Cheney was particularly out front about his readiness to do it all over again, and refused even to lament the abuse of those detained by mistake.
The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, has attempted to insulate the CIA from blame by suggesting the reasonableness of CIA’s reliance on the ‘torture memos’ prepared by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that encouraged the CIA to think that their forms of coercive interrogation were ‘legal,’ and argued the reasonableness of the post-9/11 inclination to take exceptional measures to gain information given the fears that abounded at the time within the U.S. Government of further attacks, including according to him, of a credible threat of al-Qaida’s access to a nuclear weapon within national borders.
George W. Bush, never one bothered by nuance, assures us that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ who were engaged in doing the good work of protecting the security of the country. Bush seems to be saying that patriotism wipes clean the slate of individual criminal accountability.
Morrell, and his colleagues, conveniently ignore the fact that the Nuremberg Judgment concluded that even ‘superior orders’ are no defense for someone charged with violating fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. If we stop for the briefest of moments, and consider how we would view the interrogation practices of the CIA if roles were reversed, and white American males were seen as the victims rather than dark Muslim men from the Middle East, it would seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that the label ‘torture’ would fit, and the description ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (further euphemized as EITs) is a malicious evasion of reality.
Even liberal centers of opinion, including the ever cautious New York Times, have reacted to the Senate Report with calls for criminal investigations leading to probable indictments of those responsible for implementing torture, with the ladder of responsibility leading up at least as high as Cheney as Vice President, and conceivably to George W. Bush. [See editorial, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 22, 2014]
The even more cautious American president, Barack Obama, has disconcertedly combined his repudiation of EIT culture and practices with a steadfast refusal to besmirch the reputation of the CIA or to look backward in time. Obama’s strange view, which is entirely destructive of any notion of governmental accountability ever, is that with respect to torture allegations the effort should be to prevent such behavior in the future, but not to investigate or impose any accountability for what was done in the past.
I am led to wonder why he does not apply a similar logic to the leaks associated with such well-intentioned whistleblowers as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and above all, Edward Snowden! Perhaps somewhere in the dark recesses of Obama’s mind he distinguishes between crimes of government (deserving impunity) and crimes against government (deserving severe punishment).
It is not that Obama is necessarily wrong in his disposition to overlook the past when it comes to torture revelations, although he supplied the citizenry with no appropriate justification for this de facto conferral of impunity. It is not at all certain that the United States political system could manage such self-scrutiny without experiencing such a deep polarization as to put domestic and world peace at risk.
It is evident that the country is split down the middle, and the risks of strife and a surge of support for the extreme right in the event of arrests and prosecutions are far from being paranoid excuses of the timid. We need to face the reality, with all of its shortcomings in relation to law and justice, that we live in a world of pervasive double standards when it comes to the official treatment of criminal accountability for international state crime, whether perpetrated within the American domestic legal structure or at black sites around the world. It is plausible to hold defeated dictators like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi, accountable, but quite another matter to indict Bush, Cheney, and Tony Blair, although both groupings have been responsible for heinous crimes.
Part of the liberal concept of legality is to overlook what it is not feasible to do and focus on what can be done. From this perspective it was good to prosecute surviving German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo because those charged were associated with vicious behavior and it was important to discourage and deter in the future.
The fact that the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the victorious democracies, and the unleashing of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would also by any criminal court be deemed as crimes is true but irrelevant. It is better not to go there, and leave it to dissident anti-imperialist scholars to whine about ‘victors’ justice’ and ‘double standards.’ “We liberals do what we can to make the world better, and to fight against the nihilistic nationalism of the extreme right.” Such is the liberal credo.
What liberalism ignores is the relevance of structure and the organic connectedness of equality with the rendering of justice.
If we are unwilling to prosecute the most dangerous perpetrators of state crime, is it not hypocritical to go after only those whose behavior appalls or angers the reigning hegemon? Does it not make the rule of law susceptible to dismissal as a cynical exercise in the demonization of ‘the other,’ whether belonging to an adversary religion, ethnicity, a marginalized class, or defeated nation?
The experience of the International Criminal Court during its first thirteen years of operation is illustrative of this two-tier discriminatory approach to individual accountability. This parallels the more overtly discriminatory approach to nuclear weaponry adopted via the profound shift away from the initial concern about apocalyptic dangers posed by the weaponry to anxiety about its spread to certain unwanted others.
Although these questions about criminal accountability are rhetorical, the prudential issue posed is genuinely challenging. I am not convinced that it would on balance be constructive in the present national atmosphere to attempt the punishment of political leaders in the United States who in the past authorized the practice of torture. The potential costs and risks seem too high compared to the benefits.
The related question is whether or not to create some kind of equivalence at lower levels of expectations. If ‘well-intentioned’ torturers are given a free pass why not do the same for ‘idealistic and responsible whistleblowers’? It would seem almost beyond debate that the whistleblowers should not be prosecuted if the torturers are beneficiaries of such a pragmatic form of impunity. I would make the case that Assange, Manning, and Snowden deserve an honorific form of pardon, namely, the application of a doctrine of ‘principled impunity” as distinct from the notion of ‘pragmatic impunity.’
Here I think the social system in the United States would benefit despite producing some severe political strains that would almost certainly follow. I would argue that the highest pragmatic virtue of prudence would mandate taking such steps, namely, protecting one of the few safety valves available to citizens living in a modern national security state, which when added to the principled recognition of selfless and virtuous citizenship makes an overwhelming case for decriminalization. If we cannot have accountability for certain categories of abhorrent state crime, at least we should encourage transparency, making whistleblowing integral to the preservation of political democracy.
It would be a mistake not to connect the torture revelations to related issues of police brutality associated with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Garner in Staten Island New York. Beyond this, the militarization of American political culture has been reaffirmed at the level of the citizenry by polls confirming the highest level of support for gun rights in the history of the country.
More than in previous years, 2014 seemed to be a time of multiple atrocities, events that went beyond the ordeals of warfare and massive poverty, to shock the conscience by their violent aggression against the purest forms of innocence – deliberate brutality directed at young children, exhibiting depraved political imaginaries. By calling attention I have no intention of downplaying the widespread suffering associated with such continuing struggles at those taking place in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Kashmir, and many other places on our tormented planet.
ISIS or Daesh: This extremist movement, claiming an Islamic identity, emerged suddenly in the early part of the year as an occupying force in Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new caliphate under its authority, and representing a sociopathic response to the failed American occupation of Iraq.
Initially welcomed by many Sunni Iraqis living in the northeastern parts of the country as liberation from Shiite abusive domination that resulted from American policies of de-bathification following the 2003 regime change in Baghdad, ISIS outraged the world by its televised beheadings of Western journalists, by its uprooting and slaughter of males belonging to the mainly Kurdish-speaking minority Yezidi community, and its alleged practice of turning Yezidi girls and women into sex slaves.
Yezidis are considered an old religious sect that adheres to a pre-Muslim syncretist beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, and drawing on other later religions as well. It would seem that the American-led response to ISIS is proceeding by way of yet another military intervention mainly in the form of air strikes. Although the political impact are yet to be clear, this does not a constructive path to restore peace and order.
Boko Harem: Another manifestation of sociopathetic extremist politics gained world attention in April by the kidnapping in Nigeria of some 200 schoolgirls who were later abused in various ways, including being sold into slavery. Boko Harem has controlled parts of northern Nigeria since 2009, and has continued to engaged in behavior that constitutes crimes against humanity, and a total disregard of the innocence of Nigerian children, repeatedly engaging in kidnappings and wholesale destruction of villages. As recently as December 18th, Boko Harem forces kidnapped at least 185 young men, women, and children from a village in northern Nigeria. Its political goals, to the extent evident, are to protect Muslims in the country and establish a strict version of sharia law for areas under their control.
Pakistani Taliban: The mid-December attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Pakistani Taliban produced the massacre of an estimated 134 children and 14 others. The writer, Pervez Hoodbhoy, says that the Taliban, in ways that he believes parallel the ambitions of the Afghani Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS, are “fighting for a dream – to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state.” The implication is a radical transformation from some kind of religious normalcy into a fearsome embodiment religious fanaticism.
Israel’s Military Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Against Gaza: For the third time in less than six years Israel launched a vicious attack against Gaza that continued for 51 days, with the resulting humanitarian crisis caused accentuated by imposing a punitive ceasefire that has hampered recovery. The entire viability of Gaza is at severe risk. The attacks, known by the IDF code name of Operation Protective Edge, produced heavy civilian casualties (over 2,100 Palestinians killed including 519 childen, about 11,000 wounded, and as many as 520, 000 displaced, many homeless; on the Israeli side 70 were killed, 65 of whom were IDF, and one child) including among children, and traumatized the entire population locked into Gaza, with no exit available even for women, children, and disabled seeking sanctuary from the attack.
Identified above are just a few highlights from this year’s catalogue of atrocities. It is also evident that there exists a pattern of numbed response around the world that amounts to a collective condition of ‘atrocity fatigue.’
Beyond this these incidents and developments illustrate the inability of many governments in Africa and the Middle East to exert effective sovereign control over their own territory, as well as the inability of the United Nations to protect peoples faced with threats underscoring their acute vulnerability. Account must also be taken of geopolitical priorities that accords attention to ISIS and Pakistan’s Taliban but much less to Boko Haram and none at all to Israel’s IDF. If there is any hope for effective responses it is a result of national and transnational activations of civil society that do their best to fill these normative black holes.
Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons
Without dwelling on these familiar issues threatening the future of the entire human species, it is worth noticing that little of a constructive nature took place during the year. A notable exception, which may make a difference, was the U.S./China agreement in November to regulate emissions and to cooperate in an effort to prevent the global buildup of greenhouse gasses.
These two dominant states are responsible for almost 50% of this buildup, and suggest that geopolitical cooperation may produce more positive results than the dilatory movements of unwieldy UN mechanisms that involve the more than 190 states that make up its membership.
On its surface the agreement was not impressive with the U.S. agreeing to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 and China agreeing to peak its emissions in 2030, and meet its energy needs by relying for 20% on zero emissions sources, but the very fact of such an agreement was looked upon as ‘a game changer’ by some. I would be more skeptical, especially of the American side of the commitment, given the possibility that a Republican could become president in 2016, and might well ignore such an agreed target, especially if it is perceived as slowing economic growth.
The UN Conference in Peru a month later ended up doing little more than issuing the Lima Call for Climate Action was one more disappointment.
The bickering among states pursuing their distinct national interests was manifest and a resulting race to the bottom. It does not generate any confidence that the hope for a 2015 breakthrough in Paris will actually address climate change in a manner that heeds the warnings of climate scientists. Relying on voluntary guidelines so as to circumvent domestic debate, especially in the United States, is not an encourage feature of what is expected.
As for nuclear weapons, the less said the better. Obama’s Prague visionary statement in 2009 has been swept aside by the nuclear weapons establishment, not only in the United States, but in all the nuclear weapons states.
And even the possibility of bringing a measure of stability to the Middle East by eliminating nuclear weapons from the region has been taboo because of Israeli sensitivities. Instead the United States is embarked upon an expensive program on its own to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weaponry.
There is no serious initiative evident within international society to move toward the one solution that has long been obvious and yet unattainable—phased and verified nuclear disarmament as a prelude to a wider demilitarization of the global security system.
What is at stake, above all, is whether the species as a species can manifest a collective will to survive in strong enough forms to meet these mounting unprecedented challenges of global scope. The species will to survive has never been seriously challenged previously, with all past survival collapses being of civilizational or sub-species scope. Humanity has been facing something new since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but has responded managerially rather than either with moral clarity or prudential wisdom.
Despite all, we can look to 2015 with some measure of hope, almost exclusively because there seems to be a slow awakening of civil society, at least in the domains of the BDS Campaign relating to Palestinian rights and in the form of the separate emergence of a transnational movement that takes global warming as seriously as the realities suggest.
As for the future, we see, if at all, through a glass darkly, and thus have no excuse for refraining from a dedication to the struggle for global justice in its many shapes and forms.
A posture of cynical hopelessness or despair worsens prospects for positive future developments, however empirically based such a negative assessment seems. All of us should recall that those who struggle for what seems ‘impossible’ today often turn out to be the heroes of tomorrow.