Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Kurds Betrayed: Iraq Retakes Kirkuk with U.S. Backing

For some reason, people tend to assume that the status quo has been around for a very, very long time—that it enjoys the perk of longevity. To mess with it even in part is typically assumed to “upset the apple cart.” The fear is excessive. A century after World War I, the fact that many of the extant countries in the Middle East had been artificially crafted by Britain and France paled under the presumption that those countries had been around for much, much longer. Accordingly, the fact that the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in 2017 to secede from Iraq was ignored or dismissed not only by Iraq, but also by other countries in the region and the United States. “Baghdad and most countries in the region had condemned the vote, fearing it would fuel ethnic divisions, lead to the breakup of Iraq and hobble the fight against the Islamic State.”[1] I submit that the fear was overblown and mistaken.
Firstly, ethnic divisions had been crippling Iraq since the United States toppled Saddam Hussain. An independent Kurdistan in the northern third of Iraq would have relieved the pressure such that the Iraqi government would only have to deal with the Sunni-Shiite struggle for power.
Secondly, even if Iraq itself would break-up completely, even this outcome would not be so much to fear, as Iraq itself had been artificially formed by the British after World War I. Put another way, the salience of the ethnic divisions in Iraq can be taken as an indication of the sheer artificiality of the state itself. The very notion of a nation goes along with ethnic clusters rather than forcing such clusters to form one political culture (to say nothing of getting along).
Thirdly, the pesh merga forces of the Kurds had fought quite well against the Islamic State, so invigorating the Kurds by supporting the formation of their own state would have been in the interests of the United States. Betraying the Kurds by enabling the Iraqi forces to take Kirkuk and its valuable oil region could be expected to have the opposite effect. In ignoring the clear will of the Kurds as per the decisive result of the referendum for secession, the United States betrayed itself, moreover, given that country’s preachments on behalf of democracy, which entails the self-determination of We the People.
A century after World War I, the world had an opportunity to remember that victorious European powers redrew the political map in the Middle East without taking into account the ethnic clusters that are naturally so integral to having nation-states. That such states enjoy a monopoly of power in international relations—the international realm literally being inter-national—suggests that the crafting of coherent rather than artificial nations is very important. Hence, a century out from WWI, the world of nations need not simply assume that even the break-up of a Middle Eastern country would somehow be the collapse of something that has always been around and would therefore be catastrophic. Put another way, a country formed by a European power should not enjoy default status because the formation itself can be viewed as problematic, evidenced by the ensuing ethnic strife. Admittedly, this does not hold in every country formed by Britain or France (e.g. Jordan), but where a country is strife-ridden, the application of nation itself is problematic; ethnic pushes for independence should not have to face the inertia of the status quo in such a case.

[1] David Zucchino, “Iraqis Capture Key Kurdish City with Little Fight,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Climatic Presumption: What is the Forecast?

Al Gore stated that we face a choice regarding whether the earth’s ecological system will remain viable for our species.  He cites the carbon that is frozen in the permafrost in the north.  As the permafrost melts, carbon is added to the atmosphere, making it “difficult” for the human species to live.   I am not a scientist so I have no means of knowing what the state of the research is on these matters.  Nor am I particularly interested in debating it.   In my view, if there is a chance that we could be effectively ending our our species, we ought not to be held back from acting in a prudent fashion even if it is “just in case.”   I understand the economic costs, and that some are particularly attached to short-run costs (and less enamoured with long-term benefits).  Still, that the debate itself would be allowed to stall even a “just in case” response reflects badly on our species.   At a worse case, it could be something like two parents debating which of them will get their baby out of their burning house.  Meanwhile, the baby burns.   We would call that a dysfunctional family, would we not?  Still, no such appellation goes to those involved in the continuing debate on climate change.
It strikes me that we as a society may be too innured in our own presumptuousness to even realize how badly we are handling such decisions.  I can’t believe that the society is predominantly made up of the two, rather vocal, extremes on the matter.  The extremes are presumptuous in their determination to continue the debate unless they get exactly what they want while the rest of us have been guilty of allowing them to dominate the decision-making process.  Consider, for example, a reasonable person saying, “ok, we need to make a decision,” and one is made.  The refusal to make compromises (whether an extreme in the US following a rigid ideological agenda or the Chinese government presuming that national sovereignty is absolute) is not only childish, it is rather arrogant concerning that the eventual demise of our species might hang in the balance.  Even this “might” should be a wakeup call that posturing and debating evince a selfishness that the rest of us ought not to countenance.  Yet we do.  We are too passive, those of us without a dog in the fight.   The truth is, we all have a dog in this fight.  Are we to be survived by cockroaches?   Wouldn’t it be fodder for a divine comedy were the antics of the cockroaches superior to the presumptuousness of humans?   The species left standing is the one that wins.  

I can visualize a later generation (of humans) looking back at our generation as incredibly selfish and incompetent even to reach a decision.  “They knew what might hang in the balance, and yet they were so caught up in their own petty circumstances.”   It is like we are captains on the Titanic debating which way to turn after it being reasonable to believe that there is an iceberg somewhere ahead.   It could even be that we see the iceberg and still we debate.  Such pettifoggery is mere dribble in the divine comedy that may well already be in Act III.  

We are so small, even smaller than the cockroach, and yet we presume ourselves to be so big.  We we to have the distance of perspective such that our immediate pathos would not blind us, how would we view our society…ourselves?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Autocratic Regimes: Subject to the Domino Effect?

"In Beirut, gunfire broke out and crowds of people waved Egyptian flags. In Yemen, they gathered in front of the Egyptian Embassy chanting, 'Wake up rulers, Mubarak fell today.' In Gaza, they fired shots in the air and set off fireworks. . . . [However,] in a telling sign of the divide between the rulers and the ruled, the region’s leaders, presidents and monarchs remained largely silent." This depiction by The New York Times of ripple effects across the Middle East in the wake of the resignation of Egypt's Mubarak in February, 2011 intimated the hoped-for and feared possibility that the popular unrest could spread.  Moreover, the entire world, which had been been glued to the events unfolding in Cairo, wondered if a domino effect might be in store in countries under autocratic rule. Indeed, The New York Times wrote of a possible domino effect quite explicitly: "The popular uprising that started . . . in Tunisa had claimed its second autocratic government, this time in the largest country in the Arab world. With more protests planned in coming days, some governments were clearly worried they could be next." But do autocratic governments fall like dominos?  That is, is revolution contagious? Fawaz Traboulsi, a prominent Lebanese writer and columnist, thought so in the days following Mubarak's resignation. “All the regimes are shaking now . . . They are becoming more and more fragile. This is just the beginning.” In Bahrain, King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa apparently thought so too, for he ordered the equivalent of $2,650 be given to every Bahraini family a few days before a planned "Day of Rage" protest. “Arab people discovered their ability to make change,” said Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist in Bahrain. “And with Egypt in the leadership once again, the change will reach all the Arab world.” In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he would suspend constitutional amendments that allow him to remain in his office for life. He also raised salaries for the military and civil servants and cut income taxes in half. In Algeria, the government promised to lift the state of emergency that had been in effect since 1992. To be sure, nineteen years is a rather long time for an emergency.  Such efforts can be likened to building up wetlands or widening a beach to take the wind out of the hurricane out at sea should it hit. In other words, it appears that there was "revolution watch" in effect for the Middle East in the wake of the fall of the Egyptian regime. One might reasonably question, however, whether revolutions are contagious.

It could be that autocracy itself had been weakened by the success of the protests in Egypt.  On the other hand, there had been revolutions before and dictatorship was not evicerated from the face of the earth. The belief that the Tunesian and Egyptian revolutions were the start of a wave that would flood all autocratic powers in the Middle East (or the world) might also consider that even autocratic states differ in their respective internal conditions. To use the hurricane analogy, some beaches are better protected than others. If the unrest in Tunesia and Egypt were linked in such a way that other countries could be impacted internally, the ensuing domino effect could perhaps be compared to that among Wall Street banks in September 2008.  The collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch as independent or viable going concerns contained a momentum that was beginning to bring down Morgan Stanley and threaten even Goldman Sachs when the ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs at Treasury effectively pushed for the construction of a fortified sand-dune (TARP) a.k.a. an infusion of funds into the remaining banks from the U.S. Government and the Federal Reserve.  As a result, the force of the strengthening winds ceased to intensify and began to diminish, leaving the economy in a long rainy season (i.e., a recession and a subsequent nearly jobless recovery).

In the wake of the fall of the Egyptian regime, were the other regimes in the Middle East like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs after Lehman Brothers declared bankrupcy?  In other words, are autocratic regimes subject to a "run on the bank" in another? If so, there would still be a notable difference between the big banks and the governments.  Namely, the banks were deemed too big to fail, while the autocratic rulers were deemed too powerful to rule. That is to say, the continued viability of the Wall Street pillars was deemed essential to the world economy, while it was thought in the wake of the Egyptian regime of Mubarak that the world was better off less one autocratic regime. Hence there would not be likely to be a TARP program arranged to prop up dictators. Even with this difference noted, I contend that both big banks and big dictators are too big to exist in a world that values freedom and individual rights. Perhaps we ought to have been cheering the domino effect on Wall Street just as we cheered the fall of the Tunesian and Egyptian dictators. In both cases, destabilization that could lead to the collapse of the global economy and civic order would of course need to be avoided.  However, I contend that the U.S. Government could have intervened to maintain order on Wall Street by assisting as the big banks split into pieces, none of which being too big to fail and thus more in the public interest than retaining the big banks as such.  In the case of public autocratic regimes, their demise and replacement can typically be handled domestically, as in the cases of Tunesia and Egypt, rather than by an international organization such as the U.N.

In general terms, the "run on the bank" in Tunesia and Egypt may or may not be contagious in its nature, yet a consideration of the possibility of a domino effect can remind us of the domino effect that we witnessed in September of 2008 on Wall Street. Making this connection might prompt us to ask whether autocratic governments and big banks aren't both too big to exist. In other words, the collapse of one badly run bank after another and the subsequent need to deal with the question of such banks as going concerns can perhaps be likened to the collapse of one badly run government after another.  Was the world finally noticing around the end of the first decade (and the beginning of the second) of the twenty-first century that enormous concentrations of private capital (and thus power) and of public autocratic authority were not necessarily givens, and thus could, and perhaps should, be taken down? In other words, were long-standing givens finally seen as replacable?  The world was stunned when huge investment banks that had been around for more than a century were suddenly collapsing, just as the world was stunned when the government of the largest Middle Eastern country suddenly fell after two weeks of popular protests. Pillars, even those that are thought vital, can indeed fall, and the world can discover through the experiences that they are not essential--and they might even be bad for the public good. Surely this is the sense of the free world concerning autocratic governments, yet we are less convinced concerning the danger in continuing to allow banks too big to fail to continue to exist as they have for decades. In both cases, the domino effect may be natural and good, provided it is managed so public order does not collapse in the process. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The International System: Undermining a Ban on Nuclear Weapons

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for the group’s work on behalf of a global ban on nuclear weapons. Just a few months earlier, two-thirds of the U.N.’s General Assembly approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “The risk of nuclear war has grown exceptionally in the last few years, and that’s why it makes this treaty and us receiving this award so important,” Beatrice Fihn of the group said.[1] Unfortunately, the stance to ban rather than merely limit nuclear weapons was already being marginalized as utopian and even potentially counter-productive even though ongoing efforts to limit the proliferation were falling short. I submit that the international system itself had become problematic, given the relatively new global threat of nuclear war.  
Even amid “rising global alarm about a potential nuclear conflagration” between the United States and North Korea, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that “we have to be realistic” about the spread of nuclear weapons—meaning that a total ban could actually increase the risk of nuclear war.[2] Yet with Pakistan having an estimated 140 nuclear warheads and India having 130, Israel having an estimated 80, and North Korea presumably working on developing warheads, the status-quo policy of the U.S. could be said to be insufficient to stave off the risk of nuclear war. Put another way, as proliferation was already underway, non-proliferation policies could be reckoned as faulty.
Why do human beings continue to hold onto a boat that is sinking while seeking to undercut an alternative that actually could work? The tyranny of even a deficient status quo is such that the answer may lie with human nature itself. The risk of nuclear war has such a gigantic downside (i.e., nuclear war) that drastic measures to eradicate the risk may be necessary, and yet none of the nuclear powers in the U.N. would be bound by the treaty. Why even ratify it then? The exercise could be said to evince the impotence of the world body even in the face of such a horrible risk. Given the propensity of human nature to ingratiate itself and the existence of grave global risks, the very survival of the species may have already come to depend on a reform of the nation-state system wherein nations hold a monopoly on governmental sovereignty such that some of it is moved to the global level. National governments face a conflict of interest in this regard, as they would be ceding some power. Even if the survival of the species depends on advancement from the nation-state hegemony, national governmental officials may demur out of sordid self-interest.

1. Michael Birnhaum of the Washington Post, October 6, 2017.
2. Ibid.

For more on conflicts of interest that governments (and businesses) face, see Institutional Conflicts of Interest. 

Knee-Jerk Reactions: On the U.S. Government Enabling Dictators

While in the U.S. Senate, Paul Kirk, the interim U.S. Senator who took Ted Kennedy’s seat, said, “Without a legitimate and credible Afghan partner, that counterinsurgency strategy is fundamentally flawed. The current Afghan government is neither legitimate nor credible. . . . We should not send a single additional dollar in aid or add a single American serviceman or woman to the 68,000 already courageously deployed in Afghanistan until we see a meaningful move by the Karzai regime to root out its corruption.” 

Kirk was essentially arguing that the U.S. was enabling (i.e., in the sense that one enables an alcoholic) President Karzai, who had been reelected by widespread fraud. Whether the U.S. Government was trying to have it both ways, or was utterly unwilling to put its money where American principles are, the perception around the world was probably that the United States had sold itself out for short-term strategic/military advantage. 

How resilient are principles that are upheld only when they don't cost anything?  Could it be that standing more on principle--insisting on fair and free elections as a precondition for any American aid and military involvement--would mitigate the need for a surge? Such thinking runs against the grain in the modern world, which is actually rather primitive in its insistance on knee-jerk force.  An eye for an eye and the world will be blind (Gandhi).  September 11, 2001: we must hit back.  There is no other option. They must pay. Ironically, practicing Christians were not only cheering, but also leading the charge.  An eye for an eye.

“Be realistic!” you might say.  "It's a real world out there!" Ok, how about this: the U.S. Government could have concentrated its military force in Afghanistan on the actual culprits, rather than on rebuilding the country or taking on the Taliban.  Is it really so idealistic to cut off U.S. aid to autocratic governments? I suspect that we are limited by the status quo as a normative and descriptive limitation that is actually quite dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary.  In other words, we believe our self-constructed walls are real; we don't see how rigid we have become.

Given the emphasis on force, does it make all that much difference who is occupying the U.S. Presidency? President Bush invaded Iraq. President Obama criticized this policy then led a surge of his own in Afghanistan.  Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, and both Bush II and Obama played ball with these pay-masters.  Meanwhile, we were mollified with the government's “scoldings” of Wall Street banks (the strongest of which went back to their old ways anyway).  Can we blame the bankers for ignoring government officials whose principled leadership is so contingent? People, especially powerful people--like Wall Street bankers and Karzai--can sniff hypocrisy and automatically reduce the respect given.

The United States is like a giant machine, or a very fat person, who can only move slowly…turning woefully slow with a rudder that is too small.    Meanwhile, we vaunt our ship as the biggest ever made: A city on the hill, from Puritan lore. We can’t sink, we assure each other.  But our ship of state is made of iron. I assure you, it can sink, and all the more because we have drifted out into deep water without realizing how far we have gone…how far off course.  Our rudder is too small for our mechanized monstrosity--our Titanic laden with $14 tillion in federal debt alone (not counting those of the states). Our primative knee-jerk reactiong after 911 suggests that everything we know is wrong, even as we presume we can’t be wrong.   So as we rearrange the deck-chairs at our mascurade dance, we order more champaigne and congraduate each other on having the biggest ship.  Meanwhile, is anyone looking ahead for icebergs?  We are so sure of our ship, and thus so vulnerable.


Brianna Keilar, "Obama Ally Breaks with Him on Afghanistan," CNN, December 2, 2009.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

On the Obama Administration's Inconsistency on Syria and Libya

In his foreign policy speech on May 19, 2011, U.S. President Barak Obama attempted to justify his administration’s policy of selective military action against violent rulers. “(W)e cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.” The Obama administration was assuming that facilitating the removal of a ruler who is violently betraying his people must involve a multi-year American occupation, as in Iraq. However, the case of the U.N.-sanctioned international coalition enforcing a no-fly-zon and protecting civilians in Libya proffers a counter-example.

Obama stated, “(W)e saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people's call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes.” The problem is that by the time the U.S. President uttered these words, Assad had killed perhaps up to a thousand unarmed protesters in Syria. In June 2011, after Assad's troops had killed an estimated 1,100 civilians, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton could only muster a warning. "The legitimacy that is necessary for anyone to expect change to occur under this current government is, if not gone, nearly run out." How many civilians did Qadhafi's troops kill before his right to rule was expunged by the U.S. Government? The irony is that whereas in Libya the protesters had relatively quickly become armed rebels, the Syrian protests remained largely in the protest mode. Ethically, it is worse to kill unarmed protesters than armed rebels. 

Even though Obama admits that “the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens,” he claims it is sufficient for the U.S. to have “condemned these actions, [while] working with the international community [to step] up our sanctions on the Syrian regime - including sanctions . . . on President Assad and those around him.” Sarcastically, I am tempted to ask whether sanctions is sufficient, given what Qaddafi had done to provoke a no-fly-zone and bombing to protect civilians amid an armed civil war.

In addition to the red herring that any U.S. involvement must somehow match the Iraq case, it is misleading to suggest that the U.S. “can’t” stop every ruler who turns on his people as if other empires or independent states could not also take the lead. To be sure, the American military has its areas of expertise, but this does not mean that the U.S. should or must take the predominant role globally. Working with other empire-scale countries as well as independent states, the U.S. Government could provide moral leadership as the world takes a firmer stand than mere sanctions when a ruler is killing hundreds of protesters. At the very least, the credibility of the U.S. Government would be much enhanced were it more consistent in regard to similar cases. Inconsistency can provoke possible explanations hinging on partiality and self-interest.

For example, some foreign policy experts say the White House has not called for the world to unite in a military action against Assad not because he has been any less violent than Qaddafi, but because Syria is “critical to Obama’s attempt to end Iran’s nuclear program and to promote Arab-Israeli peace,” according the USA Today. If this explanation is correct, then the U.S. Government has put manipulation above Obama’s own pledge to stand up for democracy over tyrants.

Still others argue that Assad has the support of other Middle East regimes and that the elite in Syria is not fractured—making the case different from that in Libya. However, this is not an argument that Assad’s betrayal has been any less than Qaddafi’s; rather, the argument is that more obstacles exist to stopping Assad than Qaddafi.  However, standing up for human rights is not for the timid. In other words, it is not necessarily quick and easy. It does not say much about a leader’s character if a little difficulty is enough to resort to sanctions. In the case of Syria, that the E.U. had already joined the U.S. in leveling sanctions against the Syrian officials suggests that an international coalition could be strong enough to give the Syrian protesters a viable chance to topple the regime, even given the size of Assad's military.

In Libya, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil suggested that it is in the interests of the U.S. and E.U. to support such causes. "The United States and the European Union should know that we are a righteous people," he said. "We are fighting for a better future and they will not regret helping us." Perhaps the question of consistency comes down to how important human rights are to the American and European officials who have competing goals.


Transcript: Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech, May 19, 2011.

Oren Dorell, “Syria, Libya Merit Different U.S. Policies,” USA Today, May 16, 2011, p. 5A.

Michelle Faul, "EU Opens Diplomatic Office in Libya's Rebel East," MSNBC.com, May 22, 2011.

Jay Solomon, "Syrian Violence Tests U.S.," The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2011

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Did Obama Press Israel to Compromise for Peace?

Seeing to “capture a moment of epochal change in the Arab world,” U.S. President Obama delivered a foreign policy speech on May 19, 2011 in which, according to the New York Times, he sought “to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by “setting out a new starting point for negotiations.” In particular, he suggested that the Israelis go back to the 1967 borders, adjusted somewhat to account for settlements on the West Bank. Meeting with Obama on the following day, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “We can’t go back” to the 1967 borders, according to MSNBC.com. This put the U.S. at odds with one of its foremost allies. Considering the amount of financial and military aid involved, Netanyahu could have been accused of biting the hand that was feeding Israel. Yet due to lobbying no doubt, the Obama administration did not fully play its hand in pressuring the ally.

Before the president’s speech, according to the New York Times, Netanyahu “held an angry phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton” to demand that the president’s references to 1967 borders be cut. White House officials said that nothing was changed from Israeli pressure. In spite of the billions in aid to Israel from the U.S., the Israeli government had ignored the president’s request that settlements be halted—only to reject the 1967 borders proposal.  Given the position of Israel in the Middle East and its financial support from the U.S., the Israeli government’s rejection of the American proposals is perplexing. In fact, the refusals, as well as the pressure, could be taken as presumptuous, given Israel’s intransience in negotiating with the Palestinians.

So why, one might ask, didn’t the American president freeze aid to Israel? Although Jews in the U.S. are only about 2% of the total population, as donors to political candidates and the Democratic Party, the Jewish influence is disproportionate. Congress would hardly support real pressure on Israel, so realistically the president’s hand was probably tied.

In fact, I would not be surprised if Netanyahu had threatened Obama that if he kept the 1967 border proposal in his speech, he would lose Florida in 2012. It would be unfortunate if Americans who happen to be Jewish would put another country before their own in voting for president. In fact, I submit that it is in the Jewish interest, whether in Florida or Israel, that additional pressure be applied to Israel so a comprehensive peace deal may be achieved. Indeed, the reaction to the speech in the E.U. was that finally the U.S. Government was standing up to Israel.  A spokesperson for E.U. foreign policy minister Catherine Ashton said she "warmly welcomes President Obama's confirmation that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with the mutually agreed swaps, with secured and recognized borders on both sides," according to Zawya.com. Perhaps the E.U. and U.S. could combine forces to pressure Israel to comrpromise.

However, was making a proposal not to Israel’s liking standing up to the Israelis? I contend that the most intractable problem in the Middle East requires more than words. Accordingly, President Obama should find the will to put money behind his words. Specifically, he should give the Israeli government a deadline for a peace deal, after which American aid would be frozen. If Congress’s approval is necessary, the president should make the recommendation, agreeing to take the heat. 

Coming off his victory over Osama Bin Laden, Obama has some political capital to burn, and he should not be afraid of retaliation from Americans who happen to be Jewish—whom I would think would be against occupation wherever it is going on, given the history of Jewish suffering under occupation. Surely Jewish Americans realize that two wrongs do not make a right, and, moreover, that Israel’s future will not be secured until it compromises with those whom it is occupying. Borne of occupied resistance, the United States itself ought to be for the occupied rather than the occupiers, and Jewish Americans are part of the United States, are they not?

In any case, the way to win a presidential election is to keep one’s eyes on the prize rather than deferring in order not to offend particular interest groups. Paradoxically, if winning re-election is the predominant factor in every major presidential decision, the likelihood of a win is diminished accordingly because there are inevitably costs borne more by some than others as a leader puts his money where his mouth is in order to achieve any truly worthwhile accomplishment. Relatedly, a benefit of a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy is that in the former representatives have a period of time insulating them from the immediate passions of the people so they can go out on a limb to bring home the bacon that might involve a bit of discomfort.


Mark Lander and Steven Lee Myers, “Obama sees ’67 Borders as Starting Point for Peace Deal,” The New York Times, May 20, 2011.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Could a Middle Eastern Union Cool the Isreali-Palestinian Conflict?

I contend that thinking outside the box can go a long way in getting past the stalemate on Israeli-Palestinian relations.  The key, I believe, lies in relativizing the conflict by shifting the paradigm by looking outward, at the region as a whole. If the autocracies in the Middle East are indeed on the way out--to be replaced by true republcs not in name only--then, at least according to federal theory, they could form a federal union somewhere on a spectrum with the AU, EU, and US. For example, one would not expect it to be as consolidated as the EU. Even so, Israel might just feel more comfortable with there bieng other democracies in the region, such that it might agree to join a union as long as there are strong minority rights (yet without too many areas subject to vetos, which tend to render a union impotent).  

 As in the case of the EU and US wherein avoiding conflict between the respective states is part of the rationale, the creation of a Middle Eastern Union (MEU) could mitigate conflict between Israel and its neighboring states.  Such a union would of course have its own particularities. The EU and US have theirs too.  Whereas giving each state a veto, such as in a senate or council, would eviscerate the MEU, machinery giving Israel a limited veto would be legitimate and warranted as it could fear being ganged up on by the other states. Such a limited veto concerning Israel’s security could be removed by unanimous consent once greater integration and mutual security is achieved.  The assumption that there would be one major division in the union is rather simplistic, however, as there are other divisions in the region that don’t involve Israel.  For instance, the Turks and Arabs have had their mutual distrust.  So the factions in a MEU would perhaps allow for Madison’s argument that the multiplicity of factions in a large union protects, in effect, a minority from an oppressive majority.  As an aside, a MEU with Turkey as a state would also resolve the problems around whether Turkey should become a state in the EU.

I propose a federal union of semi-sovereign states with governmental machinery including a court, legislature and president(s).  The EU has more than one president (e.g., president of the EU Commission and president of the European Council).  The MEU could arrange that each state has representation in each branch.  Furthermore, a qualified majority voting scheme could add to the protection of minority positions without hamstringing the union. In terms of the balance of power in the federal system, the MEU would doubtless not be as consolidated as is the US.  Relative to the US (nearly consolidated), the EU (the states have more power than the union) and the AU (the states are effectively sovereign in the confederation), the MEU should be between the US and EU. The MEU government would have to have enough power to resist the forces pushing the union apart, yet not so much power that an unhappy state leaves for lack of any influence.  Given the conflict, both the state governments and that of the MEU would have to have power.  In effect, this would create a system of checks and balances that would allow the contentious issues to be worked out with due regards to the interests of the region and to the rights of each state and citizen. To help maintain a viable system of such checks, the federal system would be designed such that both the state governments and that of the union would have the wherewithal to resist encroachments from the other.  Ironically, both Syria and Israel, for example, might find themselves working together in the same coalition in the senate or council (representing the state governments) in resisting a power-grab from the MEU’s executive branch.  Conflicts which seem insurmountable now may be trumped by others wherein the coalitions for and against are constantly changing.

Jerusalem would be akin to the District of Columbia in the US.  That is, it would be a federal district, with the states of Israel and Palestine being like Virginia and Maryland. I submit that this plank would be the most valuable plank in this proposal, at least immediately.  Jersualem would be a united city—the jewel of the union. In the course of time, the enhanced economic and political integration would mollify the current disagreements and prejudices as contact between now-different peoples increases.

To be sure, thinking outside the box occasions inevitable inside-the-box nay-sayers.  “It would never work.”  “Pipe-dream.”  “They would never agree to do it.”  Und so weiter …   However, true statesmen and stateswomen can rise to the occasion and look beyond their immediate interests to the greater good. Even if in incremental steps such as has been the case for the EU, Middle Eastern integration can gain a momentum of its own.  However, given the historical tendency of acts of violence in the Middle East to arrest peace-talks, I think an approach closer to that of the US would be better.  That is to say, delegates from all of the Middle Eastern states (or those interested in such a proposal) could meet in a summit (or convention) to formulate the structure of a MEU.  Theoretically, it would then have to be ratified in the states, though it is possible for a government to cede some of its governmental sovereignty (the process of amendments in the US and EU have involved both).  Given the utility here of statesmanship, determination by referendum is not necessarily advisable in this case.  The democracy purists could ponder the alternative of continued violence. Where a state’s officials are elected, the absence of a referendum is more palitable.

In summary, the principle I am invoking in this proposal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially that where countries are states in a union, it becomes less important which state one is in because all the states share some commonalities (such as some basic rights).  Whether one lived in New York or Connecticut became less important, for example, once both were part of the United Colonies (and then the United States). So too, the differences between Israel and Palestine can be contained in a common union and mitigated by establishing channels of conflict-resolution.  To be sure, no one state would always get its way.  Also, each state would be taking a risk.  However, such is the ground of statesmanship.  It is possible to rise above even one’s immediate interests and achieve an enlightened self-interest. Lest problems be seen at this level, one has only to entertain more of the status quo, ad infinitum.

Religion and Politics: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Helped Syria’s Assad Regime

In the wake of yet another Syrian massacre of civilians, including families being shot at close-range in their own houses, the New York Times published a report in 2012 that claimed that Russian priests and theologians commiserated with diplomats from Damascus at the opening of an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin. While it is understandable that the Kremlin would not want to lose its “longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East,” it is perhaps less palatable for Christian prelates and doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church to essentially look the other way on atrocities so the Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, won’t be pushed under the bus in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that could be unleashed should Assad fall from power. The Syrian Christians were reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad for fear of being persecuted by the Sunnis should they gain power.

 Together, the fear of the Syrian Christians and the “foreign policy” of the Moscow patriarchate were forestalling internal and external forces, respectively, from having achieving enough power to stop the human rights abuses in Syria. This is ironic because Jesus preached selflessness, or self-emptying love for one’s neighbor (agape seu benevolentia universalis). I suspect that the martyrs of the early Church would be shocked to find such self-serving provincialism in the sectarian groups, both in Syria and the Russian capital.

The following observation from Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is telling if not poignant. “What we see now in Syria is systemic failure—it’s brutal, it’s now an insurgency—but in the end its just systemic failure. If the Christian population and those that support it want a long-term future in the region, they’re going to have to accept that hitching their wagon to this brutal killing machine doesn’t have a long-term future.” I would add that the hitching makes the Christians and their leaders into hypocrites. That is, it contradicts Christian love as preached and lived by Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, compassion when it is least convenient was being thrown under the bus in the service of a sectarian interest.

                                              Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church             NYT

When Russian Patriarch Kirill visited Damascus in late 2011 after 3,500 Syrians had been killed by government forces and the Arab League had suspended Syria’s membership, he “made a sympathetic appearance with [Assad], praising Syria’s treatment of Christians and making no mention of the mounting death toll,” according to the New York Times. Apparently the death of thousands of people is fine as long as one’s own kind is treated well. The good of a part outweighs the good of the whole. This point applies as well to the related opposition of Putin to efforts at the UN’s Security Council to take measures against the Syrian government. That is to say, Putin’s relationships to the patriarch and to Assad are more important than a higher good, such as stopping the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of Syrians.

It follows that the vetoes held on the Security Council can and should be questioned because the parts holding them cannot be assumed to have any regard for the “big picture” or the common good at the global level. Even if the violent acts by Assad’s men are consistent with the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, the international system is not served by a government that gets away with violating rather than protecting its citizens’ human rights. 


Ellen Barry, “Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria,” The New York Times, June 1, 2012. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Libya and the World in 2011: A Higher Calling

On February 21, 2011, Libyan military aircraft fired live ammunition at crowds of anti-government protesters in Tripoli. "What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," said Adel Mohamed Saleh, an activist in the capital. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead." Arabiya television put the number killed on that day alone at 160. Gadhafi's son had vowed on television the day before that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet." I suspect that few people were surprised to find that Gadhafi would mount a sustained vituperative effort against the pro-democracy movement that was sweeping through the Middle East. "These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst. "But I think Gaddafi is going to put up a fight ... in Libya more than any other country in the region, there is the prospect of serious violence and outright conflict," he said. As the world received reports of the massacre, a latent question not being asked was whether the world (or even a coalition therein in case of a holdout like China) has the right or an obligation to intervene militarily to stop the offending regime against its own defenseless people. I contend that there is such a right and moral obligation--meaning that national sovereignty does not extend to crimes against humanity. Sadly, at the time of the Libyan protests and Gaddafi's retaliation, the world's government offiicals were still largely impotent and disorganized.

Even if not sufficiently for his regime to collapse, Gadhafi's obstinancy was being undercut right out from beneath him. As the the military was escalating its attack on unarmed citizens inside Libya, something else--something rather astonishing--was happening. Rather than putting up a united front to the world against the opposition, the government showed itself to consist of men whose participation in Gadhafi's government was not unconditional. Could it be that the Nuremburg verdicts against the Nazis in 1948--the ruling that blind obedience is not excuse for even government offiicals and employees being held accountable--was finally being heard?  That is to say, might it be that in addition to conscience, the emerging judicial enforcement at the International Criminal Court was having a slight (but significant) impact even as crimes against humanity were being committed?Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gadhafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya." Were the former ambassador's warning having a real impact in real-time on government offiicals, this would evince real progress for the human race. Specifically, the realization by oificials while they are in power that they might be held accountable for their role in harming their own people could, with the help of conscience, mitigate how far a regime can go in "punishing" its people for their natural proclivity to protest injustice.  There is some evidence that government officials who might have held tough a decade earlier were having second thoughts and, crucially, acting on them.

For example, as the Libyan military was trouncing on marching mourners, Justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil reportedly resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters." Also, at least two Libyan air force pilots defected to Malta rather than shoot on defenseless citizens. Lastly, Libyan diplomats abroad explicitly backed off supporting the country's dictator. For example, a Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler." Even more astonishing, Libya's ambassadors at the United Nations called for Gadhafi to step down as the country's ruler. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said that if Gadhafi does not relinquish power, "the Libyan people will get rid of him." The staff of Libya's mission to the United Nations declared allegiance to the people of Libya, instead of to Gadhafi, a spokesman said on the day on which Libyan jet fighters turned on the citizens they were to protect. Traditionally, it has been thought that governments are the members of international bodies such as the UN.  That it might actually be the people of a country who are represented in a confederation would be revolutionary (this is typically thought to be in part the case in a federal government, rather than in an alliance or strictly international organization). Ambassadors representing a regime conditionally goes along with al-Houni's statement even on the day when bullets sprayed on the Libyan people from the air, "Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people." In other words, Gadhafi's regime had already lost its legitimacy, and thus its right to represent the people abroad (and at home). 

To be sure, autocratic regimes are not necessarily populated by people of concience or even foresight (e.g., concerning possible prosecution at the ICC or even domestically). When Gandhi was asked how non-violent non-cooperation could ever hope to work against an invading and occupying Nazi force, he acknowledged that many would be harmed for the sake of truth, but ultimately the dictators are already destined to the trash-bin of history. Progress comes by painfully slow steps in this world of flawed humanity.  One novelist on the American Civil War observed, if we are angels, then surely we are killer angels. Was it some cruel joke? one might ask God.  Why?  Yet if the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East could teach us--meaning all of us--anything, it might be that we, acting together, can push the boulder a bit further up the hill. We need no longer accept the existence of regimes that betray their people, and in February of 2011 the world realized its efficacy in making this so. It is as if in one voice we finally exclaimed, "No, we will not go softly into the night. We will stand up and they will back down!"

As the people in the Middle East were pushing up against the dead weight of history, the rest of us were with them--indeed, being transfixed and humbled by them as they marched against dazed tyrants who had not yet realized that their day had already passed quietly into the night to be replaced by the first light of another dawn. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a progression in the eternal recurrence of night and day.


"Gadhafi: 'I'm in Tripoli, not Venezuela," February 22, 2011. NBCNews.com.

Democratic Protests in the Middle East: A Conflagration of Historic Proportions amid a Constancy in Human Nature?

Perhaps by looking back on one's own time as though it were already historical, it is possible to assess whether what one is witnessing on the global stage is truly significant from the standpoint of human history or merely of that which history is replete. In the context of the popular protests in the Middle East in early 2011, the question is perhaps whether the world was witnessing a Hegelian burst of freedom or merely more of the same in terms of political revolutions. According to The New York Times, popular movements were "transforming the political landscape of the Middle East" in the wake of the protests in Tunesia and Egypt.  For example, in Bahrain, "as in Tunisia and Egypt, modest concessions from the government [were] only raising expectations among the protesters, who by day’s end [on February 15, 2011] were talking about tearing the whole system down, monarchy and all."  The prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, had been in office for 40 years. Accordingly, the protesters were asking not only for the release of political prisoners, but also "the creation of a more representative and empowered Parliament, the establishment of a constitution written by the people and the formation of a new, more representative cabinet."

The New York Times placed the protests in Bahrain in the wider context of the protests that had recently occurred in Tunesia and Egypt. The Bahrain protests, "inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have altered the dynamics in a nation where political expression has long been tamed by harsh police tactics and prison terms." (italics added)  However, it was not clear at the time of the protests whether the thread of inspiration was determinative to such an extent that the landscape of the Middle East itself would be transformed as a result. In allowing the protests, the king of Bahrain may have assumed that he could stay in control and thereby reduce the strength of the "inspiration" by giving the protesters some space to do their thing and presumably get it out of their system. However, Ibrahim Matar, an opposition member of Parliament who joined the crowd of protesters, said, “Now the people are the real players, not the government, not the opposition.” It is interesting that he dismissed his own movement (i.e., the opposition) rather than trying to take credit for the uprising.  If Matar was correct, the spread of protests throughout the Middle East had the wherewithal to fundamentally change the means by which people would be governed in the region. That is, the protests could have been a transformative wave wherein people finally had within their sight the possibility that government could be of and by the people. The revolutions in Tunesia and Egypt would not have been isolated incidents in a long world history of sporatic revolutions without autocratic government itself being expunged from the tired face of the earth. The question that captivated the world watching the Egyptians protest was whether something different might have been going on. 

Whereas the twentieth century had hosted technological change on many fronts, political development was not among the areas of progress. When the twenty-first century had gained enough of its own years to claim its own time, the question may have become whether the human race was  ripe then for a leap in political development. If so, the trigger would not be in the democratic nations that preach representative democracy; rather, it would be in the people themselves who had lived under autocratic rule. It is as though there were a spreading suddent awareness that they didn't have to take the abuse anymore; they could simply say no--though "simply" is the wrong word here as saying no in a state such as Iran, for example, was at the time still prompting a barrage of bullets from government soldiers. It was clear that the autocratic governments had different strategies with respect to the protests.  The question was perhaps whether the thrust of the wave had rendered the choice of strategy nugatory. In other words, was the world witnessing the beginning of the end for autocracy or dictatorship as a means of governing human beings, or merely the latest round in a series of revolutions that have been an intractable part of human history?  Did Tunesia unleash a burst of freedom that can be placed in a Hegelian progression of human history wherein human spirit comes to realize itself in greater freedom, as per its nature? That is to say, were we witnessing a Hegelian moment? Can the protests in the Middle East in 2011 be interpreted as marking a fundamental political change or even a new awareness in humanity?  I suppose the answer would depend on whether the protests spread like a forest fire across highways and byways such that no dictator would remain standing not only in the Middle East, but, moreover, in the entire world as well.

Lest we get too carried away in celebrating the salubrious evisceration of autocratic government, we should not forget that representative democracy is far from perfect. Left without any viable competitors, this system of government could be more subject to abuses from within. If representative democracy is the beneficiary of the extinction of autocracy, might democracy as an ideal be like capitalism in the wake of the demise of the USSR (and communism in China)?  In other words, might the hegemony of representative democracy ironically make it more likely that the drawbacks of such democracy gain in force, or at least become more transparent?  Just as the financial crisis of 2008 rather than the USSR demonstrated that the market mechanism itself is flawed in how it accommodates increased volatility (by freezing up rather than accommodating it), perhaps once the world is populated by republics we might come to see the internal flaws in what the U.S. Founders called "excess democracy."

The protests in the Middle East reminded the world that history is not very predictable. Similarly, history can be quite ironic, given the fixity inherent in human expectations. As we the West welcome our brothers and sisters in the Middle East into the family of free nations, let us not get too self-congratulatory, for our institutions are far from perfect.  We are all human, all too human. Yet in spite of human nature as its constant, human history may contain a progression wherein humanity the world over comes to realizations that insist upon or inevitably lead to greater self-realization. Humanity's realization in the early twenty-first century may involve political development. I suspect that the next turn will concern religion. After that turn, the world will be quite different than for those who lived before even the technological revolution in the twentieth century.  In other words, modernity may well be characterized in terms of succeeding intervals of technological, political and religious transformation--altogether evincing a huge amount of change even as human nature remains constant.  The question might be how much change is possible given the constancy of our nature, or do some change elements change human nature? In the context of the protests in the Middle East, human nature looks pretty much the same as it has been for eons.  Yet the future change may shift the basis-point in human biology and psychology such that even more change becomes possible.


Michael Slackman, "Bahrain Takes the Stage With a Raucous Protest," The New York Times, February 15, 2011.

On the Arrogance of Assumed Superiority: Assad of Syria

One week after Assad’s Syrian government had agreed to a cease-fire with the state’s opposition, the government added further stipulations. First, it wanted “written guarantees” that rebels would  stop fighting and lay down their weapons before any government pull-back could occur. Second, the Syrian government wanted guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would stop financing the armed groups within Syria. “The regime will not implement this plan,” Col. Riad As’aad, the leader of the opposition militia fatalistically said.

The strategy was essentially a device with which to sabotage the truce. Either Assad had never intended to honor it or he had second thoughts about it after having agreed. Either way, the other side was perfectly justified in ignoring the government’s additional demands because they were not among the terms of the truce. That it is obvious that additional conditions are invalid after an agreement is made points to the lack of character—and indeed the psychological condition—in whomever in the Syrian government had come up with the strategy. At best, the ploy is dishonest. At worst, the culprits were so presumptuous as to think that they could legitimately add additional obligations on the other side. The question is perhaps whether the pertinent government officials were in denial regarding both the arrogance and the invalid nature of the move.

The mentality can also be found among apartment rentals. In some cases when I have looked for apartments, I have thought an agreement had been reached only to find an “oh, by the way” email adding a further condition that must be satisfied. Typically, the convenient presumptuousness takes the you need to form. That such a further obligation is invalid after the handshake just highlights the arrogance in the you need to. The mentality would really be shown for what it is if the renter were to reply, “I would be happy to consider your suggestion.” Essentially, both moves are predicated on the desire to dominate. It is a control-battle, in other words. My main point is that such efforts to dominate presume entitlements far beyond what is actually deserved. That the person renting the apartment would find the renter’s reply offensive—even an insult—just shows how much presumption is in the mentality. The renter would no doubt react to the ensuing, more direct imperative with legitimate consternation and resentment. When holding a party to the terms of the agreement is viewed as a provocation by the party, which continues to assume that its over-reaching is valid, there is no hope of working things out without an authority that is over both sides.

Officials in Assad’s government surely realized the absence of an authority that could hold the government to its agreement without the added conditions. In such a case, obligation itself has no meaning. The agreement of a sovereign, in other words, is valid only in so far as it continues to be something the sovereign wants. There is no being held to anything. In the case of rental agencies, companies or owners, the presumption of an overweening entitlement is at odds with the nature of an economic transaction between two parties. It is not that one party is thereby the adult and the other is somehow in a child’s role. Nor is it an employer-employee role. Rather, money is exchanged for a good—the value of each being theoretically equal. A renter could object to the additional conditions and sue to have the lease enforced if the lessor should unilaterally stop performance on the basis of the additional conditions not being satisfied.

My main point is that the stubbornness of the presumptuousness that continues to insist that the additional conditions be met is without foundation and thus ought not to stand, yet it is amazing how resistant it is to being checked or corrected. The presumption of superiority lends an ignorance that can’t be wrong assumption to the presumption simply in adding the conditions. It is this phenomenon of arrogance on stilts (which shouldn’t even be standing on its own) that defies the laws of nature.

In other words, should Assad blame the rebels for his refusal to implement that which he agreed to because the two additional conditions had not been met, the blaming itself is at two degrees of separation from having any foundation. Even so, Assad could get away with not only his refusal, but also the further step of blaming the innocent party. Psychologically speaking, Assad should know that the blaming is illegitimate yet under this scenario he might not realize it.

Stubbornly holding to the lack of realization while imposing it on the other party is a phenomenon in need of an investigation. Specifically, how does it sustain itself and can it be knocked down. Simply insisting on the terms of the agreement typically does not work. Nor, for that matter, does making the invalid status of the additional conditions transparent. I suspect that the mentality, or brain sickness, is not unlike that of an alcoholic in denial.

Reuters, “Cease-Fire in Doubt as Syria Demands New Conditions,” The New York Times, April 9, 2012.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Gandhi as a Model for the Arab Spring

After two weeks in 2011 of mass protests in Egypt for representative democracy and the ouster of President Mubarak, the Egyptian government agreed to concessions including allowing freedom of the press, releasing of political prisoners arrested during the protests, and commencing a committee with the opposition to consider constitutional amendments. According to The New York Times, the "regime also pledged not to harass those participating in the anti-government protests." Gandhi would have been proud, though the protesters left room for improvement on this score. Understanding how they could have done so can be of use to pro-democracy protesters not only in the Middle East, but also around the world.

To be sure, the Egyptian protesters could have done worse. Fortunately, they did not emulate the strategic orientation of the Obama administration. According to the Times, the Obama administration was "struggling to determine if a democratic revolution can succeed while President Hosni Mubarak remains in office." The man whom Obama had sent to persuade Mubarak not to run for re-election eight month later, Frank Wisner, told a group of diplomats and security experts that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Meanwhile the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, "gave a strategy overview that stood at odds with that assessment." Earlier, she had "made the case at a gathering in Munich that the entire process would take time, and must be carefully managed." Revolutions must be managed? This approach can be viewed as an oxymoron.

When Mubarak resigned after eighteen days of protests, the Obama administration tried to catch up from its public position that Mubarak could another seven months until the regularly-scheduled elections would be held. The New York Times observed, "It is hardly the first time the Obama administration has seemed uncertain on its feet during the Egyptian crisis. . . . The mixed messages have been confusing and at times embarrassing — a reflection of a policy that, by necessity, has been made up on the fly. 'This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,' said one American official, who would not speak on the record. 'We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt,' and presumably whatever dominoes follow it, 'moves from stability to turmoil? None.'"  However, it could be that the reason was less being caught by surprise and more being too technocratically- or bureaucratically-minded. "Administration officials insist their responses have been more reaction to fast-moving events than any fundamental change in objective."  In other words, Barak Obama and his advisors might have been too occupied with strategy to act on the basis of principled, big-picture, leadership. Obama, it turned out, was no Gandhi during the Arab Spring.

As an alternative to Obama's timid and incremental approach, Gandhi's approach is a better example for the courageous and non-violent Egyptian protesters in early 2011. Indeed, they were generally in Gandhi’s camp already; they only needed to more completely apply his strategy of active non-cooperation. This occurred to me during the twelfth day of protests, when the film, Gandhi (starring Ben Kingsley) was being fortuitously aired on the Turner Classic Movie channel on television. It occurred to me that rather than having responding in violence to the pro-government violence, the protesters could have taken the higher moral ground by not cooperating. The non-activity and normative message alone could have won the day even over the government’s raw force. This is the incredible thing about moral power--it can affect even governmental power and the related force of the sword, or rock. This is something the protesters in Arab Spring could have taken more to heart.

Gandhi proffered a new way to fight. "We will fight against their anger--not provoke it," Gandhi says in the movie. Non-violent non-cooperation is indeed fighting. As in all fighting, there is pain.  Only rather than inflicting physical pain, Gandhi took others' anger and though his pain the others would feel pain. "Through our pain, they will see their injustice. This will call them pain." It prompts them to as questions about themselves--uncomfortable questions with even more unpleasant answers. This new way of fighting is not in the interest of governments. If their opponents do not turn to violence, governments such as the Egyptian will be inclined to actually tempt the non-violent protesters to violence because it is a government's currency. Ironically, governments are on firmer ground when their opponents turn violent because government is fundamentally a means of legitimately ordering societal violence. In dealing with non-violent civil disobedience, governments are not in control; rather, the protesters are acting at their choosing to provoke a reaction that will make the injustice transparent to all. This locus of control gives the non-violent the upper hand. Rather than joining government on its axis, non-violent civil disobedience fights not to punish for weaknesses that we all possess, but to change minds and hearts. It is thus active rather than passive.

In terms of character, particular traits are necessary for one to remain non-violent even when tempted to strike back. According to Gandhi, turning the other cheek is not just figurative; it requires courage to take the anger of those having the power of government. Relatedly, firmness is also required. It is to defy "not with violence that would provoke anger," but, rather, "with firmness that will open their eyes." In contrast, an eye for an eye "only makes the world blind." Gandhi looked back at history to find that even as tyrants might for a time seem invincible, they have all fallen in the end. He felt that noncooperation with evil is a duty. A sense of this duty is also required.  Strategizers, such as those in the Obama administration, would be like seeds on rock in terms of Gandhi's approach. That is to say, Gandhi preached and engaged in principled leadership rather than in what was most comfortable for him at the moment. His approach also called upon self-respect. One must willingly take others' blows without either hitting back or retreating, and this involves keeping one's head held high with a sense that what one is doing is the alternative worthy of self-respect. Such respect is worth something to the protester, for pain is indeed involved in making injustice visible.

In terms of Egypt, the protesters could have recalled Gandhi's strategy of a general strike throughout British India, with Indians at prayer rather than work such that the entire country just stopped. Gandhi’s strategy is morally superior and more effective than answering government troops with rocks. A people willingly stopped of their own accord cannot be governed because there is no activity to stop. A government cannot cope with such a strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.  Hence it is no coincidence that in Egypt the pro-government forces on the street lured the protesters into engaging in violence. The protesters might have looked to Gandhi rather than take the bait. Even though tyrants might seem invincible for a time, one can have faith that the apparently-mighty in terms of worldly power will eventually face their own downfall. When their injustice has been suffered in a way that exposes it, that downfall can be facilitated. Ironically, returning violence for the violence of the state actually extends the current regime's tenure as providing order in the context of violence is a government's foremost rationale to exist.

Not taking the bait is  precisely where self-discipline and moral courage become so crucial in Gandhi's approach. Resisting "an eye for an eye" was on the mind of Hussein Ramadan, a political activist and organizer who helped lead the protests in Bahrain the week after Mubarak had fallen in Egypt. “The people are angry, but we will control our anger, we will not burn a single tire or throw a single rock. We will not go home until we succeed. They want us to be violent. We will not.” The "they" here refers to the government.

When a people spurs its own government's instigations to be violent, the legitimacy of that government is compromised and the people gain the upper hand, even if this is not apparent at the time.  When soldiers working for the British beat unarmed protesters at the Salt Works in India, any moral right that the British had had to maintain order in India was lost. Of course, changes in government policy can lag, but in the end a government that has lost its moral basis to government must fall.  It is like a romantic relationship that ends. At one point before it actually ends, one of the two people in it has the sense that the relationship will end because of something intrinsic to it. Even so, the other person may be stunned when it does end—not having had the same sense. One could also use the analogy of jets. Once one has run out of fuel, it must inevitably fall back to earth. So too, a government that has lost its moral legitimacy on account of illegitimate violence exacted on its citizens must fall, sooner or later. If such a government takes its time in succumbing to this natural law, citizens can simply sit and do nothing.

In other words, active non-violent non-cooperation can be viewed simply as waiting for nature to do its work on the human organization that still takes itself as immortal. Protesters resisting the temptation to return violence know and have faith in this natural law, so they are not so desperate to hit back. It is the comparative lack of desperation that gives the protesters the upper hand in being able to provoke a government to overstep.  Unlike such protesters, government officials typically attach urgency to protests and thus feel compelled to act under the assumption: "before things get out of hand." Ironically, it is such a mentality that causes things to get out of hand. The lack of order is in the government rather than the protesters who foreswear violence.


David E. Sanger, “As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated,” The New York Times, February 5, 2011.

Michael Slackman, “Bahrain Takes the Stage with a Raucous Protest,” The New York Times, February 15, 2011.

Msnbc.com, “Mubarak Still in Power as Government, Opposition Talk.”