MERIP Blog

Six Questions for Aslı Bâli and Aziz Rana

by Chris Toensing | published April 16, 2012 - 5:55pm

The world is closely -- and, for the most part, skeptically -- watching the progress of a ceasefire brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Syria. More than 9,000 Syrians are dead since the start of the uprising against the regime headed by Bashar al-Asad. Amidst a general sense of despair over this grim situation, there are mounting calls for more robust outside intervention to aid the Syrian opposition in its quest to topple the regime. Such views are hardly a consensus, but neither are they marginal, as they once were. In the April 11 New York Times, law professors Asli Bali and Aziz Rana published a very different prescription for ameliorating the crisis, one based on direct political engagement with the regime. Below are their responses to my questions about their piece.

You argue for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. But both the regime and the rebels have taken hard rhetorical lines against talking with each other. What signs do you see that the stalemate could be broken?

At least as an initial matter (in its first 72 hours), the Annan plan, including the ceasefire, seems to have reduced violence. The six UN observers are reportedly on their way to offer an international perspective on the viability of the ceasefire. The purpose of the cessation of violence -- however long the window remains open -- is to enable meaningful negotiations for transition. The only way for that to happen is to persuade the Asad regime that it will lose Iranian and Russian support unless it pursues a transition (not unlike the one in Yemen) that enables it to have a role in determining what the transitional process looks like, but which ensures the departure of Asad.

Of course, the next logical question is: Why would Russia and Iran place serious pressure on their ally once the ceasefire is in place? The answer is only if others in the international community make concessions on the security concerns and interests of these two countries with respect to Syria. In the case of Russia, this may mean something along the lines of continued guaranteed access to warmwater ports on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In Iran’s case, inducements may take the form of concessions related to sanctions and the current P5+1 talks on the nuclear file. Absent some kind of grand bargain to enable negotiations to move toward political transition, the ceasefire will likely prove tenuous and the window of opportunity for negotiated transition created by the Annan plan will close. There is no reason to expect that the Asad regime’s principal sponsors would participate in an international strategy that results in dispatching their ally unless they are convinced their own interest in a regional sphere of influence will not thereby be harmed (or at any event that the costs to them of the internationally sanctioned plan are no higher than the best alternatives from their perspective).

The other requirement, of course, is that mixed messages from the regional and international supporters of the opposition -- particularly the armed rebels -- also cease. It is not credible to suggest that there is international support for a ceasefire at the same time that major powers are committing to pay salaries and otherwise offer logistical and communications assistance to armed groups seeking to depose the regime by force. Even less credible is commitment to a ceasefire as arms flow to the rebels from such regional players as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If external support for violent strategies within Syria is not suspended on both sides, there is no reason to expect the current stalemate to be broken. Rather, we should expect an incremental escalation in violence and ultimately a full-fledged civil war that may well also prove to be a regional proxy war between major Sunni actors allied with the US, on the one hand, and resistance forces allied with Iran, on the other.

Do not the reports of shelling in Homs during the ceasefire support the views of those who argue that the regime cannot be trusted in negotiations? Won’t it use any such timeout in Security Council deliberations to press its advantage on the battlefield?

For the reasons adduced above, both sides have an incentive to pursue a strengthening and hardening of violent strategies during a ceasefire unless external support for use-of-force strategies is clearly ended. This is an asymmetric conflict; as a result, the regime’s advantage is significant on the battlefield and its ability to use a ceasefire to consolidate its position should be the most important concern. But so long as armed opposition groups can wage a low-grade insurgency with outside support, they can also use a ceasefire as a time to impose significant costs on the regime. Specifically, their best strategy is to erode the confidence of Syrians in the regime’s ability to quell the uprising. As a result, opposition groups also have an incentive to use the ceasefire to regroup and rearm as they attempt to reach a “tipping point” in persuading business communities and minorities to abandon their ambivalence toward armed resistance and to support the opposition.

We appreciate the difficulties of a peaceful resolution. It may well be the case that the various forces on the ground are ultimately unwilling to negotiate a compromise that avoids greater bloodshed. But given the civilian cost to date and the likely consequences of a deepening civil war, we believe that all diplomatic options -- including real engagement with Iran -- should be pursued seriously.

The current US, Turkish and Gulf approach is to lead with confrontational policies that intensify rather than reduce the conflict. Although humanitarian in name, these policies squeeze out diplomatic solutions, give incentives to both sides to harden their stances and, in reality, undermine truly humanitarian ends.

In a sense, there is a tautology at work here. The US is employing strategies that underscore to the Asad regime and its backers that war is the only potentially winning option. And then, precisely because of the effects of these strategies, commentators are saying, “See, diplomatic solutions are impossible because the regime refuses to desist unilaterally.”

On the other side of the ledger, won’t the regime see the Security Council’s action on April 14 -- approving “peacekeeping” monitors when there is no peace to keep -- as a step down the road to more direct military intervention? If so, why would Damascus entertain serious talks?

Peacekeeping need not be intrinsically escalatory. Everything depends on the mandate given to the peacekeeping operation. For instance, peacekeeping is typically consensual, meaning that the terms of the operation will depend on the Asad regime’s willingness to allow the peacekeepers in.

We have, however, witnessed several parties call for measures on “humanitarian grounds” that would lead to escalation -- such as humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones. Should the peacekeeping operation include a mandate to use force under circumstances other than self-defense, then this would clearly have a more interventionist character. And, if such a peacekeeping force were to be deployed without the regime’s consent, then it would likely undermine the possibility of serious talks. At present, the regime has allowed the first six-person team of international observers into the country. The regime’s willingness to cooperate with this element of the Council’s mandate is not a substantial concern as yet. If the subsequent 250-person force also limits its mission to observation of compliance with the ceasefire, then there is little reason to expect escalation from the authorization issued by the Council to date.

All of this being said, the principal reason we have not seen more decisive action out of the Security Council is not Russian and Chinese opposition. In fact, none of the proposals that have been debated by the Council (as opposed to Beltway analysts) involved more direct actions. This is because none of the Western players on the Council have the appetite to mobilize their own resources in an intervention that may destabilize their geostrategic interests (in Israel, for instance) and that might ultimately result in a Muslim Brother-dominated government in Damascus. As a result, the likeliest scenario remains one of a proxy war rather than military intervention.

One should note that such an emerging posture among Western powers and their regional allies may prove just as destructive as more direct military intervention. It means the growing possibility of a long and drawn-out civil war. This is because even with additional arms, opposition groups resisting the repressiveness of the Asad regime may remain outmanned by their state adversary. Moreover, since much of the opposition is based in cities, there is a high likelihood that more arms will ratchet up the level of violence in densely populated urban areas. In other words, additional arms, given the countervailing military power of the Syrian government, may accelerate threats to civilians (such as by intensifying the regime’s already harsh response), while prolonging and heightening the conflict. One way that this heightening would occur is by accentuating the sectarian character of internal violence, since the opposition will be armed by regional Sunni actors including those operating in Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. Given these factors, we strongly believe the best strategy for transition and minimizing harm to Syrian civilians is to put pressure on all sides to come to the table rather than continue fighting.

Could one say that the Syrian regime is in a corner similar to Qaddafi’s in, say, early March 2011? The West is talking of bringing an ICC indictment; foreign boots may soon be on the ground; the opposition has the clear sympathy of both chanceries and peoples across the world.

The Asad regime is no doubt cornered, but there are key differences with Qaddafi’s situation a year ago. First, unlike Qaddafi, the regime in Syria provides significant geostrategic value to Iran, a central regional player, and to a lesser extent to Russia as well. In a sense, Qaddafi was less moored to the region’s balance of power and so had limited external assistance to draw upon when faced with internal resistance and external intervention.

Second, given that the preferred Western scenario appears to be proxy war, it is very possible that the state’s countervailing military power may be able to push back armed opponents (or at least prolong a bloody conflict). What this means is that the regime may well rationally conclude that despite its growing isolation, not only does it have no choice other than violence, but that violence may be a successful strategy. Under these circumstances, we believe that an ICC referral would be deeply counterproductive, further reinforcing the sense within the government and its social constituencies that the relevant choices are war or annihilation.

By the way, none of this should be read as implying that direct military intervention is preferable. If there were to be foreign boots on the ground, the only foreign boots likely to arrive on Syrian soil are either Turkish or Qatari, both of which would have extremely destabilizing implications for Syria and the region as a whole. Again, a significant worry in the Syrian context is the possibility of sectarian violence, given the ‘Alawi identity of the Asad regime. Having foreign soldiers perceived as supporting Sunni interests in Syria could simply deepen sectarian animosities not to mention heighten tensions regionally with Iran.

The Asad-must-go line that has been embraced in Washington and is repeatedly reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is already a very bad sign that the US has little interest in investing in a negotiated transition. This is because any such negotiation would have to include both sides to the conflict (as well as all the key regional forces) and cannot impose as a precondition the removal of one party from the process.

What about the Syrian opposition? Why would they participate in meaningful talks when, arguably, time is on their side in terms of bringing a more direct outside intervention in their favor?

The only reason the Syrian opposition would take part is if they were persuaded that real pressure was being brought to bear on the regime to negotiate an exit and that no clear armed alternative was available. This will only happen if any prospective pledges of assistance by outside powers to the opposition are made contingent on meaningful participation in the Annan plan and a negotiated transition.

What the question highlights is the profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing approach. The reality is that the Syrian resistance remains outmanned and the real possibility exists of bloody urban combat that leaves the regime in control. But despite the internal asymmetries in the conflict (between the Syrian state and its opponents), external actors are promoting incentives in which even outmanned rebels see an interest in refusing to negotiate. This is because pledges of armed support and “non-lethal aid” reinforce the sense that complete victory -- by reaching an internal “tipping point” of popular opposition -- might be possible without any compromises or accommodations. It is therefore essential that the US and its allies address these incentives and put pressure on rebel forces to participate seriously in talks.

I take your views on Syria to be derived from the same principles as your published views on the Libya intervention before it occurred. Wasn’t the Libya intervention a success?

The central justifications for the Libyan intervention were humanitarian: protecting civilians from mass atrocity. On these humanitarian grounds, our view is that the intervention has been a tragic failure.

There is no doubt that Qaddafi was a brutal dictator who responded to protests in Libya with violent repression. But once the NATO intervention began, the toll on the civilian population actually escalated -- and dramatically so. Since aerial bombardment failed initially to topple the regime, NATO’s definition of its mission expanded, exceeding anything authorized by the UN Security Council. First, NATO began attacking not only regime forces threatening civilian populations, but also Libyan troops in retreat. Next, they targeted Libyan forces wherever they might be, even when not involved in any threat to civilians, but stationed far from conflict in the western provinces. As even these tactics failed, NATO resorted to increased airstrikes in Tripoli. At the close of the six-month NATO intervention, the civilian death toll in Libya (according to conservative estimates from the National Transitional Council’s own health minister) was perhaps 30,000, some twenty times greater than the death toll in the first month of the uprising, prior to the intervention. In a deep sense, rather than offering the civilian population protection -- as the international community promised -- the intervention profoundly intensified the violence. Indeed, none of the measures taken by NATO actually directly safeguarded civilians caught in the crossfire. Even more tellingly, after the regime fell (in brutal fighting in Tripoli and elsewhere) NATO did nothing to prevent reprisals from killing thousands more civilians in villages and towns deemed overly loyal to regime forces. This was even though the threat from Qaddafi has been removed.

Just as tragically, the international intervention has been marked by the wide-scale destruction of Libyan infrastructure, the absence of a viable transitional governance arrangement, ongoing internal strife between tribes and the utter failure to commit international resources to rebuilding Libya. Indeed, even where Libyan funds (as opposed to international assistance not derived from Libya’s own assets) have been unfrozen, it has been a slow and incremental process with onerous conditions attached. The fact that much of the Libyan sovereign wealth that was frozen -- allegedly in the interest of the Libyan people -- remains unavailable to them over six months after the fall of Tripoli is eloquent testimony to how in the name of humanitarian protection the actual welfare of ordinary Libyans has been compromised.

Lamped USA

by David McMurray | published April 11, 2012 - 8:03pm

Amanda Ufheil-Somers has ably described how refugee flows from the uprisings in North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa have pushed the strained infrastructure and the residents’ hospitality to the breaking point. The islanders aren’t the only ones at wit’s end: In protest, refugees burned the holding facilities in September 2011 and again just the other day.

An illustrative but under-publicized case dates back to 2007, when several Tunisian fishermen were arrested as they landed in Lampedusa. Their two boats had picked up a foundering raft in stormy seas around the island and proceeded to the port to unload their rescued human cargo of 44, one seriously ill. Instead of being praised for preventing loss of life, the captains and their crews were charged with immigrant trafficking. They were held in prison for almost a year and their boats were stripped of recyclable materials and then dumped in the island’s ship graveyard. They could have been sentenced to 14 years for their humanitarian efforts.

Possibly several thousand people have been lost at sea trying to make it to Lampedusa, which they understand, not without some justification, to be a gateway into Europe. There is an interesting blog called Fortress Europe that seeks to keep alive the memory of those lost at sea. The sons of Tunisian mothers, boys who set out from Sfax never to be heard from again, are, the posters argue, our sons as well. They are the victims of state attempts to block the free flow of people around the globe. The blog keeps track of all of those who died moving clandestinely in the Mediterranean region. The death count since 1988 stands at over 18,000, according to the journalist and Fortress Europe blogger, Gabriele Del Grande.

That’s one image of Lampedusa.

Another related way of imagining Lampedusa is as a performance space in the media circus of the global North. Claudia Gazzini put it well in 2009 when she wrote, “Images of African corpses floating off the Italian coasts, footage of pregnant woman crammed into wooden vessels and news of uprisings at the ‘reception centers’…attract overwhelming media attention and thus influence public perceptions.” All manner of media performers have crowded onto this Lampedusan stage. A couple of years ago the Pope grabbed headlines by preaching for tolerance toward refugees. He was understood by most to be referring to the growing intolerance of Lampedusans. Ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held a press conference to announce that he had bought a house on the island at the height of the refugee crisis in March 2011. He meant his real estate purchase to be a sign of his intent to “clean up” the island. Angelina Jolie, on the one hand, and Marine Le Pen, on the other, have both visited Lampedusa during the last year to represent, before the mikes and under the floodlights, their respective takes on the tolerance issue.

That’s another image of Lampedusa.

But perhaps the original image of the island in the minds of middle-class Italians is as a paradise of sun and fun, a quaint fishing outpost where the slow-moving locals speak with a thick accent while they repair their nets and drink sweet wine. It’s the kind of place where celebrities host lavish parties in their getaway villas. The Italian movie Respiro (2002) captures this view of the island. The plot involves a beautiful but mad fisherman’s wife who challenges the provincial moral codes of this dreamy refuge. Whether cinematically or “touristically,” the place operates as an August retreat from the hustle and bustle of post-industrial life as lived in Milan or Turin. Dozens of flights connect the cities of the mainland with the postage stamp-sized island of 70-plus hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs scattered about the cliffs and harbors. During the late summer high season the passengers arrive by the jetload. At least that was the way it worked until the publicity around the influx of refugees caused the majority of tourists to cancel their reservations. There was no high season on the island in 2011.

These three facets of Lampedusa have been combined and satirized by one of the quirkiest and most talented music groups in Italy. The Milanese band Elio e le Storie Tese are self-avowed acolytes of Frank Zappa, plunging into various pop music genres to mine (and mime) them mercilessly but affectionately. They spend much of their energy recapturing the self-indulgence of adolescence, as in this song where they perform a pitch-perfect rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” only with replacement lyrics about Lampedusa’s refugees. (Since Brian Wilson stole the melody from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Sixteen,” it seems only fitting that Elio e le Storie Tese would again appropriate the melody for their own purposes.)

The mindless hedonism evoked by American surf music is satirically undercut by references to the choked waters and hunger of the refugees. “Force 6” is on a 1-10 scale of stormy seas and thus refers to the dangers faced by refugees on the open water. “Baglioni’s pad” is a reference to a big villa on the island owned by a famous Italian singer who presumably fled the island as the number of refugees mounted. The “Passerotto non andare via” sample inserted in the song is actually a song (and the voice) of Baglioni’s. The reference to figa in polite society means “pretty girl,” but is most commonly translated as “pussy.” I leave the word as “pretty girl” because I think that more closely captures the idiom the Beach Boys would have used. And of course Berlusconi is included as not only the major clown in the center ring, but the owner of the whole circus. (Lyrics below. Thanks to Chris Leoni for the rhyming translation and Matt Opas for definitional clarifications.)

Veniamo dalla Somalia
E dalla Tunisia
Alcuni anche dalla Libia Che poi è la Jamahiriya

We come from Somalia
And from Tunisia
Some even from Libya, which really is the Jamahiriyya

Abbiamo preso i natanti
Con mare forza 6
Siamo venuti qui in tanti a Lamped USA

We took the watercrafts
In Force 6 seas
We came all along to Lamped USA

I bagni sono intasati
E non si mangia mai
Ma siamo tutti gasati
Di stare qui con voi

The waters are all choked
And we never eat, either
But we're all stoked to be here with you

Se non c’è posto per tutti
E che problema c’è
Si va a casa di Baglioni
A Lamped USA.

If there’s no room, too bad
What’s the problem
We go to Baglioni’s pad
In Lamped USA

Passerotto non andare via

Passerotto, don’t go away!

Ostacolare il turismo
Non era il nostro intento
Ma il lampedusano medio
Non è molto contento

Stopping the tourism’s edge
Was not our intent
But the native Lampedusan on average
Isn’t very content

Adesso arrivano le navi
Forse anche gli aerèi
Dopo arriva Berlusconi
E tutto torna Okèy

Now the boats are on the sea
Maybe planes as well
Next will come Berlusconi
And all again will be swell

Farà tornare il turismo
Le tartarughe e i fior
Ritornerà l’ottimismo
Che porta il buonumor

He’ll make tourism return
Sea turtles and flowers, too
Optimism will come back
Bringing good cheer for me and you

Porterà anche un po’ di figa
Che va sempre bene
E tornerà pure Baglioni
A Lamped USA

He’ll bring some pretty girls
Which is always cool
And even Baglioni will come back
To Lamped USA

Ritornerà pure Baglioni
A Lamped USA
Ritorneran le tartarughe
A Lamped USA
Ritornerà pure la figa

A Lamped USA

Baglioni will come back
The sea turtles’ll come back
All the ladies’ll come back
To Lamped USA

Passerotto non andare via

Passerotto, don’t go away!

No Clean Break

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers | published April 6, 2012 - 5:20pm

Renewed conflict along the border between Sudan and South Sudan follows a predictable pattern, says MERIP editorial committee member Khalid Medani in an interview with KPFA radio.

That violent clashes have erupted so soon after the secession is evidence of the failure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to address the root issues of the civil war, namely, political and economic marginalization. As the two sides have reached a political stalemate over the terms of oil revenue sharing, they have turned to military force to try to gain leverage before the resumption of talks -- all but inevitable given the foundering economies of both states.

At the same time, both governments face mounting internal opposition to authoritarian rule. Rebellions in the west, east and south of Sudan present serious challenges to the central government’s authority in those regions, and opposition parties and youth activists have put pressure on the ruling National Congress Party for its economic policies and repression of political freedoms. One of the last routes available to a regime looking for popular legitimacy has been to refresh the Islamist credentials of the government through a January 2012 cabinet reshuffle. In South Sudan, regional and ethnic militias have resisted the near-total consolidation of political power by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a party dominated by Dinka elites. As Medani argues, these pressures threaten to increase the fragmentation and regionalism of politics on both sides of the border.

Click here to listen to Medani’s segment on KPFA.

Despair and Continuity

by Joshua Stacher | published March 23, 2012 - 10:09am

Actions always speak louder than words, even if words also act.

Take US policy toward Egypt since January 28, 2011, the day that protesters overran Mubarak’s coercive apparatus and effectively forced the political elite into a series of belated concessions that culminated in Mubarak’s resignation. At the time, though there were competing camps, the Obama administration settled on a policy of calling for a meaningful transition and criticizing violence against protesters. Obama went to great pains to assure all concerned that the US had nothing and wanted nothing to do with the political outcome in Egypt. “The future of Egypt will be determined by its people,” he said, continuing that “attacks on reporters are unacceptable, attacks on human rights activists are unacceptable, attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable.”

Fast-forward 13 months: Soldiers and state-funded thugs regularly beat protesters as the elite in Egypt constructs a new political arena through parliamentary elections and other means. Meanwhile, ships disgorge innumerable American-made tear gas canisters on Egyptian docks, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta goes bowling with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Given all these developments, it should be no surprise that the US has now decided to continue its aid payments to Egypt. But it is important to unpack exactly what happened. Congress, with its dismal approval ratings, did not approve the measure. The Obama administration, through the agency of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, used a national security waiver, overriding Congressional dissent so that the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt’s generals could flow unimpeded. One State Department apparatchik justified the move by saying that “on the democracy side, Egypt has made more progress in 16 months than in the last 60 years.” In other interviews, State’s emphasis was on the “strategic partnership” between the US and Egypt.

The December-to-February media spectacle of the NGO fiasco, the mounting persecution that Egyptian activists confront, the general lack of progress toward democracy -- none of that got in the way of business as usual. Many had already made the argument for why, in the end, aid would not be cut.

We are left with continuity rather than change. Despite the historic demands in the region for change, the Obama administration -- much like its predecessors -- refuses to heed the call. It is a dynamic high on theater but low on behavior modification, hypocrisy in its purest form. But is it enough to point out the hypocrisy?

I would argue no. The US action to reinstate the aid flows reveals the transnational participation in Egypt’s transition. The media and academic construction has always been an “Egyptian” revolution, one of several “Arab” uprisings. If only Arabs and Egyptians had so much say in their own destiny. Transnational counter-revolutionary forces troll the region and are supporting the local political elites as they adapt to new conditions and attempt to reestablish lines of control over the population. What emerges in Egypt is unlikely to resemble Mubarak’s Egypt. But it remains to be seen whether the new Egypt will be less autocratic. And the Obama administration has not been neutral in the process. They continue to be enablers of autocracy.

During the original 18-day uprising in 2011, as Mubarak promised reforms, Obama lectured the Egyptian ex-president on his “responsibility to give meaning to those words.” Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, the American president’s actions have not matched his words, either. Hope and change -- don’t we wish.

The Problem of Privilege

by Shira Robinson | published March 22, 2012 - 11:41am

“To believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer,” writes Peter Beinart in his widely circulated and hotly debated op-ed. Indeed -- but it was ever thus.

Today the pincer is not, as Beinart would have it, the incongruity of the “democratic Israel” inside the Green Line and the “undemocratic Israel” outside it. It is the discrepancy between the notions that Israel -- whether a Greater Israel encompassing West Bank settlements or the pre-1967 Israel for which Beinart pines -- is both “democratic” and a “Jewish state.”

This discrepancy is nearly as old as the Palestine conflict itself. In the aftermath of World War I, the patent contradiction between Jewish colonization and the Wilsonian principle of democratic self-rule loomed large in the minds of Zionist luminaries. Quite simply, they understood that there was no way to reconcile the two. As David Ben Gurion told his colleagues in 1918, “There is no solution…. There’s a national question here. We want the country to be ours. Arabs want the country to be theirs.” He and his colleagues thus set out to convince the great powers that Palestine should not be democratic until it was considerably more Jewish.

Zionist leaders had good reason to believe their efforts would pay off. Less than one year earlier, the Balfour Declaration had promised British backing for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” while undertaking not to “prejudice the civil and religious rights” of the country’s “non-Jewish communities.” The Arabs of Palestine, who at the time comprised some 95 percent of the indigenous population, understood correctly that the text’s express delineation between Jewish “national” rights and Arab “civil and religious” rights was incompatible with the principle of national self-determination. In July 1919, the American King-Crane Commission traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean to survey the political wishes of its inhabitants. Apart from the Zionists themselves, an overwhelming majority reiterated the demand for unified independence under democratic rule and an end to Jewish settlement. If immediate sovereignty was off the table, the only mandatory power they would accept was the United States, which (at the time) lacked the stain of imperial interference in the region.

The prospect of US rule was terrifying to Zionist boosters, who lobbied aggressively at the Allied peace talks in Paris to block it. Their fear derived from a simple numerical formula. Despite the near doubling of their demographic ratio since the 1880s, Jews still comprised less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population. As the Zionist Organization in London explained at the time, the possibility that the Americans might help to create a local democratic republic any time soon would make “the task of…developing a great Jewish Palestine…infinitely more difficult.”

Over the next three decades the conflict between democratic principles and demographic realities would dog Zionist leaders, Arab nationalists and the British government, which in 1922 received the League of Nations’ “Mandate” to shepherd the Palestinian people to self-rule. From the outset, the thorniest question for imperial officials was how they would balance their obligation to implement that task against their simultaneous duty to fulfill the terms of the Balfour Declaration, whose text formed Article 2 of the Mandate.

Britain’s dual imperative gave birth to a host of subtle yet fatal shifts in the way that the government identified and classified the Jewish settler community, or Yishuv. This process began with the text of the Mandate itself, the only one to include a specific nationality clause. Three years later Palestinians earned another distinction when theirs became the only post-Ottoman Mandate whose nationality law -- a term used interchangeably with citizenship -- was enacted in the metropole. That statute also made Palestine one of only two Arab successor states where native-born residents living abroad could gain automatic citizenship even if they “differ[ed] in race from the majority of the population.” (The other was Iraq.)

In international law at the time, the terms “race” and “culture” often appeared interchangeably with “nation.” It soon became important for Zionist leaders and their British backers, like the ardent Jewish nationalist Norman Bentwich, who was Mandate Palestine’s first attorney general, to promote a conception of the Yishuv as a racial group.

Here, again, the rub was the conflict between democracy and demography. For the same reason that they opposed an American Mandate, Jewish nationalists in Palestine were reluctant to join the legislative council the British had proposed. Whether the franchise would be territorial (one person, one vote) or communal (allotting an equal -- much less proportional -- number of seats to Jews, Christians and Muslims), the Yishuv would be outnumbered and thus politically stymied. For this reason movement leaders made clear that their participation on the council would be contingent upon the establishment of “racial parity,” or the allotment of an equal number of seats to Jews and Arabs.

The talks to establish the council collapsed permanently in 1936, but the racialization of Palestine’s inhabitants became a creeping reality, and not only in government statistics. In 1947, their bureaucratic classification as members of two distinct races, or nations, played a pivotal role in the UN recommendation to partition Palestine into two states despite the fact that the “Jewish” one was forecasted to have a 49 percent Arab “minority.”

When the Zionist movement became the government of Israel, it emplaced a raft of laws and regulations upholding the Mandate-era principle that the “nation” within its armistice lines was Jewish. Among them was its decision to prevent the return of the some 750,000 Palestinians who it had directly or indirectly driven into exile. The remnants of the “non-Jewish communities” who managed to remain -- known today as the Palestinian citizens of Israel -- are in many ways still treated as “civil and religious” minorities whose rights the state is not supposed to prejudice. They may have rights in the state, as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Knesset in 2004, but not to it. For the past 64 years Israel has managed to weather Palestinian challenges to this distinction, but a series of recent statutory assaults on the rights of these citizens suggests that the liberal fantasy of a Jewish democracy may finally be starting to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

To recall this history is inevitably to unveil the fact that the system in both of Beinart’s “two Israels” has always been predicated on Jewish racial privilege. It may also explain why Western intellectuals sympathetic to Israel have been warning about the “crisis of Zionism” for almost as long as the Zionist idea itself has been around.

Clooney's Arrest Dwarfs Sudan Agreement

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers | published March 21, 2012 - 3:49pm

The casual Sudan observer might conclude from recent news stories that George Clooney's arrest at the Sudanese embassy in Washington on March 16 has been the most significant event of the past week. It takes some digging to find any coverage of the preliminary agreement signed by representatives of Sudan and South Sudan in Addis Ababa on March 13, which is at least a step toward the settlement of disputes over borders, citizenship and oil revenues that have sustained diplomatic tensions and cross-border violence between the two states since the South's secession in July 2011.

Recent activism--celebrity and otherwise--has focused on the increasingly dire situation in South Kordofan, where residents of the Nuba Mountain region have suffered a ten-month bombing campaign by the Sudanese Armed Forces that has leveled villages, ruined crop fields and killed several hundred. Approaching rains and the lack of stable food supplies make the arrival of food and medical aid crucial to the survival of hundreds of thousands.

But the problems in South Kordofan are neither unique nor uniquely humanitarian. Indeed, the oft-repeated refrain "another Darfur" has an ironic edge. The reluctance of the news media—and too many activists—to see violence in Sudan as fundamentally political has distorted US policy for decades, in ways that have impeded the development of lasting solutions to Sudan's many conflicts (see Mimi Kirk in the current issue).

While aid to South Kordofan will alleviate immediate needs, the underlying conflicts over regional autonomy and democratic reform in Khartoum will remain. And despite the bad publicity, focusing the bulk of international attention on questions of humanitarian access rather than political transformation suits Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party just fine.

Patti Smith Remembers Operation Iraqi Freedom

by Ted Swedenburg | published March 20, 2012 - 11:45am

On September 8, 2011, just a few days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the intrepid rocker Patti Smith performed at Webster Hall in New York City.

She opened the song “My Blakean Years” (you can watch it here) by singing these lines, which were apparently composed for the occasion:

It was the first day of spring
March 21
I remember it well
An afternoon of hell
I had a migraine
My mother was dead
I lay in my bed
And the TV was on
And we were advancing
With shock and awe
And the mothers held their children close
In Baghdad
It was the first day of spring
That’s what I’m remembering
This week

And then she went into the lyrics of the song as it is conventionally known, as recorded on her 2004 album Trampin’.

How audacious for a rock star who is so closely identified with New York, to state, in performance in the city, that what she remembers on the anniversary of 9/11 is the US invasion of Baghdad, and the Iraqi mothers and children.

Patti usually introduces this number by saying something like, “This is a song that I wrote when I was feeling really bad, and then I remembered William Blake, who kept struggling and writing and maintaining an optimistic spirit, in the face of great difficulty and frequent ridicule, and despite the fact that he enjoyed no success or recognition as an artist during his lifetime.” The lesson, says Patti, is that whenever we are facing a rough patch, we should remember that there are others who have it worse.

On the occasion of the ninth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom (launched at 5:34 am Baghdad time on March 20, 2003, or 9:34 pm on March 19 EST), on the eve of the first day of spring, let’s remember Baghdad and its civilians.

Beinart's Boycott

by Joel Beinin | published March 19, 2012 - 7:07pm

The New York Times has done it again. For the second time in a month its op-ed page features an article calling for a (qualified) boycott of Israeli products. The latest installment, “To Stop Israel, Boycott the Settlements,” is from Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and now senior political writer at the Daily Beast. In addition to Beinart’s impressive credentials as a left-of-center Establishment thinker, he is also a practicing Orthodox Jew and sends his children to Jewish school, as his article informs us.

Beinart’s position will certainly not satisfy proponents of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he opposes. He calls only for a boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Tireless Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery has advocated virtually the same position for over a decade. But Avnery doesn’t belong to an Orthodox synagogue and, most importantly, he isn’t an American Jew and doesn’t belong to a community whose moneybags over-generously fund the American political system, as Sheldon Adelson’s antics so indecorously remind us.

Beinart believes that it is possible to isolate the West Bank settlements from a relatively democratic Israel, expanded to include all or much of East Jerusalem. As the Who Profits? website and others have argued, this is a chimera. The settlements are, and have always been, a project of the Israeli state. The differences among governments led by Labor, Kadima or the Likud are matters of style and degree. All believe equally that only Jews are the rightful owners of “the land of Israel.” This is the fundamental source of the inability to compromise on any basis that acknowledges equal Palestinian rights. The settlements are inseparably connected to a support infrastructure, from Israeli universities and their “security studies” programs to the Israel Defense Forces, which is rooted in pre-1967 Israel. The “settler lobby” in the Israeli Knesset numbers over 40 MPs, more than one third of the total membership.

Beinart tells us that 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem. True enough. But over 200,000 live in East Jerusalem, and their number has been growing on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s watch. Their violence against their Palestinian neighbors in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and elsewhere makes headlines almost every week and has never been effectively restrained by any Israeli government.

Beinart altogether ignores the second of the BDS movement’s demands -- for full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. For someone who believes that Israeli democracy is salvageable, this is a critical omission. The civil rights of Palestinian-Israelis have been severely eroded by the Netanyahu government. This is, to be sure, a different issue than the fate of the Palestinians of the West Bank, who have virtually no rights at all. But neither is it wholly disconnected. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian minority before 1967 (there was a military government from 1949 to 1966) was a dress rehearsal for the post-1967 occupation.

One could go on at much greater length, and I suspect that Palestinian colleagues will, because the single most egregious problem with Beinart’s article is that it barely mentions Palestinians (the main reference is to reject BDS) and “Palestinian rights” are absent altogether.

Despite all these weaknesses Beinart’s article is a historic marker in the trajectory distancing American Jews from the Israel of Bibi Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, Avigdor Lieberman, Irving Moskowitz and the messianic nationalist settler right. What he proposes is likely too little, too late for Israel-Palestine. But perhaps not if his main concern is American Jews and the future of diaspora Jewish culture.

Threat Inflation via Memory Lane

by Chris Toensing | published March 11, 2012 - 3:30pm

In 2005, Yale professor Philip Smith published a fascinating book Why War? to examine the “cultural logic” underpinning three major Middle East conflicts involving Western democracies -- the 1956 tripartite aggression in Suez, the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 Iraq war. Smith’s thesis is that, while “hard” geopolitical factors may explain why democratic states want to go to war, they need “cultural mandates” from the citizenry in order to do so. These “mandates” emerge from public discourse, primarily but not exclusively in the press. In Smith’s three cases, the press in the soon-to-be belligerent Western country reliably employed an “apocalyptic” narrative genre to talk about the enemy-to-be. In 1956, the British and French press cast Nasser as an “icy fanatic” whose ambitions had to be stopped for the sake of world peace. In the leadup to Desert Storm, Time magazine similarly wrote that Saddam Hussein “made the entire world quake, weak-kneed, at his power.” And in 2003, of course, Americans were scared into backing invasion of Iraq by that non-stop tape loop of alleged al-Qaeda fighters “training” on a jungle gym in Salman Pak and all the rest.

Smith continues that participants in debates about international crises make “genre guesses” as to which narrative genre will capture the public mood. Hawks try to “inflate” the prevailing narrative into full-blown apocalyptic mode, which mobilizes fear and deeply painful memories, while more professorial sorts try to “deflate” the genre with appeals to reason.

Peter Hart at FAIR, Glenn Greenwald and others have been tracking how the American media is dipping into the apocalyptic genre to tell the story of the US-Israeli confrontation with Iran over the Iranian nuclear research program. As Hart has shown, ABC News has seemed particularly welcoming of the four horsemen.

A great deal of the media threat inflation has revolved around the supposed peril to Israel posed by Iran’s enrichment of uranium. And this theme resonates with many Americans. But the real helium for the genre balloon might be the 1979-1980 hostage crisis, a trauma shared by all Americans in their early forties or older. The 444-day captivity of US Embassy personnel in Tehran is a formative political memory for many, many people -- and decidedly not a warm and fuzzy one. Coming amid “stagflation” and steadily falling real wages, the hostage crisis seemed to crystallize the ambient dread of the historical moment, confirming the end of US national greatness presaged by Vietnam and Watergate. It is, in short, an emotional steel girder holding up what Trita Parsi calls the “institutionalized enmity” between the US and Iran.

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by former hostage and retired State Department official Don Cooke, who recapitulates his personal ordeal to argue (a bit obliquely) that only pressure backed by the threat of force will bring Iran’s nuclear ambitions to heel. The Post chose an ominous-sounding headline: “Iran Held Me Hostage Three Decades Ago. It Shouldn’t Hold America Hostage Today.”

Cooke paints the Iranian students who took over the US Embassy as part of a “peacock show” begun by Iran’s revolutionary regime. “Two antagonists enter the field, dance and wave their feathers at each other. It becomes clear who has the more impressive feathers; the weaker one resigns the field without a fight.” The Carter administration, apparently, was not a very convincing peacock, and it is not clear if Cooke thinks the Reagan administration was any better. “The standoff between the United States and Iran that those demonstrators launched was destined to be a long one because of the interplay of two inconsistent philosophies. The Iranians were in the arena flashing their feathers, making a determined, ostentatious show of strength. The Americans were looking for a face-saving compromise but didn’t want to appear to give in.” (These two philosophies do not seem all that inconsistent, but leave that aside for a moment.)

Since the US is dealing with a peacock, Cooke continues, it has no option but to strut around and flash its feathers, too. “Iran is coming back to the negotiating table -- but not because it has suddenly decided to live up to its international obligations. These talks may provide a face-saving way to halt its nuclear program. The key to the Iranians accepting such a solution is to convince them that we have the capability and the will to end their program ourselves. The irony is that the more clearly we demonstrate that capability and will, the less likely we will need to use them.”

In substantive terms, this argument is pretty much what the Obama administration is doing, so it should not necessarily be read as an endorsement of more aggressive tactics, the Post’s headline notwithstanding. But the evocation of the hostage crisis to understand the nuclear confrontation of today could help to blow up the putative threat.

For the Iran hawks of today, the narrative elements of the hostage crisis are almost too good to be true: wild-eyed captors fresh from chanting “death to America,” radical political Islam, Americans held captive and terrorized just for doing their jobs, a hapless attempt at rescue that dramatized US weakness and put it on global display, a cerebral Democratic president under relentless GOP attack for lacking maschismo...the list goes on. These elements all figure in Cooke’s piece, and many would seem ripe for exploitation amid the twenty-first-century version of “malaise,” when the US unemployment rate is artifically lowered because so many workers (2.6 million in February) have given up looking for jobs and Foreign Policy nervously checks a “decline-o-meter.”

Reason obviously lost to fear and trauma in the three cases adduced by Smith. Which “genre guess” will prove correct in the case of Iran? In the wake of the AIPAC conference, most observers believe that Barack Obama has coolly deflated the war talk. Robert Dreyfuss and Robert Malley, among others, have written the counterpoint. In any event, the Cooke piece is a reminder that the “cultural logic” of a war with Iran is half-asleep in the American psyche and with some effort could be jolted awake. So it is encouraging that there are other former hostages with subsequent diplomatic experience (including with Iran), like John Limbert and Bruce Laingen, who are vocal opponents of escalation.

Meanwhile, in Yemen...

by Sheila Carapico | published March 6, 2012 - 2:13pm

War is breaking out between the Yemeni military and a group called “Ansar al-Shari‘a” in the southern province of Abyan -- and it is in danger of spreading. Somewhere between 100 and 200 soldiers are being buried after battles March 5 in the provincial capital of Zinjibar, and other soldiers captured are being paraded through the streets of the forlorn neighboring town of Jaar.

Both cities fell to militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in April 2011 when President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih withdrew forces from Abyan to protect his regime against mass demonstrations elsewhere in the country. Now that Salih has transferred power to his handpicked vice president, the new administration of Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi has launched a new offensive against the militants. American-trained and -armed government forces just lost the first battle.

Viewing Yemen not as a place full of popular aspirations for social justice and decent governance but only as a theater of counter-terrorism operations situated in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, the US has helped to ignite this dangerous engagement and is deeply implicated. Amidst many badly informed postures toward Yemen that failed to take Yemen into account, two from the past year stand out.

Over the course of 2011, as peaceful demonstrations against the Salih kleptocracy gained momentum only to be met with brute force, a string of American political actors declared that the Yemen-based “AQAP” poses a grave peril, including to the American homeland. New CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus dubbed it “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad” in testimony before Congress in September. AQAP was the strange acronym given to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was actually less a unified command than a motley handful of preachers, militants and misfits including the Ansar al-Shari‘a. It is difficult to imagine a more effective recruitment tool for al-Qaeda wannabes worldwide than this mantra and, sure enough, scores of jihadis and frustrated youth from Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere sneaked into Abyan to fight the good fight against the imperial infidels and their Saudi-sponsored lackeys.

Adding flame to a tinderbox of fuel, the Obama administration ordered targeted remote-control drone assassinations of individual suspects including, most famously, the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, and some weeks later, by way of collateral damage, his teenage son. The lesson to Yemeni officers and infantry acting in close coordination with the US military is clear: Shoot first, ask questions later.

Now, the US ambassador in Sanaa and other officials are complaining loudly about (still unsubstantiated but increasingly likely) Iranian support for the al-Houthi rebels up near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. So the new Yemeni president’s counter-terrorism advisers are sending the message that brute force is warranted in the north as well.

Americans don’t hear much about Yemeni politics unless it affects Americans. We should get used to hearing more bad news.