Spring in the Arabian Desert

Since the outbreak of peaceful protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in December last year, popular rebellions against authoritarian rule have swept the Arab world. Extraordinary acts of courage and non-violent defiance in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere have been witnessed. Citizens have taken great risks, made sacrifices, set shining examples of character and selflessness.

This sudden and refreshing turn of events raised hopes of an end to a long, dark winter. It seemed that autocratic rulers no longer would be able to suppress life, which burst out with vigor like young plants do as winter weakens. A fledgling Arab Spring was born.

With the recent elections for a 217-member Constituent Assembly, the spring has taken another step toward blossoming in the Tunisian desert. For the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisia has had free elections. The country has led the way for the rest of the Arab world just as it did with the arrival of spring ten months ago. The campaign was generally peaceful. It was vibrant, with more than 90 political parties and independent groups taking part. Now the job of forming a transitional government and drawing up a new constitution lies ahead.

So Tunisia has taken a hesitant step toward building a society for common good. Aristotle called it the spring of all human actions in his classic, A Treatise on Government. Tunisians have recognized that they must rise up and turn the country into a community of wellbeing. And they have done something about. For the chances of achieving common wellbeing become more and more remote as the number of individuals holding power in a country diminishes. In this respect, there is little difference between the recent past and the old pages of history.

Through elections, Tunisians have articulated a desire to see their nation as one where a citizen, once a rebel, can become a legislator and one day can return to being a magistrate, a teacher, a priest, a farmer, or a trader, and continue to play a useful role in society.

Given the freedom to express their preference, a people’s choice reflects their history, their cultural heritage, experience and lessons learned. The moderate Islamist Renaissance (Innahda) party––once outlawed under Ben Ali’s dictatorship and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi living in exile in Britain––has won 90 seats in the Constituent Assembly, by far the largest, but not enough for an outright majority. Congress for the Republic, a secular party, came a distant second with 30 seats.

Ghannouchi looks determined to govern with secular forces while a new constitution is drawn up and elections held in a year. He began negotiations with other parties as results came out. His Renaissance party said it would not impose Islamic banking laws; would not prevent tourists wearing bikinis on the beaches; and preserve the social gains made by women. His message to Tunisians: “Tunisia is for everybody.”

These are hopeful signs in a state that has seen years of dictatorship and repression. How the emerging political order conducts itself will affect Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world to follow Tunisia with its own democratic awakening. Since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, however, things have not gone well in Egypt. The military old guard is still firmly in control. Frustrations are rising. The officer class seems reluctant to give up its political power.

Violence against Coptic Christians in early October, killing more than 20 of them, has frightened minorities in Egypt. In a most distressing incident, 17 demonstrators taking part in a peaceful protest against attacks on their churches in Upper Egypt were run over by a military vehicle. The role of Egypt’s police and armed forces has come under critical scrutiny. Human rights organizations have demanded an independent judicial inquiry into the violence instead of the military or government prosecutor.

The influence of radical Islamists in the military and police forces is worrying. The prospect of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood coming to power in a future election makes the Obama administration nervous. However, it would be mistaken to equate the more extremist and criminal elements in Egyptian society with the Brotherhood, which has been keen to emphasize a moderate image of Islam in recent years.

For the United States and its allies to react against the Muslim Brotherhood would run the risk of further inflaming the anti-West feeling in the Arab world. Any such move would convince weary Egyptians that America is intervening in their country again. And to do anything in Tunisia that appears to thwart Renaissance’s victory would be a disaster. A year prior to a new constitution and elections is a long time.

To rejoice over the political process so far in Tunisia is fine. But in the light of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, the Arab Spring is very fragile indeed.

[END]

The Killing of Muammar Gaddafi

History News Network, October 31, 2011 – 

Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. This verse from the Bible speaks aloud of the manner of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, as well as his brutal killing. It is also a lesson for those who fought Gaddafi. The end of him has left a disturbing trail of savagery, from which the victors have not emerged unscathed. Where Western governments have been complicit and the mainstream media sadly restrained and unchallenging, NGOs have strained their conscience and luck to speak out about reprisals by both sides.

Gaddafi is the second Arab ruler to meet his end as a result of Western intervention in this, so far brief, new century. Unlike Iraq, the Western powers are not in Libya as occupiers in a formal sense. That there are no “boots on the ground” is President Barack Obama’s escape route. However, we know all too well that air power, especially drones, has changed the nature of warfare, making it possible to control territory from the sky. Boots not being there on the ground is irrelevant. Like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Western powers have National Transitional Council fighters on the ground in Libya. In 1979, they had Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the consequences are all clear before us.

The United States, Britain and France, flying NATO’s flag, embarked on a “humanitarian” bombing mission. Their remit, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, was to protect civilians in Benghazi, initially by enforcing a no-fly zone. How different does that mission look eight months later? Only a few days ago, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visiting Libya, had said, “We hope he [Gaddafi] can be captured or killed soon.” How many times have we heard the foreign minister of one country proclaiming that the leader of another be eliminated?

It was an act of incitement by an external power to anti-Gaddafi fighters to hunt him down. It was against United States law which prohibits state-sponsored assassinations, under a 1976 order signed by President Gerald Ford. That order reads: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Further, it was against the Security Council’s authorization for the Libyan mission.

Hillary Clinton’s statement constitutes grounds for her, and possibly President Obama’s, impeachment. But that will not happen under this Congress over a foreign war. Nonetheless, the assassination has ominous implications for the future. As Obama’s reelection in November 2012 approaches, the appetite for war in Washington could turn out to be another blunder with a high price tag. Already, the International Crisis Group, a respected NGO, has warned of repercussions for Africa and of militant Islam.

Writing in the Guardian, the editor of London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdel Bari Atwan, said, “Pictures of his final struggle will bolster those who remain Gaddafi loyalists––and make no mistake, there are many who will lament his demise, either out of self-interest or tribal loyalty.”

What happened in the final moments of Gaddafi is worth examining. At the end of the battle for Sirte, NATO planes located a convoy of vehicles in which he was traveling. They bombed the vehicles, killing a large number of people. Gaddafi survived, but his brutal end was near. It is highly likely that NATO informed anti-Gaddafi fighters about his location. Images of his final moments leave no doubt that the 69-year-old former dictator was tortured by a frenzied mob before he died.

Among the crowds on Libya’s streets these days are heavily armed teenagers willing to fight and kill. As the National Transitional Council celebrates “Liberation Day” today, what kind of Libya is in prospect must be a question that haunts not only that country, but the entire region. Meanwhile, the race for lucrative contracts for British companies there has begun. As Gaddafi’s body lay in a meat store at Misrata, in London Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head there to secure business.

Within minutes of the announcement of Gaddafi’s death, leaders in London, Paris and Washington were hailing the event. Outside his official residence in Downing Street, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that he was proud of Britain’s role in Libya, and that “we should all remember Gaddafi’s victims.” Surely we should all remember those, too, who were rendered by the West to the Gaddafi regime to be tortured as part of  the “war on terror.” Cameron made no mention of them. President Sarkozy of France called Gaddafi’s death a “major step forward.” Employing his usual rhetoric, President Obama proclaimed that “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted.”

According to CBS News, Hillary Clinton shared a laugh on learning about Gaddafi’s death. Her comment, “We came, we saw, he died.” Who will have the last laugh?

[END]

America, Iran and an Unashamedly Interventionist Secretary of State

The war is not over yet in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and the Obama administration has turned its attention to Iran. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a “plot” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, and warnings of dire consequences for Iran, mark a new escalation between the two countries.

The Obama administration says the offender behind the “plot” is an Iranian-American used-car salesman based in Texas, Mansour Arbabsiar, who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for a meager one-and-a-half million dollars. It was a trap set up by federal agents. Not for the first time, it seems, the American law enforcement agencies are responsible for planting ideas into the mind of someone naïve and ordinary and making an arrest as soon as the individual looks interested.

The evidence has to be tested in courts. Reports say the man in custody will plead “not guilty.” But the Obama administration has already found him guilty. Further, according to the Obama administration, the trail points all the way to the Iranian regime. That the government in Tehran would use an American citizen of Iranian descent to hatch a scheme with a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, involving less than two million dollars, is bizarre.

Why the Saudi ambassador and not a bigger target? For only one-and-a-half million dollars? Why would the authorities in Tehran take such a risk? What purpose would be served? Honest answers to these and other perplexing questions are hard to come by. Juan Cole, the University of Michigan scholar, raises even more questions and concludes why it could not be the work of the Iranian government. Tehran, not surprisingly, rejects Washington’s accusations.

There will be those who will see the latest developments as part of a consistent pattern of U.S. foreign policy conduct in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran. The motive––to teach Iran a lesson in any way possible. Like the bizarre accusations against Muammar Gaddafi that he was employing mass rape of women as a weapon against opponents, to justify NATO’s war in Libya.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty plainly contradicted the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who made the fantastic claim that “we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people.”

Now, as doubts increase over the “plot,” but the campaign against Iran is pushed by Washington regardless, expressions of incredulity abound. Respected magazine,Veterans Today, which represents American servicemen, has an article titled “Mr. President, We Believe Holder Lied on Iran Terror.” Senior editor Gordon Duff commented, “Within 24 hours of the announcement of a new Iranian plot, the truth started leaking out. That leak is now a flood. The FBI made up the whole thing, invented it and you and they aren’t going to get away with it. Why something this outrageous, this incompetent?”

There seems to be no limit to which Hillary Clinton’s war of vengeance will go. It is worth noting her unrestrained outburst about Iran during the final phase of her unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2008 presidential election. She said that as president she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it foolishly considered attacking Israel–– a scenario not very likely. Contrary to what some in Washington’s corridors of power think, the Iranians are more sensible than they are given credit for. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, dismissed her outburst as “sabre rattling.”

The Obama administration’s character today is vastly different from Obama the candidate’s. Hillary Clinton, ex-New York senator and a committed supporter of Israel, is his secretary of state. I believe she is the most powerful figure to have arrived at the top in the State Department since Henry Kissinger during the Nixon presidency more than 35 years ago.

Even then, Nixon was a formidable and liberal figure in international politics. An architect of détente, his foreign policy goals were radically different from Washington’s objectives in the twenty-first century.

Hillary Clinton is arguably the most interventionist secretary of state of the past half century. While Obama struggles at home with an increasingly belligerent Congress, Hillary Clinton has, in effect, seized control of U.S. foreign policy, which she conducts with far less diplomacy than military threats. Like the Bush-Cheney administration, we are witnessing an Obama-Clinton presidency, which brazenly engages in targeted killings in any country it wishes and, at the same time, accuses another country of plotting an assassination in Washington.

A Democratic administration has embraced the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Its aggressiveness and stupidity compete with each other. It represents the law of the jungle.

[END]

Is this a Global Gandhian Moment?

Richard Falk writes in a guest column -


Mahatma Gandhi has been dead for more than 63 years, and yet his relevance to the politics of our time has never been greater. It is a tribute to the power of Gandhi’s inspirational ideas and life that his current influence is far greater than that of any other leader of the past century. We recall such names as Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, and Nehru as individuals who were great leaders in their time and remain historic personages of lasting importance, but they do not speak directly to the political circumstances of the 21st century. Those seeking to challenge what is exploitative, destructive, humiliating, corrupt, and oppressive in their surroundings are mostly indifferent to or even ignorant of these agents of past history. By contrast, Gandhi remains a towering figure that seems as fascinating as when he had become on that dismal day in 1948 when he died at the hands of a Hindu nationalist assassin.

Beyond this legacy is the claim that we are actually living through ‘a Gandhian moment.’ Some have invoked such an image to identify any sustained political challenge directed at the established order that is self-consciouslessly premised upon principles of nonviolence. For instance, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, Ramin Jahanbegloo, entitles a short essay on Iran’s Green Revolution ‘The Gandhian Moment,’ and treats these courageous massive uprisings in Iran that followed upon the apparently stolen election of June 12, 2009 as an example of an historic event illustrative of Gandhi’s contemporary impact, so much so that he honors the events by affixing the label ‘a Gandhian moment.’ He also believes that a series of other national leaders espousing nonviolent politics have contributed their own variant of a Gandhian moment: Khan Abdul Ghaffar KhanMartin Luther King, Jr.Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Benigno Aquino,Aung San Suu Kyi, and Ibrahim Rugova. These are all admirable individuals who bravely fought against an oppressive established order, yet I find it dilutes and somewhat misinterprets the Gandhian legacy to bestow upon their activities the Gandhian imprimatur. Or explaining my reaction differently, the espousal of nonviolent politics is a necessary but far from sufficient reason for christening a momentous political occasion as a Gandhian moment.

 

Without taking issue with Jahanbegloo’s list, I would note that several of those included were practitioners of tactical nonviolence without ever articulating an unconditional commitment of the sort that Gandhi made the signature of his life and theory. As far as I know Mandela never recanted his support for armed resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa on the part of the ANC. Aquino although a determined democrat, failed to build a popular movement around nonviolent politics, although his widow, Cory Aquino led the people power movement that overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986, but again without any indication of being guided by such an unconditional framework as Gandhi insisted upon. And Rogova, although supporting an imaginative nonviolent resistance to oppressive Serbian governance of Kosovo, nevertheless welcomed the NATO intervention of 1999, and even had an autographed picture of Madeline Albright on his office wall. In effect, Jahanbegloo’s list mixes different degrees of nonviolent commitment without clarifying the originality of Gandhi’s mandatory framing of nonviolence in absolutist terms. This framing led to some awkwardness of response on Gandhi’s part as when he counseled German Jews to stay put in the face of Nazi persecution or advised the liberal democracies to dissuade Hitler from aggression by unilaterally disarming or urged civilians to confront the pilot of the planes dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities with a sacrificial resignation of peacefulness and non-hostility. I mention these examples not to criticize Gandhi, but to clarify the extremity of his views on nonviolence that allowed no room for exceptions, no matter how extenuating the circumstances. From this perspective I am not comfortable with calling the Green movement in Iran, which had rather modest reformist goals even at its height, ‘a Gandhian Moment.’

 

And yet, I would argue that we are living through a Gandhian Moment in two quite different respects that relates to my understanding of the originality of Gandhi’s ethics, politics, and underlying spirituality. I find the two most significant features of a distinctively Gandhian approach to be his linkage of nonviolence with living in truth (satyagraha) that imparts its unconditional character and his dedication to what I call ‘the politics of impossibility,’ that is, dedication to goals that are beyond the limits of the feasible as conventionally understood. This was the case for Gandhi when he challenged British imperial rule in India after World War I, and it was even more characteristic of his unfulfilled philosophical anarchist vision for India.  His proclaimed ideal India was a country of self-reliant villages with minimal state institutions and a turn away from the corrupting lures of modernity. Even many of Gandhi’s closest associates, including the great Jawaharlal Nehru, opted for a politics of possibility once Indian independence was achieved, seeking to make India a normal state. This normalcy culminated in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India in 1998, a move that would have certainly horrified Gandhi.

 

Why, then, claim we are in the midst of a Gandhian moment? First of all, because the various movements and uprisings associated with and stimulated by the Arab Awakening were rooted in their spontaneous commitment to a politics of impossibility coupled with an explicit and courageous dedication to nonviolent confrontation. This was especially true in Tunisia and Egypt, where although the trajectory remains radically uncertain, what has been achieved already qualifies as the attainment of ‘the impossible.’ A few months ago in Cairo when talking to activists who had been in Tahrir Square I was struck by their uniform commentary of what an extraordinary experience it had been to participate in a process that had been unimaginable before Mubarak’s remarkable departure from power took place before their eyes.

If the Occupy Wall Street protests, now present in 70 American cities, succeed in producing a transformative movement, it would reinforce this reality of a global Gandhian Moment even if the name Gandhi never appears in the manifestos issued by the convenors. I want to suggest that a Gandhian Moment occurs whenever the inner affinities with the essential Gandhian legacy seem pronounced, and not necessarily when the influence of the man and his achievements is overtly acknowledged.

 

There is a second reason why I think it useful to identify our time as a Gandhian Moment. It is our inability to address any of the most pressing global challenges effectively and humanely without a dual reliance on a politics of impossibility and an unconditional commitment to nonviolence.

Among these challenges, I would mention the following: global climate change; nuclear disarmament; a sustainable and just Palestine/Israeli peace; water scarcities; transition to a post-petroleum economy; an equitable and stable world economy; extreme poverty; and global democracy. Each of these challenges is overwhelming, and in their aggregate, presages a catastrophic future for the human species. Yet we cannot know the future, and need to keep our spirits high by embracing appropriate transnational, global, regional,  local, and even personal forms of an empowering politics of impossibility. Whether in such a setting a new Gandhi will emerge is almost irrelevant to the claim that to be alive now is to enjoy the potential of experiencing the vibrant rhythms of a Gandhian Moment!

[END]

South Africa, the Dalai Lama and China’s Muscular Diplomacy

The question of human rights is never disconnected from politics. The latest controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit South Africa has brought the subject to the fore again. The exiled Tibetan leader has been invited to attend the former Archbishop of Cape Town and fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. He is scheduled to deliver a lecture there in the coming week. The title is “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change.” But the South African government’s reluctance to grant him a visa has generated a heated debate in the press in South Africa and abroad, including India, his home in exile since 1959. There are accusations that Pretoria is going to deny the Dalai Lama permission in order to please China.

Almost every country proclaims its commitment to human rights, but the conduct of international diplomacy is very different in practice. Freedom and human rights are sacrosanct as long as they do not test relations with friendly governments and do not come too close to home. If the Dalai Lama’s visit fails to materialize, as seems likely, this will be the second time in two years that the South African authorities have denied a visa to one of the world’s most revered figures.

In 2009, Pretoria refused him entry to attend a Nobel laureates’ conference. The reason given was that the Dalai Lama’s presence would “detract attention from the 2010 football World Cup.” Then, Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle against White minority rule before the end of apartheid in 1994, denounced it as “disgraceful,” accusing the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.” That event was cancelled. As on the previous occasion, Pretoria denies acting under Chinese pressure now.

That relations with China play no part in the South African government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama is difficult to believe. Pretoria’s dithering over his visa application came as South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, embarked on a mission to Beijing to attract Chinese investment. China’s clout has been important for South Africa’s entry into the club of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa’s “economic miracle” in less than two decades is, in large part, due to Chinese investment. The South African deputy president’s host in Beijing was Vice President Xi Jinping, tipped to be China’s next leader.

The Dalai Lama last visited South Africa in 1996. Nelson Mandela was president and post-apartheid South Africa, though struggling, was at its zenith. It would be fair to note that subsequent presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Alfred Zuma, are no Mandela, who is now too old and frail to be active in public life. From the heights of idealism and adulation for Mandela and his country, South Africa has entered the arena of twenty-first century geopolitics and alliances based on immediate self-interest. In the first six months of 2011, South African exports to China amounted to nearly 40 billion rands; imports from China were a little more than that. The South African economy is booming. Like other emerging countries, South Africa plays an increasingly important role in the geopolitics of the African continent and beyond. Not even Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama can be allowed to get in the way.

It is necessary to cast our eyes beyond the current topic of concern and remember other examples of how geopolitical considerations undermine the principle of decency and rationale underpinning justice and morality. In October 2009, Barack Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, as the Chinese official campaign against him took on a particularly aggressive tone. Obama thus became the first American president not to welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House since 1990. Stung by widespread criticism and amid worsening relations with Beijing over a multibillion dollar weapons deal between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. president did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010.

In 2008, Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, for fear of offending the Chinese leadership. Instead, Brown had a brief meeting with him at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also refused to see him, as did the Estonian prime minister and speaker of parliament this year.

The South African government’s failure not to even respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application is extraordinary. It is offensive to him and offensive to Desmond Tutu, who invited him. It is another episode in a long sequence of timid submissions by world leaders in the face of China’s muscular diplomacy and the West’s decline. That we should witness the absence of real leadership that will stand by what is right is a tragedy.

[END]