Commentary on Recent Developments: Interview Responses


Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

The following Q & A interview consists of my responses to questions put to me by the outstanding Greek journalist, C. J. Polychroniou, and is being published in a Greek newspaper.

1.   Various Arab leaders, from Egypt and Tunisia to Bahrain and Libya, have blamed either Islamic fundamentalist forces or Al-Qaeda for the uprisings, thus refusing to accept the uprisings as popular, secular revolutions.   An indication that the Arab leaderships are truly of of touch with reality in their own country or there is something indeed into their claims?

Such allegations by these embattled dictatorial leaders have no basis in fact as far as I can tell, and seem to be a grasping at straws while straining to survive in the midst of a political maelstrom. Such irresponsible allegations seem to be rather desperate reminders to the West, especially to Washington, that these Arab autocrats have been loyal servants for many years, that it should be appreciated that they are the enemy of the American number one enemy (Al Qaeda), and that these regimes should therefore be treated as trusted friends, and repression of the protestors welcomed. Such pleas are seeking to convey a sense that these uprisings if allowed to succeed will be damaging to Western and American interests, bringing hostile elements into political control of the respective governments, and replacing compliant current officialdom with more antagonistic leaders. Of course, each country is different in its particulars. Mubarak could reasonably pretend to have been serving Western interests during his 31 years of rule, and has long been supported and free from critical scrutiny because of this. Qaddafi, in contrast, until recently was seen by the West as a dangerously hostile presence in the region, a supporter of radical anti-Western political action. He made himself acceptable as a trading partner some years ago when he appeared to cave in geopolitically, abandoning Libya’s nuclear program and renouncing support for terrorist causes. It is almost forgotten that the Bush presidency in the period after its invasion of Iraq in 2003 claimed as a major diplomatic success this dramatic shift in Libya, suggesting that its efforts at ‘democracy promotion’ were bearing fruit.

Looking at the issue more objectively it seems clear that the rise of these democratic popular forces throughout the Arab World is taking place in spite of the Al Qaeda reality in the background rather than as a result of it. As is well known, even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has an intensely antagonistic relationship with Al Qaeda, and has developed during the last decade a nonviolent and low profile political program that points in a moderate direction. Also, the experience of political Islam in Iran over the past 30 years seems to have influenced other Muslim oriented activists in the region to look to Turkey, not Iran or Al Qaeda, for inspiration. Turkey offers the region an encouraging model of achieving democratic gains and protecting human rights while promoting more equitable, yet successful, forms of economic development that have also seemingly managed to avoid major corruption. What enraged the Arab publics was a lethal mixture of authoritarian rule and gross corruption resting on a pure embrace of neoliberal policies that combined repression with material hardship. Such a pattern of economic growth confers almost all of its benefits on the ruler’s family and entourage, making positive GNP growth a cruel joke for the public as a whole.

2.   After the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively, the rest of the Arab dictators and monarchs seem to have concluded that using force to remain in power is their preferred option. Is this a viable strategy without suppport from the US and Europe?

It is difficult at this stage to tell whether reliance on force will work or not, and if so where, and to what extent it has been encouraged or at least tolerated by Washington and Europe. Of course, Libya is a special case in at least two senses: (1) the U.S. would not mind seeing the Qadaffi regime collapse, and take its chances with whatever comes next; (2) the Qaddafi response seems to rely on a more vicious and widespread use of force than has been used elsewhere in this period, and includes deploying high technology weaponry against initially unarmed demonstrators that seems to be leading toward widespread and bloody civil strife in the country. Elsewhere in the region, and especially, Bahrain because of oil, it is more likely that the U.S. would like to see the regime survive, using force if necessary to quell protests. Iran, although not an Arab country, is the extreme instance in the opposite direction. The U.S. seeks to mobilize opposition and stiffen sanctions in response to uses of force by the Tehran regime, and encourages oppositional activity by covert means, openly favoring a regime change. Iran’s experience is in many respects different that that in the Arab countries, but the internal confrontations in Iran have much in common with the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, given the goals of the Green Revolution and the resistance of the regime.

One generalization that has not yet been fully tested as yet is whether, as now seems to be the case, the monarchies in the region have more political space available to reach accommodations with opposition movements than do the secular regimes of the sort that existed in Egypt and Tunisia. The monarchies are perceived as less corrupt, more legitimate in terms of the political culture, and their leaders regarded as less usurpers than royal autocrats who have abused their role as rulers, but who can recover considerable popular respect if genuine reforms take place, granting more freedom and seeking greater economic justice.

3.   Should the UN or even NATO use force to get Gaddafi out of the picture, or best to reach an agreement with him and have him disappear in some remore corner of the globe?

I am opposed to military intervention for several reasons. It will tend to support Qaddafi’s claim that he is the victim of foreign subversion, either in the form of colonialism or Muslim fundamentalism. It would also fuel suspicions that the West will intervene where oil is at stake as in Kuwait, Iraq, or Libya, and invokes humanitarian issues as a cover for imperial goals. Intervention would likely generate more violence and suffering for the Libyan people by intensifying the military dimensions of the conflict. A humanitarian intervention could not likely be carried out in an effective manner in the short run, especially as American capabilities are stretched thin, and the Tripoli regime has the means to offer stiff resistance. If the UN had a protective force in being under its authority, then maybe a protective emergency mission could be undertaken, but even this would be risky. NATO acting beyond Europe, as in Afghanistan, creates the impression of post-colonial imperial ambitions, and should not be seriously considered. Overall in the post-colonial era, especially lacking a clear UN mandate, it is best to show respect for the dynamics of self-determination even in situations where vulnerable elements of the population is at risk, at least to the extent of refraining from military intervention.

Whether Qadaffi can be enticed to leave for comfortable exile in the manner of Ben Ali is an open question. So far, he has seemed to resist such a suggestion, preferring to die together with his family in Libya, casting himself and sons in the role of martyrs. All in all, none of the available options seem promising at this time. Some of the deficiencies of the current structure of world order are exposed: intervention is unacceptable, but so is being a helpless spectator as a humanitarian catastrophe of these proportions unfolds. Imaginative diplomacy that emphasizes soft power tactics and brings to bear civil society influences may turn out to be most effective and least costly.

It is too early to offer much commentary about the future of the Middle East. The coming months will tell us whether these uprisings are reformist or revolutionary in content. So far, the trajectory seems decidedly reformist, taking the form of either forcing the leaders out as in Tunisia and Egypt, or by inducing the existing regime to seek to regain stability by meeting some core demands of the populace as in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Oman, and Bahrain. To be revolutionary, the political changes would have to be complemented by a partial rejection of neoliberal economic orientation, and that doesn’t seem likely without further radicalization of the uprisings. At this point the question is whether the political reforms will be deeper than cosmetic, establishing a genuinely democratic governance structure including independent political parties, a constitutionally functioning judiciary, an accountable bureaucracy, human rights, and a media free to criticize without risk. How these reformist governing structures will deal with jobs, food security, and general conditions of poverty and inequality remains to be seen, and will have a big bearing on whether the post-autocratic leaders gain political legitimacy and public acceptance.

4.  You’ve been involved with developments in the region for many decades. What explains the sudden explosion of public anger throughout the Arab world?

It is always difficult to assess after the fact what looked extremely unlikely until it happened. Tolstoy in the Second Epilogue of War and Peace asks why historians always get things wrong when they look toward the future. Tolstoy’s answer is that historians look at the surfaces of social action, whereas the dynamics of history are shaped by unanticipated explosions from below. In effect, the changes that we are witnessing in the Middle East were long brewing, both as anger and as resistance. The uprisings seemed spontaneous, but on further reflection, it is clear that both the rage and the resistance were preexisting conditions that had evolved during prior years. Rage and resistance came together in an extraordinary kind of political chemistry that was sparked by the suicide of a young street vendor in an interior Tunisian town, an event igniting a wildfire that spread quickly as the winds of protest carried the sparks of outrage throughout Tunisia, and then to neighboring countries where additional political suicides also fanned the flames of discontent. As with an earthquake, the risks can be noted beforehand, but the event is not predictable in time or exact place.

In the Arab world, few anticipated this kind of mass visible resistance ever occurring in any of the countries, much less in the region as a whole. There was a widespread realization of acute discontent among the peoples of these countries, but little expectation that these feeling would morph into a series of revolutionary challenges to the status quo. Even the Western intelligence agencies, despite their extensive activities throughout the region and their tendency to posit alternative scenarios, were caught by surprise. In the aftermath, we find lots of ‘learned’ explanations being suddenly forthcoming as pundits scrambled to regain their reputations as ‘experts’ on the region or country.

5.   You serve as a UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories. What impact, if any, will the Arab revolutions have on the Palestinian issue?

Without wanting to evasive, my answer here too is that it is hard to say at this stage. A realistic Israel, which is itself a kind of utopian expectation, would urgently be seeking a quick peace with the Palestinians by rushing to accept the Arab League Mecca Proposals of 2002. The Palestinian Authority has already clearly indicated its willingness to accept such a settlement as full satisfaction of their search for a Palestinian state. Despite the realist logic behind such positive developments, the situation is almost certain to remain dangerous frozen for the foreseeable future.

What we are likely to witness is more stalling by Israel, vigorously claiming an interest in direct peace negotiations, while feverishly acting to undermine any prospects of a successful and just outcome by continuing with its program of unlawful settlement expansion in the West Bank and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. In the background is the daunting question of Palestinian representation. Gazans are not currently represented at all in international venues due to the Hamas/Fatah split. This is also true of Palestinians living as a discriminated minority in Israel nor of the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps of neighboring countries or in exile.

There are some unconfirmed reports that Netanyahu is about to offer the Palestinian Authority a Palestinian state on 40-50% of the West Bank (that is, less than 11% of the historic Palestine) as an interim solution, with permanent borders to be established at a later date. There are media reports that Netanyahu is considering this diplomatic move as a direct reaction to the regional development of the last two months. In some respects this possible Israeli offer corresponds to the Fayyad approach adopted by the PA Prime Minister. Whether such a step moves toward a just outcome of the Palestinian struggle is doubtful as it leaves many contested issues out in the cold, perhaps permanently: refugees, separation wall, Jerusalem, Gaza, water, permanent borders, status of Palestinian minority in Israel.

If these Arab revolutions do manage to achieve real governmental transformations in a democratizing direction, then regional pressures on Israel are likely to mount, including pressure to renegotiate the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt. At minimum, one would expect an end to the blockade of Gaza that has gone on for more than three years, a cruel and criminal form of collective punishment of the 1.5 million civilians living at near subsistence levels.

My main hope for the Palestinian struggle rests on the soft power initiatives embedded in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign that has been growing in strength around the world. With the greatly reduced reliance on hard power resistance, the Palestinian movement has increasingly the shape of what I call a Legitimacy War. Such a strategy resembles the anti-apartheid campaign that was so effectively globally waged against the South African racist regime In the late 1980s and early 1990s. While noting the similarities, there are also significant dissimilarities, and the analogy should be noted, but not pushed too far.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian quest for self-determination is the major symbolic global justice issue of our time, and it will not be easily resolved. Israel will have to drastically downgrade its ambitions, and accept either a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state within 1967 borders (requiring dismantling most of the settlements, the separation wall, reconstituting the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem, and compromise on the refugee issue) or give up on the existence of a Zionist Israel and agree to a bi-national secular single state for both peoples. Neither option seems remotely acceptable to the current Israeli leadership, meaning that in all probability the conflict will in go on for many more years with continuing tragic results, especially for the Palestinians.


Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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