The Middle East: Geopolitical Battleground
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 19 Apr 2021
18 Apr 2021 – Questions posed on the basis of my memoir, Public Intellectual, by the Egyptian journalist Basam Aly. The interview covers several distinct issues that involve interpretations of major foreign policy concerns in the Middle East.
- Your memoir, Public Intellectual thoroughly explains your experience in Vietnam. In your view, did costly interventions as those of Vietnam, and others in Iraq and Afghanistan, limit the US appetite for repeating them during the past decade?
Unfortunately, the real lessons of involving Iran are interwoven with the Vietnam War and both remain unlearned. The fundamental failures were repeated as your question suggests later in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would add Libya, and less directly, Yemen and Syria.
The U.S. Government did attempt to make some adjustments: in reaction to defeat in Vietnam. It ended reliance upon conscripted armed forces obligating the general citizenry to do military service. Instead, it established entirely professionalized armed forces who were recruited on the basis of career opportunities within the military sphere of the public sector. This adjustment was based on the partially misleading assumption was the Vietnam War was lost, not in Vietnam, but in American living rooms where families watched on nightly TV coffins carrying dead young American men home from a distant war that seemed remote from national security. With further support from a middle class anti-war movement, the public withdrew political support, and this influenced most political leaders to defer to public opinion. In American society a long war cannot continue without the support of the public support, which will not be patient if middle class children are being forced to participate. With Afghanistan, a war lasting at least 20 years, those in open combat enduring casualties were either hardened professionals or persons of color with little voice in American politics.
A second type of adjustment was to replace traditional combat troops and ground warfare with high technology interventions that could be carried out largely from the air, relying on more and more sophisticated weaponry, exemplified by the increasing reliance on attack drones equipped with missiles directed from remote locations often thousands of miles away from the combat zones. Some attempt was also made to neutralize criticism in the media by ‘embedding’ journalists with combat forces, hoping that their outlook would be more sympathetic to the military mission underway if they could be made to feel part of it. In effect, the post-Vietnam approach was to rely on innovative technology that reduces dependence on soldiers fighting on the ground and neutralizing critical media accounts of how the war was going from the perspective of American intervenors.
There has been some reaction against these costly inconclusive interventions, even aside from concern over casualties and the effectiveness of military approaches to conflict resolution. As Vietnam showed, and these other interventions reinforced, it is almost impossible for external actors to prevail in internal struggles for power by relying on their military superiority. This explains why these struggles are increasingly called into questions as ‘forever wars’ that do not serve the national interests of the United States or the West generally, and such major commitments as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are being gradually terminated.
At the same time, domestic forces in or connected with the United States government bureaucracy and the private sector continue to encourage the belief that military engagements seeking to control the outcome of foreign internal struggles are essential to uphold the global security system that the U.S. and NATO have established and sustained since after World War II. The ongoing quest of strategic planners in the U.S. is find ways to inject military power from sea, air, cyber sources that are becoming the features of postmodern forms of warfare. These operations are reinforced through modalities of covert operations conducted by ‘special forces’ that carry on their destabilizing activities as secretly as possible and by drone warfare, sanctions, threats, and economic coercion. Part of this continuing militarization of foreign policy has to do with maintaining the public acceptance of the idea that American security, economic interests, and standard of living are under threat from multiple actors around the world, and only a wartime military budget will enable the government to protect the prosperity and security of the American people, and that of close allies.
2. You argued that the “dynamics of self-determination” should serve as the basis of the US-Iranian ties. But Joe Biden’s administration refuses to re-join the nuclear agreement that Donald Trump withdrew from, for the former wants to include Iran’s Middle East strategy in the deal. Do both Republicans and Democrats now see this Obama-sponsored agreement as a mistake?
The issues involving Iran are interwoven with the special relationship that the U.S. has with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the degree to which the pro-Israeli lobby in America wields disproportionate influence in Congress, and within Biden leadership circles. Restoring the JCPOA with Iran serves the real interests of Iran and the U.S., but since it antagonizes Israel and Saudi Arabia, it has become a treacherous rite of passage for the Biden presidency. Biden above all quite reasonably does not want to risk weakening public support for domestic priorities associated with overcoming the COVID challenge, restoring the American economic, and reforming immigration policy. In this sense, the nuclear agreement is not evaluated on its own but in the context of these regional relationships, which are obsessive in their intent to confront Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia seek to discourage U.S. renewed participation in the nuclear agreement, but insist that if the US again participates in JCPOA it should demand that Iran imposes limits on its missile capabilities, especially with respect to range, numbers, and precision. They also are exerting pressure on Washington to curtail political alignments between Iran and such non-state regional political forces as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthis as the political price of ending U.S. sanctions, which are blamed for disrupting the regional status quo.
U.S. policies have long been distorted, and regional stability has collapsed as a result. From the perspective of the Middle East, the most sensible development would be to push for denuclearizing arrangements and mutual non-aggression pledges. A dramatic sensible stabilizing step would be to establish a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, but this would require Israel to eliminate its nuclear weapons stockpile and limit the enrichment capabilities of its centrifuges. It is notable that every important countries in the region including Iran has favored such a development, with the notable exception of Israel.
Because of this exception, the U.S. will not even consider such steps despite their immediate major proliferation and stability benefits, as well as for once demonstrate that American leadership is committed to conflict reduction in the diplomatic sphere, and is not any longer relying on the flexing of its geopolitical muscle.
3. Turkey has recently clashed with the West on many levels, including its purchase of Russian missile system, attacking a French navy vessel in the Mediterranean, threatening the EU to send migrants or militarily intervening in the conflicts of Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. How would this impact the future relations between Turkey and the West?
These conflictual issues are real, but are all on a secondary level as compared to the shared interests in re-centering American global policy on a re-energized NATO and an approach that associates the primary security challenge to the West as emanating from China, and secondarily from Russia. In this sense, despite the tensions with Europe and the U.S., Turkey remains an important player in the Biden scheme of things, which highlights on intensifying geopolitical rivalries and reviving Western alliance diplomacy in conjunction with its traditional European allies. Turkey also plays a key role in mitigating the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, especially Syria, which in turn is viewed as essential if Western European countries are to remain politically moderate enough to retain membership in the liberal democratic camp.
It should be remembered, as well, that since the failed Turkish coup of 2016 seeking the overthrow of the Erdogan government, there has been a concerted anti-Turkish international campaign that has linked Kemalist, Fetullah Gülen, Kurdish, and Armenian, which has been strongly encouraged behind the scenes by Israel and Saudi Arabia. In effect, there are contradictory relations between Turkey and the West—both an anti-regime coalition seeking to exert pressure on the Erdogan leadership of Turkey and a traditional NATO worldview that relies on Turkey as an alliance partner.
4. Concerning the seven-decade, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in your view, which factors have prevented a comprehensive settlement to it?
Most of the explanation for the persistence of the struggle relates to Israel, and its enactment step by step of the maximalist Zionist program, which makes it increasingly clear that there is no willingness to reach the sort of negotiated agreement based on a political compromise that would lay the foundations for a sustainable peace. The Palestinians have long made it very clear, including representations by Hamas, that they would accept an interim peace arrangement of indefinite duration if Israel would withdraw to 1967 borders. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and even the earlier 1988 expression of willingness by the PLO to normalize relations with Israel if such a withdrawal were to be coupled with an acceptance of Palestinian statehood, the basis of the two-state diplomacy that underpinned the Oslo Framework since 1993, having been implicit in international thinking ever since the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution 181 in 1947. Such an approach also underlay the unanimous UN Security Resolution 242 adopted after 1967.
It is also important to acknowledge that the Palestinians have not acted effectively in promoting their struggle for basic rights in several important respects. Above all, in all these years, there has never been a clearly articulated Palestinian authoritative peace proposal put forward. Palestinian peace diplomacy has been reactive and seemingly passive. It seems that Palestine has never achieved sufficient political unity to put forth a position that represents the Palestinian people as a whole, exhibiting splits in its political factions between secular and religious elements and between Palestinians living under occupation and confined to refugee camps in neighboring countries. This failure of the Palestinian movement to put all differences aside until achieving political independence in a viable form has disclosed a crucial weakness of their diplomacy. It has allowed Israel to move toward achieving their goals by implementing a politics of fragmentation with to the Palestinian people combined with their own relentless push toward territorial expansion and the legitimization of Israel as an ethnocracy, openly avowed, after decades of denial, in its Basic Law of 2018.
From the perspective of the present, the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and self-determination seems to be blocked. Neither the UN nor traditional international diplomacy, led by the U.S., has been able to fashion a solution, and perhaps never strongly motivated to do so. Continuing lip service to the two-state approach is almost an admission of U.S. failure given Israel’s unmistakable opposition, taking into account its own territorial ambitions, and its largely irreversible encroachments on occupied Palestine, substantively highlighted by the scale and dispersion of its unlawful settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. With these considerations in mind, the future for the whole of Palestine (that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea) is almost certain to be governance as a single state, which is presently the de facto reality. In practical terms, this means either a continuation of a single apartheid Israel one-state outcome or a secular democratic singly state based on ethnic equality and the diligent observance of human rights, which in effect rolls back Zionist ambitions from a Jewish state to the original pledge of a Jewish homeland.
Given the failure of the UN and inter-governmental diplomacy after decades of futile maneuvering, prospects for peace rest almost entirely on Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives of civil society, giving Israel the choice between pariah status and peaceful coexistence based on human rights for all. The combination of forces that led to the collapse of South African apartheid could lead to a similar outcome for Israel/Palestine. It is this earlier experience of overcoming a long period of oppressive governance that should inspire hope among Palestinians and their supporters and haunt the sleep of Israel’s leaders and its Zionist supporters within the country and around the world.
5. The Palestinians will vote for a new parliament and president in May and July respectively. To what extent would the polls contribute to the finalization of the intra-Palestinian, reconciliation process?
At this time, there is little reason to be hopeful that these three scheduled elections will produce either reconciliation among Palestinians or the kind of dynamic leadership that could create Palestinian unity and robust international support for Palestine’s struggle to achieve self-determination on the basis of arrangements that produced a negotiated peace arrangement that was widely accepted as fair and reasonable for both people given the surrounding circumstances. The most likely outcome of the election if held at all is to reinforce current divisions, including a renewal of the electoral mandate of existing leaders and the protection of the entrenched interests of Palestinian elites. In fairness, the elections are being conducted under conditions of apartheid governance with undisguised Israeli interferences designed to prevent results that would strengthen the quality of Palestinian leadership and governance potential. So far, Israel seems unwilling to allow the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote because Israel claims territorial sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem as a result of formal annexation in 1967.
If serious peace prospects are to emerge in coming years, it will result from Palestinian resistance, augmented by a growing international solidarity movement rooted in civil society activism and likely featuring the BDS Campaign. Such pressures from within and without might over time induce the Israeli leadership to recalculate their own interests in such a way as to replace the Zionist conception of Israeli statehood based on Jewish supremacy by a scaled back willingness to settle for a Jewish homeland as constitutionally implemented in a democratic secular state based on an ethos of collective and individual equality. Although such a solution to the Palestinian struggle and appropriate political arrangements between Jews and Palestinians based on ethnic equality seems ‘impossible’ from the standpoint of the present, it seems the only alternative to ongoing resistance combined with oppressive rigors of apartheid governance.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
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