The Stoics would have approved of Costa Rica

I have begun writing (well, researching) a new book on why and how the public approves of and thus legitimises war fought in its name. In a democracy, if not also in a dictatorship, the people must approve of or at least tolerate war if the state is going to commit billions of dollars and thousands of lives to it. Each section of my book will explore the causes of war from the public’s perspective. Some questions I will ask include, why did the American public allow the US to invade Iraq in 2003? How do Israeli history books affect the way Israelis see Arabs? Why do Christians and Muslims in Jos, Nigeria, fight each other? And why did some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka encourage the war against the Tamil Tigers?

I have several ideas for an introduction. One of them is to discuss Costa Rica. Costa Rica is surely one of the most peaceful countries in the world. It has done what so few other states have: abolished its military and replaced it with a civil guard. And yet, this apparently easy target has managed to avoid most of the bloodshed that its neighbours in Central America have suffered. Before going into why this might be, let us turn to the lens through which we will analyse Costa Rica: stoicism.

An article by William O. Stephens in Star Wars and Philosophy entitled “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor and the Force” describes Yoda as a stoic. The stoics in ancient Greece believed in acting virtuously and in harmony with their fate. They remained happy by accepting the things they could not change. They were in no danger from the Dark Side of the Force.

Yoda was patient. He lived waiting for the jedi to arrive so that he could train him. When Luke Skywalker arrived in Yoda’s swamp, insisting that they hurry to be taken to the jedi master, Yoda bid him stay and eat first. During training, Yoda implores Luke to focus on the present. The jedi’s mind does not wander to future adventures but remains rooted in the present, choosing the right moves for the right time. Instead of seeking excitement and risk, the jedi seeks virtue through control of his emotions, equanimity and calmness. The jedi’s mind is at peace, even when all around is chaos. The jedi may be happy and humorous. He avoids anger, fear, aggression: The Dark Side of the Force are they. He uses the Force for wisdom and defence, but never aggression. Let us see how Costa Rica fits this mold.

First, as mentioned above, Costa Rica has no military. That means it cannot, at least not easily, prosecute a war of aggression. Not only is aggression clearly not a virtue in Costa Rica, it has become effectively impossible.

Second, Costa Rica ranks first in the 2009 Happy Planet Index, which measures happiness, health and sustainable development. This achievement accords with its rank of third in the world and first in Latin America in the Environmental Performance Index for 2010.

Third, its history has been more peaceful than those of its neighbours. It went through a civil war in 1948–for six weeks. Contrast this with Nicaragua’s ten year civil war and Guatemala’s incredible 36 year civil war and we see that Costa Ricans have escaped the misfortune that they could have. This observation of chaos outside its borders and peace within presumably allowed Costa Ricans the privileges of stoicism.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, elected president of Costa Rica in 1986, is a jedi. In 1987, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Esquipulas Peace Agreement that played a major role in ending the wars of ideology and beginning democratisation in Central America. He has also won the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and is a trustee of the NGO Economist for Peace and Security.

Oscar Sanchez was reelected in 2006. At a speech in Trinidad and Tobago last year, he reprimanded fellow Latin American leaders for spending too much on their militaries and not enough on education. He was proposing they leave the path to the Dark Side and seek wisdom, enlightenment, peace.

Costa Rica is a strong example of a peaceful state. It could be an excellent introduction to my next book, as a contrast to the states I will be examining.

More settlements will lead to more anger

The Israeli government will approve the building of 1600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem. This move is another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel today and criticised the move by Israel. However, his words will go unheeded. The settlement building will continue, illegal but unabashed. Palestinians will get angrier. They will throw stones. The Israeli Defense Forces will strike back with tear gas, bullets, even tanks, like in the first two intifadas. Binyamin Netanyahu will continue to demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, much like the Spanish Inquisition whipping a man into confessing his sins, except that the Palestinians will refuse and this will be taken as proof that they reject peace.

The United States government will continue to pay lip service to ending settlement construction while doing nothing to intervene. “A historic peace is going to require both parties to make some historically bold commitments“, he said in deliberately vague terms. What did he have to lose by saying it? Even while condemning the settlement plan, Biden stressed the US’s commitment to Israel’s interests, and praised the “constructive discussions” he had had with Israeli leaders.

Jews will move into the homes in East Jerusalem and the new settlements will, like the biggest settlements in the West Bank, become part of the status quo. In other words, Israel will be unwilling to uproot people living in them. Ten years down the road, calls to dismantle those settlements will be called insulting. Peace proposals will include them as part of Israel, just as such proposals now mostly include the big West Bank settlement blocs as part of Israel.

The settlement issue must be dealt with if there is to be a peace treaty. But how to deal with it? A 2008 survey found 66% of Israelis opposed withdrawing from the West Bank, which would mean leaving the settlements behind. There is little appetite for giving any concessions. As an example, the Israeli media often refer to “illegal outposts” in the West Bank, meaning small, outlying settlements, when in fact all settlement of conquered land is illegal. There is little support (29%) for a divided Jerusalem, which is another condition of a real, lasting peace. So settlement building in Jerusalem will continue.

Israel is too powerful to care what Palestinians think, and if the powerful, the US and EU, do not intervene, Israeli policy will not change. The settlement question will remain unresolved, and Jewish Israelis will strengthen their hold on all of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Palestinians will throw rocks, perhaps even start another intifada, and peace will slip ever further away.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

Justice for Tzipi


On December 27th, 2008 the Israeli Defense Forces unleashed a ferocious attack on the Palestinians called Operation Cast Lead. The international condemnation that began once the extent of the offensive’s brutality was revealed seemed to culminate in the Goldstone Report. But in a further development, Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and member of Israel’s war cabinet during the attack, party to the decision to go to war, along with others involved, was indicted by a British court for war crimes. The court was right to pursue justice.

The British government is under pressure to change the law under which Ms Livni can be punished. But why should it? Does it no longer care about international law? Is it something to be applied to enemies, such as Sudan, but not to allies, such as Israel? Or are politicians so afraid of being called “anti-semitic” they will grant immunity to war criminals?

Some people are saying that this is typical of the international community’s antipathy toward Israel, and its relentless attack on the Jewish people. However, Israel is by no means the only target of international criminal law. International law has been moving in the direction of trying political and military leaders, even sitting heads of state, for decades. Leaders from all around the world have appeared in court for jus cogens offenses: Charles Taylor of Liberia, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for crimes against humanity, Augusto Pinochet of Chile for torture; and with any luck, the list will get longer.

Moreover, a decade ago, people complained that it was mostly only leaders from the former Yugoslavia who were on trial, and that African and Israeli leaders who committed crimes under international law were escaping the knife. But customary law has made it possible to try a wider range of criminals. Universal jurisdiction now applies to everyone, regardless of rank, who commits the most egregious crimes. To read the reports of the human rights organisations, including the Goldstone report, on Operation Cast Lead, it is clear “egregious” is an appropriate word to describe this war.

Others warn that arresting Israelis for war crimes or upholding the law according to the findings of the Goldstone Report could derail the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that the rest of the world seems so keen on pursuing. To this I ask, what peace process? Not only are there no negotiations to speak of at the moment, but it is easy to forget that justice is a prerequisite for peace. Only the threat of punishment can prevent further massacres like Operation Cast Lead. What Israelis and Palestinians need to live in peace is more justice, not less.

Tzipi Livni has said she might travel to the UK to see if the law would really be enforced, and make an example of how flawed the idea of justice is. The British government has assured her they will not arrest her. I say, let me pay for your ticket, Ms Livni, and we shall see what happens.

Releasing Gilad Shalit and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

A major security issue in Israel at the moment is the fate of Gilad Shalit. As I write in my recent essay on last year’s war in Gaza, Shalit is a corporal in the IDF who was captured by Palestinian militants in a border raid on the Gaza Strip in 2006. He has been in captivity ever since. A few weeks ago, it looked as though negotiators had reached a breakthrough, and Shalit would be released in exchange for 450 Palestinians in Israeli jails, though that number may be as low as 100 now. (The uneven numbers give you one idea of how important this issue is to Israelis; more below.) That deal fell through, but there is more hopeful talk of releasing Shalit all the time (here, for instance). Some say a prisoner swap could be the key to peace. I disagree.

Call me a realist, but as readers of the Menso Guide to War know, I have never been hopeful about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. I study, among other things, the cultural roots of conflict. Culture can legitimise war or peace, and needs to be taken into account when prospecting for either. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian culture is conducive to a real, lasting end to the war. The bitterness would not simply end because one condition for ceasefire has been met. Militant Israelis will continue to push for anything that will protect every last Jewish life. Militant Palestinians will continue to do anything they can to end the occupation. Where does that leave Shalit?

Gilad Shalit has become a kind of national hero in Israel. One TV news anchor ends every broadcast by tearfully counting how many days Shalit has been under lock and key. Haaretz, considered one of the more dovish of Israeli newspapers, runs a counter at Haaretz.com displaying the same time to the second. On his birthday in August 2009, Twitter’s second highest trend was Gilad Shalit. Over a Jewish holiday in 2009, newspapers displayed pictures of Gilad as a toddler, dressed in a sad clown costume. Poor Gilad: an innocent boy kidnapped by terrorists. (The 7700 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, apparently, are all guilty.)

So surely, when Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, Israelis will be so grateful they will demand an end to the blockade of Gaza, right? Why would they? The thing they care most about Gaza will have been returned to them. Hamas’ one bargaining chip will be gone. Where is the incentive to continue negotiations? Though a majority of Israelis favour the current deal, the hardliners are not willing to give up Palestinians with “blood on their hands” to get Shalit back. Many Israelis would see the release of 100 Palestinians as a huge concession to a group everyone hates (Hamas). But attacks on Israeli targets would not end, because they will never end while the occupation continues and in the West Bank, expands. The Israeli right wing would probably push even harder to punish Hamas and refuse to talk. Impoverished Palestinians would be caught in the middle again. Under these conditions, extremism will not go away.

The best we can hope for is that the prisoner swap succeeds and leads to more negotiations. There have been very few moves toward peace of late, but if earnest negotiators can persuade their constituents to give up more for peace, there will be progress. Meanwhile, long term solutions such as intercultural education are necessary to end the cycle of racism that portrays the other as only understanding force. Finally, what Shalit says when he is released will influence public opinion. He could be Nelson Mandela and say that he feels no bitterness, only greater understanding; or he could say nothing constructive and perpetuate the culture of anger. We must hope for the former. Release Gilad Shalit, release the Palestinian prisoners and see it as a chance to end the war.

Paving the Road to Gaza: Israel’s National Role Conception and Operation Cast Lead

On December 27, 2008, the Israel Defense Forces began their assault on the Gaza Strip in what they called Operation Cast Lead. 13 Israelis and as many as 1400 Palestinians were killed in the three weeks of fighting. The war enjoyed wide support among Israelis: according to the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 94% of Jewish Israelis (76% of Israel’s population) supported the attack. Operation Cast Lead caused enormous suffering in Gaza and has been a thorn in the side of Israelis since its commencement. Numerous human rights organisations have issued reports on the conflict accusing both sides of war crimes, and the Israeli government has denied any but the noblest intentions. How did we get here?

This essay uses national role conception theory to explain how Israel’s political culture approved of Operation Cast Lead and permitted the latest brutal attack on the Palestinians. You can find it at the following link.

You cannot derail a train no one is on

A spokesperson from Israel’s foreign ministry warned the United Nations that if the Goldstone Report on war crimes in the Gaza War of early this year is endorsed by the UN Security Council, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be in jeopardy. Surely, this is a joke.

The peace process has yielded no results since the second Intifada. The Palestinians herded into Gaza elected Hamas, which has no interest in peace, and the screws have tightened on Palestinians everywhere. The Oslo Accords, the closest things to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord ever signed, are a distant memory. “Natural growth” of settlements continues. Israelis retain all the power in negotiation. Would Israeli government movement away from peace be a sudden turn, or would it be on course? It is not much of a threat to say you will derail a train no one is on.

Israel’s courts will try soldiers that are accused, by Israeli fact-finding commissions, of war crimes. Israel has never been a country that desperately sought approval from others, and is unlikely to start now. It will not give into blackmail. Any anger that outsiders’ actions generate within Israel will make it easier to go to war again the next time.

The goals of the war, Operation Cast Lead, were long term ones. An article in Haaretz says that Israelis hoped its success would mean Egypt and Israel’s working together to produce results in Gaza, such as inter-Palestinian reconciliation, which in turn could lead to negotiations with them. It implies that, all because of forces outside of Israel’s control, such as the shrinking stature of Mahmoud Abbas and the growing one of Iran, ferment in Jerusalem and fighting in Gaza, the long term results the war aimed to achieve will never materialise. Things just never seem to go right when you are the victim.

Sarcasm aside, it is hard not to agree with Israeli claims that the report is biased. The annoying words “anti-Semitic”, the words that imply that the only racism that matters is that against Jews, words used so often one might be forgiven for thinking that everyone outside Israel is an anti-Semite, may in fact be a fair accusation in this case. As I have said before, the UN Human Rights Council is hopelessly biased against Israel, and the UN has not been much better. The Human Rights Council is full of human rights-violating Arab states that hate Israel. The Council’s existence throws the UN’s legitimacy into question.

The Council’s anti-Semitism is so blatant that it has made no attempt at a reference to Palestinian (presumably mostly Hamas) crimes during or before the war in its resolutions condemning Israel. Amnesty International’s report was not similarly biased, and its authors called for all crimes to be punished. We can clearly see which organisation is truly interested in human rights.

Because of the lack of legitimacy of the body that commissioned the Goldstone Report, the report’s veracity is too difficult to ascertain. Because there was little trace of a peace process to start with, things could easily degenerate into violence. And because Israel is used to this sort of bullying, nothing is likely to change between Israelis and Palestinians.