November 13, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Dr. Lawrence Davidson

UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk holds a press conference on the final report of his mandate, 22 October 2010. (UN Photo)

Falk concludes as follows, “The United Nations will be judged now and in the future by whether if contributes, at long last, to the… realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and thereby brings a just peace to both [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples.”

The United Nations celebrated its 65th birthday (1945 to 2010) on 24 October 2010. At 65 the world body has lasted 27 years longer than its predecessor, the League of Nations (1919 to 1946). Will the UN go another 65 years? To help answer that question a quick look at what did in the League of Nations is in order.

The League of Nations was certainly not a perfect organization, infected as it was with the colonialist notions of its European founders. We can see that aspect of the organization in its mandate system which served as a cover for imperialism. But ultimately the mandate system is not what brought the League low. The fatal flaw was its inability to achieve its primary goal of preventing war by transcending the power of nationalism and compelling all states to end their quarrels through negotiation or arbitration. What success the League did have in this effort was restricted to a category of relatively weak states. For instance, it successfully brought an end to disputes between Columbia and Peru, Greece and Yugoslavia, Finland and Sweden, and even, in 1921, Poland and a very weak Germany. However, when disputes involved aggressive “great” powers, as they did in the 1930s, the League failed utterly. It was ultimately destroyed by its inability to project authority and influence, as well as punishment, on countries like belligerent Italy and resurgent Nazi Germany. As Mussolini observed while, with impunity, using poison gas on the Ethiopians, “the League is very good when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” He thought of Italy as an eagle.

As the League was founded in response to the First World War, so the United Nations was founded as a response to the Second World War. Where once there was the horror of the trenches, now there was the horror of the Holocaust. Where once there was mustard gas, now there was something much worse, nuclear weaponry. Thus the prevention of war still formed the central and urgent mission of the United Nations. This time around it should have been easier for the new world body. Where the First World War spurred on imperialism, carving up the Ottoman Empire and introducing the facade of mandates, the Second World saw the dismantlement of empires and, finally, the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination for most of the non-European world. Most, but not everywhere. For at the end of World War II, as the United Nations Charter was ratified and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed, the members of the United Nations were coerced into committing a fatal mistake. Under heavy pressure from the United States, the General Assembly gave its blessing to an arrangement whereby the sin of European and American antisemitism was to be paid for by the Palestinians, a people who had nothing at all to do with Europe’s death camps or America’s death dealing immigration policy. The United Nations blessed the creation of Israel. By doing so it went a long way to assuring its own demise.

It is this background that makes so important, and depressing, the statement made before the General Assembly by Richard Falk on 20 October 2010. Falk is ending his tenure as Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine. Here are some of the points he made in his address:

1. Throughout his tenure the Government of Israel has been consistently uncooperative, even to the point of refusing him entrance into Israel and the Occupied Territories.

2. The United Nations itself has failed to respond strongly to this challenge to its authority thereby encouraging the view that the world body has not the political will to uphold international law and the principles of its Charter when it comes to the ally of a Great Power.

3. The response of the international community has also been “disappointing.”

4. Falk concludes as follows, “The United Nations will be judged now and in the future by whether if contributes, at long last, to the… realization of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and thereby brings a just peace to both [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples.”

Dr. Saeb Erakat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, also spoke about this dilemma in his remarks on the UN’s 65th birthday. He observed that “Israel has undermined the efficacy of and derogated the UN system, the very authority through which it was created.” He then went on to list some of the sources of international law in which Palestinian rights are grounded. These include UN General Assembly resolutions, UN Security Council resolutions, and the Fourth Geneva Convention. All of which Israel has been allowed to violate.

Both Erakat and Falk know that there is virtually no chance that the United Nations can or will even try to force Israel to abide by international law. Whatever its Charter might say, its decision making structure is designed to prevent any challenge to the great powers that have permanent seats on the Security Council. The United States is the great power patron of Israel and has, and will continue, to block efforts to sanction its ally. Thus, like the League of Nations, the UN can deal only with sparrows and but not eagles. It can go after the leaders of Sudan, Serbia and Rwanda, but not those of the United States for its crimes in Iraq, Not China for its crimes in Tibet, not Russia for its crimes in Chechnya, and not Israel for its crimes against the Palestinians or its near fatal corruption of an ancient world religion. It would seem that Israel flies with Mussolini’s eagles.

It is unlikely that the UN will end its days abruptly as did the League of Nations. While Israel does encourage war and mayhem in the Middle East, liking nothing better than to push the United States into a war with Iran, it is unlikely to spark World War III. Thus, it is probable that the United Nations’ fate is to go out with a whimper and not a bang. It will linger on for many decades to come, a tool of the great powers to be used to shoot at sparrows when appropriate. Ironically, this means the final legacy of the United Nations will be the opposite of its original ideal. Ideally meant to keep the peace and hold all nations to the rule of law, it will stand emasculated as an symbol of the ultimate supremacy of power in the world.

Power has been supreme for a very long time. In the 5th century BC the city state of Athens (alleged birthplace of Western democracy) was fighting the Peloponnesian War. Its naval forces came to the neutral city of Melos and demanded its surrender. The historian Thucydides recounts the ensuing debate in which the Athenians told the Melosians “…we both alike know that in the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.” In our modern day such Machiavellian honesty has fallen out of favor. We need to manage our ruthlessness so as to keep our consciences clear. And that is what the United Nations is for. It will run after the sparrows so that the eagles can feel they have some modicum of justice to point to as they “exact what they can” from those they do treat unjustly. The United Nations has become a cover for great power hypocrisy.

Such is the way of international politics. Do we have to put up with this evil? The answer is no we do not. But we cannot look to any of the great powers for justice, fairness, equity or the like, for theirs is the world of Realpolitik and raison d’etat. Hope, such as it is, lies with civil society. The fortunes of justice, fairness, equity are a function of the ability of citizens worldwide to organize themselves for a specific cause, and the great precedent here is the struggle that brought down apartheid South Africa. This strategy, born of mass communications and the ethical potential of individual consciences, knows no national boundaries and thus has enormous potential. It is presently focused on the condemnable behavior of Israel toward the Palestinians. If, in the next quarter century (for it is likely to take that long), the power of mobilized civil society can bring justice to the Palestinians it will create the possibility for a more humane world in practice and not just in theory. It is an intoxicating prospect. And it is one that has a chance of realization.

Lawrence Davidson
Department of History
West Chester University
West Chester, Pa 19383

Dr. Lawrence  Davidson has done extensive research and published in the areas of American perceptions of the Middle East, and Islamic Fundamentalism. His two latest publications are Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 1998) and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood  (University Press of Florida, 2001). He has published thirteen articles on various aspects of American perceptions of the Middle East. Dr. Davidson holds a BA from Rutgers, an MA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Alberta.

Intifada Palestine

Character as fate, Obama edition

November 5, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Harris and Thrush ask a central question about Obama going forward:

Is he capable of growth? And how painful the evolution?

Many Obama observers regard these as central questions about his presidency, as he tries to recover from an election debacle that many people warned was coming for a year, and that even some sympathizers regarded as a natural comeuppance for an exceptionally confident man who slipped into overconfidence.

The results also served as a reminder that Obama is not immune from a timeless truth: Every president’s defects are in part a magnification of his virtues.

Self-regard can blur into self-delusion. According to many Obama supporters and skeptics alike, it is still to be seen whether Obama shares with his most successful predecessors a capacity for self-critique and self-correction.

A year ago, after Democrats got trounced in off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia—in large measure because of the same flight of independents that helped the GOP triumph in the mid-term elections—White House aides loudly and publicly stated that there were no lessons in the results that were relevant to Obama. And, for most of the year that followed, they acted on that premise.

This misplaced confidence, by some lights, did not merely lead to political miscalculations. It strained the emotional connection with voters on which the most successful presidents depend. Restoring that connection, and regaining the sympathy to be extended a second chance, requires a show of modesty.

“Humility is a great quality, and it’s one that people will respect,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, who teaches at Rice University. “Ronald Reagan could be seen as a polarizing presence, but he also knew how to play humble when it was necessary. Where is President Obama’s self-deprecating humor? Kennedy and Reagan could both be very self-deprecating. People liked that.”

"The worst thing that happened to Obama is he’s lost a lot of his aura. Even his friends think he’s thin-skinned and a bit highfalutin," he said.

It’s the sort of complaint that comes to the fore in background conversations with lawmakers, lobbyists and veterans of previous administrations who interact with Obama’s West Wing staffers: that they’ve created a cult of personality around Obama, having followed their boss on his rapid and improbable ascent to the presidency. Many of these devotees do indeed feel that he is the political equivalent of NBA phenom LeBron James. The view is based on a belief that Obama’s outsized political skills and uncommon personal poise make him different than conventional politicians and immune to conventional political laws of gravity.

One Obama insider said it is a view that starts at the top. Having triumphed over an early perception by political insiders and many journalists that he could not defeat frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama, this person said, frequently invokes the 2008 experience and what he believes was its lesson—always stay the course, don’t be distracted by ephemeral controversies or smart-set importuning for a change of direction.

Some believe this is an admirable instinct carried to a dangerous degree.

"Obama would sort of say, ‘Look, I’m smart, I know what I’m doing, you’ll just have to trust me,’ ” said Democratic strategist and commentator James Carville. “It was kinda beneath him to explain the reasons behind his actions to people — how TARP really worked, how the stimulus was helping… You had a lot of signs — New Jersey, Virginia, Scott Brown — but they thought what they were doing was going to turn out all right.”

Obama’s predicament of 2010 suggests another refrain of the modern presidency: Its occupants arrive in office shaped preeminently by past experience, with character formed well before leaders reach the White House.

A time-traveler who went to Arkansas in 1977 would find plenty of people in Little Rock who would not be the least bit surprised that their newly elected attorney general would become president some day. And these same people would not be surprised to learn of the particular nature of the scandal that hobbled Bill Clinton’s presidency some 20 years later.

Obama, however, burst on the national scene with such speed and force in 2008 that he may have seemed sui generis, a man untouched by the normal cycles of success and setback.

Instead, what’s clear in 2010 is that Obama was like all presidents a product of his past. Some believe his style is too cerebral. Was this a surprise from a former law professor? Some said he allowed himself to be defined too much by legislative victories and defeats, rather than sketching a higher vision of where he wanted to lead the country. Did people not recall that his most extensive government experience was as a state legislator?

Likewise, the contemporary argument about Obama’s personal style has long antecedents. People have for decades regarded him as having special leadership traits. And some people have been observing for just as long that Obama sometimes regarded himself as too special.

In author David Remnick’s Obama biography, “The Bridge,” he quotes White House adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett: “I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is…He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability—the extraordinary, uncanny ability—to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually….So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that they had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy…He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”

Remnick also regularly cites how even Michelle Obama would sometimes bridle under “his ego and his self-involvement.”

A 2008 New Yorker article quoted Patrick Gaspard, now the White House political director, describing what Obama told him during the job interview: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

It was health care where the self-confidence of the Obama team had the most profound impact. It produced landmark legislation, even after many pundits assumed last winter that the Democratic reform package was dead, but it just happened to be deeply unpopular with many independent voters who went to the polls Tuesday. A recent poll by POLITICO and George Washington University found that 62 percent of independent voters had an unfavorable view of health care.

Rep. Marion Berry, who retired from the House earlier this year, described a White House meeting between Obama and conservative Democrats, who warned the president that the measure was unpopular in their districts and asked him why he thought he could do better with health care reform then Bill Clinton had done. “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me,” Berry quoted Obama as saying. 

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Ben Smith’s Blog

The fate of the ‘permanent Democratic majority’

October 28, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Women, indies breaking hard for Republicans.
American Thinker Blog

Obama Falls Victim to Merciless Fate of Most ‘Hope Carriers’: Financial Times Deutschland, Germany

September 28, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Is President Obama, like so many political shooting stars of hope from the past, destined to fade from the scene as quickly as he emerged? According to <em>Financial Times Deutschland columnist Ines Zottl, “Obama is through - completely finished.”

Citing some seldom-heard in English Germany prose, for the Financial Times Deutschland, Ines Zottl writes in part:

“A star burns out, and the world keeps on turning; nothing in life stays as it is. The march of time will dry your tears, too, even if you’ll never quite forget.” (Bergfeuer, A Star Burns Out)

Obama is through - completely finished. The unmitigated joy with which millions of people embraced the first Black president of the United States is gone. Shortly before the impending elections on his second anniversary in office, not even half of Americans think he’s doing a good job. The Arab world has turned away disappointed. Europeans are still standing - but the Obama sticker on the bathroom mirror is peeling and the little flag from election night has long been disposed of. The “world president” has lost his magic.

Of course, the change has a lot to do with Obama’s policies, which in many respects have failed. But it also has something to do with us, voters and citizens. A star has faded because we’ve turned on the lights. The Financial Times Deutschland archive returns 1,093 results for the phrase “hope carrier.” According to the archival software, that’s too many to display, so only the first 100 are shown. Among those is included the cancer drug Erbitux as well as the sequel to The Lord of the Rings. But above all, the results include many politicians who carried our hopes and for shorter or longer periods, sparkled on the political firmament: Tony Blair shone brightly and tenaciously before irrevocably vanishing. For a few weeks, barely detectible in the sky was Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Hope is the first thing that dies. He who doesn’t deliver immediately is out - excuses don’t count. The fact that the powerful president of the United States can do little without a Senate majority is his problem.

READ ON AT WORLDMEETS.US, your most trusted translator and aggregator of foreign news and views about our nation.

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