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Monday, 2 May 2016

Interview: Col. Lawrence Wilkerson


Last week, the United States and Iran signed a long-awaited deal on the latter’s nuclear programme. The agreement will set limits on the Iranian nuclear programme, including a strict inspection regime, and massive reductions to the uranium stockpile for the next 15 years. In exchange for this Iran will be freed from the economic sanctions imposed against it. This deal raises new hopes and fears around the world. It also raises many questions, so we decided to contact Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on the subject.

Lawrence Wilkerson was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff in the second Bush administration. He was also Associate Director of the State Department’s policy planning staff under Ambassador Richard Haass. Prior to this Wilkerson served for over 30 years in the US armed forces. He is also a veteran of the Vietnam war. During the First Gulf War he worked closely with General Colin Powell in the first Bush administration. Today Lawrence Wilkerson teaches at the College of William & Mary on Government and Public Policy.

White: By some observers at least the nuclear deal has been welcomed as a break with the tensions of the recent past. Does this new deal represent a bold shift in US-Iranian relations?

Wilkerson: It has the potential to be so. There is no guarantee that it will shift relations dramatically—particularly if certain members of Congress continue to try to foul the deal. But if the basic requirements of the deal are adhered to by both sides, over time some trust will return to the relationship. At the same time, if other overlapping and even common interests, such as the defeat of ISIS and a political solution to the Syrian civil war, are achieved by common effort, the relationship could prosper and evolve more positively. Moreover, if an improved Iranian economy causes more democracy in Iran, that too could help the relationship become fuller and warmer. It is long overdue for the U.S. to mellow its support for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and to develop a more nuanced and balanced approach to the Persian Gulf region. An improving US-Iran relationship could be a big part of such a change.

White: In many ways the Obama years resemble an extension of the second Bush term. This deal may be an exception. Why do you think the Obama administration has pursued this deal?

Wilkerson: Primarily for the same reason that it pursued better relations with Cuba: the time is long past for talking to potential enemies rather than attacking them, overtly in war or covertly in secret CIA operations. But specifically with regard to Iran, there is no answer to several huge challenges in the Persian Gulf region and in southwest Asia in general without Iran. Iraq, Syria, nor Afghanistan will find any stability without Iran’s assistance. Likewise, the situation of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt will be problematic without ultimate Iranian acquiescence. At the end of the day, Israel’s security cannot be reasonably guaranteed either without tacit Iranian buy-in. Washington understood all these realities when Iran was the US proxy in the region, under the Shah from 1953 to 1979. Nothing has changed since then with regard to Iran’s power in the region; so, to ignore this reality today is truly unwise.

White: In 2010 Turkey and Brazil tried to broker a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and the US government vetoed it. Does the new deal suit the US because of the strict inspection regime?

Wilkerson: That potential deal in 2010 was a good one and Washington was unwise to turn it down. Doing so delayed a good deal for five years. But now that we have a good deal, we should pursue it with vigor. The current deal allows the most intrusive inspection regime in the history of the NPT. Frankly, I am surprised that Iran is allowing so much. Cheating on any deal is possible, of course; but cheating within the parameters of this deal will be very difficult—and, more importantly, I have every confidence that we would detect such cheating in time to take appropriate action.

White: We’ve seen the Republicans come out in vocal opposition. Likewise, there have been signs of conservative scepticism within Iran. To what extent do you think the new deal is threatened by right-wing forces on both sides?

Wilkerson: I believe the Republicans in particular but some Democrats as well—Democrats who get a great deal of their political funding from Jewish Americans—will try to derail the deal. I feel the President has the votes to veto any adverse legislation or resolutions by the Republican congress and not have his veto overridden. But such moves would weaken the deal by showing less than solid support for it. I am hoping that the national interest—which is well-served by this deal—will override political gain with enough members of Congress to keep this from happening, but I am not certain my hope is going to be fulfilled. From my position as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell in 2002, I saw how the Congress sabotaged the deal with north Korea, the so-called Agreed Framework. I know they can do it again. I just hope they don’t. I will be working to ensure that, as much as possible, the American people don’t let them do it. As for the Iranians, there are certainly groups that harbor people opposed to the deal as well—groups such as the IRGC, the al-Quds Force, and certain radical mullahs around the Ayatollah. But Ayatollah Khamenei has given President Rouhani the lead on this deal and if the economic picture is to be improved, he must continue to do so. I believe that is sufficient incentive for him to keep these oppositional elements in check.

White: The Israeli government and the Saudi royal family seem to be united in opposition to the nuclear deal. Does the split in the US political class represent a clash over regional interests?

Wilkerson: I’m not sure how the two thoughts in your question are related—except to interpret the question as meaning, do regional splits produce U.S. political splits? Not as much as some pundits try to insinuate. Most of the opposition to the deal—from my party, the Republicans—is simply political opportunism. My party has both houses of Congress and is salivating over the White House in 2016—or, rather, was. With Trump taking the early lead in the polls and with this very successful deal with Iran, my party has been set back a bit. So, its opposition to the deal has more politics in its fabric than substantive security concerns. They want the President to look bad and will do almost anything to achieve that purpose. That said, yes, the fact that this strange alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh has developed and that the Gulf Cooperation Council is buying billions of dollars of LockheedMartin’s BMD, and that Iran is on the “other side of this equation”, does cause political line-ups here in the US. So you have Republicans lined up supporting dictators with oil, Israel doing the same, and arguably the most democratic country in southwest Asia, Iran, being cast as their common enemy. Politics does make for strange bedfellows….

White: The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remarked that the “military option” remains on the table. What did you make of this remark?

Wilkerson: Just what he said. If the deal falls apart—specifically, if Iran cheats, breaks out and heads for a nuclear weapon—the military option is not foreclosed. Frankly, I believe saying it outright is stupid; but then this administration has not been the brightest bulb on the block when it comes to its rhetoric.

White: As a longstanding ally of Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran has been demonised by the West. Yet Iran stands as the only state with an interest in actively combating Islamic State. How valuable would Iran be as an ally?

Wilkerson: I think “ally”, formal or informal, is a step too far at the present moment—even though, as I said, Iran was our formal ally for over a quarter century. Gaining Iran’s assistance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in ending the brutal war in Syria, with the defeat of ISIS, and with a number of other problematic situations in the region, would be a real plus, and not just for the US but, more importantly, for this very troubled region. As I said before, these situations will not be managed in a positive way without some assistance from Tehran. It’s that basic. The reality of this US-Iran deal may be more vital in this respect than in its more immediate nuclear aspect.

This interview was conducted in July 2015.

Interview: Yanis Varoufakis


As the Greek crisis is far from over, I decided to reach out to Yanis Varoufakis and get his perspective on the challenges of the past and present. Major issues hang in the balance today: the future of Europe in particular, and the question of capitalism in general. This was as much the case when Varoufakis left office, as it is right now.

White: There has been much debate on the European Left as to whether or not the change in Syriza’s policy represented a betrayal of the party’s original aims. Is that a fair characterisation? Do you think the leadership had any real choice?

Varoufakis: My resignation, on the night of the referendum, reflects a conviction that, indeed, there was a real choice – and my view that PM Tsipras made precisely the wrong one. Having said that, I am loath to use terms, like ‘betrayal’, which demonise the ‘other’ viewpoint. It is time the Left abandoned sectarian practices and language.

White: What do you think would have happened if the Greek government had refused to shift its position?

Varoufakis: We would have had an honourable, an economically viable, agreement – instead of a surrender that leads the continuation of the debt-deflationary spiral that deepens our insolvency and inflames further the on-going humanitarian crisis.

White: The majority of Greeks wanted to stay in the Euro, but they also wanted to end austerity. Despite Syriza’s pledge to do both do you think the two were irreconcilable?

Varoufakis: Quite the opposite. The only way Greece can remain in the Eurozone in the medium term is if we succeed in ending the continual decline of national income and the exodus of our best-educated young. And the only way this will happen is via a combination of a smart debt restructure, the end of self-defeating austerity, and deep reforms in public administration and the private sector.

White: The German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued that the integration of Europe would almost inevitably take on a neoliberal form. In this view, the problems with the EU today represent the fundamental flaws of federalism. What do you make of this argument?

Varoufakis: The first part is correct. The second argument, about the ‘flaws of federalism’ is… flawed. Yes, it is true that the Eurozone’s design was based on a serious misunderstanding of how macro-economies function; a misunderstanding that was functional to the political agenda of those who wanted to shift power away from electorates and toward vested interests. However, the Eurozone’s design was not a species of federalism – it was, in fact, utterly antithetical to the principles of a democratic federation. It is the absence of a federal sovereignty that renders the Eurozone crisis-prone and politically toxic.

White: Would you welcome the breaking apart of the European institutions we currently have? Or do you think the EU should undergo reform instead?

Varoufakis: There is no doubt that they need to be reformed radically. But to create the political conditions for such reform first we need to re-deploy existing institutions in a manner that stabilises the four sub-crises afflicting Europe: public debt, banking, low investment and poverty.

White: Now the centre-right government in Portugal has been brought down by a new anti-austerity coalition led by the Socialist Party. How does this situation compare with Greece?

Varoufakis: The two countries, Greece and Portugal, are caught up in the same Eurozone-wide crisis and both have been subjected to dead-end policies that have been portrayed as success stories (with the Portuguese one bathed in more adulatory light). But there is a difference: Last January, in Greece, our government was elected with a clear mandate to oppose these dead-end policies. In Portugal this is not the case, as the Socialist Party seems determined, even before forming government, to avoid challenging the basic logic of a failed policy agenda.

White: Until recently it appeared that the centre-left was weak. Do you think the events in Portugal demonstrate hope for a resurgence in social democracy?

Varoufakis: No. Social democracy remains in tatters of its own making. It has yet to articulate a valid criticism of its contribution to the Eurozone’s terrible architecture as well as to the illogical manner in which Europe responded to the inevitable failures of that architecture.

White: We’ve seen China’s growth falter in recent months. Do you think we should anticipate another global economic crisis before the end of the decade?

Varoufakis: The crisis unleashed by the events of 2008 has not passed. For seven years now it has been migrating across the planet, gathering strength and transforming itself constantly. China’s slowdown is part of this process. The global economy is again in a dollar recession (i.e. global GDP shrunk this year in dollar terms by an amount not dissimilar to that observed in 2009). Europe may be the weak link but the whole global chain is under great stress due to the G20’s failure to deal with global imbalances and low aggregate investment. Nothing short of a new Bretton Woods can made a long lasting difference.

White: You’ve described yourself as an ‘erratic’ and libertarian Marxist. What does this mean in the 21st Century?

Varoufakis: Marx’s quarrel with capitalism was not that it was unjust but that it was inimical to human freedom and particularly inefficient at pressing our magnificent capacity for technological innovation into humanity’s service. He got capitalism right but failed to predict how his disciples, the Left, would exploit the power of his ideas to build political power structures that proved detrimental to human freedom and particularly inept at harnessing technological innovation. In the 21st Century, a blend of Marx’s freedom-based critique of capitalism and libertarian warnings against too much trust in bureaucracies seems to me a great weapon against the current political and economic dead-end. Decentralising technologies can help to make this ‘marriage’ work.

White: What have you been doing since you left office?

Varoufakis: Agitating for a democratic European Union…

This interview was conducted in November 2015.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Zionism: An Unhelpful Term

A big part of the controversy around Ken Livingstone's remarks is the use of the term ‘Zionism’ in relation to Hitler. The historical record can be looked up, though it may be better to question the use of language here. After all, words matter.

The Zionist movement was a broad church and included everyone from Noam Chomsky to Jackie Mason. However, Professor Chomsky is not a right-wing Jewish nationalist. Yet he was a Zionist youth leader and Alan Dershowitz was apart of the same Hebrew summer camp. But Chomsky’s childhood Zionism would not be recognised by the devotees of the state of Israel. He remembers the foundation of the so-called Jewish state as a “day of mourning”.

Of course, the obvious point cannot be made too often. Not all Zionists are Jews, neither are all Jews Zionists. For instance, Christian Zionism is a huge movement with deep roots and remains strong in the American Bible Belt, while anti-Zionism has a long history among Jews. Note the Christian Right tend to be fanatical supporters of Israeli aggression, but they also yearn for the Rapture and the end of Jewry worldwide.

Zionism is not synonymous with Jewishness, but it’s a highly imprecise term. In many ways, it would be more accurate to talk about Israeli or Jewish nationalism today. Precision of language is vital here. Clear distinctions have to be maintained. Not only because the misuse of the term ‘Zionist’ can be painted as anti-Semitic, but it can be received as such. This means deepening the vocabulary of the Left on Israel-Palestine.

Too often do we hear talk of the Israel lobby, or even the Jewish lobby, and this is not unproblematic. The only reason why lobbyists are welcomed in Washington and London is because there is an underlying interest in the first place. In other words, US policy favours Israel due to its own interests in the Middle East, not because of Israeli interference in American political life. The Left should not presuppose Western innocence in all of this, as if the US is being led astray by foreign interests. It is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but it certainly can be to talk in this way.

As Didi Herman argues, the Left should probably stop using the word ‘Zionism’ and try to grasp the problem in clear terms. By using ‘Zionism’, the Left opens itself up to right-wing offensives and infiltration by genuine anti-Semites. At the same time, there is little engagement with Jewish nationalism as a historic movement and the reasons for its appeal. It was once that the Left was avowedly Zionist, whereas today leftists are eager to pronounce themselves anti-Zionists. Here is a passage of advice from Herman:

The identification of a generic Zionism with nothing but racist practice in Israel entrenches an understanding of zionism not just as a dirty word, but as a pariah form of thinking unrelated to any other (except apartheid thinking). However, as Balibar (2009), Asharwi (2003), and many others have noted, Jewish nationalisms need to be taken seriously. The left’s wholesale intellectual rejection of an assumed monolithic Zionism does not assist such an endeavour. 
I suppose this post is, in part, a plea to the left to stop saying ‘Zionist’. Use ‘Israeli nationalists’ or ‘Israeli fundamentalists’ or better yet ‘Netanyahu’s regime’ or, as a last resort, at least refer to ‘Israel-zionism’ and not ‘Zionism’ per se, as in ‘media outlets that support Netanyahu’s regime’ or ‘the University of Birmingham is a bit of an Israeli nationalist outpost’. These alternatives won’t provide an easy shorthand in the way ‘Zionism’ does, for example, ‘Israeli nationalism = apartheid’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I suppose that is my point — easy options often sacrifice understanding for rhetorical force. The Zionist shorthand is upsetting to many because it is a very old way of talking about ‘Jewish conspiracy’ (used by antisemites long before Israeli statehood), and no doubt more importantly, it harms the cause of Palestinian solidarity because it allows people with all sorts of agendas to attack the solidarity campaign, and with occasional justification. Of course Israel itself likes to messianically represent itself as the embodiment of a monolithic Zionism, but there is no need for the left to reproduce this erasure of all the other forms of zionism.

It’s not surprising that the self-described ‘anti-totalitarian Left’ is leading the witch hunt. Many of these soi-disant leftists and liberals supported the invasion of Iraq on progressive grounds. Israel is seen as a Western liberal democracy encircled by Arab dictatorships and Islamic fascist regimes. Therefore all criticism of Israel is painted as anti-Jewish. The reality is much less convenient for this herd of independent minds.

Localising anti-Jewish prejudice in the Left is a form of externalisation. Much like child sexual abuse, we’re meant to believe it’s always someone else who is guilty of it. The terrible truth is sexual violence is far more common and banal. And the same can be said of Judeophobia. It’s not the preserve of student activists, intellectuals and conspiracists. The global financial crisis set the conditions in place for a resurgence.

As for the Labour Party, there is little to no anti-Semitism among its ranks. The last leader Ed Miliband is of Belgian Jewish heritage - his father, a refugee from Nazism served in WW2 - yet the British press was comfortable mocking him for his inability to enjoy a bacon sandwich. His father Ralph Miliband was a refugee from Nazism served in WW2, and the right-wing press insinuated the man was ‘disloyal’ to Britain. There was no discussion of anti-Jewish undercurrents in the midst of this.

However, Jew-bashing is an old game for the Right. The times haven’t changed so much. As Sam Kriss argues, the contemporary Right is now avowedly philo-Semitic - it is fascinated by Israel and by Jews - but this supposed love is really its opposite. Jews who criticise Israel are deemed insufficiently Jewish. The Norwegian fascist Breivik drew a line between ‘patriotic’ and ‘disloyal’ Jews in his rambling manifesto. Naturally, a Jewish state appeals to anti-Semites who want to rid their countries of a certain minority.

At this point, we could do far worse than to turn to the words of Judith Butler on Jewish politics and the Western fascination with Israel:


In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

I rest my case, fellow travellers.