Monthly Archives: November 2012

Who said that democracies are peace-loving?…

It could not have been me. Coming from Sparta, I can tell you that those Athenians were an imperialist lot, enjoying a good democratic debate among themselves but relying on slaves for most mundane chores, exploiting their junior “allies” among other city states, and occasionally exterminating entire communities if they did not do things to their liking (see the case of Milos/Melos, 416 BCE).

Fast-forward to today, and we see Israel, an undisputable democracy, attacking the Gaza Strip in a self-righteous expression of calculated rage. Yes, there have been missiles launches from Gaza to Ashkelon and other Southern Israel cities, aiming at civilians, and that is indefensible. Yes, people have the right to live in peace and security with their families in the north, centre and south of Israel. But no, this cannot be limited to Israel’s citizens and voters alone. Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace, and in dignity. And no nation should attempt to humiliate another nation time and again, and keep it subjugated indefinitely because that will backfire, literally.

The Israeli decision to eliminate, without recourse to justice, the top military commander of Hamas sparked off this new Gaza War.  And the victims are again mostly civilian, on both sides. Israel saw the Hamas commander as a criminal and terrorist. Use of such terms may satisfy the Israeli public and subdue any objections in Israel and the US to the lack of judicial process for the death sentence imposed on this man.  But for many Palestinians in Gaza – and many other Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims around the world – he was a freedom fighter and a defender of their homeland against the powerful oppressor. Who is right? Or are they both right, or both wrong?

Both right and both wrong is the answer I would give, with consternation. I will not go into the details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its root causes, etc. I will just say that the two-state solution, an independent Palestine living peacefully side-by-side with Israel is the broadly accepted solution that needs to finally be implemented, possibly with an element of coercive implementation, towards both sides. And I would like to express here my deep disappointment with the role that the Quartet has been playing, or rather not playing, in recent years. The UN, the US, the EU and Russia, if they really wanted to and worked together, could have brought about at least some progress towards the two-state solution. But they have done hardly anything for several years now, and their Envoy, Mr. Tony Blair, is really a pitiful figure when he appears to make inconsequential statements when crises erupt.

A broader concern that Israel causes with its actions is the doubt it casts on the proposition that democracies are inclined to be peaceful and that the world as a whole would be peaceful if the (Western) democratic model prevailed throughout.  What we see in this case is a democracy that is intolerant, self-centred and self-righteous. A democracy that is disrespectful of the rights, individual and collective, of an entire other people, which it keeps locked-up in two divided enclaves, to a large extent controlling the movement of people and goods, continuously encroaching on Palestinian territory with more settlements and separation walls, and intervening with an iron fist at any indication of resistance.

The Israeli justifications of the new attack against Gaza use as a key argument the democratic nature and decision-making in Israel, which is a sovereign state. It is very clear that the Israeli authorities would never allow, if it were in their hands alone, the Palestinians to get their own state, because that would deprive them of at least half of that argument. And of course they would dispute the nature of any democracy that would be or is actually being built by Palestinians. For a large part of the people of Gaza, Hamas is a democratically elected authority. They actually won the democratic elections throughout the occupied Palestinian territory some years ago.* But no, we (i.e. the Israelis, the West) want the others to be democratic in our image, and compliant for that. This sounds more like imposing ideology than promoting democracy, and it is self-serving rather than respectful of everybody’s rights, or of justice, which cannot be subjugated to the temporary voting games of electioneering leaders.

This piece has been written in exasperation at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is only getting worse, its broader repercussions that can be severe for the Middle East and the whole world, the negative effects that it will inevitably have on both Palestinian and Israeli civilians in the short-, medium- and long-term. It is also written out of disappointment and concern with the decay of the Western democratic model, as it is being used to justify oppression, which can only lead to disillusionment. All this plays in the hands of extremists, which are many on all sides. And those extremists can eventually be democratically elected, if they are not already, and then it is your democracy against mine, and let the world go up in flames again. Hopefully we will not get to that, and human wisdom will prevail, in a way that goes beyond electoral cycles and the interests of individual constituencies, and encompasses instead humanity as a whole, and the rights of each and all individuals, and their survival and well-being. Amen…

 

*[I did not want to start talking here about the divisions among the Palestinians, which are doing major disservice to their own cause. Just a quote from a poem by Dionysios Solomos that became the Greek national anthem, referring to the uprising against the Ottoman Empire and similar divisions prevalent among Greeks at the time: “…if they hate each other, they do not deserve freedom”.]

 

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 17 November 2012

 

The US is not the World, but… (or Why the US elections matter)

The race is down to the finishing line, and in a couple of days we will know who the next US President will be. The whole world has been watching the drama unfold on our TV screens, worthy of a Hollywood production with elements of science fiction, thanks to super-storm Sandy.

Taking into account that many of us do no have the right to vote in the US elections, it is quite an overkill the way the Presidential race is covered by non-US media. At the same time, it is not easy to remain indifferent to the dramatic debates, the massive scale of meetings and electoral expenses, the dogged determination of the candidates crisscrossing this vast country. It is these fascinating “democracy rituals” that the American Republic has developed, and the realization, even if unpleasant to some, that the US still matters the most among the countries of the world, that attract the global interest in this election that involves less than 5 per cent of the world’s population.

What is it that the US still has that gives it such predominance? With a crumbling infrastructure – see New York City after Sandy – a huge debt, declining industry, increasing inequality and unemployment, this seems to be a country in decline, an empire whose best days are past. Nevertheless, the country remains the main global trend-setter, innovator, political and military leader, as well as moral norm proponent (even if in practice it does not always respect such norms itself – see Guantanamo and CIA “renditions”). It maintains its “killer instinct”, ready to use, effectively and in an escalating way, all means, from political to economic and military, to achieve its objectives. The American dream has an irresistible allure for the majority of people, who watch Hollywood movies and American TV shows, use the latest gadgets and social networks launched by US firms, and expect the US to do something about all of the world’s problems, even if they criticize it anyway.

The new US President will have to deal with all this, build on the strengths and address the weaknesses. And it is on how they deal with the weaknesses that the differences between the two candidates seems to be most clear. President Obama seems inclined to focus on “nation-building” at home, tackling the shortcomings that have emerged within the American society, rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure and mending the inequality gap that has increased significantly between the haves and the have-nots inside the US, while maintaining a respectful and rather restrained presence abroad. Governor Romney seems more inclined to export the US problems, with a more assertive presence abroad, notably military presence, which is hoped will restore America’s clear predominance and will correct domestic problems by being tough on trade, monetary issues, resource access, etc.

Whoever wins, will try their best to elevate their country and their leadership in the way they think best. Come January 2013, the world will work with either President Romney or President Obama, no matter what preference people might have had before the elections. The world needs a strong US, because leadership is hard to find, and the challenges are numerous, many of them of a global nature, like climate change, food insecurity, financial instability, resource scarcity. For the same reasons, the world needs a strong Europe, and a strong China, and India, and Brazil, and a strong Africa, and Southeast Asia and Latin America. These countries and regions also need to show leadership, and take on the glory and cost that leadership entails.

It is not about balancing or unseating the US from the global throne. The more leadership the better, as long as it is not of the confrontational type. We need leadership of the problem-solving type, addressing real issues and not just playing geopolitical games. In that sense, the world would probably vote for Obama, if it were allowed to vote in the US elections. Despite his known shortcomings, including an apparent intellectual aloofness and problems with consensus building in his own capital, he has been projecting a more benign and constructive America, which seems to be learning from its mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere and tries to avoid making new ones. This kind of America, one that also starts dealing seriously with its own problems at home, would be more of an asset to the world and leader for a new era of more balanced burden-sharing and problem-solving.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 4 November 2012

PS: Barack Obama has just been reelected, with a convincing majority. Expectations are running high, and he seems determined to meet them. He is in a good place, with nothing to lose in his second and final term — nothing other than his good name and legacy, that is, if he does not deliver. His reaching out to his defeated opponent for ideas to get the US back on track is a good sign of bipartisanship, which is necessary if things are to be done. His talk of America being a peaceful and generous power for the world, reference to climate change and other elements of his speech bode well for the future. Amen!

GK, 7 November 2012