Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel Wallerstein’

Winners and Losers in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock

April 9, 2010

Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 278, April 1, 2010

Anyone who thinks there is going to be any significant change in the status quo in Israel/Palestine is suffering from multiple delusions. The Israeli government is dead set against the creation of a Palestinian state, even a weak Palestinian state, and this view has the support of a very large majority of the Israeli Jews. The Palestinian leaders are more divided. But even the most accommodating are not willing even to consider anything less than a state based on the 1967 frontiers, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The rest of the world cannot budge either side. This is called deadlock.

The question is who gains and who loses by deadlock? The Israeli political elite seem convinced that they will gain. There is a very large group who are so resolutely irredentist that they would consider a peace agreement a veritable disaster. The Israelis have always thought that if they dug in their heels, eventually the rest of the world (including even the Arab Palestinians) would yield to what they call “realities on the ground.”

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The United States Misreads Brazil’s World Policy

February 1, 2010

Immanuel Wallerstein, Agence Global, Feb 2, 2010

When the United States first realized circa 1970 that its hegemonic dominance was being threatened by the growing economic (and hence geopolitical) strength of western Europe and Japan, it changed its posture, seeking to prevent western Europe and Japan from taking too independent a position in world affairs.

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Afghanistan: Heads You Lose, Tails You Lose

November 2, 2009

Immanuel Wallerstein, Agence Global, November 1, 2009

The war in Afghanistan is a war in which whatever the United States does now, or that President Obama does now, both the United States and Obama will lose. The country and its president are in a situation of perfect lockjaw.

Consider the basic situation. The Afghan government in Kabul has no legitimacy with the majority of the Afghan people. It also has no army worthy of the name. It also has no financial base. There is almost no military or personal security anywhere. It is faced with a guerilla opposition, the Taliban, who control half the country and who have grown steadily stronger since the Taliban government was overthrown by a foreign (largely United States) invasion in 2002. The New York Times reports that the Taliban “are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for their insurgent operations,” which American officials are struggling, unsuccessfully, to cut off.

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Iran Again: Is Everyone Bluffing?

October 1, 2009

Immanuel Wallerstein, Agence Global, Oct 1, 2009

Iran is back in the forefront of public diplomacy. President Obama, jointly with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, held a press conference in which they seemed to give Iran one more ultimatum: conform to their demands, what they called the demands of the “international community,” by December of this year or face new sanctions. Obama said that Iran is “breaking the rule that all nations must follow.”

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U.S. Internal Politics and its Military Interventions

September 16, 2009

Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 265, Sept. 15, 2009

In the last few weeks, there has been a marked increase of calls, coming from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, for some kind of early “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. This is coming at the very moment that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are about to recommend formally to President Obama an increase in U.S. troop commitments there.

Nothing is certain, but the general expectation is that Obama will agree to this. After all, during the elections, Obama had said that he considered U.S. intervention in Iraq a mistake and wanted an early withdrawal. One of the reasons he gave was that it had prevented sending enough troops into Afghanistan. This was a version of the “bad war, good war” concept. Iraq was a “bad” war, Afghanistan a “good” one.

There has apparently been much debate in the inner circle of President Obama about the wisdom of escalating U.S. military commitments in Afghanistan. It is reported that the leading opponent of troop escalation in Afghanistan is none other than Vice-President Biden. Biden has always been considered somewhat of a Democratic hawk. So how come he is now opposing troop escalation? The reported reason is that he now considers Afghanistan a hopeless quagmire, and that investing troops there will prevent the United States from concentrating on the really important zone, Pakistan. So we have a new version of the “bad war, good war” doctrine. Afghanistan has become a “bad” war; Pakistan is the “good” one.

Why is it so difficult for the United States to extricate itself from military interventions it is so patently losing? Some left analysts, in the United States and elsewhere, say it is because the United States is an imperialist power and therefore engages in such military interventions in order to maintain its political and economic power in the world. This explanation is quite insufficient, for the simple reason that the United States has not won a single major military confrontation since 1945. As an imperialist power, it has shown great incompetence in achieving its goals.

Consider the five wars in which the United States has committed large numbers of troops since 1945. The biggest – in terms of numbers of troops, economic costs, and political impact – was Vietnam. The United States lost the war. The other four were the Korean War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second invasion of Iraq. The Korean War and the first Gulf War were politically draws. The wars ended at the exact point that they began. The United States is clearly losing the war in Afghanistan. I believe that history will judge the second invasion of Iraq a draw as well. When the U.S. finally pulls out, it will be no stronger politically than when it went in – probably indeed the opposite.

So what drives the United States to engage in such politically self-defeating actions, especially if we think of the United States as a hegemonic power trying to control the entire world to its advantage? To answer that, we have to look at the internal politics of the United States.

All great powers, and especially hegemonic powers, are intensely nationalist. They believe in themselves and in their moral and political right to assert their so-called national interests. The overwhelming majority of their citizens consider themselves patriotic, and take this to mean that their government ought indeed to assert itself vigorously, and if necessary militarily, in the world arena. In the United States, since 1945, the percentage of the population who are principled anti-imperialists is politically insignificant.

U.S. politics is not divided between supporters and opponents of imperialism. It has been divided between those who are strongly interventionist and those who believe in “fortress America.” The latter used to be called isolationists. Isolationists are not anti-military. Indeed, they tend to be strong supporters of financial investment in military forces. But they are skeptical about using these forces in far-off places.

Of course, there is a whole gamut of intermediate positions between the extremes in this cleavage. The crucial thing to see is that almost no politician is ready to call for a serious reduction in U.S. military expenditures. This is why so many of them engage in the “bad war, good war” distinction. They justify reducing the use of military in the “bad” wars by suggesting that there are other, better uses for the military.

At this point, we have to analyze the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties on these questions. The isolationist wing of the Republican Party was very strong before the Second World War, but since 1945 it has become rather small. The Republicans since 1945 have regularly tended to call for increased investment in the military, and have usually argued that the Democrats have been too “soft” on military questions.

The fact that the Republicans have been very inconsistent in this matter hasn’t seemed to affect their public image. For example, when President Clinton wanted to send troops to the Balkans, the Republicans opposed it. It didn’t matter. The U.S. public seems to take the Republicans at their word as patriotic hawks, no matter what they do.

The Democrats have had the opposite problem. There have been large numbers of books arguing, credibly, that Democratic administrations have been readier than Republican administrations to engage in military interventions abroad (for example, in both Korea and Vietnam). Nonetheless, the Republicans have constantly denounced the Democrats for being “doves” in their military views. It is true that a large minority of Democratic voters have in fact been “doves,” but not a large number of Democratic politicians. Democratic politicians have always worried that the voters will consider them to be “doves” and turn against them for that reason.

The Democrats have therefore almost always used the “bad war, good war” line. It hasn’t done them all that much good. The Democrats seem to be stuck with the label of being less macho than the Republicans. So it’s very simple. When Obama makes his decisions on these matters, it’s not enough for him to analyze whether or not troop escalation in Afghanistan makes any military or political sense. He worries above all that he himself, and more broadly the Democratic Party, may be labeled once again as the “sell-outs,” the “doves,” the ones who “lost” countries to the enemies – to the Soviet Union in the old days, to the “terrorists” today.

Obama will probably therefore send in more troops. And the Afghanistan War will go the way of the Vietnam War. Only the outcome for the United States will be worse, because there is no cohesive, rational opposing group to whom to lose the war – one that will allow U.S. helicopters to withdraw the troops without shooting at them. When Bertold Brecht got cynical or angry at Communist regimes, he told them that, if the people were rebelling against their wisdom, they should “change the people.” Perhaps that’s what Obama needs to do – change the people, his people. Or maybe, in time, the people will change themselves. If the United States loses too many more wars, its citizens may wake up to the realization that U.S. military interventions abroad and incredibly large military expenditures at home are not the solution to their problems, but the greatest impediment to U.S. national survival and well-being.

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, and contact: rights@agenceglobal.com, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write: immanuel.wallerstein@yale.edu.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

The Firestorm Ahead

September 2, 2009

Immanuel Wallerstein, Agence Global, September 2, 2009

There is a firestorm ahead in the Middle East for which neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. public is prepared. They seem scarcely aware how close it is on the horizon or how ferocious it will be. The U.S. government (and therefore almost inevitably the U.S. public) is deluding itself massively about its capacity to handle the situation in terms of its stated objectives. The storm will go from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Israel/Palestine, and in the classic expression “it will spread like wildfire.”

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The World Left and the Iranian Elections

August 1, 2009

By Immanuel Wallerstein | Agence Global, August 1, 2009

The recent elections in Iran, and the subsequent challenges to their legitimacy, have been a matter of enormous internal conflict in Iran, and of seemingly endless debate in the rest of the world — a debate that threatens to linger for some time yet. One of its most fascinating consequences has been the deep divisions in this worldwide discussion among persons who consider themselves part of the world left. They have ranged in their views from virtually unconditional supporters of the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei analysis of the situation to virtually unconditional opponents, with multiple positions in-between. This may be as much a commentary on the state of the world left as it is on the state of Iran.

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Wallerstein: Cuba and the United States: The Slow Thaw

May 2, 2009
Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 256, May 1, 2009

After nearly 50 years of unremitting hostility to Cuba’s revolutionary government, the United States has taken its first steps towards a thaw in relations. The Cuban government has responded cautiously and skeptically, but has kept the door open to this possibility.

Some commentators have attributed this new situation to a change in leadership in both countries. The real explanation lies much more in the changed geopolitical situation – in the world-system as a whole and in Latin America in particular.

The Cuban revolutionaries came to power in January 1959. Relations with the United States deteriorated badly within a year. In March of 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the preparation of an invasion by Cuban exiles to overthrow the Cuban government. Shortly after John F. Kennedy became president, he approved a revised version of the Eisenhower plan in March of 1961. One month later, the plan was implemented. It is known as the Bay of Pigs (Playa de Girón) invasion. It lasted a very few days and was a military fiasco for the U.S.-supported invaders.

In January of 1962, the United States proposed at the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) that Cuba be suspended from membership. The United States proposal was supported by 14 of 21 members, the bare two-thirds needed to pass it. Cuba voted no and six Latin American countries abstained. The principal ground for the suspension was the fact that Cuba had announced its adherence to Marxism-Leninism, which was deemed incompatible with membership. The United States in addition launched a total embargo on trade relations with Cuba and sought to get acquiescence in this boycott from its NATO allies in western Europe and from Latin American states.

October of 1962 marked the very dramatic Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuban sites. The United States demanded they be withdrawn. The world feared it was on the brink of a nuclear war. In the end, the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles, presumably against a secret pledge by the United States that they would not support a further invasion of Cuba. The Cuban government indicated its disagreement with the Soviet Union’s decision, but maintained its good relations with that government.

As is evident, the main element in U.S. hostility to the Cuban government was Cold War considerations. From that point on, the U.S. government placed constant pressure on its NATO allies and Latin American states to cut all links with Cuba, which one by one most of them did.

At the same time, there were an increasing number of Cuban exiles in the United States. These exiles were determined to overthrow the Cuban government, and organized politically to ensure very strong support for this idea by the U.S. Congress and government. Over the first thirty years, this effort was increasingly successful.

Against this hostility, the Cuban government sought alliances not only with countries in the so-called socialist bloc but with revolutionary governments and movements in the so-called Third World. It “exported” to Third World countries its human capital in the form of well-trained physicians and schoolteachers. It offered crucial military assistance to the government of independent Angola, when it was fighting against invaders from the apartheid government of South Africa. Cuban troops helped defeat the South Africans at the crucial battle of Cuito Carnavale in 1988.

The entire situation changed in the 1990s in three crucial ways. The first new element was the collapse of the Soviet Union. This meant that Cold War considerations had now become irrelevant. It meant also that Cuba suffered great economic hardship in the 1990s because of the ending of Soviet/Russian economic assistance, and had to adjust its internal program.

The second new element, especially evident under the presidency of George W. Bush, was the acute decline of U.S. geopolitical power. This unleashed a serious reversal of Latin American politics, with the coming to power, in one country after another, of left-of-center governments. One by one, these countries all began to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and to call for both the ending of the U.S. boycott and Cuba’s reintegration into the OAS.

The third element was a marked transformation of the U.S. political scene. For the first time, there began to be serious talk about the “failure” of U.S. policy towards Cuba. There was pressure from farm interests to gain the right to sell their products in Cuba. This gained support from many Republican senators, including notably Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Even more important perhaps was the fact that, after fifty years, the Cuban exile community had evolved in its political views. Large numbers of younger Cuban-Americans began to argue for the right to travel to Cuba, to send money there, and to have free and open exchange.

When Barack Obama became president, he was thus under some pressure to launch a “thaw” in Cuban-American relations. He did this by various initial gestures, undoing the restrictions on family remittances and travel imposed by his predecessor. How far Obama is ready to go to improve relations is as yet unknown. But whereas a mere ten years ago, the internal U.S. political pressure was overwhelmingly in favor of the economic boycott, the public and the politicians are now divided. And given the evolution of Latin American opinion and the growing size of the Latino population in the United States, it is likely that U.S. public opinion will evolve further in the coming year or two.

Cuba’s reaction has been prudent. Fidel Castro explained it well on April 5. He said that Obama’s gestures and statements were destined primarily to a U.S. public and expressed the view of a U.S. president. He then said two things: “Undoubtedly he is much better than Bush and McCain” (something many left critics of Obama are unwilling to admit) but Obama is constrained by the realities: “The empire is much stronger than he and his good intentions are.”

So, Cuba is tentatively exploring how far the United States is ready to go. There are “low-level” diplomatic discussions currently going on. The Obama government is under internal pressures towards a “thaw.” The Castro government is under Latin American pressures in favor of a “thaw.” If geopolitical realities continue to evolve in the direction they have been heading in the last few years, it is not impossible that Cuba and the United States can achieve “normal” diplomatic relations. No doubt, both would continue to have different perspectives on the world, and pursue somewhat different objectives, but that is true of most bilateral relations. A situation in which the relations between Cuba and the United States were ones of dignity and mutual respect would be a great improvement over the relations of the past fifty years.

Chronicle of a Suicide Foretold: The Case of Israel

January 17, 2009
Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 249, Jan. 15, 2009

The state of Israel proclaimed its independence at midnight on May 15, 1948. The United Nations had voted to establish two states in what had been Palestine under British rule. The city of Jerusalem was supposed to be an international zone under U.N. jurisdiction. The U.N. resolution had wide support, and specifically that of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Arab states all voted against it.

In the sixty years of its existence, the state of Israel has depended for its survival and expansion on an overall strategy that combined three elements: macho militarism, geopolitical alliances, and public relations. The macho militarism (what current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls the “iron fist”) was made possible by the nationalist fervor of Jewish Israelis, and eventually (although not initially) by the very strong support of Jewish communities elsewhere in the world.

Geopolitically, Israel first forged an alliance with the Soviet Union (which was brief but crucial), then with France (which lasted a longer time and allowed Israel to become a nuclear power), and finally (and most importantly) with the United States. These allies, who were also patrons, offered most importantly military support through the provision of weapons. But they also offered diplomatic/political support, and in the case of the United States considerable economic support.

The public relations was aimed at obtaining sympathetic support from a wide swath of world public opinion, based in the early years on a portrait of Israel as a pioneering David against a retrograde Goliath, and in the last forty years on guilt and compassion over the massive Nazi extermination of European Jewry during the Second World War.

All these elements of Israeli strategy worked well from 1948 to the 1980s. Indeed, they were increasingly more effective. But somewhere in the 1980s, the use of each of the three tactics began to be counterproductive. Israel has now entered into a phase of the precipitate decline of its strategy. It may be too late for Israel to pursue any alternative strategy, in which case it will have committed geopolitical suicide. Let us trace how the three elements in the strategy interacted, first during the successful upward swing, then during the slow decline of Israel’s power.

For the first twenty-five years of its existence, Israel engaged in four wars with Arab states. The first was the 1948-1949 war to establish the Jewish state. The Israeli declaration of an independent state was not matched by a Palestinian declaration to establish a state. Rather, a number of Arab governments declared war on Israel. Israel was initially in military difficulty. However, the Israeli military were far better trained than those of the Arab countries, with the exception of Transjordan. And, crucially, they obtained arms from Czechoslovakia, acting as the agent of the Soviet Union.

By the time of the truce in 1949, the discipline of the Israeli forces combined with the Czech arms enabled the Israelis to win considerable territory not included in the partition proposals of the United Nations, including west Jerusalem. The other areas were incorporated by the surrounding Arab states. A large number of Palestinian Arabs left or were forced to leave areas under the control of the Israelis and became refugees in neighboring Arab countries, where their descendants still largely live today. The land they had owned was taken by Jewish Israelis.

The Soviet Union soon dropped Israel. This was probably primarily because its leaders quickly became afraid of the impact of the creation of the state on the attitudes of Soviet Jewry, who seemed overly enthusiastic and hence potentially subversive from Stalin’s point of view. Israel in turn dropped any sympathy for the socialist camp in the Cold War, and made clear its fervent desire to be considered a full-fledged member of the Western world, politically and culturally.

France at this time was faced with national liberation movements in its three North African colonies, and saw in Israel a useful ally. This was especially true after the Algerians launched their war of independence in 1954. France began to help Israel arm itself. In particular, France, which was developing its own nuclear weapons (against U.S. wishes), helped Israel do the same. In 1956, Israel joined France and Great Britain in a war against Egypt. Unfortunately for Israel, this war was launched against U.S. opposition, and the United States forced all three powers to end it.

After Algeria became independent in 1962, France lost interest in the Israeli connection, which now interfered with its attempts to renew closer relations with the three now independent North African states. It was at this point that the United States and Israel turned to each other to forge close links. In 1967, war broke out again between Egypt and Israel, and other Arab states joined Egypt. In this so-called Six Day War, the United States for the first time gave military weapons to Israel.

The 1967 Israeli victory changed the basic situation in many respects. Israel had won the war handily, occupying all those parts of the British mandate of Palestine that it had occupied before, plus Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights. Juridically, there was now a state of Israel plus Israel’s occupied territories. Israel began a policy of establishing

Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The Israeli victory transformed the attitude of world Jewry, which now overcame whatever reservations it had had about the creation of the state of Israel. They took great pride in its accomplishments and began to undertake major political campaigns in the United States and western Europe to secure political support for Israel. The image of a pioneering Israel with emphasis on the virtues of the kibbutz was abandoned in favor of an emphasis on the Holocaust as the basic justification for world support of Israel.

In 1973, the Arab states sought to redress the military situation in the so-called Yom Kippur war. This time again, Israel won the war, with U.S. arms support. The 1973 war marked the end of the central role of the Arab states. Israel could continue to try to get recognition from Arab states, and it did succeed eventually with both Egypt and Jordan, but it was now too late for this to be a way to secure Israel’s existence.

As of this point, there emerged a serious Palestinian Arab political movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was now the key opponent of Israel, the one with whom Israel needed to come to terms. For a long time, Israel refused to deal with the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat, preferring the iron fist. And at first, it was militarily successful.

The limits of the iron fist policy were made evident by the first intifada, a spontaneous uprising of Palestinian Arabs inside the occupied territories, which began in 1987 and lasted six years. The basic achievement of the intifada was twofold. It forced the Israelis and the United States to talk to the PLO, a long process that led to the so-called Oslo Accords of 1993, which provided for the creation of the Palestinian Authority in part of the occupied territories.

The Oslo Accords in the long run were geopolitically less important than the impact of the intifada on world public opinion. For the first time, the David-Goliath image began to be inverted. For the first time, there began to be serious support in the Western world for the so-called two-state solution. For the first time, there began to be serious criticism of Israel’s iron fist and its practices vis-à-vis the Arab Palestinians. Had Israel been serious about a two-state solution based on the so-called Green Line – the line of division at the end of the 1948-1949 war – it probably would have achieved a settlement.

Israel however was always one step behind. When it could have negotiated with Nasser, it wouldn’t. When it could have negotiated with Arafat, it wouldn’t. When Arafat died and was succeeded by the ineffectual Mahmoud Abbas, the more militant Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel refused to talk to Hamas.

Now, Israel has invaded Gaza, seeking to destroy Hamas. If it succeeds, what organization will come next? If, as is more probable, it fails to destroy Hamas, is a two-state solution now possible? Both Palestinian and world public opinion is moving towards the one-state solution. And this is of course the end of the Zionist project.

The three-element strategy of Israel is decomposing. The iron fist no longer succeeds, much as it didn’t for George Bush in Iraq. Will the United States link remain firm? I doubt it. And will world public opinion continue to look sympathetically on Israel? It seems not. Can Israel now switch to an alternative strategy, of negotiating with the militant representatives of the Arab Palestinians, as an integral constituent of the Middle East, and not as an outpost of Europe? It seems quite late for that, quite possibly too late. Hence, the chronicle of a suicide foretold.


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