Richard Falk, a regular Nobel Peace Prize nominee “prominent in America and internationally as both a public intellectual and citizen pilgrim”, has participated in a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestinian territories, serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. He taught international law and politics at the universities of Princeton and California, Santa Barbara.
In his new book he recalls visits to North Vietnam, Iran and South Africa, where he met former prime minister Pham Von Dong, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution Khomeini and the anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, respectively.
He also tackles his childhood, his years of academic research and his four-decade stint at Princeton. It shows how, as he “became more publicly vocal”, he started to pay greater attention to “normative considerations”, as opposed to successes and failures, of the “American grand strategy”: “Over time, despite periods of withdrawal, I found myself consistently swimming against the current, and found that struggling to keep moving forward became more difficult, not easier as I had hoped...”
Has the experience of costly military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan reduced the US appetite for them?
Unfortunately, the real lessons of the Vietnam War remain unlearned, and the fundamental failures were repeated as you suggest later in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would add Libya, and less directly, Yemen and Syria. The US government did attempt to make some adjustments in reaction to defeat in Vietnam. It ended reliance upon conscripted armed forces and obligating the general citizenry to do military service. Instead it established an entirely volunteer army of professionals recruited to make their career employment within the military.
This adjustment was based on the misleading assumption that the war was lost, not on the battlefields of Vietnam, but in American living rooms where families watched on TV coffins carrying dead young American men home from a distant war that seemed remote from national security, and withdrew political support. In American society a long war cannot continue without public support if middle-class children are being forced to participate.
A second type of adjustment was to replace traditional combat troops and ground warfare with high technology interventions that could be carried out largely from the air, relying on more and more sophisticated weaponry, exemplified by the use of drones equipped with missiles directed from remote locations far from the combat zones.
Some attempt was also made to neutralise criticism in the media by “embedding” journalists into combat forces, hoping that their outlook would be more sympathetic to the military mission underway; in effect, relying on technology that reduces dependence on soldiers and neutralising media criticism.
There has been some reaction against these costly, inconclusive interventions, even aside from concern over casualties and the effectiveness of military approaches to conflict resolution. As Vietnam showed, and these other interventions reinforced, it is almost impossible for external actors to prevail in internal struggles for power by relying on their military superiority. This explains why these struggles are increasingly called into question as “forever wars” that do not serve the national interests of the United States or the West generally, and such major commitments as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq vary.
At the same time, domestic forces in the United States with the government bureaucracy and the private sector continue to encourage the belief that military engagements with foreign internal struggles are essential to sustain the global security system that the US and NATO have established and sustained since after World War II.
The ongoing search of strategic planners in the US is to find ways to inject military power from sea, air, cyber sources that constitute postmodern forms of intervention. These operations seek to control political outcomes by relying on covert operations conducted by “special forces” that carry on their destabilising activities as secretly as possible and by drone warfare, sanctions, threats and economic warfare.
Part of this continued militarisation of foreign policy has to do with maintaining a public appreciation that American security and economic interests are threatened by multiple actors around the world, and only a high military budget will enable the government to protect the prosperity and security of the American people, and that of close allies.
You argue that the “dynamics of self-determination” should serve as the basis for US-Iranian ties. As Biden refuses to re-join the Obama-sponsored nuclear agreement, would it be fair to say that both Republicans and Democrats now believe it was a mistake?
The issues involving Iran are interwoven with the special relationship that the US has with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the degree to which the pro-Israeli lobby in America wields disproportionate influence in Congress, and with the Biden leadership. Restoring the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] with Iran serves the real interests of Iran and the US, but since it antagonises Israel and Saudi Arabia, it has become a treacherous rite of passage for the Biden presidency. Biden above all quite reasonably does not want to risk weakening public support for its domestic priorities associated with overcoming the Covid challenge, restoring the American economy, and reforming immigration policy.
In this sense, the nuclear agreement is not evaluated on its own but in the context of these regional relationships, which are intent on confronting Iran. In this regard, Israel and Saudi Arabia want renewed US participation in the nuclear agreement also to be extended to impose limits on Iran’s missile capabilities, especially the range, numbers and precision of this weaponry. They’re also pressuring Washington to regulate political alignments between Iran and such non-state regional political forces as Hamas, Hizbullah and Houthis as the political price of ending US sanctions.
US policies are distorted, and regional stability suffers. From the perspective of the Middle East, the most sensible development would be to push for denuclearising arrangements and mutual non-aggression pledges. A dramatic sensible step would be to establish a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, but this would require Israel to eliminate its nuclear weapons stockpile and limit its enrichment capabilities.
It is notable that all important countries in the region including Iran have favoured such a development, with the notable exception of Israel. Because of this exception, the US will not even consider steps that would have proliferation and stability benefits, as well as demonstrate that American leadership promotes conflict reduction in the diplomatic sphere, and is not just a matter of geopolitical muscle.
Turkey has recently clashed with the West on many levels. How do you see this impacting its future relations with the West?
These conflictual issues are real, but are all on a secondary level as compared to the shared interests in re-centring American global policy on a re-energised NATO and an approach that identifies the security challenge to the West as emanating primarily from China, and secondarily from Russia.
In this sense, despite tensions with Europe and the US, Turkey remains an important player in the Biden scheme of things, which highlights geopolitical rivalries and alliance diplomacy. And with Europe, Turkey plays a key role in mitigating the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, especially Syria, which in turn is viewed as essential if Western European countries are to remain in the liberal democratic camp.
It should be remembered, as well, that since the 2016 failed coup attempt to overthrow the Erdogan government, there has been a concerted anti-Turkish international campaign that has linked Fethullah Gülen, Kemalist, Kurdish and Armenian forces, and is strongly encouraged by Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Which factors prevent a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Most of the explanation relates to Israel, and its enactment step by step of the maximalist Zionist programme, which makes it increasingly clear that there is no willingness to reach the sort of negotiated agreement based on a political compromise that would lay the foundations for a sustainable peace. The Palestinians including representatives of Hamas have long made it very clear that they would accept an interim peace arrangement of indefinite duration if Israel withdrew to 1967 borders.
The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, and even the earlier 1988 expression of willingness by the PLO to normalise relations with Israel if such a withdrawal were to be coupled by Palestinian statehood, the basis of the two-state diplomacy that underpinned the Oslo Framework since 1993, has been implicit in international thinking ever since the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution 181 in 1947, and underlay the unanimous UN Security Resolution 242.
The Palestinians have not acted effectively in promoting their struggle in several important respects. Above all, there has never been a clearly articulated, authoritative Palestinian peace proposal. Palestinian peace diplomacy has been reactive and seemingly passive. Beyond this, Palestine has not achieved sufficient political unity to put forth a position that represents the Palestinian people as a whole, and exhibits splits between secular and religious elements and between Palestinians living under occupation and confined to refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
This failure of the Palestinian leadership to put all differences aside until political independence in a viable form is achieved, has contributed to their weakness, and allowed Israel to proceed with a politics of fragmentation.
From the perspective of the present, the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and self-determination seems to be blocked. Neither the UN nor traditional international diplomacy, led by the US, has been able to fashion a solution. Continuing lip service to the two-state approach is almost an admission of failure given Israel’s unmistakable opposition, taking into account its own territorial ambitions, and its largely irreversible encroachments on occupied Palestine, as highlighted by the scale and dispersion of unlawful settlements.
With these considerations in mind, the future for the whole of Palestine (that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea) is almost certain to be governance as a single state. In practical terms, this means either a continuation of a single apartheid Israel one-state outcome or a secular democratic one-state based on ethnic equality and the diligent observance of human rights.
Given the failure of the UN and inter-governmental diplomacy after decades of futile maneuvering, prospects for peace rest almost entirely on Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives of civil society, the combination of forces that led to the collapse of South African apartheid. It is this earlier experience of overcoming a long period of oppressive governance that should inspire hope among Palestinians and their supporters and haunt the sleep of Israel and its backers.
Might the upcoming Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections contribute to finalising an intra-Palestinian reconciliation process?
At this time, there is little reason to be hopeful that these elections will produce reconciliation among Palestinians or the kind of dynamic leadership that could build robust international support for Palestine’s struggle to achieve self-determination within arrangements that produced a negotiated peace arrangement that was widely accepted as fair and reasonable for both people given the surrounding circumstances. The likely outcome will reinforce current divisions, including a renewal of the electoral mandate of existing leaders and the entrenched interests of Palestinian elites that are being upheld.
In fairness, the elections are being conducted under conditions of apartheid governance with undisguised Israeli interferences designed to prevent results that would strengthen the quality of Palestinian leadership and governance potential. If serious peace prospects are to emerge in the coming years, they will result from Palestinian resistance, augmented by a growing international solidarity movement rooted in civil society activism.
Such pressures from within and without might over time induce the Israeli leadership to recalculate its own interests in such a way as to replace the realities of Zionist statehood based on Jewish supremacy by a scaled back willingness to settle for a Jewish homeland as constitutionally implemented in a democratic secular state based on an ethos of collective and individual equality.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly