Category Archives: Danny Postel

New Texts Out Now: Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East

[This post originally appeared on Jadaliyya —Ed.]


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Emphasis on recent: the book demonstrates that the sharp sectarian turn in the region’s politics is largely a phenomenon of the last few decades — really since 1979 — and that pundits who imagine it as an eternal or fixed feature of the Middle East are reading history backwards. So the book is an exercise in refutation and ideology critique on the one hand, while also offering a set of rigorous social scientific arguments about what exactly is driving the intensification of sectarian conflict in the Middle East today. Our contributors come from political science, history, anthropology, and religious studies, and it is from this range of disciplines that we present a social and political theory as well as a critical history of sectarianism.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

(DP and NH): The first section of the book offers big-picture historical, theoretical, and geopolitical perspectives on the sectarianization process — that is, the escalation of sectarian conflict in recent years. The second section dives into a series of case studies, examining how the sectarianization process has played out in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The concluding chapter explores the prospects of reversing the sectarianization process.

The book addresses a range of literatures: in the introduction, we draw on the literature on ethno-nationalist mobilization and evaluate the primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist schools of thought; in his chapter, Adam Gaiser revisits debates among sociologists of religion about the nature of sects and engages with theories of narrative identity; Fanar Haddad applies critical race theory to the politics of sectarianism in Iraq; Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto draws on the anthropologist Robert Weller’s concepts of saturation and precipitation to illuminate the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict; Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi draws on international relations theory — specifically Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch’s concept of “middle powers” in a “penetrated regional system” — to make sense of Iran’s role in the sectarianization process; drawing from the literature on republicanism, Islamism, and post-Islamism, Stacey Philbrick Yadav develops her original concept of “Islamist republicanism” and explores what she calls “convergent republicanism” among adversarial Islamists in Yemen; Toby Matthiesen deploys the concept of “securitization” associated with the Copenhagen school of critical security studies to examine the sectarianization process in Bahrain; Bassel Salloukh draws on Foucault, Gramsci, and James Tully in his analysis of what he calls the disciplinary logic of the sectarian system in Lebanon; Timothy D. Sisk draws on the growing body of research on ethnic and religious violence and post-conflict peacebuilding in search of lessons for de-sectarianization.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

(DP and NH): In 2013 and 2014 we were deeply engaged in the literature and the debate on the Syrian conflict. We organized two international conferences — one at the University of Denver, one at SOAS in London — and co-edited a book on the subject. It struck us that all sorts of journalists, activists, and even some scholars, across the ideological spectrum, characterized the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. Prominent Syria commentators referred to the protests that began in March 2011 as a “Sunni uprising.” Diplomats cautioned against the West taking sides in “ancient” blood feuds. Some left-wing journalists and activists unwittingly echoed these essentialist, Orientalist tropes. This narrative of course belied the decidedly non-sectarian origins of the Syrian uprising. The slogans and demands of Syrian protesters throughout the spring and summer of 2011 were exactly those of the other Arab uprisings: dignity, social justice, democratic rights, an end to dictatorship. The Syrians making these demands came from various backgrounds and represented a cross-section of the society: Alawis, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and Sunnis (Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs alike) took to the streets and demonstrated together, along with secular Syrians.

This history had been erased, and very quickly, in the sectarian narrative that took hold. We wanted to push back on that distorted narrative, but we also wanted to make sense of how exactly the Syrian conflict became sectarianized. So our interest in the sectarianization process emerged very directly out of our work on Syria. But we saw a pattern across the region: uprisings that began as non-sectarian/cross-sectarian but morphed into sectarian battles. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, the sectarianization process took different forms in different countries, but the underlying dynamic was remarkably consistent. We thus set out to assemble the case studies, drawing on the leading experts on those countries, but also to theorize the phenomenon as a whole.

Our longstanding interest in democratic theory and social movements also animated this project. Nader Hashemi’s book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societiesmakes a case for democratic pluralism in the Islamic world. The sectarianization process has undermined the struggle for democracy in Muslim societies by sowing division and cultivating hatred, to borrow Peter Gay’s felicitous phrase. Danny Postel worked in the US labor movement for several years (for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice, and for a coalition of labor unions and community organizations). His interest in labor movements in the MENA region (and progressive political mobilization more generally) is related to the issue of sectarianization insofar as the former is an example of people organizing around issues of shared interests and aims that transcend religious identity. It’s vital to remember that there have been all kinds of labor movements and other forms of political mobilization in the region and that the politics of the Middle East have not always revolved around sectarianism — nor must they forever.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

(DP and NH): Our aims are ambitious: we want to change the very terms of the public conversation about sectarianism and to put a major dent in the currently ascendant narrative about why the Middle East is awash in violence today. We want to put the term sectarianization into general circulation and see it become part of the vocabulary of political debate.

We hope all sorts of people will read the book — scholars, journalists, researchers, policymakers, diplomats, religious leaders, and practitioners in the world of conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human development. The book will soon be translated into Arabic, which is hugely important to us. We would love to see the Arabic edition reach not only scholars but people on the ground in the societies the book examines, especially religious leaders and activists engaged in cross-sectarian organizing. Those are the efforts that will chart the path beyond the maelstrom of sectarianization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

(DP and NH): We’ve been developing a project on cross-ideological coalition building in deeply divided societies focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt, but also drawing on cases outside the region. Nader is working on an intellectual and political history of Iran’s Green movement, and a volume on Islam and human rights. Danny is writing something on Syria and tragedy. Down the road he hopes to do something on the role of labor movements in the MENA region.

Excerpt from “The Sectarianization Thesis: A Social Theory of Sectarianism”:

This book forcefully challenges the lazy and Orientalist reliance on “sectarianism” as a catch-all explanation for the ills afflicting the Middle East today. We propose to shift the discussion of sectarianism by providing analternative interpretation of this subject that can better explain the various conflicts in the Middle East and why they have morphed from nonsectarian or cross-sectarian (and nonviolent) uprisings/movements intosectarianized battles and civil wars. The contributors to this volume—who include political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars—examine this phenomenon as it has unfolded over a definite period of time via specific mechanisms. Through multiple case studies (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran) and with historical and theoretical chapters exploring the nature and evolution of sectarianization, they analyze and map this process, exploring not only how but why it has happened.

Conflict between sectarian Muslim groups has intensified dramatically in recent years. But why? What explains the upsurge in sectarian conflict at this particular moment in multiple Muslim societies? How can we best understand this phenomenon?

To answer this question, we propose the term sectarianization: a process shaped by political actors operating within specific contexts, pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilization around particular (religious) identity markers. Class dynamics, fragile states, and geopolitical rivalries also shape the sectarianization process. The term sectarianism is typically devoid of such reference points. It tends to imply a static given, a trans-historical force—an enduring and immutable characteristic of the Arab Islamic world from the seventh century until today.

The theme of political authoritarianism is central to the sectarianization thesis. This form of political rule has long dominated the politics of the Middle East, and its corrosive legacy has deeply sullied the polities and societies of the region. Authoritarianism, not theology, is the critical factor that shapes the sectarianization process. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have deliberately manipulated sectarian identities in various ways as a strategy for deflecting demands for political change and perpetuating their power. This anti-democratic political context is essential for understanding sectarian conflict in Muslim societies today, especially in those societies that contain a mix of Sunni and Shi‘a populations. To paraphrase the famous Clausewitz aphorism about war as a continuation of politics by other means, sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is the perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization.

[W]hy are these conflicts intensifying now; and why in this particular region of the world? In other words, what explains the flaring of sectarian conflict at specific moments in time and in some places rather than others? Sunni–Shi‘a relations, for example, were not always conflict-ridden, nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until recently. How did Syrians and Iraqis with different sectarian identities manage to coexist for centuries without mass bloodshed? How did these pluralistic mosaics come unglued so precipitously? What are the key forces driving sectarianization?

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism: 1979, 2003, 2011

The key regional development that shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same manner as the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, the Saudi kingdom and other Sunni authoritarian regimes invested significant resources in undermining the power and appeal of the Iranian revolution, seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shi‘a/Persian phenomenon based on a corruption of the Islamic tradition.32 Sunni Muslims, they argued, should not be duped by this distortion of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Anti-Shi‘a polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically during this period, fueled by significant sums of Arab Gulf money. Sunni–Shi‘a relations were deeply affected by this development, and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.


The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This constellation of forces eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. The ideological orientation of these Salafist–jihadi groups was decidedly anti-Shi‘a, both in theory and practice, buttressed as it was by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the twentieth century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world, and since 1979 they have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

[T]he 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in Saudi–Iranian relations, and subsequently in sectarian relations across the region.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein dramatically affected the regional balance of power. The rise of Shi‘a Islamist parties in Iraq allied with Iran set off alarm bells in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension to it, further inflamed Sunni–Shi‘a relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased the popularity and prestige of this Shi‘a militant group as a revolutionary force on the Sunni “Arab street.” An opinion poll at this time listed the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as the most popular leader in the region, a fact that highlights both the chasm between state and society in the Arab world and explains how anti-imperialism trumped sectarian identity at the grassroots level during this period.

Around this time, King Abdullah II of Jordan reflected a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes when he invoked the specter of a new “Shi‘a Crescent.” Linking Beirut with Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad, this perceived rolling thunder threatened to dominate the politics of the region in the name of a new brand of transnational Shi‘a solidarity.

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 marked another turning point in Saudi–Iran relations and, consequently, in Sunni–Shi‘a relations more broadly. The Arab uprisings shook the foundations of Middle East authoritarianism. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia relied on sectarianism to deflect attention from popular demands for political change and to advance their influence in the region. The Saudi case is easier to diagnose and is better known. The Saudi regime blamed protests in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia on a Shi‘a conspiracy allegedly orchestrated from Tehran, while the Assad regime and its Iranian backers attributed the (nonviolent) Syrian protests of 2011 to Salafist “terrorists” supported by Riyadh and hell-bent on toppling Iran’s key regional ally in Damascus. The Iranian case of sectarianization is more subtle and less well known.

In the case of Syria, Iran has utilized a distinct sectarian narrative, albeit a subtle one, to mobilize support for the Assad regime, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi explains in his chapter in this volume. While officially Tehran claims that it is supporting the “legitimate” government in Damascus and fighting ISIS, all Syrian rebels are depicted as Salafi–jihadis who are bent on exterminating minorities should Assad be toppled. As the war in Syria has dragged on, Iran has organized a transnational Shi‘a militia movement from among the poor and devout Shi‘a communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These militias are recruited through an explicitly sectarian narrative that draws on classic Shi‘a themes of persecution, martyrdom, and sacrifice. The imminent threat of the destruction of Shi‘a shrines in Syria is invoked, and financial compensation, educational opportunities, and Iranian citizenship are offered as an incentive package.

The key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. Viewing the region through a sectarian prism clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the region’s politics. The current instability is more accurately seen as rooted in a series of developmental crises stemming from the collapse of state authority. At the dawn of the twenty-first century a series of UN Arab Human Development Reports forecast and predicted that this region was headed for a deep crisis unless these problems were addressed. The foreign policies of leading Western states toward the Arab-Islamic world have only made matters worse.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East today than they were in previous periods, it is also true that these identities have been politicized by state actors in pursuit of political gain. Authoritarianism is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between social pressure from below—demands for greater inclusion, rights, recognition, and representation—and the refusal by the state from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that ruling elites must carefully manage to retain power. The result of this political dynamic is sectarianization.

[Excerpted from Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, with author permission, (c) 2017.]

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New Essay from Danny Postel

Danny Postel, a frequent contributor to this blog and the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, has an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which he reviews Laura Secor’s new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examines Iran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.

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Syria’s Medical and Humanitarian Nightmare: Interview with Dr. Zaher Sahloul

Danny Postel

Since their days as medical school classmates, Bashar al-Assad and Zaher Sahloul have followed rather different paths: one became a war criminal; the other, a humanitarian advocate.

Dr. Sahloul is the immediate past president of and a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian and advocacy organization that provides medical relief to Syrians and Syrian refugees. Last year, SAMS served 2.5 million patients in five different countries. (The organization’s vital work is featured in the recent documentary film 50 Feet from Syriawhich is available on Netflix.)

Dr. Sahloul is also the founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a coalition of 14 US-based humanitarian organizations working in Syria. He is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and is a practicing physician in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has written about the medical and humanitarian crisis in Syria for Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

I conducted this interview with Dr. Sahloul for the Middle East Dialogues series produced by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies on April 26 — less than 48 hours before the Assad regime’s airstrike on the MSF-supported pediatric hospital in Aleppo that killed dozens of patients and doctors, including one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians.

Go here to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society (you do not need to be a doctor or medical professional) and here to donate to the organization.

Originally published on Pulse

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Iranian Dissidents Explain Why They Support the Nuclear Deal

We know what politicians from the U.S. to Israel think about the Iran nuclear deal. How about asking some opponents of Iran’s regime?


(Article cross-posted from In These Times)​​​

“If we reach an agreement, good opportunities will definitely develop, and we can demand our rights as human beings,” says Iranian author Mahmoud Dolatabadi. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; courtesy In These Times)

The debate on the nuclear deal with Iran has revolved mainly around the geopolitics of the agreement. Is it good for the United States? Does the deal represent a defeat or a victory for the Islamic Republic? Does it make Israel more secure, or less? How will the Saudis respond? Will they pursue a nuclear program of their own? What will Washington do to placate its nervous allies in Riyadh (and other Gulf capitals) and Tel Aviv? What broader implications might the nuclear deal portend for US-Iranian relations, and for the regional politics of the Middle East?

These are hugely important questions, to be sure. But what does the nuclear agreement mean for internal Iranian politics? There’s been some excellent reporting on Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s diplomatic craftsmanship, which has inspired comparisons—arguably exalted—to Mohammad Mosaddeq, and speculation about whether Hassan Rouhani can parlay the nuclear deal into a domestic agenda, pursuing the kinds of reforms that the Iranians who voted for him in 2013 desperately crave and eagerly await.

But how does this historic development look from the perspective of Iran’s grassroots? We saw the jubilation in Iran’s streets, the euphoric popular reaction to the news of the deal. But these scenes lacked context. What do Iranian dissidents and civil society activists actually think of the nuclear deal? An in-depth report issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran provides a refreshingly vivid sense of what such Iranians have to say, in their own words.

The report, High Hopes, Tempered Expectations: Views from Iran on the Nuclear Negotiations, features interviews with an array of Iranians—former political prisoners, filmmakers, political scientists, civil rights lawyers, playwrights, journalists, actors, economists, novelists, publishers, theater directors (some of them belonging to two or more of these categories, former political prisoner being the most common). In other words, these are not big fans of the Iranian government. Indeed, for personal security reasons some agreed to participate in the report only on condition of anonymity.

And the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran itself is anything but enthusiastic about the Islamic Republic: the vast majority of its reportsvideos and activity document the regime’s brutal repression and condemn its systematic rights violations in unflinching terms.

This report thus provides a vital perspective, one that’s been largely absent in the global debate about the nuclear deal—and in some cases misrepresented (for example, by neoconservative pundits who claim the deal is a gift to the regime and sells the Iranian opposition short). This report reveals what the regime’s critics, opponents, and victims, inside the country, actually think about this critical issue.

Take a Breath and Demand our Rights

“All of the individuals interviewed felt sanctions and Iran’s international isolation have profoundly hurt Iranian society,” the report’s authors note, “negatively affecting all spheres of economic, political, and cultural life, with especially dire consequences for the lower socioeconomic strata.”

“We hope an agreement is reached and that it is signed, so that our nation can take a breath after all this prolonged pressure.”
—Shahla Lahiji (Publisher, Roshangaran and Women Studies Publishers)

“Problems caused by the sanctions are palpable in every home right now.”
—Ahmad Shirzad (university professor and former member of Parliament)

“[M]any of our patients have problems obtaining their medication and medications are expensive. … [M]any of our passenger airplanes have … no repair facilities … and we can’t [get] spare parts.”
—Abbas Ghaffari (film director)

“[An agreement] will have its first impact on society’s collective mental state. While many predict this might be short-lived … the psychological impact of this victory in the different sectors of the society will definitely not be short-lived. Such a positive impact can even move people to take action to improve their conditions.”
—a journalist in Tehran and former political prisoner (anonymous)

“If we reach an agreement, good opportunities in every area will definitely develop, and we can demand our rights as human beings.”
—Mahmoud Dolatabadi (author)

“[Failed negotiations] would cause terrible damage to the people and to social, cultural, political, and economic activities. The highest cost imposed by the sanctions is paid by the people, particularly the low-income and vulnerable groups.”
—Fakhrossadat Mohtashamipour (civil society activist and wife of a political prisoner)

“[Failure to reach a deal will result in] an intensification of anti-West political tendencies in Iran [which] will help the overall anti-Western currents in the region, even if indirectly.”
—a civil rights lawyer in Tehran (anonymous)

“Social hopelessness would increase drastically [if the agreement fell through]. People would once again lose their motivation for reforms. … The failure of the negotiations would equal the failure of moderates and the strengthening of the radical camp. … The atmosphere for cultural activities and journalism would become tremendously more difficult. … [A] continuation of sanctions would place the country in a defensive mode … [and] the domestic security organs would increasingly pressure the media and journalists in order to silence any voices of dissent.”
—a journalist in Tehran and former political prisoner (anonymous)

This last comment echoes the sentiments of Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading democratic dissidents who almost died on a hunger strike behind bars. “As a former Iranian political prisoner who spent six years in the Islamic Republic’s jails and whose writings have been banned in Iran, I support the [nuclear] agreement,” he has written. Reaching a nuclear deal, he argued, would “gradually remove the warlike and securitized environment from Iran.” The Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam recently made a similar point.

“We hope an agreement is reached and that it is signed, so that our nation can take a breath after all this prolonged pressure” said tranlator and publisher Shahla Lahiji. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; courtesy In These Times)

No More Excuses

61 percent of the respondents believe that reaching a deal on the nuclear issue “should facilitate progress toward greater rights and liberties” and that “the nation’s attention, previously monopolized by the negotiations, could now turn to critical domestic issues, among them, the state of basic freedoms in Iran,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

That is, on the real issues in Iran. Or, to use an old-fashioned phrase, removing the nuclear issue—and the concomitant economic sanctions and threats of external military action—could “heighten the contradictions” within the Islamic Republic. To wit:

“There are a lot of things that have all been on a waiting list in the hope that first the nuclear issue would be settled.”
—Ahmad Shirzad (physics professor and former member of Parliament)

“After the topic of nuclear negotiations dims, [Rouhani] will have to focus on human rights and civil rights, which were parts of [his] initial programs. … Cultural and political issues must be addressed side by side with economic issues.”
—Issa Saharkhiz (journalist and former political prisoner)

“Following the nuclear and economic issues, the Rouhani administration will have to tackle the issue of political freedom. Political parties, universities, and the media will be serious demands Mr. Rouhani will have to face, and he will have to take visible steps and present them to public opinion. … [Priorities must include] the serious pursuit of citizenship rights.”
—a journalist in Iran (anonymous)

‘Necessary Even if Not Sufficient’

The respondents interviewed for the report harbor no illusion that the nuclear agreement is a panacea that will magically end the regime’s human rights violations or produce democratic pluralism in Iran overnight. But they do believe, as the report’s authors note, that a resolution to the nuclear issue is “a necessary even if not sufficient requirement for any progress toward greater rights and liberties.”

“As a defense lawyer for individuals who are pursued or imprisoned for political reasons, my work will be positively impacted … and society will enjoy more freedom as a result. … Unlike those who believe that a decrease in foreign pressure would increase pressure inside the country, I don’t believe this.
—Mohammad Saleh Nikbakht (lawyer)

“If the sanctions are lifted … another impact … I believe would [be] a big opening in the human rights discourse. … the human rights issue, God willing, will find more flexibility after this agreement … if the nuclear issue is resolved, [many other] issues will be influenced.”
—Massoud Shafiee (lawyer)

“Whether lame or legitimate, I hope that after a nuclear agreement there are no more excuses … and that it would be possible to expect, to demand things.”
—Hamid Amjad (playwright, theater director, and publisher in Tehran)

The report’s respondents voiced an array of perspectives on the likelihood of these demands actually materializing—some expressed deep skepticism, given the structure of power in the Islamic Republic, while others were more hopeful. Yet “[s]trong support for the nuclear negotiations and hope for an agreement was unanimous and unequivocal among all of the respondents, and was held regardless of the respondent’s expectations regarding the actual benefits of an accord,” the report’s authors note.

“It is incumbent upon the international community,” the report’s authors conclude, “to reinforce these voices of reason, patience, and hope, by similarly supporting the peaceful resolution of conflict with the Islamic Republic—and by doing everything it can in a post-deal environment to stand by the people of Iran in their efforts to achieve the most basic rights and freedoms.”

Indeed it is. Thanks to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, we have a much clearer sense of what some of these voices sound like.​

​Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and co-hosts its series of video interviews with leading scholars. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran  and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 in The Progressive. He is a co-editor of PULSE and blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post. He was a member of Chicago’s No War on Iran coalition, communications coordinator forInterfaith Worker Justice, and communications specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor unions and grassroots community organizations.​

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Memories of Galeano’s Fire: My Afternoon with the Late Uruguayan Writer

by Danny Postel


My heart has been heavy since learning over the weekend of the death of the radical and marvelously lyrical Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting some 20 years ago.

Galeano was an iconic literary and intellectual figure of the Latin American Left, but his work has a global footprint. Arguably among the most influential books of the second half of the 20th century, his landmark 1971 Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold over a million copies. It stands with Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, as part of the pantheon of anti-colonialism and Third Worldism. Hamid Dabashicalls Galeano a “creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular.”

Open Veins of Latin America was banned under the murderous military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay alike, and Galeano himself was driven into exile under his country’s regime during the 1970s. In 2009 the book made international headlines—and saw a major surge in sales—when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez personally presented Barack Obama with a copy.

But while Open Veins was Galeano’s best-known work, his magnum opus was a trilogy titled Memory of Fire. My friend Scott Sherman captures it beautifully:

Unquestionably Galeano’s masterwork, Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty Inrnational reports — all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano’s sprawling mosaic.

Indeed, Galeano “rivals such masters of the fable as Kafka,” the literary critic Michael Dirda once wrote.

Galeano’s Book of Embraces occupies a special place in my heart, in part because it was a gift from my then-girlfriend, Debbie Bookchin. Our mutual love of Galeano was bond-forming. “A Diego Rivera mural in words,” the literary critic John Leonard felicitously called it. I read it the way I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia (another book Debbie and I bonded over), sipping from its aphorisms here and there, drawn back in by its charms over years, decades now.

Walking-WordsThe Galeano book that has always meant the most to me as a physical object isWalking Words. Illustrated by the Brazilian woodcut artist José Francisco Borges, it is work of arresting, hypnotic visual beauty. One reviewer called it an “assemblage of tales, fables and parables [full of] intense lyricism, subversive humor and spellbinding storytelling.”

I feel deeply fortunate to have spent an afternoon with Galeano almost exactly two decades ago, in the summer of 1995. I hosted a radio show in Chicago at the time. When I found out that Galeano was coming to Chicago to do a literary reading, I scrambled to get an interview with him. I contacted his US publisher, W. W. Norton. They were not encouraging. It was too late, they informed me. Galeano’s itinerary was already full and in any case he was in Seattle and out of contact (this was before cell phones and e-mail). And besides, who was I? I hosted a show on a college radio station.

I refused to take no for an answer. I asked them which hotel he was staying at in Seattle. They somewhat reluctantly told me. I called and got the hotel’s fax number. I rushed over to a nearby printing and computer shop (I didn’t own my own computer) and composed a desperate but serious letter to Galeano requesting an interview. I poured my heart into the letter, expressing my profound admiration for his books. I also mentioned how much I liked an article he had just published in the magazine NACLA: Report on the Americas (a staple of the left-wing Latin Americanist diet) on the tyranny of cars (cleverly titled“Autocracy: An Invisible Dictatorship”). I faxed the letter to the hotel and called (more than once) to make sure that the front desk had received it and gotten it into Galeano’s hands.

The next day, my roommate, Benjamin Ortiz, called me at work and said, incredulously, “Yo, there’s a message for you on our answering machine from Eduardo Galeano!” Time stopped. It was one of the coolest moments in my life. Galeano would later tell me that it was the specificity of my letter that won him over: in particular the fact that I had read his NACLA article. He was impressed by this obsessive metabolism and by my stalking techniques, he told me. It was a refreshing departure, he said, from many of the media requests he got, for example, in New York — from journalists who had never even heard of publications like NACLA, let alone read them.

galeano-caricaturaI met Galeano at the hotel he was staying at in downtown Chicago and we conducted the interview in his room. I was in such awe of his presence, and so captivated by his eyes, that I can barely remember what he said. It torments me to no end that no recording of that interview has survived. (If anyone reading this happened to be listening to WLUW when it was broadcast, and recorded it, and saved the recording, please contact me!) One of the great regrets of my career is that I never transcribed that interview and published it…

The one thing I vividly recall from the interview is that when I said, by way of introduction, “My guest on this week’s program is Eduardo Galeano, author of the classic Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent…” he stopped me in my tracks and asked me to start the interview over (I was recording it for later broadcast). He explained that he hated the subtitle and wanted me to leave it out. It was only the English edition that carried that subtitle, he told me. The original Spanish edition had no subtitle, just Open Veins of Latin America. The book’s US publisher, Monthly Review Press, was a Marxist operation that specialized in political nonfiction. It was they who added Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent as a subtitle, which Galeano, a prose stylist of the first order, found utterly leaden.

I didn’t dare tell Galeano that I loved that subtitle. I remember the first time I held the book in my hands and took in those words on its cover. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Veins. Pillage. Centuries. A cascade of images, ideas, sensations. I knew I had to read the book and that doing so would turn my world upside down.

But I was a poetically tone-deaf leftist. Galeano was an artist. I of course obliged and started the interview over.

It’s because of that experience that I wasn’t as shocked as some were when it wasreported last year that Galeano had disavowed that book, or at least distanced himself from it. “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again,” he remarked at a book fair in Brazil. “I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.”

But this recoil was more than just stylistic. He went on to say in Brazil:

Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot. … Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.

As far as I know, Galeano never wrote an essay or gave a full-blown interview elaborating on the this line of thinking. I interpret his comments not as an abandonment of leftism as such but as an affirmation of pluralism. In a brilliant talk at a recent conference at Columbia University, the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks distinguished between the politics of “purists” and “pluralists”. I read Galeano’s comments in Brazil as an expression of disdain for the former and sympathy for the latter.

Walking Words. Memory of Fire. What fitting images Galeano conjured with these titles. His words will continue to walk, to wander the earth, to inhabit our thinking, and to ignite our imaginations. Thank you, Eduardo, for the memory of your marvelous fire.

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Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

Danny Postel

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.


The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad Edinburgh University Press £19.99 Reviewed by Danny Postel I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction. But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one:

Oil.‘If Iraq was invaded for oil,’ Ahmad writes, ‘then the US was remarkably negligent in securing the prize’. Iraq awarded its first major post-invasion oil concessions in 2009, and the big winners? Norway, France, China and Russia. Of the 11 contracts signed only one went to a US company (Exxon Mobil). The only sector in which US firms prevailed was oil services—but ‘in that sector the US has always enjoyed a virtual monopoly, invasions or no’, Ahmad notes. It’s true that Bush and Cheney had worked in the energy industry, but US oil companies did not push for the invasion—in fact they lobbied to lift the sanctions on Iraq, which blocked potential profits. The oil industry has long favored agreements with governments, Ahmad notes; belligerence, in contrast, ‘has only jeopardized investments and brought uncertainty to future projects’. Did US oil companies try to cash in on the opportunity presented by the toppling of Saddam Hussein? By all means, but this is not to be confused, Ahmad argues, with why the invasion happened. Gulf energy resources have long been a vital US interest, he notes, but on ‘no other occasion has the US had to occupy a country to secure them’.

Free markets. Naomi Klein has done the most to popularize this notion with her widely-read 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, seeing Iraq as a paradigmatic case of disaster capitalism—of predatory market forces exploiting a society convulsed by shock and awe. But ‘[b]eyond short-term gains for a few businesses’, Ahmad writes, ‘the war proved a disaster for the world capitalist system’. The world will be paying for the Iraq war for a bloody long time, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes have demonstrated in The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. (They later revised that estimate upwards.) Market fanaticism of the Milton Friedman variety, Ahmad acknowledges, ‘was certainly ascendant in the aftermath of the invasion, but there is no evidence that it played any part in the deliberations over war’ (emphasis mine). He shows, moreover, that Klein conflates neoconservatism and neoliberalism—two distinct doctrines. His excellent discussion of the differences between them provides a salient corrective to the widespread confusion about this, especially on the Left.

Global hegemony. The idea that the war was waged to expand US global dominance is belied, for Ahmad, by two facts: that it had ‘remarkably few supporters among the traditional advocates of American primacy’ and that the results have been a geostrategic catastrophe for the United States on myriad levels. The first point might seem counter-intuitive, but as someone who wrote extensively about the Iraq debate in US foreign policy circles, I can confirm that Ahmad is exactly right about this. Attacking Iraq was a minority position in US officialdom. Against it were the realists of the sort who dominated the administration of Bush’s father and were pillars in the foreign policy teams of Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon: think national security advisers Brent Scowcroftand Zbigniew Brzezinski, secretary of state James Baker and the late senior diplomatic adviser Lawrence Eagleburger. All of them opposed the war. As didColin Powell. This has been largely obscured by the secretary of state’sinfamous presentation to the UN on the eve of the invasion, one replete with lies and distortions. Not only Powell but virtually the entire state department, and indeed a significant swath of the military and intelligence establishments, opposed going to war.

Who, then, were the war party—and how did this minority faction get their way? The road to Iraq was paved with neoconservative intentions. Other factions of the US foreign policy establishment were eventually brought around to supporting the war, but the neocons were its architects and chief proponents. New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman, himself a supporter of the invasion, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April 2003: ‘I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened’.

The neocons were obsessed for decades with toppling Saddam’s regime. Ahmad provides a thorough and instructive genealogy of the neoconservative movement, mapping both its intellectual coordinates and its ‘long march through the institutions’ of the national security apparatus: from its roots in ex-Trotskyism, to the office of US Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a hardline Cold Warrior, ascending into the Reagan administration and the Pentagon, and a labyrinth of magazines, think tanks and ad hoc committees. There is nothing conspiratorial about Ahmad’s analysis: he sees the neocons as a network of individuals (or what the anthropologist Janine Wedel calls a ‘flex-net’) with a particular ideological agenda, using the levers of the state and the media in pursuit of that agenda, in close coordination with one another. In this figure from the book he maps what he calls ‘the neoconservative core’:

Figure 1 The neoconservative core and Ahmed Chalabi. Richard Perle lies at the core of this unusually dense network with a direct, one-to-one relationship with every other member of the network. Albert Wohlstetter is the outlier mainly because he belongs to a previous generation. He is included because he played the crucial role in inserting apex neocons into government.

The neocons were the Iraq war’s sine qua non, but other stars had to align for the opportunity to present itself: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a godsend. The moment was ripe, and the neocons were abundantly prepared to exploit it. They ‘succeeded in using the shock and disorientation of the attacks to place Iraq…on the agenda and helped manufacture the case for invading it’, Ahmad writes. Indeed, such was their preoccupation with Iraq that many of them urged going to Baghdad immediately after 9/11, never mind Afghanistan. Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued this case a mere four days after the terrorist attacks, at the first gathering of Bush’s national security team post-9/11, held at Camp David. Not even Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, supported Wolfowitz’s position—at least not at that point. (The ‘flipping’ of Rumsfeld and Cheney—their metamorphosis from traditional conservatives, or ‘aggressive nationalists’, into two of the war’s key champions—was pivotal in the decision to go to war. Ahmad offers a discerning if ultimately inconclusive discussion of this opaque piece of the historical puzzle.)

But why exactly was toppling Saddam an idée fixe in the neocon mind? And how did this minority faction ultimately prevail over its rivals within the administration? Much of the book is devoted to answering these two critical questions. Ahmad’s discussion of the latter—his chapters on ‘Setting the Agenda’ and ‘Selling the War’—are well crafted but cover familiar ground. There are several other books that tell that story, and Ahmad relies on them extensively in his own account. But his discussion of the former—the explanation he advances for what motivated the neoconservative crusade against Saddam Hussein—is this book’s real contribution.

The war was ‘conceived in Washington, but its inspiration came from Tel Aviv’, he writes, echoing the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the influential (and controversial) book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (which began as an essay in the London Review of Books).Mearsheimer and Walt, the two preeminent realist scholars in international relations theory, maintain that both Israeli leaders and the Israel lobby in the US urged the Bush administration to invade Iraq—a course of action, they contend, that was not in the geostrategic interests of the US but that Israel saw in itsinterests. Ahmad concurs with them. ‘Not all imperial projects are about economic predation: some simply aim to destroy political enemies’, he argues—correctly, in my view. But in taking out Saddam Hussein the US destroyed one ofIsrael’s political enemies. In so doing, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, it undermined American national interests. Figure 2: The Institutional infrastructure of the Israel lobby.

Ahmad demonstrates in painstaking detail how the neocons in the Bush administration—especially in the Pentagon (Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—think ‘Feith-based intelligence‘) and the office of the vice president (Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby)—aggressively advanced the (Israeli) case for the invasion. ‘It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day’, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked. Joe Klein, a centrist columnist forTime magazine (and himself Jewish) wrote that the neocons pushed for the invasion ‘to make the world safe for Israel’. As Ahmad notes, however, the neocons operate on the basis ‘of what they think are Israel’s best interests’ (his emphasis): whether the war, which has significantly strengthened Iran, was actually in Israel’s interests, is highly contestable. Many Israelis opposed the war. But as former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan contends, neoconservatism ‘is about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel’. The neocons are more accurately seen as Likud-centric than Israel-centric.

Against the widely-held view that Israel does America’s bidding, Ahmad shows how Israelpolitik is at odds with both US geostrategic interests and those of global capital. Big Oil, the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce have locked horns with the Israel lobby on multiple occasions over sanctions on Syria, Iran, Libya and other states—measures that the lobby pushed hard but the corporations opposed fiercely. ‘US support for Israel, when considered not in abstract but concrete detail, cannot be adequately explained as a result of American imperial interests’, the late anti-Zionist and leftist writer Israel Shahakobserved. ‘Strategically, Israel is obviously a huge burden for the US’, notes Sullivan. This view is becoming increasingly clear to many observers and indeed to more and more in the US foreign policy establishment.

I find Ahmad’s arguments about the motivations behind the Iraq war—and his critiques of the dominant alternative explanations—broadly convincing. But I wish he had engaged directly with some of the criticisms of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument. I share his view that most of those criticisms are unconvincing and that the Israel lobby thesis generally stands up to scrutiny—but his defence of that thesis would have emerged stronger had he dealt with some of the more serious criticisms leveled at it. He doesn’t even mention, much less engage, the criticisms that Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, or Joseph Massad, for example, have advanced against Mearsheimer and Walt. Like Ahmad, I think those criticisms are wrongheaded. They take issue with Mearsheimer and Walt at the level of their ideological framework, or the conceptual arc of their argument. They argue—to make a long story short—that Mearsheimer and Walt let the US off the hook, in effect, and are insufficiently anti-imperialist. But the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis is an empirical matter—the question isn’t what one thinks of their worldview in general (a worldview Ahmad and I both find deeply flawed, by the way) but whether their argument about why the US invaded Iraq in 2003 is correct or not. I agree with Ahmad that the evidence is on the side of Mearsheimer and Walt rather than their critics. But it would have made Ahmad’s defence of their (and his) case more compelling had he aired those arguments.

Finally, I want to pick a bone with Ahmad’s discussion of liberals and humanitarian interventionists. In a section polemically titled ‘From humanitarian intervention to shock and awe’, he takes them to task for forging a ‘neoconservative-liberal alliance’ in support of the 2003 invasion. The liberal interventionists helped shape ‘the climate of debate’, he asserts, by ‘easing the inhibitions of some about the use of force’. There are two problems with this section.

First, he wildly overstates the extent of support for the Iraq war among liberals. In fact, the majority of liberal intellectuals and commentators opposed the invasion—but Ahmad fails to mention that any of them did. It’s true that several high-profile liberals signed on—infamously among them, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, George Packer, David Remnick and Peter Beinart. (Ahmad includes several others in this group who are/were decidedly not liberal: Jean Bethe Elshtain was explicitly anti-liberal; Kenneth Pollack is a creature of the CIA and the National Security Council; Christopher Hitchens was a Trotskyist who morphed into a ‘neo-neo-con’, in the apt phrase of Ian Williams, and was decidedly hostile to liberalism.) The pro-war liberals were disproportionately prominent. But in fact their support for the war was a minority position among liberal interventionists. In his important book The Left at War, Michael Bérubé lists just some of the liberal intellectuals and writers who opposed the Iraq war: Ian Buruma, Martha Nussbaum, Jürgen Habermas, Timothy Garton Ash, Richard Rorty, Stephen Holmes, Tzvetan Todorov, Mary Kaldor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ronald Dworkin, Saskia Sassen, Mark Danner, Samantha Power, Amartya Sen, Seyla Benhabib, Charles Taylor, David Held, Ian Williams, Kenneth Roth, David Corn, the editors of The Nation, Boston Review, openDemocracy, The American Prospect, and the New York Review of Books. (And this is only a very partial list.)

Ahmad takes the liberal writers Michael Tomasky and Todd Gitlin to task for ‘denounc[ing] anti-war voices’—but both Tomasky and Gitlin opposed the Iraq war. They had criticized opponents of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ahmad approvingly quotes Tony Judt’s brilliant London Review of Books jeremiad ‘Bush’s Useful Idiots’ (21 September 2006), in which the late historian upbraided the liberal intellectuals who supported the war. I havewritten in praise of the piece myself. It was Judt at his best. But Ahmad neglects to mention that Judt himself was a liberal who strongly supported the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Like most of us who supported those interventions, Judt strongly opposed the Iraq war—which, as Ahmad demonstrates, was anything but a humanitarian intervention. To their eternal shame, some humanitarian interventionists supported the Iraq war—but they were in the minority within the humanitarian interventionist camp. Judt belonged to the very camp that Ahmad criticizes for, in his view, providing intellectual cover for the Iraq war. In fact, Judt was squarely in the majority among liberal interventionists in opposing the Iraq war. Indeed, liberals and humanitarian interventionists articulated some of the most forceful arguments against invading Iraq.

It isn’t just that Ahmad gets the intellectual history wrong in this admittedly brief section of his otherwise outstanding book. The much more serious issue is that the arguments he advances against the principle of humanitarian intervention flirt with the very logic deployed, for example, by the targets of Ahmad’s sharpest criticisms in his more recent writings on Syria: those on the Left who steadfastly oppose any form of intervention in Syria on the grounds of defending the ‘sovereignty’ of the murderous Assad regime. Ahmad finds those arguments as specious and pernicious as I do. And, to be sure, he concedes in passing that there are ‘crises where predatory states use the cover of sovereignty to tyrannise vulnerable populations’. But he doesn’t think through the larger implications involved here. This is not the place to open a philosophical debate on humanitarian intervention. But I’ll close by posing a question to Ahmad: has the Syrian conflict, and the ideological fault lines that have formed around it, occasioned any rethinking on his part of the debates about intervention going back to the 1990s?

These criticisms aside, let me reiterate the enormous significance and relevance of The Road to Iraq. It is a work of tremendous intellectual diligence and moral seriousness. We are all indebted to Ahmad for undertaking this major contribution to the debate on one of the central events of this century, whose aftershocks continue to unfold daily, to disastrous effect. With the neocons poised to make a comeback, this book serves as a cautionary tale of bracing urgency. It is a must-read guide to the history of the present.

Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and a co-editor of PULSE. He is the author of Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma. Between 2003 and 2008 he wrote a series of articles about the neoconservatives, Iraq and Iran for The American ProspectopenDemocracyMother Jones and other publications.

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Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Danny Postel

This piece was originally published on In These Times on 18 December 2014

ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.”Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me,

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society. On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Some Syrian activists question how committed the Kurds are to toppling the Syrian dictator. The Kurds, for their part, distrust Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition. These debates and dynamics are mostly unknown to American progressives.

Given that ISIS and the intervention against it directly impact the peoples of the region, it behooves us to know what they have to say about it. So when In These Times asked me to convene a roundtable discussion on the ISIS intervention, I saw it as an opportunity to bridge this gap—to explore some of these contending perspectives and stimulate a conversation between U.S. progressives and some of our Syrian and Kurdish counterparts.

Richard Falk has been one of the leading voices of peace and human rights over the last half century. He was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights and a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. His blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century, is a constant source of thought-provoking and self-reflective analysis. His essay in The Syria Dilemmathe book I co-edited with Nader Hashemi, is among the most thoughtful and challenging arguments about the Syrian tragedy I have read.

The Kurdish region of Rojava in northern Syria has been likened to the Zapatista autonomous territories of Chiapas and has inspired  international solidarity efforts with its experiment in democratic autonomy . The anarchist writer and activist David Graeber has written a forceful plea to stand with the beleaguered Kurds as they fight for their lives. With Graeber’s help I reached out to Alan Semo, the UK representative of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to get his perspective on the ISIS intervention.

I also deemed it essential to include a Syrian opposition voice in the discussion. There has been and remainsdeep confusion about the Syrian conflict amongst many leftists. So I reached out to Rime Allaf, who serves on the board of directors of The Day After Project, an international working group of Syrians building toward a democratic transition in Syria. She is a former advisor to the president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and former Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.

There are few people I hold in higher regard than Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer, board member of Amnesty International USA, columnist for Al Jazeera America and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the author ofThe Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (forthcoming in February from Beacon Press). Rafia brings both an international human rights perspective and the painful knowledge of what U.S. military intervention, in the form of drone strikes, has wrought in her part of the world.

Richard, with only one or two exceptions (notably Kosovo), you have opposed U.S. military interventions for the past 50 years. As someone who has opposed those interventions as a champion of self-determination—especially self-determination for formerly colonized peoples—what do you make of the current U.S. intervention against ISIS? And specifically, the siege of Kobani and the Kurdish resistance against ISIS along the Turkish-Syrian border?

Richard: It’s a tough question. We need to contextualize this a bit further. In my view, there is no basis for the United States to play a constructive role in this region. Its role in Iraq and Syria—much less, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere in the region—figures into an overall strategy of dominating the region and supporting highly reactionary forces in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The notion that the United States can be a liberating actor by narrowing the focus to one specific battle site isn’t convincing to me. The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. And one needs a full-fledged diplomatic initiative, which I see lacking so long as Iran continues to be excluded from any effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. Like the drone attacks, the ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region.

Where do you stand on the intervention, Rafia?

Rafia: I oppose it. Look at what the U.S. has done in South Asia in the past ten years. As someone who has covered drone attack after drone attack in Pakistan, I can tell you that the dynamics are very similar. When the U.S. began its drone campaign in north and south Waziristan, where the Taliban were headquartered, there was a lot of support from Pashtun tribal leaders, similar in a way to the current situation between the Kurds and ISIS. The narrative was that the drone attacks were empowering the indigenous people of area who were facing incursions from the Taliban. It’s been beyond a miserable failure. The drone attacks have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Whenever you have communities that are displaced—and this is precisely what is happening in Syria and Iraq as a result of ISIS incursions and the airstrikes against ISIS—their social mechanisms, their political allegiances, their forms of governance all collapse. Once that happens, those populations are far, far more vulnerable to being recruited by groups like ISIS. Or they become disenchanted with any effort to rebuild or organize. The consequence of intervention is displacement. And the consequence of displacement is further civil war, which is what you have in Pakistan right now.

Syrian activists have expressed a range of views on the intervention against ISIS. Rime, how do you see it?

Rime: I very much share the ambivalence of Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Many of us in the Syrian opposition do. Everything that has happened in Syria was predictable—and indeed was predicted. The rise of these Islamist terror groups…before they became an organized entity calling itself ISIS, they were smaller groups fighting in various areas in Iraq but mostly in Syria, where they had free reign because the only forces fighting them during roughly their first year on the scene [2013] were the Free Syrian Army. The FSA—the bulk of the Syrian armed opposition to the Assad regime—thus found itself fighting two very brutal forces, the Assad regime on one side and these Islamist groups on the other—and those two forces were not fighting each other. This is an essential point. It was inevitable that this would weaken the opposition and strengthen the regime. Because the Assad regime was not attacking this Islamist plague, it was to be expected that these terror groups would gain ground. They had help from al-Qaeda type groups in Iraq. Plus they had the advantage of their enemies [the FSA] being bombed relentlessly by the Syrian regime. So they gained strength.

Let’s be very clear that for the longest time, the Syrian opposition was not asking for a “boots on the ground”-style intervention, or even for a bombing campaign led by the U.S. What was being requested early on was the establishment of humanitarian corridors with the help of a “no-fly-zone” and/or weapons for the FSA to defend liberated areas from the relentless barrel bombing campaign of the regime. Since none of this happened, it was to be expected that these Islamist groups have been able to gain so much ground and find themselves with a weakened opponent in the FSA. Now the Assad regime doesn’t even need to worry about ISIS because it’s got the U.S. fighting [ISIS].

Alan, where does the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which you represent, stand on the U.S. intervention against ISIS? The PYD has opposed external military intervention in the Syrian conflict, but hasn’t the Kurdish struggle against ISIS benefited from the coalition airstrikes?

Alan: I think the American-led international intervention against ISIS has been efficient. The Americans realized that the expansion of ISIS is serious and threatens the region—it has to be stopped and eliminated. The U.S. has been relying on air strikes alone, and they know they need troops on the ground. The forces on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and now in Kobani, in northern Syria, are Kurdish troops. They have been defending themselves very efficiently against ISIS, which is a real threat to the region. So I think eliminating this threat is the right step, both for the Syrian people and for regional security and stability.

Rime: From January roughly until the summer, what happened is that ISIS was allowed to spread its terror throughout the Jazira region of Syria without any intervention of any kind from outside Syria—or within Syria.  The only people fighting them were the Free Syrian Army—alone, without ammunition. So I agree with Alan that the intervention is proving useful, but only up to a point. It is proving useful in a very limited area, and—this is critical—it is not tackling the origin of this plague, which is the Assad regime.

Alan: Now, Kurdish forces are working together with some sections of the Free Syrian Army and other forces in northern Syria.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based organization, has recently put forward aproposal to end the Syrian conflict that includes the creation of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority that would implement local ceasefire agreements and serve as an interim governing authority. The report also suggests that once a deal has been struck, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition could focus their energies on fighting ISIS. What do you make of this idea?

Rime: It’s an absolutely obscene proposition because it takes the position that anything is better than ISIS, whereas most Syrians view ISIS and the Assad regime as being on an equal level of savagery. Many Syrians will tell you the Assad regime is actually worse than ISIS and has killed far more people.

To consider ending the war, which is what all of us want, without considering what’s at the root of this entire monstrosity—which is the Assad regime itself—is unacceptable. To propose that in order to end ISIS we have no choice but to work with Assad is not a solution at all.

Alan: At the end of the day, we have to end Syria’s war. To end the war requires a solution on three levels: the internal balance on the ground inside Syria; the regional circumstances; and the international level. I believe the will of the Syrian people has been hijacked by regional powers and by global powers—America and Russia. But the Syrian people have to determine their own destiny. The Syrian opposition has to be united. And they have to have a clear vision of how they can end this war. I do not agree with Rime’s statement that you have to fight the regime before fighting ISIS.

Rime: I did not say that. I said that you can’t just get rid of ISIS. You cannot just get rid of Assad. You have to get rid of both.

Alan: The Syrian people are defending themselves. They are fighting against ISIS. The people of Kobani have been protecting themselves for two months with their limited resources.

Rime: But the coalition’s airstrikes are helping them. For three years Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians and yet no help has come from anybody. But now you have the coalition bombing ISIS, which helps the Kurds in Kobani to defend themselves.

Richard, what do you think of the idea of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority?

Richard: I think that a proposal of this sort is somewhat suspect given both how it originated and what it’s proposing, because it’s really a plea to, in effect, enlarge the anti-ISIS military coalition. I agree with what Rafia said earlier, that bombing only contributes to destabilizing the whole underlying reality. And we still have to address why Iran hasn’t been brought into the process as a major political actor that needs to participate in any kind of diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

I think there are desirable elements [in the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue proposal], such as trying to respect the ceasefire, but it overlooks the complexities and contradictions that have emerged in the Syrian conflict. To try to solve the problems of the Middle East from above is very unlikely to have constructive effects.

Finally, there’s an absence of political imagination. The American approach has become so militarized over such a long period of time that it’s just about incapable of thinking outside of the military box. It therefore keeps reinventing a military solution to essentially political problems—and is undeterred by a record of failure because it’s the only way it knows how to project its power. The U.S. is so addicted to hard-power ways of behaving in the world. It has very little credibility in my view—even when you narrow the focus and it looks like it’s better to help those beleaguered in Kobani than to ignore them. That’s why I say it’s a tragic predicament: Every alternative is repugnant under these conditions. I’ve always felt that when all alternatives are repugnant the one point of moral clarity is, don’t add to the killing. And, echoing what Rafia said, don’t add to the displacement, which is subverting any possibility of benevolent political reconstruction.

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