“A society of sheep will give birth to a government of wolves.”
~ Bertrand de Jouvenel, “On Power”
As you know we use these bulletins to push forward our advocacy agenda and examine issues of public concern. This is not a debating platform and though we have taken many public officials to task for their actions or attitudes, we do not habitually respond to specific articles by policy analysts, academics or journalists.
Today we are making an exception. Uri Avnery has been a gadfly on the Israeli left for some five decades. He has been called “Israel’s Chomsky”. His commentary is filled with the usual nattering naiveté and egregious errors of the anti-American left. Usually he can be taken with a grain of salt and dismissed.
What makes his latest article a cause for response is the manner of its dissemination more than the delinquencies of its material. Avnery is an activist with the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) network, and it is clear that this group has some strange bedfellows these days. The Institute has received copies of “Lebanon and the Avaricious Superpower: The Next Crusades” from sources as far a field as lawyers and officials in Washington, D.C., to students at American University in Beirut to some strange outfits in the middle of Saudi Arabia.
My co-author on this Bulletin is an exceptional young man who has recently become associated with the Institute. Dr. David Romano obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at McGill with the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. Dr. Romano is an expert on Near-East nationalism and has spent more than a year and a half conducting fieldwork in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. His research and publications include the Kurdish issue, rebellions against state authority, Arab social movements, and politicized ethnicity.
In the interests of full disclosure a copy of Mr. Avnery’s article is attached.
It must be said at the outset that it is not altogether clear what Uri Avnery’s point really is in this little piece he wrote. Apart that is from the usual ranting and railing against the U.S. and Israel. So we will have to assume that the crux of his argument comes in the last two sentences: “Democracy is an ideal that every people has to realize for itself. But when the banners of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are hoisted over a crusade by an avaricious and irresponsible super-power, the results can be catastrophic.”
With this statement Uri Avnery colors himself with a much greater naïveté than the earnest character in “The Quiet American” that he condemns in his opening. He seems to think that some states pursue their foreign policy on a basis other than self-interest and enlightened avarice. We’d like know which states he’s thinking of – Syria perhaps? France? Surely he knows about Chirac’s cozy dealings with Saddam and various French military expeditions in Africa. He must also be aware that Germany and Russia, together with France, sold Saddam 95% of his arms since 1992. Why even Canadian companies had oil interests in Iraq. But of course that couldn’t have affected our decisions.
So we suppose he has an ideal state in mind rather than an actual one. That’s more naïve than any quiet American dared dream of.
He may have also forgotten how most of the Western world was desperate for the United States to enter World War Two, but had to wait until the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbour and certain that it’s interests lay in going to war. Of course, this kind of self-interest didn’t make the liberation of Europe and the Pacific any less satisfying. The far Left that Avnery represents seem comfortable only with state military intervention when there doesn’t seem to be anything to gain from it – rare instances like Kosovo or Somalia, although even those have been characterized by some as dictated by Western economic and strategic interests.
The fact is, politically astute (rather than naïve) actors look for situations where their interests coincide with that of a powerful state, and then they try to convince the state to act on the confluence of interest. So that’s why Lebanese Christians called for Israeli help in the civil war they were losing. It is instructive to note that Avnery states that the Syrians were “called on for help” but the Israelis just invaded out of the blue. That’s also why the Shiites welcomed the Israelis, until they figured out that the Israelis were not just intent on kicking out the PLO, but on installing a friendly government in Beirut as well. Of course we all understand that Israel, unlike other nations, has no right to want a friendly neighbour. Right Uri?
The Israeli plan might have worked too if the Syrians hadn’t blown up (by car bombing no less) Israel’s main ally —Bashir Gemayel-- just as he was consolidating power. Sound familiar?
As for Avnery’s comments on northern Iraq he is completely clueless on this issue. There is no “Kurdish war against Sunnis and Turkmen” in northern Iraq, and no media conspiracy of silence on it either. The Americans convinced the Kurds to restrain themselves and allow time for a fair and legal Coalition Forces-initiated process to settle disputes around Kirkuk, Mosul, Makhmour, Kalar, Khanequin and other towns from which Saddam ethnically cleansed more than a million Kurds, Turkmen and Christians. That’s despite the fact that the Kurds were the Coalition’s strongest ally in the war. The normal practice in that place would have been for the victors (in this case, the Kurds) to kill and expel everyone who had previously persecuted or benefited from their persecution.
Except for a few isolated reports of instances that didn’t happen, most reports, including those of Human Rights Watch, concerning internal displacement in Iraq refer to the restraint shown by the Kurdish leadership. It seems the U.S. sees democracy, rule of law and due process as coinciding with its interests in Iraq – a nuance that Avnery’s political axe blinds him to. The U.S. forces’ headquarters in Kirkuk, saw delegations of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs presenting their petitions to new Iraqi government ministries run by Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, and getting frustrated when things moved too slowly. U.S. officers pleaded for patience. That’s politics of a kind people never saw under Saddam. In fact, all the Kurds in Iraq know full well that the U.S. intervened there for its own reasons – and they welcomed them for their own reasons too. That’s also true of most Shiites as well as many Sunni Arabs and Turkmen too.
The rabid portion of the political Left seems much too quick to forget just how nasty things really were under Saddam and his psychopathic sons. Although Abu Ghraib and other U.S. post-war mistakes are indeed unfortunate, they pale in comparison to standard practices of Ba’athist Iraq. Where the U.S. soul-searches, apologizes, feels ashamed and sets up investigations and tribunals to address abuses its people commit somewhere like Iraq, Saddam and his kind brag about this kind of thing in order to intimidate dissidents.
Avnery also seems to forget that since the removal of Saddam’s regime, Iraqis have voted in a free election, the marshlands in southern Iraq have begun to be re-flooded, and people forcibly displaced by Saddam’s government have been returning to their former homes by the hundreds of thousands. If it weren’t for the Sunni Arab insurgency (although not supported by all Sunni Arabs), reconstruction and development would also have had Iraq better off than its ever been. With some luck and more time, it may well be a success story. Again, reality is more nuanced than what Avnery and his cohorts would have us believe.
When Avnery writes that “democracy is an ideal that every people has to realize for itself,” he probably has never lived under a government that shoots entire families for what one of their children said about “the glorious leader” in school – governments that continued to get supplies, aid, support and weapons from countries such as China and Russia well after the U.N. imposed sanctions. In Syria, people only whisper that they are Kurdish or Christian after you know them for several days, so great is the fear. Sometimes people need a little help. If we’re not too naïve, we also realize that for the most part, states give that help when it coincides with their own interests and when they can. George Bush and company, for all their faults, have realized that their interests are served by more democratic regimes in the Middle East.
Of course, change can be bloody sometimes, and brief reversals can make us wonder if the struggle was all for nothing. But if we accept what Avnery’s point on this issue amounts to, then the French would still be living under the monarchy of King Louis’ successors. Or perhaps his point is about foreign intervention rather than the anarchy and violence that sometimes accompanies large changes. In some cases, his point may be quite applicable. In others, it makes one think of how capitalist democracies decided not to intervene in the Spanish civil war while Franco and his fascists received plenty of help from Hitler and Mussolini.