Monthly Archives: November 2009

Abbas’s mixed messages

The recent announcement by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that he would not seek a second term in office or run in elections has prompted considerable speculation, even confusion, around the world. His decisions contains much ambiguity while conveying different messages to different parties at the same time.

It is almost certainly true that Abbas would prefer to no longer continue as president. He clearly feels let down and betrayed by most if not all his allies, including the Arab states and the Obama administration, and seems genuinely fed up with being put in impossible political situations over issues such as the elusive Israeli settlement freeze agreement and the Goldstone report into the Gaza war.

Unlike most politicians, Abbas did not really crave the presidency and never seemed fully comfortable or effective in the job. Given his experiences, any sentiment on his part to move on is understandable.

However, his statement was not a resignation speech at all, but a layered message and the most important layer was addressed to his American allies, in whom he is clearly extremely disappointed. Left out on a limb once too often, Abbas is now asking Washington to seriously consider the alternatives. It’s a not particularly subtle reminder that they are unlikely to find a more amenable peace partner any time in the foreseeable future, and that without Palestinian co-operation, no progress is possible.

One of the most powerful points Abbas made in his speech was his complaint that, in spite of the fact that the Palestinian position on permanent-status peace seems much closer to the American view than Israel’s, the US persistently sides with the government it disagrees with. This is because in the US matters regarding Israel are primarily driven by domestic political interests, with foreign policy considerations as secondary.

Abbas is saying that as long as the US finds itself essentially incapable of putting genuine pressure on Israel, or finding a way to prove it holds meaningful political support for its Palestinian partners, it is going to be almost impossible for Palestinian leaders to bridge the gap between diplomatic necessities internationally and political credibility domestically.

A similar message is being directed at Israel – aimed at the entire society, not just the present government. Abbas is urging it too to consider the probable relationship with a different Palestinian leadership from among the presently existing alternatives.

The most worrisome of these alternatives to many would be Hamas, another clear target of Abbas’s mixed messages. The president’s announcement was entirely framed around the question of elections, which Hamas has been opposing at every stage almost certainly because of a sustained collapse in its popularity and credibility over the past six months. Even the fiasco over the PLO’s mishandling of the Goldstone report has apparently not rescued its fortunes.

Fatah can seriously claim to have gone the extra mile in pursuit of elections: first it signed an Egyptian reconciliation plan that better served Hamas interests and called for elections in June, but Hamas refused. Then, Abbas called for elections in January, as required by Palestinian law – again, Hamas angrily refused. Now he has raised the stakes by saying he will not run for office again.

Abbas is almost daring Hamas to change its mind. Of course, if it does change its mind, he may change his. The lack of any obvious successor, the clear factional disunity within Fatah, his position as unchallenged party leader and his position as chairman of the PLO all make it very hard to imagine him being able to continue to demur in the event of actual elections. Because Palestinian law does not provide a practical alternative to elections for the replacement of the president, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to credibly complain about Abbas continuing in office.

As things stand, he can claim: “I really don’t want this job and I’ve made that pretty clear, but there isn’t any practical alternative so I’m going to have to continue in office. It’s everybody else’s fault but mine.”

Ibish: “Against a One-State Solution”

Last Thursday on Informed Comment, Juan Cole uttered a powerful cris de coeur about prospects for a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, echoing warnings by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that if Israeli colonization continues, Palestinians may switch to demanding equal rights in a single state. Such pessimism is not only justified, it is requisite given the difficulties facing the prospects for peace, and can only be intensified by a similarly despairing announcement by Pres. Abbas that, because of Israel’s refusal move seriously towards peace, he would not seek another term in office.

Erekat’s statement, while unusual, is hardly unprecedented from senior Palestinian and PLO figures. Similar “threats” to abandon the quest to end the occupation in favor of a single-state agenda have been issued several times in the past as I describe in my new book, What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? In 2008, former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and other leading Palestinians, including the “Palestine Strategy Study Group,” expressed similar views.

In contrast with the one-state rhetoric among pro-Palestinian activists in the West, which generally holds Palestinian independence to be both unachievable and undesirable, Palestinians in the occupied territories who raise this specter generally do so as a tactic designed to compel greater seriousness by Israel on negotiations and warn about the consequences of a failure to achieve a two-state agreement. Erekat’s comments clearly reflected this. In his speech Abbas declared that he was personally fed up but that everything in his experience indicated that a two-state agreement is possible.

These two versions of one-state rhetoric may one day merge into a unified agenda, but for now they remain distinct phenomena, most clearly divided by their ultimate goal: Palestinian leaders still seek independence and an end to the occupation, aims that are angrily rejected as insufficient and even outrageous by many diasporic one-state advocates.

Under the present circumstances it seems most probable that if the strategy of the secular-nationalist forces in Palestine were to collapse or be abandoned, the main beneficiaries would not be one-state advocates. The real political contest among Palestinians is between the nationalists and the Islamists, and the declining fortunes of either almost axiomatically advances the interests of the other.

Even if Palestinians were somehow to abandon their long-standing national aim of independence, avoid their national movement becoming entirely dominated by Islamists, and adopt the goal of equal rights in a post-nationalist state, it is very hard to imagine that this would leave them in an improved strategic position.

A noted one-state advocate has accused me of suggesting an interview with the Atlantic website that “the one-state solution is bad because Jews don’t want it.” This is to misread not only my analysis but the fundamental political reality, which is extremely simple: a one-state solution will be impossible as long as an overwhelming or even a solid majority of Jewish Israelis don’t want it. The added irony is that most one-state advocates have not only done nothing to try to create a message that can appeal to mainstream Israelis, they have crafted one that encourages the greatest possible fear and suspicion.

In reality, it’s almost impossible to imagine a one-state “solution,” although it’s certainly possible to envisage a one-state outcome. The distinction is crucial: the second formulation recognizes the incredible amount of brutality, violence and mutual exhaustion that would be required for both parties to surrender their cherished national agendas to some formula for post-nationalist power-sharing in relatively equal numbers. Consider the violence of the past 60 years, without any real dent in the nationalist fervor of either party, and then try to imagine what would be required to actually get them to abandon these ideals.

One should be under no illusions that the final abandonment of a two-state agenda will give way to a campaign of nonviolent resistance, boycotts and sanctions that will somehow succeed in bringing Israel to its knees. The alternative to an agenda of negotiations is crystal clear: increasing conflict, violence and occupation that is increasingly dominated by religious fanatics on both sides. The religious right is well-positioned in both societies, ready to lead a battle to the death between bearded fanatics over holy places and the will of God.

We face a simple choice: either a slow, gradual and, yes, painful, inching towards a two-state agreement, or war, conflict and occupation into the foreseeable future, very possibly leading to a catastrophe. Despairing, giving up and walking away is too irresponsible for anyone with the best interests of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans at heart. This is an existentialist crisis we are facing, like Beckett’s suicidal unnnamable: we can’t go on, we’ll go on.

Cries of despair are intellectually and morally justified and, perhaps, necessary, but the only rational policy for all responsible parties is to avoid calamity and continue to somehow try to find a way to make the only plausible peaceful solution work.

Ibish, what is this Palestinian state you are talking about anyway?

Thank goodness a reader has written in with the following excellent question, which comes as a breath of the freshest of air after the last few days of unrelenting absurdity which I foolishly allowed myself to be drawn into in the social media: “I think the Two State Solution time has passed. Just what meaningful state do you see?”

This is a most relevant, serious and reasonable question indeed. Those of us who continue to support an end to the occupation and a two-state peace agreement have an obligation to explain what precisely we have in mind, why we think it is still achievable in spite of undeniable and major obstacles, and how precisely we think it can be accomplished. I will not be breaking any new ground here, but it bears restating time and again, so here goes.

Two-state advocates believe that the occupation and the status quo are completely untenable for both Israel and the Palestinians, and that there is no military solution available to either party. Needless to say, we also don’t believe that boycotts, divestment and sanctions can work where violence has not, partly because they have all been in place to some extent during the entire period of the conflict on both sides to almost no effect, and because we doubt both the achievability and the effectiveness of boycotts and sanctions as the primary instrument of a national political struggle. That they can cause pain and discomfort, there is no doubt. That when specifically targeting the occupation they can be very useful, again I don’t think there’s much of a question. That they can sometimes be useful in raising the right kind of public awareness is also beyond question, although I think it’s also obvious that they, when badly handled, can also send a counterproductive message that has a negative political impact.

In short, we believe that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are going anywhere and that neither has the ability to destroy the national project or will of the other through any practical, meaningful measures at their disposal. As a consequence, we believe that only a negotiated agreement that allows for two states to live side-by-side in peace and security can end the conflict and end the occupation.

It’s also clear, and I strongly support this position, that the Palestinian people and leadership will not accept a rump state, bantustan, or state in name only, and will only agree to an end of conflict arrangement that provides for a sovereign, independent Palestinian state with all the sovereign rights and prerogatives of the other member states of the United Nations.

If such an agreement were to be reached, this state would have to encompass almost all of the occupied Palestinian territories and have its capital in East Jerusalem. It would probably, however, necessitate a land swap involving between 3-4% of the occupied territories to be retained by Israel in exchange for land contiguous (probably next to the West Bank) to a Palestinian state. Most of East Jerusalem was and remains an Arab, Palestinian city, and the bulk of it will serve as the capital of Palestine, although certain Jewish areas will probably be retained by Israel and some kind of creative solution will have to be found regarding the holy places in the old city with which Jewish Israelis have an undoubted interest. I also don’t think that Jerusalem needs to be or can be physically re-divided through walls, checkpoints and barbed wire fences. I think as a practical matter, the city is going to have to serve as a capital of two states with divided but cooperatively administered sovereignty in much of it.

I think it’s an obvious corollary, and this has long been accepted by most serious Israeli interlocutors, that a safe-passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip will have to be part of the land swap, that is to say a corridor of Palestinian sovereignty through southern Israel and the Negev Desert that can allow for unhindered transportation between the two non-contiguous parts of Palestine. Just as in the case of Jerusalem, there are many ways of conceptualizing and realizing this principle in practice. Where there’s a will, and more precisely an unavoidable national necessity, there is most certainly a way.

While the Palestinian state will certainly have the normal sovereign prerogatives of a UN member state, I do think that some arrangements on Israeli security are going to be required, at least in some early stages of the limitation of the agreement. I’m thinking here in terms of things like electronic early warning stations regarding serious conventional attacks from beyond the Palestinian state and so forth. But I think these concessions have to be limited both in scope and in time and would hardly be unprecedented between neighbors entering into a difficult arrangement that both had a stake in ensuring succeeds. Obviously, Palestine would have full sovereignty over all of its water resources, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum and so forth.

On the military issue, the Israelis often make a big deal about the potential demilitarization, or other more precisely non-militarization (since there is no extent Palestinian military as such), of a Palestinian state. Well-informed Israelis know that when they are demanding this, they are demanding what is, in fact, a present intention of the Palestinian leadership. It’s also something that my colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine have recommended, along with suggestions that the Palestinian state be democratic, pluralistic and neutral in armed conflicts (I am presently writing from a small country in a volatile and heavily-armed region beset by wars, Costa Rica, that has made precisely this formula work with deeply impressive results). But ultimately all of these questions must be decided by the Palestinians themselves, and cannot be deal-breakers for Israel. As I said, in reality neither state will have an interest in destroying an agreement they have crafted that is essential to their national security and indeed their national survival.

As for the settlements and the settlers, I think it’s clear that those that are not retained by Israel as part of this land swap will have to be evacuated. This is not so much because the Palestinians will insist on this. A number of Palestinian leaders including the current Prime Minister have stated that Palestinians have no objection in principle to Jewish Israelis being residents or even citizens of a Palestinian state. Rather, it is almost certain that any Israeli government that entered into such an arrangement would not seriously consider leaving its citizens behind the lines of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. If any of these individuals or groups came into conflict with their neighbors or any harm befell them, which is readily imaginable given their ideology and temperament, the entire arrangement could be thrown into immediate question by the political pressure on any Israeli government to intervene in their behalf. It would be an untenable circumstance for an Israeli government to endure, and therefore I think the imperative for a full evacuation of all the settlements excluding those involved in land swap will come mainly from the Israeli and not the Palestinian side, and that this evacuation will, in fact, take place if an agreement is reached.

I think this is a pretty good rough sketch of what two-state advocates imagine, and have always imagined, the implementation of UNSCR 242 and the land for peace formula it initiated in 1967 would look like in practice. There is, of course, a plethora of reasons for believing, as the reader does, that time has passed this aspiration by and such an agreement is no longer feasible. Many one-state advocates also believe that it was never desirable and is insufficient, but we will leave that to one side in this instance.

The main objection to the feasibility of achieving such a two-state agreement in practice is, of course, the Israeli settlements and ongoing settlement activity. This is an extremely reasonable objection. It would, and hopefully will be, a not entirely but almost unprecedented step for a state to move many thousands of its citizens, often against their desires, outside of the context of an ongoing major conventional war. So the obvious question is: what on earth makes us think that this can possibly be accomplished, especially when one looks at maps of settlement expansion in the occupied territories?

The answer goes back to the first principle. It is because there is no other way out of the present situation. We strongly believe that Israel has an overwhelming national interest in securing its future and its self-identity as a “Jewish and democratic” state, and that this can only be achieved by ending the occupation. The occupation involves ruling over and subjugating in a most cruel and unjust manner almost 5 million Palestinians who are not Jewish and who are not citizens of Israel or any other state. This arrangement already does and increasingly will make this Israeli self-definition untenable and even absurd.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no chance that these Palestinians will endure unending occupation and colonization with no hope of a peaceful settlement in quiet and with equanimity. One thing the Palestinian people have proven beyond doubt over the past century is that not only are they not going anywhere, they are ready, willing and able to fight for their rights and for their national aspirations. This was expressed in sectarian conflict throughout the 30s and 40s, the civil war of 1947-48, in many ways in the various Arab-Israeli wars, and most clearly in the two intifadas. That there will be future uprisings if the occupation does not end and shows no signs of ending is really beyond any question.

There is also almost no reason to doubt that these uprisings will follow the examples of the relationship of the end of the first intifada to its beginning, and of the second intifada to the first: that is to say, increasing militarization, increasing violence and increasingly religious fervor on both sides of the equation. Beyond the question of its self-identity, Israel faces this fundamental existential problem: it can either have the occupation or can have peace. It cannot have both. Continued occupation means war, conflict and ever-escalating violence, hatred and bloodshed. It is a literally untenable, unmanageable situation.

It would be marvelous to think that Palestinians would eschew armed struggle in favor of nonviolent resistance as the primary tools in future uprisings, but in reality there is no basis for believing this. There is almost no question that the large, heavily armed and ideological political parties that became entrenched in the occupied territories by the end of the first intifada and seized control of the uprising its latter stages, and then entirely dominated the militarized and disastrous second intifada, would immediately seize hold of any momentum created by large-scale nonviolent resistance movement, especially since that resistance would almost certainly be met with the utmost brutality by occupation forces.

The argument therefore is that there is still reason to believe that a two-state agreement is possible because it is the only way out for both parties, and both parties have an existential need to find a way out of what will otherwise almost certainly prove a calamity for both. I agree that it’s going be difficult, and I would even agree that it is a long shot, but I can’t think of any other plausible scenario that could be achieved that would end the conflict and the occupation.

As numerous people have observed, states, like individuals, generally do what is necessary, no matter how unpalatable, once they have exhausted all other options. My very strong belief is that until the prospect of a viable, negotiated peace agreement is irrevocably foreclosed, all responsible parties should do their utmost of finding a way to make it work in spite of the undoubted difficulties and obstacles.

In my book, “What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?,” I argued that one-state advocates and others are wrong in thinking that the topographical, administrative and demographic changes wrought in the occupied territories by the settlement project have definitively rendered Palestinian statehood untenable, precisely because it is an existential necessity, not only for the Palestinians, but for Israel itself. What is established by political will can be reversed by political will, if the necessity is strong enough.

In the book I suggested that a more politically precise and accurate yardstick for gauging the viability of a potential two-state agreement is the extent to which a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis believe it is necessary for their interests. By all measures, they both continue to believe this. When and if they don’t, and that is sustained for some period of time, it will be necessary, of course, to seriously examine all the other options, although I really don’t know what realistically they’re going to look like beyond the most atrocious, escalating and religiously informed armed conflict. But because Israel needs this agreement as much as the Palestinians do, and because the Israeli majority should be able to overcome the resistance of a fanatical minority due to existential national imperatives, I think it is definitely premature to speak in terms of the “death of the peace process” and the idea that the time for a two state agreement is definitively past.

There is every possibility, and every reason to fear, that such an agreement will not be reached. My argument is that given the plausible alternatives that can realistically be imagined in the absence of such an agreement, and especially in the absence of a constituency on both sides pushing for such an agreement, it is irresponsible to the point of nihilism to throw up one’s hands, give up and walk away. Palestinians who labor under the illusion that boycotts and sanctions can force Israel to abandon its national project in favor of living on equal terms in a single state with an increasing Palestinian majority, and Israelis kid themselves that Egypt and Jordan can somehow be maneuvered to accept responsibility for the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank that Israel does not want to retain respectively, are both deeply deluded in my view. Neither of these “solutions” qualifies as anything of the sort, because they will not be minimally acceptable to the other parties involved. In my view anything that promotes itself as a “solution” has to be plausibly acceptable to the parties who are supposed to accept it, and if it isn’t, then not only is it not a “solution,” it’s essentially an excuse for not having any real ideas or any real strategy to end the ongoing evil of the occupation and avoid a looming disaster.

I have been saying for some time now that while there is no such thing as a “one-state solution” there may be a one-state outcome. That is to say, a single, unified state could be the result of an imaginable set of circumstances, but these really would only in practice be unprecedented and almost unimaginable levels of violence, warfare and bloodshed over many decades at the very least. 100 years of confrontation and 60 years of armed conflict (boycotts, sanctions and the rest) have done nothing to dent the national wills and agendas of either the Israelis or the Palestinians. I think anyone who embraces the prospect of the one-state outcome needs to be honest about the process that will be required to produce it. In my view, such a process would be much more likely lead to many less palatable (to say the least) outcomes than a one-state reality that is just, fair and equitable. More importantly, the kind of mutual depletion, exhaustion and perhaps even decimation that would be required simply doesn’t bear thinking about at the human level.

In my view, anyone who embraces the one-state outcome in the full knowledge of the bloodbath that would undoubtedly be required to produce it has not only given up on peace, they’ve given up on humanity as well. I respect the ethical fervor and moral impulse of those who want the Israelis and Palestinians to voluntarily agree to live in a single, democratic, post-national state that is fair and equitable. If I thought it were remotely possible, I would be agitating for it as well. But I think I’ve been able to explain why I don’t think it is achievable as a solution and why it’s extremely undesirable, because of its necessary process (which is unlikely to produce this result anyway), as an outcome.

All of this is what leads me to continue to work for the only viable way out of the present untenable, unacceptable, evil and outrageous circumstance and for peace based on ending the occupation by creating a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel.

The Goldberg variation: fallout from my interview with the Atlantic website

For years now my colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine have been harping on a very standard, well-established and consensus Arab and Arab American theme — ending the occupation in Palestine — but promoting this goal in the United States through new strategies, conceptual frameworks and rhetorical tactics. Confused by the newness of the method, many people have failed to comprehend the continuity of the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state along the borders of 1967 with its capital in East Jerusalem, etc. Perhaps we should not be too surprised. An audience entirely acculturated to grand opera of the heroic style might be expected to react badly to a dense, careful Baroque aria reflecting the logical precision of the Enlightenment rather than the passionate idealism of the Romantic era.

I’ve often thought that people who listen to ATFP expecting to hear Wagner’s Götterdämmerung lurching from crescendo to crescendo, as Arab American rhetoric on Palestine usually does, are greatly taken aback when confronted with something that bears a lot more similarity to the methodical, exact, sometimes clinical but always purposive Bach. With that in mind, I’ve taken to referring to my recent interview with the Atlantic monthly website as "the Goldberg variation." This bit of silliness refers not only to the fact that ATFP’s entire mission is simply a variation on an established Arab and Arab-American goal and that, except for Islamists and one-state absolutists, the vast majority of Arabs and Arab-Americans almost certainly and strongly agree with this aim, but also to the fact that other than some rather unremarkable comments about the J Street conference at which I spoke, there was nothing new in what I had to say to Jeffrey Goldberg.

I find it hard to avoid the sense that it wasn’t so much what I said (even if that is, perhaps, somewhat objectionable to some people) but rather the forum in which and the interlocutor to whom I was expressing these rather well-known opinions that really got some people’s goat. The outcry in some cases was positively hysterical, even though almost all of these people are well familiar with my thinking already. At any rate, the general quality of the response can be viewed by viewing this posting on the Mondoweiss blog. I think it speaks for itself, rather resoundingly, and the sad truth is that it’s fairly typical of attitudes informing the negative reaction.

As it happens, I know Philip Weiss a little, and I have always thought him to be an intelligent and fundamentally decent man. I e-mailed him a couple of days ago, when this was first posted, to ask him if he could possibly defend the publication of such a response on his own blog, Mondoweiss, and therefore indeed under his own name. I have not heard back from him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t. That would mean choosing between endorsing such empty, vapid rage or acknowledging that there is a more complex reality that needs to be defended from this kind of puerile outburst. Until now I would have been sure that he would’ve chosen the second, and it’s certainly by no means too late, but I’m beginning to lose hope.

On October 18, I sent him an e-mail asking about his opinion about J Street, about which he had just blogged, and also challenging him, since his postings revealed that he had obviously read my book (you know they all have, of course), to go beyond referring to it in passing as he had done on more than one occasion, and actually provide some kind of evaluation. He immediately replied, in part:
You’re absolutely right that I’ve been unfair to you; I mean to amend that. I like your book. I don’t know that I agree with it entirely, but it’s smart and often very sharp.
He ended:
I think the book is well written and often on target. I’ve mentioned it twice now. Count on me to amend by doing a posting dedicated to the book and taking on the positive ideas in a positive way, and thanking you for your assistance to me in the past.

That’s what I call an honorable response from an honorable man who in the past has shown himself to be plainly interested in ideas and more than capable of serious, sustained engagement. Since then, nothing. I had been assuming that he was simply taking his time, which is only fair. I suppose he may well be continuing to do so. If he ever does provide any kind of sustained response — positive, negative or both — it will be a breath of fresh air in a suffocating smog cloud of silence from the one state advocates whose ideas my book challenges. But with this latest posting on his site and no response to my simple, obvious and very fair question — "can you stand by this posting on your site?" — I’m starting to lose hope in him too. I would be deeply relieved if he proves me wrong, but by now I’m not holding my breath.

Worst of all, I have found myself getting sucked into the most pointless and endless exchanges on social media sites like Facebook that have greatly clarified my thinking about how to engage with people in that kind of forum. I’m desperate to have a more wide-ranging, serious debate in the Arab American community, but my recent experiences have convinced me, once and for all, that Facebook just doesn’t help much. I have already criticized e-mail lists and social media for creating smaller and louder echo chambers, and now I can see the extent to which it simply doesn’t function as a useful medium for the exchange of serious ideas — though I should’ve known better all along I suppose. I’m grateful to my friend, the young activist Omar Baddar, who pointed out to me how much time I was wasting on answering truly silly and absurd allegations and accusations ("Ibish supports the siege on Gaza," etc.).

I can do no better than quote him directly:
Hussein, for sanity’s sake, don’t get consumed in these sorts of debates. Anyone willing to jump from what you actually say (some of which I disagree with) to accusing you of supporting AIPAC, Dahlan, & detractors of Goldstone is simply someone who is incapable of having a serious conversation about any of this! To be sure, I do think that you should, on occasion, explain yourself and clarify where you’re coming from. But this type of childish back & forth with amateurish accusations is really not worth your time!

He later added, I think with perfect clarity:
The cycle is seductive, but ultimately useless: They make an assertion, you refute it, then they get more belligerent, then you refutations become more devastating, then they get absurd, then you wonder why you engaged in the first place… & then it starts all over again!

The voice of experience speaking to someone new to social media. Therefore, and as a completely unexpected and very interesting side effect of the Goldberg variation, I’m going to take Omar’s advice and be vigilant about only answering serious, reasonable comments and questions precisely so as not to be consumed by absurdities and foolishness.

A serious blog posting from Philip Weiss, for example, or any thoughtful, serious Arab-American who disagrees with me and is capable of forming a coherent argument, would definitely constitute the kind of debate I have been complaining we are lacking, but that recent posting on his site and some (though by no means all) of what emerged in social media in response to the Goldberg variation are anything but that. Belligerence, anger and outrage are not only not a strategy; they are also not an argument.

Jewish Voice For Peace says it does not endorse one-state agenda

In my interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on the Atlantic Monthly website today, "Hussein Ibish on the Fantasy World of One-Staters," I suggested that the organization Jewish Voice for Peace was solidly in favor of a one-state agenda for Israel and the Palestinians. In response I received the following note from Sydney Levy, Director of Campaigns for JVP:

Your statement is factually not true, as I presume you are aware, since you came to our National Conference in 2007, more or less at the same time as we were publicly welcoming the two-state Saudi peace plan.

Our fuller position is available in our website:
One State or Two? A Jewish Voice for Peace position paper:

As activists in the movement for peace and justice in the Middle East, JVP members are often asked for our position on how the Palestine / Israel conflict should ultimately be solved. Our mission statement endorses neither a one-state solution, nor a two-state solution. Instead it promotes support for human rights and international law. As a result, we have members and supporters on both sides of this question, as well as many others who, like the organization as a whole, are agnostic about it. If a short answer is required, it would be that we support any solution that is consistent with the national rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, whether one binational state, two states, or some other solution.

In fact, I was laboring under the impression, on some decent authority, that the JVP position on this issue had actually shifted considerably since the 2007 conference that I did indeed attend. I have been somewhat misled and glad to have been wrong about this. I am delighted to receive and report this clarification and to correct the record. I will not repeat the error.

I am uncomfortable, as I have said many times before, with "agnosticism" about the goal of Middle East peace for important political and strategic reasons, but there is a big difference between that and one-state advocacy as such, and its important to be accurate.

Where things stand in the Middle East after Sec. Clinton’s not-so-excellent adventure

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to the Middle East and inadvertently created yet another crisis for the Obama peace initiative. It’s not so much that she badly mishandled everything — although that argument could certainly be made — it’s more that I think her difficulties demonstrate how complicated and in some practical senses almost impossible the American diplomatic task at hand really is.

First, she seemed to reverse American policy regarding a settlement freeze by praising Netanyahu’s proposals for a partial and temporary settlement freeze as “unprecedented” and by reiterating the administration’s long-standing request the Palestinians return to negotiations “without preconditions,” in other words without a formal American-Israeli understanding on a settlement freeze. Then, following a firestorm of criticism, she seemingly backtracked from the backtrack and reaffirmed US policy that there should be a complete settlement freeze, but added that Netanyahu should receive credit for how far he has been willing to go although this is still “not enough.”

Examining her language dispassionately, one could easily defend the Secretary’s characterization: for Netanyahu, this is, in fact, unprecedented, just as his grudging and not entirely convincing endorsement of the necessity of a two-state solution was. He has never said anything like this before, or been willing to take such measures. Since his first term, and even more dramatically displayed during the formation of his second cabinet, we have known Netanyahu belongs to the deal-making class of individuals, willing to do things that are ideologically, emotionally and politically unpalatable in order to remain in power. Therefore, and because what he has offered the United States, even though it may be unprecedented for him, is completely insufficient for everybody else, including the Obama administration, politically describing his proposals as “unprecedented” was extremely unfortunate because it gave the impression that the administration is satisfied with his position. It’s extremely helpful that the Secretary clarified that this is not so, but the political damage has been done in spite of the fact that a case can be made for the factual validity of the language itself.

So where does that leave us? First, I think it’s pretty clear, as I’ve been saying on the Ibishblog for many, many months now, that they are either is or imminently will be an informal understanding between Israel and the United States that amounts to something very close to a settlement freeze, especially outside of Jerusalem. There will be latitude, and Israel will cheat, but it seems that the Americans and Israelis have found some kind of private, informal arrangement that allows the administration to push the issue to the side for the moment. However, what is unusual in this scenario, and what distinguishes the Obama administration from previous ones, is that the United States has thus far declined to formally accept Israel’s “unprecedented” compromises on the issue and continues to insist that continued settlement activity is “illegitimate.” The issue therefore remains on the table, if pushed to the side in favor of the resumption of permanent status talks.

The problem is that even though Netanyahu certainly dreads the notion of serious permanent status negotiations with realistic terms of reference as outlined by Pres. Obama at the UN, for the Palestinians returning to negotiations in the near future is both diplomatically wise and politically untenable. The recent flap over Clinton’s remarks in Israel has only complicated matters that have become extraordinarily difficult for the PLO because of the inability of the United States to achieve a satisfactory agreement on settlements and, perhaps even more damagingly, the scandal over the Goldstone report. There is a constant tension among the Palestinians (and for Israelis also, one should add) between what makes sense diplomatically at the international level in terms of advancing the national interest and what public opinion at home will bear politically.

This tension between the diplomatic and political registers was dramatically played out with regard to the Goldstone report. The PLO first operated entirely at the domestic political register, championing the report at every stage and embracing it with gusto. Then, recognizing that there was a pretty impenetrable consensus of opposition to adoption of the report by either the Security Council or the ICC by most if not all of the permanent members of the Security Council, and not just the United States, as well as serious American opposition to the PLO pushing the report in multilateral forums, they switched to the diplomatic register and decided that the limited potential benefits of pressing forward with the report were not worth the considerable diplomatic costs. However, they did so without preparing public opinion in any way, or explaining why they took the decision or even who it was that decided to agree to a delay in the Human Rights Council. There was generalized confusion among the Palestinians which predictably led to generalized outrage, and reversed at least six months of a steady accumulation of credibility by the PLO, the PA and President Abbas personally, especially vis-à-vis Hamas.

In other words, the Palestinian leadership was bound to pay a significant price with regard to the Goldstone report either internationally at the diplomatic level or domestically at the political level. In the event, the entire affair was so badly mishandled that they ended up paying both prices almost in full.

This is not only the backdrop, of course, for the great difficulty the PLO faces in being asked to return to negotiations without a formal settlement freeze and following the Goldstone debacle, but it also helps explain why Clinton was tacking towards pressuring the Palestinians rather than the Israelis in her recent Middle East trip. American diplomacy during the Obama administration has had to delicately balance pressure on both sides that is met with considerable political resistance at every stage. When the administration was pressuring Israel on a settlement freeze, many Israeli and pro-Israel voices were screaming at the top of their lungs about being “abandoned,” “thrown under the bus,” and “betrayed” by the new Neville Chamberlain. Now the Palestinians are being pressured to return to negotiations with nothing to show for their own significant and largely successful efforts to meet their Roadmap obligations regarding security, and having been placed in an impossible position over the Goldstone report, Palestinian, pro-Palestinian and Arab voices are expressing similar disgust (meanwhile, AIPAC “applauds”).

The final complication is the prospect of new Palestinian elections in January, as announced by Abbas, or in June as suggested by the Egyptian reconciliation plan signed by Fatah but not by Hamas. It seems very clear at this stage that Hamas doesn’t want anything to do with any elections because it does not feel capable of performing well in them (and also, of course, because they are ideologically disinterested in democratic processes and other “un-Islamic” procedures). However, it is also possible that they might reverse themselves, even fairly quickly, on this matter and having called for elections, the PA and Abbas have to proceed as if they were going to happen even though Hamas will probably make them impossible. This makes it all the more difficult for Palestinians to emphasize the diplomatic, national interest register over the domestic, political and ideological register.

In fairness, it should be said that, as Kadima leader Tzipi Livni pointed out at the Knesset opening recently, Netanyahu appears to have absolutely no strategy whatsoever other than stonewalling and saying no to everything and everyone, and no vision whatsoever for Israel’s future or dealing with its imminent crises. That’s what you expect opposition leaders to say in Parliament, of course, but in this case it stings more because it has so much truth to it. Netanyahu holds the Prime Minister’s office, for the moment quite effectively, and he has therefore a large stack of papers with the words “office of the Prime Minister” embossed at the top. Unfortunately, the pages are entirely blank. At least the PLO knows where it wants to go. I don’t think the same can be said of Netanyahu (although it might, unfortunately, be said of some of his even more extreme Cabinet colleagues).

It’s an extraordinary thing to plunge into a vertiginous despair without leaping off some kind of precipice of hope. I don’t think any well-informed, serious observer was really moved to any kind of euphoria by the Obama initiative, Cairo speech or any of the extremely positive innovations since his inauguration. The situation is simply too grim, too complicated and too resistant for any such reading to have been taken seriously by informed observers. So it’s a little odd to see people gripped by dysphoria without ever having experienced euphoria. Perhaps we could say that the Middle East peace process used to be a manic-depressive experience, and is now simply depressive, and for some people almost suicidally so. And it must be said, things on the ground, in the region and between the parties didn’t look at all promising in January, and they don’t look any better now.

But there is an important difference: there is, in fact, no indication that the Obama administration is giving up, throwing up its hands, or walking away, as many suspect the Israeli prime minister and others have been hoping. I have argued in several published news reports that the administration views Middle East peace as a marathon and not a sprint, and is a process of attrition rather than spectacular breakthrough. I think because they tried for an early breakthrough (not a bad idea), and only made some limited progress that has offset by perhaps even more significant deterioration, many people have the wrong impression that President Obama and his team actually thought they had a very good chance of producing major progress in an early stage and are now disappointed and confused, with their policy and approach in complete disarray. I don’t think there’s any evidence for this whatsoever. I think Clinton’s trip demonstrates that engagement is not ending, but continuing if not intensifying.

Plainly the administration has been trying to communicate subtly that it expects movement to be slower than it had been pushing for, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that they are surprised by this. The fact that Obama made his first phone call from the Oval Office within about 10 minutes of his presidency to Pres. Abbas, and appointed Special Envoy Mitchell on his second day in office, and spent the entire campaign talking about how he wouldn’t wait until the end of his administration to deal with this issue, all suggests that he started right away precisely because he knows that in all likelihood this is going to take a long, long time and that it is a matter of wearing down the stonewalling parties rather than creating some kind of epiphanic, miraculous transformation.

Meanwhile, the PA’s state and institution building project proposed by Prime Minister Fayyad provides an extraordinary parallel and complementary process that can strengthen both the Palestinian and American strategic positions vis-à-vis Israel and that can begin to create significant physical and administrative changes on the ground that improve the political context in which diplomacy is taking place. As I argued strongly in the Guardian yesterday, it is essential that this plan receive not only financial and technical support, but also diplomatic and political protection, from the Arabs, the Europeans and, above all, the United States. And, as I pointed out, it will be extremely difficult for Israel to block specific projects that are being carried out in conjunction with American and European agencies and institutions.

As long as the administration persists, and remains — as all its leaders keep saying it is — “determined” to see this process through, there is no reason for anyone to despair. There is, after all, no other choice: it’s either a slow, gradual and, yes, painful, inching towards a two-state agreement, or it’s war, conflict and occupation into the foreseeable future and catastrophe all around. Despairing, giving up and walking away is too irresponsible for this administration, for the United States, or for anyone with the best interests of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans at heart. It’s a nihilistic reaction, and it lacks both political and intellectual substance and moral fiber.

Palestinians must prepare for statehood

In an article last week, Ahmad Samhi Khalidi derisively dismissed the plan of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to build the infrastructural, administrative and economic framework of a Palestinian state in spite of the occupation.

His arguments essentially made Israel’s case for it: that the Palestinians are not capable of building state institutions, lack the legal authority to do so, and can only create structures that do not challenge the occupation. One can only marvel at expatriate Palestinian intellectuals making Israel’s case against a dynamic, proactive Palestinian plan to transform realities on the ground and attack the very essence of the occupation.

The PA plan provides a mechanism that complements diplomatic efforts to end the occupation and frees Palestinians from being entirely dependent upon discussions with others. It enables them to shape their own future. Khalidi, however, argues that no such state-building project is possible because “every PA action is determined by the Israeli occupation”. This is only true to the extent that the Palestinians submissively accept it and refuse to embark on what Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad describes as “positive unilateralism“. While Israel might be theoretically capable of blocking such moves, its ability to do so in practice may prove quite limited.

What the PA is proposing is consistent with stated Palestinian, American and Israeli intentions and, in effect, calls Israel’s bluff. Moreover, the PA plan could and should be provided with powerful diplomatic and political support by the US, Europe and other international players that have considerable sway with Israel.

Even Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has stated that the ultimate goal of negotiations is the creation of a Palestinian state. Under such circumstances, it would be politically costly, and hard to explain, if any attempt were made to block measures that peacefully move in that direction and pose no threat to legitimate Israeli interests. It would be doubly difficult if specific projects are conducted in practical co-operation with American, European and international institutions, whose financial and technical support will undoubtedly be required for the success of much of the programme.

Even if the PA plan does succeed, Khalidi argues that the result will be “a partial, ersatz entity”, insufficient in every respect for the realisation of Palestinian national aims. Khalidi is completely wrong to suggest that institution-building negates or substitutes for the kind of robust diplomacy that insists on a genuinely independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Nothing whatsoever in the plan either suggests or promotes any other outcome.

The worst misapprehension Khalidi harbours is the idea that the programme is essentially “apolitical” and plays into Netanyahu’s ridiculous idea of “economic peace”. In fact, building Palestinian institutions is one of the most radical and effective acts of resistance to occupation imaginable. It will demonstrate the Palestinians are effectively governing themselves, and building the practical framework for a state supported by an overwhelming international consensus.

Khalidi understands that it is essential to continue to strive politically and diplomatically for such a state, but for some reason seems bitterly opposed to any efforts to prepare for it to be well-functioning, stable and effective.

So what do he and the other detractors actually propose? That Palestinians continue to demand statehood, but not prepare for it in a meaningful way? That, because of the occupation, they pay no attention to improving their society, administration and infrastructure? That they have no responsibilities beyond political rhetoric? That they have no agency beyond simple demands for statehood? That they remain entirely dependent on the peace process without trying to alter conditions on the ground to improve not only their society but also their strategic position vis-à-vis Israel?

One of the most important elements of the programme is that it begins to create an administrative and governance structure among the Palestinians that is bureaucratised and institutionalised, and therefore insulated from the untoward dominance of political parties. Fayyad’s second tenure as prime minister has already seen a meaningful distinction develop between party and administration that has been healthy for both. And, far from exceeding his authority in doing this, he is implementing the policies of Palestinian president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Either Khalidi does not recognise the importance of this or he doesn’t like it. Independent, effective administrative apparatuses would protect Palestinian governance structures from undue influence by both parties and traditional elites. This is what really informs much of the internal Palestinian opposition to a programme that would empower the Palestinian people, improve their strategic position, and can only bring forward the moment of independence.

Ibish’s worst speech ever? “On the importance of American studies in the Arab world”

A year ago, in October 2008, I was invited by the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain, the oldest American Studies Center in the Arab world, to give the keynote address at the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Center. Below is the text I prepared for the talk, which was to address the importance of American Studies centers in the Arab World. As delivered, it was somewhat (perhaps mercifully) shorter, and slightly different. However, reviewing the prepared text one year on, I thought it was well worth posting on the Ibishblog, and the ideas in it still well worth considering. Or is this my worst speech ever? You decide!

Utopian and dystopian themes in American politics, policy and culture

Keynote address at the 10th anniversary celebration at the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain, October 29, 2008.

I. The importance of American studies in the Arab world

I have been asked to speak about the necessity of American studies centers in the Middle East. I will not dwell too long on the obvious connections between the United States, the main regional power in the Middle East, and the Arab states. In spite of the gradual shift of power in terms of capital from the West to the East, particularly China and India, the United States remains the dominant player in Southwest Asia and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is particularly relevant to countries in the Gulf as major exporters of hydrocarbons, and given their strategic location. The recent rise of Iran as a potential regional rival to the United States only intensifies rather than lessens the significance of the United States to the Arab states, particularly in the Gulf region.

As for Bahrain, the relevancy of the United States and its political system could not be more direct, as you know better than I do. What we are talking about here, simply put, is your present prosperity and future security. Commercial ties between Bahrain and the United States are extensive and long-standing. The Government of Bahrain has a cooperative agreement with the United States military and has provided the United States a base in Juffair since the early 1990s. This is the headquarters for Commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command and the United States Fifth Fleet, and about 1500 U.S. and coalition military personnel. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command is the naval element of CENTCOM, based in Qatar, a neighboring country to which you will soon be building a massive bridge. It consists of the United States 5th Fleet and several other subordinate task forces, including Combined Task Force 150, Combined Task Force 158 and others. Naval Support Activity Bahrain is the primary base in the region for the naval and marine activities in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, also known as the war in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, also known as the war in Iraq. So, there can be no doubting the strategic importance of the United States, and its society and political system, to the fundamental strategic concerns of Bahrain, and other GCC and Arab states for that matter. As I say, we are talking about your future.

The United States and the Arab states are mutually dependent in terms of trade and security, and yet are beset by chronic and intensifying misunderstandings and misrecognitions, at times even bordering on fundamental distrust. Some of this is based on rational questions about the roles and intentions of the governments and populations of both societies. Arabs naturally have serious questions regarding American policies especially towards Israel and the Palestinians, as well as its actions and intentions in Iraq and its overall approach to the region and its resources. Americans have deep suspicions about extremist and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, and growing sentiments in the Arab world critical of and even hostile to not only American policy, but sometimes even American culture and society.

Of course many of these concerns on both sides are not only rational and inevitable given the course of recent history, but many are also based on stereotypes, caricatures, reductions and misrecognitions. As one who follows and participates in both the Arabic and English language media, I can say categorically that the press, particularly television, does little to help educate the public on both sides about the complexities of each others societies and the reality of and need for mutual cooperation and interdependence.

For many years, the most acute Arab-American observers, particularly my late friend Edward Said, complained properly about the lack of American studies programs and departments in the region. Of late this serious oversight has been corrected by programs such as the one we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of today here at the University of Bahrain. The University, the staff of the Center, and the government of this important country are to be congratulated on taking the initiative in promoting American studies here, and being part of an overall movement to not only send Arab students to the United States to learn about American society, but to bring American studies here to the Middle East.

As with most problematic elements in the Arab-American relationship, this problem has been and still is a reciprocal one. There are only a tiny handful of centers for contemporary Arab studies in American universities, almost all of them at private and indeed Catholic universities such as Georgetown and Villanova. In most elite and public American universities, Arab studies are subsumed into larger programs involving the whole “Near East,” ancient and modern, which have been traditionally dominated by Orientalist traditions (which at least involved enormous knowledge, erudition and prodigious scholarship about the region in spite of essentializing tendencies), but which are now increasingly the site of contesting pro and anti-Israel orthodoxies that are shamelessly political. The post-9/11 surge of interest in Arabic language studies and other regional academic interests in the Middle East in American universities has been often geared towards pragmatic military, diplomatic and intelligence agendas. There is nothing particularly objectionable about this, but it is hardly a substitute for a genuine and empathetic engagement with another, very different and difficult, culture for most Americans to grasp.

I would argue that Americans have much to learn from the Arab world about its culture, traditions and incredible complexity and heterogeneity that would enrich the American worldview. To do so, Americans must learn about the Arabs from the Arabs, and that means learning from Arabs who understand how to communicate with Americans effectively and how to craft a receivable message. As anyone who has dealt with the Arab-American dialogue, especially at the political level, knows perfectly well, here we have two cultures that have found it exceptionally difficult to explain perfectly reasonable and understandable concerns and perspectives to each other in a manner that can be readily comprehended by the other side.

But I am here today to talk directly about what American studies can bring to the Arab world. And I mean by this not simply the enhancement of the ability of Arabs such as the people of Bahrain to deal effectively with Americans in terms of business and diplomacy, but also the positive value of appreciating the extraordinary complexity of American politics, culture and art, its enormous contribution to human civilization.

II. Utopian and dystopian tendencies in American domestic politics and foreign policy

I am going to frame my remarks today around the consistent and definitive tension between the utopian and dystopian tendencies in American politics and culture – and hopefully add a layer of complexity to this almost clichéd dichotomy. By utopian, I mean the idea that society is perfectible, and that an idealized state of affairs between people can be accomplished. By dystopian, I mean, of course, the opposite: a perspective that casts individuals and societies in a negative light and which, despairing of correcting them, and instead focuses on controlling them. The American hybrid seeks to balance these founding and contrasting if not contradictory ideals: the utopian perfectionism of the Declaration of Independence (which might be thought of as the mission statement of the United States of America) offset by the finely tuned mechanisms for restraining change and balancing competing self-interests contained in the U.S. Constitution (which are essentially its bylaws). The United States has been struggling throughout its history from this tension between the idealistic essence of its mission statement and the cynical attitudes expressed in its bylaws.

There are not, as is sometimes absurdly suggested, two United States in competition with each other, or a series of contending utopian and dystopian versions of America. Instead the United States at its richest and most compelling enacts a dynamic interplay between coexisting utopian and dystopian traits and impulses. This enigma is the source of both its greatest contributions to world political culture, and the wellspring of its richest fine arts, both of which I will touch upon this evening. I hope to illuminate a common theme that defines the American experience at a fundamental, if in some ways irresolvable, manner.

Let me begin by discussing for a moment the problem of the competing mythological versions of the United States that dominate perceptions both internally within the country and around the world: first, the utopian dream of the “city on a hill” (President Reagan’s speechwriters added "shining" to that phrase centuries later) that has defined the American self-image since the founding of the Republic if not before, and is propagated by the vast apparatus of American culture which projects its power to every remote corner of the globe today. The second myth is the dystopian nightmare, shared around the world and on the extreme wings of the American political left and right, of an omnipotent, rampaging, global hyper-power, the imperialist behemoth responsible for every negative aspect of reality, particularly in the Middle East.

It has been a commonplace of conversation, since my childhood in Beirut in the 1960s, for me to hear everything people do not like to be attributed to the actions of “the Americans.” What American studies must and should reveal is the absurdity of such caricatures, and replace them with an understanding of a society of enormous and increasing complexity that can exude at one moment breathtaking hubris and arrogance, and at the very next moment, at times even the very same moment, an extraordinary sense of fairness and generosity.

In particular, I believe it is vital for Arabs to understand the extremely complex and yet prosaic process of forming American policy, the results of which are often objectionable to many people in the Arab world. I been subjected personally for my entire life, both living in the Middle East and in Arab-American circles in the United States, to an extraordinary misperception of the processes that creates the consensus positions of the American government on the most pressing issues, particularly those involving foreign policy.

The great secret about the American political system is that there is no secret.

The challenge in understanding the evolution of US policy is in accepting the complexity of the forces at work – powerful financial interests and corporate lobbies, single issue power groups, large voting blocs, ideological interests, party machineries — and, yes, both formal, lawful, and informal, unlawful, forms of corruption – almost all of which are played out in the public eye. It is extraordinary that even some Arab-American political scientists persist in describing American imperial policy – a term which seems perfectly apt to me – as if it were determined by some sort of cabal or secret process independent of the structures built into the constitutional and legal process. What these so-called experts have so woefully failed to realize is that there is no Wizard of Oz, to use a very American metaphor, behind the curtain. In fact, there is no curtain. What you see is what you get: one may describe it as a functioning representative democracy, an oligarchy in which wealth is disproportionately empowered, a process driven by personalities, or any number of other contingent or determinative models – most of them tending towards a utopian or dystopian interpretation of the system.

American political processes are played out in public, on a vast scale, and in my view there is little to no mystery as to how the system works. The American government was from its outset designed to be lobbied by powerful interests, and power can come in the form of financial or cultural capital, or large voting blocs among other accumulations of leverage. For most of the past half-century, to be absolutely frank, most Arab diplomacy in the United States has sought to discover which small group within the elite secretly crafts policy, and to capture its ears. It is only in recent years, and I mean years not decades, that most Arab embassies in Washington have begun to understand the need for serious, sustained congressional lobbying. And they are only beginning to show a glimmer of comprehension about the role of public opinion in American politics.

A good example of this complexity can be seen in the controversy over the influence of the organized pro-Israel lobby. Two senior American political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote first an article and then a book in which they argued – in an effectively dystopian reading – that the organized pro-Israel lobby has exercised a distorting and determinative role in shaping American policy, by making Israel a domestic issue in the hands of a small but powerful interest group comprised mainly of pro-Israel Jewish lobbies and more recently right-wing evangelical Christian fanatics. They argue that this consolidation of power by a minority special interest has harmed US national security and produced unbalanced, unwise policies, a dystopian argument to be sure. In a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, another respected political scientist, Walter Russell Mead, attempted to refute this argument by demonstrating at great length the deep cultural basis in the United States for sympathy and support for the Israeli based on mainly utopian civic and religious ideals.

I will not rehash the details of these arguments because my point is that the complexity of American political society is such that both arguments are, in fact, largely accurate even though they position themselves as contradictory. There is no question that the pro-Israel lobby has had a profound impact, especially in Congress, in making questions regarding Israel essentially domestic political rather than foreign policy considerations and effectively placing them beyond the scope of major challenge at the national political level. However, Mead is absolutely correct that this analysis is insufficient to explain the depth of sympathy among the American public for Zionism, a concept that had a significant following in American Christian communities in the 19th century long before Theodore Herzl and the first Zionist Congress in the 1890s. These dystopian and utopian readings must be combined to gain a clear picture of the nature of the passionate American attachment for Israel, which sometimes does indeed look like the kind George Washington specifically warned against in his farewell address of 1796.

Moreover, it must be said that the inability of the Arabs and the Arab-Americans to successfully counter the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, or preferably to make common cause with it on the issue of finding a viable end of conflict agreement which would end the occupation provide for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security, is in large measure a consequence of a failure to understand the processes by which American policy comes to be made and shifts slowly, almost glacially, over time due to the myriad levers of power through which it may be influenced. This of course is only one example, although one dear to the heart of almost every Arab, of the consequences of failing to understand the American political system.

There is a great deal of excitement across the world regarding what looks to be the imminent election of Sen. Barak Obama. There is no question that in terms of domestic political culture, this would constitute a seismic shift in US politics. In terms of the return of the Democratic Party to complete control of the government, it could represent a classic realignment. In terms of the rise to power of an African-American, it represents a cultural earthquake, the dramatic culmination of the civil rights movement and decades of struggle against racism and exclusion.

However, it would be a mistake to expect radical changes in policy as a result of such a shift, however dramatic it may be. The United States is about to elect a CEO, not a king. It is crucial to understand that lobbying is built into the American political system (“the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances,” which is in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, seems to address directly the question of lobbying). Therefore, US policies on big-picture issues are determined by a very slow moving process in which dozens of centers of power attempt to influence the parameters of policy by manipulating the levers of power. These levers include votes, money, media power, congressional influence and many other forms of affecting the way people in power think about the issues. The actors using the levers of power include various different kinds of political formations, single interest groups, corporate interests, think tanks and other ideological formations, popular movements, religious entities, ethnic lobbies and so many more. In most cases there are multiple competing interests on any given set of issues. They fight it out over time, representing different constituencies, until a broad consensus framework is established that holds for a certain period of time until either events or a change in the domestic balance of power necessitates a revision. Any president must operate within the parameters of what can be done without encountering untenable opposition from other centers of power inside and outside of the government.

As someone who has worked in Washington on the some of most difficult issues possible for over 10 years now, and as an Arab-American, I have done my best to study of the founding of the American Republic and its fundamental ideology. In academic research on this era, we find the utopian and dystopian mythologies played out in full and in bitter competition. On the one hand is the uplifting saga of an oppressed people throwing off the yoke of colonial oppression in favor of an inspired and almost clockwork-like precise system of self-government reflecting a virtual perfection of checks and balances within its system. On the other hand, revisionists for many decades have argued that the founding was essentially a conservative rebellion by a wealthy oligarchy of white, in many cases slave-owning, males who wish to assert dominance over their own society as opposed to submitting to parliamentary dictates from London, and who wished to preserve their assets and privileges from increasing British usurpation.

In other words, was American independence genuinely revolutionary and liberatory, or fundamentally conservative and a re-inscription of oligarchical oppression? I am certain this question will never be answered definitively, because I believe that in fact both scenarios contain elements of the truth: in its fundamental ideology, the American Revolution contains some of the most profoundly liberatory political innovations in human history; in its practice it embodied from the beginning, and in some ways continues to express, forms of exclusion and oppression that are unconscionable.

However, I would argue strongly that there is a profound and universally compelling aspect to how this American political system has effectively functioned from a practical point of view for more than 200 years. And that is in its remarkable capacity for self-correction and re-stabilization. In virtually every major case of this kind of self-correction, change was accomplished through lawful or constitutional means, with one obvious exception. The question of slavery was deliberately postponed during the founding, particularly at the Constitutional Convention, and ultimately was settled only through the most sanguineous conflict in American history, the Civil War. And it is fair to say that, given the failure of Reconstruction following the war, the practical liberation of the African-American population in most parts of the country was further postponed until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, and to some extent continues until this very day.

However, it is noteworthy that in his remarkable second inaugural address, President Lincoln, a figure who is sometimes regarded with exaggerated hagiography, had the brutal frankness to proclaim to a public suffering an exceptionally fratricidal bloodbath that,
Yet, if God wills that it [this war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
This surely is one of the harshest and most forthright self-condemnations and acceptance of the judgment of history in the name of self-correction that was ever uttered by the leader of any society – a dystopian evaluation in the name of a utopian ideal.

However, it is important to note that in its initial formation, the voting franchise in the United States was not only withheld from racial minorities and women, but also from non-propertied white males as well. In spite of the declarations of equality in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents of the United States, the early political structures of the Republic reflected a distinction between dependent and propertied individuals, with only the latter considered to be full participants in the political process. To understand the subordinate role accorded to “dependent” white males and other disenfranchised groups, think in terms of the limitations to political participation placed on dependents as we now understand the term, that is to say children. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, this status of dependency was presumed to also apply to women, racial minorities (especially slaves), and white males without property.

During the reforms of the first half of the 19th century, the franchise was extended to all white males, regardless of property ownership or (some) residency requirements. In effect, non-propertied white males were allowed to behave politically as if they were propertied, that is to say as if they were property owners, insofar as their full political enfranchisement was concerned. In exchange, the implicit understanding was that the non-propertied majority would not use its electoral dominance to infringe on the property rights of the wealthy minority. Here again, we see a utopian gesture of republican equality employed in the service of what would certainly seem to many people to be a dystopian reality of radical inequality of property and income. This was a quintessentially American balancing act between majority rights and minority prerogatives, and again, a marriage rather than a compromise of dystopian and utopian tendencies within the political structures and philosophy of the Republic.

To be sure, many other struggles for justice including the labor, women’s and civil rights movements and other emancipatory projects have characterized the ability of the American system to adapt itself and to move however haltingly and glacially in the direction of its own stated revolutionary ideals. Many continue to this day and are yet to be completed: but as the candidacies of Barak Obama, to a lesser extent Hillary Clinton, and even in some ways Sarah Palin all show, movement and change are a constant feature of American political life. Sometimes changes that have been building for generations almost unnoticed erupt suddenly, and the unthinkable is instantly transformed into the inevitable. The young and still assimilating American Muslim community, under constant and vicious attack by bigots and Islamophobes of many varieties, has, in spite of significant cultural and civil liberties challenges in the post-9/11 era, during this same period has become represented by its first two members of Congress ever: Representatives Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.

Sometimes speaking with people in the Middle East and reading or watching the Arab media one is given the impression that life is impossible for Arab or Muslim Americans, or that the political system in the United States is closed to them. While few know the challenges in more gruesome detail than I do — having written three major studies of hate crimes and discrimination against Arab Americans — I can attest that the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States can and will thrive politically when they to organize themselves and engage system in an effective manner, and that will develop credibility, clout and ultimately influence on policy as well, if they attend equally to the responsibilities as well as the rights of American citizenship. They must think, speak and act first and foremost as Americans, not Arabs living in America. And I must, in all frankness, say that in my view the Arab world is neglecting its greatest single asset in the United States by largely dismissing and neglecting the Arab Americans.

I would argue that the greatest lesson the founders of the American Republic left as a legacy to its own people, and to the nations of the world, are not the mechanics of its political system and organization of checks and balances. Rather it is the insight that individual human motivations in the political and economic realms are ultimately and inevitably driven by narrow self-interest. This is not to say that altruism, statesmanship and nobility are inaccessible to the human being as a political animal. It is rather that the founders of the American Republic understood that they could and should not trust not only the motivations of each other, but even their own motivations. They accepted as axiomatic the primacy of self-interest and the corruption inherent in the accumulation of power. The most remarkable aspect of this universally applicable insight is that, in general, the founders of the United States did not trust their own motivations as individuals; that they questioned themselves and accepted that each of them personally would, or at least could, also be driven by narrow and parochial concerns.

They created a system designed to evolve with the times, to self-correct, and to strive continuously to achieve the ideals more eloquently elaborated in the Declaration of Independence and than codified in the United States Constitution. But they did not believe in the perfectibility of either society or the human individual, and as I say, the most enlightened of them understood that they could not trust themselves either as a group or as individuals to act in a disinterested manner. In other words, the founders of the Republic deployed a dystopian reading of “human nature” in the service of a utopian republican ideal, a quintessentially American gesture. This illustrates my broader point here perfectly: even at its most idealistic, the American fantasy of a political utopia, a "more perfect union," comes with a dystopian attitude already inscribed into it.

It strikes me that all of the philosophical insights of the Enlightenment and its political legacy, this realization is perhaps the most profound lesson the American experience and what might be called the ideology of the American Revolution offers to the rest of the world. It is precisely this epiphany that has provided the equilibrium and balance between the utopian and dystopian strains of the American polity and experience that has produced such a remarkably stable and self-regulating structure. This insight, which is not absolutely unique to the United States or its founders, but which was perhaps more keenly appreciated at that time and place than any other, could be incorporated into many different cultural contexts and political systems.

By no means does an appreciation of this crucial and decisive insight dictate a replication of the American constitutional system of checks and balances between discrete branches of government. Rather than a specific formula for the clockwork operation of a government apparatus, this recognition of fundamental and universal human frailty of individual interests suggests an ethos or an attitude that the American experience can offer the rest of the world both in terms of understanding how Americans view and operate their own politics domestically and in terms of what the American model can offer to other, especially developing, states in constructing stable and self reinforcing systems of government that include maximal levels of accountability, transparency and rule of law.

Unfortunately, this remarkable American insight – that power not only corrupts, but is dangerous not only to those who are subject to power but also to the powerful themselves – has never been applied in a sustained manner to the American approach to international relations. In spite of Wilsonian rhetoric in the wake of the First World War and the spate of international agreements and treaties and the founding of United Nations in the wake of the Second, in fact the United States has continued to regard international relations as a sphere in which its founding insight into the corruption and limitation of power simply does not apply.

Instead, the United States has continuously clung, as virtually all major powers have throughout the ages, to a policy of maximizing its own coercive influence under all circumstances. There can be no question that international law has been and continues to be regarded by most American administrations at most times as a tool of statecraft to be employed in the narrow pursuit of national interests rather than a system to be upheld universally, and which should apply to the United States, its institutions and officials, and closest allies, well as to all others. Indeed, a commonplace contempt for international law and multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, is a dominant feature of American political culture and discourse. These conventions and institutions are seen at best as a tool to be deployed when convenient and at worst as a positive encumbrance on the arbitrary will of the United States to project its power.

The recent invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good example of the very height of this contempt, when the Bush administration sought and did not receive permission for this action from the UN Security Council, and went ahead with the war regardless. This dismissive attitude was even more crudely expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said derisively of the fixed alliances such as NATO upon which traditional US Cold War foreign policy had been based, words to the effect that the mission defines the alliance, but the alliance does not define the mission. During this heady period of post-9/11 rage and intoxication, even fixed alliances were seen as unnecessary encumbrances to the projection of American power.

There is every reason to believe that during the second term of the Bush administration this attitude has undergone considerable revision and that it will be further revised by the next administration especially if Sen. Obama prevails. My point, however, is that while Americans have accepted at such a fundamental level that they understand, virtually without consciously articulating the principal, that power is corrupting and dangerous even for the powerful, and that balance is useful even for the stronger parties in a relationship given the virtues of restraint in politics, the United States has never seriously attempted to consider that this same principle could or should apply at the international level as well. In the post-Cold War era the consensus that has barely been challenged, if at all, in the United States that maximal power for our country on the global scene is simply and uncomplicatedly in the best interests of the United States. The idea is virtually unheard of that any real system of balance or restraint, let alone the emergence of regional not to mention global multi-polarity, might actually be useful and beneficial not only for the peoples of the world and the global system generally, but also for the United States itself.

For example, it could well be argued that the United States would have benefited from being restrained from the grave error of its ongoing Mesopotamian adventure had the Security Council’s prerogative not to authorize any Chapter 7 application of force – that is to say the invasion and occupation of Iraq – had been respected by our country. Change is a constant at all levels of human life, and there is no question that while the end of the Cold War ushered in a limited period of unipolarity in international relations, a subsequent and emerging era of multipolarity is beginning to develop. However, every national security strategy document produced since the late 1980s commits the United States to resisting and opposing the acquisition of additional influence by both global and regional forces. In other words, it is the considered policy and the consensus of the American foreign policy establishment to attempt, like King Canute, in vain to try to hold back the waves of change and enforce an unsustainable and quickly eroding status quo of unipolarity for as long as possible, without acting now to shape the coming era of multipolarity.

In addition to the myriad obvious problems associated with such an unrealistic strategy, this approach does not recognize the limitations of American power, however unrivaled it may presently be. I believe the experience in Iraq has revealed those limitations in a most unhelpful and unhealthy, but also unmistakable, manner. I have long argued that Americans should begin to consider applying at least some elements of the appreciation of the problems associated with unfettered power, including the negative effects on the powerful themselves, on the question of international relations and the management of the emergent multipolar global system rather than a vain effort to resist its inevitable development.

I am not arguing that we need an international “democracy” of states that reflects democratic principles that might be found within an individual state. I doubt that anyone would seriously consider treating the government of, for example, North Korea as an equally respectable and responsible international actor as any other. However, I do believe that both in its own interests and in the interests of the global order and the peoples and states of the world, the United States has a great opportunity, which it is presently squandering, to manage the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world.

Rather than resisting inevitable change, the long-run interests of the United States, as well as the peoples of the world, would be better served by American support for the strengthening of international law and legitimacy, and the institutionalization of strong multilateral institutions designed to thwart unwarranted aggression or coercion on the international scene. This would be popular, and would prove to the benefit of the United States as newly empowered actors on regional and indeed the global scene begin to emerge and project their power.

As it stands, given the record of the past eight years, and even the past 18 years in many ways, the United States is ill positioned to argue against unilateral actions and disregard for international law by newly emerging powers. This is especially distressing given that the great American utopian/dystopian hybrid insight about the benefits of restriction of power even for the powerful themselves has been so missing from the American approach to international affairs for most of our history, and especially now when it could have such a powerfully positive impact.

It strikes me that friends of the United States in the Middle East, informed by centers of American studies, could be well positioned to help more Americans begin to understand that their own brilliant national insight into the functioning of power in a domestic political context almost certainly has applications on the international stage as well. In other words, I would urge students of the American experience in the Middle East to try to begin to find a way to incorporate this understanding of the dangers of unfettered power in their own societies, and to help their American friends and allies understand that the same dynamics can apply to some extent in the field of international relations as well.

III. The utopian and dystopian in American art and culture

In the final section of my talk here before you today, I would like to address the question of American culture and its global influence. American popular culture, and especially its homogenizing consumerism and hegemonic advertising, is well recognized throughout the world. It has its supporters and its loud, vocal and compelling critics. I think that more than enough has been said throughout the world, including in the Middle East, about the influence of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Hollywood schlock, garbage television, and all the other elements of the vast apparatus of what Adorno called “the great Wurlitzer” of American popular culture. But I think what is often missing in the conversation both inside and outside the United States about American culture is the profound influence of the fine arts from the United States, often intermingled with its popular culture – again raising the tensions between a dystopian “Coca-Cola” version of American culture and its relations to the sublime aesthetic achievements which I would like to briefly touch upon as I conclude today.

Much of the greatest art of the United States has its roots in the cultures of the common people of the country, particularly that uniquely American musical form, the blues, best exemplified by early practitioners such as Charley Patton and the immortal Robert Johnson. By its own self-definition, the blues – denoting depression and despair – is nothing if not dystopian and, at its best, is sublimely uplifting at the same time. The reverberations of Mississippi Delta blues can be heard in music throughout the world, as can that other quintessentially American musical form, Jazz. Here we are talking about contributions to global culture of a profound and sophisticated variety.

In the West, strict distinctions are frequently drawn between “serious” and “popular” music, but who can seriously doubt the achievements of artists like Miles Davis or Bob Dylan? Some might point to Bach, Mozart, Mahler and the like, but such an exclusive attachment to an established cannon of high art would also mean measuring the value of every writer against the achievements of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoyevsky. Even when limited to the realm of Western culture, it would eliminate the potential for alternative, innovative and hybrid approaches, and inhibit the appreciation of artistic production reflecting its contemporary cultural context. Indeed, the contemporary minimalism of composers such as John Cage, Steven Reich and Philip Glass could well be heard as the soundtrack of our postmodern era. There is no need, I am sure, to mention the global impact of rock, hip-hop and, increasingly, sampling and other recent innovations, music that reflects the technology, pace, pastiche and repetition compulsion of the way we live now that reaches far beyond the confines of a narrow audience in American artistic circles and touches, I believe, all those who live as postmodern subjects.

American literature is undoubtedly taken seriously, but in the United States at least usually in terms in that tired old cliché of the “great American novel,” of which probably the original and only real example is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Indeed, ironically, while Americans tend to think of themselves as a nation of novelists, it could well be argued that a large majority of the most important and influential American writers were in fact poets, which ought to tell you something about the gap between the American prosaic self perception and the poetic heights its culture can and does actually achieve.

Literary Modernism, the transition from the Romanticism of the late 18th- late 19th centuries to an artistic sensibility that focuses on the interior psychology of the ordinary person — the Modernist antihero — and the valor of suffering the indignities of daily life as represented for example by T.S. Eliot’s narrator in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, or James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, most strongly has its origins in the work of a great and underappreciated American author: Edgar Allan Poe. In stylistic terms, Poe was the last of the great Romantic writers, and there is nothing Modernist about his style. However, his subject matter, his endless fascination with the often twisted interior dialogues of his characters, their elusive and weird subjectivity, set the stage for the Modernist shifting of artistic sensibility from Romantic grand and neoclassical themes (think "Ode to a Grecian Urn" or any of the Beethoven symphonies) to investing the most mundane commonplaces of everyday life with both a profound and an ironic significance.

There can be little doubt that it was the American Poe who provided the basis for Charles Baudelaire to virtually invent the Modernist literary style in Les Fleurs de mal. The process continued with Jules Laforgue who — taking a sensibility that originated with Poe and then developed into a radical new style by Baudelaire — articulated the voice of the Modernist antihero. And it is from the language of Laforgue that T.S. Eliot learned to speak and gave us literary Modernism in its most fully developed forms: the poems in Prufrock, and above all The Wasteland. No slight to James Joyce or Marcel Proust intended, but the lineage of literary Modernism really is Poe-Baudelaire-Laforgue-Eliot. It is surely no coincidence that the tension between utopian and dystopian in American cultural sensibility was at the very foundation of the development of the Modernist literary sensibility that seeks to find the heroic in the mundane and to simultaneously universalize and satirize the neoclassical ideals of Romanticism — or that the great collaborators with the Americans in the Modernist project were the French, authors of the other great political and cultural revolution produced by the Enlightenment.

Literary Postmodernism too has its origins in a uniquely American sensibility. William Burroughs, in particular, along with the other key beatnik writers gave us a new aesthetic for the atomic age based on pastiche, radical nonlinearity of narrative, anti-commercialism and an almost Sadean drive to press the limits of the imagination in defiance of or in collaboration with new forms of technology that were both threatening and inspiring at the same moment. This same era, let us admit, up to and including the present day above all in the United States, has provided us some of the worst poetry ever celebrated and well-regarded in English language in the form of a Postmodern (as opposed to the Modernist) “confessional” style that asks us to be interested in trivialities devoid of significance simply because they are presented in the guise of “poetry.” But in spite of the achievements of Burroughs, Pynchon and a handful of other accomplished Postmodernist writers, narrative art has shifted definitively, in my view, away from the novel and toward the film.

Perhaps the increasingly recognized fine art form of the comic or graphic novel at its best stands some way in between the two media of literature and film. It has come to the point where almost more American films seem to be based on comics and graphic novels than on literary texts anyway. It would be invidious, then, not to acknowledge the greatness of a true American original, the "comic art" genius Robert Crumb. Controversial though he may be, I believe Crumb is without question the preeminent American satirist of his era, a celebrator of the not only dystopian but the grotesque in American life. With an honesty that is breathtakingly, uncomfortably unflinching, Crumb explores the depths of contemporary American society and popular culture and, as Robert Hughes has argued, should properly be placed in the tradition of Brueghel and Goya.

No study of contemporary American culture would be complete without a serious consideration of the most provocative work Crumb has produced, particularly his merciless interrogations of in the racism and sexism embedded in mainstream American culture including his indefensibly misogynistic depictions of monstrous and headless women, and his two extraordinarily controversial and brazen satirical rants, “When the Niggers Take Over America!” and “When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America!" These satires were so shocking, scandalous, powerful and incisive that they were actually adopted as brilliant expositions of their own attitudes by some of the worst racist groups in the United States, so foolish and ignorant that they proved unable to recognize they were being lampooned — although, at the same time this demonstrates how truly piercing satire can come dangerously close to reproducing that which it mocks and how thin is the line a really fearless satirist must walk. There isn’t much in contemporary American culture or art that can match Crumbs’ merciless satires such as these in interrogating the dystopian strain of American mainstream culture.

The world’s contemporary major narrative medium, film, in spite of its largely American origins is ironically not, at its highest level of artistic achievement, a quintessentially American art form. Historically its greatest practitioners – geniuses such as Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Buñuel – have generally not been Americans in spite of the relentless narrative factory of Hollywood, and its embrace of brilliant refugees like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, or the importation of artistic genius such as Hitchcock’s. The great homegrown exception, of course, was the amazing prodigy Orson Welles, driven almost instantaneously from Hollywood and from America, and all but banished by the commercial apparatus of cinema.

Interestingly, however, in my view perhaps the most innovative and important film director working today is not only an American, but a crafter of Americana, a reveler in and lover of American culture and society as well as one of its fiercest and most savage critics. David Lynch, in my estimation, is an artist of the highest stature, head and shoulders above any of his peers around the world working at present in the medium of cinema and now digital video. His subject is, in fact, America itself. His early work such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, both the television series and the film (which is both prequel and antithesis to the television program), are literally as American as apple pie (pie being an obsession for Lynch, especially in Twin Peaks).

However, in his more recent work including Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, Lynch has managed to create an entirely new genre: an American surrealism that carries forward and elaborates on the European surrealistic achievements of the likes of Breton, Ernst, Dali and Artaud, and threatens, I think, to at least equal those of the greatest cinematic surrealist of them all, Don Luis Buñuel. I do not believe there is a more significant living American artist working in any medium, and given that his subject is America and Americana, I would urge that his work be studied seriously in centers such as this one. One could not find a recent artistic production more evocative of the dynamic tension between the utopian and dystopian strains in American life, culture and imagination than Mulholland Dr., which I would not hesitate to call the greatest American film of the past 30 years at the very least. Lynch’s cinema has been aptly described as "beautiful dark," which is about as pithy an encapsulation as one is likely to encounter of the utopian-dystopian American hybridity I have been trying to describe.

I would like to close today by speaking briefly about Mark Rothko, perhaps the quintessential American painter of the second half of the 20th century (the British artist Francis Bacon probably exceeding him in international importance). Rothko’s late works, particularly those indescribable 14 black monochrome paintings housed at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas represent a unique artistic achievement and really could only have been produced in and by late 20th century American creativity. These gigantic paintings, which at first glance appear to be simply masses of black pigment on enormous canvases for me powerfully evoke both indescribable despair and ineffable hope, a sense of the death of traditional Western culture and the rebirth of something new and infinitely more powerful, that lies at the heart of the dystopian threat and utopian promise of American culture at its most powerful.

Some critics, anthropologists and even historians of religion like Mercea Eliade saw Rothko’s descent into spaces of utter and overwhelming darkness as a return to the Neanderthal cave, a tremendous regression bordering on the defeat of the human spirit. I think this is precisely incorrect. In Rothko’s final paintings, I believe we can experience a spiritual and psychological journey into the macrocosm of endless and collapsing space and time — the possibilities suggested by the vertiginous discoveries of contemporary physics — and at the same time into the microcosm of the human psyche, into that powerful agnostic space of wonder at the unknowability and inaccessibility of both the self and the other (the other in this case standing for the totality of incomprehensible reality). When contemplated seriously, these so-called black monochromes reveal infinities of detail of tone, shade and texture. They welcome you into what Rothko himself called, “unknown adventures in an unknown space.”

If Western art of the first three quarters of the 20th century was dominated by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and Klee, all Europeans, whose work fundamentally reshaped and expanded Western consciousness, then Rothko and his zenith of darkness and impenetrability invite an experience approximating a confrontation with consciousness itself. His final work suggests a register of experience beyond the categories of space and time. In a Nietzschean and almost cosmic sense, it represents the nadir of the dystopian threat of the American experience representing in the most nihilistic manner the death of culture, the obliteration of both religion and rational understanding, and the extermination of the aesthetic as it has heretofore been recognized by almost all human societies.

At the same moment and through the same method, these paintings liberate the viewer from all the illusions carefully constructed by and for all of us from the moment of birth that bear no resemblance to the most fundamental truth of existence – the impossible coexistence of being and nothingness – and announce infinite possibilities for the regeneration and explosion of consciousness and a genuine transcendence of the profane, mundane and delusional ideologies of ego, consumerism and literalist faux spirituality. Ironically, of course, the paintings themselves are enormously valuable commercial commodities and the subject of considerable fetishism, including in my remarks here. That underlying reality notwithstanding, I do think they can be read as presaging at least the potential of a new aesthetic, a new cultural spirit and a new philosophy far better suited to all that we now know — and much more importantly all that we increasingly understand we do not know — about our lives and our universe. Radically dystopian and exuberantly utopian in the same gesture, the final paintings of Mark Rothko represent, to me at least, the very finest and most universal offering contemporary American fine arts present to the rest of the human family.

What I am suggesting then is that a potentially useful framework for studying American culture and society in the Arab world are the debates opened up by examining the dynamic tension between and hybrid formations created by the dystopian and utopian strains in American domestic politics and foreign policy, and in the best of American fine art. I congratulate the University of Bahrain and its American Studies Center in beginning to make American society and culture the subject of serious study here in the Middle East, and I hope that universities around the region emulate your example.