Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Fall

Aleppo, Syria - December 2016



What do you really expect me to say at this stage, and what difference would it really make? The whole point of what I tried to do over the last fifteen years of my life was specifically meant to avoid a moment like the current one when some of us, the zombified fools that they have allowed themselves to become, are dancing, cheering and gloating over the graves of their defeated compatriots, while the entire country lies in ruins and the fate of all now subject to the whims and calculations of parties totally uninterested in our needs and concerns, and totally indifferent to our suffering. What could my dismay and indignation accomplish at this stage but point to me as though I were the center of it all?

But this is not about me. It’s not my fate that really matters here. This is not what this moment is about. Rather, the underlying reality is about the thing that we once had and have now squandered to the point that “it,” be it the homeland or simply our sense of humanity and decency, and “we,” a collective entity with a specific sense of identity and shared destiny, no longer exist.

What are we now but a collection of impoverished tribes living out of time in haphazardly interwoven enclaves ruled by a pitiful assortment of puppet warlords bastardizing themselves to the highest bidder to ensure their continued survival? What are we now but ghastly ghosts lording over each other and, in the name of some ancient injustices, busy creating new ones to fuel the unchangeable sameness of our collective folly? True, not all the criminals involved are equal, but the nature of their multiplying crimes is the same, and it reeks of greed, avarice and an undeserved sense of entitlement and self-worth. Yes, there are innocent and idealist around, and they are plenty, but history happens to the innocent and idealist as well as the guilty and the cynical, and is often more unforgiven of the former for failing to understand the impersonal nature of its processes and to prepare themselves accordingly.

We now also know that concepts such as “community of nations” and “responsibility to protect” and promises such as “never again” are indeed illusory, and that the people behind them have a tendency to forget their relevance and meaning at will, and to simply ignore their complicity and their guilt. Years later, some might regurgitate some words in a mediocre memoir by way of an apology, or take part in some renewed pledge to learn from the mistakes of the past, only to have some new younger figures, the ones then in charge, once again obfuscate and forget.

Aside from these painful realizations, let my continued silence on this matter be my commentary, my protest and my condemnation. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Trump Presidency and America’s Challenge


Now that the United States has put its historic elections behind it, and as we go about examining the poll results, it’s clear that we cannot keep reducing the factors involved in facilitating the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States to issues such as racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

Considering that many of those who had voted for President Barack Obama back in 2008 and 2012 have now opted to vote for Mr. Trump, and that more than 50 percent of white women have voted for him as well, we have to concede the existence of other issues and factors at play in this matter including, among other things, the growing rural-urban divide, blue-collar disenchantment, and lingering questions about who is entitled to define America’s cultural identity.

Still, having heard the man and his supporters speak over the last few months and having followed coverage of his rallies, we also cannot ignore the important role that racism, xenophobia and misogyny played in Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and in shaping the final decision made by many of his supporters.

More importantly, we cannot ignore Mr. Trump’s own role in deliberately stoking sentiments in this regard. Whether he did so out of sincere ideological conviction or for immediate tactical benefits is irrelevant when it comes to considering how this tendency reflects on his character, and to assessing the dangers involved in having a man willing to go down the road of hatemongering and divisiveness serve as the president of the country.

I know something about that road. In Syria, my country of origin, the current civil war that has claimed the lives of more than half a million people over the last five years has broken out largely on account of having a ruling elite willing to stoke inter-communal fears and suspicions in order to preserve and consolidate its hold on power. In fact, judging from their pronouncements and behavior, both Mr. Trump and the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, seem to share the same misguided and narcissistic belief in their personal “necessity” and “indispensability” in the overall scheme of things. That mindset has encouraged Mr. Assad to decimate his people and destroy his country in an effort to make it his again. For his part, Mr. Trump has repeatedly reiterated that only he can make America great again. With this in mind, I cannot but fear that the rise of Mr. Trump will constitute a step along a very slippery slope.

And I am certainly not the only one.

The anti-Trump protests currently sweeping across the nation are composed of people who seem to share my dread. While those decrying these protests like to remind us that no such development unfolded when President Obama was elected to office, the two situations are not really alike, largely because the two men involved are not alike. There was nothing in Obama’s character or his electoral promises, rhetoric or behavior that would have incited or justified a decision by his opponents to take to the streets. The same cannot be said for Mr. Trump, considering his statements about Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims and women throughout the course of his campaign. Trying to sweep this matter under the rug by resort to false analogies is disingenuous and gives protesters more reason to keep going.

And it’s not just Democrats and establishment Republicans at whom Trump’s character flaws leap out; America’s European allies are also alarmed. Just bear in mind how German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to Trump’s election: “Germany and America are bound by common values: democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said. Cooperation with the United States, she said rather pointedly, must be “based on these values.”

This is not exactly a ringing endorsement. The Chancellor was in fact channeling the sentiments of many of America’s allies in Europe and beyond.

By contrast, the genocidal Bashar Al-Assad could barely hide his glee at the prospect of cooperating with the Trump administration and effectively becoming a U.S. ally. The fact that his regime, with the support of Iran and Russia, is responsible for the overwhelming majority of death and destruction in the country, and that it has played an active role in facilitating the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (by releasing their leaders from its prisons in the early day of the Syrian Revolution, avoiding direct conflict with them on the battlefield focusing instead on moderate rebels, and by doing business with them), seems inconsequential to Mr. Trump, who has long adopted Mr. Assad’s macabre and self-serving view on the matter.

Even Al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamist groups celebrated Mr. Trump’s electoral victory, seeing it as a boon and a boost to their recruitment campaigns.

The list of other troubling figures thrilled with the election of Mr. Trump includes Russian President Vladimir Putin and the populist leaders of the European far right parties, who might soon be joining Mr. Trump at the next G20 summit, which threatens to become a kind of a rogue gallery of illiberal democratic leaders elected in liberal democracies.

Coming soon on the heels of Brexit and the return of the Far Right to political relevance in many parts of Europe, it seems clear that we are dealing with a global phenomenon here triggered to a certain extent by Russia’s renewed aggressiveness, as well as renewed chaos in the Middle East (especially the Syrian civil war and the massive wave of refugees it has triggered), and the rise of ISIS.   

In Europe, the underlying theme of this development is the presumption that European identity is inherently white and Christian, and that it is, therefore, incompatible with the traditional values of migrants and refugees from African and Asian backgrounds, especially Arabs and Muslims. Considering the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric deployed by Mr. Trump and his supporters and the total lack of sympathy they have shown to the plight of the Syrian refugees, a similar set of tectonic forces seems to be involved here as well.

But the role of ideology does not seem quite as pronounced in the Trump phenomenon as it is in Europe. Trump, after all, does not clearly believe in anything. His words and promises are entirely unstable. And there’s actually opportunity in that. It means that we still have time to reach out across the growing divide in the country and try to find common ground.

Indeed, we need to take full advantage of the fact that the ideological component of the Trump camp is still relatively weak. We should not give the ideologically-motivated bunch the time they need to consolidate their hold on a Trump administration and transform it into a full-fledged authoritarian movement.

For this reason alone, it is not enough to protest the man and what he represents. Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans need to be more proactive in this regard, and should quickly reach out to each other. If they cannot find common grounds beyond hating Trump, they will certainly not be able to reach any of his supporters.

Moreover, Democrats need to be wary of the populists within their own ranks. There are simply too many commonalities between the policies proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders and those proposed by Mr. Trump, more than enough to justify a deeper scrutiny of the worldview involved among the Left populists as well. The people on the Far Left might be more inclusive domestically, but their protectionist and isolationist impulses amount to a de facto abandonment of the world and of the most vulnerable populations within it. Trump hates foreigners; and the left hates trading with foreigners. And it too is willing to allow the authoritarian leaders and the corrupt elite of countries like Russia, China and Iran to redraw the world in their own image. Unsurprisingly, this is no more conducive to world peace in the hands of the far left than in the hands of Donald Trump.

Syria today stands as a testament to the failure of this worldview. The looming alliance between Putin, Trump and Assad is set to finish the deal, returning what’s left of Syria to the control of an unrepentant war criminal, all in the name of stability and a war on terror that, by moving from one Faustian deal to another, continues to destroy more nations and churn more terrorists at faster rates. Trump is gleeful at this and the left is sad, but it’s no more willing than he is to do something about it.

Indeed, the reason we currently find ourselves in this most untenable position and the reason the future looks so bleak is the combined effect of rightwing atavism and leftwing cynicism. What the country and the world need is a major dose of pragmatism. Rather than constructing walls, we need to build more bridges. To build bridges we need to cooperate across the divide. We can neither divest ourselves from the world nor be cynical in our engagement of it. And we need to be as suspicious of the suspicions of trade as we are suspicious of the suspicions of refugees.

We also need to be clear-eyed about our new friends, even if our President-elect is not. Russian dabbling in the U.S. political process is likely to continue, whether through more hacking, spreading more false news, or through empowering certain quixotic figures to further disturb and polarize the political scene. And while Mr. Putin’s initial goal might be to strengthen Mr. Trump’s hand vis-à-vis his detractors, the Russian autocrat ultimately hopes to undermine the security and stability of United States and sow chaos, not to help Mr. Trump emerge as the world’s most powerful dictator. Mr. Trump may come to understand Putin’s true goals sooner than the latter wants, thus souring their bromance. That day is dangerous if it never arrives, but it’s also a dangerous potential flashpoint of which we should be wary if and when it does arrive.

Thus, and as we seek to construct more bridges than walls, both domestically and abroad, we should be keenly aware of how troubled the waters we have to navigate happen to be, and how much more dangerous they could become.