As’ad AbuKhalil: “The Shift from a Unipolar US World to a Multipolar World Is Overstated”


As’ad AbuKhalil, or Angry Arab as he is more commonly known after his blog The Angry Arab News Service, is in real life a most friendly and forthcoming man.  A Lebanese-born author of four books on the Middle East, he is professor of political science at California State University and is visiting professor at UC Berkeley.

Rather rare among American academics, he is openly and adamantly critical of US foreign policy, so-called moderate Arab regimes, such as Mubarak’s Egypt and the Kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the state of Israel.  At the same time, the resistance axis is never safe from his biting criticism either.

Describing himself as “a former Marxist-Leninist, now an anarchist”, this staunch supporter of the Palestinian people and their cause is a proponent of one secular state in Palestine/Israel, opposing both Fatah and Hamas.  In Lebanon, he favours the March 8th opposition camp, over the March 14th majority, but, again, neither side is spared his sarcastic comments.

As’ad AbuKhalil has a column in Lebanon’s daily Al Akhbar, where he proves on a weekly basis that, contrary to other Arabs living and working in the West, he sees no need to tone down, or change, his views when writing for the Arab audience.

This summer AbuKhalil visited Lebanon.  What was supposed to be a private family occasion ended up being a month-long stream of interviews and speaking appointments, as local and regional media wanted to have him appear on their talk shows, and requested his opinion on all and sundry questions, while Al Jazeera grasped the opportunity to secure AbuKhalil’s cooperation for a documentary on his life and work.

In between all the frenzied action, Professor AbuKhalil managed to spare some time for a MEPEI interview.  We met in a coffee shop in Beirut’s upscale neighbourhood of Verdun, where we had half an hour, to make sense of recent geostrategic developments in the wider Middle East.

I opened with the thesis that 8 August 2008, the date when Russia rebuffed Georgia’s bid to recover militarily the breakaway region of South Ossetia, will prove to be a far more important and defining turning point, in the history of the twenty-first century, than 11 September 2001, as it constituted the first instance of the US losing its post-Soviet Union unipolar hold worldwide — the beginning of a shift to a multipolar world system.  AbuKhalil vehemently disagreed.

As’ad AbuKhalil: I think this shift from a unipolar US world to a multipolar world is overstated — just this morning I read that the Russian government has succumbed to pressure from the US to cancel delivery to Iran of a missile defense system.  At the end of the day, Russia can only operate in a way that is going to be permitted by the US government.  When it comes to a clash between the two parties’ vital interests the US still has the means and power to prevail.  There is no indication of a change in the rules of the game, in the Middle East, as far as the roles of the big powers go.

The US still is able to impose its will on issues dealing with Israel, and on economic issues, the US is still able — with the help of the oil producers — to decide on matters of production and such.  Israel still on behalf of the US can do what it wants.  What’s true is this: for electoral reasons, the US is currently so preoccupied by Afghanistan first, and secondly by Iraq, that it is willing to allow certain manoeuvres by its enemies.  However, that is not going to allow for any changing of the rules according to which Israel rules supreme in the Middle East region while Arab dictatorships continue to act on behalf of the US empire.

Q: In the same year when the US did not intervene militarily — or even very forcefully on the diplomatic level — on Georgia’s behalf, it also refused to give any military assistance to its allies in the March 14th camp, in Lebanon, and allowed Hizbullah to take over the streets of Beirut, on May 7th, and impose its will on the government.  Does that show any loss of power or credibility on the part of the US?

AbuKhalil: Why should they intervene?  They realize the rules in Lebanon are stacked in favour of Hizbullah.  They are not going to risk American prestige, and power, to defend the spoilt brat of a rich family and the descendant of a 16th-century feudal family.  And Israel’s defense was not at stake in this issue.

Q: Do you see any change in US foreign policy under Obama?

AbuKhalil: If anything, Obama has been more aggressive in imperial reach than Bush.  If you count all the unannounced wars, in Yemen and Somalia, in Pakistan etcetera, he actually goes further than Bush.  But there has been no change in modus operandi: the US allows other parties to operate when they subcontract the US’s own role, or when the issues concerned are not vital to the US’s own interests.

Take Yemen, for example, where the US couldn’t intervene, initially, in the war on either the Houthi rebels or Al Qaeda strongholds.  They got the Yemeni and Saudi governments to do the fighting for them, and only recently, have there been signs that the US might intervene directly.

Q: The intense, negative reactions to Israel’s behaviour in the flotilla incident, especially with Israel’s former ally, Turkey, taking the lead, do seem to indicate a change — at the very least an increase in the momentum of an international public opinion front against Israel.

AbuKhalil: The Turkish role is an interesting one and it is a change from its past.  But, on the other hand, you have the high Arab expectations of what Turkey is going to do, and at the same time, a lowering of the ceiling that Turkey has set for itself to resume ties with Israel.  I think that basically Arab expectations are yet again wildly exaggerated.

As for the other big powers in the world, on the level of governments, nothing has changed.  The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) reaction was very muted.  The UNSC doesn’t operate on the basis of Facebook rules or any other expressions of public opinion.  In the UNSC, the US still intervenes on behalf of Israel.  I don’t see any significance.  Public opinion, down the road, has been against Israel everywhere in Europe, Asia and Latin America, for at least a decade.

The only exception is in Israel itself, and in the US, with Russia going back and forth.  But Germany, Britain and the Scandinavian countries have all been turning more and more against Israel, and that has not been translated into any shift in the international political situation because the US supports Israel at every corner.  What is dangerous is that all these manifestations of public opinion could make people think that change is happening while it is not.  It is the UNSC that makes change not public opinion.

Q: You often state you will live to see the end of Israel.  Do you see incidents such as the attack on the peace flotilla bringing it closer?

AbuKhalil: The end of Israel is a matter of years.  Until 2006 I knew it was going to happen in the long term, but, since 2006, I became convinced I could witness it in my own lifetime.  And the Israeli governments have been succeeding in expediting the demise of Israel — a lot.

Q: How do you see it ending, in a South African apartheid-style campaign (where public opinion did make a change against the efforts of powerful governments) or in a messy military disaster?

AbuKhalil: It is very hard to predict how the end of Israel will come about.  I think about these things all the time but I can’t predict it.  It could be a protracted war with Hizbullah escalating into something bigger.  Or, as you say, a South African ending where international public opinion reaches critical mass, worldwide, and especially inside the US.  This is essential, public disapproval of Israel’s behaviour within the US would have to intensify to the level where it can justify a foreign policy shift away from Israel.  But that is not in the offing right now.

Q: Within the Palestinian camp the ongoing divide, between Hamas and Fatah, is helping Israel greatly.  Do you see any form of reconciliation happening in the near future?

AbuKhalil: Obviously, the Dahlan camp does not want reconciliation with Hamas — they are carrying out Israeli policy.  In the past, Israel seemed to be waiting until the PLO lost its support over time and destroyed itself, and both the Palestinian Authority and Israel seem to be doing the same thing now, just waiting until the enemy achieves its own demise.

It is true that Hamas is engaging in stupid things, such as their Islamisation drive, but they are, nonetheless, a popular mass movement.  And they get a boost just by being attacked by Israel — exactly like Israel boosted the popularity of Hizbullah in 2006, when they had lost a lot of popularity, through corrupt local government and some aspects of their domestic politics.  At the end of the day, the entire community will rally behind Hizbullah and Hamas when they are under military attack.

Q: And on to the $64,000 question.  Do you see an attack on Iran happening anytime soon whether launched by the US or Israel?

AbuKhalil: No.  It is very unlikely.  Neither Israel nor the US has the will to do it.  The more they talk about it, the more it shows that they are now resorting to the alternative of propaganda and sanctions, banking on a Green Revolution, which is not going to materialize.  The Saudis and Saudi-owned papers write about it all the time because they would love this scenario.  But they have been writing about it for 40 years, and they are forever claiming the war on Iran is coming next month.

Israel has no interest in starting a war now and Hizbullah is not going to start a war, either.  The Iranians are doing what they do best, which is buying more time.  Don’t forget this is an election year in the US.  Obama will not allow anything to happen that could distract from Afghanistan and could make the situation worse there, which the Iranians can easily do.  He is pulling troops out of Iraq but sending more troops to Afghanistan.  A war with Iran is the last thing Obama or the US military want right now.

Q: Suppose Netanyahu would actually launch an attack on Iran — could the US control Israel?

AbuKhalil: Of course they can — when they want to, which is the whole point.  The US would like you to believe they can’t control Israel’s actions.  This is a self-serving argument for the Americans, which they sell to the conservative Arab regimes.  But in 1956 the US could stop Israel attacking Egypt, at a time when Israel was far less dependent on US aid than now, and when public opinion in Europe was far more positive towards it.  All indications are that if the US wants to, it can control Israel, but they only want to in wartime.

They don’t want Israel to go to war on Iran.  The Bush administration didn’t want it and neither does the Obama administration.  And Israel itself also knows it will have to bear serious consequences, not only in their relationship with the US, but because Iran can go all out and hurt them big time.

Q: True, but Israeli governments have displayed seemingly suicidal behaviour before — as you said yourself, Israeli governments and the indiscriminate lashing-out at enemies is one of the factors hastening the demise.

AbuKhalil: Right, but the last two times it did so (Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2008/2009) have been especially disastrous.  Their military adventures are achieving diminishing returns now — even the right wing in Israel is becoming more cautious.  They are a lot less eager to go to war these days, because their war crimes don’t achieve the devastating effects that they used to do; and among other reasons, because Israel doesn’t control the European media anymore.  And don’t forget Al Jazeera, which is an entirely new factor.

Bart Peeters, born in Belgium in 1966, is a journalist, researcher, and translator.  This interview was first published by the Middle East Political and Economic Institute on 20 September 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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