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On Contact: Confronting the ruling elite

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Richard Falk about the inner workings of the power elite and the institutions that do its bidding. Falk is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, and the former United Nations human rights rapporteur in the Israeli-Occupied Territories.  

Falks’ new memoir, ‘Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim’, documents how he confronted entrenched political, military and economic power, especially after visiting Hanoi in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. During his tenure as rapporteur from 2008 to 2014, he often clashed with Israeli officials and the Israel lobby in his efforts to document and condemn human rights violations against Palestinians. He compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. In 2008, Israel refused Falk, who is Jewish, entry into the country and deported him.

Falk has also denounced what he calls “the global legalization of rogue behavior embedded in the UN Charter,” which vests a right of veto in the five permanent members of the Security Council, the only organ within the UN system with the authority to reach binding decisions.

YouTube channel: On Contact

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Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/on-contact-1

CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we talk about the collapse of the rule of law in international affairs with legal scholar, Richard Falk. 

RF: The UN is extremely important and effective on the symbolic level of politics in determining legitimacy of behavior and illegitimacy.  But it can't implement its findings because the geopolitical forces can, if they're activated, they can block it.  They can block implementation, so in the substance of the UN in ineffective.  This throws in a--in a sense of throws responsibility to civil society, because civil society is influenced by these symbolic recognitions of legitimacy and illegitimacy.  And the global solidarity movement that brought apartheid to an end in South Africa is also focused now on the wrongdoing of Israel and a feeling of some solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights.

CH: Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton University, and the former United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur in the Israeli-occupied territories.  In his new memoir, "Public Intellectual, the Life of a Citizen Pilgrim," rips back the veil on the inner workings of the power elite, and the institutions that due its bidding.  He calls out the merit-based professionalism in academic life for its inherent biases designed to perpetuate the ruling class, noting that during his tenure at Princeton University, the Dean of students recruited for the CIA and faculty worked regularly as consultants for the RAND Corporation and The Pentagon.  He has repeatedly confronted entrenched political military and economic power, especially after visiting Hanoi in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.  During his tenure from 2008 to 2014, as the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur in the Israeli-occupied territories, he often clashed with Israeli officials and the Israel lobby in his efforts to document and condemn Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians.  He once compared Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis' treatment of Jews.  In 2008, Israel refused Falk, who is Jewish, entry into the country and deported him.  Falk has also denounced what he calls "the global legalization of rogue behavior embedded in the UN charter, which vests a right of veto in the five permanent members of the Security Council, the only organ within the UN system, with the authority to reach binding decisions.  In effect, the UN charter rather shockingly acknowledges the uncontrollability of the five political actors, although these are the states that most endanger international peace and security," he writes.  Joining me to discuss his new memoir, "Public Intellectual, the Life of a Citizen Pilgrim," is Professor Richard Falk.  So I love the book, it's huge, we can't go into the funny and great salacious parts, the fact that you knew Zsa Zsa Gabor and Alexander Kerensky, the people would have to buy the book and read.  But I do want to focus on three seminal moments in your own life that I think taught you a lot about what it means to take a moral stance and the consequences of that, let's begin with the Vietnam War.  Before I begin that, I do have there this one little side, you begin your academic tenure, the FBI is carrying out witch hunts for people supposedly who are closet communists and they go to your dean and tell the dean that you had been the director of a hypnosis institute in New York City that was being used as an active recruiting front of the Communist Party in the 1940s.  But as you told your dean, at the time, you were 12 years old and you'd never heard of the institute.  So we just want to say the FBI's not...

RF: That was in Ohio--that was in Ohio State, it's not Princeton.

CH: So let's talk about the Vietnam War.  You're an international legal scholar.  And you first begin your critique of the war from a legal position based in the Nuremburg Laws, based on the wars of aggression as being a crime, and eventually got pushed or certainly were seen as an activist.  But let's begin with, first, that study of Vietnam from a legal standpoint, because of course now the violation of international law is just carried rip--wide--ripped wide in Iraq and Syria and Libya, and everywhere else.  But let's begin there. 

RF: Yes.  Well, there's no question that I started my interested in the Vietnam War from a rather mainstream position with partly political realist and partly saying it was an imprudent use of American power and position somewhat similar to what George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau were arguing at the time.  And that, combined with my legal analysis, as you point out, made me a critical position, but a position without any moral underpinnings or any emotional attachment to the conflict.  And I was invited to go to North Vietnam by a French group, who--which had been invited to view the bombing damage that at the time, Robert McNamara the Secretary of Defense was claiming was the most surgical precise bombing in all of history of air warfare.  And this turned out to be untrue, but they thought it was much more important to have an American observe that damage than for some European to come back and confirm that the bombing was very imprecise.  So I went with that idea in mind but what struck me almost as I got off the plane was that this was a war between a high-technology country, that was using the most advanced weaponry mainly from the air, against a low-technology society that had no real means to defend itself.  And I immediately was affected by the human side of that kind of one-sided warfare, and came to the understanding also that what was at stake was not really a cold war agenda but it was people fighting for their own homeland and to be in control of their homeland.  And this had been true throughout Vietnamese history usually in relation to China.  But this time in relation to the United States and they were prepared for a 50-year war because they were so dedicated to this idea of national self-determination, it was time of decolonization.  So it transformed my attitude toward the conflict.  Expert to being a really engaged citizen, I guess, is the best way to express it.

CH: I want--you make an important point.  You say at the time.  So you come back and present the legal case as to why the war is a violation of international law.  And you write, "American foreign policy was not significantly restrained by international law in war/peace context here either," you're talking about Vietnam.  "But political leaders and their chief advisors at least made efforts to reconcile and justify policy by law through partisan modes of interpretation."  Which you argue later in the book is now lost, is that correct? 

RF: Yes.  Yes.  I think the kind of liberal sensibility that was prevalent at that time felt it important to reconcile foreign policy with international law.  They stretched the interpretation as I--and manipulated it and in some ways maybe it was more misleading than to acknowledge that the pursuit of geopolitics was something that transcended law and that really became the policy later on where there wasn't much attention given to legal constraints.

CH: You make a very interesting point.  You go to South Africa, you meet Mandela, but you are--you--I found this very fascinating.  You said that the liberals would argue that they weren't racist at the time.  And--but they supported the apartheid regime in South Africa because they shared with the political leadership in Pretoria an anti-Communist outlook that coincided with Washington's policies in conducting the Cold War.  So on the one hand, they would say, "No, we're not racist.  We’re--we oppose--but we have to support the apartheid government because of the war against Communism."  And I thought that was a really interesting point.

RF: I think there's a further point there, which is that they wanted to be credible in the South African context and yet press for reforms of the racist character of the regime.  And so their credibility depended on solidarity with the government on its anticommunism.  But they directed it at Vietnam rather than at opponents of apartheid.  It was a very interesting experience for me.

CH: Yeah, I thought that was--very--I thought--and I just want to get this moment, you're called down to the Pentagon to meet with Mort Halperin, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and Leslie Gelb, he later becomes the Head of the...

RF: Council.

CH: Council on Foreign Relations.

RF: Council on Foreign Relation. 

CH: So--but you used that moment to talk about the corruption of intellectuals.  These people come out of the academy, you knew them.  But talk a little bit about that.  Because I thought it was a really important point.

RF: Well, it was somewhat accidental.  It was the only time I've ever been in the Pentagon in my life.  And I had a colleague at Princeton who was on leave at the Pentagon and who was a friend also and he knew I was going to Vietnam and he said, "Would you mind coming down and talking to Les Gelb and Morton Halperin, and they were all friends.  And so I agreed and they said to me, "We'll give you a letter from the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense to take to the leadership of--in Hanoi, but we put one condition.  You'll have to agree not to talk publicly against the war.  And I couldn't do that for a variety of reasons but it gave me the odd feeling that maybe it was important to talk publicly against the war.  People in--at Princeton, they always told me, "Don't speak to the street, speak to [INDISTINCT] back at the State Department or do something, go to Washington and speak to the--" and I'm convinced it was more important to speak at those demonstrations than it would've been to have drinks with important people in Washington.  And so that was--that was an important learning experience for me.  And as I--when I was in Vietnam, I had the--I was one of the first people I think that went to Hanoi who had some credibility as someone who could talk to the American leaders, and they were eager to indicate that they were ready for a peace talk that would lead to the end of the war.  And when I came back to...

CH: Wait.  One--wait, Richard.  We're going to--we got to--we have to stop there.  We're going to just take a break. 

RF: Okay. 

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our discussion about the collapse of international law with Professor Richard Falk.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the collapse of international law with Professor, Richard Falk.  So before the break, you were talking about how you were in North Vietnam.  The leadership in Hanoi was willing to make an arrangement that would have given the United States government far more than Kissinger, who extended the war eventually got.  But I want to get back to just quickly to that point about academia Gelb in these figures because you write in the book that they really sold there--once they began working for the centers of power, they really sold their souls to those centers of power in exchange for a small piece of power themselves.  And you're constantly running into that and that's something that you refuse to do.  And so, that many of these figures who had been your colleagues and friends over many years in essence kind of push you out. 

RF: I think they--to--using your metaphor, I think they sold their souls before they got to the Pentagon.  They were waiting for the phone to ring, kind of Potomac fever that was prevalent particularly at Harvard more than Princeton.  And once they got that, they were ready to play by the rules of that game.  And I never was for whatever reason, which I tried to understand in the course of the memoir, but I--I'm not sure I did very effectively, I never was motivated to do that.  I never wanted.  I enjoyed the freedom of academic life and teaching and scholarship, and activism much more than the lures of power and influence in Washington.  That made me an--and sort maybe an odd duck within this elite institution. 

CH: Well, that's right.  Well, you're quite critical of the elite institutions but unfortunately, we only have a half hour.  You talk about geopolitics as trumping international law.  Can you explain how that works? 

RF: Yes.  Well, I think that what you read in the introduction is the most explicit recognition of that because--and it--and it flows out of a sense that why the League of Nations failed was because it treated sovereign states equally.  And Franklin Roosevelt had the idea that to make the UN work, it would be important to acknowledge the uncontrollability of the powerful states and they happened to be the victorious states in World War II.  And so there was that explicit constitutional acknowledgement that law was subordinated to be political will of these powerful states.  The Mexican delegate to the UN, when it was established, said--was asked what kind of institution is this, and he said, "We've created an institution that holds the mice accountable but the tigers roam free."  And that's really been the story at least in peace and security.  The UN does a lot of useful things and is adjusted to this geopolitical constrains.  And when the geopolitics is right, the UN can be too powerful as met--arguably it was in Libya in 2011, because geopolitics used international law in order to justify a war, an interventionary regime changing war which left the country in chaos for the next 10 years. 

CH: Although they didn't publicly say it was regime change, they said it was in defense of the liberal intervention and Samantha Power defending the people of Benghazi.  I want to move on because we only have about seven minutes left.  And I want to talk about Israel-Palestine.  You begin your work as the Human Right's--the Special Rapporteur for occupied Palestine.  You yourself are Jewish and you are just excoriated viciously by Zionist institutions that really seek to discredit you.  I mean, terrible forms of character assassination, because you're just trying to do your job.  Explain what happened. 

RF: Well, I think what fundamentally happened was that Israel on the substance had very weak arguments because the facts were pretty clear, this kind of occupation.  And they felt that it was more important to attack the messenger than to respond to the message.  That was--I think that was the underlying idea.  Of course they were enraged by the fact that I was chosen to be the special rapporteur because I've written previously they knew what to expect in that sense.  I've been critical of Israel's policies for quite a long time.  And had been a close friend of Edward Said and had participated in some public events and so on.  And they had lobbied very hard at the Human Rights Council to try to get someone who was more sympathetic to the positions than I was.  I used to say that you only had to be 10% objective to reach the conclusions I did, that the violations were so clear and overwhelming.  And almost acknowledged by Israel's own documentation of what its policies were, that it was not really at all controversial to reach the conclusions I reached, and everyone familiar with the situation.  It wasn't a confirmed Zionist.  Agreed with that. 

CH: You write, "I wanted to avoid the false symmetry so popular in Western liberal discourse that acted as if responsibility for the failure to find peace, or even stability lay equally on both sides, which was only a shade more reflective of the realities than was the United States tendency to condemn Palestinian terrorism and castigate Hamas, while turning its blind eye to the most flagrant Israeli violations of international law."  You come out and state these kind of truths.  Talk about what happened within the media, because you're really shutdown. 

RF: Yes.  And that--that's something that happened after Vietnam, after Iran, and when I cross this no-go line of openly and publicly criticizing Israel.  I mean--and I think that's primarily responsible.  And others have endured the same fate as I have.  So I'm often invited to speak in Middle East media and even the most mainstream things like Al-Haram and Egypt or Al Jazeera, but very rarely in the US. 

CH: I want to note that the Weizmann Institute in Los Angeles listed you in 2012 as the third most dangerous anti-semi in the world on their list of ten.  You were behind only the Supreme Guide of Iran and the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan.  Yeah.  It was--it's absolutely...

RF: I felt I was doing good...

CH: What's that? 

RF: It made me feel I was doing good job. 

CH: Well, you were, because you have intellectual honesty which most of these others don't.  One of the things--one of the points you make is that the UN is able to document pretty accurately the human rights abuses that are carried out by Israel against Palestine, but is utterly defanged in terms of doing anything about it.  Why?  

RF: Well, let's--the UN is extremely important and effective on the symbolic level of politics in determining legitimacy of behavior and illegitimacy, but it can't implement its findings because the geopolitical forces can--if they're activated, they can block it.  They can block implementation.  So on the substance, the UN is ineffective.  This throws in a--in a sense throws responsibility to civil society because civil society is influenced by these symbolic recognitions of legitimacy and illegitimacy.  And the global solidarity movement that brought apartheid to an end in South Africa is also focused on now the wrongdoing of Israel and a feeling of some solidarity with the Palestinians' struggle for basic rights. 

CH: The--you write that, "Israel, by making the two-state solution unattainable, has ironically made a one-state solution whose ultimate features may either contradict by laws of Jewish, dominance, or further discredit by maintaining Jewish dominance via systematic apartheid, their Zionist orientation, seem almost inevitable."  Is that where we're headed?

RF: I feel so.  I think that the idea of a Jewish state imposed on a non-Jewish society is not really viable and in a post-colonial period, the people won't accept it.  And we learned that the--a national struggle that persists generally prevails even though it's militarily inferior.  And that's the unlearned lesson of Vietnam actually is how did we lose the war although we had total military superiority.  And this is--in all of the colonial wars, this was a dominant feature.

CH: Yeah, that...

RF: And it should--it should be...

CH: ...for that--for that--and that's of course how the French were driven out of Algeria militarily they won the conflict, but politically they lost.  That was Professor Richard Falk on his new memoir "Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim."

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