Professor Falk stirs a firestorm

It doesn’t take much to agitate the defenders of the official orthodoxy. A case in point is the smear campaign aimed at a recent commentary by Richard Falk reflecting on the horrific terrorist attack in Boston.

Falk is a distinguished emeritus professor of international law at Princeton University and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

He began his article noting that the response by government officials and the public to the Boston tragedy has been by and large constructive:

“The dominant reactions to the horrific bombings on April 15th, the day of the running of the Boston Marathon, as well as the celebration of Patriots Day, have been so far: compassion for the victims, a maximal resolve to track down the perpetrators, a pundit’s notebook that generally agrees that Americans have been protected against terrorist violence since 9/11 and that the best way to prevail against such sinister adversaries is to restore normalcy as quickly as possible. In this spirit, it is best to avoid dwelling on the gory details by darkly glamorizing the scene of mayhem with flowers and homage. It is better to move forward with calm resolve and a re-commitment to the revolutionary ideals that midwifed the birth of the American nation.”

Not much to quarrel with here – certainly not grounds for the firestorm that greeted Falk’s reflections.

Then the distinguished professor went on to say:

“Although there are many distressing continuities that emerge if the Obama presidency is appraised by comparison with the counter-terrorist agenda of his predecessors, there are also some key differences of situation and approach. … [T]emporarily at least, the Beltway think tanks and the government are doing their best to manage global crises without embarking on further wars in a spirit of geopolitical intoxication … At least it seems that for the present irresponsible and unlawful warfare are no longer the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy, as had become the case in the first decade of the 21st century…”

Now if Falk had ended his commentary here, the article would have probably gone unnoticed, except for a few rumblings from the militarist wing in elite circles that is still committed to using military power to maintain U.S. global domination now and for the foreseeable future.

But Falk cast caution to the wind and went on.

“The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world,” he wrote. “In some respects, the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.

“Some of us naively hoped that Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009 was to be the beginning of such a process of renewal … But as the months passed, what became evident, especially given the strong pushback by Israel and its belligerent leader, Bibi Netanyahu, were a series of disappointing reactions by Obama …”

Ouch! If Falk’s earlier remarks barely caused a ripple of criticism, these remarks set of a torrent of diatribe against Falk from varied quarters: the Heritage Foundation,, Haaretz, Jewish Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, FOX News, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the British Mission to the UN, the UN Secretary-General of the UN to name a few.

Falk was called “grotesque,” “anti-American,” “anti-Semitic” and “a self-hating Jew.” Nearly all claimed that he was blaming U.S. foreign policy for the Boston attack.

But Falk wasn’t ready to leave his critique here. He continued with this observation, which only further enlarged and enraged his growing circle of establishment critics:

“[S]elf-scrutiny and mid-course reflections on America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of the country’s own future security and also in consideration of the wellbeing of others.”

And he continued, “Such adjustments will eventually come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of unpleasant events … We should be asking ourselves at this moment, ‘How many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?'”

Now I might quarrel with some of the specific phrases that Falk employed, but the general thrust of his article is on point, in my opinion, despite the demonization of him coming from official circles. His insistence that blowback from our massive global footprint is inevitable, that fundamental policy changes are imperative in the Middle East (and elsewhere), and that we need to engage in “self-scrutiny and step back from our “geopolitical (I would add geoeconomic) fantasy of global domination,” is timely advice, especially as pressures mount on the Obama administration to sink us in the civil/sectarian war in Syria.

Of course, effecting such a U-turn in U.S. foreign policy is easier said than done. It runs up against powerful forces in Washington and in corporate suites. These forces are both captives and agents of an economic and social system whose logic is to relentlessly expand and dominate a fragile planet and its finite resources, regardless of the human and ecological toll.

But for our sake and the sake of future generations, today’s progressive movement here and abroad has to embrace the challenge of pressing for such a change. There is no alternative!

In the meantime, why not send a note to Professor Falk thanking him for his courage?

Photo: Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories since 1967, briefs journalists on his work. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.