Why Israel is backing Kurdish independence

Middle East Eye

Developments pointing towards the possibility of an independent Kurdish state raise new questions about Middle East politics, as well as the possibility of a major transformation of the region in years to come.

The history of the Middle East has been determined by events which initially seemed localised and relatively minor, before acquiring great significant and causing many upheavals in the long run. It appears that the region may be heading for yet another transformational change which may, in turn, invite comparisons with the events after World War I that shaped the Middle East of today.

The Kurdish people claim to have lived in the same land for more than 2,000 years. Their land has been divided by imperial manoeuvres. They have struggled against oppression and persecution for almost a century. Now, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, says that he is going to hold a referendum on independence in coming months.

The outcome is going to be a foregone conclusion. The referendum will result in a vote for an independent Kurdish state north of a truncated Iraq. The prospect is tantalising for many Kurds, persecuted for decades in a land which was divided by imperial powers between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey almost a century ago. At the same time, external powers in the region and afar will be eyeing for the consequences with a sense of delight or foreboding, depending on their own interests.

It is worth considering what has brought the idea of Kurdish independence so close to realisation. In recent months, communities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region have witnessed a growing Sunni Arab uprising in western and central Iraq, including areas around the capital Baghdad and near the autonomous Kurdish Region itself. Kurdish Peshmerga have been deployed outside Iraqi Kurdistan to block Sunni rebel advances, and defend Kurdistan’s borders. Iraq’s Kurdish population is bound to view freedom as too precious to lose, having won autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of a very long struggle.

The widespread alienation of Sunni Arabs caused by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, and the Sunni rebellion of late, have raised the prospect of Iraq’s formal breakup into Shia and Sunni mini-states. That prospect comes with risks as well as opportunities, not only for Iraqi Kurds, but for the Kurdish population throughout the region, especially in Iran, Syria and Turkey – three other countries with large concentrations of Kurdish communities.

Watching these developments in Iraq, and calculating their possible ramifications, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, Netanyahu made his announcement of support for Kurdish independence. Netanyahu’s words must be music to Kurdish leaders’ ears.

The notion that the Israeli prime minister’s expression of support originates from a common history of oppression and persecution of both Jews and Kurds is a sign of naive thinking. For there are Israeli calculations at play to shape a new geopolitical reality that will be more favourable to Israel’s own interests and ambitions in the Middle East.

An independent Kurdish state is a matter of great importance to its people. However from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, such an event would accelerate the disintegration of the present Iraqi state. Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq is already a much weaker power in the region. Further partition would result in at least three mini-states – Kurdish, and possibly Sunni and Shiite, triggered by a sharpening divide between them. The process may set in motion further balkanisation of Iraq, creating an Afghanistan, Syria or Libya type situation. In the Israeli prime minister’s calculations, that scenario would enhance Israel’s status as the regional superpower. It would give Israel a carte blanche to intervene. But is it going to make Israel more secure?

The implications of Netanyahu’s scheme would not be limited to Iraq’s partition into smaller, mutually hostile, states. He knows that many Kurdish people aspire for independence from Iran, Turkey, even Syria. Once Iraqi Kurds secede, it would embolden their brethren in those countries. The idea of greater Kurdistan is going to be a powerful agent, and confrontations with the central authorities in Ankara and Tehran will follow. Kurdish communities in Syria have been left to their own devices amid war.

Much of Syria lies in ruins. Its state structure and military are under great strain. Once a powerful and uncompromising adversary of Israel, Syria’s future hangs in the balance, and the country no longer poses a credible challenge to Israel. Syria’s destruction has left three more regional powers to neutralise – Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Netanyahu’s open support for an independent Kurdish state is a start on that strategy.

Iran, too, is on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s target list. Israel’s relationship with Iran was close before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the two countries have been at loggerheads. Tehran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Palestinians are the main causes of the Iranian-Israeli animus.

Netanyahu’s advocacy for action against Iran has been particularly aggressive in recent years, and President Barack Obama’s attempts for some kind of rapprochement with Tehran is a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may encourage similar demands from the Kurdish population in western Iranian provinces of Kordestan, Karmanshah and West Azerbaijan. If Netanyahu’s scheme succeeds, those demands will fuel the discontent in the Kurdish and other minorities of Iran. They may even lead to conflict. Iran’s preoccupation with any worsening of the internal situation will suit Netanyahu.

Israel has serious issues with Turkey as well. Their relations have suffered a sharp decline since the Turkish government denounced Israel’s Gaza War in 2008-2009. A major crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations came when the Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships in the open Mediterranean Sea carrying humanitarian supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American with dual citizenship, were killed in the incident. Relations between Turkey and Israel have not recovered since. Both sides remain adamant, and there are scores to be settled. Ankara’s difficulties in the Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey will be of considerable interest to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of support for an independent Kurdistan is interesting in one particular respect – he is vague about the boundaries of such a state. His words seem carefully calculated, leaving a number of possibilities as to the size and shape of a Kurdish independent entity. The statement may well be designed to raise anxiety in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus. It is certainly a recipe for upheaval in future.

The modern Middle East, with Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine, emerged as a result of Anglo-French carve up of the region as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and a promise made for the creation of a Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The idea of Kurdish independence within borders not yet specified, and the decision to hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, raise the prospect of momentous transformational changes in years to come. Exactly what forces are behind the scheme remains shrouded in mystery. We know only that the idea has come from the prime minister of Israel, and has been seized by Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. How events unfold from now on is going to be of interest to many in concerned capitals and beyond.

[END]

What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.

[END]

 

Disquiet rows in US over Egypt policy

Middle East Eye

America’s relationship with the military regime of Egypt and President Barack Obama’s keenness to give military aid to that country have created acrimony between the administration and Congress.

The dispute goes beyond Washington, with Obama’s Middle East policy coming under increasing criticism at home and abroad. There are warnings that his administration may be creating more international enemies.

A recent op-ed by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post on 2 May is one example. A leading neoconservative thinker, Kagan was one of the founders of the Project for the New American Century that called for regime change in Iraq and a strategy of America securing global control. Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, is now a senior State Department official in the Obama administration.

Kagan says that far from helping in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s “brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists”. The Muslim Brotherhood did use violence against protestors, he continues, but that is nothing compared with the military’s killing of thousands and jailing of tens of thousands since overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi.

Kagan goes on to warn that the crackdown in which hundreds may be sentenced to death after a trial barely lasting an hour will convince some Islamists to believe that their only choice is to kill or be killed.

His conclusion is that Egypt’s new military strongman, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can never bring stability, no matter how ruthless he becomes. America’s current policy is only bringing closer the day of the next revolution, and that revolution will be a “more radical and virulent anti-American event than the last one”.

President Obama’s intention to send military aid to Egypt and bitter criticism from a leading neoconservative hawk such as Robert Kagan look strange. The White House plans to supply Egypt with Apache attack helicopters, arguing that they are needed to fight “terrorism” in the Sinai peninsula. Obama wants to give $650 million worth of additional aid to Egypt’s military regime. Moreover, the administration says that Egypt is abiding by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

All of this must be music to Sisi’s ears, but represents a sad turning in Barack Obama’s journey from soaring idealism to Machiavellian behaviour. Political expediency and short-termism have triumphed over idealism in this journey.

Congressional unease over Obama’s Middle East policy has turned into open rebellion. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, has told the White House that he would not approve American aid to the Egyptian military.

In particular, Senator Leahy has denounced a summary trial which ended in an Egyptian court sentencing 683 people to death, including the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. Leahy said that he would remain opposed until he could see “convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law”.

Given the Obama administration’s eagerness to supply Egypt’s military rulers with weapons and economic aid, it was odd indeed that the White House expressed alarm over the court’s ruling when the United Nation did so. As severe measures continue against opposition supporters, a powerful insurgency is building up in Egypt. It is especially concentrated in the Sinai peninsula.

The overall character of President Obama’s predecessor George W Bush was distinctly aggressive in military terms. Since the heady days of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, American policy has undergone a Machiavellian transformation. His pronouncements often do not match facts on the ground.

The Foreign Assistance Act requires that the United States cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree”. President Obama, however, concluded soon after Morsi was deposed by the military in July 2013 that the White House was not “legally required” to decide whether Egypt’s president was the victim of a coup. An unnamed administration official told the New York Times at the time: “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say [anything]”.

It was like showing green light to Sisi. With each hint of suspension of aid and every expression of “concern” over Egypt’s worsening situation comes something that gives succour to Egypt’s military junta. More than three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a brief democratic interlude, it now looks inevitable that Sisi will be “elected” the country’s new leader at the end of this month.

The election will be an extremely restricted exercise. It will be a reminder of the worst days of the Mubarak era. Sisi will be “endorsed” by an overwhelming majority, with no more than a tiny percentage of votes going against him.

The truth about today’s Egypt is that the real opposition is either in jail or has been forced underground if its supporters have not been killed already. Meanwhile in the United States, influential voices are engaged in a perfunctory exercise to express the mildest of unease with demands that America must ensure that the next Egyptian government “makes good on the people’s demands for a free and prosperous society”, as was written by Evan Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an op-ed piece published by US News and World Report on 8 May.

As Sisi pursues his repressive policies against Islamist and liberal opponents alike, the Obama administration is advised by these voices to “strategically leverage US assistance to incentivize Cairo to adopt vital political and economic reforms”.

Emboldened by Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, Sisi now says that democracy will take at least 25 years to bring to Egypt, and that too if stability can be restored. Bizarrely, he has described the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013 as major steps towards democracy.

In less than a year since overthrowing the elected political order which had emerged after a people’s revolution, Sisi has moved to crush Egypt’s largest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He has outflanked liberals, many of whom are also on his target list. Egyptians are bracing themselves for another long era dominated by a military dictator, who at 59 years of age could maintain his iron grip for a long time. Sisi has President Obama to thank for this gift.

[END]

When nation-building goes wrong

Middle East Eye

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.

Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.

Iraq descends

Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismanted Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.

Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.

It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.

Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.

However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.

After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.

Ruthless rulers emerge

Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.

Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.

The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.

As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.

A graveyard for nation-builders

Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.

Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.

The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.

The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.

Fragmented societies

Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.

America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.

The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.

America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.

The Afghan experience

Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not be signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.

After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.

Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.

Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.

In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Geopolitical interests

These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.

Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.

Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.

Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.

A history of failures

United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.

Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.

America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.

The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.

[END]

The Perils of Dead Certainty

CounterPunch

The spectacular rise of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party to power after last December’s assembly elections in the Indian capital Delhi, and its fall after just 49 days in office, inform us about India’s turbulent politics. These events are consequences of the Indian electorate’s anger and frustration at the established parties, and a strong desire to break away from the past. They have also created a good deal of confusion and polarization among the people as the country heads for general elections in April and May 2014.

The AAP’s appeal as an anti-corruption phenomenon was responsible for the largest number of seats it won in the capital’s assembly, though still well short of a majority. To form a minority government, the AAP chose to accept outside support from the Congress Party which it had defeated, yet continued its crusade against Congress. For the AAP’s leadership, all other parties were legitimate targets, to be attacked in the most strident terms. Political leaders, businessmen, even fellow party members who disagreed were routinely accused of corruption or insubordination.

Now that the short-lived administration of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is no longer in power, central rule has been imposed in Delhi, and battles are being fought in courts. Kejriwal’s party has mounted a challenge in the Indian Supreme Court against the imposition of central rule in the capital after its defeat in a crucial vote. The former chief minister and his colleagues are themselves threatened with law suits – so unsubstantiated were their allegations against specific individuals.

The AAP has attracted some support from sections of the population eager to punish the Congress-led coalition for corruption, mismanagement or failure to maintain law and order. However, the Kejriwal band remains a one-issue party, and its suitability as a serious force in advance of the next general elections must be in question. The AAP’s popular support nationwide is yet to be tested.

Nevertheless, the AAP has been quick to move from governing Delhi to launching a national campaign for the next parliamentary elections. It claims to have prepared a list of the “most corrupt people” and has begun to announce its candidates against them. In the process, the party seems to have bid farewell to its earlier promise to hold American-style primaries for selection of candidates. The odd mix of populism and authoritarianism has added to the confusion about what the “ordinary man’s party” is really up to.

After a brief period in power in a mini-state, the AAP faces a critical reassessment by its supporters, and the wider electorate. Its image as a party of lawful and clean governance has taken a battering as a result of vigilante tactics of its members. The AAP’s rise was mainly due to the loss of public confidence in India’s established parties, but its subsequent conduct has raised questions about the alternative it offers, and what it means for the Indian democracy.

Unusual tactics

Leading jurists and civil society activists had been expressing disapproval of the AAP’s polarising tactics from the outset. In one astonishing act, Chief Minister Kejriwal, his cabinet colleagues and leading supporters broke through police barricades and violated a prohibition order against political gatherings near the Indian Parliament and administrative district. Another polarising action was to cut by half the electricity bills of Delhi residents who had refused to pay their bills for several months in protest against increased charges, but not of residents who had paid despite financial difficulties.

The Supreme Court of India issued notices to the Kejriwal administration and the central government, asking them to explain how the extraordinary protest took place in the capital. The issue, according to the court, was of constitutional importance, raising questions about whether a chief minister could resort to agitation in violation of the law in his own state. As well as the decision to charge his predecessor Sheila Dikshit with corruption, the Kejriwal administration had plans to strip magistrates in Delhi of their responsibility to issue marriage certificates, and to give the authority to issue licenses for building projects and local services to “people’s gatherings” to be held from time to time.

A meandering journey

An offspring of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption reformist movement, a group led by 45-year-old Kejriwal, a former Income Tax official, broke away to become the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012. The party won the largest number of seats, though not a majority, in the Delhi assembly elections, and formed a minority government when the defeated Congress Party offered its external support in December 2013.

The AAP’s ambition for power was undisguised, but the scope of its political appetite and future tactics were far from clear. Hazare would have nothing to do with Kejriwal and his associates. While Hazare’s initiative remained a loose social movement, Kejriwal’s newly founded party began to attract attention of people hungry for action against corruption and government inertia. A number of highly publicised attacks on women and young people fuelled the discontent already there.

Systemic failures of this kind can make a situation explosive, offering fertile ground for populist groups with good intentions, as well as opportunists. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish between the two. Weak or inept government risks anarchy, and vigilantes determined to enforce laws of their own take over.

Vigilante groups may lack unity, so they seek an external target to maintain a semblance of unity. The spectacle witnessed following the governing Congress Party’s heavy defeat in the Delhi assembly elections was extraordinary. Lack of certainty was replaced by politics of dead certainty.

Self-righteous behaviour and delivery of direct justice by Chief Minister Kejriwal, his ministers and party members were on display from day one. When Law Minister Somnath Bharati led a midnight raid with his supporters on a house of African women in South Delhi, there was a crisis. The minister summoned local police, and proceeded to order the officers who had come to the scene to arrest the women, accusing them of prostitution and drug offenses.

Confrontation with police

The police officers refused to obey the minister, because they said they did not have a magistrate’s warrant for arrest. The women, said to be from Uganda, were then taken to the All India Medical Institute, where the law minister also turned up, and the women were forced to give urine samples. No traces of drugs were found. The women have since accused the AAP supporters of harassing, beating and threatening them.

In an era of globalised 24-hour news, it was an instant national and international story, generating alarm and negative reaction. India’s ministry of external affairs intervened to assure foreigners that they were safe and welcome in the country, and that relations with Africa were important and unaffected.

Criticisms of the treatment of foreign women in their own home in Delhi grew, and the confrontation took a more ugly turn. Kejriwal’s battle became one of capturing control of the Delhi Police force from the central government. As the chief minister, with his supporters, marched towards the Indian Parliament, they were prevented, because there was a ban on public gatherings. So they began an “indefinite” sit-in, demanding that five police officers be suspended, and India’s home ministry hand over control of the police to the Delhi state government.  

Kejriwal and his followers overran the police barricades. Clashes broke out in which dozens of people were injured on both sides. The chief minister held meetings of his cabinet in his vehicle at the protest venue. Official files were doing rounds of the streets of Delhi. Metro stations serving the capital’s administrative district were closed, and the chief minister threatened to disrupt India’s Republic Day celebrations which foreign guests were to attend.

Exactly what long-term impact this style of politics will have across the country is not certain. However, judging from reactions of India’s middle classes and the media, the APP’s image has suffered.

The AAP represents a phenomenon whose causes can be explained, but its effects are disturbing. The phenomenon is not unprecedented. In other places across the world, we have seen anger and discontent, and the emergence of populist forces challenging the established authority that is corrupt and inept. However, alternatives offered by populist politics are hardly the answer, because they can lead to unpredictable consequences, the worst of which were seen before and during World War II in Europe. The events in Europe during the turmoil between the two wars should serve as a warning to India’s electorate against going down that path.

The Congress Party-led coalition which has governed India in recent years faces a tough challenge in the coming general elections, at a time when the leadership of Congress and some of the other parties is in transition. India’s democracy finds itself at a crossroads, and the choice is going to be either constitutional politics and rule of law, or rule by populist impulses.

[END]

No end to the revolution?

AL JAZEERA

History has the answer to the turbulent Middle East today. 

The approaching centenary of the outbreak of World War I is a suitable time to consider violent conflicts between nations and ideologies, and their consequences, which have transformed the international system, particularly in the Middle East.

The most decisive of these conflicts were part of three critical periods of the 20th century: World War I, 1914-1918, and the 1917 communist revolution in RussiaWorld War II ending in 1945 with the division of Europe and the Cold War thereafter; and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. These fateful chapters of history left a lasting impact on the global map, and transformed the Middle East into the turbulent region which it is today.

Despite the central powers’ defeat in World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary lived to fight another war two decades later. But the most consequential events of the World War I period were the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of communists to power in Russia.

Creation of mandates

The demise of the Ottoman Empire meant the release of its provinces in the Middle East. The region was divided into British and French spheres of influence, using the instrument of “mandate” and readily approved by the League of Nations. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the birth of the Soviet Union five years after. Communism became an ideological reality that promised liberation forces in colonies as an alternative to imperial subjugation.

The age of empires was not over, but there was a new worldview in action, embracing the idea of class struggle and becoming a serious rival of Western imperialism. The events in Russia in 1917, emboldened revolutionary forces across Asia, Africa and South America. Communists seized power after long, savage wars in China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959. Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara became heroes for left-wing armed revolutionaries in their own countries and elsewhere.

The Soviet Union’s emergence as a superpower rival of the United States in the wake of World War II, gave it a formidable status, and the means to support revolutionary movements across the world. However, there was an obvious paradox in the manner of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and how the Kremlin controlled its satellite-states with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The Soviet Union had enlarged its empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe while proclaiming to be the liberator of oppressed peoples from Western imperialism. The Soviets were also involved with the US in a global race for influence called the Cold War, in which the energy-rich Middle East was the main battleground. Even as the colonial system collapsed, the Cold War intensified. It was a race between two empires in all but name.

The Dictionary of Human Geography defines imperialism as “an unequal human and territorial relationship”. The association takes the form of an empire, based on “ideas of superiority and practices of dominance”. Imperialism involves the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another. While capitalism has solely commercial motives, an imperial relationship also requires a political centre and ideological allegiance which ties the periphery to the centre.

Legacy of Cold War

Rival ideologies pulled Middle Eastern countries towards Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, and fuelled conflicts that had remained unsettled. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was to have been the end of history, with the US the final victor standing, to dominate the vast energy resources, and much more. However, that triumphant vision failed to realise that Islam, together with nationalism, was going to be the next formidable opposition, replacing Soviet communism. A lot of blood has been spilled at the extremes of that conflict, while even moderates are critical or ambivalent about Western policy.

Much of the Middle East is in a state of agitation and turmoil. The legacy of old unresolved feuds has been revived. Two of the main causes are the imperial powers’ arbitrary partition of the region into smaller, vulnerable entities, thereby dividing their peoples; and the Palestinians’ loss of land and livelihood under Israeli occupation. The people’s desire to liberate themselves from dictatorship has been rekindled, but the scope for opportunistic machinations from outside remains.

Islamic, secular and democratic, all forces fight, sometimes together, at other times separately, in this chaotic struggle. Their vision of the future may differ, but their spirit is revolutionary in that they seek radical change. Still, fundamental questions about what type of change, and the way to bring it, remain. Hope, fear, and uncertainty, coalesce together.

The risk of tyranny of some over many is always great in a region of diverse religious and ethnic groups, with a history of conflict. From Afghanistan and Iraq to SyriaEgypt and Libya, violence against vulnerable citizens, minorities in particular, heightens fears in those countries and outside.

The peoples of the Middle East have lived through autocratic nationalist rule, and dictatorship acting as proxy of one external power or another. Their painful experiences have made the Middle East of today. Where are events heading? Well, as French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”

[END]

Mandela, Manning and Snowden – rebels who answered the call of higher duty

CounterPunch

Two individuals who have unquestionably dominated the 2013 agenda are Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden. Their treatment in the media could hardly be more different. Yet in many respects what they share is remarkable, and that they brought out the best and the worst in humanity is no less so.

Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, remembered again after his death, and Snowden’s baring of the worldwide intelligence colossus built by the United States, have stirred a much-needed debate on morality and manipulation of law in conducting mass surveillance, and then justifying the practice by shifty arguments. Bradley Manning’s disclosures of the US military’s shocking conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, his trial and sentencing are also of great importance. However, the spread of Snowden’s revelations is global, and their ramifications are going to be more profound and lasting.

Mandela and Snowden are rebels from different generations – both classed as criminals as they took on the system. While going against the existing regime designed to serve the interests of a few at the cost of the vast majority, Mandela and Snowden answered the call of higher duty, beyond man-made legal measures which are unjust and unacceptable. To Mandela, South Africa’s apartheid system, with all its consequences, was so repugnant. To Snowden, the abuse of power involving the wholesale surveillance of citizens and world leaders was so wrong that it changed the game.

The association of Mandela and Snowden with Moscow also bears a remarkable similarity between the two men. Mandela’s African National Congress was supported by the Soviet Union in the era of Communism, and members of the South African Communist Party were in the ANC. In the post-Soviet era, it was Moscow where Snowden found refuge, as the Obama administration used all its power to have him captured and brought back to the United States.

Mandela was lucky to escape the death penalty, received a life sentence in 1964, and spent more than a quarter century in harsh prison conditions. If Snowden had been returned to America, almost certainly he would have spent the rest of his life in jail – and it could have been worse.

Radical and determined, their activities have been polarising at home and abroad. Feted by their admirers and reviled by defamers, their actions raise very difficult questions, only to receive glib responses. In confronting South Africa’s stubborn racist regime after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC, Mandela concluded that they had to abandon nonviolence. He explained later that “when the oppressor – in addition to his repressive policies – uses violence against the oppressed, the oppressed have no alternative but to retaliate by similar forms of action.” Mandela had to go underground before he and other senior ANC leaders were captured, tried and sentenced.

To escape a similar fate, especially after Bradley Manning’s 35-year sentence, Edward Snowden decided to leave the United States, ending up in Russia. To suggest that Snowden should have stayed in his country and justified his actions in US courts is either naïve or disingenuous. For the personal cost of such actions is very high, as Mandela, Manning and Snowden have all found.

There are people who will disagree with the very idea of finding a connection between the three despite compelling similarities. It is always easy to admire someone who was once a rebel, highlighted what was reprobate in society and furthered the cause of human consciousness – all a long time ago. The making of Mandela’s image took decades. The sustained official vilification of Manning and Snowden now reminds us of the manner in which Mandela was treated by the South African authorities and Western governments, indeed by the media, at the time of his rebellion fifty years ago.

All of which draws attention to the scramble among the world’s most powerful leaders to be seen at Mandela’s memorial and funeral, and to join in the adulation of his people, while the same leaders have been busy in the vilification of those many regard as young heroes of today. The oddity, in part, is due to the addiction to television cameras that has become an essential part of showbiz politics. There also exists a craving in political leaders to preach the world what they fail to practice themselves. Their desire to look good is irresistible. The general loss of trust in public figures and institutions is a consequence of their instinct for expediency. The potency of their message of toleration and reconciliation to Africa would be more convincing if liberal and moral values were not so much under pressure as they are in the West itself.

The long and arduous struggle of Mandela reflected the revolutionary spirit of his predecessors, one of whom was German revolutionary and American statesman Carl Schurz, whose words are appropriate here: “My country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right, when wrong to be put right.” Not missing the opportunity of reconciliation when it finally came was something that made Mandela great.

It would be premature to compare Manning and Snowden with Mandela, for their struggles are current, and not time tested. Where they can be contrasted, favourably, with Nelson Mandela is in their struggles for higher moral values which go beyond the narrow boundaries of nationalism and patriotism.

[END]