What the Fall of Ramadi and Palmyra Means: ISIS On The Rampage

CounterPunch

The capture of Ramadi in central Iraq on 18 May by the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist group Islamic State, and only three days later the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of Syria, have shocked Arab and Western governments alike. Taking control of Ramadi and Palmyra, cities more than 400 miles apart, and in different countries, so quickly is no mean feat.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Syrian government’s last border crossing between Iraq and Syria had also fallen to Islamic State forces, giving them control of the entire border between the two countries. This frightening new reality means that the frontier is now open to Islamic State, who can move from one country to the other at will.

The radical Islamic militia continues its murderous campaign elsewhere, too. It claimed that one of its suicide bombers blew up a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern town of Qadeeh, killing and wounding scores of people.

Events like these belie claims of success in recent military operations by the United States and allies against the Islamic State’s command structure and fighters on the ground. America’s strategy, often repeated, has been to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, just as Washington’s aim was to deal with al-Qaida. That strategy continues to be in a state of failure, because Washington is unable to prevent the phenomenon of one extremist organisation morphing into several splinter groups which are far more dangerous.

The causes of Islamic State’s growth are multifaceted. So is the significance of its dramatic advances in the battlefield. Ramadi in Anbar province, barely 70 miles from the capital Baghdad, was where the American-sponsored “Sons of Iraq” (Sahwa) militia started in order to counter al-Qaida nearly a decade ago. Born out of expediency, that alliance was forged between the US occupation forces and members of the overthrown Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain and Sunni tribes.

Now that Iraq is under Shia rule, the alienation among Sunnis is strong for two main reasons. The sense of loss of identity, depersonalisation and lack of opportunities, and the perception of abandonment by the United States, add fuel to the fires burning in the region. Both in Iraq and Syria, government authority is absent in vast areas, leaving a dangerous vacuum. The void is filled by fanatics who have sectarian zeal, appetite to settle matters by violence and weapons in abundance.

A strategy whose objectives are mixed up, and which is based on sheer opportunism, lacks consistency and is likely to fail. In Iraq, Saddam Hussain, leading a Sunni minority and secular dictatorship, was deposed. Saddam’s overthrow released soldiers of his Ba’athist army and alienated Iraq’s Sunni tribes. But then, many of the same were enticed by the United States with money and weapons to fight al-Qaida. With that phase over and a Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad, the Sunnis were out of favour again. They turned from allies to enemies.

The nature of war between government forces and Islamic State in Iraq is full of irony. The Iraqi military is heavily equipped with American weapons and is supposedly well trained, but clearly lacks the will to fight. IS forces, too, have plenty of weapons, originally supplied by Washington to the “Sons of Iraq” militia to fight al-Qaida, or captured from the Iraqi military.

The US strategy in Syria has been to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an old rejectionist challenge to American–Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. Again, expediency drove the United States and anti-Assad forces closer. Western arms supplied to anti-Assad groups that are described as “moderate” have often been seized by more fanatical and trigger-happy groups like Islamic State.

Events in recent years have demonstrated again and again that alliances with extremist groups to destabilise countries tend to produce a boomerang effect. From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the effects have been devastating. The region is destabilised. Human misery is indescribable. External powers are eager to intervene when it is least helpful and display withdrawal symptoms when the going gets tough or it does not suit them.

Accounts of the fall of Palmyra, site of two-thousand-year-old Roman-era ruins and artefacts, speak of large-scale evacuation of nearby communities by Syrian troops as they withdrew. There was no intervention by US aircraft which have been deployed in recent months to target Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Residents left behind face atrocities from IS militants.

North of Palmyra lie oil and gas fields under Syrian government control. Does the US goal to depose President Assad in Syria explain why American air power did not intervene in the battle for Palmyra, and may not do so in the battle for the oil fields nearby? After all, the loss of those oil fields would be a big setback against the Syrian regime whereas a US intervention against Islamic State in that battle would help the Assad regime.

So, in Iraq as well as Syria, contradictions in American policy abound. Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Iraqi government which Washington does not want to collapse. In Syria, on the other end, the American agenda is the exact opposite – to engineer the end of the Assad regime. Just as the United States helped raise a Sunni tribal militia called “Sons of Iraq” to counter the threat of al-Qaida some years ago, opportunism now requires Washington to sustain a Shia regime in Baghdad. To protect that regime, the US is now supporting a predominantly Shia militia, described as the “Popular Mobilisation Units”. In Iraq, America and Iran are in tacit alliance with each other. In Syria they support opposite sides.

With such contradictory motives in Iraq and Syria, America’s strategy against Islamic State cannot succeed.

[END]

Why is Israel so vulnerable?

Middle East Eye

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has prevailed after a bitterly fought election in Israel. He will now be horse-trading with smaller right-wing and extremist parties to form a coalition under the country’s complex political system. Although this will be his fourth premiership, the Netanyahu effect has proved extremely divisive in Israeli society. In any event, the talk of Israel’s political left and right is utterly meaningless when it comes to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel’s image in the wider world. The past is the future in this context, and the most fundamental problem for Israel is that of legitimacy of its conduct.

States and governments emerging out of conflict often have to struggle for legitimacy at home and abroad. Legitimacy is about establishing virtues of their origins, qualities and behaviours of political institutions, their decisions and consequences thereof. Legitimacy requires acceptance of those virtues nationally and internationally. We hear justifications for the conduct of Israel continuously. So how the Israeli state and governments fare in terms of their legitimacy is a question which must be examined continuously.

How policies and laws affect citizens is part and parcel of the pursuit of legitimacy. The coercive ability to impose authority by direct or indirect methods is important to establish legitimacy, but it is insufficient and cannot substitute for the rule of law. Equality of all citizens before the law, including rulers, is essential – a concept which stands against autocracy or dictatorship, narrow oligarchy or wealthy plutocracy.

What is the status of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities? How are Israeli-Arab citizens, mostly of Palestinian origin, treated within Israel? And how does Israel treat Jews and non-Jews living in the occupied territories? Indeed, how should Israel’s occupation of Arab territories since the 1967 war be interpreted? Can Netanyahu’s claim of Israel being a “Jewish democracy” be valid? After all, the very essence of democracy is that all citizens are equal, and that minorities must have appropriate protections to ensure equality.

Such questions point to Israel being not a strong, but a weak state armed to the teeth with weapons, and immunity ensured only by the American veto in the UN Security Council.

The 1967 Six Day War established Israel as the dominant military power in the Middle East. The armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria were heavily defeated. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. A quarter of a million Palestinians and a million Syrians were made refugees. That is how the conflict became perpetual.

In victory, Israel acquired the label of occupier, but the law of war required Israel, like any combatant, to limit the suffering to affected people, in particular to non-combatant civilians. It means protection for the injured, the sick and prisoners of war, together with vulnerable civilians. With a history of forced evictions of Palestinians from their homes, questions raised over Israel’s conduct in the 1967 conflict, and the resulting humanitarian crisis, would not go away.

Israel fought another serious war with Egypt and Syria in 1973, but its outcome meant that the main thrust against Israel thereon came from Palestinians under Yasser Arafat’s leadership. The will of Arab states to go to war against Israel faded after the 1967 defeat.

By September 1978, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin had signed the Camp David accords, followed by the Israel-Egypt treaty. Resistance from Arab governments had weakened and Arab governments, except Syria, learned to pay only lip service in support of the Palestinians.

The legitimacy of Israel’s conduct is challenged today more than before for three main reasons. First, the logic of Israel’s fragility in military terms is no longer valid. Its frailties are of a different kind. Questions about Israel’s legitimacy have much more to do with how it uses its overwhelming military power against non-Jewish people – Palestinians who live under Israeli control.

Second, not only does the question of occupation of Arab territory since 1967 remain unresolved, but hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents have been settled in the occupied territories. Most Jewish settlers have been encouraged to move from Europe, the United States and the ex-Soviet Union. The Palestinian economy in the occupied territories is in the control of, or heavily dependent on, Israel. Palestinian workers sustain the lifestyle of wealthy Jewish residents living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, and Gaza is besieged.

In the midst of the recent election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israel will not cede territory to Palestinians, ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu asserted: “Any evacuated territory will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists and terror organisations supported by Iran. Therefore, there will be no concessions and no withdrawals. It is simply irrelevant.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went beyond the prime minister. Addressing a rally in Herzliya, Lieberman issued a call for the beheading of Arabs not loyal to the state of Israel. Netanyahu himself is engaged in a push to alter the country’s basic law that would assert that “Israel is a nation-state of one people only – the Jewish people – and no other people.” In truth, Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 already defines the country as a Jewish state.

These developments have put almost two million Palestinian citizens of Israel under great pressure. Surely, a state that treats minorities differently under the constitution cannot call itself democratic, because the essence of democracy is equality of treatment under the law. The question of democracy is inevitably tied to the legitimacy of the Israeli state’s behaviour, which gets worse when consideration is broadened to include Israeli conduct in the occupied territories.

The population of Israel proper comprises just over six million Jews and nearly two million non-Jews. Non-Jews are mostly Arab or Palestinian who describe themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel, but there are other groups, too. Consider four-and-a-half million Palestinians, and nearly seven hundred thousand Jewish residents of illegal settlements, in the occupied territories.

Therein lies Israel’s nightmare which evokes parallels with the bygone apartheid era in South Africa before white supremacist rule collapsed in the early 1990s. The most fundamental question challenging Israel’s legitimacy is: How can a state be democratic and claim to be legitimate if it treats half its population differently, and constantly invents ways to maintain Jewish supremacy which are both discriminatory and enduring? Attempts to invite Jews from all over the world to settle in the “land God gave to Jews” can be explained by this nightmare.

[END]

The vilification of Muslims

CounterPunch

The recent attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine’s office and a Jewish store near Paris have sparked another round of explosive debate about Islam and Muslims. The actions of Cherif and Said Kouachi were condemned. How the two brothers born and raised in France became radicalised was discussed in newspapers and on airwaves. Their existence on the fringes of French society and previous encounters with the law, already on record, were highlighted. Belgian police subsequently carried out operations in Verviers and other parts of the country.

Competition among Western leaders to rush to Paris to mark the tragic events was intense. The British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu appeared particularly exercised. Stakes are high for Cameron and Netanyahu in coming elections in Britain and Israel respectively. The French presidency was not keen on Netanyahu visiting the country, but he turned up anyway.

Reminding the world of his Christian faith, David Cameron condemned the “fanatical death cult of Islamist extremism” and insisted: “You cannot appease them; they hate our democracy, our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life.” Netanyahu was not going to be left behind. Describing the attacks as brutal acts of savagery, he insisted that radical Islam knew “no boundaries” and the response had to be international.

Reminding his audience yet again that Israel had experienced similar attacks and that he knew the pain, Netanyahu said: “The terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and our civilization … we can defeat this tyranny that seeks to extinguish all our freedoms.”

Some commentators have pointed out the inherent bigotry and duplicity of this rhetoric. Chris Hedges, in a piece on Truthdig.com, said that the Charlie Hebdo shootings were neither about free speech nor radical Islam. Rather, the killings represented the fury of those hopeless, brutally controlled and mocked by the privileged.

The latest vilification of Muslims and their faith is the result of an old alliance of fundamentalist Christians and Jews for at least a century, certainly since the beginning of the Anglo-French project to create what became Israel in 1948. In the post-9/11 era, the trend to caricature Muslims has become more sweeping and venomous. Muslims all over the world are facing a sustained attack.

Had the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, author of the acclaimed book Orientalism been alive, he would have described it as a new form of Orientalism which imagines, emphasises, exaggerates and distorts, and is solely directed against Muslims everywhere. The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India, a secular country of more than a billion people and nearly 150 million Muslims, represents the entry of a new player in this alarming reality. Not even a year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already started to fiddle with the Indian constitution.

The terms “secular” and “socialist” are being removed from the preamble in government publications, without the required legislative approval for which the BJP government does not have sufficient strength. Leading government ministers and party allies have begun to openly suggest that the plan is to do away with the term “secular” from the constitution altogether, some claiming that India was never a secular country. Paranoia and religious zealotry are on the ascendancy.

The leader of the self-styled World Hindu Organisation, Pravin Togadia, absurdly laments that the population of Hindus in India is only 82 per cent. Togadia says he would not let this number decline to 42 in a few years, because “then their property and women will not remain safe”. He is determined to push the Hindu population up to 100 per cent.

Hindu women married to Prominent Muslims are accused of committing “love jihad” and demands are being made that their husbands convert to Hinduism. Walking in the corridors of power, if not occupying seats, are people who would make India a monolithic Hindu theocracy, a distorted mirror image of Saudi Arabia.

India’s vice president Hamid Ansari, a career diplomat before taking up his current post in 2007, was recently hounded by right-wing supporters and sympathisers of Modi’s government. As President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute during India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January, Ansari and several ministers in Modi’s government stood at attention, as the protocol requires.

Only the vice president was singled out for “insulting the national flag” and attacked by chauvinist Hindus in vehemently abusive terms. This against someone who had served as India’s ambassador in countries including Australia, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and at the United Nations and, from 1980 to 1985, was Chief of Protocol in the Indian foreign ministry.

As part of the concerted drive against Muslims, a number of myths are being perpetuated by chauvinists and should be critically examined. Two myths stand out in particular. One that only Muslims (the world over) are violent – all others are doves of peace. Second that India’s 82 per cent Hindus face a demographic threat from Muslims.

Now, let us look at some of the facts. Traders from what is Damascus today started visiting India in the eight century. Sufi pacifism came to India much before. Muslim invasions began in the early eleventh century. Muslims and Christians of modern India have descended from those who adopted other religions for a variety of reasons – love, allurements, coercion or oppression, no less under the brutal Hindu caste system for centuries.

First Christians were believed to have landed on the coast of southern India in the year 52 AD when St Thomas is said to arrived in Kerala. It has taken almost fifteen centuries for the Muslim population of India to reach 14 per cent. Any talk of Hindus declining by 20 per cent, and Muslims rising, is therefore disingenuous and anti-intellectual.

Let us also examine the claim that only Islam and its followers are violent; others are fountains of peace. The history of wars between Christians and Muslims from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century took numerous lives. Legend has it that Pope Urban II told his followers it was right to kill non-Christians in defence of Christianity and those who die for their faith would occupy a chosen place in heaven.

Christian crusades were extraordinarily brutal and led to Muslim wars. In his war against the United States, Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric was strikingly similar, as is the rhetoric on the extremes of other religions in modern times. Conflicts in the Balkans and the Greater Middle East are as much local as led by Western military powers. One only has to look at those extremes with sincerity.

Let us see examples of some more fallacies, perpetuated by the appeal to popular opinion, ignorance or blind religious chauvinism. One is that Hinduism is a religion of peace. Not always. Those who killed thousands of Sikhs in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984 were not Muslims, but Hindus. And at the time of partition of British India in 1947, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs committed unspeakable atrocities on each other, killing more than a million and displacing many more.

Wars in Indo-China and elsewhere in southeast Asia involved Buddhists and Christian colonial powers – French, British and Dutch. Let us ask ourselves who continues to persecute Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) which is 80 per cent Buddhist? And where does the responsibility lie for the civil war in Sri Lanka following decades of discrimination of Hindu and Muslim Tamils by the Buddhist Sinhala majority that led to the Tamil rebellion and the rise of Tamil militant groups after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots?

When the fog of hatred is thick and the lust to have it all becomes uncontrollable, it is difficult to recognize that humans throughout history have shown extraordinary capacity to harm fellow humans. No one comes out better in this.

[END]

Obama’s “Responsible Conclusion” of the Afghan War

CounterPunch, 2-4 January 2015

During the Christmas-New Year period, President Barack Obama formally announced the end of America’s longest war, fought over thirteen years in Afghanistan. The invasion of that country was ordered by his predecessor, George W. Bush, following the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States. Obama called it the “responsible conclusion” of the Afghan war. Claiming that the United States was more secure, he thanked American troops and intelligence personnel for their “extraordinary sacrifices,” but acknowledged that Afghanistan remained a “dangerous place.”

The central point in these comments is that Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place, radiating its woes beyond its frontier. A few hours earlier in Kabul, the end of NATO’s “combat mission” was marked at a ceremony held in secret because of fears of a Taliban attack. Retired Air Commodore John Oddie, former deputy chief of the Australian contingent in Afghanistan, described the secret ceremony as a “sad commentary.” Oddie has grave doubts over the Afghan forces’ capacity to secure the nation.

The year 2014 was the bloodiest since the Americans returned to Afghanistan in October 2001 and the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime in Kabul was overthrown. The number of civilian casualties reached nearly ten thousand in 2014; five thousand Afghan soldiers were killed. These figures tell the story of Taliban resurgence and that they are stronger than at any time since their removal thirteen years ago. They control large parts of Afghan territory. Even in the capital, hardly any place is beyond their reach.

More than a hundred and thirty thousand foreign troops were deployed across Afghanistan at the peak of the US-led operation to eliminate the Taliban threat. America has failed in this respect, leaving the government in Kabul vulnerable. The NATO mission’s end was announced with claims laced with optimism. Western officials praised the dedication and bravery of Afghan security forces, whose official strength is around three hundred and fifty thousand.

It is claimed that they are capable of continuing a strong fight against Taliban and al-Qaida elements. Given the last year’s record, however, the assertion is not credible. Internal rivalries have delayed the formation of a full cabinet three months after the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive. Vacuum in the Defence and Interior ministries is a cause of worry.

The end of the US combat mission is a point worth reflecting on how the Soviet Union’s decade of occupation of Afghanistan came to the conclusion in February 1989 and its consequences to date. The strength of the Soviet occupying forces at the peak was similar to American-led troops this time. The Soviet aim was to defeat the anti-communist Mujahideen militias and protect the pro-Moscow government in Kabul.

In an intense final phase of the cold war, the Carter and Reagan administrations in Washington decided to confront Afghan and Soviet communism in the most cynical way, with little forethought of, and regard for, possible consequences. The Soviet Union lost, but then the same Islamist groups befriended by Washington mutated into the Taliban militia; with their al-Qaida allies, the Taliban became America’s deadly enemies.

Fortunately for the United States, Russia was helpful in Washington’s war against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Even so, after thirteen years of bombing, drone attacks, extra-judicial killings and torture, America’s resolve has come to an end. Washington will leave just a few thousand troops in Afghanistan to “advise and support” a beleaguered government.

It is also worth remembering at this stage how America’s Vietnam war ended. In a speech at Tulane University on 23 April 1975, President Gerald Ford announced that the Vietnam War was finished as far as America was concerned. Ford made a painful admission saying: “Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.”

US combat forces retreated despite the South Vietnamese regime pleading for fulsome US support as the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon. A month before President Ford’s announcement, the North Vietnamese had launched a big offensive on Ban Me Thuot, the provincial capital of Darlac province. Following the South Vietnamese losses in that battle, America’s resolve had finally come to an end.

President Obama’s reference to the “responsible conclusion” of America’s combat operation has a similar echo. The government in Kabul is besieged. The Taliban can attack targets in the capital and almost anywhere else at will. Years of drone attacks, Guantanamo, and Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, have not defeated the Taliban. The year 2014 was still the worst of America’s thirteen year war.

The main factor behind fewer casualties among US-led foreign forces was that Afghan troops had been deployed to fight the opposition while occupation troops were largely confined to their bases. This, too, reminds of the 1980s, when Soviet forces previous to their withdrawal stayed in their barracks. Afghan government troops took heavy casualties.

With most of the Americans gone home, leaving behind a fractured pro-US government in Kabul dependent on dollar assistance, greater conflict and political uncertainty loom. The numbers of non-Pashtun troops, from Tajik and other ethnic minorities, are disproportionately high in the Afghan military – a country where ethnic Pashtuns are dominant. The government in Kabul will face serious challenges, both internal and external, in 2015.

As battlefield pressures grow, the government and the military will struggle with their own internal contradictions. Afghanistan has a history of constitutional governments being overthrown by coups. So the question remains whether the Afghan military, with a history of volatility and ethnic rivalries, has changed enough to be a united force committed to defending the elected government and the existing constitutional structure in the country.

[END]

The unmasking of the Obama presidency

Middle East Eye

With two years of President Obama’s second term remaining in office, his style and accomplishments have formed a distinct pattern in contemporary United States history. It seems an appropriate time to begin an objective assessment of his presidential career.

Obama’s ascent to the American presidency made history. He was the first African-America to reach that office; educated at Columbia and Harvard, where he earned a law degree; his steady rise in politics and election in November 2008 at the age of 47 – all looked impressive and hopeful after eight traumatic years of foreign policy under President George W. Bush.

The rise of Barack and Michelle Obama from modest beginnings was a story of the “American dream” come true. In truth Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, published shortly before his election, was an assertion of a persistent and overstated belief, for every single American’s dream fulfilled, countless remain unrealised or are shattered, as is the law of nature. In this case, despite some obstacles, a set of favourable circumstances contributed to the making of Barack Obama.

His mother was educated, but unfortunate, with two failed marriages and an untimely death. Obama was born in 1961 when his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was 18 years of age. An early divorce, single motherhood and frequent travels meant that family life lacked stability. She died of cancer, aged 53, soon after earning a doctorate in anthropology. Obama spent his childhood in Indonesia with his mother and step-father. His grandparents gave him stability when young Obama needed it most. Scholarships for a private school education and later at Columbia and Harvard followed. But a self-confessed user of cocaine and marijuana in his young age, Obama was no angel.

However, his advance on the career path was steady, taking him all the way to the White House in the November 2008 election. He won the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin. After seven years of The “War on Terror” during George W. Bush’s presidency and the American economy on the verge of collapse, a Democratic victory looked likely. The Republication presidential ticket of two maverick politicians, John McCain and Sarah Palin, gave Barak Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, an easy victory.

Obama’s campaign and eventual victory in November 2008 looked like a peaceful revolution. Enthusiasm for him was high, particularly in the Afro-American and Hispanic communities. American voters of all ages turned out in vast numbers on polling day. Obama’s campaign raised hopes not only in America, but also in other parts of the world. Victory came on the back of soaring rhetoric, with assertions of a “defining moment” of change and the “arc of history” bending “toward the hope of a better day”.

As he celebrated victory, Obama depicted himself as an outsider. In fact, he was a first-term United States senator with a firm foothold in Chicago politics. The Democratic Party machine has maintained a firm grip in Chicago, Illinois state and national politics for decades. Barack Obama was a product of that powerful organisation.

The power of corporate money

He made a great deal of the fact that he did not accept money from federal political action committees or lobbyists. In truth, his presidential campaign was the most expensive in history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a record $2.4 billion were to be spent by all presidential candidates, including related expenses. Barack Obama’s campaign expenditure of nearly $750 million easily surpassed John McCain’s. Candidate Obama raised more than twice the amount which his opponent, veteran Republican Senator McCain did.

Modest contributions by ordinary Americans to his campaign were widely publicised. However, as filmmaker Michael Moore revealed in an interview on “The Colbert Report” in September 2009, Goldman Sachs investment bank was “Obama’s No. 1 private contributor”. Only the University of California employees’ collective contributions surpassed those of Goldman Sachs. Among other big donors were employees of Harvard University, Microsoft, Google, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Time Warner and Stanford University. Obama’s campaign financing without matching federal funds illustrated the power of corporate money.

In claiming victory, Obama’s assertion in 2008 was that the source of America’s strength was not the might of arms or scale of wealth, but the enduring power of ideals of democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. Obama’s record since entering the White House tells a different story, for he is a man of contradictions. Obama fought the most expensive election campaign as the economy sank into the deepest recession in seventy years.

Double-standards

He had described the Afghan war as a just war, without ever acknowledging that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks on 11 September, 2001 were nationals of Saudi Arabia and not one was Afghan. Yet, the Saudi royal family remains a close friend. Further, the United States bore heavy responsibility for what had happened in Afghanistan, turning the country into a haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But remorse was hard to come forth.

On the other hand, Obama criticised George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, calling it a “dumb war”. As president, not only did Obama maintain America’s military presence in Iraq under heavy propaganda cover of “withdrawal”, he escalated intervention in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Seen in this context, Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, announced barely nine months after he had taken office, was premature. Now it is undeserved.

Many of his supporters and admirers had come to believe, mistakenly, that he was averse to war. In office, President Obama has used powers more freely under “the Authorisation for Use of Military Force” – legislation cobbled together by Congress and signed by President Bush only days after 11 September, 2001. It is a vague and sweeping legal instrument which authorises the president “to use all necessary force against nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed or aided the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, … or in order to prevent future acts of international terrorism”.

Drones

The manifold increase in CIA drone attacks during the Obama presidency has attracted wide criticism, including from the United Nations rapporteur for human rights, Ben Emmerson. In a recent report, Emmerson cited a 40 percent rate of civilian deaths among those killed in all air attacks in 2013. Within a year of President Obama taking office in January 2009, the use of drones had peaked in Pakistan. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen bore the brunt, but their deployment rapidly became more widespread, in Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Mali and possibly Iran, which claimed to have fired on or disabled pilotless aircraft.

Emmerson says that countries where drone attacks kill civilians are obliged to order inquiries. Extrajudicial killings by drones have attracted widespread condemnation, and generated outrage amongst the communities of victims of the attacks.

American officials told Emmerson that the Obama administration routinely sought prior consent of the concerned government. Yemen’s official version, as reported by the Guardian in March 2014, said that such attacks were not pre-approved. There has been a dramatic reduction in operations in Pakistani territory during the last year, due to pressure from Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif and the National Assembly of Pakistan in response to unprecedented public anger.

Banning torture?

If CIA drones and extrajudicial killings have raised many legal and ethical questions, the agency’s torture tactics are not far behind. It is worth recalling that immediately after his inauguration, President Obama had signed an executive order (No. 13491) banning the use of torture. The practice had done great harm to America’s reputation under President Bush. A long-awaited Senate report just published has described the CIA’s torture methods as “brutal and ineffective” and accused the agency of lying about the usefulness of information gathered.

The National Security Archive in Washington cites documents showing that senior CIA officers, including directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden, overruled agents who protested against what was being done to prisoners. But after the Senate report, President Obama has attempted to partially justify the CIA torture. He told Spanish television: “When countries are threatened, they oftentimes act rationally in ways that in retrospect were wrong.” As John Brennan, the CIA director and Obama’s close confidant, was preparing to launch a counter-offensive, the president said in further remarks: “I hope that today’s report leaves these techniques where they belong – in the past.”

The Senate report, much of it censored from the public, has not only revealed the crimes and cover-up by America’s vast security apparatus, but it has also highlighted fundamental failures in Obama’s character. His reluctance to allow prosecution of senior officials of the Bush administration amounts to a cover-up itself. Here is a president who does not have the backbone to stand up to offenders in powerful positions. Obama is a political operator par excellence who avoids, evades, overcomes and, if nothing works, just moves on to other things.

Guantanamo and other broken promises

In President Obama’s first act, the order banning torture, the stated aim was to promote “the safe, lawful and humane treatment of individuals in United States custody … to ensure compliance with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions, and to take care that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed.” Further, he promised that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would be closed within a year.

Wide-eyed, admirers of Obama gloated. Commentators hailed these announcements as the end of Bush era practices of unlawful detention and torture. It seemed like a revolutionary beginning. As Obama’s one-year deadline to close Guantanamo drew closer, opposition in Congress grew. He did not quite stand up to Congress. The Guantanamo prison was not closed, though detainees began to be sent abroad, quietly, reducing their number from about 775 at its peak down to some 136 in early December 2014.

In the latest releases, six Guantanamo prisoners, including four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian were sent to Uruguay without ever being charged. In Montevideo, President Jose Mujica, who had himself spent a decade in harsh prison conditions under the country’s military dictatorship, said that Uruguay was offering hospitality to human beings who have suffered a terrible kidnapping in Guantanamo Bay. In Washington, the Pentagon said that the United States was grateful to Uruguay.

The Bush administration had found deceptive ways of redefining terms in his “war on terror”. While using the term “war” himself, Bush claimed that those kidnapped and sent to Guantanamo were detainees, not prisoners of war. As they were not regular soldiers, the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. In the Bush administration’s lexicon, torture became “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

The detention camp was meant to keep the “world’s most dangerous individuals”, though most detainees were never charged of any offence. About half of the Guantanamo prisoners left were cleared for release, but the Obama administration said that many countries were not willing to accept them. Five years after it was supposed to have been closed, the prison remains open.

Frustration and hopelessness led to prisoners going on hunger strike in protest of their continued detention. Obama responded by ordering that they be force-fed, so no more detainees die. Prisoners’ accounts describe the procedure in which a feeding tube is inserted through a hunger striker’s nose down the throat to his stomach. The method is painful and very uncomfortable. The Obama administration says that it is a “life-saving procedure”. United Nations officials call it torture. The “New England Journal of Medicine” has called it “aggravated assault”.

Life of prisoners inside the Bagram military base under American control has attracted less world attention. Several months after Obama supposedly outlawed torture, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” quoted a military prosecutor, saying that the abuse of prisoners at Bagram was such that Guantanamo looked like a “nice hotel”. President Obama finally washed his hands off the US secret prison at Bagram following the uproar over the Senate report. The remaining prisoners were transferred to Afghan and Pakistani custody. Will they be any better?

Ensuring instability in the Middle East

Foreign leaders were killed under America’s watch during the Bush as well as Obama administrations. Saddam Hussein was hanged on 30 December, 2006 after trial with a foregone conclusion. During the Obama presidency, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi met his gruesome death in the desert of Sirte. US warplanes and ships kept a close watch and Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton egged on militiamen saying that she hoped Gaddafi would soon be killed as armed men hunted him.

President Bush was responsible for the Iraqi state’s collapse. Obama must share responsibility for the Libyan state’s disintegration. The counter-revolution in which Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and the military establishment returned to rule took place while President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice was in close touch with the Egyptian military. These acts have ensured that the Greater Middle East will remain a highly volatile region for years to come with consequences going well beyond.

On the domestic front, President Obama’s big idea was an affordable healthcare scheme for all in the United States. ObamaCare, as the scheme is unofficially known, is the result of decades of efforts in Congress and outside to set up a universal healthcare system in America, rather similar to Britain’s National Health Service envisaged after the Second World War.

In the face of strong resistance from sections of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, ObamaCare became law in the end. It is a significant improvement over what was before, though critics say it is complicated. Many right-wingers and libertarians continue to pour scorn, contending that ObamaCare is too expensive, “socialist” or “un-American” – a step which has taken away citizens’ freedom of choice.

President Obama’s second biggest domestic success was his bailout of the auto industry, General Motors in particular. The Centre for Automotive Research, a think tank based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, concluded that had there been no auto industry bailout nearly two million jobs would have been lost in General Motors in 2009-2010 alone if the company had gone under. The collapse of the entire auto industry would have resulted in more than four million job losses. The US federal and state governments would have suffered a hit in excess of a hundred billion dollars. In this respect, Obama can be credited with pulling the economy from the brink.

However, there are other domestic afflictions in American society, notably in areas of race relations, police accountability and gun control. President Obama has singularly failed to confront them. His response to police officers shooting black youths in Ferguson and New York and grand juries refusing to charge the officers concerned has been timid. The Afro-American and Hispanic communities, who made Obama’s victory possible, had hoped for change following his November 2008 victory. Many will say their hopes remain unrealised.

[END]

On the edge of turbulence: India between uncertainty and promise

Lecture at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad on 21 November 2024

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It gives me great pleasure to be in your midst. A long time has passed since I spent three of my formative years in the late 1960s as a student at Vallabh Vidyanagar. That was an exciting period in the life of a teenager – young, enthusiastic, naive and adventuresome. I was touched by the tolerance of people I met. The experience triggered a desire in me to go places, to learn about peoples and cultures in distant lands, and to try to understand how history shapes societies, and interaction between peoples. A couple of years after leaving Gujarat, I left India to work for the United States federal government. I saw three presidents in office – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. It was a tumultuous period in American politics: the Watergate scandal forced President Nixon out of office; the Vietnam war was at a decisive point; American forces were about to withdraw; the cold war, the 1973 Arab-Israel conflict and the OPEC oil embargo were wreaking havoc on the economy. In India, too, a political crisis was brewing, soon to climax in the state of emergency. In an uncertain world, a youth in his early 20s found excitement and plenty of scope to learn about different societies, peoples and problems. After a hectic period in which I travelled from coast to coast through the American continent, my next destination was Europe. Forty years on, I am here again, and I ask myself: What has changed?

The topic I have chosen today has dual rationale. India in the twenty-first century is the second largest country by population; it is a democracy in which, after over-heated campaigns, when the governing party loses a general election, transfer of power happens peacefully. India’s economists, scientists, technicians are among the world renowned. It was the eleventh largest economy by market exchange rates in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund. The number of students enrolled in tertiary education is around seventeen million. India is a leading emerging economy, inviting comparisons with China. But India has problems, too: bureaucracy, corruption and inertia are often cited. There are disturbed areas inside India along the periphery. There is a history of adversarial relations with neighbours. And a vast region of high turbulence, the Greater Middle East, ripe with internal strife and external interventions lies just west. To sum up, India is on the edge of disturbance – unceasing and violent. At the same time, on the threshold of bigger and better things which might come. It is a journey between uncertainty and promise. In this context, how the country navigates is crucial.

I want to spend a few moments on the role of ideology or dogma in determining foreign policy. Strict obedience to ideology of whatever kind offers a vision that is fanciful. It is stark, clear, simple. Reality is far more complex; displays contradictions, and often requires skilful navigation in an uncertain world. Dogma may seem to provide a pure vision. Whether that pure image can be attained is questionable, because reality often imposes limitations. Reality informs us not only about what can be changed, but also things we cannot do much about.

I am sometimes reminded of an observation made by Harold Macmillan, Britain’s prime Minister, in the late 1950s. A journalist asked him what blows governments off course. Macmillan’s reply was: “Events dear boy, events.” Macmillan had taken over as prime minister after the failed Anglo-French attempt in 1956 to seize control of the Suez canal, which had been nationalised by President Nasser of Egypt. The military debacle had forced Prime Minister Anthony Eden to resign. Macmillan, who succeeded Eden in 1957, knew very well the power of events to shape history. His aphorism “Events dear boy, events” is now part of the lexicon of politics.

In the 1960s, Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave us another famous maxim when he said: “A week in politics is a long time.” What he meant was that things can change within a very short period, and what looked possible only recently may not be achievable now.

I want to make two general points which are essential to the understanding of a country’s relations with the outside world. On one hand, foreign policy is a function of domestic needs, since among the most important functions of a state is to defend its territory from external and internal threats, to maintain order and ensure its people’s welfare. On the other hand, from time to time there are external events over which a country has little or no control, and such events can derail its policy.

Let us therefore look back. India gained the dominion status in August 1947, and became a sovereign republic in January 1950. A vast, but fragile, country; wary of Western imperial powers; its challenges were huge – poverty, hunger, disease, lack of development; resources limited; the task huge; and the choice was simple. Development or military build-up. There were policy differences, but idealists prevailed over realists. The 1950s were the decade of Panchsheel, incorporating the five principles of “mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.”

In the years immediately after independence, India was most vulnerable, but recognized in the growing community of emerging nations for its moral leadership, the way it emerged from the trauma of partition and its commitment to democracy and its resolve to achieving self-sufficiency, so the country could reinforce its independence. The country seemed willing to walk away from instant gains that could jeopardise its long-term interests.

Then, major events occurred either side of the year 1960. The Tibetan uprising, followed by a Chinese crackdown and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. India’s decision to grant refuge to the Dalai Lama came with a certain cost for India’s relations with China. But to hand over the twenty-four-year-old Tibetan leader to the Chinese was inconceivable.

Three years after the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, there was a fierce border war with China. Other events were also responsible for the China-India breakup. But 1959, the year of the Tibetan crisis, triggered a major deterioration between Beijing and Delhi. The Chinese leadership felt humiliated by the tumultuous reception the Dalai Lama received in India. And the friendship was over. The Chinese leadership linked the Lhasa uprising to India’s expansionist policy. Prime Minister Nehru’s Tibet policy was fiercely criticized. Addressing the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, Mao Zedong told members not to be afraid of irritating Nehru and causing trouble for him. On the other hand, much of the non-Communist world was gripped by what American diplomat William Bundy described in an article in the French magazine Preuves as a “fearful view” of China. The humiliation felt in Beijing, and the suspicion in Delhi, were too much to prevent the collapse of their relationship. In his review of Neville Maxwell’s book India’s China War, controversial in India but acclaimed abroad, Gregory Clark wrote that “up until 1959, Nehru genuinely favoured Zhou Enlai’s compromise for an Aksai Chin/NEFA exchange.” Nehru had been trying to prepare India’s public opinion. But after the 1959 escalation in Tibet and raised passions in India, Clark said that “Nehru lost control of the situation.”

It marked the failure of India’s “Forward Policy” – that meant establishing advance posts that could only be supplied by air, and could not be defended at all. But 1962 was a turning point, for a new realist era in Indian foreign policy had begun. Two years on, China carried out a nuclear test – it was the beginning of a nuclear arms race in Asia.

The 1965 conflict with Pakistan helped India recover its pride. Indian forces made territorial gains, and many Indians felt that the country had shaken off the 1962 defeat by China. However, the Tashkent agreement reversed those gains under some pressure from the Soviet Union, because under the pact the Indian army was required to withdraw from the territory it had captured from Pakistan.

Two further events happened in the 1970s. First, the 1971 India-Pakistan war, resulting in the dismemberment of Pakistan, and the emergence of Bangladesh in its eastern half. That was when India finally shook off the “China syndrome.” Second, in 1974, ten years after China, India carried out a nuclear test. India’s nuclear test made Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program inevitable. With Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme a reality in time, the advantage India had secured would eventually diminish in relation to Pakistan. Then in 1975, the leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated. India lost a close ally and some of the strategic gains made in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Looking back, the 1971 victory over Pakistan has been a mixed blessing.

In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi thought it possible to impose peace in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict under the India-Sri Lanka accord. A large military force was sent to the island state, but there were unintended consequences. Among neighbours, the image of India behaving like a “big brother” was reinforced.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and the proxy war the United States fought against the Soviets in the 1980s had profound consequences for India, the region and beyond. Few countries that were bystanders had control over the long and violent sequence of events during the 1980s. And the consequences of the growth of Islamism and the collapse of Soviet communism were far-reaching. I will explain the emergence of a wholly new context which was unforeseen and unpredictable. For example, by helping the most hard-line armed groups in the war against Soviet and Afghan communism, the United States greatly contributed to the phenomenon of Islamist radicalization. Erstwhile allies turned against the United States. Radicalization, once begun, cannot be switched on and off at will. Militant groups are reborn again and again. They split. And each time, they mutate into more violent splinters.

By the mid-1990s, the backlash could be witnessed across frontiers in India and faraway lands. What happened in the 1980s not only radicalized sections of Indian society. It more or less closed India’s foreign policy alternatives.

In the 1980s, India had reacted at most with muted criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, India had to reorient its foreign policy towards the United States. And following the events of 9/11, India came to support the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. As it was then, India’s objective now is to counter Pakistan and China. Also like before, the environment around India is adversarial. So India has built what I view is a diplomatic flyover to Israel, bypassing the Muslim and Arab world. The flyover then goes on from Tel Aviv to Washington. And the spaces in between–meaning the Muslim world and Europe–have not received the attention they perhaps deserve. As India and Pakistan remain locked in a cold war, each side tries to outmanoeuvre the other to get the United States to punish the other. Each side seeks to demonstrate that it is the true ally in the American-led “war on terrorism.”

There are two unchangeable factors in international politics. One is location; the other neighbours. In the vast South Asian subcontinent, India has emerged as the dominant country and the strongest economy. At the same time, there is considerable historical baggage which bears heavily on Indian foreign policy. Neighbours are near, yet far. This explains India’s quest to build bridges to avoid the risks that have accumulated in the long run. The impact of events in the Greater Middle East over the centuries has been undeniable. And it continues to be the case.

Much of my academic work on Middle East history and contemporary politics involves an attempt to explore how war and humiliation affect human attitudes, and how cultures evolve. Here Milan Kundera, one of the most recognized Czech writers, is worth citing. Kundera was twice expelled from the Communist Party; forced to leave his homeland to go to live in France seven years after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; then stripped of his Czech citizenship. He became a French citizen in 1981. In his novel Immortality, Kundera wrote: “The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.”

Kundera’s words capture the powerful emotion that humiliation is –– whether it applies to an individual, a community or nation. Part of my thesis is that the bigger the group that feels humiliated, the greater the chance that the humiliator’s act will have far-reaching consequences.

I discuss the role of shame in my book, Imperial Designs: War, Humiliation and the Making of History, the final volume of a trilogy on the Middle East. Imperial Designs follows Breeding Ground, which is a study of Afghanistan from the 1978 Communist coup to 2011. Based on Soviet and American archives, Breeding Ground covered the gradual disintegration of the Afghan state –– a particularly violent phase of history of that country, including the Soviet invasion of December 1979; America’s proxy war against the Soviet forces in the 1980s; the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism around 1990; the rise of the Taliban and the creation of safe havens for groups like al Qaida; the circumstances of America’s return to Afghanistan after the events of September 11, 2001; and the war thereafter. The second book, Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, evaluates George W. Bush’s presidency in terms of the “war on terror”; that book is about the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq; and thereafter.

I suggested in these books that among the factors contributing to the events of September 11, 2001 was the sense of humiliation felt in the Muslim world, the Middle East in particular. The history of Arabs and Persians is rich and interesting. They have fought many wars over the centuries. The history of external actors meddling in the region––the Ottomans, the British and the Americans is intriguing. And the consequences have been profound and far-reaching.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire around the First World War in the early twentieth century and its aftereffects; the discovery of oil in the region and the division of Arab lands between Britain and France; the creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War and its meaning for Palestinians and Arabs; and further conflicts. In Iran, the early democracy movement; the 1953 overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeqh in an Anglo-American intelligence plot; and subsequent events over a quarter century until the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1979 revolution. Examination of events such as these is relevant in any study of the role of humiliation and the shaping of the contemporary Middle East.

The upheavals of recent decades in the Greater Middle East have their origins in the events around the First World War a century before, when Ottoman rule was replaced by British and French colonial rule using the instrument of Mandate.

Conflict between tribes and wars with external invaders have determined the thinking and behaviour of local peoples through history. Vast sandy deserts, a free spirit and a warrior instinct are fundamental characteristics of Middle Eastern cultures. Repeatedly, wars have put these instincts on display and have reinforced them.

Where desert communities were sparsely located, interaction was less between them, but more within members of each community or tribe. The emphasis was on cohesion within each tribe. Personal possessions within the general populous were fewer; lifestyle was frugal for most members. Wealth tended to accumulate with chiefs. Honour, its dispossession causing humiliation and promises betrayed became strong drivers of human behaviour. Defending the honour of a person, a clan, tribe or nation––and regaining it after humiliation––became of utmost importance. Past injustices and unsettled disputes still persist. More have been added to the long list in the new century, and we are only living through the second decade.

One of the earliest references to imperial behaviour in literature can be found in Plato’s work The Republic. There is a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about rapid development in society. The essence of that dialogue is that increase in wealth results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in Plato’s Republic reads: “We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries.”

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered a Marxist interpretation of neo-imperialism in the twenty-first century in their book, Empire. Their core argument in the book, first published in 2001, was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but that it is a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Hardt and Negri, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political centre and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must be someone who poses a threat to the entire system–– so it is a “terrorist” entity who must be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, I think that Empire got it right, as events thereafter would testify.

At an early stage of the “war on terror,” Johan Galtung said in 2004 something which looks like a fitting definition of the term “empire.” Galtung described empire as “a system of unequal exchanges between the centre and the periphery.” The rationale of his thesis is that empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration,” articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner. That Pentagon planner was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who in 1999 wrote a book Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?. Here I quote Ralph Peters: “The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”

What did the Pentagon planner mean by “keeping the world safe and open to America’s cultural assault”? To appreciate the relationship between economic interest and cultural symmetry, we need to understand culture as a broad concept. English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by … [members] of society.” Culture is the way of life which people follow in society without consciously thinking about how it came into being. Robert Murphy described culture as “a set of mechanisms for survival, but it also provides us with a definition of reality.” It determines how people live, the tools they use for work, entertainment and luxuries of life. Culture is a function of homes people live in, appliances, tools and technologies they use––and ambitions.

I would therefore argue that culture is about consumption in economic terms. Culture defines patterns of production and trade, demand and supply, as well as social design. I will give a number of examples. In Moscow, the old Ladas and Wolgas of yesteryear began to be replaced by Audi, Mercedes and BMW cars in the late twentieth century; the number of McDonalds restaurants in Russia rose after the launch of the first restaurant in the capital in 1990; in Russia, China and India, luxury goods from cars to small electronic goods and jeans became objects of desire for the growing middle classes, while grinding poverty still affected vast numbers of their fellow-citizens. Consumption of luxury goods in China and India rose as their economies grew. Following the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sales of American brands in Kabul and Baghdad increased. Such trends form an essential part of what defines societal transformation and, at the same time, represent a powerful cause for opposition. To comprehend this vast phenomenon, we need familiarity with the nature of hegemony and its effects.

The hegemon flaunts its power, but also reveals its limitations. It invades and occupies distant lands, but cannot end opposition from determined resistors. Economic interests of the hegemon, and the way of life it advocates, are fundamentally interlinked. The hegemon claims superiority of its own culture and civilization over the adversary’s. Its own economic success depends on the exploitation of natural and human assets of others. The hegemon allows political and economic freedoms and protections enshrined for the privileged at home. Indeed, the hegemon will frequently buy influence by enlisting rulers in foreign lands. Rewards for compliance are high, though human labour and life are cheap in autocracies of distant lands.

The costs of all this accumulate, and their sum total eventually surpasses the advantages. Military adventures are hugely expensive. As well as haemorrhaging the economy, they drain the hegemon’s collective morale as the human cost in terms of war deaths and injuries rises. Foreign expeditions by empires tend to attain a certain momentum. But a regal power is unlikely to pause to reflect on an important lesson of history––that adventure leads to exhaustion. Only when the burden of liabilities––economic, political, moral––causes the hegemon’s own citizenry to revolt does it mean that the moment for change has arrived. There is a simple truth about the dynamic of imperialism. Internal discontent turning into outright rebellion grows as the hegemon’s involvement in foreign conflicts gets deeper and its difficulties mount. On the other hand, radicalization of, and resistance from, the adversary seem to be in direct proportion to the depth of humiliation felt by the victim. Effects of this phenomenon are durable and unpredictable, such is the desire to avenge national humiliation. For whereas every human possession comes with a price tag, honour is priceless.

The historical development of the Middle East, comprising vast desert lands between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, is complex and messy. A careful survey of imperial designs from the early twentieth century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, leaving a void, to the present time is revealing. Historically, the Middle East has had two distinct spheres of cultural influence––Arabian and Persian. The Arab provinces had been under Ottoman control whereas Iran had been a theatre of rivalries between Imperial Russia, Britain and France. A clash of interests between these major powers was the primary cause of upheavals of the last century that continue to date.

The race for hegemony in the contemporary Middle East has its origins in the discovery of oil in Khuzestan in south-western Iran in 1908. The leap of technology from steam to more efficient petrol engine gave new urgency to the search for oil. Khuzestan became an autonomous province of great strategic importance, but drilling had already been going on in anticipation of vast oil reserves in what is now Iraq and was then part of Mesopotamia. Nearly twenty years after Khuzestan in Iran, oil was found in Iraq in October 1927. And a decade after, vast oil reserves were discovered in al Hasa, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, which at the time was among the poorest countries in the Middle East. Imperial designs by great powers in the post-Ottoman Middle East became a certainty.

The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil in the Middle East were two major factors which would determine the course of history for the next century and more. Victory in the First World War was to destroy the existing balance of power, and with that any pretence of equality and fair play when there were clear victors and vanquished. With the prospect of war turning in the Allies’ favour, a grand plan began to emerge. In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot signed what came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, under which Britain and France were to divide up much of the Middle East between themselves, should the Ottoman Empire fall. That is what subsequently happened.

A year later, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour gave an undertaking on behalf of the United Kingdom to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. Balfour wrote in his letter to Rothschild: “I have much pleasure in conveying to you … the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.” Balfour went on to say: “His Majesty’s government would view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Despite words of assurance that this would not be at the expense of the Palestinians’ rights, contrary was the case. Jewish immigration and colonization of Palestine on a large scale was allowed and has continued since. By the time the state of Israel was established in 1948, the United States had become the most powerful nation in the West and the main backer of Israel.

The 1993 Oslo accords, which promised a permanent settlement within five years, barely limped to Oslo 2 in 1995, and finally collapsed. It was bound to happen, for virtually everything that mattered – the question of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, borders, security, and Jewish settlements, all these issues were left for future negotiations. All those issues still haunt the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at the heart of the wider Middle East crisis. And it can be argued that the fundamental nature of the cycle of conflict which started nearly a century ago has not changed.

This is the broad context in which India has to navigate. I said at the beginning that the goal of foreign policy is to meet domestic essentials, namely security, prosperity and a fair distribution of wealth, because a fair wealth distribution is necessary for peace in society in the long run. Sure, India has considerable economic vitality – but in the immediate environment there are adversarial circumstances, too. Beyond, there are fierce rival forces, local and distant great powers, which make the Greater Middle East a region of extreme volatility. It is also a region where the rulers and the ruled are dangerously apart; too many in the populous are alienated. So in my concluding remarks, here are some pointers.

One – awareness of the history of difficult relationships, the composition of societies around the country and of the country itself, all are important factors. Two – it should not be forgotten that there is a dangerous rift between the ruling elite and the alienated in many of these societies. Authoritarian rule means unacceptable use of coercion to maintain social order – and inevitable loss of legitimacy of government. Therefore the third pointer – a deliberate emphasis on diplomacy which includes people-to-people contact. Fourth – after nearly seven decades it is perhaps time for lower rhetoric and less blame game in dealings with immediate neighbours. Finally, when thinking foreign policy, think long term – very long term.

[END]

Britain’s Shameless Conservative-led Government: Squeezing the Poor to Help the Rich

CounterPunch

Britain’s governing Conservative Party looks increasingly clueless and is taking the country in a direction not seen since the 1990s. The populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is on the march with an agenda that is vehemently anti-Europe, anti-immigration and isolationist. It has stirred strong passions among British voters, angry at the decline in their living standards and estranged from mainstream politics. Not knowing what to do, Prime Minister David Cameron’s party has adopted UKIP’s strident rhetoric and is preaching policies normally associated with extremist groups.

Haunted by the prospect of defeat at the next general election, the prime minister and his associates are trying to outdo UKIP. Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party, can only protest or maintain embarrassing silence, but cannot shake off accusations of enabling a Conservative minority to stay in power.

In an attempt to hold the party together, Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union after the next general election. His frontline is busy attacking Europe’s institutions, whether part of the EU or the European Court of Human Rights that predates the European Union and is quite separate.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced at the recent party conference that the United Kingdom would defy the European Court’s rulings and apply laws passed in the British Parliament. The European Court of Human Rights was initially established in 1959. The Human Rights Convention itself was signed in 1950. Britain played a leading role in the creation of both. The United Kingdom joined the European Common Market, the EU’s predecessor, under a Conservative government in 1973. A two-thirds majority approved Britain’s continued membership in a referendum two years later.

The Conservative leadership today prefers to avoid any mention of these historic facts. Party grandees like ex-cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve are critical of the leadership’s approach, but have been side-lined. Their criticisms are not likely to make much difference. They do, however, strengthen the context in which the Conservative Party operates. UKIP’s firebrand leader Nigel Farage mocks Cameron’s government for adopting copycat policies. It underscores the government’s weakness.

Writing in the Observer, a senior commentator William Keegan described the Conservative Party as remarkably shameless. Keegan was particularly scathing about Prime Minister Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne, who suggested that they would cut the benefits of the unemployed and the working poor to enable the government to reduce taxes for the better off.

After Prime Minister Cameron, George Osborne is the most powerful member of the cabinet. He controls spending across all government departments. Osborne is sometimes mentioned as a future leader of the Conservative Party. As well as trade unions, the old enemy, Osborne has now declared war on charities trying to fill the gap created by the government’s welfare cuts. He recently told a gathering of business leaders that they must defend the economy from “an anti-free market movement led by trade unions and charities”.

Conservatives were indignant when the British charity Oxfam issued a poster in June suggesting that a combination of “zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts and unemployment” had created a critical situation in the country. There is a feeling in the party that charities have become too political and too left-wing. When the Conservatives last ruled Britain from 1979 to 1997, the trade unions were their enemy number one. The neo-Thatcherite generation in the present government has added charities to the list of enemies.

To those who remember the state of British politics in the 1980s and 1990s, it looks like a repeat performance by the militant right-wing under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In her early years as leader, Thatcher encouraged her militant admirers, who ultimately contributed to her isolation and downfall in 1990. They also caused trouble for her successor John Major and ensured that the party was defeated in 1997. The party had to wait until 2010 for another victory.

After John Major’s resignation as leader when the Conservatives were defeated at the 1997 general election, the party’s behaviour grew even more bizarre. Moderates lost out; the party was soon in the grip of militants, with Thatcher openly encouraging them to go for an extreme agenda against the European Union, immigrants and public services. During the leadership of Major’s successor William Hague, they used absurd tactics to keep their core support and scared centrist voters in the process.

Wrapped up in the British flag, volunteers could be seen telling people that there were “only so many days left to save the Queen’s head on the pound coin” and they must “vote Conservative to save Britain from German and French domination. Labour won another resounding victory and William Hague resigned as Conservative leader. He is now in the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Britain is again at a crossroads. Vital public services, including the national health system, are in crisis. Talk of economic recovery is folly, based on claims that credible experts, sometimes government advisors, contradict. Poor and middle classes, under continuing squeeze, are angry and frustrated. The country is isolated in Europe and has chosen to be on America’s coattail even more noticeably.

The ruling Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are moving more and more to the right. Moderates are out, being replaced by an aggressive generation of Conservative politicians who bank on shrill rhetoric and unholy alliances. With the next general election just over six months away, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

[END]