Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

[END]

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]

Obama’s Faltering Legacy

CounterPunch, June 24, 2013

imagesPresident Obama’s disputed pronouncement that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and thus crossed his “red line” is significant in several respects, not least because what follows in Syria and the wider Middle East will determine how the Obama presidency is ultimately judged. The first heavy weapons are reported to have reached rebels on the front line of Aleppo. Obama’s decision undermines the United Nations and his much-heralded idea of multilateral diplomacy. It has set back chances of success in Geneva, after President Putin’s dogged determination at the G8 summit not to capitulate to Western demands that President Bashar al-Assad must go as part of any solution to the Syrian conflict.

It is the second time in recent months that diplomacy has suffered a serious blow by a well-timed announcement from Washington. Last August, American media revealed quoting unnamed officials that Obama had signed a secret order to supply weapons, including shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, to anti-Assad forces. It prompted the immediate resignation of the special envoy Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, who was leading tentative peace efforts to end the Syrian conflict. I wrote at the time that the first casualty of Obama’s secret order was diplomacy and the sudden departure of Kofi Annan. Lakhdar Brahimi, a respected Algerian diplomat, succeeded Annan. Now Obama has done it again. His pronouncement surely kills what little prospects there were for peace in Syria.

A few words are in order here about Russia’s S-300 missiles to President Assad’s armed forces. Until a few months ago, opposition forces made up of Syrian and foreign fighters, including the dreaded Nusra Front, were in the ascendancy, and shooting down Syrian aircraft with increasing impunity. Those successes were likely due to American missiles supplied via Turkey, part of the armament financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran’s help and the entry of Hezbollah to fight alongside Syrian government forces have been instrumental in reversing the balance on the ground. Russian supplies to boost Syria’s air-defense system mean greater protection for Assad’s air force.

During harsh exchanges, President Putin told the G8 host, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, “One does not really need to support people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras … This probably has little relation to the humanitarian values preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”

Syria and Iran remain surrounded by a powerful alliance of Arab states, contrary to the overwhelming impression in both Western and regional media that portray Damascus and Tehran as monstrous regimes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, Turkey, the European Union, the United States and Canada have all lined up against Assad. His government was excluded by the Sunni bloc in the Arab League in 2011, yet remains a member of the United Nations. President Putin, justifying Russia’s military assistance to the Syrian government, asserted that the Kremlin was sending these supplies to a legitimate government under contracts signed over many years.

There is complete stalemate in diplomacy as whole-scale butchery continues in the battle for Syria. In Britain, Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have shown extraordinary persistence for arming the rebels, possibly a Libya-style intervention by Western air power and special forces on the ground. However, there is little appetite in the British public for another intervention after a series of botched adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, the lawless outcome of the Libyan operation in which Gaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered, and continuous fallout of more than a decade of “war on terror” under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The art of political spin and deceit is not new, but it has reached new heights in the Obama administration. With his ethical base invoking Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in tatters, its true nature is there to see. The American president had travelled to Europe, primarily for the G8 summit, with his administration’s credibility further wounded by Edward Snowden’s disclosures that the U.S. National Security Agency operated a global surveillance network to spy on governments and citizens, foes as well as friends, with the help of the British intelligence center GCHQ.

The atmosphere was distinctly cool during Obama’s European visit this time. In his own country, he had told his fellow citizens that they did not have to worry about surveillance of their mail and telephone calls – that surveillance was directed at others in America’s war against terrorism. The effect was only to increase the anger elsewhere.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly reminded him that people in her country were comparing U.S. espionage to that of the Gestapo under Hitler and the Stasi in East Germany under Communism. Uncomfortable questions were raised in private talks with Obama, and Merkel said that more in-depth questions would be asked of the Americans. Even then, President Obama, rather discourteously, monopolized the joint press conference with the German chancellor, and gave a lengthy explanation for America’s global surveillance.

The private fury of President Putin could only be imagined as he arrived at the G8 summit, and, in a way, explained his uncompromising mood. For not only he might have suspected that he was being spied on, his predecessor and the Kremlin’s number two man, Dmitry Medvedev, almost certainly was a victim of surveillance, along with other foreign leaders invited to the G20 conferences in London in 2009, as revealed by the Guardian. The newspaper also disclosed that the British intelligence agency GCHQ was intercepting and storing as many as 600 million emails, telephone calls and internet entries every day by secretly accessing worldwide telecommunications network. German ministers are furious, describing GCHQ activities as “catastrophe.”

In the wake of Snowden’s expose¢ and recriminations over Syria at the G8 summit, President Obama and his British and French allies badly needed a public relations triumph. So, coinciding with the end of the G8, the administration in Washington announced direct talks with the Taliban of Afghanistan in Qatar. Security analysts sympathetic to Washington promptly went on television channels to explain the virtues of talks in the Qatari capital Doha, where the Taliban had been allowed to open an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Bureau (diplomatic office), flying the white flag when the Taliban ruled prior to their overthrow in late 2001.

Washington’s announcement came as an unpleasant surprise to President Hamid Karzai, the man originally hand-picked by the Americans to be the president of Afghanistan. The U.S. decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban had all but frozen out the constitutional head of state. Karzai was angry and broke off talks with Washington on keeping military bases after the withdrawal of most American troops at the end of 2014.

In announcing direct negotiations, the Obama administration also might have hoped that the Taliban would ease their attacks on foreign troops as the withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerated. Within hours, however, Bagram airport near Kabul was targeted by Taliban rockets, killing four American soldiers. Further attacks continued.

Barack Obama cuts a sorry figure today compared to the young idealistic senator who won the 2008 race for the White House promising to end America’s wars abroad and restore civil liberties at home. His administration has come to be associated with warmongering, legal maneuverings designed to flout the constitution and freedoms enshrined therein, and international law. And the presidency which began with the audacity of hope appears to be heading toward a legacy of spin, deceit and a culture of prurience. His America can kill people anywhere in the world. It cannot inspire.

[END]

American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden (on Obama’s personal order) is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority.

Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

[END]

Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that 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 the Republicreads:

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. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but 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 Negri and Hardt, 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 center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An 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.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. 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. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

 [END]

Ruthlessly Pursuing Middle East Grand Strategy

Popular uprisings that began with peaceful protests in Tunisia and Algeria nearly a year ago, and spread across the Arab world, have created a new reality, not only in countries to experience political awakening, but far beyond. More worryingly for Washington, the Arab Spring created fresh uncertainties and pressures for United States policy.

With the first anniversary of those momentous events approaching, there is growing resentment among many Arabs who feel that their revolutions have been hijacked by forces not originally anticipated. Demonstrations in EgyptJordanBahrain and Kuwait in the last few days are acute symptoms of the prevailing mood in the region.

Two opposing trends are at work. The pressure from below succeeded in overthrowing the regimes in Algeria and Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak, though not the ruling military order, in Egypt. But the pressure from above has been decisive in the overthrow and lynching of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after NATO’s intervention. It also continues to sustain Bahrain’s minority Sunni ruling class, thanks to the entry of Saudi troops and Western military assistance.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is much more resilient, despite every conceivable attempt by the United States and its Arab and European allies. I say “every conceivable attempt” because the prospect of the United Nations Security Council approving a Libya-type full-scale Western-led intervention in Syria is much less likely. The Russians and the Chinese would not play ball with America, Britain and France.

Even so, external forces look determined to decide Syria’s fate. A lot depends on whether the Syrian armed forces will mostly remain loyal to the regime. Rumors of defections from the Syrian military thrive, but for now the military as an institution appears to be with Assad––just about. However, with the United States determined to eventually see regime change in Syria too, the course of events there could be even more bloody. Its implications for the Middle East, starting from neighboring Lebanon, will be very serious indeed.

What began so hopefully in the Arab world a year ago has transpired into something bloody and ugly. Authoritarian regimes, assisted and sustained by great powers, have long dominated the region. Although the Cold War ended and the Soviet threat ceased more than two decades ago, the United States continues to pursue its grand strategy in the region with increasing and desperate vigor. The need for oil and support for Israel remain the two fundamental planks of U.S. foreign policy. The Arab Spring threatened the status quo, and with it America’s interests, in the Middle East. It had to be reversed.

What we see now is a counterrevolution from above, trying to frustrate the will of the people. After Libya, the only exception is Syria. Democracy would be very welcome there, as it would be throughout the Arab world. But turmoil inspired by foreign powers is not what the region needs.

The supreme irony in all this is that both Libya and Syria, now being targeted by Washington on grounds of humanitarian intervention, had actually collaborated with the torture program during America’s “war on terror.” The Libyan and Syrian regimes accepted detainees rendered by the U.S. and British intelligence agencies and tortured them in their notorious prisons. As for old friends like Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they had to be abandoned. They had served their purpose and become liabilities. The tide of popular opposition to them had become unstoppable.

Political expediency demanded that they be sacrificed in the interest of Washington’s alliance with the military in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and the pace of change be controlled. Emboldened by Washington’s understanding and encouragement, the Egyptian military has been tightening its grip in the country. A climate of fear and sorrow pervades the streets of Cairo in advance of parliamentary elections beginning on November 28. And in response to calls for limiting military assistance to Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reaffirmed that the United States is against “imposing any conditions.”

Egypt is the biggest, most powerful country in the Arab world. Compliance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading oil exporter and most influential in the Islamic world, is vital for Israeli security and the continuing U.S. supremacy in the Middle East.

Hence it is vital for the Obama administration that the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with smaller Gulf states, remain beholden to Washington.

Double standards of international law for friends and foes is the name of the game while the United States pursues its grand strategy in the Middle East. Not learning lessons from the calamitous legacy of America’s wars under the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, and more recently from George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” it is “Carry On Barack Obama.”

As we approach the next chapter of recent bloody history, it is difficult to escape a deeper sense of foreboding.

[END]

Lebanon: A victim of foreign ambitions

Deepak Tripathi

If you want to put out a fire, stop pouring oil on it. But as George W Bush prepared for his trip to the Middle East this week, he proclaimed that he was ready to pour weapons on yet another conflict.

It is Lebanon this time – a country that has, in the past week, suffered probably the worst sectarian violence since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. In an interview with the BBC, President Bush told the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, that ‘the United States is prepared to help strengthen the Lebanese army, so it can disarm Hezbollah’ – the pro-Iranian Shi’a movement. Hezbollah has acted against its own people, Bush declared, and is destabilizing Lebanon.

This is the latest among recent revelations about America arming one faction, only to use that faction to crush an adversary. Washington funds Sunni groups in Iraq, called Awakening Councils, to counter Sunni Al-Qaeda, as well as pro-Iran Shi’a groups. Other Sunni groups, including the influential Muslim Scholars’ Association, have complained that Awakening Council militias are being used to weaken ‘legitimate resistance to American occupation’. With US help, these Sunni militias draw recruits from other resistance groups like the Iraqi wing of Hamas and the Islamic Army, which have turned against Al-Qaeda. They are also used to fight Shi’a militias that may or may not be allied to Tehran, but oppose the occupation of Iraq.

The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged in March 2008 that, in the Palestinian Territories, America armed the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, specifically to drive out the democratically-elected Hamas administration. Rice asserted that the situation had called for it. The American decision backfired, leading to the Hamas seizure of Gaza.

The rise of the Taleban and Al-Qaeda is a direct result of America’s decision to supply billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan’s decision gave America the victory over the Soviet Union in the Afghan war, after which the Soviet state collapsed. But once the United States had walked away from the Afghan front, the Mujahideen and Al-Qaeda turned against America. The chaos of the Afghan civil war left in its wake an even more lethal phenomenon, the Taleban, who turned Afghanistan into a terrorist haven, from where Al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks.

Time and time again, Islamist groups which America helped with weapons and money to fight for its interests have turned on their masters. Does the current American administration not know history? Has George W Bush not considered the possibility that the militias armed by the US today could turn against it in future?

It is worth reminding ourselves of how the latest violence broke out in Lebanon. It started when the pro-US government in Beirut, representing only a fraction of Lebanese society, tried to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and remove the chief of security at Beirut airport, accusing him of being a Hezbollah sympathizer. Hezbollah responded by seizing control of West Beirut, crushing Sunni gunmen loyal to Prime Minister Siniora. A pro-government television news station was shut down and all roads to Beirut airport were closed. The fighting then spread north to the city of Tripoli.

These events have left the pro-US Lebanese government humiliated and American policy there in disarray. Prime Minister Siniora knows the situation on the ground better than President Bush and has little appetite for conflict. Siniora was quick to announce that his government would never declare war against Hezbollah. And it was left to the wholly inadequate Lebanese national army to find a face-saving formula. The immediate confrontation subsided only when the army said the government orders to close the Hezbollah communications network and remove the chief of security at Beirut airport would not be carried out.

As the veteran British journalist, Robert Fisk, said in a report from Beirut in the Independent newspaper, this war is not about religion. It is about the political legitimacy of the Lebanese government, which has a narrow base, and American support, which Iran challenges through Hezbollah. The truth on the ground is that Hezbollah is only one of numerous factions, albeit with considerable power and popularity, in a country ravaged by internal conflict, fuelled by foreign intervention – not only by Iran and Syria, but also Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. Lebanon is a theatre of proxy war between regional and international players, who manipulate Lebanese groups to their own ends.

In responding to current challenges, the Bush administration continues to use tactics that are dangerous today. They could create monsters tomorrow. In Lebanon, as in the Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, the focus should be on building state capacity – a difficult task, but one that surely has more promise.

The above commentary was published in the Online Journal on May 15, 2008.