On Power, Morality and Courage

My reflections last week were about the United States grand strategy anchored in the energy resources and Israel’s defense in the Middle East. How that grand strategy, offering a validation for the Cold War in Asia and Africa, has lived on since the end of the Soviet threat two decades ago gives us plenty of food for thought.

Merciless continuation of that grand strategy meant the same old policies of propping up corrupt, repressive dictatorships, which at long last brought the Arab Spring in late 2010, and which is now a bitter and bloody winter. New retaliation by Egypt’s ruling Military Council in recent days has created conditions for a second revolution in that country, whether it happens or not.

The crowds at Tahrir Square are smaller than early this year. The Muslim Brotherhood, eyeing the parliamentary elections starting tomorrow (November 28), does not support the latest protests. The Brotherhood has calculated that it does not want to forego the opportunity offered by the coming elections, in which it is expected to do well. It also does not want to risk provoking Egypt’s Military Council, and more importantly, Washington.

Little do Brotherhood members seem to appreciate the history of the West using Islamists for its narrow interests, then turning on former allies in the name of fighting extremism.

Nonetheless, the protesting crowds at Tahrir are ever more determined. With events threatening to slip out of control, the Obama administration again does not know how to deal with the crisis. For the moment, America’s response is that “we condemn the excessive use of force by the police … and urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint.” With no warning or possibility of restricting American aid to Egypt’s armed forces, this is the softest standard reaction from the U.S. State Department to government onslaught on dissidents in a friendly country.

The latest events in Egypt, and violence and clampdown in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, have somewhat overshadowed the Western maneuverings in Syria and Iran, twin targets of America’s grand strategy which I discussed earlier. A few days ago, STRATFOR published a useful analysis providing additional context to events in the Middle East with reference to Syria and Iran. It also explained reasons for escalated anxiety in Washington and friendly capitals with regard to Iran.

Feeling misled when they supported the United Nations Security Council resolution for a “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, China and Russia will not repeat what they now regard as a mistake. NATO’s conduct in the war in Libya has damaged, perhaps fatally, the future of humanitarian interventions with the Security Council’s mandate. Hence Syria is unlikely to be Libya, with the United Nations acting as a tool. It partly explains reports in the region that France is training Syrian rebels to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, Britain, Canda and France, all have increased the pressure on Iran in the last few days, superficially because of the “nuclear threat” which Tehran poses to the West’s interests. In reality, the West’s anxieties about Iran have far more to do with other events challenging America’s grand strategy in the region. Washington alleges that Tehran’s aim is to acquire the bomb, for which the evidence provided is thin, if not misleading and possibly false.

Journalist Gareth Porter of the Inter-Press Service has disassembled the U.S.-backed case asserting that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program. Porter’s determined effort to uncover the truth flatly contradicts the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, which claims that Tehran might be developing nuclear weapons. In pointing the finger at Tehran, the IAEA director general Yukiya Amano, who had already committed himself to the United States, played a crucial role.

The New Yorker’s investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, speaking to Democracy Now!, also described Amano’s views as the “stuff of fantasyland.” What happened with regard to Iraq in 2003 is now beginning to happen with regard to Iran. Following on his illustrious predecessors, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, Amano has not covered himself in glory, given that the IAEA report, prepared under his authority, has been so discredited.

The United States National Intelligence Estimate 2007 acknowledged that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003, when America invaded Iraq. There has been no evidential change since, and Tehran continues to deny developing nuclear weapons. As the case against Iran is ceaselessly repeated in major media outlets, it is only right to state here that Iran denies it is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. In any case, it has a right to enrich uranium, within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. On the contrary Israel, widely believed to be in possession of a substantial nuclear arsenal, would neither sign the NPT, nor would it submit its nuclear program to IAEA inspection.

Aggressive posturing by Israel and its allies in Washington, London and Paris against Iran and Syria runs the risk of persuading Tehran that it has no alternative but to manufacture the bomb one day. Should NATO’s hawks and their Gulf allies succeed in toppling the Syrian regime, resulting in chaos and bloodbath, Iran’s fears will only be heightened. The current game of brinkmanship leads to nowhere but the road to catastrophe. The cost will be high. Who will pay the price and whose interests will be served are the questions we must ask.

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Ruthlessly Pursuing Middle East Grand Strategy

Al-Ahram Weekly, November 24-30, 2011

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.

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How Capitalism Flopped

CounterPunch, November 7, 2011

In the struggle against global laissez faire capitalism that has brought the current economic collapse, protesters won an important victory last week in Britain, while stalemate continued in Greece. The alliance between the church, the main financial district called the City of London and Mayor Boris Johnson against the Occupy London protest crumbled. They had threatened legal action to remove peaceful demonstrators occupying an area near the London Stock Exchange for several weeks.

Legal moves against the protesters might lead to police action and violence. In particular, the readiness of St Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London, to go to High Court split the church. Senior priests began to resign, signaling a crisis for the British establishment. Facing a growing sense of disquiet over possible use of force to remove peaceful demonstrators, the Corporation of London and St Paul’s Cathedral dropped the threat of immediate legal action.

In Greece, Prime Minister George Papandreou threw down the gauntlet to the two most powerful member-states of the European Union––Germany and France. To salvage the Greek economy and the European currency, they had agreed to finance a huge rescue plan, involving the International Monetary Fund and other sources, only days before. In the face of widespread demonstrations against draconian cuts in wages and public services, and rumors of a possible military coup, the Greek prime minister announced a referendum on the European Union rescue package.

Initially, the Greek cabinet gave its backing to the referendum plan, but the leaders of other EU member-states were furious. Deep political splits began to appear in Greece’s body politic. Germany and France have a lot to lose if Greece should default on its massive debt. Any government in Athens must have the people’s mandate to implement draconian austerity measures. Already, Greek people have started to take matters in own their hands.

Timing was of essence for Prime Minister Papandreou. First he agreed on a mega rescue deal with other European partners. When such a deal looked certain, he returned home and announced his referendum plan. European leaders, opposition politicians in Greece, even in his own Socialist Party, were surprised and angry. What might have been a straightforward move to secure a people’s mandate, if the timing was right, seemed to be an opportunistic attempt to save his government.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, leading paymaster of the euro bailout package, bluntly told Papandreou to accept the rescue deal with all conditions attached––or get out. Such warnings were bound to cause widespread offense in Greece, not least because the country had been under German occupation during the Second War. At the G20 summit in the French Mediterranean city of Cannes, European leaders waited to welcome the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, hoping that China would contribute to the euro bailout.

Hu’s response: “To resolve the eurozone’s debt crisis, Europe still needs to rely on itself.” The Chinese are shrewd investors.

How did we get to this point? The question is posed frequently, though rarely answered truthfully.

The current globalization phase, beginning at the end of the Cold War around 1990, extended the markets across state boundaries. The movement of money, goods and services on a massive scale across national boundaries required regulations, but they also had to be relaxed in ways not seen before, to facilitate the ease of transfer. The Nobel Prize winning Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz points out that the ‘driver’ behind this phase of globalization is corporate interests.

Many transnational corporations are bigger than most national economies. Powerful corporations export not only goods and services, but also a certain culture of borrowing, cheap labor and money. Corporate interests are fundamentally linked to consumption, for profits are driven by consumption.

Corporate investments have flown to destinations of cheap labor and weak unions––China and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Southern European countries and South America. Factories in the United States and Western Europe have closed, new plants have spread in Asia and South America. Acceleration in this phenomenon in the last two decades has resulted in massive job losses in the industrialized world. Most products bought by Western consumers now come from the emerging economies.

Corporate profits have steadily grown, but the overall purchasing power of Western consumers has declined to alarming levels, caused by rising unemployment and shrinking incomes of those still in work. Government revenues, too, have been declining in the West, which has demonstrated a propensity to spend enormous sums of money on wars abroad and to cut public services at home.

For too long, consumers and governments tried to maintain the status quo by borrowing money at artificially low interest rates and cheap goods manufactured abroad. Loans secured on the real state to finance the lifestyle in the West sent property prices sky high. The crash had to come.

The case of the Greek tragedy is stark, but Greece is not alone. For a long time, its people have not been paying taxes they should have been paying. The country has been borrowing to maintain living standards, pay wages of government employees, to hold events like the Athens Olympics in 2004. The party had to be over one day–and that day has come. Less than a quarter century after long celebrations of victory over communism began in the West, capitalism has flopped.

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