The consequences of Cameron’s Syria defeat

AL JAZEERA, September 1, 2013

Parliament’s rejection of Syria intervention will have important repercussions in Britain as well as abroad.

Cameron on Syria

Cameron makes a point

The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament over his plan for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria to “protect civilians from President Assad’s chemical attacks” is one of the most significant parliamentary votes in recent years.

It means that Cameron, one of the most aggressive advocates for military intervention, has been prevented from participating in any United States-led operation in Syria. The divergence between London and Washington on this matter has echoes of the 1960s, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson successfully rebuffed President Lyndon Johnson’s pressure to send British troops to Vietnam. Some writers have gone all the way back to 1782 and the American war of independence in search of a parallel.

A defeat of this magnitude has many consequences for foreign and domestic policies, as well as for Cameron’s own authority. The atmosphere before the debate was poisoned by extraordinary behaviour outside Parliament. As the prospect of defeat became distinct in the hours before the vote, expletives were used against the opposition Labour Party leader, Edward Miliband, in private news briefings. They originated from the prime minister’s official residence and the Foreign Office.

In an ill-tempered phone call, Cameron accused Miliband of siding with Russia and giving succour to Vladimir Putin. Such low punches were bound to unite the opposition, and alienate the undecided, and even friends, as seen in the parliamentary vote and after.

Immaturity and misjudgement

The use of raw language by unnamed people close to the prime minister reflects the degree of the government’s immaturity and misjudgement of the mood in Parliament and outside. The doubters included many in his own party and his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats: Thirty Conservative and nine Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government. Some ministers missed the vote. It showed how divided Cameron’s troops were, how high the stakes became, how desperate the battle to win, somehow, anyhow – and why the atmosphere turned so unpleasant.

It was largely Prime Minister Cameron’s own making, for he and his hawkish Foreign Secretary William Hague were the two leading architects of the policy on Syria. Together, they had pushed an unsure President Obama to an interventionist position. Cameron and Hague had persuaded the White House to intervene in Libya in 2011. They almost succeeded in doing so again on Syria, before the British Parliament stopped them. By then, however, they had walked Obama far enough not to be able to reverse the US position without appearing politically impotent.

Cameron recalled Parliament to debate Britain’s participation in the false hope, as it turned out, of getting the MPs’ backing for intervention in Syria. Assertions of Britain playing its essential role as befits a “major power on the world stage” were heard again and again.

Cameron and Hague hopped from one justification to another during the debate in the House and outside: The ban on chemical weapons has to be upheld; Britain cannot sit idly by while innocent civilians are slaughtered; Britain has a responsibility to protect; the United Nations Security Council does not matter; we do not plan regime change, but Assad must be punished.

When the crunch came, Cameron and Hague failed to deliver. Their arguments were vague and predictable. Their legal justification was far from compelling and unconvincing to many. Their assertions that Britain was already certain of the culpability of Bashar al-Assad, although the UN inspectors had yet to decide whether chemical weapons had been used, sounded bizarre.

Why was the “use of chemical weapons” in Syria’s civil war – the “red line” – unacceptable while mass killing by all sides, abduction, torture and forced expulsion of civilians were not? Absurdities of this kind in making the case for intervention are there for all to see. There will be no UN Security Council approval or NATO umbrella – instead, there may be only a “coalition of the willing” like the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Cameron exhibited too much hubris and undisguised eagerness to look like a war leader in the mould of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – who is a much diminished figure in Britain today after his role in the “War on Terror”. The evidence presented by Cameron to Parliament failed to convince members, who knew public opinion was strongly opposed to Britain’s involvement in another war. Blair’s advocacy for intervention in Syria reminded many people of Iraq.

Domestic fallout

Britain’s appetite for punching above its weight has come to an end. One commentator on the left said thatBritain’s illusion of empire was over. The Economist, the pillar of the right-wing British establishment, described Cameron’s defeat on its website as “The vote of shame“, and the Conservative-Liberal coalition is now deeply traumatised as accusations and counter-accusations abound.

For all this, the oposition Labor leader Miliband deserves credit. He is not like left-wing Labour politicians of the past, offering an alternative to neoliberal militarism. It is a welcome change that is good for democracy.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives must try to rebuild their party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led government, face an existential threat. Having sacrificed their principles while in power, the Liberal Democrats will face a tough election next time around.

In an open display of bitterness, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown – now a party grandee – said he was ashamed after the vote on Syria. The Guardian was right to rebuke him for lecturing the nation. On the contrary, the newspaper declared: “We should feel ashamed that our instinct for legitimacy and our patriotism have been too often and too cheaply taken for granted … Britain’s mood is not never again. The mood is not now, not again, not like this.”

[END]

On Egypt’s turmoil

AL JAZEERA, August 14, 2013

A victim mourned

A victim mourned

The bloodbath in Egypt’s security crackdown against opponents of the military coup is truly catastrophic. Enough independent observers maintain that the crowds of protesters, including women and children, were largely peaceful, and the use of violence by the security forces was disproportionate. Egypt faces a lasting conflict with itself. The army’s repression is a shattering blow against a fledgling, and brief, democratic experiment. Muslim Brotherhood activists and other opponents of the military-backed government may feel that they have little choice except to go underground.

In a vast country so deeply split, the authorities will find it very difficult to establish total control that the military seeks. Civilian political figures cooperating with the army face isolation from sections of Egyptian society. The turmoil will be destabilising, and a serious setback against hopes for democratic change in the region. The conflict will inflame the anti-American feeling, and pose a particular challenge for the United States in the Middle East. President Obama cannot disown the Egyptian military. But Washington’s close links with the ruling military establishment in Cairo will provide further fuel to the resentment against America.

Others on the Al Jazeera panel were Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University), John L. Esposito (Georgetown University), Phyllis Bennis (Institute of Policy Studies), Adel Iskander (Georgetown University), Mark LeVine (University of California, Irvine) and Richard Falk (Princeton University), Sarah Mousa (Georgetown University), Larbi Sadiki (Qatar University), Michael Hudson (NUS), Daniel Levy (ECFR) and Abdullah Al-Arian (Georgetown University). 

A “democratic” coup

AL JAZEERA, July 23, 2013

The military overthrow of President Morsi is not a coup for democracy, but an old remedy that has long failed. 

The military overthrow of Egypt’s freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi represents the beginning of a new, more turbulent phase in the country. The coup in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power.

Beyond the immediate outcome, however, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty, and caused further ruptures in civil society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, surely an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on.

The newly installed interim president Adly Masour has appointed a 35-member cabinet led by an economist, Hazem el-Beblawi. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, is the first deputy prime minister and defence minister. Prominent anti-Morsi figure and ex-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is one of three acting vice presidents in the new administration, which has also dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of the Egyptian parliament.

The new administration is made up of technocrats and unelected people, establishing the armed forces as the real power. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christians, about 10 per cent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy with the new constitution, which Morsi had pushed through just over six months ago.

His administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

However, there are problems with this narrative. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. There are large demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters almost every day, and a military crackdown is going on against Brotherhood leaders and activists.

In one of the bloodiest incidents, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. The swearing-in of the new cabinet took place amid continuing clashes in which lives were being lost. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military.

This experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility.

There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On 6 July, the New York Times published an expose on the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh.

According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a ‘final offer’ which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was about to begin, and a Morsi aide told another associate, “Mother just told that we will stop playing in an hour.” The State Department in Washington offered no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the Egyptian military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. As clashes continued on the streets of Cairo, America’s deputy secretary of state William Burns met Egypt’s new leaders in the capital, telling them of President Obama’s firm commitment to help Egypt succeed in this “second chance” for democracy.

President Obama’s preferred scenario is to ensure that any political change in Egypt is under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. In its fundamentals, Washington’s latest remedy is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and joined the U.S. alliance.

[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]

The Syrian Riddle

CounterPunch, FPJ, Palestine Chronicle

Recent remarks by Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss investigator of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, have changed the nature of debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. Momentum had been building up for months against Bashar Syriaal-Assad’s government, first on the basis of accusations that such weapons were in use, followed by heavy hints by anti-Assad groups and Western politicians that the Damascus regime was guilty of chemical warfare against its opponents and civilians. There is no doubt about the unspeakable brutality committed by both sides in the conflict, but chemical warfare, if proven, would mean escalation to another level involving serious war crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland’s former attorney general and prosecutor of the UN tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is no pushover. She is now a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, appointed under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Contrary to subsequent insinuations that she did not know what she was talking about, Del Ponte had chosen her words carefully. She had said that witness testimony made it appear that “some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerve gas.” And it appeared to have been used by the “opponents, by the rebels.” There is “no indication at all that the Syria government … used chemical weapons.” She said she was a “little bit stupefied” that the first indications were of the use of nerve gas by the opponents.

Del Ponte’s remarks, made amid reports of gains by Syrian government forces, seemed to undermine the position of rightwing hawks in Washington like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and in London Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. These are some of the powerful figures who craft Western policy, but hardly objective and credible voices on Syria and the wider Middle East.

Within hours, enthusiastic interventionists in Washington and a somewhat reluctant Obama administration were scrambling to adjust. The White House said the United States believed that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. In a stark reminder of Iraq in 2003, the British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted in Parliament: “I can tell the House that there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information that the [Syrian] regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons.” The Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed. Mainstream television channels and newspapers remained broadly uncritical, unquestioning, even generous in giving the benefit of the doubt to Hague, despite lessons of Iraq.

Persuading those who are ideologically drunk and politically myopic is often a hopeless undertaking. Hunger for war and lust for power or for distant resources always impair both reason and morality. The developing situation on the ground has made the war hawks struggle for credibility. For them, the last resort is to assert with dead certainty their “belief” that it is Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have employed chemical weapons and committed war crimes. How could “freedom fighters” do this?

The changing reality of Syria’s long and brutal war, in which government forces show much greater resilience than their opponents’ predictions, has generated some desperation among the rebels and worry in the American and European capitals about Islamist factions gaining control of the anti-Assad campaign. The capture by rebels of UN peacekeeping troops in Syria, freed after a week of behind-the-scenes activity, tells the story, bringing a little more balance in the scenario usually painted before us.

It was the second time in two months that UN peacekeepers had been held by a rebel faction. The United States and its allies are trapped between delusions of total victory in the Middle East and its true consequences – emergence of anti-Western forces such as Al-Nusra Front that are even more aggressive and erratic.

The outcome of the recent Moscow visit of President Obama’s new secretary of state John Kerry is instructive. America’s agreement with Russia that they co-sponsor an international conference to find a negotiated settlement raised some eyebrows in Washington and among U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world. President Vladimir Putin seemed to have prevailed in his insistence that Assad’s exit cannot be a precondition. But this precondition is the starting point for the Syrian rebels and many of their foreign supporters who have a wider Middle East agenda. A commentary in Italy’s rightwing publication Il Geornale said in its headline, “Obama’s Defeat: To Pacify Syria He Is In Cahoots With Putin.”

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, struggling to maintain his authority within his Conservative Party and coalition with the Liberal Democrats, immediately flew off to Moscow for talks with Putin in an attempt to see that any international conference on Syria is held in London; Cameron’s trip to Washington would be next; Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel planned a visit of his own to Moscow after ordering two secret air attacks against Syrian military facilities in a week; and Israeli and Western newspapers issued warnings that Russia was about to supply S-300 missiles to Assad.

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintains that Moscow is “not planning to supply Syria with any weapons beyond the current contracts,” which, he says, are “for defensive purposes.” Russia’s message to Washington, delivered a year ago, continues to be “hands off Syria and Iran.” Obama continues his rhetorical maneuvers. And the war goes on.

[END]

Imperial Designs

Academic Corridor, January 9, 2013

"From the Cape to Cairo," Puck, 1902, Library of Congress

“From the Cape to Cairo,” Puck, 1902, Library of Congress

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, who 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, wrote about humiliation in his novel, Immortality: “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.” These words capture the potent emotion that humiliation is––whether it applies to an individual, a community or nation. 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 forthcoming book, Imperial Designs: War, Humiliation and the Making of History, the final volume of a trilogy. 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, 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,” and focuses on the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq and their aftermath.

I had suggested in these two books that among the factors contributing to the events of September 11, 2001 was a sense of humiliation felt in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. The history of Arabs and Persians is rich and interesting. They have both fought numerous wars over the centuries. External actors’ meddling in the region, by the Ottomans, then the British and the Americans is intriguing. 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 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 region 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 behavior of local peoples through history. Vast sandy deserts, a free spirit and a warrior instinct are fundamental elements of Middle Eastern cultures. Repeatedly, wars put those instincts on display and 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. Honor, its dispossession causing humiliation, and promises betrayed became strong drivers of human behavior. Defending the honor 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 have lived only through the first decade.

The Republic

The Republic

One of the earliest references to imperial behavior in literature can be found in Plato’s 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 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 center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must 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 events thereafter would testify.

Johan Galtung said in 2004––at an early stage of the “war on terror”––something that looks like a fitting definition of the term “empire.” Galtung described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” For 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 wrote in his 1999 book Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?: “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.”

To appreciate the relationship between economic interest and cultural symmetry, culture has to be understood 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.

It is, therefore, possible to argue that culture is about consumption in economic terms. Culture defines patterns of production and trade, demand and supply, as well as social design. Some examples are worth considering. 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.

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 labor 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 hemorrhaging 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, honor 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 theater of rivalries between Imperial Russia, Britain and France. A clash of interests between these major powers was the primary cause of upheavals in the last century.

Khuzestan Oil Refineries

Khuzestan Oil Refineries

The race for hegemony in the contemporary Middle East has its origins in the discovery of oil in Khuzestan in southwestern 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 any pretense of equality and fair play when there were clear victors and vanquished. With the prospect of the war turning in the Allies’ favor, 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.

Balfour Declaration

Balfour Declaration

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 that “His Majesty’s government would view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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 problem. And it can be argued that the fundamental nature of the cycle which started nearly a century ago has hardly changed.

[END]

Questions about Constitutional Future: Whose Egypt?

CounterPunch, July 2, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012

A development of this magnitude was unthinkable before Mubarak’s fall

After a tantalizing delay, Egypt’s military authorities accepted the inevitable. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared elected as president a week ago and took the oath of office on Saturday (June 30, 2012). A development of such magnitude was unthinkable before Hosni Mubarak surrendered power to the military in February 2011 amid a massive popular uprising against his regime. For nearly 60 years since the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had been the main source of opposition to the ruling establishment. The prospect of the Brotherhood’s candidate being allowed to stand, let alone freely campaign, for the presidency had looked remote.

That the Islamist movement has survived despite long state repression, and its own internal conflicts, will be seen as a remarkable feat. Since the Brotherhood’s founding by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, when Egypt was under British rule, the movement’s anti-Western ideology and commitment to an Islamist order as the remedy to the “ills” of colonialism and imperialism have made it an object of admiration as well as fear in much of the Muslim world. The organization has transformed itself many a time and promises to work by peaceful means. Even so, its activities, and those of its breakaway factions, have generated profound distrust among many secular and Western-oriented people in the Arab world and beyond.

Morsi’s victory comes in controversial circumstances. Sections of Egypt’s educated middle classes are far from happy. Leading secular and liberal candidates were eliminated, even though together they had gained more than forty percent of the vote in the first round. It meant that Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a prominent figure from the Mubarak era, entered the final round representing opposite poles. Shafiq was initially disqualified as a candidate, but was quickly reinstated. The Egyptian armed forces apparently did not want to let go after the fall of Mubarak from the presidency.

Although a member of the ruling elite despised by many, Shafiq came close to being elected as Egypt’s president. But it was not to be. Displaying their influence in society, Muslim Brotherhood volunteers collected unofficial counts from precincts around the country. The overall tally showed Morsi getting fifty-two percent of the vote. The delay in making the formal announcement of Morsi’s victory, which caused anxiety and tension in Egyptian society, is a topic of speculation. It appears that ultimately the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reconciled itself with the new reality. However, before it happened the military council granted itself sweeping powers in all important areas, including defense and foreign policies and internal security.

For now, the elected president is Mohamed Morsi, but real power remains with the military. American aid of 1.3 billion dollars a year since Egypt signed the 1978 Camp David accords, and made peace with Israel, enabled Washington to exercise enormous power over the Egyptian armed forces. Those developments following President Anwar Sadat’s defection from the Soviet camp neutralized Egypt’s official backing for Palestinians and isolated Egypt in the Arab world. Sadat also enraged many in his own country. His assassination in 1981 led to Mubarak’s rise to the presidency and the rest is history.

Despite the recent political upheaval, it is difficult to see how Egypt’s conduct on the international stage can alter. For unless the country has a constitution defining the powers of the president, the parliament and the judiciary, the chairman of the Supreme Military Council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, remains the most powerful man and President Morsi his deputy.

There is another possible explanation of what was a soft military coup prior to Morsi’s victory. It suggests that military’s move was not so much against the Egyptian people, but was to prevent Hosni Mubarak handing over power to his son, Gamal. In that scenario, Egypt would have turned into a country ruled by a single family like most other states in the region. So, it is said, the military moved against Mubarak, one from its own ranks, to maintain its control in the country. If Gamal Mubarak had succeeded his father, Egypt would be on the road to becoming a family dynasty such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait or Qatar, where institutions are more frail and the rule of law has corroded.

Questions about Egypt’s constitutional future persist. A multi-layered battle is set to continue between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, conservatives and liberals. Many eyes will be on parliamentary elections if and when they take place. For now, those firmly entrenched in power and those in the population yearning to see a new Egypt confront each other. The most important country in the Arab world is going to be looking inward rather than outward. And it is what happens in Egyptian society that is going to affect the rest of the Middle East.

Can President Morsi possibly order permanent twenty-four hour opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza? The answer is: “Not likely.”

[END]