How Does Today’s Middle East Threaten Obama’s Legacy?

History News Network

The season of festivities is over, and, once more, the year 2016 begins with warning signs. History is an unquestionable pattern of hope and disaster. Nowhere is it truer than in the Middle East.

In the midst of turmoil in the region, the nuclear deal, signed between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, was hailed as an historic success. In stages, it promised to end Iran’s long isolation since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew America’s close ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power a vehemently anti-US regime in Tehran. The 35-year freeze between Iran and the West, and sanctions against Iran, caused great hardship for Iranians.

For the United States and other powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), the likelihood of restoring normal ties with Iran brought prospects of relief. They too had paid a high price in lost opportunities for business, and difficulty in accessing Iranian oil. Sanctions on Iranian exports made oil supplies tight despite Saudi Arabia increasing its production from time to time. Sanctions on Iran’s Shia clerical regime were good for the House of Saud, and their oil-rich kingdom.

For President Barack Obama, the thaw in relations with Iran, despite strong opposition from Israel, the United States Congress, and the Saudi rulers, was one of two major foreign policy victories. The other was normalization with communist Cuba for the first time since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1959. These successes abroad, along with his healthcare plan at home, are supposed to form Obama’s legacy at the end of his presidency in January 2017.

Throughout his White House years, Obama has encountered fierce resistance from conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties alike. For him, the first African American to be elected president, a durable legacy is particularly important. However, achievements which make headlines is one thing, reality on the ground is another.

Less than a year after the nuclear agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran did not make the bomb, Obama’s main rationale, things between Washington and Tehran do not look all that promising, and recent events in the Middle East do not augur well.

Two developments in particular have caused a sharp deterioration with threatening consequences in the coming year. On December 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was preparing to impose new sanctions against firms and individuals in Iran. The report followed Iran’s test of a medium-range missile which, according to UN monitors, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that the missile is conventional, and purely for defensive purposes. Tehran has long insisted that the country does not seek nuclear weapons; its nuclear program is peaceful.

Initially, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any connection between its missile program and the nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani further accused the United States of “illegal meddling” and instructed Iran’s defense minister to accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program in the face of new sanctions.

One cause of escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran was bad enough. Yet more serious events have since followed in the Middle East. On January 2, Saudi Arabia put to death 47 men in what Human Rights Watch described as the largest mass execution in the country since 1980. The number of those executed was shocking, among them a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent critic of the Saudi ruling establishment.

The cleric was accused of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during protests in Shia-majority towns in Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012. According to Human Rights Watch, local residents and family members insisted that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests, and eschewed all forms of violent opposition to the government.

The executions in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout thereof, have raised the power struggle with Iran to a new level, and there is a real sense of crisis in the Middle East now. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described al-Nimr as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge.” Demonstrations against Saudi Arabia have taken place in Iran and other countries. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed his “deep dismay” over the executions.

Angered by the international criticism, the Saudi authorities have broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan and Djibouti have followed Saudi Arabia by cutting off ties. Other Gulf states have either reduced the level of relations with Tehran, or recalled their ambassadors. For their part, the Iranian authorities have accused the Saudi air force of attacking Iran’s embassy in Yemen.

Motives behind these actions are worth considering. Questions must be asked: Is Iran being provoked into launching a direct attack on Saudi interests, and what may follow? If that happens, the anti-Iran sentiment in the American Congress and the Pentagon will be reinforced. There will be calls in Washington to act in support of Saudi Arabia. President Obama, in all likelihood, will resist such calls. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Israel lobby will push him hard. There may well be pressure from the British, French, Turkish and other Sunni Arab states.

Will Obama be able to resist? Or will he succumb to the pressure?

The stakes are high. If Obama shows determination, and stands up to the pressure, criticisms of his foreign policy will increase. His detractors will accuse him of acting against America’s national interest. The final year of his presidency will be chaotic.

On the other hand, if he bows to the pressure, there is a risk of the United States being dragged into a new conflict with Iran. The consequences will be damaging on the ground and beyond. Obama’s carefully crafted strategy to chart a more equidistant course in the Middle East will be thwarted. And his presidential legacy, irreparably damaged, will pass on to his successor.

[END]

What’s Going on with Russia and Turkey?

History News Network

Two recent events amid the turmoil in the Middle East are of particular interest, for they illustrate the complexity of the region’s politics, and shed light on the players’ motives as they act. On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft flying a bombing mission against ISIS targets in Syria. The Turkish government said that the plane was one of two Su-24 bombers which had violated the country’s airspace for 17 seconds, and had been warned ten times before being shot down. Was the Turkish action taken in the heat of the moment or was it part of a calculated move is difficult to know for certain. However, the incident certainly sparked furious reactions from Moscow and Ankara. President Putin called the Turkish action a “stab in the back.” President Erdogan warned Russia not to “play with fire.”

A few days later, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio that a Russian jet recently breached Israeli airspace by “mistake,” but was not shot down. Yaalon said that Russian planes “don’t intend to attack us” and therefore there is “no need to shoot them down.” When the Russians were informed, the plane, which had entered about a mile into Israel, was said to have turned back.

These incidents raise intriguing questions about relations between all three countries, and why Israel and Turkey responded so differently to brief “violations” of their territory by Russian aircraft. They provide insights into the true situation in the Middle East. They explain competing, as well as common interests, of various players in the region. They also suggest that a degree of order exists even in a seemingly chaotic set of circumstances.

Deep suspicion, even hostility, afflicted Turkish-Syrian relations since the beginning of the Cold War until the 1990s, well after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The reasons were threefold: Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria’s alliance with the Soviets; Syria’s Baathist ruler Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for independence from Turkey; historical baggage of Ottoman rule between the early sixteenth century and World War I.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, and the creation of a new Turkey by its founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, successive Turkish governments had seen the country as more European than Middle Eastern. Turkey’s desire to become a full member of the European Union seemed logical. However, reluctance among some EU members caused long delays. Often cited obstacles were Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara. The end of the cold war, meanwhile, opened the way for improvement in relations with Russia and Syria. Disenchantment over the EU membership issue, and the rise of the governing Justice and Development Party originating from the Islamist tradition, renewed Turkey’s interest in the Middle East.

More than 95 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Demography is, therefore, an important determinant in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. When President Hafez al-Assad of Syria expelled the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan after sheltering him for 20 years, the stage was set for a dramatic improvement in relations between Ankara and Damascus. Under the leadership of Erdogan and al-Assad, military cooperation and formal trading ties were established; Erdogan helped Assad’s visit to France in 2005, and talks between Syria and Israel were held under Turkish mediation in 2008. Syria was brought in from the cold.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had historically been good. Ankara recognized the State of Israel in 1949, but remained mindful of its ties with the Muslim world. Diplomatic relations with Israel were downgraded during the 1956 Suez Crisis – a conflict in which Israel, France and Britain launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized Suez. Half a century later, a major crisis developed in Israeli-Turkish relations following a series of events which began after the landslide victory of Erdogan’s party in 2002.

Turkey condemned the Israeli assassination of the blind Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004; Erdogan denounced Israel’s 2008-9 bombing of Gaza as “state terror” and said Israel will reap what it sows; Israel, in turn, rejected Turkish mediation in talks with Syria; then in May 2010, Israeli defense forces attacked the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” carrying humanitarian supplies, killing nine activists, including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American. The flotilla had been organized by Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

These events caused a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, Ankara remained pragmatic. When asked why his government doesn’t break off relations with Israel, Prime Minister Erdogan replied: “We are running the Turkish Republic, not a grocery store.” Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Its government is of an Islamic and conservative disposition. However, the country is also a member of the Western alliance. Ankara’s ambitions to become a full member of the European Union have been set back for now, but Turkey and the European Union remain important for each other. Turkey, a leading NATO member, and Israel, America’s most important ally, can hardly be enemies no matter how serious their differences about Middle East politics.

The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 made Ankara reassess its developing ties with the Assad regime. Erdogan’s decision to switch sides and back the Syrian opposition was a calculated move based on a number of considerations, none without risks. In the final analysis, however, Erdogan and his party decided that Turkey had more to lose by continuing its association with the Assad regime. In the light of how long the Syrian regime has lasted, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian intervention in Syria, that calculation is open to question.

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Saffronisation of India

CounterPunch

Eighteen months after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a decisive victory over the Congress-led government, India confronts one of the most critical periods in its history since independence from Britain in 1947. The omens are not pleasant and remind us of a previous domestic crisis in the mid-1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule in the midst of a popular revolt against her government. Twenty months after, she decided to call a general election in the hope of an easy victory. She thought the people’s free spirit had been tamed. Had she won, sweeping changes made during the emergency period would have become permanent and India would have changed for ever.

When the election came in March 1977, Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party suffered a humiliating defeat and she lost her own parliamentary seat. Although she returned to power following a short-lived coalition government, a victim of infighting and contradictions, Congress had been taught a lesson. Draconian measures like forced mass sterilisation of the emergency era were abandoned, never to be repeated.

Recent events since the BJP’s victory in May 2014 indicate that India faces another critical period which could determine the future character of the country. Many fear that if the current trends continue, individual freedom will be in peril, and India will be an intolerant society – a Hindu theocracy. In an ominous development, veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi openly advocated “saffronisation” of India’s education system, referring to a Hindu agenda based on mythology to counter scientific methods of education. His vision is the mirror image of Talibanisation and Islamic fundamentalism across India’s border in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

A number of developments have heightened fears that plurality and tolerance are under threat in India. Leaders of fringe groups close to the BJP have claimed that India’s 80 per cent Hindu population is threatened by the Muslim minority that constitutes a little more than 15 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion people. Astonishing claims are made that the Muslims, as a group described by radical Hindus as “minorities” who have been “appeased” under previous governments make up one third of India’s population; that their numbers are growing rapidly; and that if the trend is not reversed soon Muslims will own both women and wealth of Hindus.

Radical groups like the World Hindu Council, its women’s wing and the World Hindu Defence Organisation have found that conditions are right for their brazen propaganda. Volunteers go round telling people who care to listen that before the advent of Islam and Christianity the entire world was Hindu; that it was time to re-establish the pre-eminence of Hindus worldwide; that a start had to be made in India now.

Preachers of hate have declared that they will not rest until India is a hundred per cent Hindu country – eighty per cent is not enough. Their drive has taken several forms. In ceremonies described as “home coming”, underprivileged Muslims are being converted to Hinduism, only to be forgotten. Conversion ceremonies are supposed to be voluntary, but in reality direct and indirect pressure and enticement play a significant role. Less publicised are instances in which Hindu converts have reverted to Islam again.

Events involving violence, even murder, are more menacing. One of the most shocking was the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man by a fanatical Hindu crowd in the north Indian town of Dadri. Rumours, outright lies and conspiracy theories abound. One version of events said that the killing took place after rumours that the victim named Akhlaq had eaten beef. Another version claimed that the man was killed because one of his sons had a secret affair with a Hindu girl. The loyalties of Muslims are openly questioned. For the record, Akhlaq’s other son serves in the Indian Air Force and, according to some newspapers, the son joined the armed forces because his father wanted him to.

Imposition of ban on the sale of meat and its availability in restaurants during Hindu religious festivals has triggered a nationwide controversy. Militant Hindu supporters of the BJP and vigilantes are engaged in a campaign of intimidation to ensure restrictions on eating meat. States such as Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir governed by coalitions including the BJP have tried the measure.

A panel of High Court judges in Kashmir went so far as to invoke a 1930s edict of the state’s Hindu ruler banning cow meat – edict first introduced before India’s independence from Britain. Indian Muslims are an obvious target of north India’s Hindu zealots, whose obsessions ignore the fact that fellow Hindus in southern and other parts of the country do eat cow and buffalo meat. The Supreme Court of India finally ruled the banning as unconstitutional, because it violates the freedom to choose what to eat. The country’s highest court may have said the last word, but religious fanatics will not desist from intimidation. Unfortunately, the enforcement of law depends on the government’s willingness to use its authority and leadership, both in short supply in the current climate.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, police in the capital, Delhi, raided an official building belonging to the southern state of Kerala after someone complained that beef was on the menu in the restaurant of Kerala House. It was, in fact buffalo meat, which is widely consumed in Kerala state. Cow slaughter is also legal there and state law applies in the state house in Delhi.

The Kerala state government was furious. India’s home minister Rajnath Singh issued an ambiguous statement telling Delhi police to be “more careful in the future”. Buffalo curry was back on the menu in Kerala House.

Splits in Indian society are deepening. Secular intellectuals are so alienated that dozens of renowned Indian writers, artists and film makers have returned their awards. The response from the governing BJP and its affiliates is to demonise them as pseudo secularists and unpatriotic Indians who are damaging the nation’s image abroad. Particularly disturbing is the drive to revise textbooks according to Hindu mythology. In the state of Rajasthan, for example, one of the many changes in textbooks of the secondary education board involves the removal of a chapter on Nelson Mandela, to be replaced with a long chapter entitled “Tribals in Rajasthan”.

A presentation at the Indian Science Congress in January this year claimed that the Wright brothers did not build the first plane, flown for the first time in 1903. According to the claim, that invention goes back 7000 years and recorded in the ancient Hindu text “Rigveda”, more than 3000 years ago. The ancient mythological aircraft was build by a sage, Maharishi Bharadwaj, had “40 small engines and a flexible exhaust system which a modern aviation cannot even approach”. India’s environment minister and BJP spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, put his official stamp of approval on the claim, asserting that ancient Indian science was based on “experience and logic”, and that “wisdom must be recognised”.

With such changes in the offing, what in the world is the future of scientists, engineers, doctors and historians from India?

[END]

Why is Israel so vulnerable?

Middle East Eye

How can a state be democratic and claim to be legitimate if it treats half its population differently, maintaining Jewish supremacy? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[END]

The Vilification of Muslims

CounterPunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[END]

Obama’s “Responsible Conclusion” of the Afghan War

CounterPunch, 2-4 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The unmasking of the Obama presidency

Middle East Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of corporate money

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

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

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

Double-standards

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

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

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

Drones 

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

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

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

Banning torture? 

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

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

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

Guantanamo and other broken promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring instability in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

[END]