The Fall of David Cameron

History News Network

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dominated British politics in the 1960s, once said that a week is a long time in politics. The meaning of his famous remark is that political fortunes can change dramatically in a short time. Just one year after winning the May 2015 general election against the odds, Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a spectacular fall. He is out of power and out of politics, having stood down as an MP with immediate effect on September 12, less than three months after he resigned as prime minister.

Cameron had been leader of the Conservative Party for ten years, and prime minister for six, all but one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. When he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his career, having won a majority in the May 2015 general election, his luck ran out. Now, he is yesterday’s man. Much of Cameron’s legacy is being dismantled by his successor Theresa May. His record in office is under critical examination. His admirers are dwindling.

Two days after Cameron’s resignation as an MP, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a highly critical report. It held him “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of the Libyan state, and the rise of ISIS after the Anglo-French military campaign with American help in 2011.

Remember, then Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were leading champions of military action in Libya, citing the principle of “responsibility to protect” – a principle endorsed by the UN Security Council as a means of last resort to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid determined public calls for a western-led campaign against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a reluctant President Obama gave in. The result was a NATO campaign which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Obama regrets the bungled Libyan intervention now.

The parliamentary committee’s report said the government of Prime Minister Cameron neither had accurate intelligence nor a coherent strategy for Libya after Gaddafi’s removal. The result, according to the report, was political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, widespread human rights abuses and the rise of ISIS in North Africa, fuelled by weapons which the Libyan army abandoned.

The initial objective of the Libyan campaign was limited to protect the besieged civilian population in Benghazi, protesting against Gaddafi’s rule when the Arab Spring swept across the region. After that objective was secured within a short time, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report concluded, the United Kingdom “drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.” It became “exclusively focused on military intervention.” The decision was taken in France; the United Kingdom simply followed.

Insofar as Britain’s recent military interventions abroad are concerned, there are parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, published in July 2016, for acquiescing with President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. The parliamentary inquiry into Libya found that David Cameron went along with the decision-making in France, with calamitous results.

Tony Blair, with George W. Bush, must bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi state, the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and more recently ISIS. Likewise, the parliamentary inquiry, in its final analysis, held David Cameron responsible for the disintegration of Libya. The policy created conditions for the birth of ISIS in North Africa, and for massive waves of refugees arriving in Europe. UK actions in Libya were described as “ill-conceived” by the inquiry chairman Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Cameron himself refused to testify. He said he was too busy to appear.

But the reason for Cameron’s fall from power was not Libya. He was a tactical, rather than visionary, leader, not able to stand up to dissenters in his party. He failed to secure a majority in the 2010 general election, and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2015, he won by a small majority in parliament on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

His pledge was meant to placate the anti-EU faction in his Conservative party, and to counter the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, a vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigration politician. Cameron’s lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, and his attempts to secure concessions from the EU, were tactics to maintain control, win the referendum, and stay in the European Union. He was over-confidence that he was a winner, and would prevail in the referendum. It proved costly.

Cameron’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, had resisted calls for a referendum. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s frequent public arguments with the rest of the European Union over British contributions, and her assertions of national sovereignty, concealed divisions in the Conservative Party. Her successor John Major (1990-1997) often clashed with party rebels over EU membership, but would not contemplate another referendum. Major insisted that the membership issue was resolved in the 1973 vote. Cameron lost the gamble, because what was meant to be an electoral exercise about the EU became a vote on a wide range of policies under his prime ministership.

Now that Cameron has left the political scene, it is for Prime Minister Theresa May to manage the aftermath. But the recent history of the United Kingdom demonstrates that when a prime minister has dominated national politics for years, the tenure of their successor is difficult and short. James Callaghan (1976–1979) survived in office for three years before his defeat by Margaret Thatcher. John Major had a difficult time in office before his defeat in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. And after Blair’s resignation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown managed to remain in office for three years before he was defeated in 2010.

The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in 2020. Whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can last until then is an open question.


Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.


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.


On the Edge of turbulence: India between uncertainty and promise

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

Ladies and Gentlemen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.


From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy


President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

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No end to the revolution?


History has the answer to the turbulent Middle East today. 

The approaching centenary of the outbreak of World War I is a suitable time to consider violent conflicts between nations and ideologies, and their consequences, which have transformed the international system, particularly in the Middle East.

The most decisive of these conflicts were part of three critical periods of the 20th century: World War I, 1914-1918, and the 1917 communist revolution in Russia; World War II ending in 1945 with the division of Europe and the Cold War thereafter; and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. These fateful chapters of history left a lasting impact on the global map, and transformed the Middle East into the turbulent region which it is today.

Despite the central powers’ defeat in World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary lived to fight another war two decades later. But the most consequential events of the World War I period were the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of communists to power in Russia.

Creation of mandates 

The demise of the Ottoman Empire meant the release of its provinces in the Middle East. The region was divided into British and French spheres of influence, using the instrument of “mandate” and readily approved by the League of Nations. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the birth of the Soviet Union five years after. Communism became an ideological reality that promised liberation forces in colonies as an alternative to imperial subjugation.

The age of empires was not over, but there was a new worldview in action, embracing the idea of class struggle and becoming a serious rival of Western imperialism. The events in Russia in 1917, emboldened revolutionary forces across Asia, Africa and South America. Communists seized power after long, savage wars in China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959. Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara became heroes for left-wing armed revolutionaries in their own countries and elsewhere.

The Soviet Union’s emergence as a superpower rival of the United States in the wake of World War II, gave it a formidable status, and the means to support revolutionary movements across the world. However, there was an obvious paradox in the manner of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and how the Kremlin controlled its satellite-states with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The Soviet Union had enlarged its empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe while proclaiming to be the liberator of oppressed peoples from Western imperialism. The Soviets were also involved with the US in a global race for influence called the Cold War, in which the energy-rich Middle East was the main battleground. Even as the colonial system collapsed, the Cold War intensified. It was a race between two empires in all but name.

The Dictionary of Human Geography defines imperialism as “an unequal human and territorial relationship”. The association takes the form of an empire, based on “ideas of superiority and practices of dominance”. Imperialism involves the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another. While capitalism has solely commercial motives, an imperial relationship also requires a political centre and ideological allegiance which ties the periphery to the centre.

Legacy of Cold War 

Rival ideologies pulled Middle Eastern countries towards Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, and fuelled conflicts that had remained unsettled. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was to have been the end of history, with the US the final victor standing, to dominate the vast energy resources, and much more. However, that triumphant vision failed to realise that Islam, together with nationalism, was going to be the next formidable opposition, replacing Soviet communism. A lot of blood has been spilled at the extremes of that conflict, while even moderates are critical or ambivalent about Western policy.

Much of the Middle East is in a state of agitation and turmoil. The legacy of old unresolved feuds has been revived. Two of the main causes are the imperial powers’ arbitrary partition of the region into smaller, vulnerable entities, thereby dividing their peoples; and the Palestinians’ loss of land and livelihood under Israeli occupation. The people’s desire to liberate themselves from dictatorship has been rekindled, but the scope for opportunistic machinations from outside remains.

Islamic, secular and democratic, all forces fight, sometimes together, at other times separately, in this chaotic struggle. Their vision of the future may differ, but their spirit is revolutionary in that they seek radical change. Still, fundamental questions about what type of change, and the way to bring it, remain. Hope, fear, and uncertainty, coalesce together.

The risk of tyranny of some over many is always great in a region of diverse religious and ethnic groups, with a history of conflict. From Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Libya, violence against vulnerable citizens, minorities in particular, heightens fears in those countries and outside.

The peoples of the Middle East have lived through autocratic nationalist rule, and dictatorship acting as proxy of one external power or another. Their painful experiences have made the Middle East of today. Where are events heading? Well, as French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”