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.

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Back to the state of nature

AL JAZEERA

US commando raids in Libya and Somalia show American power, and its limits, where anarchy rules after state destruction. 

Recent events in Libya and Somalia have brought into focus some of the grimmest aspects of destroyed state structures, and consequences thereof. In Tripoli, US commandos seized Abu Anas al-Liby, al-Qaeda’s man described as a mastermind of the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In the Somali coastal town of Barawe, an attack by American commandos failed to kill or capture the leader of al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and the Americans were forced to withdraw.

Several days after came the audacious kidnapping and detention of the Libyan Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, by armed men in the capital. Zeidan was later released, but together these events inform us a good deal about failing states.

Coming immediately after the Westgate massacre of shoppers in Nairobi, the US commando raids were certainly dramatic, exhibiting America’s ability to project military power in distant lands where order is fragile. The raids enabled the Secretary of State John Kerry to proclaim that they, meaning terrorists, “can run but they can’t hide” – words that echoed the language used during the George W. Bush presidency in the previous decade.

However, Kerry’s remarks also reflected the new reality after Iraq and Afghanistan – reality in which the world’s sole hegemon, the United States, is no longer capable of staying and nation-building.

America has been forced to change warfare. Its goal now is to economise in terms of money, and reduce its military casualties. Libya and Somalia illustrate this reality, but the new type of warfare also involves risks. After America’s commando operation in Tripoli, Libya demanded that Washington explain the attack on Libyan territory, insisting that any Libyan citizen should be prosecuted in Libya. The United States is surely not going to heed that demand.

There are dangers, however, as the kidnapping of Libya’s prime minister in his own capital has shown. In a country divided into many fiefdoms under the control of rival warlords, America’s seizure of al-Liby, and his flight out of Libya, may encourage potential recruits.

The Western “humanitarian” military intervention in Libya on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces two years ago has clearly brought a string of unwelcome consequences. Gaddafi’s warnings that al-Qaeda was behind the Libyan uprising, whose success would make the country a hub of the organization, were dismissed as propaganda. Gaddafi’s fears were, in part, based on a long history of repression under his own regime, and his cooperation with western governments in the “war on terror”. Libya today shows that his warnings had some merit.

The reasons of al-Liby’s capture by the Americans go beyond the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania. Washington’s concerns include expansion of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Libya – and radical fighters, weapons and expertise reaching extremist groups in Syria, enlarging the threat to Western interests in the region. Libya after Gaddafi has become a key source of weaponry to armed groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Mali and other countries which are unstable.

The collapse of order in Libya is part of a phenomenon seen far and wide in the region. From Afghanistan to the Arab world, including Libya and its North African neighbours, and from Somalia in the east to Nigeria in the west of the African continent, a growing number of states have suffered catastrophic failures. Still others are on the edge.

There is a sense of return to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature (Leviathan 1651) in which legitimate governance and positive law are absent. Hobbes said that in such a state there is “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The development of conditions which are akin to Hobbes’ 17th century nightmare is a remarkable occurrence. The peculiarities of each failing state may vary today. The trigger of upheaval may be unique. The victor and the vanquished, and the scale of lawlessness, may be different. But the pattern is consistent.

Often, that pattern involves a population revolting against despotism or dictatorship, prompting external players to enter the conflict, escalation of violence and breakdown of institutions that leads to a state of nature. It is a condition in which people live without a common power which keeps them in awe, self-preservation is their only goal, and they are in a state called war.

The end of World War II in 1945, and freedom for old colonies thereafter, generated relief, happiness and excitement, but there were to be other consequences, most seriously the Cold War. The Germans and the Japanese were defeated. Instead, the Americans and the Soviets emerged as new global masters, and the competition for resources and influence continued.

For more than four decades, a tenuous peace existed in Europe, but savage proxy wars were fought in other continents. The aim was to control resources, and land and sea routes for trade. After World War II, the Cold War fuelled regional conflicts along the Silk Road, the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal and in the Indian Ocean while Europe enjoyed a shaky peace. The Soviet Union’s demise as a superpower, marking the end of the Cold War around 1990, was thought to end the era of destructive wars. Today, such claims would be a misrepresentation of history.

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On War, Humiliation and the Making of History

CounterPunchJune 18, 2012; The Nation, June 20, 2012

The “global war on terror” started by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago has taken a new and more sinister turn. Now we know that Barack Obama, the current president, goes through the profiles of people he wants eliminated (New York Times, May 29, 2012). He decides their fate in escalating drone wars in a growing number of countries.

Those to be killed may or may not be combatants engaged in war against America. They may or may not even be involved in an armed struggle against a brutal dictatorship which is America’s regional proxy. Mere age of others or their relationship and proximity to the “target” in a loose tribal community can be enough to be given the label of “militant”––a crime punishable by death. In Obama’s world, what else could their motive be if they were in the same area as a “terrorist?” It is a license to kill at will.

But never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished or their successors to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world confirm this, often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What has transpired forms a pattern.

Those lands include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid extreme volatility in this region, there has existed something consistent. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river in India and Pakistan. Exhausted, his troops mutinied, refusing to march any further. The rebellion continued later at Opis, a Babylonian city on the east bank of the Tigris, where Alexander gave a stirring speech admonishing his troops. But his rhetoric failed.

Elsewhere in the Kunar and Swat valleys, tribes put up extraordinary resistance forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he had appointed in charge. They, too, misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura of invincibility having abandoned him. Alexander became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years later. A remark attributed to him at the time: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with lands of the vast region of South and West Asia, have been subjected to repeated invasions through the centuries. The soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. The soil is fertile for resistance as it is for agriculture. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time and again.

Subjugation by external forces renders victims helpless, but consolidates their long-term resolve. It breeds local resistance to foreign occupiers and their culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; or by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s work is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Examples are provided by Spartans and Romans. The Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there, although in the end they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and so never lost them. They wanted to rule Greece almost as the Spartans did, freely, under its own laws, but they did not succeed. So, in order to maintain their power, they destroyed many cities in that province.

Five centuries after, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on–– despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed extensively in practice.

Since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led Western military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both terms remain highly contested. Definitions, when attempted, are arbitrary, incoherent and irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the underdog’s right to self-defense and to resist.

We hear the absurd logic of brute military power couched in legal jargon. As an example, the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians. Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region. Elections in Iran are “fraudulent” in the absence of irrefutable evidence. But polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan where plenty of evidence of fraud exists. High-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and drone attacks killing civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Talk is rare of “night raids”–– a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes at night. Those at the receiving end of such treatment see it as humiliation under foreign occupation.

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. There exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity arises. History has repeatedly shown that the price of great power intervention is high; national humiliation caused to the victim leaves a legacy that haunts the intervenor and tempts the conqueror to resort to even more force.

The dynamic of the victor-vanquished relationship is that the fewer means the humiliated has, the more precious his honor becomes, and the stronger and more determined his retaliatory instinct is. Imperial powers like Britain and Russia––and more recently the United States––have intervened at will in the oil-rich Middle East and surroundings for resources and access to waterways. The legacy of imperial subjugation continues in the form of conflict and social upheaval.

At the advent of the twenty-first century, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to reshape the region in President George W. Bush’s vision. The world’s greatest military power found the spirit of resistance in the peoples radicalized by past interventions as strong as ever. When Bush left the White House in January 2009, America was involved in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exhausted and in deep economic crisis. Under the Obama presidency, the “war on terror” has been expanded and the economic crisis is deeper, not only for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

Unchecked military power and hubris, seeking pleasure in the abuse and humiliation of others, are corrosive. They take the perpetrator on a path of infamy leading to the abuser’s own humiliation.

War is history’s revenge.

[END]

A Persian Response to Brinkmanship

CounterPunch, 5 December 2011

Perils of brinkmanship with Iran are now on open display. As Libyans struggle after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria continues, the campaign of sanctions against Iran has triggered events which echo the 1980s crisis between post-revolution Iran and the West. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, a controversial document censoring Iran, Britain’s decision to severe links with Iran’s central banking system and further sanctions by France, Canada and the United States were all too much.

The Iranian parliament retaliated by downgrading relations with the United Kingdom and told the new British ambassador to leave. Soon after, angry protesters stormed two British embassy compounds in Tehran. Property was damaged and documents were reported to have been taken away. What secrets they may contain is a matter of speculation. They are likely to fuel the Iranians’ anger and may cause embarrassment to the British government if revealed.

Aware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Iranian foreign ministry expressed regret and promised to protect the British diplomatic staff. But Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that the student protesters’ action reflected the anti-British sentiment in Iran. Other Iranian MPs expressed similar views. The British government had little choice but to withdraw its staff and order the closure of the Iranian embassy in London within 48 hours.

Britain’s announcement falls short of a complete break, but relations between the two countries have surely sunk to the lowest point in more than three decades. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that he wants to remain engaged with Tehran on the nuclear issue and on human rights, an astonishingly hypocritical statement to make.

Iran is no longer the same country as it was just after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi, America’s close ally and widely detested by his own countrymen. There is not the same religious fervor in Iranian society. The structure that now rules Iran has evolved over three decades. No doubt there are factions and power struggles, but the hierarchy of clerics led by Ayatollah Khamenei and an elected president, parliament and the judiciary, brings some stability in the country.

Violence during and after Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 showed that the regime can use considerable force when faced with a serious challenge. Accusations of Western powers backing opposition forces appear to unite the country’s ruling structure. At the same time, Iran has emerged as a major power in a predominantly Sunni region which is led by Saudi Arabia.

Pressures over centuries have made the Iranians rather like the Chinese. They can wait for a long time before giving a typically Persian response. Last month’s IAEA report accusing Tehran of operating a nuclear weapons program began the latest escalation. The timing of the report looked expedient, coming immediately after the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and at a time when the conflict in Syria was intensifying.

More punitive sanctions followed, triggering an ominous chain of events. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy, not to be outdone, called on European governments to stop buying Iranian oil, a self-destructive proposition. Britain, too, pushed for an oil embargo on Iran, but the idea failed to gain wide agreement within the European Union. There were wiser heads than those of Sarkozy and Hague.

As the Middle East threatens to explode and the crisis between Iran and the West escalates, one question which policy makers in London and Washington do not seem to ask themselves is: What lies behind Iran’s deep suspicion of the West? Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk reminds us of the essential answer. A country humiliated and pushed again and again is a country radicalized and distrustful.

Iranians have been repeatedly humiliated, their resources stolen and they blame the West. In 1941, the British and Soviet armies invaded the country for oil and a supply line to the Allied forces in the Second World War. Then a plot by the British intelligence agency MI6 and the American CIA overthrew Iran’s elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953.

For more than a quarter century thereafter, the West enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to rule the country with an iron fist. He was finally deposed in the 1979 Islamic revolution. The West then helped Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, who invaded Iran, in a war in which as many as a million Iranians died or were wounded and chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi army on Iranian troops.

More than two decades on, we know where the recent sanctions are coming from. Killings of scientists and academics and mysterious explosions in different parts of Iran are much more difficult to explain. In Britain, the regulators have threatened Iran’s Press TV broadcasts with closure whereas the Chinese and Russian channels operate freely. Iran’s national character has been shaped by many traumatic experiences for which the country holds the West responsible.

Explosive drivers in international relations such as these have a high price tag. Many diplomats seem to know it, politicians do not. The world after the Cold War is driven by crises largely because skilled diplomacy has been sidelined by rough politics. We live in a world where leaders are many, but leadership is scarce. Having spent their moral and material capital, war is an increasingly desperate option for declining powers. History of savage conflicts follows an all too familiar pattern. Leaders who do not heed what happened before is to guarantee childish decision making.

[END]

Obama’s Foreign Crises

Deepak Tripathi

(History News Network, George Mason University, Virginia, December 3, 2008 )
(CounterPunch, December 1, 2008 )

The carnage in Mumbai by young, well trained gunmen is the latest chapter in the world’s most complex web of problems today. Not only is it bound to have new consequences, it also throws up fresh challenges for all concerned, not least for America’s President-elect, Barak Obama.

When a bloodbath in India’s main commercial center is played out on television screens across the world, people who have witnessed events in New York and Washington, London and Madrid, Islamabad and Bali immediately connect with a rapidly escalating phenomenon. India is no stranger to terror. Still, it has suffered a huge shock. The Indian economy, already caught up in a global recession, is bound to feel the impact. Tourism and investor confidence may suffer, at least in the short term. The political fallout may go beyond the resignation of the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country faces a general election in May 2009. The governing coalition led by the Congress Party is under heavy criticism from the Hindu nationalists, as well as the population in general. More