Tags: Arms Control, Human Rights, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kurds, Middle East, Russia, Syria, United Kingdom, United Nations, United States
Grotesque images of children foaming at the mouth as they lay dying from an apparent chemical weapons attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013 was, in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity.” Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that the three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated 3,600 patients with symptoms of poisoning and 355 of them have died. While Kerry and his counterparts in Britain, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have been quick to blame the attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime they have not yet produced any evidence linking the regime to the attacks. MSF reports that while there are strong indications that thousands of patients were exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.”
Indeed, the timing of the attack—on the one year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s warning to the Assad government that the use of chemical weapons against their adversaries would cross his “red line”—is suspicious. The regime, by all accounts, was pushing back the rebels. Why would it now invite retribution from the West? We don’t know what chemicals were used or even who gave the order to launch the chemical weapons. Even if the attack was launched by Syrian government forces, is it possible that it was by a mid-level officer fearful of failure—not because the regime has qualms killing its own people, but because it is not mad enough to invite a hail of missiles?
Washington initially balked at the UN inspectors going to investigate the attack and then when they eventually commenced their inquiry, the White House claimed that the evidence will necessarily be tainted since it was already five days after the attack. Yet, scientists have found the unique chemical signature of sarin in a Kurdish village 4 years after Iraqi warplanes dropped cluster bombs according to a New York Times report and the UN investigators are confident of finding evidence if there are any. Long years of experience have given investigators sophisticated techniques to decipher the use of chemical weapons long after the fact. Tellingly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told reporters that the UN asked permission to access the sites of the alleged chemical attacks only on Saturday 24 August and permission was granted the next day! This does not qualify as stalling by any standard. While the investigators have no mandate to determine who was culpable, the fact that their convoy, when escorted by Syrian government forces, was shot at and had to retreat temporarily is also suspicious. Why should the government shoot its own military escorts?
The US and UK governments claim to have incontrovertible evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks but no such evidence has been presented and journalists do not press them to reveal this secret evidence. As Noam Chomsky noted many years ago, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Thus, mainstream media in the US or the UK have not conducted interviews with Syrian government officials—except for a few cameo quotes which are then obscured by long interviews with administration spokesmen—or even the UN inspectors on the ground.
No mention has been made in the mainstream media that Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in May 2013 that testimony from medical personnel indicated “strongly but not incontrovertibly” that rebel forces were using the nerve agent sarin. In fact, the New York Times edited its online article on the alleged use of chemical weapons 22 times on Monday August 26, mainly to shore up support for the administration’s position. And after the Bush White House assurances of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 10 years ago, claims by the Obama White House of chemical attacks by the Assad regime without any evidence to back it up is equally suspect.
In fact, as veteran journalist Gwynne Dyer notes, if we apply the time-honored test of who benefited from the chemical attack—the only likely answer are one of the many rebel factions knowing that their use will bring retribution on Assad. Indeed, the focus on chemical weapons attack also detracts from the atrocities of the rebels—notably the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the north-east forcing 40,000 of them to flee to northern Iraq in the biggest refugee exodus of the Syrian civil war. In all the moral fury marshaled by US and UK administrations there is nary a word about this outrage!
What is also remarkable is that left-liberal opinion in the United States is so overjoyed that Obama is not Bush that they do not hold him to the same standards of scrutiny to which they have held other presidents. No large anti-war protests are planned when the US has already stationed four ships and some submarines capable of firing cruise missiles at Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and Prime Minister David Cameron has called back parliament to debate a punitive strike on Syria.
Then again there is the question of legal justification. As it is clear that there will be no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for a punitive strike on Syria since Russia is irremediably opposed to it, justifications are trotted out on what William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary said was “a great humanitarian need and distress” and claimed that it is based on “international law.” It is not clear though which “international law” was being invoked. If it was the international convention on the non-use of chemical and biological weapons, three major states in the Middle East–Egypt, Israel, and Syria–have not ratified it. So Syria is being asked to adhere to a treaty it has not signed—an excellent legal precedent!
US forces have admitted dropping white phosphorus over Fallujah in 2004 and Britain and the United States had supplied chemicals and weapon-making equipment in the 1980s to Saddam Hussein for his war against Iran. But of course, in true imperialist hubris, the laws they impose on others do not apply to themselves.
Not only is there no compelling evidence that the Syrian government had deployed chemical weapons and no legal basis exists for attacking the country, but options to attack are so marginal that they are merely a pointless punitive strike. Israel has attacked Syria with missiles several times without causing any real change in the Assad government’s behavior and it is unclear what more can be expected from a US-led NATO strike. Clearly Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be targeted as that would cause unimaginable casualties. Syrian government, anticipating an attack would already have reconfigured its command-and-control operations so they do not present an easy target. It is only those command-and-control positions that are not easily moveable which could be attacked and these may cause large civilian casualties as well. Military airfields could be cratered and aircraft bombed and this may hurt the Assad regime in the short run. Even the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has admitted that less than 10 percent of the casualties in the two and a half years of civil war in Syria are accounted by bombs.
The conclusion is inescapable: any attack on Syria is simply to counter domestic opponents who claim that the Obama is weak. His Republican nemesis, John McCain and his allies have been hunkering for a more muscular American response to Syria even though it would raise military spending and further complicate the budgetary situation in Washington. But Obama can now become a ‘war president.’ For that, many Syrians will die a senseless death.
Even worse, launching missile strikes against the Assad regime will complicate the current moribund peace talks which are the only way to resolve the crisis. Here, too the US is torpedoing efforts to bring the warring parties together by insisting that Syria’s close ally, Iran, be excluded from it. There are so many rebel factions—some 1,200 different military units by Patrick Cockburn’s count ranging from small family outfits to large organized units with tanks and artillery—that they cannot even agree on a delegation to represent them. It is as he says “a failed country and a failed opposition.”
This is not a situation that calls for surgical air strikes. If the Obama administration really wants to bring peace, it needs to cooperate with Russia and get their regional allies to sit together at a conference table after agreeing to a cease fire.
Tags: Arab League, Arms Control, Australia, Egypt, Human Rights, international relations, interstate system, intervention, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, NATO, Syria, United Kingdom, United Nations, United States, world politics
US Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the apparent chemical attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013, the Syrian capital, as a “moral obscenity” and a spokesman for the British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “completely abhorrent.” Almost a year ago to the day, on 20 August 2012, President Barack Obama had warned his Syrian counterpart that the use of chemical weapons would cross his “red line.” The US has already positioned four ships armed with cruise missiles in the eastern Mediterranean and aircraft may also be launched from Britain’s Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus a mere 100 miles from Syria’s coast.
Though Kerry and Cameron are categorical in blaming the Bashar al-Assad regime for the chemical attacks, no proof has been produced to back these assertions nor has it been determined as to what chemicals had been used. No precise casualty counts are available and no one know who, if anyone, gave the order to use chemical weapons. When UN inspectors went to Syria, their convoy escorted by the Syrian military came under fire and they had to withdraw briefly before resuming their inspection. The White House claims that since these inspections come five days after the attack the evidence will necessary be tainted and has decided to ignore the investigation and its results just as the Bush White House “knew” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as it launched the disastrous attack on that country ten years ago. Once again, the United States and the United Kingdom have appointed themselves the international judge, jury, prosecutor, and executioner in an untrammeled exercise of hubris.
Once the decision to go to war has been taken in the councils of state in Washington, London, Paris, and Sydney (Australia begins its term as chair of the UN Security Council besides being a reliable side kick to the Washington-London anglo-saxon axis), the press has rushed to beat the war drums in support. The New York Times edited its online article on the alleged use of chemical weapons 22 times yesterday, mainly to shore up support for the administration’s position. Crucially, there has been no report that Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in May 2013 that testimony from medical personnel indicated “strongly but not incontrovertibly” that rebel forces were using the nerve agent sarin. This finding and the attack on UN inspectors being escorted by the military should at least create doubt on who actually used the chemical weapons, if indeed these were used.
Then again there is the question of legal justification. As it is clear that there will be no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for a punitive strike on Syria, justifications are trotted out on what William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary said was “a great humanitarian need and distress” and claimed that it is based on “international law.” It is not clear though which “international law” was being invoked. if it was the international convention on the non-use of chemical and biological weapons, three major states in the Middle East–Egypt, Israel, and Syria–have not ratified it. Prime Minister Cameron thundered:
“Almost 100 years ago, the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong. What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“I don’t believe we can let that stand. Of course any action we take, or others take, would have to be legal, would have to be proportionate. It would have to be specifically to deter the future use of chemical weapons.
“This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict. It is nothing to do that. It is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”
But this conveniently glossed over the inconvenient fact that Britain and the United States had supplied chemicals and weapon-making equipment in the 1980s to Saddam Hussein for his war against Iran.
And in the United States, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 precludes the president from going to war without congressional authorization except in self-defence. Candidate Obama had unequivocally stated in response to a direct question that:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.
Of course, as president, he had not sought Congressional approval for US actions in Libya two years ago, claiming that it was very limited in scope.
Not only is there no compelling evidence that the Syrian government had deployed chemical weapons and no legal basis for attacking the country, but options to attack are so marginal that they are merely a pointless punitive strike. Israel has attacked Syria with missiles several times without causing any real change in the Assad governments behavior and it is unclear what more can be expected from a US-led NATO strike. Clearly Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be targeted as that would cause unimaginable casualties. Syrian government, anticipating an attack would already have reconfigured its command-and-control operations so they do not present a clear target. It is only those command-and-control positions that are not easily moveable which could be attacked and these may cause civilian casualties as well.
The Washington Post reports that a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on the week of August 19-23, the very week in which television images of the alleged chemical attack flickered across television screens, only 9 percent of the respondents supported a military intervention in Syria. It is clear that there is no support for an extensive intervention either by troops on the ground or a prolonged air strike against the Syrian forces and in any case President Obama has ruled out regime change.
The conclusion is inescapable: any attack on Syria is simply to counter domestic opponents who claim that the Obama is weak. For that some Syrians will die a senseless death.
Hail to the Chief!
Tags: democracy, Egypt, international relations, Israel, military coup, Saudi Arabia, United States, world politics
Intermingled with images of bodies covered in funeral shrouds and kept on blocks of melting ice in Cairo’s mosques and of grieving families surrounding their dead on television screens and front pages of newspapers are other images of Egyptians thanking the military for one of the bloodiest massacres in recent history. This grotesque juxtaposition of images marks the violent denouement of the promising democratic sprouts of the Arab Spring.
The triumph of the counter-revolution also illustrates how the very narrative is tinged with elements that preclude a peaceful, democratic, and equitable resolution to the crisis. By pitching the conflict as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that ousted the first democratically elected president with the support of millions of Egyptians, the narrative erases crucial nuances. Opponents of the coup not only include the Muslim Brotherhood but also the secular sections who opposed the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In a poll reported by the Middle East Monitor, a week after the coup only 26 percent supported the coup while 63 percent were against it. If President Mohamed Morsi’s majoritarian rule alienated liberals, support for the military came from very large sections of the Hosni Mubarak regime that had been ousted by the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring in February 2011.
This is what counter-revolution looks like
The blood-drenched counter-revolution triumphed—no one can now pretend that a democratic restoration is on the agenda, not even US Secretary of State John Kerry who said less than two weeks before the Egyptian military massacred its own citizens in Cairo that they were “restoring democracy” by ousting Morsi—as Adam Shatz noted, because the military and remnants of the old regime not only had better resources at their command but also a singular goal that the democratic mass movement lacked. What is more, most of Egypt’s allies—except notably for Turkey and Qatar—were clearly more comfortable with the military that promised “stability” than with the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the country’s first elections.
Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. After his Muslim Brotherhood engineered a walkout of the opposition from the Constituent Assembly, it rammed through a constitution in a referendum that was boycotted by most Egyptians. It received only 63 percent of the vote from the 30 percent of the eligible electorate—meaning the support of only 20 percent of the population.
Since the judiciary—a holdover from the Mubarak era—had invalidated the election of the lower house of parliament, President Morsi declared by fiat that the ceremonial upper house, the Shura Council—only 7 percent of which had been elected—was the parliament and had them pass a law that lowered the retirement age of judges from 75 years to 60 years. This would have put 25 percent of the judges out to pasture and enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to control all three branches of government as President Morsi has also nominated many members of the Shura Council.
Yet, the Western commentators who denounced this naked grab for power conveniently forget that in the United States, George W. Bush, not only stole an election but then went on to invade Iraq and destabilize the whole region without any popular mandate. Be that as it may, it is now clear that Morsi’s biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus—unlike Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who set about to decapitate the Shah’s army as soon as he attained power.
Large demonstrations in Cairo against Morsi and in support of his ouster also were misleading. Cairo and Alexandria were never Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, and in fact in the first round of the presidential elections neither of the top two candidates—Morsi and Shafik—won the most votes in these cities.
Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi had himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they are killing Morsi supporters now. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2012, the military strong man, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.
Ironically, the liberals and the secularists also looked to the military to rein in the Morsi government’s excesses and indeed to overthrow the elected government. Without the confidence that a violent attack on the protesters in the Rabaa Al-Adaqwaiya Squate and other locations in Cairo would enjoy a wide degree of popular support, the military would not have rejected out of hand the compromise that the EU envoy, Bernandino Leon, and the US deputy secretary of state, Willian Burns had crafted and which had been accepted the Brotherhood. Under that plan, the Brotherhood would sharply reduce the number of protesters and limit the protest camps to two and the military would release the speaker of the parliament as a gesture of good will.
But General al-Sisi calculated that there would be little to pay if he were to eliminate the Brotherhood as a legitimate political force and restore authoritarian rule. Indeed, the liberals installed in the interim government initially even blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor did the liberals protest the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011.
Reaction overseas to the coup has been muted as well. Despite the casualty numbers topping a thousand killed and many thousands injured, the Obama administration could not bring itself to call the ouster of President Morsi by the military a ‘coup’ since it would then trigger an end to the $1.3 billion in aid the Egyptian military receives from Washington. As Juan Cole has argued the United States cannot substantially cut its aid to Egypt because much of it is corporate welfare for its domestic companies—US aid is effectively a credit card that Egypt must spend to buy US military and civilian supplies—and part of what passes for ‘US aid to Egypt’ is paradoxically for joint Israeli-Egyptian patrols and thus goes in part to Israel!
Saudi Arabia, in fact, has offered to compensate the military for any cuts in aid from the United States and the Israelis who have had a long relationship with al-Sisi when he was chief of military intelligence has also been lobbying for him in Washington. In fact, Patrick Smith underlines that it may not be a coincidence that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu agreed to “peace talks” with the Palestinians only a few days after the Egyptian coup. “The dreaded question here,” Smith asks, “is whether U.S. support for Israel effectively precludes political advance in the Arab world.” Indeed, so confident is the military now that it has arrested the supreme leader of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie—something that even Mubarak had not done. Compounding its arrogance, it is also bringing charges of treason against Mohamed el-Baradei for resigning his post as vice president for international affairs in the interim government in protest against the massacres! Emboldened by the coup, the judges appointed by Mubarak have cleared him of all charges.
So confident has the military become that the New York Times reports that the “police scarcely bothered to offer a credible explanation for the deaths of three dozen Morsi supporters in custody over the [last] weekend. After repeatedly shifting stories, they ultimately said the detainees had suffocated from tear gas during a failed escape attempt. But photographs taken at the morgue on Monday showed that at least two had been badly burned from the shoulders up and that others bore evidence of torture.”
Identity politics and the declining salience of class analysis
The triumph of the counter-revolution has been met with resignation because it is seen as a choice for stability and a choice between two bad options since the debate has framed it as a conflict between political Islam and a secular military, one that would foster dangerous religious fundamentalism across the region and the other which would guarantee Israel’s annexation of Palestine and the kleptocratic oligarchies of Arabia.
By targeting political Islam as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood as one axis of the conflict, secular opponents of the Ancien Régime and the Coptic Christian minority are cast in the role of defenders of the military overthrow of the elected government. And it followed as the night the day that the August bloodbath was followed by Muslim Brotherhood members torching Coptic Christian churches, businesses, and homes across the country as well as government offices. Yet, no one seems to have highlighted the military’s spectacular dereliction of duty in not safeguarding the churches and the Christian minorities. Indeed, it is likely that in an act of cynical callousness, the military deliberately left them defenseless to expose the Brotherhood.
On a broader scale, what is striking is that conflicts in the Islamic world are always portrayed as sectarian rivalries (between Sunnis and Shias) or ethnic conflicts (Kurds, Alawites) or between secularists and political Islam. But this is not limited to the Islamic world as identity politics has erased class politics virtually everywhere. In India, conflict is typically portrayed in casteist and religious terms, in Africa in tribal terms.
The rise of neo-liberalism and the parallel demise of socialism has meant that class has virtually been erased as a salient category of analysis. Class is central to capitalism. As Arif Dirlik underlined some two decades, even if categories like gender and ethnicity are social constructs, in most cases they correspond to readily identifiable referents. Not so with class which has to be derived from an analysis of the operation of capitalism itself. But class alone is never sufficient given the complex, multi-layered mosaic of social life. Gender, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation are all axes of domination and subordination that are not reducible to class. What we need is a recuperation of secular categories to frame our narratives.
The military has defeated the democratic popular movement that characterized Tahrir Square but it cannot solve the economic morass that engulfs Egypt. The deteriorating political situation has undermined its tourist industry and unemployment now runs at 50 percent. Since Egypt requires at least $20 billion next year to keep the economy going, further austerity measures will be implemented as per the dictates of international financial agencies. Worsening economic conditions will only draw more recruits—martyrs—to the Brotherhood which will deepen the crisis.
It is only by acknowledging the gross inequalities in wealth and power, and seeking to reverse them that the beginnings of a new more equitable and democratic world order can be laid. And this requires secular categories of analysis not a rehearsal of tired old categories of religious fundamentalism
Tags: democracy, Egypt, Human Rights, Middle East, world politics
Once again, blood is flowing in the streets of Cairo. In the bloodiest crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, on a dawn raid at the protest camps in the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and Nahda Square near Cairo University, over 235 protesters and 40 policemen have been killed and the death toll is certainly going to rise. The Muslim Brotherhood, angry at the ouster of their democratically elected president, Mr. Mohamed Morsi, and the third mass killing of their members–over 14 when the army ousted the president on July 3 and at least 82 on July 27–have lashed out burning government buildings, Coptic Christian churches in Assiut, Sohag, Minya, Suez and Arish, and a Jesuit school in Minya.
Government television broadcast pictures of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters firing at the troops and showed them hiding ammunition and weapons in coffins. But why wouldn’t the Brotherhood try to arm themselves when the military has already cracked down on them twice and ousted their government? Even then it is clear that they were no match for the military and its snipers as the death toll indicates.
Given the brutality of the military crackdown, it is clear that democracy would not be restored in Egypt anytime soon, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s incredible claim that the military deposed President Morsi to restore democracy. The EU envoy, Bernardino Leon who, along with US deputy secretary of state William Burns, had formulated a political plan to end the impasse in Egypt said that the Brotherhood had accepted the plan but the military walked away from it and launched the bloody crackdown. The military was clearly preparing to cement its power as it installed 19 generals and 6 Mubarak loyalists as governors of Egypt’s 25 provinces the day before yesterday’s crackdown. One of them, General Mahmoud Othman Ateeq, had been a deputy governor of Alexandria in 2011 when he was filmed raising his gun against teachers who were begging him for their lives.
After the violent annihilation of their members, the imprisonment of their leaders, the impounding of their bank assets, and the closure of their media outlets, the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political organization by a country mile, is not likely to take part in any democratic political process. Indeed, given the Brotherhood’s sizable mass base, it is highly unlikely that the military leader General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will even risk allowing them to compete in the elections. This is a repeat of the elections in Algeria in 1992 when the military cancelled the polls which the Islamicists were poised to win–and the 2007 victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections when they were confined to Gaza and subject to a vicious siege. The message to the Muslim Brotherhood could not be clearer: you will not be allowed to win a democratic election.
Is it any wonder if they resort to insurgency? All that John Kerry can offer is to ask both sides “to take a step back” and assess the situation. Yet, what step back can the Brotherhood take except to will themselves out of existence. Despite their president being ousted, they signed on to the political compromise crafted by the EU and the US only to see the military reject it out of hand.
The military claims that it has wide popular support. And that is true at the moment because the Morsi government was incompetent and tried to push through a majoritarian agenda and ride roughshod over its opponents. Yet, it must be remembered that this popular support includes adherents of the old Mubarak regime and that popular support will soon evaporate as the military government is not positioned to solve Egypt’s economic problems. While the exact extent of the military’s economic interests are classified, it is widely estimated that it controls over 40 percent of the national economy–and beyond the arms factories, it produces a range of goods from washing machines and butane cylinders to olive oil and pasta. It is not voluntarily going to dismantle its economic empire, nor is it likely to repeal the austerity measures required by the IMF and the World Bank as the price for a $4.8 billion loan. Unemployment now runs at 50 percent and since Egypt requires at least $20 billion dollars next year to keep the economy running, further austerity measures are in store.
Under the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood ran an extensive social service operation to provide the welfare that the state could not. Under current conditions of oppression, rather than run this safety net, it is likely to use the deteriorating economic situation to fuel its insurgency. This is a time for the United States to compel its allies in the Arab world–Saudi Arabia and many of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states–that are supporting the military coup to cut off aid to the military and force it to cede power to a democratically elected new order, an political order that accommodates the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tags: Brazil, China, democracy, Egypt, Europe, India, Libya, Middle East, South Africa, Tunisia, United States
Heaping irony upon irony, three weeks after protesters cheered the military for ousting Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, the new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on the people to take to the streets in a show of support for him to defeat “violence and potential terrorism.” And taking the large crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square as a mandate to crush supporters of the democratically elected president, the army launched a massacre of Morsi loyalists at their Cairo sit-in on Saturday 27 June 2013.
Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. But perhaps his biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus, laughably called its security services.
Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi has himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they killed Morsi’s supporters last Saturday. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2011, General al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.
In yet another irony, the liberals installed in the interim government by the military blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor have the liberals protested the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011. As University of Oklahoma professor Samer S Shehata observes, Egypt’s tragedy is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”
When television cameras beam pictures of massive crowds in Tahrir Square opposing President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is well to remember that in the first round of last year’s presidential elections, the candidate who won a plurality of votes in Cairo and in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, was neither Morsi nor his opponent in the run off election, but a secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Long decades of providing social services to poor neighborhoods in Cairo and other cities, and in the rural areas where most Egyptians live has created a massive constituency of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. No democracy can take root in Egypt by excluding them as the military seeks to do with the connivance of the liberals and the West.
When secular Egyptians—even radicals like Samir Amin—rejoice at the military’s ouster of a democratically elected president and plaster the general’s photo all across Cairo, they repeat Morsi’s fatal mistake of relying on the army and the police rather than on democratic institutions and protocols. By shutting down Islamists’ media outlets, reviving the secret police, and conspiring to ban the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, the military is fast overturning the gains of the Arab Spring. No future government is safe from military intervention.
The coup d’etat against Egypt’s democratically elected government will have resonances far beyond the country’s borders. As the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has affiliates across the Islamic world and while these parties have largely renounced violence, now they could well conclude that violence is the only way to achieve power. After all, previously in 1992, as the Islamists were poised to win an election in Algeria, the army annulled the election. After they are denied office a second time, why should they place their hopes again in the electoral process? An ultraconservative Libyan cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sibra has already admitted that it has become impossible to persuade militias in Benghazi to lay down their weapons.
The interim government imposed by the military is also not going to be able to solve Egypt’s economic problems that also fueled the opposition to the Morsi government. When the tourist industry was in the doldrums and over 40% of the population was living below the poverty level, Morsi ended the food and utility subsidies as demanded by the IMF as the price for a $4.8 billion loan. As prices soared, food became unaffordable and the World Food Program reported that the growth of a third of all children in the country was stunted in 2011. Neither the military nor the interim government it installed is likely to reinstate subsidies and the military which controls 40% of the country’s economy will zealously safeguard its privileges. No future government will dare tamper with the military’s perks.
With poverty and disenchantment in the streets, and continuing oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, chances are that Egypt is in for a prolonged bout of conflict unless international forces intervene. By closing the life-giving tunnels to the Palestinians brutally imprisoned in Gaza, the military has played on Israel’s security fears and inoculated the coup against pressure from Washington. And the collapse of Egypt’s democratic essay has once again prompted the racist trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy. In an op-ed in the New York Times on the day after the coup, David Brooks wrote: “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”
It is a real pity that the so-called emerging powers—China, India, Brazil, and South Africa don’t weigh in on the events in Egypt and leave the West to define an ‘international response’! Democracy, after all, is not the exclusive preserve of the West—and the few governments elected by popular vote in Europe and North America before the Second World War were underpinned by colonial or neo-colonial exploitation of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Democracy is no privileged preserve of any peoples–and the peoples of the world ought to pressure governments everywhere to adhere to democratic norms!
Tags: Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, Manufacturing, United States, Urban, world politics, World-economy
Detroitism has emerged a while ago to encapsulate the emergence of urban ruins in North America and Europe–from Camden NJ to Naples and Bucharest–with the decline of manufacturing and the outsourcing of production to low- and middle-income economies in Asia and Latin America. Populations of these cities have declined sharply–from 1.8 million fifty years ago to 700,000 today in Detroit, shrinking tax revenues and depressing property values leading to a degradation of city services and civic amenities and spiking the crime rate. Abandoned houses are stripped of their valuables–metal and copper are sold to junk merchants to be sent to India and China to be melted down and recycled to fuel these ‘emerging economies.’
Smaller towns and cities in the United States have been declining even longer–for more than a century as the mechanization of agriculture and the exhaustion of natural resources set in even before manufacturing began to move to the non-unionized states of the ‘Sunbelt’ and later to even lower-wage locations overseas. And the emergence of ‘big box’ retailers like Wal-mart hollowed out their commercial cores as Edward Alden noted.
And so it has been with Binghamton, located at the confluence of the Susquehanna and the Chenango rivers in southern New York State. A small farming community till the Chenango Canal was constructed in the mid-1830s, linking it the the Erie Canal at Utica. In addition, the arrival of the railways in the mid-19th century transformed the area into a minor industrial hub for the production of cigars, and later shoes, and high-tech electronics. Between 1860 and 1880, the population of Binghamton rose from 8,325 to a little over 35,000. Tanneries and shoe factories–most notably the Endicott Johnson shoe factory–made Binghamton and its neighboring Johnson City one of the major shoe manufacturing centers in the United States
By the mid-1950s however, competition from several other locations led to a steep decline of shoe production though its impact was cushioned by the rise of several high-tech firms: IBM which was founded in nearby Endicott, Edwin Link who invented the flight stimulator, Valvoline which was to become Whirlpool Corporation
At the same time, the construction of the interstate highway system, led to a fall in ridership on the trains and the last passenger train rolled off the tracks of the Lackawanna Station in Binghamton in December 1964.
The continuing growth of IBM and other technology companies related to defense and the location of one of the four university centers of the State University of New York system led to further growth over the next two decades.
Yet, the gradual decline of IBM and the closure of the last shoe factory in the 1990s led to a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the city. The arrival of big box retailers like Wal-Mart finally hollowed out the city’s commercial core.
The population of Binghamton, which had peaked at 80.674 in 1950 slid to 47, 376 in the census of 2010–less than it was a 100 years ago in 1910.
Tags: Chile, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Human Rights, international relations, Middle East, Muslim Brotherhood, United States, world politics
Egypt’s Tahrir Square is once again dominating world news. For the second time in a little more than two years, the army has deposed a president. If the first had ruled as a dictator for 30 years, the second was popularly elected and had been in office for just 12 months. Both times there were massive protests and using these protests as a pretext, Western politicians and their allies in the Middle East have cautiously welcomed the ouster of a democratically elected leader–even calling it a ‘democratic coup’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Egypt’s tragedy now, as Samer S. Shehata puts it is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals ands liberals who are not democrats.”
Just as the masses there had brought about the ouster of the long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, much larger popular assemblies gathered in the square on June 30, 2013 on the anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi taking office to demand his ouster. Nabuib Sawiris, a wealthy Coptic Christian businessman who founded the Al Masreyeen Al Ahrar party, tweeted that the BBC claimed that the demonstrations against Morsi were the largest in “the history of mankind” and though the BBC had made no such claim, the tweet went viral.
Be that as it may, that there was massive opposition to President Morsi was evident by the turnout of crowds demanding his ouster in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere. Notably though these were cities that had voted for a different candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi–a secular leftist–than for Morsi or his rival in the run-off, Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. That Morsi secured only 51.7 percent of the vote in the run-off against a factotum of the old regime should have indicated the depth of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood that Morsi represented.
The fact that the main secular candidate was able to capture the largest share of the vote only in the major urban centers puts in perspective the anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square. It highlights a sharp urban-rural divide that will only widen if the Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to compete in the elections promised by the military-installed government.
Morsi turned out to be an incredibly incompetent president. Despite his narrow margin of victory, he overreached the mandate given to him especially last November when he sought to place himself above the law–though he quickly reversed himself after the streets erupted in anger. He pushed through a constitution after all the non-Islamic parties had walked out. When jt was put to a snap referendum, the turnout was only 32 percent of the eligible voters as most opposition groups boycotted the referendum.
Of course, what Morsi did was not very different from what George W. Bush did in the United States–after stealing an election with the help of Supreme Court judges nominated by Republican presidents, he set to rule as if he had a massive mandate to impose a far-right agenda!
Soon after Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s Coptic Christians faced increased attacks and Morsi did nothing, after he came to power, to reassure them.Under the military interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and Morsi’s election, assaults against women rose sharply and the current minister of defense and head of the military who deposed Morsi, General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, Gilbert Achcar, writes
distinguished himself in June 2011 by justifying the “virginity tests” that the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] had inflicted, among other humiliations, on seventeen female demonstrators who had been arrested on Tahrir Square in March.
Morsi had to contend with remnants of the Mubarak regime which were deeply ensconced in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military, Just days before the presidential run-off that Morsi won, Egypt’s Constitutional Court appointed by Mubarak dissolved the first popularly elected lower house of parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. More than a week before the military gave Morsi an ultimatum, it had begun deploying troops in cities without informing him. And the police refused to protect offices of the Muslim Brotherhood from attacks.
Meanwhile, the economy nosedived as Morsi implemented the IMF’s plans to end food and utility subsidies which led in turn to more street protests that ensured that the country’s tourism sector would not recover. When 40 percent of the population was below the poverty line of $2 a day, the IMF’s austerity measures imposed to secure a $4.8 billion loan, compounded the pressures and led to the explosive street protests.With the weakening of the currency, food prices have soared and the World Food Program reports that 31 percent of children experienced stunted growth in 2011. it is not that food is unavailable–just that it is not affordable and the withdrawal of subsidies under IMF directions will only make matters worse.
None of the candidates seeking to replace Morsi have rejected the IMF’s ruinous austerity drive. Hence, Morsi’s ouster even if followed by an election is not likely to turn Egypt’s economy around. If anything, it could make matters much, much worse. In a remarkably unguarded editorial, the Wall Street Journal opined
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.
Of course, after Pinochet assassinated Salvador Allende, Chile did not begin a transition to democracy for 18 years during which opponents of the regime were routinely tortured and executed en masse. As Amy Davidson writes,
Egyptians might not consider themselves as lucky if Cairo’s sports stadiums were turned into mass-execution sites, as Santiago’s were. (One wonders how many free passes for arbitrary arrests the Egyptian generals will earn from the Journal for each free-market reformer they hire.)
Despite Morsi being democratically elected, such is the West’s abhorrence of the Muslim Brotherhood, that neither Washington nor the European capitals have condemned his ouster and called it a military coup. Defending the coup, Tony Blair writes in the Guardian
I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn’t on its own mean effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge.
David Brooks, goes further–and denies that democracy can even work in Egypt in breathtakingly racist terms:
It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.
Yet, what the coup does most of all is to reverse the Arab Spring which had put the army back in its barracks. The military is once again king maker and future governments are unlikely to defy the military–the military that controls some 30 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy and insulates itself from the economic problems of the masses. The military has not merely ousted Morsi, as Fawaz Gerges notes, “it has ousted democracy.”
This need not have happened. As the protests grew, Morsi offered to form a government of national unity–when he was on the ropes, he could have been forced to accept a prime minister acceptable to the opposition.
There is no indication that the military–or any government that it installs–is going to reverse the austerity policies that hurts the most vulnerable Egyptians. The military has already withdrawn the offer of prime ministership that it had made to Mohammed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize laureate, as the Islamist Nour Party refused to work with him. Coptic priests continue to be killed and more than 80 women were assaulted in Tahrir Square on the night al-Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster. If they are willing to work with the Islamists, why should the Islamists trust the military after the ousted Morsi? And if they exclude them, they are ignoring the 50 percent who voted for Morsi and the country’s best organized political force.
Morsi’s ouster had region-wide significance. If the world looks idly by, why should Islamists elsewhere participate in democratic processes. As Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, an ultraconservative cleric in Benghazi, Libya says it is now impossible to persuade the militias there to lay down their weapons and trust in democracy:
Do you think I can sell that to the people anymore? I have been saying all along, ‘If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.’ Now they will just say, ‘Look at Egypt,’ and you don’t need to say anything else.
This was the time for the United States to call for the restoration of democracy but once again. Washington and its allies have sided with the anti-democratic forces. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the United States, a day after ousting Morsi, the military demolished the tunnels with Gaza, the tunnels that were vital lifelines to the besieged Palestinians.
The problem of a country where the democrats are not liberal and the liberals are not democrats as Shehata put it so well is not going to be solved any time soon. Democrats must accept that minorities have rights, stakes, and interests that must be protected, and liberals must recognize that armies cannot be king makers in democracies.
Tags: Bolivia, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom, United Nations, United States, whistle blower
Rarely in modern history has a statesman’s words been so at odds with his actions as those of French President Francois Hollande in dealing with US spying on its allies. When Mr Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) infrastructure analyst, revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union’s offices and embassies of several EU member states, tapped into communications cables, and bugged the 2009 meeting of the G20 leaders in the UK, the French president thundered that this was “unacceptable behaviour” among friends and allies. Yet, on suspicion that Mr Snowden may have been on board the Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, Paris took the unprecedented step of refusing the plane permission to fly over its territory on Tuesday.
Actions speak louder than words and while European leaders have feigned outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens and bugging of their embassies, they did not want the man who revealed the extent of US espionage to seek asylum in their countries. If Mr Snowden were on the Bolivian president’s plane and if he were to ask for asylum during a refuelling stop, it would have placed the government of a European state in an impossible situation. Since EU-wide laws prohibit the extradition of persons to countries with capital punishment, it would be politically suicidal for any government to deliver him to Washington. Yet, while European leaders were vociferous in denouncing US espionage, none were willing to defy the US on the issue.
Hence, France, Portugal and Spain took the unprecedented step of revoking pre-arranged flight permissions for President Morales’ plane—an action in which they were subsequently joined by Italy. When the plane, running low on fuel, finally landed in Vienna’s Schwechat airport, President Morales was prevented from leaving for 13 hours while the Austrians satisfied themselves that Mr. Snowden was not on the plane.
Let us be clear: Mr Snowden is not a spy. He did not steal US secrets at the behest of a foreign power. He did not publish the contents of the espionage. He merely revealed its massive reach, and its sheer illegality and violation of human rights on a planetary scale by tracking the communications of citizens the world over. He is a whistleblower. The UN defines a whistleblowers “as individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrecy.”
The special UN rapporteur for the freedom of expression in 2004, along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American states, the Guardian newspaper reports, enjoined all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith’”. By revealing the magnitude of US espionage against their citizens and governments, Mr Snowden clearly acted in public interest.
Indeed, before Mr Snowden’s revelations, the Director of US National Intelligence, Mr James Clapper had testified to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that in March that the NSA did not collect data indiscriminately on millions of Americans—a testimony he was compelled to retract this week on the scarcely credible ground that he had “simply did not think” of the relevant provision in the Patriot Act that permitted the collection of such data. Likewise, President Barack Obama had claimed several times that the NSA was not eavesdropping on phone calls domestically without warrants—a claim that is proven wrong by Mr Snowden’s revelations.
Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, observed that “Americans justify everything by terrorism. The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists.”
Let us also recall that these very same European governments—especially Spain and Portugal—allowed the use of their “airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition [torture] operations” as the Open Society’s Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition investigation uncovered in a report published earlier this year. An ongoing investigation in France is examining whether the government permitted similar CIA flights. Victims can be carried over their airspace to be tortured but whistleblowers who reveal breaches of their citizens’ privacy and of their own sovereignty cannot! And this from member states of the EU that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”!
Speaking out against US actions while surreptitiously aiding Washington is, of course, not a novel practice for its European allies. Ten years ago, the then French president Jacques Chirac loudly proclaimed that an assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unacceptable to Paris but when the US assault started Chirac opened French airspace to US military flights—something he had not done as premier for Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. Though Germany also opposed the Iraq war, once it had begun, its foreign minister prayed for the ‘rapid collapse’ of the resistance. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin for a decisive victory for the US ‘for economic and political reasons,’ just as he offered asylum to Mr Snowden on conditions that he knew would be unacceptable.
The current generation of European leaders have not known a time in their lives when the United States did not dominate their countries—in the economic, political, and perhaps even cultural arenas. For them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing, to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether. Hence, even when their sovereignty was violated with the bugging of their diplomatic missions and EU offices, and when the privacy of their citizens was infringed by the tapping of their phones and digital communications, all they could do was to do all they could to see that Mr Snowden does not seek asylum in their countries even if that meant endangering the lives of President Morales and his entourage. Would they have done that if President Morales was of European descent?
Tags: democracy, Human Rights, Syria, Turkey, United States, world politics
What began as a peaceful sit-in against government plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul, into a shopping mall has been met with perhaps the most violent police attacks on peaceful protesters in recent history.
Initially, trotting out clichéd Western tropes about the Middle East, international media had painted the clash between protesters and the government as a conflict between secular and Islamist Turks. The claim that this is a secular revolt against an Islamic identity is based on prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. But the AKP’s support came not only from the Islamists. AKP’s successes at the ballot box has to do with the government diluting the dominance of the industrial family clans of Istanbul and steering benefits to the rural poor in Anatolia and elsewhere.
Faced with a disorganized opposition, the AKP government has become increasingly authoritarian. Last month, the Turkish parliament passed a law severely restricting the sale of alcohol, and the Ankara metro made an announcement asking passengers “to act in accordance with moral rules” after a couple was caught kissing on security cameras–an announcement that was met by dozens of couples locking lips in front of the capital’s metro stations!
Today, the protests stem from the government’s increasingly authoritarian policies and its majoritarian conception of power. Zeyno Üstun, one of the first 50 demonstrators to occupy Gezi Park on May 27 says
Sure, there are hardcore secularists in the crowds. But there are also feminists, LGBT activists, anarchists, socialists of various stripes, Kurdish movements leaders, unionized workers, architects and urban planners, soccer hooligans, environmentalists, and people who are protesting for the first time! Someone wearing an Atatürk [the founder of the Turkish Republic as a secular, ethnically Turkish nation-state] T-shirt walks alongside another waving a flag of [imprisoned Kurdish leader] Abdullah Öcalan.
Tags: China, East Asia, India, interstate system, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines, United Nations, United States, US hegemony, Vietnam
Rarely has the manufacturing of consent in the mainstream media been as thorough as it has been in the case of North Korea. It is the original ‘hermit kingdom,’ isolated from the outside world by a dynasty of communist dictators–a ‘socialism in one family’–and irrational to the extent of threatening Washington with a nuclear Armageddon. This reigning consensus is so widespread that there has been little challenge to it in the major news outlets of the world and yet, a moment’s reflection suggests that there are many flaws in this narrative.
In the first instance, in a rare piece of insight into North Korea, a former Western intelligence officer who writes under the pseudonym of James Church has argued that since isolationism is a two-way street, the rest of the world is even more ignorant about North Korea than Pyongyang is about the wider world. After all, North Korean officials can monitor radio and television broadcasts, plug into the Internet, and analyse books and magazines from the outside world. They know what people outside their borders are thinking and doing. But people outside North Korea have little insight into what goes on in the country and are metaphorically reduced to examining the entrails of sacrificial animals to divine Pyongyang’s intentions.
Hence, Church writes, “We…have developed a fog of myths about them as a substitute for knowledge. These myths, handed down from administration to administration, are comforting in their long familiar ring, but make it difficult for us to avoid walking in circles. The North Koreans move nimbly through this fog” like small boats deftly weaving in and out between lumbering vessels.
Rather than nuclear weapons, Church argues, North Korea’s greatest strength is the capacity to behave badly: by carefully choosing the right time, it knows its actions will force big powers to pay close attention even though they may grind their teeth. What it fears most is being swept aside in big power politics, so by playing its weak hand cleverly, it seeks dialogue with the United States, a process that was derailed when former president George W. Bush labelled it part of an “axis of evil.”
Recent concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear program stemmed from an underground nuclear test on February 12, 2013—its third in seven years. In response, the United States and its allies pressed the UN Security Council to add new sanctions on the country: enhanced scrutiny over shipments and air cargo, a ban on the sale of luxury goods, expanded restrictions on a range of institutions and senior officials. China, notably, signed on to these sanctions and did not veto them.
If China is dragging its feet on the issue of North Korea, it is also because Beijing has a stake in the survival of the Kim Jong-eun regime. The collapse of North Korea could bring a stream of refugees to China which already has 2 million ethnic Koreans and threaten the stability of the border region. Moreover, since a unified Korea is likely to be led by Seoul, it raises the possibility of US forces on China’s border with Korea. A unified Korea with some 70 million people would also become a formidable economic competitor and transform the dynamics of the regional economy as Timothy Beardson writes in the Financial Times.
When President Barack Obama acknowledges that North Korea does not have a single deployable nuclear warhead, and according to SIPRI, the five permanent members of the Security Council—all declared nuclear powers—had approximately 19,265 as of January 1, 2012, this response to Pyongyang’s third nuclear test seems disproportionate. This is all the more so since North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the other states outside the NPT—India, Israel, and Pakistan—are not treated in the same way as Pyongyang. As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, “If it is offensive for North Korea to talk of launching a nuclear strike against the United States (a threat that is empty because the country has no system to deliver the few nuclear weapons it has), how is it less offensive for the US to warn Iran that it will be bombed if it fails to stop its nuclear research?”
In response, statements in the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Rodong Simun, on March 6, 2013 declared that if the US continues to threaten it with nuclear weapons, Pyongyang now had the ability to turn Seoul and Washington into “a sea of fire.” North Korea also repudiated the 1953 Korean War ceasefire and cut the Red Cross hotline though lines between military and aviation authorities across the 38th parallel remain open.
Notably, till the middle of March, its foreign office maintained that it will abandon its nuclear weapons program if the United States removes its nuclear threats and abandons its hostile posture.
In reply, as Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos of San Francisco’s Nautilus Institute note, on March 25 the United States flew B-52 Stratofortress stealth bombers over South Korea in military exercises that stimulated a nuclear attack on North Korea. Not only did these military exercises stir deep memories in North Korea where air raids killed an estimated 20 per cent of the population during the Korean War but the B-52 flights at the same time demonstrated China’s inability to affect US mobilization. The United States also bolstered its anti-missile batteries in Alaska and the West Coast.
Should it then surprise us that the North Korean ruling party’s Central Committee Plenum meeting set a ‘new strategic line’ of simultaneously pursuing the path of economic construction and “building nuclear armed forces”? It also announced that it would resume uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon reactor plant that had been moth-balled in October 2007 as a part of the denuclearization process.
Nevertheless, the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum ended by also declaring that “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world and realize the denuclearization of the world.”
In a state born of guerrilla struggle, leadership requires as Hayes and Cavazos suggest, endless battles and if Kim’s leadership itself is not under threat, he needs to embellish his own credentials. Hence, his belligerence is intended as a professor of Sociology at Seoul National University also suggests, as a manoeuvre to outflank the military while preparing the ground to initiate a more pragmatic economic policy. Thus amid the rattling of nuclear sabres, Kim has appointed as his premier, Pak Pong-ju a pragmatic economist who had been forced out of office in 2007 by the military, reportedly because he followed Chinese suggestions on economic reforms too closely.
North Korea does not have enough resources to build its economy and to maintain the world’s third largest conventional armed force. Unlike China when it started its reform process in the late 1970s, Pyongyang does not have a huge reserve labor force in agriculture. Its economy is sustained only by extensive food and oil imports from China. To successfully pursue economic growth, a nuclear deterrent will enable Kim to divert labor from his conventional military and hence the ‘new strategic line’ announced by the WPK’s Central Committee Plenum—to simultaneously work at both economic construction and ‘building nuclear armed forces.’
However, by promising not to export nuclear weapons or material, Kim signals that he has no intention of crossing red lines. Indeed, during the recent visit to North Korea by US basketball star Denis Rodman, Kim asked him to tell President Obama to phone him. The American president pointedly refused to accept this invitation in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.
Again, in an unusual move, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hyon Hak-bong addressed the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and asserted that North Korea’s only interest was its legitimate self-defence. While North Korean ambassadors have attended meetings of fraternal associations in the past, it has usually been to accept messages of appreciation or praise—not usually to make statements. What better way to signal Pyongyang’s intentions to negotiate than for its ambassador to make a statement in a European capital?
All US Secretary of State, John Kerry, would offer in return was an offer to talk if North Korea offered unspecified concessions to show its good faith. Faced with US and South Korean intransigence, North Korea effectively closed the Kaesŏng Indusrial Park—a special industrial region—where 123 South Korean companies had been employing 53,000 North Korean workers and directly paying Pyongyang $90 million in wages every year. Significantly, while this is a serious loss to the Kim regime, it is also a non-military response to what the regime sees as persistent US provocation.
While the military was suspicious of Kaesŏng, viewing it as a Trojan horse, the regime’s decision to close it (perhaps temporarily) may indicate that it is trying to show that it is willing to bear a significant cost to send a message that it is serious in its stance.
This should be seen in the light of the fact that the government has turned a blind eye to the growth of a market activities in the country which, Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on Korea estimates provides 75 per cent of the income of the people outside the military and the upper echelons of the party. Frequent travel to China and the availability of DVDs about South Korea have opened their eyes to new possibilities offered by consumerism.
This makes it all the more important for the regime to compel its adversaries to change their policies, to secure a peace agreement, to denuclearize the peninsula, and to get reparations from the Japanese who colonized the country from 1895 to 1945. This has been the aim of the regime for 60 years but has assumed a new urgency. A peace treaty is a sign that Pyongyang needs to show that the United States and its friends that grotesquely masquerade as “the international community” accepts it as a legitimate state.