Syria in the Age of Punitive Missile Strikes

August 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Intolerable US Arrogance

May 22, 2012 at 10:31 am | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations | Leave a comment
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By what arrogance does NATO invite a head of state to a meeting and then have the head of state of the host nation refuse the visiting dignitary a one-on-one meeting even as his rival is granted an audience and then expect the snubbed leader to obsequiously accede to all demands even as drone aircraft murders the leader’s citizens and even troops with impunity? Yet, this is what President Barack Obama did to Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari who was summoned to the NATO conclave in Chicago at the very last minute. When it became apparent that a mere invitation was not going to make him cave in, he was refused a meeting with the US President who nevertheless met with the Zardari’s rival, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai thus humiliating Zardari. When aides scrambled to get the two presidents to “accidentally bump” into each other at the meeting, Obama pointedly told a press conference that that was their only exchange.

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Last November, a strike by a US drone aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The United States has refused to apologize for the murders even though it has acknowledged that its drone aircraft was responsible for the deaths. Consider the situation. The US needs Pakistan as an ally–granted that it is a cantankerous and difficult one. Surely, the best way to further alienate its citizens is to indiscriminately kill them by drone planes controlled from bases deep inside the US. The victims have little warning of their impending death–and the controllers of the planes do not put themselves in harm’s way at all. This is blood sport for them without risk–and when innocent civilians or Pakistani soldiers, the very ones the US depends on to stop al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, are killed, President Obama refuses to apologize!

Given rising anger in Pakistan, the government shut down two key supply routes for the NATO troops in Afghanistan, forcing the North Atlantic alliance to use more circuitous routes through Central Asia and Russia. Again, snubbing President Zardari, the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, lauded the help and support of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–pointedly ignoring Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan has demanded a 20-times hike of the transit fee for trucks–for $250 to $5000. But this could have been negotiated if an apology was forthcoming.

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Without the supply routes from Pakistan, the withdrawal of equipment brought into Afghanistan for more than a decade will be immensely complicated and the chances of lethal weaponry falling into the hands of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant groups increases geometrically. It would be another nail in the coffin of the US-NATO failure in Afghanistan. After more than 10 years of war, it is unlikely that the Karzai government will survive even for the three years the Soviet supported regime survived before being toppled–and it was toppled not because the insurgents’ military successes but because Moscow stopped deliveries of arms, fuel, and other supplies. As Juan Garriges writes for the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, the likelihood of a civil war after NATO leaves is steadily increasing.

As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, unlike the Soviets, NATO is not negotiating with the Taliban but is pursuing a garrison strategy that is virtually guaranteed to fail:

Increasing numbers of Afghan troops will sit in bases and go out on patrols instead of US and British ones, but this is nothing more than “Nato with an Afghan face”. Locals see these Afghan troops as occupiers just like the US and British. Less than 4% of the Afghan National Army are southern Pashtuns. Most are Tajiks and Uzbeks who speak a different language and don’t know the area. But if you recruit more southerners in a hurry, you just feed the Taliban’s latest tactic: join the Afghan army and police, get trained by the Americans and British, then shoot them in the camp or mess hall.

In these conditions, to continue to snub Zardari and refuse to apologize for the killing of the soldiers–perhaps for domestic electoral purposes as Obama’s likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, will certainly exploit it–is almost to ensure that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) will increase its interference in Afghanistan especially since there is little love lost between the Karzai administration and the Pakistani military and political establishment.

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Finally, in NATO’s haste to cover its failure there is nary a word on the condition of Afghan women–sure to regress to the state they were in at the time of the 2001 invasion! The US-led invasion may have temporarily ousted the Taliban from Kabul and eventually killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, but it has also devastated Afghanistan, killed tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Afghans and thousands of Pakistanis, further destabilized Pakistan, fuelled the spread of al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists to Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, and east Africa, and expended trillions of dollars when the world-economy is mired in a crisis like no other since the Great Depression, and to the loss of thousands of American lives as well. Constitutional liberties have been suspended and torture has been reintroduced as a matter of state policy. The man who campaigned to change all this has done nothing at all!

The Greek Challenge: Austerity or NATO

May 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Capitalism, democracy, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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In the Greek elections on Sunday May 6, 2012, the two main parties that had governed the country since the end of the dictatorship–New Democracy and Pasok–and both of which has subscribed to the stringent austerity measures imposed on Athens for a bailout suffered a stunning set-back. Used to dominating the polls, together they received just one-third of the votes. Two-thirds of the Greek electorate voted for parties–including a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn–that rejected the austerity measures, though most Greeks still want to remain within the Eurozone. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza coalition of green and left parties that placed second in the elections, and was the big winner declared the austerity plan dead. That is certainly what the Greek voters indicated though the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European Commission President, José Manuel Durão Barroso claimed that agreements are binding and cannot be negotiated after every election. By what perverted logic does this hold: last year, when the stringent bailout conditions were imposed on Greece by the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–the then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou wanted to hold a referendum. Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, forced him to rescind the referendum. The bailout agreement, then, was foisted on the Greek people not only without their consent, but on the explicit condition that their consent not be solicited. No such international agreement can have a shred of legitimacy and the Greeks voted, in their millions, to reject it!

 

Greece electionIt was, Albert Einstein I think who said that the clearest sign of insanity is to persist in doing something that has failed repeatedly. Clearly, austerity programs have not worked. In Greece, unemployment stands at 21 per cent and the OECD estimates that real wages have fallen by 25 per cent in the last two years.According to the IMF, this will be the fifth straight year of recession for Greece to be followed by a year of stagnation. Even if the Greek government were to implement the austerity measures, the IMF estimates that in 2017, the public debt to GDP ratio would be 137 per cent, higher than at the onset of the current crisis. And thus far, IMF projections have been overly optimistic!

None of this should be surprising! After all if incomes are slashed and taxes raised, people are not going to have the resources to buy as many goods and services as they did earlier. This will lead to a contraction of the market and greater unemployment–which in turn will lead to further contractions in demand and the economy will go into a tailspin. Even Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy party and one who adheres to the austerity pact acknowledges that fully a fourth of all Greek companies have closed their doors since 2009 and a further third of the companies do not pay their workers on time

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What is surprising is that by insisting that Greece implement further austerity measures–and even suspend the rights of collective bargaining–the ‘troika’ has excluded Greece’s military expenditures from the scalpel. As Paul Haydon reported in the Guardian

In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession.

 In the five years to 2010, Greece was the largest customer for Germany’s arms industry. And in 2010, when the first bailout was being negotiated for Greece, Athens spent 7.1 billion euros on arms even as it slashed 1.8 billion in social spending. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the European member of parliament, even claimed that Papanreou had told him that German and French support for the bailout was specifically linked to continued military spending. In 2010, at 3 percent of its budget on military spending, Athens allocated a higher percentage of its spending to defense than any NATO state other than the United States.

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While it is obvious why Germany and France don’t want Greece to cut its defense spending, why are Greek politicians not raising this as an issue?

End of the Gaddafi Regime and the New Quagmire in Libya

August 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, Uncategorized, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year regime is to be celebrated as much as the way in which it was brought about must be condemned. A bunch of regime turncoats, Western agents like the rebels’ “field commander” Khalifa Hifter, and assorted others organized protests against the regime in Benghazi some six months ago in the wake of the fall of autocrats in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. When Gaddafi counter-attacked, under prodding from France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron, the United Nations sanctioned NATO to use its air power to “protect civilians” and imposed an arms embargo on Libya. As Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian, from then mission creep set in–from establishing a ‘no-fly zone’ over Benghazi, the NATO mission turned into a bombing campaign against Tripoli. NATO leaders quickly claimed that Gaddafi had to go–from protecting civilians, regime change became the new goal and even the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi was contemplated.

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Shamefully this came about because five members of the UN Security Council–Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, and India–abstained from the resolution 1973 sanctioning intervention, there was no sustained protests across the world against the massive aerial bombardment of Libya for five months by NATO forces. Emboldened by this global quiescence, the fall of the Gaddafi regime was accomplished by NATO’s Operation Siren at the break of the Ramadhan fast last Saturday. As Pepe Escobar writes:

With “Siren”, NATO came out all guns (literally) blazing; Apache gunships firing nonstop and jets bombing everything in sight. NATO supervised the landing of hundreds of troops from Misrata on the coast east of Tripoli while a NATO warship distributed heavy weapons.

On Sunday alone there may have been 1,300 civilian deaths in Tripoli, and at least 5,000 wounded. The Ministry of Health announced that hospitals were overflowing. Anyone who by that time believed relentless NATO bombing had anything to do with R2P and United Nations Resolution 1973 was living in an intensive care unit.

NATO preceded “Siren” with massive bombing of Zawiya – the key oil-refining city 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. That cut off Tripoli’s fuel supply lines. According to NATO itself, at least half of Libya’s armed forces were “degraded” – Pentagon/NATO speak for killed or seriously wounded. That means tens of thousands of dead people. That also explains the mysterious disappearance of the 65,000 soldiers in charge of defending Tripoli. And it largely explains why the Gaddafi regime, in power for 42 years, then crumbled in roughly 24 hours.

NATO’s Siren call – after 20,000 sorties, and more than 7,500 strikes against ground targets – was only made possible by a crucial decision by the Barack Obama administration in early July, enabling, as reported by The Washington Post, “the sharing of more sensitive materials with NATO, including imagery and signals intercepts that could be provided to British and French special operations troops on the ground in addition to pilots in the air”.

Only this massive NATO assault can explain the dramatic fall of Tripoli. But the fall of the Gaddafi regime poses several problems.

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First, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of the autocrat has also destroyed the institutional props of the regime. Unlike in Egypt, there is no army to step into the breach. While this could mean better prospects for the establishment of a genuine democracy, it is more than counterbalanced by the widespread dispersal of arms among a divided people. Gaddafi had nurtured tribal rivalries as a means to ensure his own survival and these rivalries had already erupted among the rebels when its top military commander General Abdul Fattah Younes was killed by his own troops on July 28. Fierce armed rivalry between tribes and other groups may ensue prompting further international intervention.

Second, five months of unchecked bombing has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and especially its oil industry. Before the civil war, Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day but this has now dropped to about 50,000 barrels a day. Javier Blas reports in the Financial Times that under the most benign scenario, it woulds take until 2013 or well beyond for Libya to return to its pre-civil war levels of production.

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But any such estimates do not account for the enormity of the destruction visited on Libya by NATO bombings–of the highways, bridges, hospitals, homes, essential services, utilities destroyed. Some of us remember all too well the Neocons saying that Iraq’s oil wealth will pay for the war and reconstruction–and look where that got the Iraqis. No aid to Libya can be expected from a Washington held captive to the ‘small government’ policies of the Tea Party acolytes or from a Eurozone dealing with sovereign debt of its weaker members. Like other states of the global South, Libya will be left in a quagmire as NATO seeks other locations to intervene and destroy with nary a whimper from the ’emerging powers’ of Brazil, India, China, or South Africa!

Will Barack Obama be the first American president to invade Africa?

April 21, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Arms Control, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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One month into the bombing of Libya by NATO forces, if anything the situation is worse than before. After an initial assault, the United States withdrew to a supporting role but those of its NATO allies that chose to participate in the military attack against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s forces–mainly France and the UK, with some support from Spain, Denmark, Canada, and Belgium–have discovered that they do not have the military force required to roll back the Libyan government troops. Without anti-tank planes, they were unable to stop the pro-Gaddafi forces’ advance against the rebels in the east or to relieve the siege of Misurata. President Barack Obama has now authorized the use of US Predator drones and is gradually being drawn out of the supporting role he had sought. Will the NATO allies and the US have to commit ground troops to resolve the impossible situation they have got themselves into? Will Barack Obama go down in history as the first American president to invade an African state?

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Despite the aerial bombardment of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, the ragtag militia of the rebels do not have the training or the weaponry to withstand his forces which have now adapted measures to blunt the effectiveness of air raids–using human shields, riding in pickup trucks, using camouflage. About the rebels, a New York Times correspondent wrote:

… by almost all measures by which a military might be assessed, they are a hapless bunch. They have almost no communication equipment. There is no visible officer or noncommissioned officer corps. Their weapons are a mishmash of hastily acquired arms, which few of them know how to use.

Military chiefs on both sides of the Altantic had urged caution but France’s Nicholas Sarkozy to boost his domestic poll ratings and Britain’s David Cameron seeking some of the glory that Margaret Thatcher reaped from her victory over Argentina in the Malvinas conflict urged President Obama to support their ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya. Yet, there was never any clarity as to who the rebels were–as General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command, told Congressional leaders and it appears that they represent coastal tribes of Cyrenaica while the tribes of the interior and the west continue their allegiance to Colonel Gaddafi.

Most notably, the objectives of the NATO mission in Libya are unclear or cannot be achieved merely by an air campaign. Its efforts have certainly postponed the defeat of the insurgents but without ground troops, it cannot oust the Colonel from power even though Sarkozy, Brown, and Obama have all called for his departure as the only acceptable solution. Note that this was not mandated by the UN Security Council resolution 1973 which sanctions the NATO operation and the resolution had explicitly forbidden ‘foreign occupation troops of any form.’ Yet, Britain, France, and Italy have all said they would send ‘unarmed military advisors‘–a prospect almost certain to involve deeper involvement: what would happen if these ‘unarmed’ advisors were targeted by the Libyan government forces as they surely are a legitimate military target?

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Insistence of the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from power rules out a negotiated settlement. A more likely prospect is that Libya will be partitioned into an eastern part which will effectively become a NATO protectorate with the bulk of Libya’s oil supplies. Neither France nor Britain has sufficient forces to keep pro-Gaddafi forces from attacking the Benghazi enclave–and it would require US boots on the ground–making the first African-American president of the US to be the first American president to invade and occupy an African state! After all, Khalifa Haftar who has been claiming to be the field commander of the rebel forces had been living near the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia for 20 years and they had provided him with a training camp.

The whole of Libya–east and west–would require massive reconstruction assistance given the damage done to its infrastructure by civil war and aerial bombardment. Who is going to fund this reconstruction? Is it ‘humanitarian to bomb the hell out of a country and then leave it in shambles? After all, the neo-conversatives claim that Iraq–which has far greater oil reserves–can pay for its own reconstruction remains hollow eight years after the US invasion.

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Even if the Gaddafi regime were to implode due to economic sanctions and the loss of the bulk of its oil revenues, his boast of arming every Libyan is likely to plunge the country into a prolonged phase of violent disruptions.

Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

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The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

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By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

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This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

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In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

Libya and the Politics of Intervention

March 28, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, World Politics | 2 Comments
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US-led attacks appear to have turned the tide against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s counter-revolution in Libya. Attacks by some 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles–each costing $575,000–and some eight days of air raids have established a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya and US, French, British, Danish, Canadian, and other air forces have also targeted the Libyan government’s ground forces to deadly effect. The Libyan rebels, who had been virtually encircled in Benghazi have, as a result been able to roll back the government forces from Brega, Ras Lanuf, Ajdabiyia, and other towns in the east and are now attacking the town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birth place.

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How are we to react to this exercise of Western military might against a state of the Global South? People like Gilbert Achcar and Juan Cole have vigorously defended the intervention in Libya. To them, the alternative would have been a brutal massacre of Gaddafi’s opponents by the better trained and equipped militias of the regime. For them, there were no other countervailing forces capable of intervening–not the African Union or Arab States. Western intervention was the only available option to stop a murderous dictator. It was sanctioned by the Arab League and the rebels themselves had pleaded for a ‘no-fly’ zone–a plea from a popular movement that could not be ignored. This was, a humanitarian intervention and not an attempt to secure access to Libya’s oil resources. After all, as Achcar points out, virtually all Western countries had oil companies operating in Libya already: “Italy’s ENI, Germany’s Wintershall, Britain’s BP, France’s Total and GDF Suez, US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess, and Occidental, British-Dutch Shell, Spain’s Repsol, Canada’s Suncor, Norway’s Statoil.”

There is of course the obvious objection: the West applies double standards, not only to Israel’s murderous assault on the Palestinians in Gaza but also to the brutal repression of protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen. As Richard Falk puts it:

How is this Libyan response different in character than the tactics relied upon by the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain, and in the face of far less of a threat to the status quo, and even that taking the form of political resistance, not military action. In Libya the opposition forces were relying almost from the outset on heavy weapons, while elsewhere in the region the people were in the streets in massive numbers, and mostly with no weapons, and in a few instances, with very primitive ones (stones, simple guns) that were used in retaliation for regime violence.

Indeed, almost from the very beginning of the protests, the rebels had taken arms and before Colonel Gaddafi’s forces launched a counter-assault, ragtag rebel militias had taken towns militarily from the regime’s gendarmes. Claiming that the regime was using African mercenaries, the rebels targeted anyone who looked “African’ including members of Libya’s African tribes because it is both an African and an Arab state.

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Analogies are often drawn to the situation in Rwanda but as the allusion to the African tribes in Libya suggests, no binary ethnic divide exists in Libya. There are many tribes and the confrontation between the regime and its opposition does not fracture along a single overriding ethnic divide and there is no genocidal intent in what is essentially a civil war between the regime and its opponents.

The character of the opposition also remains ambiguous–they include former members of the regime, local notables, radical Islamists, and eastern tribes opposed to western tribes. This was not the democratic movement that had swept autocrats from office in Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council may have supported the imposition of ‘no-fly’ zone but they do not speak for the Arab street and many of their members–Bahrain, Yemen–are actively engaged in brutally repressing democracy movements in their own states, and Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have intervened in Bahrain to help the al-Khalifa family crush its opponents.

The United Nations Security Council authorized the intervention–but only because the five members who abstained (Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany) did not exercise their responsibilities. If they did not have enough information as the Indian delegate said–they should have abstained. The Russian Foreign Minister has subsequently said that the US-led air raids have far exceeded the Security Council’s authorization: this had been also raised by Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League before he was pressured to retract his words.

Moreover, since Gaddafi has paid off many tribes, especially in the west, with oil revenues over the last 40 years, he has a solid core of support. What happens when the rebel forces attacks these population centers? Does the Security Council resolution to ‘protect the civilians’ not apply to them?

As also mentioned in an earlier post, if the regime follows through on its promise to arm its supporters, it could lead to a prolonged period of civil strife if Gaddafi is ousted as remnants of his supports could mount an armed resistance. This could lead to a new flow of African asylum-seekers to Europe. After all, as Achcar notes, a deal struck between Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi reduced the flow of asylum-seekers to Italy from 36,000 in 2008 to a mere 4,300 in 2010. A prolonged stalemate or civil war in Libya, moreover as Vijay Prashad has written would constrain the West’s “ability to transit the oil that sits under its soil, and so dangerously harm the “way of life” of those who matter. Events had to be hastened.”

Intervention in Libya also raises a question: if Gaddafi had not abandoned his nuclear program in 2003, would the West have intervened in its civil war. Even though Gaddafi had sided with Idi Amin, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda harshly criticizes “by now habit of the Western countries over-using their superiority in technology to impose war on less developed societies without impeachable logic. This will be the igniting of an arms race in the world.”

Finally, to the argument that there was no alternative to Western intervention in preventing a blood bath, the African Union had created an ad hoc commission to negotiate between the Libyan regime and its opponents but it was not allowed to begin its work on account of the air strikes and missile launches.

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It is also perhaps worth wondering whether the United States which had been opposed to the French and British clamor for intervention, suddenly changed its mind just as Der Spiegel published photographs of grinning American troops posing with Afghan corpses–an event that got scant coverage in the event of the war against Libya. Otherwise, it may have got as much coverage as the atrocities in the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. So much for humanitarian intervention!

 

No-fly zones, Libya and the Arab Revolt

March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 2 Comments
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The United Nations Security Council–with the abstention of Russia, China, Germany, India, and Brazil–has done what military analysts have said would be folly: it has voted to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya and ‘take all necessary action’ short of ‘a foreign occupation force of any form’ to force Colonel Muammar Gaddafi out of power. ‘All necessary action’ could involve a ‘no-drive zone’ to cripple the Libyan regime’s armored vehicles from attacking Benghazi, Misrata, Tobruk, and other remaining rebel strongholds as well as sending in military advisers.

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Advocates of the resolution have evoked humanitarian reasons–chiefly the regime’s brutal counter-assault using its air force and paramilitary forces to roll back the rebels–for intervention. This is buttressed by the belief that Libya is not even a third-rate power and its defenses can easily be destroyed. And the rebels are clothed in the accoutrements of democracy though the only thing that unifies the rebels is their opposition to the Gaddafi regime and it is not clear what a post-Gaddafi Libya will look like or even whether it will remain unified.

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If humanitarian reasons are the chief justification, then it is clear that there is a double standard that is applied. Much has been made of the Arab League’s call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, but there has been no report of the fact that it was opposed by both Syria and Algeria. The states in support of the resolution–Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman, and Yemen–are hardly paragons of democracy. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain have brutally crushed demonstrations in their own countries; and Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf Cooperation Council states have sent more than 2000 troops to Bahrain to help the regime stay in power! Saudi Arabia has moreover prohibited protests in its eastern province, declaring such protests “illegal and un-Islamic”–and Saudi Arabia has more than 8,000 political prisoners!

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More importantly, there has been virtually no report in mainstream media in the West, that the African Union has condemned attempts to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. The AU’s 15-member peace and security council resolved, to “reaffirm[s] its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign intervention in Libya.” It formed an ad hoc committee composed of South Africa, Mauritania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage in dialogue with all parties in Libya for a speedy resolution of the crisis.

There is no certainty that the military operation will be a smooth and easy one. Less than a month ago, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had told cadets at West Point that any secretary of defense who advises a president to intervene militarily in Asia or Africa ought to have his head examined. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ let alone all the other ‘necessary actions’ voted on by the Security Council will be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up”–and of course, the major burden will be on the United States which is already engaged in two wars. British Prime Minister David Cameron may have led the charge for a ‘no-fly zone’ but Britain does not even have an aircraft carrier! General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo, has argued that intervention in Libya does not meet critical tests: it is not in US national interest, the purpose of intervention is not clear, political prospects were Gaddafi to be ousted is unclear.

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A ‘no-fly zone’ moreover, might have had a chance of success ten days ago when the Gaddafi regime launched its counter-assault. Now with the rebels in full retreat, and the regime ascendant–with the regime poised to assault the rebel capital of Benghazi–it is not clear whether a no-fly zone alone will suffice. A ‘no-drive zone’ is an even more ‘complex operation’ and increases the odds of British, American, and French casualties–Germany has refused to contribute troops to a NATO operation against Libya and Turkey is unlikely to participate as well. Colonel Gaddafi has promised to take the battle into the Mediterranean and that increases the prospects of Western civilian casualties and an escalation of the war. It will be a war Gaddafi may well lose, but it is not likely that NATO can extricate itself easily–and remember there is no international sanction for a foreign occupation force ‘of any form’ in the Security Council resolution!

If intervention is to promote democracy, George Monbiot notes that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Libya 158th of 167 countries on its Democracy Index while Saudi Arabia is ranked 160th–and in Libya “women are not officially treated as lepers were in medieval Europe.”

Here, the double standard is all too obvious. Saudi Arabia in the only remaining “swing producer”–the only oil-producing nation with enough excess capacity to raise production if supplies fall short of demand. But US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suspect that Saudi claims of reserves are exaggerated by almost 40 percent.

The Arab Revolt is not really about democracy–elections have not delivered results in the past, and when election results have angered the United States as in the Hamas triumph in Palestine, the US has condemned the results and applauded Israel’s punitive punishment of Gaza. The protests are about a wholesale change–not merely a change of rulers–because where there is a legal opposition, the opposition is often equally discredited.

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Key to the revolt has been an explosion of information–not only through al-Jazeera, but also through the Internet, travel, and TV–and the enormous growth of people aged below 25 to levels unmatched almost anywhere else. The youth exposed to a wider range of information and experiences have greater aspirations–and now that two of the tyrants have been ousted, the sense of empowerment is raised as Brian Whittaker notes.

It is this sense of empowerment that will take a beating if Western forces occupy Libya for a long while. It will signal pro-Western governments in the Persian Gulf–Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich sheikdoms that they can count on mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint from Washington, London, and Paris as they crush their domestic oppositions. Ironically, this may play well in Iran’s favor. The Islamic Republic is very careful not to portray the conflicts in a sectarian light: if it can portray it as an attack on Muslims, and when Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of Holy Places, sends its troops to slaughter other Muslims, Iran raised the issue not with the Arab League but with the Organization of Islamic Conference. The Iranian Foreign Minister asked the Conference: “How can one accept that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?” Tehran will gain even more credibility with the Arab forces when American, British, and French forces intervene in Libya.

Gaddafi’s Counter-revolution

March 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the revolt in Libya initially followed the script in Tunisia and Egypt, with protestors calling for democracy and the ouster of an autocrat who had ruled over them for long, it was quickly evident that the Libyan story would have its own murderous twists. Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi had after all supported to the end his fellow autocrats–Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak–and urged them to retain their presidencies ‘life.’ And as he had centralized all power and deliberately kept the army weak, there were no generals who could send him packing. It was clear that he was not going to go timidly.

After an initial period of paralysis, when the rebels quickly consolidated their control over the oil-rich eastern parts of the country and began advancing to towards the regime strongholds of Sirte and Tripoli, Gaddafi launched a murderous counter-assault with tanks, heavy artillery, and air planes. The paramilitary forces commanded by his sons were far better equipped that the rebels and the military deserters who had joined them and have been steadily rolling back the rebels. Stopping the rebel advance in Bin Jawad, a small town between the oil refinery port of Ras Lanuf and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. The regime’s forces have now captured the ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega and are advancing towards the rebel headquarters of Benghazi, though Misurata in central Libya still appears to be holding out despite assaults by the pro-Gaddafi forces.

After having swiftly called for Gaddafi to go, the United States and West European leaders are now in a quandary. In the first instance, it is not clear whether President Barack Obama gets it at all: on March 4, he told Florida Democrats in Miami:

“All the forces that we’re seeing at work in Egypt are forces that naturally should be aligned with us, should be aligned with Israel — if we make good decisions now and we understand sort of the sweep of history.”

The fact that demonstrators across North Africa and the Persian Gulf are not chanting anti-Israel or anti-US slogans merely shows that the protests are rooted in domestic conditions, not that they are pro-Israel. Indeed, the demand for accountable governments is a demand for governments not to be subserviently enforcing Israeli policies as Mubarak had done!

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron initially called for a no-fly zone, and other Western leaders called on Gaddafi to go, it was expected to increase pressure on him to follow Ben Ali and Mubarak and leave quietly. And as the Libyan rebels were rolling from the east towards Tripoli everyone was keen to ensure that this was a Libyan revolution, one without foreign assistance. But the regime’s counter-assualt has changed all this. Now the rebels, the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council, recognized by France as the legitimate government of the country is calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone, a call endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States. On March 11, the European Union also said it would keep military action as an option “provided there is demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.”

If the purpose of intervention–even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’–is to protect civilians, it reeks of double-standards. Not only have the United States, European leaders, or the Arab League not reacted in a similar manner to the killing of protesters elsewhere–in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories–but members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League are themselves guilty of killing protesters. At the time of writing, Yemeni forces are killing protesters in Sana’a and wounding hundreds elsewhere in the country.

While the imposition of a no-fly zone–an act of war and would imply at the very least the bombing of Libyan anti-aircraft defenses–may prevent Gaddafi from launching air raids, Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes it will not severely dampen the regime’s counter-assault. It will do nothing to its heavy artillery and its trained paramilitary forces.


Arming the rebels poses problems of another order. The Libyan National Council is headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice Minister in the Gaddafi regime but the names and identities of many of its members have not been revealed. They appear to be united only in their opposition to Gaddafi and include the entire spectrum from Islamic fundamentalists to pro-democracy activists and workers and the relative balance between these factions is anything but clear. What is clear is that the rebels have little or no military training and hence it is anything but certain that they can withstand the regime’s counter-assault even if they were provided with arms.

It is also clear that Gaddafi has a powerful constituency, bought off with his oil revenues and tribal loyalties. This inevitably implies that effective intervention on the terms being discussed by the European Union, NATO, and the United States would involve putting US and European forces on the ground. it is not clear how the US can sustain a third war in difficult financial circumstances and the intervention may strengthen Gaddafi’s hands if the Libyans see “French and English speaking troops conducting Iraq War style raids into their homes” as Vijay Prashad has rightly suggested. And any intervention coming on the heels of the US House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims will be doubly egregious.

Indeed, the autocrats represented in the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council may well have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to divert attention from the domestic problems fueling the protests back to anti-imperialism!

What is additionally noteworthy is that the military government in Egypt has not taken a strong stand against the assault launched by the Libyan regime. Its military, provisioned by the US, its infinitely better equipped than the Libyan forces and yet does nothing to intervene. Rather than supporting the Libyan protestors it does not even help Egyptian workers in Libya get back home!

If Gaddafi is able to capture Benghazi, then the tide of Arab rebellions would have been turned especially as the Saudis have allocated $37 billion to buy the loyalty of its people and the Gulf Cooperation Council is channeling $20 billion to Bahrain and Oman to similarly buy off their oppositions.

Alternatively, we could see an effective partitioning of Libya into a rebel dominated eastern wing and a Gaddafi controlled west. If this happens the control of oil, mainly located in the east and the very sparsely populated South would be crucial and the stalemate could be prolonged.

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