Coronavirus and Autocratic Resurgence

April 1, 2020 at 11:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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One of the less discussed outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the astonishing rollback of democratic rights all over the world.‘Stay at home’ decrees and commandments to maintain physical distances have allowed governments everywhere, even in long-established democracies, to suspend constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms including the rights of assembly and free movement, the right to demonstrate against governments and other entities, and to allow intrusive surveillance. Justified in the name of public safety, even if some of these powers are rescinded once the pandemic ebbs, the data collected could be used by governments (and private companies like Zoom and Facebook) to monitor citizens with little or no public scrutiny.

 A random sample of governments amassing power by exploiting the fear of widespread contagion and extensive fatalities includes the following:  Last Monday, Hungary’s  parliament controlled by his Fidesz party greenlighted a rule by decree by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as long as a state of emergency lasts. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić also assumed autocratic powers in an open-ended emergency by the suspension of its parliament, the imposition of a 12-hour curfew to be enforced by the police, the closure of borders, and barring those over 65 years of age from leaving their homes. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński which had already made the judiciary subordinate to the executive, used the pandemic to compel people in home quarantine to install a government smart phone application to track their movements.

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The Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes’ cabinet similarly obtained rights to govern by decree without parliamentary scrutiny for six months. In Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to win a majority after three elections and his rival Benny Gantz had been invited to form a government, he exploited his rival’s political inexperience to make him accept a junior position in a Likud-led government. Netanyahu also secured legislative authorization to use a trove of cellphone data to surveil Israeli citizens and to delay court actions, postponing his own trial on corruption charges. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once referred to the country’s constitution as “a scrap of toilet paper,” has also engrossed emergency powers as has the Thai prime minister, Prayuth chan-ocha while the military police now occupy public squares in Chile. The Jordanian prime minister, Omar Razzaz, also acquired powers to censor news media and additional authority to detain people.

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French lawmakers increased the powers of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to rule by decree and to requisition goods and services for the medical emergency. And in Britain, the parliament conferred what has been described as “eye-watering” powers on the government to detain people and close borders. India’s Narendra Modi who had already placed Kashmir under lockdown for more than half a year now put the whole country under lockdown with only 4 hours’ notice!

Even before the pandemic had emerged, Republicans in United States Senate had humiliatingly prostrated themselves before President Donald Trump and conducted a farcical impeachment trial; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had used a shoddy coup attempt to crush all dissent; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had dismissed the participatory councils that have had a long history in the country and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales had been removed from office in a coup.

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These breaches in the democratic fabric across the world had been so pronounced, even before the current transgressions, that one of the most discussed books in recent years has been David Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. Elected autocrats, they argued subvert institutions like the judiciary and the press; coopt important cultural and sports icons or malign and seek to sideline those who resist; disregard mutual tolerance; and violate the law. These are the playbooks of Trump, Modi, Duterte, Kacyński, Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, and Jeanine Añez who usurped power in Bolivia.

Yet, as Jill Lepore, wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in the years after the First World War, a war fought “to make the world safe for democracy” as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously put it, there was a similar collapse of democracies. Then too, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires, there had been a brief florescence of democracies: but these soon withered away in Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, and Yugoslavia, to be followed by Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia and more significantly by Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

In the 1980s democracy had replaced dictatorships in much of Latin America, the Philippines, and South Korea. And in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama had written a prominent treatise The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the final triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Yet, within a quarter century, democracy is once again in question.

 

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A study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, based on 25 international surveys covering 4 million people based 154 countries, concludes that 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since 1995. Some 58 percent registered their disapproval with democracy in 2019 compared to 48 percent in 1995—with the drop in support especially marked in Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

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Yet, despite similarities between these two cycles of democratic crises, there are three important differences. Immediately after the First World War, the new democracies that arose were all in Europe or in its settler colonies in the Americas. Democracies established in the Global South after the Second World War were always more fragile as processes like territorial integration, adult suffrage, economic well-being and provision of welfare that took decades if not centuries to be instituted in Western Europe and North America and were accomplished sequentially, were telescoped into a few years in newly independent countries and were expected to be instituted simultaneously in conditions of extreme material deprivation, mass illiteracy, and constant interference by their former colonial powers, and by the United States and the Soviet Union.

 Second, even though the Great Depression had weakened trade unions at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the form of industrialization adopted by the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Western European high-income states, and eventually, post-war reconstruction strengthened the industrial working class which formed a bulwark against the return of authoritarianism. Today, the fragmentation of production processes and their outsourcing to low-wage locations have decapitated trade unions in most countries. Though the conservative parties initiated de-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the social democrats—Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair’s NewLabour in the UK, Francois Mitterand in France—who were the greatest champions of neo-liberalism and finance capital.

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Blaming globalization for the loss of jobs and incomes, the working class—abandoned by social democratic parties—fell prey to the politicians on the right who preached xenophobia and nationalism. Donald Trump’s “make America great again” promised a return to a mythical past to a historically advantaged white working class. Similarly, the Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign demolished Labour’s “Red Wall” in the north of England by blaming migrants and the European Union for economic decline. To cover up the economic failings of his government, Narendra Modi targets Muslims and domestic opponents in India. As the Canadian socialist politician, the late Tommy Douglas, said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

 

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Though the blaming of foreigners and domestic minorities have garnered large constituencies of support for authoritarian rulers, their policies have consistently favored the rich by tax cuts, privatizations, de-regulations, dismantling environmental controls and the protection of indigenous peoples. They have been able to subordinate the judiciary by nominating judges and to muzzle the press with varying degrees of success.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Modi nominated Ranjan Gogoi, the just retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who had rendered crucial verdicts in support of the ruling BJP, to a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Modi has also coopted sport and cultural icons: in the cricket-mad country, Virat Kohli, the captain of its national team, called the prime minister’s demonetization of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in 2016 as “the greatest move in the history of Indian politics,” despite its drastic economic consequences.  In the case of Poland and India, it was only after the ruling parties won a second election that it surged ahead with their repressive agendas.

The emergency initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic has licensed further restrictions on the freedom of the press. Governments in many countries have banned the spread of ‘fake news’ deliberately leaving definitions vague and ambiguous.

Third, strangely, it is in fact the very global networks that are castigated for a decline in living standards that make life bearable for the poor: without the cheap smartphones and computers assembled by low-waged workers in China, Uber and Lyft, Zomato and Ola in India, could not exist to create a “gig” economy. Without the cheap imports from China and other low-wage economies, the poor in the West can hardly fulfill their credit-card driven consumer spending, itself a result of low- and middle-income countries purchasing US Treasury bonds to keep the value of their currencies low.

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Once the strength of the trade unions was eroded, opposition to authoritarianism has come from the middle classes—ironically derided as the “elite” by Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, as the ‘Khan market gang’ and the “tukde tukde gang” by Modi and his supporters in India, as “Gullenists” or the “PKK” (Kurdish Workers Party) by Erdogan. In many cases, they have failed to reach out adequately to the poor, especially ethnic minorities. In India at least, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Act which offers citizenship to all illegal immigrants from neighboring countries except Muslims—and one which cricket captain Kohli stubbornly refused to condemn—and the attacks on universities have mobilized the youth and a wider social strata against the government.

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It is this upsurge that the new round of autocratic resurgence is trying to corral. Nine years ago, the Arab Spring may have been celebrated as a social media and Internet-sparked revolution but not only did it collapse but it also showed that the middle classes are easily surveilled by the ubiquity of mobile phones and wifi-connected cameras. Governments now have used the pandemic as an excuse to legally tap this trove of electronic data to keep an eye on its citizens.Even if these powers are rescinded after the pandemic is over, data collected could be mined to obtain granular details about the citizenry, their opinions, connections, and predilections!

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And of course, policing is always deployed as a disciplinary weapon against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In the United States, President Trump’s reference to the virus as “Chinese virus” and U.S. State Department’s attempt to call it the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 communique have led to heightened attacks against Asian Americans. In India, people from the northeastern states have similarly been subject to racist attacks.

‘Stay at home’ orders may subject the middle classes to electronic surveillance but the poor have to put their lives on the line and go to work.Reports of police brutality against workers delivering essential goods in India is a reflection both of their lack of information and their general disdain for manual laborers. Even worse, the sudden lockdown of the country forced millions of migrant workers to walk back to their villages in complete disregard for their lives as all public transport was grounded and private taxis were out of reach. The sheer mindlessness of the order when maintaining physical distancing is impossible for the poor in densely populated countries is not only self-evident but also not essential when people over 65 are most vulnerable and 94 percent of the population is below that age!

 

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Over the long-term, opposition to authoritarianism will pivot around how the Left can formulate a strategy that enables an increasingly atomized poor to reverse their exploitation in conditions where automation and artificial intelligence deprive them not only of well-remunerated jobs but also of opportunities to combine together. Given the world-spanning production and procurement networks, such a strategy will have to be based on a progressive internationalism, all the more compelling because of the continuing destruction of the environment wrought by capitalist neo-liberalism. We need, in short, new strategies to fight authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.

Gathering Storm Over Syria

August 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 1 Comment
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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.”

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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!

Imperial Hubris: European Subservience to the United States

July 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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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.

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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.

What do you think of national security leaker edward snowden pollHence, 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.”

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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.

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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”!

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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.

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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?

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Europe: The Democratic Deficit

April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.

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Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently  overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.

Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:

For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.

Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.

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Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.

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It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.

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Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!

Notes on the Spanish General Strike

March 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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To be in Barcelona on Thursday March 29, 2012 was to be a witness to a massive tidal wave of humanity on the streets, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction from Placa Catalunya, the city’s symbolic center. This was a response to the general strike called by Spain’s two largest trade unions–Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) affiliated to the Socialist Party, and the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO)–in response to the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government’s decision to announce the most austere budget since the transition to democracy 37 years ago. As evident on the streets of Barcelona, it was much more than a workers’ protest: though some 30 percent of employed workers had said that they would participate in polls before the strike, Spain has a high rate of unemployment–23 percent or double the European rate and almost half the people under 30 are out of work.

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The unemployed are the backbone of the indignados (“the outraged”) movement that in May last year that with their tents in city centers and their emphasis on transparency, diversity, egalitarianism, and direct democracy, inspired the Occupy movements across the world. The employment situation is only likely to worsen as Mariano Rajoy, the new PP prime minister who took office in December last year, enacted an Emergency decree two months ago that sharply curbed labor rights. Permanent workers in Spain were eligible for 45 days’ pay for each year of employment if they were fired; this was substantially reduced to a maximum of 33 days and in Andalucia alone eight times as many workers were let go in the two months after the decree was promulgated than in the corresponding period last year. Companies were also permitted to reduce working hours.

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The greater flexibility to hire and fire workers provided by the new labor laws may provide greater incomes in the short run to employers but will further depress prospects of economic growth in Spain. Spanish wages are already the lowest among the EU 15 (members of the European Union on 1 May 2004 before the inclusion of states from the former Eastern Europe) and the new law would further depress wages in the context of the high rates of unemployment and provide for more short-term employment–which will lead to a reduction in effective demand.

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Moreover, Spain’s economic problems do not stem from high government deficits but from the burst of a property bubble and absurd laws governing liability of borrowers. The Spanish government had run a balanced budget from the time it joined the Euro in 1999 to 2007–that is to say it did not borrow at all during this period unlike many other economies, including Germany, even though interest rates on Eurozone countries fell sharply. However, though Madrid resisted borrowing at lower rates, Spanish citizens could not resist the lure of cheap interest rates and it fueled a housing boom–housing prices rose by 44 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Houses in Spain couldn’t be built fast enough. Great swathes of the coast and the countryside became clustered with urbanisations, instant housing estates thrown up to cater to what seemed to be an endless stream of Britons, Germans, and other norther Europeans now able to live the kind of life abroad of which their parents could only have dreamed.

Once the bubble burst with the financial crisis, however, the economy unraveled rapidly–the number of empty and unsold properties in the country is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,500,000–and some 40 evictions are taking place across the country per day. Employment in construction collapsed and laid-off construction workers account for fully a third of the unemployed. What is more, Spanish law does not allow homeowners to simply hand over the keys and walk away from a property if they can no longer pay the mortgage. They remain liable for the remainder of the mortgage if the sale of the property does not cover the full extent of the mortgage–and they seldom do in a period when property prices have fallen by more than 19 percent. Hence, unlike most other countries, the unemployed in Spain not only lose their houses but remain responsible for part of their mortgages. This has meant that young people who had moved out of their parental home have often had to move back–and even that grandparents have had to use their pensions to help support their children and grandchildren. In turn, the iaiaflautas or retirees and grandparents have mobilized themselves to occupy buses to protest against price hikes, bank lobbies to oppose bailouts, and health departments to turn back cutbacks.

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Hence, even if reports say that the general strike led to a fall in electricity consumption by 16.3 percent compared to a fall of 16.9 percent in the general strike of September 2010, it doesn’t account for the vast mobilization of the indignados, the unemployed, the students, and the iaiaflautas. What it underlines is that a new politics is emerging, a politics that as Ferran Pedret has put it “is characterized by the absence of leaders, by assemblies as a form of organization, and a diversity and transversality.”

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it was this that was responsible for the massive turnout–what the strike symbolizes is a new politics, a politics beyond those of political parties because the parties are fully integrated into the system itself that must be changed. So no mere percentages of electricity consumption, businesses that stayed open, or workers participating in the strike can adequately assess its impact.

 

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!

 

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