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The Mad Dog of the Middle East

The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.

He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.

Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.

Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.

Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.

That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.

The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.

He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.

In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.

And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?

It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….

If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He spent…useful”)

European Elections 2019

The best way of describing what just happened in the European Union elections is to say that the choices are getting clearer – and a lot of people are realising which side they are on.

The elections to the EU Parliament held last week in 28 European countries – including the United Kingdom, since three years after the Brexit referendum it still hasn’t managed to leave– was the second-biggest democratic exercise in the world. Only India’s elections are bigger. 400 million Europeans were eligible to vote, and half of them actually did.

The choice before them, in most member countries, was ‘less EU’ or ‘more EU’. Should the European Union become the semi-detached ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’ that the nationalists and the populists demand, or continue to work on creating joint institutions (like the euro common currency) that bring the members closer together?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but the two sides are sorting themselves out and you can now get a feel for the way things are going.

The hard-line nationalists took 30% of the vote in Italy (the Lega), 32% in the UK (the Brexit Party), 45% in Poland (the Law and Justice Party), and 52% of the votes in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary. Yet, apart from the Brexit Party, they are no longer trying to leave the EU.

Populist demagogues in other EU countries – who five years ago were advocating a ‘Frexit’ in France, a ‘Nexit’ in the Netherlands, and so on – have watched the tragicomic mega-shambles of Britain’s attempted Brexit and decided that the wiser course is to stay in the EU and try to dominate it from within.

They made some headway in this election, but they still control only 112 of the European Parliament’s 750 seats. It’s not even certain that they can all come together as a single bloc: France’s National Rally, for example, is seen by some other far-right parties in the EU as too pro-Russian and encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism. If this is a tidal wave, it’s a fairly small one.

There was another, slightly bigger tsunami on the ‘more EU’ side of the argument, mainly because the Greens did so well, coming second in Germany and third in France. Strongly pro-EU liberal parties did well too – notably the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who came second there – and together they have added more seats on that side of the argument than the nationalists did on the other extreme.

The real value of this election is that it offers a reality check on the burning question of the day: is Trumpism really going to sweep Europe like it swept America? The answer is no – or at least, not so much.
Nationalist parties that strike authoritarian postures and flirt with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes did well in some eastern European countries (although they have few immigrants and almost no Muslims). But in western Europe only one populist party, Italy’s Lega, improved on its last showing.

In France the National Rally got only 24% of the vote, whereas its predecessor, the National Front, won 34 % in the 2017 presidential election.

The Brexit Party in the United Kingdom got 32% of the vote, which sounds impressive, since its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party, got only 26 % in the last EU election in 2014. But if you add the Conservative vote (which is mostly pro-Brexit) to the Brexit Party vote in this election and compare it with the UKIP+Conservative votes last time, the pro-Brexit share of the vote is down from 49% in 2014 to 41% now.

This suggests that the Trump virus is less virulent in Europe, and raises the further question: will the UK really crash out of the EU by October 31 (the current deadline), or will there be a second referendum that calls off the whole quixotic enterprise? It’s starting to feel like Brexit never happening is around a 50-50 proposition.

One symptom of the fear the Brexiters now feel is their increasingly shrill insistence that there must be no new referendum. Never mind that Nigel Farage, founder of both UKIP and the Brexit Party, talked about a second referendum when it looked like ‘Remain’ was going to score a narrow win early on the evening of the first referendum in 2016. (It ended up 52% Leave, 48% Remain.)

Never mind, either, that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has just announced that she will publish draft legislation on a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK later this week. (The first one, in 2014, rejected independence by 55%-45%.) Nobody complained about that.

The Brexit referendum is sacred, Brexiters say, and nobody is allowed to change their mind about it. However, the EU election was treated by almost all British voters as an informal referendum on Brexit, and it’s now pretty clear what would happen in a real one. It’s going to be a very hectic five months in British politics.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“One…that”)

World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)