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Archive for June, 2020

Libya: The Incredible Irrelevance of America

‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar’s retreat from Tripoli should not be confused with Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Haftar was foolish to try to capture the Libyan capital – it even surprised his foreign backers – but he probably won’t have to retreat very far. His main force is still intact, and it doesn’t snow much in Libya.

It’s probably too generous to call what has been going on in Libya a civil war. After long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the country actually disintegrated into a series of city-states ruled by rival Islamist militias – and every petty warlord got foreign backers because of Libya’s oil wealth.

Fifty years ago Khalifa Haftar was one of the young officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy. 25 years ago he was a CIA asset living in Virginia and promising to overthrow Gaddafi. Five years ago he became the commander of the Libyan National Army and started subjugating the ‘Islamist and terrorist’ militias that then dominated the east of the country (Cyrenaica).

As he gained control of Cyrenaica and then the desert south of the country Haftar’s foreign backers multiplied – France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates – for that’s where most of the oilfields, pipelines and oil terminals are. They also liked his strong anti-Islamist line. But they weren’t really interested in reuniting Libya, whereas Haftar was.

The various Islamist militias that dominate the capital, Tripoli, and the broader western region of Tripolitania are really just local boys defending their protection rackets. They have no loyalty to the unelected Government of National Accord (GNA) that the United Nations calls legitimate. However the GNA has gained the support of Turkey, probably the strongest country in the Middle East.

Why? Partly because under President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan Turkey has become the key supporter of pro-Islamist regimes and parties throughout the Arab world (the GNA is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood), and partly because of oil.

Still with me? Don’t bother to take notes; there won’t be a test.

Turkey didn’t instantly give military aid to the GNA when Haftar sent his forces west fourteen months ago to attack Tripoli. That had to wait until Erdoğan had extorted a deal last December in which Libya promised to sell Turkey lots of oil and gas (although it couldn’t deliver until Haftar was defeated).

The leader of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, also had to agree to a deal in which Turkey and Libya carved up seabed rights in the Mediterranean in a way that gave Turkey valuable gas fields and froze both Greece and Cyprus out. (Both strongly objected, of course.) And then Turkey started sending arms, Arab mercenaries (also Islamist), armed drones, and Turkish military ‘advisers’ to Libya.

By early this year Haftar was also getting a lot of foreign help: arms shipments from the UAE and Egypt, thousands of mercenaries from Sudan, Chad and Niger, and even a couple of thousand Russian ex-special forces troops now working for the Wagner Group of mercenaries. But Turkey’s bid was higher.

Haftar’s last assault on Tripoli failed late last month, and the GNA-Turkish counter-offensive has already retaken all of western Libya. As I write militias from Tripoli and Arab mercenaries provided by Turkey are fighting in the outskirts of Sirte, Libya’s third city and the gateway to the ‘Oil Crescent’, where the sea terminals of the pipelines are. If they take those, Haftar will be toast.

Except that the ‘alliance of evil’, as Erdoğan calls Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE, won’t let that happen. More importantly, Russia won’t let it happen – and Russia flew more than a dozen state-of-the-art combat planes into a Haftar-controlled airbase last month.

Russia doesn’t want to put its own troops on the ground in Libya to save its man, any more than it did in Syria, but air-power alone can probably save him. It doesn’t want a full military confrontation over Turkey either, any more than it did in Syria. But it will probably get its way in Libya anyway, or most of its way, at least – like it did in Syria.

And what’s extraordinary is that despite key words like ‘oil’ and ‘Middle East’ and ‘Russia’ scattered all through this article, it hasn’t been necessary to mention the United States even once. There was a telephone call between Erdoğan and Donald Trump on Monday, but it’s unlikely to be relevant to the outcome.

The likeliest outcome is that Turkey backs off, there is a ceasefire of some sort that freezes the lines, and there is a de facto division of Libya with a Haftar-led Russian client state in the east that shares the oil revenues with Tripoli. And then there will be a generation of quarrels over the shares.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Russia…Syria”)

Brazil: Populist Pandemic

What do you do if you are in charge of dealing with the pandemic and the number of deaths is getting out of control?

Simple. Stop publishing the number.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been having a bad time with the pandemic. His default mode has been callous disinterest: when told in early May that the country’s Covid-19 death toll had reached 5,000, he said “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

When the number reached 30,000 dead early this month, he tried a philosophical tone instead: “I regret every death, but that’s everyone’s destiny.” But the victims’ families and friends remain unreasonably fixated on the question of why they had to die from coronavirus this month rather than of something else many years from now, and blame Bolsonaro for their untimely departure.

So on Sunday, with Brazil’s death toll about to pass 40,000 and become second only to that of the United States, Bolsonaro stopped his government from publishing the total any more.

From now on, only today’s number of infections, deaths and recoveries will be announced. No more awkward comparisons with other countries, no five-digit running total to confront him with his failure each day. And of course no attempt to establish the real number of deaths, which is almost certainly at least twice the official number since many victims never got to hospitals.

There is a temptation to group the three populist leaders of big Western democracies together, and they do have a lot in common. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed a similarly damning piece of data from the daily press conference when the UK’s death toll per million overtook that of every other major European country. (It is now second-worst in the entire world.)

America’s Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s idol, spent just as much time in the early months of this year belittling the gravity of the threat (Bolsonaro: “It’s only a little flu”; Trump: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”) None of the three men will wear a mask, and they are all compulsive serial liars.

Nevertheless, there are major differences. Johnson manages to sound as if he cares about all the lives lost, and Trump at least goes through the motions occasionally. Johnson eventually declared a lock-down, although much too late, and Trump at least went along for a while with the lock-downs declared by almost all of the states.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, openly condemned the lock-downs declared by the various Brazilian states and ostentatiously disobeyed them. He held rallies and took crowd baths. He swiped his nose on the back of his hand and then shook hands with a fragile old lady. He showed up at a barbecue on a jetski.

He has fired two successive health ministers since January because they were taking the pandemic too seriously and hindering Brazilians’ return to work. He joined a street protest calling for a return to the military dictatorship that finally fell in 1985. He regularly vilifies the poor, the left, indigenous Brazilians, gays and non-whites.

Like Trump, he hates the World Health Organisation, but unlike Trump he also accuses the WHO of encouraging masturbation and homosexuality among children. He is widely believed to have links with paramilitary groups associated with the mafia.

And he is currently presiding over a pandemic that will probably kill over 100,000 Brazilians without lifting a finger to stop it.

Yet in late 2018 he won the presidential election in the first round with 55% of the vote, and his character was hardly a secret even before the election. A recent poll showed that his popularity is now down to 32%, so Brazilians have noticed that something is wrong with him, but it still verges on the inexplicable. Or does it?

The electorate that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 was little changed from the one that gave Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the absolute antithesis of Bolsonaro, two terms in the presidency immediately before him. Just as the American electorate that put Trump in office in 2016 was little changed from the one that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

They didn’t suddenly go blind when confronted with a candidate as fraudulent as Trump or Bolsonaro. They deliberately overlooked his flaws because he offered them something they needed. It was probably something economical or psychological, and not specific to any single country because the mood struck British and Brazilians and Americans at the same time. (And Hungarians and Turks and Filipinos and Indians too.)

What this tells us – and I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news – is that if that same something is still bothering the voters when the next election rolls around next November in the US, or in Brazil in 2022, or in the UK in 2024, the same person can win again, no matter how badly he misbehaves in the meantime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“When…departure”; and “Like…mafia”)

Surinam: Not Another You-Know-What

Donald Trump would undoubtedly include Surinam in his category of ‘shithole* countries’ if he knew where it was, but it is definitely getting better. In fact, the man who is the symbol and in large part the cause of its poor reputation, Dési Bouterse, is about to be ousted from the presidency after a free election and sent to jail for the rest of his life.

Surinam, on the Caribbean coast of South America, was a Dutch colony for more than three centuries, but there were never many Dutch people there. It had a plantation economy and the workers were always imported from elsewhere: African slaves at first, and later indentured workers from Indonesia and India.

Divided by both ethnicity and religion (Christians, Muslims and Hindus), the society that grew up there was dysfunctional from the start. When the wave of decolonisation finally reached Surinam in the 1970s, its people distrusted their own fellow citizens so much that more than one-third of them moved to the Netherlands while the going was good.

Those left behind – there are now 350,000 people of Surinamese descent in the Netherlands, and only 600,000 in Surinam – must all have had moments when they regretted their choice, because what they got was not freedom but Dési Bouterse. In 1980 he and fifteen other sergeants in the new Surinam army carried out a military coup, and Bouterse has dominated the country ever since.

There were four attempted counter-coups in 1981 – everybody understood by then that political power was the only road to riches – and eventually Bourterse shut the game down by sheer terror. In 1982 he ordered his soldiers to round up, torture and execute 15 dissident officers, union leaders, journalists and businessmen.

The ‘December murders’ silenced his critics and stabilised his rule, which was at first a brazen dictatorship. But then he discovered populism, and began his exploiting his unusually mixed ancestry in an ethnically divided country – his family is of African, Dutch, Amerindian, French, and Chinese descent – to win elections as a truly ‘national’ candidate.

Bouterse remained thuggish and corrupt – in 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia on drug smuggling charges – but he had learned to win the support of the poor by spreading government money around at the right time. He also cozied up with fellow populist Hugo Chávez in nearby Venezuela, and whether he was formally in power or not, he was the man who really mattered in Surinam.

Only once was he successfully challenged, when chief commissioner of police Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi brought him to court in 2007 over the ‘December murders’ and got a conviction. However, Bouterse appealed the conviction, got himself elected as president again in 2010, and kicked that problem down the road for another decade.

Only recently did his prospects darken. First the aluminum company that had mined bauxite in Surinam for a century pulled out and the price of oil (of which Surinam exports a limited amount) collapsed.

As government revenue fell and unemployment rose, Bouterse raided the banks for funds to keep his traditional supporters happy, but that just created a wave of inflation that damaged everybody’s income.

Then in 2019 Surinam’s Court of Appeal confirmed Bouterse’s conviction for murder and the 20-year jail sentence that went with it. The only way he could avoid arrest and imprisonment was to win the next election and remain in the presidency.

On 25 May Bouterse lost that election. The opposition leader who will replace him is the same person who brought the murder charges against him thirteen years ago, Chan Santokhi.

Bouterse immediately alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on Monday election observers sent by both the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of American States declared that the election had been “free, fair, transparent, and credible”.

So unless Bouterse can launch another coup (which seems unlikely, since he is now 74), he will shortly be off to spend the rest of his life in prison. And the people whose lives he has dominated for the past forty years have another chance at making something of their country.

In fact, they have already made a fair start at it. The younger generation have moved beyond the ethnic confines of their heritage and are becoming what in Mauritius, another ex-colonial country with a similar history and ethnic make-up, is known as the ‘general population’.

Many would still leave if they could, for the country is still poor, but they are starting to think and act as Surinamese. The courts work, the elections are now fair, and there’s a good chance that the next government will not be corrupt. If the country can stay on this course for a generation, it could become a place where people actually want to live.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“Only…income”; and “In fact…population”)