// archives

Politics

This category contains 1131 posts

The Armenian Genocide

It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.

Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.

Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.

There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)

On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.

A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only 10 percent of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away – poor generalship – but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.

If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened fifty or seventy-five years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been a hundred years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
_______________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“Well…that”; “Later…wrong”; and “Similarly…anyway”)

The End of the BRICs

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable,” said John Kenneth Galbraith, the wisest American economist of his generation. (“A paltry honour,” he would have murmured.) But you still can’t resist wondering when the Chinese economy will be bigger than the US economy – or the Brazilian bigger than the British, or the Turkish bigger than the Italian – as if it were some kind of horse race.

The latest document to tackle these questions is “The World in 2050″, drawn up by HSBC bank, which ranks the world’s hundred biggest economies as they are now, and as (it thinks) they will be in 2050. It contains the usual little surprises, like a prediction that per capita incomes in the Philippines and Indonesia, now roughly the same, will diverge so fast that the average Filipino will have twice the income of the average Indonesian by 2050.

The Venezuelan economy will only triple in size, but Peru’s economy will grow eightfold. Per capita income will double-and-a-bit in Nigeria; in Ethiopia it will grow sixfold. Bangladesh powers past Pakistan, with a per capita income in 2050 that’s half again as big as Pakistan’s. (It’s only two-thirds of Pakistan’s at the moment.) And so on and so forth: local phenomena mostly of interest to local people.

But what’s happening at the top of the list is of interest to everybody. That’s where the great powers all live, with the BRICs nipping at their heels. Or rather, some of the BRICs are nipping at their heels, and some are not. That’s the big news.

We owe the concept of the BRICs to Jim O’Neill, who came up with it almost fifteen years ago when he was head of economics at Goldman Sachs. He was the first to realise that some big, poor countries were growing so fast economically that they would overtake the established great powers in a matter of decades.

The really impressive performers were Brazil, Russia, India and China, so he just called them the BRICs – and pointed out that at current growth rates the Chinese economy would be bigger than that of the United States by the 2040s. We’re quite familiar with that kind of prediction today, but at the time it was shocking (especially to Americans), and the term BRIC has become firmly entrenched in the language. Just in time for HSBC to spoil it.

By now the BRICs are formally the BRICS (with a capital S added for South Africa), . But the South African economy is only in the group out of courtesy, because you couldn’t leave Africa out altogether. It’s much smaller than any of the others and growing very slowly, so you can safely leave it out of the calculations altogether.

China is performing roughly as expected, and by 2050 its economy will be around 10 percent bigger than that of the United States. (Per capita income, of course, is a different matter, and even then China’s will be only a third of America’s.) India will come next, but with an economy only one-third as big as China or the United States
.
But the other BRICs practically vanish from view. Brazil hasn’t even overtaken Britain by 2050, despite having three times as many people. And Russia’s performance is downright embarrassing: its economy barely doubles in the next 35 years, and it ends up smaller than Spain’s. So six of the top ten countries in the 2050 list are already there today, and the world isn’t going to look so dramatically different at all.

Now, predictions like this are open to all sorts of criticism. China’s growth rate has consistently been two or three percentage points higher than India’s for several decades. Project that to 2050, and China ends up far ahead of India. But China’s growth rate is falling, and India’s may even overtake it this year.

India will almost certainly grow faster in the long run, because it has a young, rapidly growing labour force and China does not. There’s enough time for that to change the pecking order radically by 2050.

The recent performance of the economy obviously affects the long-range forecast more than it should, so Russia drops down the list and Mexico goes soaring up. Five years ago it would have been the other way around, and yet there’s no reason to believe that the fundamental strengths of either economy have changed.

And then there are the “Black Swans”, events like the Sarajevo assassination that tumbled the world into the First World War and invalidated all existing assumptions about the economic future. Not to mention the disasters that you know are coming, like catastrophic climate change – but leave out of your calculations anyway, because you don’t know how to quantify them and don’t know when they will arrive even to the nearest decade.

All that said, some sketchy notion of what the future may bring is better than no idea whatever. And the basic idea behind the BRICs is still sound: the centre of gravity of the world economy is moving south and east.
___________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 12. (“The Venezuelan…people”; “By now….altogether”, and “The recent…changed”)

The Middle East: Iran is Back

“This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, has never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the ruler of Egypt.

And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion? Not even the European conquest of the entire Arab world between 1830 and 1920? You really think the gravest threat ever to Arab existence and identity is a bunch of tribal warriors in Yemen?

Sisi was addressing the Arab League summit in Cairo last week that created a new pan-Arab military force to confront this threat, so overheated rhetoric was standard issue, but still…. The air forces of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are blasting Yemen from the air, and there is talk of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and even Pakistani troops invading on the ground, but it all smells more of panic than of strategic calculation.

The panic is due to the fact that the status quo that has prevailed in the Middle East since approximately 1980 is at an end. Iran is back, and there is great dismay in the palaces of Riyadh – especially because it was Saudi Arabia’s great friend and ally, the United States, who finally set Iran free.

It was the agreement in Lausanne last Thursday between Iran and the group of 5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) that marked the end of the status quo. It was about ending the various trade embargoes against Iran in return for ten to fifteen years of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear power programme, but it will also let Iran out of the jail it has been confined to since the 1979 revolution.

Initially that revolution was quite scary for Iran’s Arab neighbours, because Iran’s example in overthrowing the local pro-Western ruler and taking a stronger stand against Israel was very popular in the Arab street. The solution was to paint Iran as a crazy terrorist state and isolate it as much as possible from the rest of the region.

The other tactic that the conservative Arab states deployed was to stress the religious gulf between Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) and the Arab countries (whose people are at least 85 percent Sunni). The doctrinal differences are real, but they do not normally make ordinary people see one another as natural enemies unless somebody (like state propaganda) works hard at it.

Those measures worked for twenty years, assisted by some really stupid Iranian actions like holding US embassy personnel hostage for 444 days, but by the end of the 20th century they were losing credibility. What saved the “quarantine” policy in 2002 was the discovery that Tehran had been working on nuclear weapons design.

The work was a revival of research that had been started during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88 (when Saddam Hussein certainly was working on nuclear weapons), and was shut down afterwards. It was restarted in 1998, almost certainly in response to the nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour. It was Iran being stupid again, but it was probably never about Israel.

The alleged Iranian nuclear threat provided the basis for another decade and more of political quarantine and trade embargoes that have crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. All that came to a sudden end last week with the agreement in principle in Lausanne (unless the Saudi Arabian and Israeli lobbies in Washington manage to torpedo the deal in the next few months).

Iran has about the same population and GDP as Egypt, the biggest Arab country by far, but it is far closer both to the Arab Gulf states and to the Sunni-Shia battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria (both of whose governments are closely linked to Tehran). That’s what Sisi was really talking about when he spoke of an existential threat to Arab existence and identity. However, he’s still talking through his hat.

Arab existence and identity are nowhere at risk, and Iran has no need to paint the Sunni Arab countries as enemies. The Iranian regime may be losing its support among the young (or maybe not), but it has absolutely no need to inoculate them against the attraction of Arab political systems and foreign policies by promoting an Arab-Iranian confrontation. They hold no attraction whatever for young Iranians.

As for the notion that the Houthi militia that now controls most of Yemen is really an Iranian tool (which is the main justification for the military intervention there), it is nonsense. The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shias, but they have their own local interests to protect, and Iran has no plausible reason to want some sort of strategic foothold in Yemen. It is a safe bet that there is not now even a single armed Iranian in Yemen.

If the United States could send troops into Iraq in 2003 in the delusionary belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then Saudi Arabia can believe that it is fighting Iranians in Yemen now. No country has a monopoly on stupidity, and Riyadh will probably have ample opportunity to regret its mistake.
____________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7 and 9. (“And you…Yemen”; “The other…at it; and “The work…Israel”)

Nigeria: A Plunge Into the Unknown

“I think, once a dictator, always a dictator,” said Sonnie Ekwowusi, a columnist for Nigeria’s This Day newspaper. “Many people are afraid that if (Muhammadu Buhari) wins, they will go to prison.”

Well, Buhari did win the presidential election, and there are many people in Nigeria who really should go to prison, mainly for corruption while in political office. Quite a lot of them worked with or for the outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, whose six years in office were marked by corruption that was impressive even by Nigeria’s demanding standards.

The problem is that the last time Muhammadu Buhari was president, in 1984-85, he was a general who seized the office in a military coup and jailed not only the elected president, Shehu Shagari, but some five hundred politicians, officials and businessmen. Many of them undoubtedly deserved it, but legal norms were not observed – and many other people whose only offense was criticising Buhari (like famed musician Fela Kuti) also ended up behind bars.

That President Buhari, now thirty years in the past, was single-minded in his anti-corruption drive, but also somewhat simple-minded. At the petty end of the spectrum, civil servants who short-changed the government by showing up late for work were forced to do frog hops. At the other end, he ordered the abduction of Shehu Shagari’s former adviser, Umaru Dikko, who was found drugged in a shipping crate at London’s Stansted airport.

He was the loosest of loose cannons, and his own military colleagues overthrew him after twenty months of arbitrary mayhem. But once democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, Buhari started running for president as a born-again democrat. Now, on his fourth try, he has won, and by a safe margin: 15 million votes to Jonathan’s 12.5 million.

It’s a typically low Nigerian turnout – around a third of eligible voters – but it is nevertheless a famous victory. It’s the first time in half a century of Nigerian independence that one elected president has handed over power to another after losing an election. Full credit to Goodluck Jonathan for that: unusually for Nigeria, he didn’t dispute the outcome of the election. But there is still a large question mark over his successor.

Partly it is a question of whether the leopard can ever truly change his spots. Buhari claims to have changed a great deal in thirty years, and has apologised for his past behaviour in power, but the doubts inevitably linger. And partly it is a question of whether anybody can rule Nigeria successfully.

The country has three major problems that cannot be solved in the short term. The population, now 182 million, is growing at five million a year, and the birth rate had not dropped at all in the past ten years. Nigeria will overtake the United States in population by 2050, but it will be packing them all those people into an area only slightly larger than Texas.

Secondly, Nigeria is more or less evenly split between Muslims, mostly in the northern half of the country, and Christians in the centre and south, but per capita income in the north is in the north is only half that in the south. The election of Buhari, a Muslim from the north, restores the traditional alternation of Christians and Muslims in the presidency, but that deal is unlikely to last much longer because the northern birth rate is far higher than in the south.

Thirdly, the poverty and over-population of the north has been an excellent incubator for extremism, and an Islamist cult called Boko Haram has now seized control of much of the north-east. At least 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing violence since 2009, and a million and a half have been displaced. Boko Haram now swears allegiance to the “caliph” of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the Middle East, and competes with it in cruelty.

Oh, and the price of oil, the main source of government revenue, is down by half. Muhammadu Buhari may be a reformed character, and he will certainly do much more than Goodluck Jonathan on the anti-corruption front. (He could hardly do less.) But all these other problems will continue to undermine Nigeria’s stability and prosperity even if he manages to eliminate the worst of the corruption.

On the other hand, it could be a lot worse. As Wole Soyinka, the celebrated author who has become Nigeria’s public conscience, told The Guardian on Tuesday, “Unambiguously it is good that the Jonathan government has been removed. It was impossible. Even a plunge into the unknown was preferable to what was going on. We were drowning.”
___________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“That president…airport”)