24 February 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
“Floggings will continue until morale improves.” As a way of dealing with a discontented crew it was much favoured by 18th-century sea-captains, but the Bahrain government has been an apt pupil. Alas, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa doesn’t quite grasp that this sort of policy statement must be clear and concise.
Announcing that the Bahraini authorities would intensify the repression that has prevailed since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations two years ago, the sheikh declared last October: “It has been decided to stop all gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before being reassured about security and achieving the required stability in order to preserve national unity.”
He’s got the spirit of the thing right, but he falls short in the clarity and brevity departments. (He’s obviously been listening to spin doctors, and they always hate clarity.) At any rate, the demonstrations, gatherings and marches have not stopped, although they have got even more dangerous for the participants.
Bahrain’s brief role in the “Arab Spring” began on 14 February, 2011, when demonstrators demanding a constitutional monarchy, a freely elected government and equality for all citizens took over Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of the tiny Gulf state. But one month later the protesters were driven from the square by force, and after that the repression became general.
By no coincidence, that was also when Saudi Arabian troops arrived “to help the government of Bahrain restore order.” (Bahrain is an island connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a long causeway.) Officially the Saudi soldiers were invited in by Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Unofficially, he probably had no choice in the matter.
Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, like Saudi Arabia’s and those of all the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman). However, 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia, whereas the rest of the GCC countries are overwhelmingly Sunni. And the relationship between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region is coming to resemble that between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century Europe.
The ensuing century of religious wars in Europe was not really about doctrinal differences. The wars were driven by the rulers’ conviction that people who did not share their particular brand of Christianity could not be loyal to them politically.
It was nonsense, but millions of Europeans were killed in the 1500s and 1600s in wars triggered by this belief. The same disease now seems to be taking root in the Arab Gulf states. Shias, it is argued, cannot be loyal to a Sunni ruling family. And if they object to being oppressed, it can only be because Shia-majority Iran has deliberately stirred them up.
There is a real political and military rivalry between Iran, the major power on the north side of the Gulf, and the smaller Arab states to the south-west. It has got even worse since the US invasion of Iraq ended centuries of Sunni rule and put a Shia regime in power there. The competition is actually geopolitical and strategic, not sectarian, but people get confused.
So Saudi Arabia worries a lot about the loyalty of the large Shia population (maybe even a majority) in its Eastern Province, where all the oil is. It was certainly not going to tolerate a democracy – which it thinks would be a “Shia” democracy, and therefore a hostile regime – in Bahrain, right next door.
And, of course, it believed that the downtrodden Shia majority in Bahrain (who cannot even serve in their own country’s army and police) had been stirred up by Shia-majority Iran across the Gulf. So when Bahrain’s king had still not got the pro-democracy protesters under control after an entire month, it sent its troops in.
This may not be what the king had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa intended: he was trying to negotiate with opposition parties about giving Shias a bigger role in the kingdom’s affairs. But Saudi Arabia didn’t want that kind of example right next-door, and it found hardline allies in the Bahraini royal family.
It may have played out somewhat like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow, determined to crush the reform movement there, got some second-rank Czech Communists to request military intervention. At any rate, hard-liners in the royal family have called the tune since then, while the king and the crown prince have effectively been sidelined.
The triumvirate who are now running Bahrain are Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister for the past forty years, and the brothers Khalid bin Ahmed bin Salman al-Khalifa, the royal Court Minister, and Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, who commands the Bahrain Defence Forces. (Do pay attention at the back; there will be a test on these names later.)
The brothers belong to the Khawalid branch of the royal family, descended from another royal who led a brutal crackdown against a Shia uprising in the 1920s. With them in charge, there will be no compromise, even though more than 80 Shia protesters have already been killed.
And even if it gets a great deal worse in Bahrain, no Western government is going to condemn the country’s rulers. That would seriously annoy Saudi Arabia, and they will never do that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 14 and 15. (“There is…confused”; and “The triumvirate…killed”)
22 December 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. December 21st came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction – but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.
So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past twelve months.
On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that entrenched conservative “Islamic” values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half full or half empty?
On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even though the country is still overrun by various militias, and Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of thirty-odd years. On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a full-scale civil war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000 dead. Did the “Arab spring” succeed, or did it fail?
Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.
The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that’s quite normal in new democracies – and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amidst much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world’s other countries.
The European Union staggered through a year during which the common currency of the majority of its members, the euro, tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial markets have been talking all year about “Grexit”, the expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.
They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to run for office again – “The Return of the Undead”, one European paper called it – switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.
Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. The United Kingdom and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.
It’s a mess, in other words, and Europe certainly faces years of very low economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political union.
That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their current countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to re-apply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.
So the European Union will survive, and will even recover its financial stability eventually. It will also remain a major economic player in the world, athough the centre of gravity of the global economy will continue to shift towards Asia. There is even reason to think that Asia’s triumph will arrive somewhat later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.
In the last months of 2012 China went through the ten-yearly ritual in which power is handed on to a new generation of leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue state that lies between them, put its first satellite into orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.
The cloud on the horizon is still “no bigger than a man’s hand,” but it is definitely there. We can hope that the world works differently nowadays, and in some ways it really does, but the fears, the nationalist passions, and even the strategic relationships in Asia are coming to resemble those in Europe a century ago, on the eve of the First World War.
Even if an equivalent war never actually happens in Asia, a growing share of the region’s resources may be wasted on military spending. And if there ever were a real war, the destruction would be so great, given current weapons technologies, that the region could lose several decades’ worth of growth. But it will be some years yet before we know if the region is really drifting in that direction.
The world’s drift towards global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the US Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.
This September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest ever level: only half of the total area covered by ice in September ten years ago. And October saw Hurricane Sandy devastate much of the US east coast, causing a hundred deaths and over $30 billion in damage. It was the second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).
Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, held this December in Qatar, merely agreed that they would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do, however, it won’t go into effect until 2020.
So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed at Kyoto fifteen years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even lemmings usually act more wisely than this.
November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it’s pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.
More worrisome was the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran, supposedly to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. That would be a very big war if it started: the United States would almost inevitably get dragged in, the flow of oil from the Gulf states would stop, and the world economy would do a nosedive.
But there is no proof that Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons (the US and Israeli intelligence services both say no), and mere air strikes would not cripple Iran’s nuclear industry for long. So the whole issue is probably an Israeli bluff.
A bluff to what end? To get the rest of the world to impose severe economic sanctions against Iran, in the hope that they will cause enough pain to get Iranians to overthrow the present regime. The damage is certainly being done – the value of the Iranian rial collapsed this year – but the power of the ayatollahs is unshaken. They will not be overthrown, and there will not be a war. I think.
And then there’s the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama’s slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in seventy years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.
The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the United States falls off the “fiscal cliff” in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake on at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues like gun control.
So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes like Burma’s gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.
Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August, and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).
Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn’t a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you’ve been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn’t all that great a year either, but never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.
This article is 1750 words. To shorten it, you can omit any of the main themes except the first one (on events in the Arab world) — that is, paragraphs 7-12 (“The European…years”); paragraphs 13-15 (“In the last…direction”); paragraphs 16-19 (“The world’s…than this”); or paragraphs 21-23 (“More worrisome…I think”).
Various single paragraphs can also be dropped: nos. 4, 6, 8, and 28.
10 October 2012
No Panic in Iran
By Gwynne Dyer
Iran’s currency virtually collapsed last week, and the public protests that followed in Tehran stirred memories of the massive anti-regime protests of 2009. This has caused excited speculation in the United States and its allies about the imminent fall of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the abandonment of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, or even the end of the whole Islamic regime. Don’t hold your breath.
Ahmadinejad blamed the currency crisis on the foreign sanctions that are crippling Iran’s trade, of course. His critics at home just blamed him: “The smaller part of the problem relates to sanctions while 80% of the problem is rooted in the government’s mistaken policies,” said Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?
It’s true that Ahmadinejad has used the country’s large oil revenues to paper over some serious mistakes in running Iran’s economy, but the current crisis was caused by a steep fall in those revenues – which is directly due to the sanctions.
Four rounds of United Nations-backed trade sanctions, ostensibly meant to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, had already cut the country’s oil exports from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.5 million b/d by early this year.
Then came new American sanctions that blocked any international bank doing business in Iran from access to the immense US market – so most of them ended their dealings with Iran.
In July came new European Union sanctions banning oil imports from Iran entirely. Since Europe was taking one-fifth of Iran’s remaining oil exports, that blow was enough to send the Iranian rial into free-fall.
Until 2009, the rate of exchange was fairly stable at about 10,000 rials to the dollar. Then it started to fall slowly, and then faster – and in a hectic few days last week, it tumbled a further 40 percent to a low of 35,000 rials to the dollar. That was when the protests began in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, whose merchants were amongst the strongest supporters of the revolution in 1979.
The protests were contained without any deaths, and the shops in the bazaar are now open again. The rial has recovered slightly, stabilising at around 28,000 to the dollar. But that is one-third of what it was worth three years ago, and the effects are being felt in almost every household in the country. Formerly comfortable middle-class families are scrambling to put food on the table, and the poor are really suffering.
So the sanctions are working, in the sense that they are hurting people. But what are they accomplishing in terms of their stated purpose of forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programme? More importantly, perhaps, what are they achieving in terms of their UNSTATED purpose: triggering an uprising that overthrows the whole Islamic regime?
First of all, Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US and Israeli intelligence service are all agreed on that, although the public debate on the issue generally assumes the contrary. Iran says it is developing its ability to enrich uranium fuel for use in reactors, which is perfectly legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It’s true that the same technologies give the owner the ability to enrich uranium further, to weapons grade, and there is good reason to think that Iran wants that capability. It’s probably not planning to make nuclear weapons now, but it does want that “threshold capability” in case things get really bad in the region and it needs a nuclear deterrent in a hurry.
A “threshold nuclear weapons capability” (but no nuclear weapons) is still not illegal. Other countries with enrichment facilities include Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. Moreover, Iran’s stock of reactor-grade enriched uranium is under permanent IAEA supervision, and alarms would go off instantly if it started to upgrade that stock to weapons grade.
Israel’s current government has talked itself into a state of existential panic over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, but the US government certainly doesn’t believe that Iran has any immediate plans to build nuclear weapons. So what are these sanctions really about?
Overthrowing the Iranian regime, of course. American sanctions against Iran long predate any concerns about Iranian nuclear weapons, and would not be ended even if Iran stopped all work on uranium enrichment tomorrow. The US legislation that imposes the sanctions makes that very clear.
Before sanctions are lifted, the president must certify to Congress that Iran has “released all political prisoners and detainees; ceased its…violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; investigated the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists…and prosecuted those responsible; and made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary.” In other words, it must dismantle the regime.
Since stopping the enrichment programme would not end the sanctions, why would the Iranian government even consider doing so? And will the Iranian people rise up and overthrow the regime because sanctions are making their daily lives very difficult? Even anti-regime Iranians are proud and patriotic people, and the likelihood that they will yield to foreign pressures in that way is approximately zero.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Then…Iran”; and “It’s true…grade”)
26 September 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
“Double Tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.
Then there’s a different, nastier kind of “double tap”. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead – and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.
What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.
“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahbad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents the victims of drone strikes, told “The Independent” newspaper recently. “In the past it used to be a one-off, now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”
Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely 2 percent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants. That’s not to say that everybody else killed or injured was an innocent civilian, but these are definitely not “surgical” strikes.
The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who just happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit – often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.
The Stanford/New York University study, entitled “Living Under Drones”, describes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database as “far more reliable than other aggregating sources,” based on a far wider range of sources than other comparable studies. And of course there are no official numbers. The US government doesn’t even try to count the casualties.
Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.
Let’s be honest here: children always get killed in air strikes. When you explode 10 kg (20 lbs) of high explosives on a single target (the standard Hellfire load), there can be nothing surgical about it. The really questionable aspects of the CIA’s drone programme lie elsewhere.
First, is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Second, can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks?
The legal question is particularly problematic in Pakistan, where the government has not authorised the United States to carry out attacks. Islamabad tacitly accepts them, but sometimes public opinion forces it to respond vigorously, as when an American missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year. That blunder also highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between “militants” and civilians through the lens of a remote-controlled camera.
It’s the double-tap attacks that are truly shameful. Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.
There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some fifty countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.
The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 km (1,300 mi), capable of flying over most of the Middle East. If it is really copied from the US drone that Iran captured last year, then it has major air-to-ground capabilities. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?
The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 11. (“These strikes…it”; “The Stanford…casualties”; and “The legal…camera”)