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Obama’s Minimalist Foreign Policy

If the US Congress had not imposed a two-term limit on the presidency in 1947 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record four electoral victories, President Barack Obama would be a safe bet for a third term next November. He inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and now the United States has the healthiest economy of all the major powers, with unemployment back down to 5.5 percent.

But Obama can’t run for president again, so the time has come for the pundits to start delivering their assessments on the success or failure of his policies. First up is Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, with a lengthy article called “The Obama Doctrine” on the man’s conduct of American foreign policy over the past seven and a half years.

As you would expect when discussing a man whose basic rule is “Don’t do stupid shit”, Goldberg’s piece is mostly an examination of what Obama didn’t do, not what he did. He didn’t go to war with the Assad regime in Syria. He didn’t get into a new Cold War with Russia over Ukraine. He didn’t bomb Iran, instead making a political deal to block its nuclear weapons ambitions. He didn’t attack North Korea even when it did test nuclear weapons.

None of these foreign policy choices would be remarkable if we were talking about Japan or Canada or Germany. Even in former imperial powers like Britain and France, where the interventionist reflex is still alive and kicking, Obama’s choices would not be controversial.

But in the Washington foreign policy establishment, where every conflict on the planet tends to be redefined as an American problem and almost unlimited military force is available to attack the problem, Obama’s approach was heretical.

Democrats were just as opposed to his heresy as Republicans. Indeed, despite the wreckage of George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that Obama’s administration inherited when it took office in early 2009, his own first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was a classic interventionist.

After she left office in 2013, Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jhadists have now filled.” But Hillary Clinton actually got her way on Syria.

The real failure of American policy on Syria in 2011 was the tolerance extended to Turkish, Qatari and Saudi Arabian shipments of arms and money that were intended to subvert the faltering non-violent revolution and replace it with an armed revolt whose goal was a Sunni Islamic state, not a secular democracy.

Obama and Clinton must share the blame for the fact that the United States became part of this operation in early 2012, providing arms that it sourced from Libya to avoid Congressional oversight. By then the non-violent protests had been largely suppressed and Syria was stumbling into a civil war – which subsequently killed 300,000 people and turned half the country’s population into refugees.

Most Syrians would now agree that it would have been better to accept the failure of the non-violent movement and the continued rule of the execrable Assad regime than to see their country virtually destroyed. I suspect that Obama sees Clinton’s Syrian policy, in hindsight, as the greatest mistake of his time in office – but he did partially redeem himself by refusing to bomb Syria during the “poison gas” episode of 2014.

Clinton also told Goldberg in 2014 that “great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.” Nobody said it was, but it is a good guide when deciding on actual policies, and Obama has been pretty consistent in observing it even with regard to the Middle East.

His fundamental insight – and his greatest break with the orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment – has been to understand that very little that happens or could happen in the Middle East is a threat to America’s vital interests. Even Israel’s well-being is only a sentimental consideration for the United States, not a strategic one, although like all American politicians he is obliged to pretend otherwise.

Only if the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front and Islamic State were to overrun all of Syria would Israel be in any danger, and the Russian military intervention in support of Assad’s regime since last September has largely eliminated that possibility. So Obama has been free to concentrate on the issues that he thinks are really important, and that is where he has made real progress.

His foreign policy has been minimalist only with regard to the traditional “strategic” concerns inherited from the Cold War and America’s long, deep and mostly futile engagement with the Middle East. In his “pivot” to Asia, in reestablishing ties with Cuba, above all on the issue of climate change (which he rightly sees as the crucial issue for the next generation and beyond), he has been an activist in his foreign policy – and a largely successful one.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, the two main contenders for the succession, will be a patch on him.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11. “None…controversial”; “Obama…refugees”; and “Clinton…East”)

The Islamic Wars of Religion

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.

On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.

So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.

This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?

The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.

From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.

The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.

More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.

Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.

And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.

Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad

The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.

The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.

It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)

2015 Year-Ender

If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.

This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.

Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.

That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders

There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.

Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.

The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.

There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.

The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.

This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.

That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.

The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.

The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.

Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.

In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.

The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.

So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.

Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.

The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.

But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.

Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.

There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.

In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.

And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.

However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.

They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).

They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
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To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Refugees from the wars of the Middle East are pouring into the European Union at an unprecedented rate. So are economic migrants from Africa and non-EU countries in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), and some of them claim to be refugees too. They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.

It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Little Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being “overrun”.

It really is a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the best of the Good is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.” She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.

She also said that Germany is suspending the “Dublin regulation”, an internal EU rule that says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. This is manifestly unfair to Greece and Italy, so Berlin will now allow all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of where they entered the EU. Moreover, it will regard Syrian citizenship as adequate evidence that people are genuine refugees.

France, Italy and the Netherlands have also been fairly generous about granting refugees asylum, and quiet, gallant Sweden is accepting more refugees per capita than anybody else in the EU. But the good news stops here. Most other EU countries are refusing to take a fair share of the refugees, or even any at all.

Let us define the Bad as those governments that really know they should be doing more, but are shirking their responsibility for domestic political reasons. The most prominent are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year), which has infuriated the right-wing media. In fact, more than half the newcomers were citizens of other EU countries (who have the right to cross borders in search of jobs), and only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate. And in Spain, there’s an election coming up.

Then there are the Ugly: the countries that simply don’t want to take in refugees because they are different from the local people. Like Slovakia, which said that it might take a few hundred refugees, but only Christians, or Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are both talking about deploying armed forces on their borders to keep refugees out.

All these countries lived under Soviet rule for two generations, which was almost like living in a cave. They have almost no experience of immigration, and it’s commonplace to hear people make racist or anti-Semitic remarks without the slightest sense of shame. In a way, they are still living in the 1950s. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

So how, in these circumstances, is the European Union to agree on a common policy for sharing the burden of caring for the refugees? “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” Angela Merkel says, but the EU operates on a consensus basis, and there is little chance that that will be accepted. In practice, therefore, the burden will continue to be borne by the willing.

In an attempt to lessen the burden, the German chancellor has proposed a list of “safe” countries (like the Balkan ones, which account for 40 percent of asylum claims in Germany), where it may be presumed that most claimants are really economic migrants. Arrivals from “unsafe” countries like Syria, Libya and Afganistan, where real wars are underway, would be treated as genuine refugees. But even then, each case must be investigated individually.

“Germany is a strong country and the motto must be: ‘we’ve managed so much, we can manage this’,” Merkel said, and no doubt she can get through this year without changing course. But there is every reason to believe that there will be another million people risking everything to make it across the EU’s borders next year, and probably for many years thereafter. It may even get worse.

In the long run it is almost certain to get worse, even if the current wars in the Middle East all miraculously end. Coming up behind the current crisis is the inexorable advance of climate change, which will hit the Middle East and Africa very hard indeed. Nobody has the slightest idea how many refugees that will generate, but it is likely to be many times the current flow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…refugees”; and “In an…individually”)