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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”)

Great Powers, Endless Wars

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” said Donald Trump in his State of the Union speech last February, but he was wrong. That’s exactly what they do. Great powers fight MORE wars than anybody else, even if, like the United States today, they have no hostile neighbours.

The original observations were made half a century ago by Quincy Wright, an American political scientist at the University of Chicago. During the entire history of ‘modern’ Europe from 1480 to 1940, he calculated, there have been about 2,600 important battles.

France, a leading military power for the whole period and the greatest power for most of it, participated in 47 percent of those battles – more than a thousand major battles. Russia, Britain and Germany (in the form of Prussia), which were all great European powers by 1700, fought in between 22 and 25 percent of them. And then the rate of participation falls off very steeply.

Spain was a great military power until the mid-1700s, but then dropped out of contention and can offer only a 12 percent attendance record for battles over the whole four-and-a-half centuries. The Netherlands and Sweden, which were great military powers only for brief periods, were present at only 8 and 4 percent of Europe’s battles respectively. Indeed, Sweden has not used its army in war for 190 years now.

By any other yardstick – the amount of time a given European country has spent at war, the number of wars it has taken part in, the proportion of its population that has been killed in wars – the result is the same.

There is a steep and consistent gradient of suffering, in which the most powerful nations fight most often and lose most heavily in lives and wealth. How can this be? Why doesn’t great power deter other countries from fighting you?

Well, it actually does, to some extent. However, great power also enables the country possessing it to acquire ‘interests’ everywhere, and tempts it to use its military power to protect or advance those interests. Only great powers fight ‘wars of choice’.

North Vietnam did not choose to fight the United States. Neither did Cuba, or Grenada, or Libya, or Panama, or Serbia, or Iraq. Nor, for that matter, did Canada (then British North America) in 1812, or Mexico in 1846, or Spain in 1898. Those were all ‘wars of choice’ for the United States, but not for the other side.

This is not to say that they were all wars of aggression. The first Gulf War was not, for example, nor was the Kosovo War. But they were all wars that the United States could have chosen NOT to fight without suffering grave harm to its own legitimate interests. It chose to fight them, often for relatively minor stakes, because it could.

The great-power mania infects everybody. Donald Trump, despite his well-founded conviction that America should bring its troops home from the Middle East, has now vetoed a bipartisan Congressional resolution that tried to force an end to American participation in the war in Yemen.

Never mind the lies that are told about the Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen being simply pawns of Iran, and about Iran being the reason the Middle East is so ‘unstable’.

Why would Trump, like several generations of American ‘statesmen’ before him, fall for the bizarre notion that deciding who rules in Lebanon or Egypt or Yemen is a ‘vital national interest’ of the United States?

The webs of spurious logic that support such nonsense are familiar. ‘Oil is our vital national interest, so Saudi Arabia is our indispensable ally.’ Why? Wouldn’t Arabia want to sell its oil to the US under any imaginable regime? And hasn’t fracking made the US virtually self-sufficient in oil anyway?

‘Since Saudi Arabia is our ally, we must support its war in Yemen, and support it against Iran too.’ Why? You managed to be closely allied with both Israel and Saudi Arabia back in the days when the Saudis still saw Israel as a mortal enemy. You don’t have to back either of them in everything they do.

‘Our credibility is at stake.’ This is the last-resort falsehood that can justify almost any otherwise indefensible military commitment. Don’t let them see you back down, no matter how stupid your position is. They won’t respect you if you bail out.

Or as Trump put it when he was still just a candidate for the Republican nomination: “Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.” Power purely for the sake of power. Any country that remains a great power for long enough eventually becomes insane.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“By…same”; and “Never…unstable”)

Ukraine: Nothing Left to Lose

Ukraine has a new president, and he’s a comedian! Oh, wait a minute, that’s not such a big deal. Guatemala was the first country to elect a comedian as president: Jimmy Morales, back in 2015. Although Morales turned sort of serious once he took office: he’s a right-wing nationalist who supports the death penalty and opposes abortion. Whereas Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t turned.

Right through the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Zelensky avoided speeches. Mostly he just toured the country with a comedy troupe, performed in skits, and did stand-up. And he’s not just a comedian, he’s a Jewish comedian, the very best kind. His style is south Ukrainian, sort of vaudeville, with a distinctive Jewish inflection, and people love it.

Congratulations to Ukraine, by the way, for having Jews as both president and prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) at the same time, in the heart of traditionally anti-semitic Eastern Europe, and not even making a fuss about it. But what is Zelensky going to do for Ukraine now that he has been swept into office with a landslide majority (73 percent)? Nobody actually knows, and this may include Zelensky himself.

When Zelensky did offer more than jokes, in the short videos he released from time to time during the campaign, it still wasn’t policies. More like mood music, really.

“He’s from a family of Jewish Soviet intellectuals from a Russian-speaking industrial region [in eastern Ukraine],” Vyacheslav Likhachev of the National Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group in Kyiv told the Haaretz newspaper. “He has repeatedly made fun of over-the-top [Ukrainian] national patriotic discourse.”

“Zelensky might make some symbolic gestures toward nationalist sentiment to fend off accusations that he’ll sell us out to Russia,” Likhachev continued, “but that seems unlikely to me. He probably realizes that it’ll be hard for him to win over the most nationalist-oriented part of society, so he’ll wash his hands of them so as not to alienate the majority.”

That will be a welcome change after five years of the pompous nationalist bilge of billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who won the presidency in 2014 after a popular revolt overthrew the pro-Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych.

In a video Poroshenko released just before the sole presidential debate in Kiev’s huge Olympic Stadium last Friday, he tried to play the patriotic card: “There’s no room for jokes here. Being a president and supreme commander is not a game… it means being responsible for the people, for the country.” It would have sounded more persuasive if Poroshenko had done something about the corruption that has made oligarchs like him rich.

Zelensky’s response was lethal: “I’m not your opponent. I’m a verdict on you. I am the result of your mistakes.” And by a majority of almost three-to-one, Ukrainians voted to put their future in his hands. Although, to be frank, most of them doubt that he can really deliver the future of peace and prosperity that they hope for.

The only evidence they have of Zelensky’s dedication, honesty and wisdom is the television series he writes and stars in, ‘Servant of the People’. It’s a heart-warming story of a humble high-school history teacher whose rant about the dreadful state of the country is secretly recorded by his students, and goes viral when they upload it to You Tube. So he is elected president of Ukraine.

Zelensky is not a high-school teacher; he is a show-business millionaire with his own production company. He may be just as warm and sincere in person as Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, the former teacher and accidental president whom he plays in ‘Servant’. (It’s one of Ukraine’s most popular series, and is now nearing fifty episodes). Or he may not be.

Journalists are now working their way through all the box sets of ‘Servant of the People’, trying to glean some clues about what the new president has in mind. But that’s a thankless task, because a lot of the show is sheer fantasy (like the sequence where the frustrated Holoborodko machine-guns the entire parliament).

Ukrainian voters are not fools. They know they are buying a pig in an poke. But they calculate that things MIGHT change if Zelensky becomes president, whereas they certainly wouldn’t change if any of the usual suspects won the presidency. And things are certainly not good now.

Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe – far poorer than Russia. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country seeking work in Poland or Russia, and the low-intensity war against the Russian-backed separatists in the east drags on endlessly. No post-Soviet leader of Ukraine has made even a dent in the corrupt rule of the oligarchs. Indeed, most of them have been oligarchs themselves.

So why not vote for Zelensky? Most Ukrainians feel that they have nothing left to lose.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Zelensky…majority”; and “Journalists…parliament”)

Israeli Election and the West Bank

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday, three days before the Israeli election, that he is going to annex all the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. After all, every other member of his Likud Party in the Israeli parliament (28 out of 29) had already said they wanted to do that. Yet it did come as a surprise..

Netanyahu had avoided saying it previously because as head of government his statement would have made it official policy, and according to international law annexing conquered territory is illegal. (Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 war, and has occupied it ever since.) The traditional Israeli policy has been to colonise as much of the territory as it can with Jewish settlers, but to insist that it was all open to negotiation in a peace settlement.

It never meant that, of course. Around 20% of the people in the West Bank and the adjacent parts of East Jerusalem, conquered at the same time, are now Jewish settlers (600,000 colonists among 2.4 million Palestinians), but they control 42% of the land. You don’t make that kind of investment if you’re really planning to give the land back to the Palestinians in the future.

But leaving the legal status of the Jewish settlements open actually enables them to go on expanding, whereas annexing the land the settlers now hold would implicitly recognise that the rest of the land really still belongs to the Palestinians, and stop the settlers from grabbing even more of it. Moreover, leaving the question open lets Israel’s Western allies and supporters ignore its actions.

Even Western media dodge the issue, using slippery formulas like the BBC’s famous line, which appears in almost every piece it does about the occupied territories: “The [Jewish] settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.” It is the exact legal and moral equivalent of saying that “Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal under international law, though Russia disputes this,” but in practice it lets the Israelis off the hook.

So why did Netanyahu change the policy now? The election, obviously. In response to a (probably planted) question from the audience at Saturday’s rally, he said: “You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

‘And the isolated settlements’ is an interesting phrase. Ariel Sharon’s famous exhortation in 1998 – “Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them” – had concrete effects.

‘Unauthorised’ Jewish settlements – often no more than a couple of trailers, a lot of razor wire, a small arsenal of weapons and an Israeli flag – sprang up on a lot of hilltops in the West Bank. If Netanyahu includes them and the roads that connect them in his ‘annexation’, it will be a final land grab that probably brings the portion of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty above 50%.

Netanyahu is doing this now because his re-election campaign was running into a bit of trouble. He is under indictment on corruption charges, and his Likud party, which used to be seen as hard right, has ended up looking ‘soft right’ without ever changing its policies. It’s the centre of gravity in Israeli politics that has moved, with several right-wing parties following an ever harder line than Likud.

Likud will never form a government on its own; it would be doing well to win a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). The country’s electoral system of proportional representation means all governments must be coalition governments, and Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners after the election are almost all further to the right than Likud.

To compete with them for votes during the election, and to draw them into a new coalition afterwards, requires Netanyahu to look ruthless and ultra-nationalist himself, and he has shown no reluctance to play that role. He also knows that his good friend Donald Trump will give him cover internationally when he annexes the West Bank.

Trump has already moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, an implicit endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Arab-majority east of the city after it was captured in the 1967 war. More recently he has formally recognised the illegal Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, a part of Syria also conquered in that war and now a territory where Israeli settlers make up half the population.

So would Trump also recognise an Israeli annexation of half the West Bank? Why not? Netanyahu might as well exploit Trump’s political strategy at home, which includes accusing the Democratic Party of being ‘anti-Semitic’, to get US approval of Israeli expansion while he is still in office. He might be gone in nineteen months.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“And the…50%”)