Monday, June 27, 2016

BRITAIN'S REFERENDUM RESULT: THE ULTIMATE CASE OF NATIONAL SELF-DEFENESTRATION

"You can cite perhaps half-a-dozen explanations as to why the once-phlegmatic British voted against their own economic interests by quitting the EU. British exceptionalism, migration, a scandalously duplicitous Leave campaign, stagnant incomes and post-crash austerity are all on the list. But the thread through it all was deep disgruntlement with a political and economic system that is seen as rigged against the hard-working classes. It was always clear that the referendum would fracture the Conservative party. But it was won by the “outs” only because millions of erstwhile Labour supporters deserted their own leftist leadership for the anti-immigrant xenophobia peddled by the United Kingdom Independence party. For decades politics was a game of turn and turnabout among the long established parties of centre-right and centre-left. Now, Conservatives and Labour in Britain, and Christian and Social Democrats on the European continent have lost control. Brexit will leave Britain poorer at home and diminished on the international stage. It marks a retreat from the world. The leaving of one union could lead to the break-up of another if Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, presses ahead with her plan for another independence referendum. A flight of foreign capital and businesses from the UK may tip the economy into recession. The leavers, led by the flamboyantly evasive Boris Johnson, have no plans to cope with any of this. Mr Johnson has not thought beyond an all-consuming ambition to replace David Cameron as prime minister. He has failed to offer a serious prospectus for the simple reason that, beyond some nostalgic nonsense about reconquering the world, he has no idea about what comes next."
Philip Stephens, "How a cautious nation came to tear down the political temple". The Financial Times. 24 June 2016, in www.ft.com.
"Not before time it is slowly dawning on people in England that while this was very much their referendum it has consequences for the whole of the United Kingdom. They were warned this would be the case and, if it was not something that was ever uppermost in their thoughts, they cannot claim they were not told. Because they were. I don’t dispute English voters’ right to privilege their disgruntlement with the EU over their weakened preference for the United Kingdom to remain, well, just that. That’s a choice but choices have consequences. It has, in any case, been evident for some time that England’s commitment to the Union is just as provisional and ambivalent as Scotland’s.... In 2014, Better Together warned that voting for independence posed the greatest risk to Scotland’s EU membership. That was true then. It is evidently not true now. Voting, at some point, for independence is now the only way Scotland can become a full member of the EU. The suggestion any alternative is available is a suggestion for the birds. Like David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon knows this. She is talking about protecting ‘Scotland’s relationship with the European Union and our place in the single market’. That will be the famed Norwegian model, then. Membership of the EEA is the best-available, least-worst option for Sturgeon and, indeed, for the UK. That it is not what millions of people thought they were voting for is not Sturgeon’s problem. But mark this: I strongly suspect that anything less than the Norway model will lead to the break-up of Britain. And even that may not be enough to save it".
Alex Massie, "Is Brexit the beginning of the End of Britain?" The Spectator. 27 June 2016, in www.spectator.co.uk.
Make no mistake about the matter: regardless of what the deluded hordes of people, sincere, anxious, frightened, alienated masses of the British thought that they were voting for last week, the end-result of last Thursday's vote, was by far the greatest act of mass political stupidity in the past fifty-years. At a time when Europe, the United States, the West in general faces many, many challenges, from Russia in the East to the Peoples Republic of China in the Orient, to the ongoing civil wars and chaos in the Near and Middle East, all eyes have now turned to the frivolous and idiotic issue of the United Kingdom (soon perhaps merely to be England and Northern Ireland) future relationship with the Twenty-seven nations of the European Union. I will not gainsay the truism that there is much to dislike, nay actively dislike about the European Union. The modern-day replica of the Holy Roman Empire in the latter's dotage. Especially, the fraught issue of uncontrolled immigration, as well as the issue of political legitimacy and illegitimacy. Regardless of all these facts and truism, the reality is that endeavoring to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, particularly now will have the end result of creating havoc: political havoc and economic havoc for both the Great Britain and the European Union. And resolving this completely unnecessary problem will take years and years to do. Will result in lower economic growth in both the United Kingdom and the European Union for years to come 1. And au fond, for a political game which one can now readily see, the instigators of which no longer believe in 2. From a purely diplomatic and political perspective, the upshot of the referendum results is best described in a speech by former American Ambassador Charles Freeman in Berlin on Saturday past to the 'Schiller Institute':
"Britain’s vote for Brexit has just exacerbated Europe’s confusion. Brexit promises to shatter the post-war order in Europe, to remove the British as intermediaries between the United States and “the Continent,” and to deal a potentially fatal blow to Britain’s special relationships with both" 3.
In short the wrong-headed results of last Thursday's referendum are not only an 'own-goal', but perhaps the ultimate case of national self-defenestration. In this instance an entire country has deliberately chosen to take leave of their senses. With consequences both diplomatic and economic which will last for years and years.
1. Martin Wolf, "Brexit will reconfigure the UK economy". The Financial Times. 24 June 2016, in www.ft.com
2. This can be readily seen by Boris Johnson's article in the Daily Telegraph in which as someone has commented accurately: "he [Johnson] almost certainly hoped to lose the referendum by a whisker, which would have left him perfectly positioned to snipe at David Cameron, but spared the tedious business of actually amputating the United Kingdom from Europe. The plan went awry, because he’s too natural a demagogue: like Jeremy Corbyn’s charismatic twin, he put his case too irrepressibly to attain the precise balance between plausibility and unpopularity that heroic failure would have required. Now that he unexpectedly finds himself at Downing Street’s threshold as a consequence, he needs to buy time – and his meaningless manifesto in the Telegraph is designed to do just that". In: Sadakat Kadri, "Bullxit". The London Review of Books. 27 June 2016, in www.lrb.co.uk. See also: Sebastian Payne, "Boris Johnson must form a tangible plan for Brexit Britain". The Financial Times. 27 June 2016, in www.ft.com.
3. The speech titled: "Things Fall Apart: America, Europe, and Asia in the New World Disorder Remarks to a Schiller Institute International Conference". Delivered on the 25th of June. The text of the speech was given to me by a close friend of Ambassador Freeman.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

BRITAIN'S BREXIT REFERENDUM: A COMMENT

"Since 1975 the EU has mutated in exactly the way we then feared and now resembles nothing so much as the Habsburg Empire in its dying days. A bloated bureaucracy that has outgrown all usefulness. A parliament that represents many nations, but with no democratic legitimacy. Countries on its periphery pitched into poverty, or agitating for secession. The EU’s hunger for power has been matched only by its incompetence. The European Union is making the people of our continent poorer, and less free. This goes far beyond frustration at diktats on banana curvature. The EU has started to deform our government. Michael Gove revealed how, as a cabinet member, he regularly finds himself having to process edicts, rules and regulations that have been framed at European level. Laws that no one in Britain had asked for, and which no one elected to the House of Commons has the power to change. What we refer to as British government is increasingly no such thing. It involves the passing of laws written by people whom no one in Britain elected, no one can name and no one can remove".
Leader, "Out – and into the world: why The Spectator is for Leave". The Spectator. www.spectator.co.uk
I wonder whether debate about Britain’s membership of the EU has not reversed the usual polarities. Continental Europeans, once associated with airy abstraction, now seem to be weary pragmatists seeking to solve one problem at a time; Anglo-Saxon conservatives often seem inspired by a kind of revolutionary fervour. Hannan points out that countries have frequently entered into the various incarnations of the EU at times of “pessimism”, which is a fair point but one that made me wonder about Hannan’s relationship to his own political tradition. Does he imagine that, say, the third Marquess of Salisbury was an optimist? Is not a desire to hold on to existing institutions for fear of something worse an admirably conservative one? Charles de Gaulle looms over much debate on Europe and has acquired a cult following among Britons hostile to the EU (Hannan among them), but de Gaulle was often flexible in what he did even when he was intransigent in what he said. On the first page of his memoirs, de Gaulle describes his “certain idea of France” as being like “the princess in the fairy tale”, surely a sign that one can deploy a nationalist myth without wholly believing in it. Perhaps British Conservatives should look more to their own party and their own country. Might it be that the current state of the European Union – produced by messy compromises and not always springing from the highest ideals – actually fits in with English Conservatism? Consider the dispatch that Duff Cooper (the man who persuaded the Cabinet that de Gaulle should be allowed to broadcast his Call to Honour on June 18, 1940) sent to Churchill in 1944. He called for the creation of a West European “Bund” that would help contain the Soviet Union. He thought that this new structure should exist under British aegis, and that “it might well be within the framework of the British Empire which has so successfully contrived to combine federations and the retention of state sovereignty”.
Richard Vinen, "Euro stars – the good, the bad and the confused". The Times of London Literary Supplement (TLS). 15 June 2016 in www.the-tls.co.uk
Au fond, the entire Brexit referendum is a debate something akin to dealing with hobgoblins and long-dead ghosts. The crux of the 'leave' campaign consist almost entirely of xenophobic posturing about immigration (which even someone as establishmentarian as Lord Turner will admit is a legitimate issue), and nonsensical cries and yelps about how much money the United Kingdom contributes to Brussels on a net basis (the leave campaigns figures are considerably off) 1. Which is not to gainsay the fact that the 'Remain' campaign has also indulged in some shameless posturing and sloganeering of its own (inventing figures as to how much the average British family will be impacted in say ten-years time by the UK leaving the European Union). The fact of the matter is that sans the immigration issue, the leave campaign has scarcely a foot to stand on. It being the case that if the UK were to vote to leave the European Union, the likelihood of Britain being able to obtain anywhere near the types of agreements that say Norway or Switzerland have with Brussels is close to being non-existent. There is absolutely no rationale for the other states in the EU to negotiate a moderate settlement with London. When one adds the facts that: i) aside from Vladimir Putin, no world leader worthy of the name has cared to endorse the idea of the UK leaving the European Union; ii) that in the aftermath of a vote to leave the EU, there will be chaos, both political (Scotland might use the occasion to push for another referendum to break-up the United Kingdom) and economic (Pound Sterling might drop precipitously); iii) the upshot of both 'i' and 'ii' will be a completely unnecessary crisis: political, economic and other, in the European and Western world. For reasons which are entirely emotional and irrational. As the London Times' David Smith recently noted:
Since the single market began in 1993, Britain’s GDP is up by 62% in real terms on OECD figures, compared with 42% in France, 35% in Germany and 15% in Italy. Switzerland’s GDP has risen by 48%… I would be the first to say our growth performance reflects many factors, including the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s and Bank independence in 1997.
It is hardily the case that the United Kingdom has been held back by the European Union economically in the past forty-plus years. There are admittedly genuine issues relating to immigration from Central & Eastern Europe into the UK. Something which I can be highly sympathetic about being an long-standing admirer of Enoch Powell. However, the chaos which will ensue in the case of a Brexit, for me cancels out any reason for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. As Richard Vinen, cogently points out, it is eminently the case that those who wish for the UK to remain in the European Union are the true conservatives, and it is those romantics and ideologues, who are championing the Leave case, who are the radicals. I for one, have no wish to endorse radicalism of any sort. Hopefully, the British electorate will prove to be as conservative as myself tomorrow.
1. See: "I turn to migration. He shares my view that it is problematic if unlimited. “If immigration were the only issue, I could be a Brexiter,” he says. “The British population is forecast to go up from 63m to 74m by 2040. If you ask people what is the biggest determinant of their standard of living, often it is the length of their commute. Some people say, ‘Oh, we’ll just build on the greenbelt.’ But people love the greenbelt. I think large-scale immigration of people who are willing to work in unskilled jobs also probably reduces the wage rate of the people who are there already. And you can’t control your borders, unless you’re out.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “I think the economics, apart from immigration, are clearly for staying in. I think there’s a political case that, however frustrating it can sometimes be, we should be part of a Europe attempting to get to joint points of view on the environment, and so forth"
. In: "Martin Wolf, "Lunch with the FT: Adair Turner". The Financial Times. 18/18 June 2016, in www.ft.com.
2. David Smith, "Britain succeeds in the EU: we’d be daft to leave it". The Sunday Times (of London). 12 June 2016 in www.thetimes.co.uk.

Friday, June 17, 2016

THE DONALD TRUMP FACTOR IN AMERICAN POLITICS: A COMMENT

"Disappointed, disillusioned men, uprooted and unbalanced, driven by half-conscious fears and gusts of passions, frantically seek a new rallying point and new attachments. Their dreams and cravings projected into the void gather round some figure. It is the monolatry of the political desert. The more pathological the situation the less important is the intrinsic worth of the idol. His feet may be of clay and his face may be a blank: it is the frenzy of the worshippers which imparts to him meaning and power."
Sir Lewis Namier, "The First Montebank Dictator". In Vanished Supremacies: Essays on European History, 1812-1918. (1958), p. 54.
"Mrs Clinton is many things — intelligent, accomplished, hard-working, quisquis — but she is not herself interesting, except as a historical phenomenon — an American Evita, minus the charisma and the balcony. This is likely to make four years of her feel interminable. One year into her presidency, Stephen Hawking may have to revise his theory of time and posit that it is now slowing down. Or has stopped altogether. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I postulate that Mrs Clinton is not an exciting persona. If she were, it would be her, not a 74-year-old rumpled lefty with Paleo-Marxist cuckoo ideas, attracting massive crowds of young people. Comrade Sanders’s message may be flawed (rich people bad; government control of the economy good), but it is at least a message. Mrs Clinton has no message other than ‘I am so owed.’"
Christopher Buckley, "The Age of Hillary: what to expect if - when - a second Clinton finally backs her way to the top". The Spectator. 21 May 2016, p. 12.
Improbable as it may seem, there is every possibility that the prospective Republican nominee in the race to be elected the President of the United State of American, Mr. Donald Trump, may perhaps win against his opponent, ex-Secretary of State, ex-Senator, ex-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Admittedly like most of the American and indeed European intelligentsia, bien-pensant or not, the idea of Mr. Trump in the White House sends shivers down my spine. I of course have no love or admiration for Mme. Clinton: the epitome of a Balzacian character: the provincial, petit-bourgeois, arriviste as opportunist. As Mr. Buckley cruelly but accurately points out, Mme. Clinton as a candidate, as a politician, has proven singularly unable to convey any rationale why anyone would vote for her except that she is 'entitled' to be elected President, as a 'reward' for the many (self-induced) travails that she and her husband, ex-President Clinton have undergone in the past twenty-four years. Unfortunately, this is not the type of argument which will cause the great mass of the American public to enthusiastically vote for her. Thankfully, it must be said that in the past week to ten days, Mr. Trump has indulged himself in comments which are so outlandish and political maladroit that it is almost inconceivable that he would be elected President 1. However, the very same things were said one year ago when he first commenced running for the Republican nomination. And while the electorate in the general election is demographically much more varied than the electorate in the Republican party, the fact is that the same variable which caused Trump to rise to the top of the Republican greasy pole, are present in the wider electorate. What are these? Simply put the socio-economic effects of globalization, with its concomitant increases in income inequality and the shrinking of the size of the American middle class, has become more and more obvious. With massive increases in the suicide rates of White, middle-ages Americans. As well as a fall in the life expectancy of the same group 2. And unfortunately, these conditions are not confined to simply Republican party voters, but can also be found in the wider electorate. As was seen in the (relative) success of Senator Sanders' campaign in the Democratic Party race for President. In both cases, a seemingly widespread, 'village explainer' mentality, with its almost psychotic mistrust of elites: political and economic, has aided candidates who sincerely (Senator Sanders) or not (Mr. Trump) gives rhetorical vent to these feelings. Whatever one's opinion (in my case not very high) of Mme. Clinton, the fact of the matter is that she is indeed the 'conservative' choice as compared to a dangerous and ignorant demagogue, indeed a potential 'montebank dictator' like Mr. Trump. Unfortunately, even if he is defeated later on this year, the illnesses in the wider American and indeed wider Western polity will not by any means be cured by this result. Only a change in the wider socio-economic trends will do the trick 3.
1. Freddy Gray, "Trump’s train wreck: how the Donald is derailing his own campaign". The Spectator. 17 June 2016, in www.spectator.co.uk.
2. Martin Wolf, "How to defeat rightwing populism". The Financial Times. 24 May 2016, in www.ft.com; Sabrina Taverniseapril, "Health U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High". The New York Times. 22 April 2016, in www.nytimes.com.
3. For an analysis which covers the wider Western world, and not merely the United States, see: Branko Milanovic. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. (2016).

Friday, May 27, 2016

WHAT WILL BECOME OF AFGHANISTAN?

"US President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. While the Taliban have yet to confirm the death of their leader Saturday in a remote area in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, senior members of the insurgency's leadership council met to begin choosing Mansour's successor. Two senior members of the movement also said Pakistani authorities had delivered Mansour's badly burned remains for burial in the western city of Quetta. Pakistani officials, however, denied handing over a body. U.S. forces targeted Mansour because he was plotting attacks that posed "specific imminent threats" to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later specified that the Taliban were planning new attacks against "our interests and our people in Kabul." He did not elaborate. But the administration hopes Mansour's death will have a long-term impact by pushing the Taliban to end its refusal to engage in peace negotiations with Kabul and "choose the path to reconciliation," the official said".
Jibran Ahmad & Jonathan Landay, "U.S. says late Taliban leader was planning attacks on Americans". Reuters. 23 May 2016 in www.reuters.com.
"Afghanistan’s rebel Taliban group has moved quickly to replace its leader who was killed by a US drone strike at the weekend, as it widens a 15-year-old insurgency against the government in Kabul and its western military allies. The Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that Mullah Akhtar Mansour had been killed on Saturday in a missile attack on his car in Baluchistan, Pakistan. It announced that he had been replaced by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, previously one of his deputies.... Washington appears to have decided that it has nothing to lose by targeting Taliban leaders such as Mansour — who had proved unwilling to join a quadrilateral peace process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China — even at the expense of offending Pakistan by operating drones uninvited in its airspace. On Monday, US President Barack Obama said Mansour’s death would send a “clear signal” to extremists that America would protect its personnel. Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman, said that since Mansour had become leader of the Taliban, the group had conducted attacks resulting in tens of thousands of deaths while Mansour himself had been “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban”. Officials in Pakistan who follow events in neighbouring Afghanistan said Mullah Akhundzada was unlikely to show interest in the peace process either. “He is as conservative as they come and has had very little exposure to the outside world,” said one. “For the foreseeable future, I doubt if the Taliban would want to negotiate.”
Victor Mallet & Farhan Bokhari, "Taliban names new leader after death of Mansour in drone strike". The Financial Times. 25 May 2016, in www.ft.com.
The assassination of the head of the Taliban while a needed measure has au fond changed nothing, absolutely nothing on the ground in Afghanistan. As the appointment of his successor indicates. The 'peace talks' option so beloved of commentators and analysts a few years ago, appears to be completely played-out and have reached a cul de sac diplomatically speaking. The policy of the American Administration and its allies is currently in a holding pattern. With the one-time hoped-for withdrawal of all American fighting forces by the end of 2016 (originally 2014) now a completely forgotten promise. However, such reversals are part and parcel of a consistent policy and indeed strategy of failure and myopia by the American Administration since January 2009. As perhaps the leading American military commentator, Anthony Cordesman recently noted:
"The Administration has already had to accept the fact that its poorly planned and poorly executed efforts to first surge U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009, to withdraw them at the end of 2014, and finally to virtually eliminate a U.S. advisory mission by the end of this year, has been a total failure. This withdrawal plan has never taken account of the real world conditions on the ground, or the limits of the Afghan forces that were rushed into being ready for such a mission. These are troops who were forced into their mission only a decade after the United States first intervened in 2001, and were only given the proper funds and trainers as recently as 2011-2012. The Administration never took full account of the support Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were giving al Qaida and the rebels. It never looked realistically at what would happen if U.S. airpower was not available, and it failed to provide enough U.S. or NATO advisors after 2014 to support Afghan forces at the combat unit level. It became all too clear during the brief “surge” of U.S. forces that they were concentrated in the wrong place, and were unable to produce anything like the decline in enemy attacks that resulted from the “surge” in Iraq. It became equally clear in 2014 that the Taliban and Haqqani Network were major resurgent threats, and it has become brutally clear since U.S. combat forces formally left at the end of 2014 that the Afghan Army cannot hold all the major population centers and key lines of communication—much less the Afghan country side—without U.S. advisors, the quiet, direct U.S. combat support of critical elite Afghan forces, and U.S. air support. It is even more clear that the Afghan police lack the paramilitary capability to survive on their own, and that the Afghan government cannot protect its local governments, or even sometimes its provincial governments. The end result is that the United States has been forced to keep committing air power and Special Forces on the ground in spite of plans to end active U.S. participation in combat at the end of 2014" 1.
In short, the war in Afghanistan is something which will more than linger on. The only question is what will occur in the next two to four years, as conditions are stabilize (or more likely) deteriorate further. Will the Americans and their allies increase their numbers of troops and aircraft support or conversely prepare for a Kissingerian 'decent interval' strategy of negotiating a fig leaf withdrawal of Western troops and support for the regime in Kabul. That scenario would be the very worst of all possible worlds.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "Afghanistan: Deciding the Future of the Not Quite “Forgotten War”. The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 23 May 2016, in www.csis.org

Monday, May 23, 2016

SYKES-PICOT AFTER ONE-HUNDRED YEARS

"The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. ‘It is the end of Sykes-Picot,’ I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.... When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq embarrassed the rebels’ Western supporters by revealing that it had founded, reinforced with experienced fighters and devoted half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, militarily the most effective rebel group. When Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq in March they were ambushed by al-Qaida and 48 of them were killed before they could return to Syrian territory".
Patrick Cockburn, "Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?" The London Review of Books. 6 June 2013, in www.lrb.co.uk
"When I was growing up in Lebanon, there were two or three designated culprits for everything that went wrong, whether it was the latest battle in the 1975-1990 civil war, a plunging currency or torrential rains. One was Henry Kissinger, even when he was no longer involved in American foreign policy. Another was the Central Intelligence Agency, preferred master of all conspiracies. The third was Sykes-Picot, which to a child sounded more like the name of a cheese than the 1916 secret agreement that drew the borders of the modern Middle East in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Mr. Kissinger is still closely read today, his words dissected and his arguments discussed. The CIA is still a target of widespread resentment and, quite probably, involved in all sorts of Middle Eastern shenanigans. But as sectarian fires blaze through the nation states of the Arab world, the focus of blame has shifted towards the conservative British politician and the young French diplomat who carved the region into spheres of influence.... But pinning blame for the Middle East cauldron on a plan hatched decades ago is misleading. For all the damage that colonialism has inflicted on the region, the borders are not responsible for the states’ failures to unite the people behind a national project. Many other countries outside the region have artificial boundaries too and, in any case, the broad lines drawn by Sykes and Picot were not dreamt up — often they largely corresponded to Ottoman administrative borders."
Roula Khalaf, "An inconvenient truth for the Middle East and a line in the sand". The Financial Times. 19 May 2016, in www.ft.com.
The prominence that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is as Roula Kalaf of the Financial Times correctly notes, more a result of the ignorant denunciations made of the agreement by the terrorist thugs of ISIS than anything else. And whatever the manifold weaknesses of the current state structures in the region, with the exception of Iraq, it is difficult to imagine that any existing states will be either absorbed into another one (`a la Russia and the Crimea) or that there will be a process of voluntary amalgamation akin to the failed Egyptian-Syrian & Iraq-Jordan experiments along those lines circa 1958-1961. Indeed it is precisely such failure in the immediate post-colonial era which demonstrates (to my mind anyway) that while the existing state structures in the Near and Middle East are hardily what one may describe as 'sturdy', they are also not about to collapse. With even close to five-years of ultra-violent civil war in Syria not (yet) resulting in the complete collapse of the Baathist state apparatus. Unless and until we see something akin to that in Syria and elsewhere in the region, expect to see the same (or virtually the same) state structures which the period of 1916-1921 left the region with, for a long time to come. Per contra to the wishful prognosis offer up Patrick Cockburn. As the American academic expert on the region, Steven Cook recently noted:
"Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920" 1.
1. Steven Cook, "Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess". Foreign Policy. 13 May 2016 in www.foreignpolicy.com.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH ISIS?

"Less than 10 miles from the front lines in the push toward the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the U.S. outpost, known as Firebase Bell, is manned by about 200 Marines. “Having them here has raised the morale of our fighters,” said Lt. Col. Helan Mahmood, the head of a commando regiment in the Iraqi army, as his truck bumped along the dirt track that divides his base from the American encampment, ringed by razor wire and berms. “If there’s any movement from the enemy, they bomb immediately,” he said. The new firebase is part of a creeping U.S. buildup in Iraq since troops first returned to the country with a contingent of 275 advisers, described at the time by the Pentagon as a temporary measure to help get “eyes on the ground.” Now, nearly two years later, the official troop count has mushroomed to 4,087, not including those on temporary rotations, a number that has not been disclosed. The troops are moving outside the confines of more established bases to give closer support to the Iraqi army as it prepares for an assault on the northern city of Mosul — putting them closer to danger.... But the battle for Nasr was a faltering first step for the 5,000 freshly trained Iraqi troops in Makhmour, and an indication of the level of hand-holding by U.S. forces that will be required as these forces move toward Mosul. The Iraqi troops have recaptured a cluster of hamlets and villages in the vicinity of Makhmour, though reports were mixed on how heavy the Islamic State presence was there before the Iraqi advance".
Loveday Morris, "Third U.S. combat death comes as American troops edge closer to the front lines in Iraq". The Washington Post. 3 May in www.washingtonpost.com.
"The power of the Islamic State is waning. With its loss of Ramadi and Palmyra over the past several months, and the steady advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and Iraq, the group is shedding territory. It is also losing recruits to casualties and desertions, as its finances are being squeezed by coalition strikes on bulk cash storage sites and oil refineries. Meanwhile, the coalition campaign to eliminate high-value battlefield targets is succeeding. Yet, defeat does not appear imminent. The Islamic State still controls key territory, including Raqqa, the capital of its caliphate; the Iraqi city of Mosul and large swaths of territory in the surrounding Nineveh province; and hardscrabble Sunni enclaves in Anbar province, such as Fallujah, Hit, and Haditha. Furthermore, though the coalition has deprived the Islamic State of hundreds of millions of dollars, it is likely to find new, creative ways to replenish its diminishing war chest. For Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, surrender is out of the question. And given the Islamic State leadership's horrific behavior and stated objective of establishing a caliphate governed by sharia, a negotiated settlement is a non-starter. In the past, insurgencies that have come to an end in this way featured moderate leaders, insurgents open to compromise, and governments willing to accept insurgents as legitimate negotiating partners. The Islamic State and its opponents share none of these attributes".
Brian Michael Jenkins and Colin P. Clarke. "In the Event of the Islamic State's Untimely Demise...". The Rand Corporation. 11 May 2016, in www.rand.org.
The situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq currently is not as dire as at it appeared at one time. Nor has the situation improved as much as one would like. The hideous and monstrous ISIS is still in existence. Still shadowing, if not necessarily in actual control of large areas of both countries. Unfortunately, as can readily be seen from the above referenced reports the Americans and their allies have not yet gone beyond 'baby steps' in destroying ISIS. Especially, in Syria. Indeed if one were to employ the 'progress' seen so far in Iraq, it will be years and years before ISIS is destroyed in Syria proper. Allowing this organization of terrorist thugs to commit more crimes and (more importantly) act as a clarion call for Islamic and Muslim extremists worldwide. Make no mistake: the defeat and utter destruction of ISIS will be the very greatest defeat that the West can inflict upon Muslim extremism. Just as Hitlerism and Fascism were dealt blows that neither movements has yet to recover from by the unmitigated defeat inflicted by the Allies in the Second World War on respectively Germany and Italy; so if we wish to extirpate ISIS and its various clones, the destruction of the movement in its current base in Syria and Iraq is a necessary first step. And as the American military analyst Anthony Cordesman, has recently noted, this will involve going beyond the hesitant and two steps forward and one step back tactics that have so far been employed by the current American Administration:
"The Obama Administration did not act decisively at the points in the conflict when it might have prevented a long war of attrition, and its real world “strategy” in both Syria and Iraq has been one of slowly escalating U.S. involvement in what amounts to creeping incrementalism. It has been far too slow to provide an adequate train and assist mission to rebuild the half-finished Iraqi Army that Iraq’s former Prime Minister—Maliki—effectively corrupted and destroyed in his search for power and control after U.S. forces left at the end of 2011.... This raises a far more critical issue about the future. The United States now faces least bad options that are almost certainly far worse than when the Obama Administration began its military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Acting incrementally and indecisively has its costs—just as acting too quickly and decisively, and without proper analysis and planning, did in the case of the previous administration. The question remains, however, does the Obama Administration have any real strategy to deal with the least bad options it still has, the challenges raised by DNI Clapper, and the issues outlined in this analysis? Or, is it still largely reacting to events and riding out its time in the office? 1
In short, if the West is to continue with its half-hearted strategy that it has been employing so far in both Syria and Iraq, look for ISIS to remain in control of x amount of territory in both countries for quite some time to come. Regardless of the fact that it is being forced to give-up territory and losing men and materials to the American air campaign. Unfortunately, by prolonging ISIS existence, the current American administration is allowing ISIS to spread its poisonous ideology throughout the region and indeed further afield. With consequences which no one can predict, but which surely are none to the good.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "U.S. Strategy and the War in Iraq and Syria". The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 13 May 2016 in www.csis.org.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

THE COMING 'END OF THE PUTIN REGIME'?

"Russia’s current regime will not last long. The tumultuous events in Ukraine in 2014 reduced the country’s possible trajectories to a single one – a path that will quickly lead to the collapse of the Putin government if there is no radical change in its course. Before the Crimea–Ukraine affair, it looked as though President Vladimir Putin’s political regime was fairly stable and could last for several years without profound change. However, there was a qualitative shift in the regime’s character after 2014. Now, it draws its legitimacy from military action, rather than from the ballot box. The roots of this shift go back to the political crisis of 2011–2012, when mass anti-government protests and poor electoral results for the ruling party showed that the old form of politics was coming to an end. Today, the regime derives its legitimacy not from the bottom up, through elections, but from the top down, by placing the country on a permanent war footing. Although Putin stayed in power, his role changed fundamentally – now, he is more like a tsar than the chair of a board. The regime has moved from a hybrid system that still maintained the outward trappings of a democracy to a full-scale authoritarian state, while the shifting balance of power has made the elites more dependent on the president. Although Putin’s popularity skyrocketed after the annexation of Crimea, he has been trapped by his choices. His regime is addicted to military action and now needs a series of ever-stronger hits of foreign conflict in order to maintain its legitimacy. This position is unsustainable, given shrinking financial resources, the waning patience of elites who don’t want to live in a military camp forever, and Russia’s fast-deteriorating administrative and political systems. The country is being held hostage by the regime; the regime is a hostage of Putin, and Putin is a hostage of his own actions, which have drastically narrowed his range of options. Given all this, Russia’s current trajectory is that of a plane in a tailspin".
Nikolay Petrov, "Putin's Downfall: the Coming Crisis of the Russian Regime". European Council on Foreign Relations. 19 April 2016, in www.ecfr.eu.
"Evidently we have reached the sad point where the idea of power is no longer connected with either a doctrine, the personality of a leader or a tradition, but only with power itself. Every governmental institution and position is sustained by no other force than the realization that it is an essential part of the existing system. Naturallv, self-preservation is bound to be the only aim of such a regime, at least in its domestic policy. This has come to mean the self-preservation of the bureaucratic elite. In order to remain in power, the regime must change and evolve, but in order to preserve itself, everything must remain unchanged. The contradiction can be noted particularly in the case of the "economic reform," which is being carried out so slowly and yet is so vital to the regime. Self-preservation is clearly the dominant drive. The regime wants neither to "restore Stalinism" nor to "persecute the intelligentsia" nor to "render fraternal assistance" to those who have not asked for it, like Czechoslovakia. The only thing it wants is for everything to go on as before: authorities to be recognized, the intelligentsia to keep quiet, no rocking of the system by dangerous and unfamiliar reforms".
Andrey Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (1969).
Dr. Petrov's analysis of the coming collapse of the Putin Regime is one that I whole heartily agree with. First as he correctly points out both the seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine were prima facie examples of Primat der Innenpolitik policies. While per se Russia's naval bases in Sevastopol were and are an important strategic asset, there was no sign from the new regime in Kyiv that they intended to end the agreement which allowed Russia to maintain said bases. The agreement lasting for another thirty-years. Unless one were to adhere to Kremlin propaganda that the new regime in Kyiv were made up of 'fascists' who were engaging in and or about to engage in persecution of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine (of which there were no evidence of course), then the true reasoning behind both the annexation and the subsequent contriving and backing for the uprising in Eastern Ukraine becomes readily apparent. And while there was and is more than a soupcon of geopolitical reasoning in Moskva's military intervention in Syria, the fact of the matter is that the Putin regime has used the apparently successful (and I for one would be quite willing to admit that Russia's intervention in Syria has on the whole proved to be 'succesful', nay perhaps even remarkably successful) intervention in Syria to further buttress is internal, domestic legitimacy. Something which given the now year and half decline in oil and gas revenues is increasingly replacing economic growth as a source, perhaps to an increasing degree the only source of political legitimacy that the regime possesses. The upshot of this state of affairs is as Dr. Petrov cogently points out:
The use of military mobilisation rhetoric to keep the regime going is fraught with serious risks. The line between real and imagined foreign enemies is thin, and perceptions shift as the elites and society are increasingly indoctrinated. It could even lead to a real international armed conflict, either through a gradual slide or a sudden rush into direct confrontation. However, the regime has to maintain its military legitimacy at all costs: it is not capable of switching back to electoral legitimacy, except by replacing its leader.
Even with the apparent successes of Putin's foreign policy, the economic damage that the regime has undergone in the past two and half years as a result of both Western sanctions and the decline in oil and gas prices has wreaked havoc to not only the regime's economic planning and goals (such as they were), but also to its own internal cohesion and effectiveness. With the 'clans' or factions who form the heart of the regime increasingly quarrelling over the sharing out of the ever smaller pie of goodies (in fact 'loot'). As Dr. Petrov observes:
"The clashes between elites are aggravated by Russia’s confrontation with the West, which increases the exhaustion of the regime’s political-economic base, and makes the political environment increasingly febrile. The Kremlin’s aggression abroad, and the resulting damage to Russia’s economy from sanctions, have forced the elites to live a more modest lifestyle – something they won’t tolerate for long. Whether disgruntled elites opt for exit or revolt, both pose great risks to the system".
Unfortunately, as Dr. Petrov pessimistically but realistically notes, even 'changes' to the existing regime such a palace coup d'état (the ouster of Putin) or a rapprochement with the West would not necessarily alleviate the existing state of things in Matushka Russia in the absence of either a major resurgence of commodity prices (something only possible in three to five years time), or the appearance of a political personality of Charles de Gaulle-like qualities. Russia lacks to-day just as she lacked in 1917 and in 1991-1992, that combination of state and society institutions and groupings which allowed for example Germany to resurrect itself in 1919, after the collapse of the Kaiserreich. Unfortunately, Russia has not been very fortunate in its supply of political leaders in the past one-hundred years. Just as she has singularly failed to evolve in such a fashion that would allow the coming collapse of Putinism to not cause a wider societal crisis as well. As per Dr. Petrov the end-result will be a complete collapse of the regime akin to what occurred to the Sovietskaya Vlast circa 1990-1992 or (less likely) another February Revolution of 1917 with the concomitant collapse of the state apparatus in the following seven-months preparatory to the Bolshevik coup d'état of October 1917. As Dr. Petrov notes sardonically: "Russia is a country where everything can change in five years, and nothing in 100".