Saturday, 18 January 2014

New Blog Up

After a long delay, the new Warwick Globalist website is up, complete with pages for their bloggers. You can access my page here- http://thewarwickglobalist.com/columnists/connor-woodman/. I will finally be getting back to regular blogging- the next piece, written up and ready to go, is on the possibilities of a 'Left realism' in international relations. This page will be kept up for reference and may be started up properly again one day, but until then keep an eye on the Globalist blog.

Monday, 25 November 2013

On the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Whilst The Warwick Globalist has some technical issues with getting the new blog up and running I am using this one to comment on the Iranian nuclear deal. See here for an article I wrote for The Warwick Globalist’s temporary website on the relationship between the British establishment and the Gulf elites. There is a forthcoming piece on the relationship between the ‘realist’ international school of thought and international morality, a first blog on ‘theoretical’ issues in international relations.

Yesterday news came through that a preliminary deal had been struck between Iran and the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear programme. I’ve written fairly extensively on this blog before about Iran, the West and the nuclear issue, including a brief history of Iranian-Western relations, discussion of whether or not Iran’s nuclear programme actually has military dimensions, military options for the prevention of Iran acquiring a weapon, and diplomatic options for a peaceful resolution to the issue. I stand by what I said in those posts and they all remain relevant for understanding the background to yesterday’s deal.

There has been a lot of comment on the deal by people who seem not to have taken the time to actually read it, and seem unaware that this is only a preliminary deal aimed at creating the needed mutual trust between the parties with a view to a comprehensive settlement in 6 months time. That said, the deal is fairly impressive in its own right. The White House release on the details shows how Iran is to “[h]alt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%... Dilute below 5% or convert to a form not suitable for further enrichment its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium before the end of the initial phase” (enrichment to around 3.5% is the level needed for civilian nuclear energy purposes- 19.5% can be used for some civilian purposes such as fuelling medical research reactors, but it is also closer to the around-95% enrichment needed for a bomb). Iran has already been recognised as keeping its stockpile of 19.5% enriched uranium at below the level Israel considers necessary to make one nuclear device. The latest IAEA report puts its stockpiles at 196 kg, below the 250kg mark needed for a bomb. Additionally, Iran will “[n]ot increase its stockpile of 3.5% low enriched uranium, so that the amount is not greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning, and any newly enriched 3.5% enriched uranium is converted into oxide”.

Furthermore, Iran will “[n]ot commission the Arak reactor. Not fuel the Arak reactor. Halt the production of fuel for the Arak reactor. No additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor. Not install any additional reactor components at Arak. Not transfer fuel and heavy water to the reactor site. Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing.  Without reprocessing, Iran cannot separate plutonium from spent fuel”. This stops fears of Iran taking an alternative, plutonium route to a bomb at Arak. When it comes to inspections, the White House report describes “[u]nprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program”; Iran will “[p]rovide daily access by IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow. This daily access will permit inspectors to review surveillance camera footage to ensure comprehensive monitoring.  This access will provide even greater transparency into enrichment at these sites and shorten detection time for any non-compliance. Provide IAEA access to centrifuge assembly facilities. Provide IAEA access to centrifuge rotor component production and storage facilities. Provide IAEA access to uranium mines and mills. Provide long-sought design information for the Arak reactor”. This comes off the back of a deal Iran recently struck with the IAEA to expand inspections of many nuclear sites. When it comes to centrifuges, Iran agreed “[n]ot install additional centrifuges of any type. Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium. Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium”.

Given the extensive surveillance and “unprecedented intrusive monitoring”, it will be hard for Iran to break these constraints and get away with it. Officials familiar with the deal told the Washington Post that “[t]he concessions not only halt Iran’s nuclear advances but also make it virtually impossible for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon without being detected”. It should also be noted that it was already the opinion at the beginning of the year of James Clapper, US National Intelligence Director, that “Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU (weapons-grade uranium) before this activity is discovered”.

It should also be noted that the relief Iran has received in return is minimal- maybe $6-7 billion in sanctions reductions (despite what an Israeli disinformation campaign in Washington tried to claim). The White House release boasts how it is “maintaining the vast bulk of our sanctions, including the oil, finance, and banking sanctions architecture”. Iran’s $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings will also be unavailable to their government. A US official told Foreign Policy that “Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today”. The sanctions are already severely affecting Iranian people; a Foreign Policy piece details how the “results have been devastating for the Iranian population, triggering a collapse of industry, skyrocketing inflation, and massive unemployment. As the rich and politically-connected prosper under sanctions, Iran's middle class has disappeared, and even access to food and medicine has been compromised”. Given that this is expected to continue and perhaps worsen, it is surprising that Iran has given in to such stringent demands at all.

The reactions to the deal have been revealing. All along Netanyahu slammed the prospects of a deal, seemingly before he even knew what the final details would be. After the deal was sealed in the early morning of Sunday, Netanyahu described it as a “historic failure”, and the Israeli Economics Minister, Naftali Bennett, proclaimed that “[i]f a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid it will be because of the deal signed this morning”. The deputy speaker of parliament, MK Moshe Feiglin, of a ruling coalition party Likud, claimed the deal was “tantamount to the Munich Agreement of the late 1930s”. These wild ravings push Israel more and more to the fringes of the international community and are isolating it even from its allies. It could count on its new friend France to do its best to scupper the deal early on in the process, but now the only allies Israel seems to have on this issue are the Gulf dictators, chiefly the totalitarian Saudi Arabia. The Defence Minister also reaffirmed that “[a]ll options are still on the table”, an illegal threatening of the use of military force, not that anyone pays any attention to international law.

Reading through the English-language Israeli press has been an interesting experience too- some more measured reactions from Haaretz and the US-based Forward are counterposed against some more dubious responses. The online Times of Israel, for instance, explained that the problem isn’t that the details of the deal are bad, just that Iran is “a cunning and deceptive adversary”, and that “Iran has never acknowledged that it is in fact marching to the bomb”. Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the biggest newspapers in Israel, said that one of the problems with the deal is that “[t]he Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will effectively be finished”- not true, but both editorials are even more odd in light of the fact that Israel itself has refused to admit to its nuclear arsenal and refused to sign the NPT, seriously damaging its efficacy.

The fact is that the only thing which would make Netanyahu happy would be a complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, an absurd position, not least because Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes under the NPT. He knows this demand is never going to be met, so as Trita Parsi put it in Foreign Affairs, “[t]here is reason to believe, then, that Israel’s insistence on zero enrichment is aimed to ensure that no deal is struck at all”. Even some parts of the Israeli military establishment seem at odds with Netanyahu on this: Christian Science Monitor reported that an Israeli military official told them that the “intelligence branch does not think this demand is realistic”, and that the negotiations offered prospects for stability in the region. Every state needs to exaggerate the threat posed by its enemies in order to further its domestic agenda, and Israel is no different. Whilst Netanyahu asserts that “[i]t’s 1938 and Iran is Germany”, the vast majority of scholars one should take seriously consider the Iranian regime to be a ‘rational actor’, not the kind of actor which will fire nuclear weapons at Israel in what would be the clearest case of state-suicide in history. Netanyahu wants to eliminate any possibility that Iran could ever challenge Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region. If he were serious about eliminating the very-real scourge of nuclear weapons he would take seriously the possibilities for establishing a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East; but since that would entail Israel giving up their arsenal, he would prefer to use illegal force against Iran.


The US has done what it must in putting aside the more extreme of Israel’s demands, and we can only hope that the reports coming out that Netanyahu is, in private, willing to give the deal a chance, are true. Let’s hope that this editorial from Yedioth Ahronoth, which seems to suggest that Netanyahu is and should be willing to risk World War 3 over this deal, represents the fringes of mainstream thought in Israel. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syria and The Fog of War

This shall probably be the last of the posts on this website; I have been asked by the editor-in-chief of the Warwick Globalist (an international affairs magazine on campus) to begin blogging for their revamped and rebooted website come the start of term in October. So after 8,000 hits and lots of positive feedback from people of a variety of political persuasions (or none at all) I am pleased with how the experiment has gone, and have enjoyed writing this blog. I will post a link to the new blog when it is up and running, and hope everyone will continue to read it over at the Globalist website.


It had been said that the first casualty of war is truth, and Syria is a perfect illustration of this fact. Deciphering and manoeuvring through the labyrinth of lies, distortions, agendas, secrets, deals, threats, and power politics that defines the Syrian civil war is no easy task. I have become somewhat sceptical of the possibility of achieving a substantial degree of knowledge about the conflict, at least for now. The historian often has a far easier task than the political scientist.

Having said that, it is the responsibility of citizens of this country, a country which maintains a disproportionate level of power and influence around the world, to seek to understand the conflict as far as is possible, since we have found ourselves once more faced with the possibility that our government will attack a country in the Middle East (correction- for now at least, they won't. Seconds before publishing this Parliament rejected a motion for military action against Syria, an astonishing event).


The Chemical Attack

There have been murmurs about the ‘ghost of Iraq’ casting a shadow over potential intervention in Syria, and quite rightly. We as a nation are far from coming to terms with and atoning for the devastation we wrought in that country, a ‘moral obscenity’ (to borrow Mr Hague’s description of the gas attack in Syria) that far outweighs the particular attack we condemn so vehemently today. And the uncomfortable fact remains that, despite Obama and Cameron’s rhetoric, we don’t know exactly what happened near Damascus on the 21st of August. We can’t even conclude which side carried out the attack for certain. If it was the regime, we aren’t sure whether it was merely a rogue commander or an institutionalised policy carried out from the highest levels. ABC News has reported that:

the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk," with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials saymultiple U.S. officials used the phrase "not a slam dunk" to describe the intelligence picture’.

This is highly significant given Obama’s assertions that the US ‘concludes’ that the Syrian government carried out the attack as a matter of government policy. Given the terrible record of botched and distorted intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War (and throughout ‘post-War’ history), we ought to be highly sceptical of government claims of this kind.


Why Intervention?

No one should have any illusions that the proposed intervention has anything to do with humanitarian impulses or the enforcement of international law. A brief survey of Western policy and history in the Middle East should put rest to that idea. America has frequently disregarded international law itself, often refusing to sign conventions (such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions) and ignoring international law even when it has formally agreed to it. Western politicians only speak of the crimes of the Syrian regime, and rarely if ever about the alleged atrocities carried out by factions of the rebel forces- for instance it has been reported in some foreign media that a massacre of hundreds of civilians was carried out at Lattakia by rebel Islamists. Little interest has been shown in these allegations.

Selective empathy should come as no surprise to students of international affairs, and the reasons underlying the distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims are rarely hard to find. In this case the Syrian government is considered ‘bad’ because it is Iran’s only major ally in the region, and there is a cold war being waged in the Middle East between two poles: Saudi Arabia, the Sunni states and the West on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria (and perhaps Russia) on the other. The US, UK and France have been hand in hand with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Qatar in their attempts to arm and fund the rebels. The CIA has long been involved in training favoured rebel forces at bases in Jordan, as well as helping organising the flow of weapons across the Turkish-Syrian border. They all hope to weaken and isolate Iran by knocking out its major ally; they would then enjoy the patronage of rebel forces who would partly owe their victory to Gulf and Western backers. That totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia are joining the US in backing the rebels should tell you something about the motives underlying the support given: it has nothing to do with democracy and freedom, but everything to do with power and interests, as is always the case with Great Power politics. [1] 

The Syrian story has got weirder and weirder as time has gone by- this article from Al Monitor purported to record a ‘diplomatic report’ from the Kremlin on a secret meeting between Russia’s Putin and Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence, the slimy Prince Bandar (who used to be the Saudis' ambassador to the US). This is how The Independent described Bandar:

His most recent travels, rarely advertised, have taken him to both London and Paris for discussions with senior officials. As ambassador, Prince Bandar left an imprint that still has not quite faded. His voice was one of the loudest urging the United States to invade Iraq in 2003. In the 1980s, Prince Bandar became mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in Nicaragua. Months of applying pressure on the White House and Congress over Syria have slowly born fruit. The CIA is believed to have been working with Prince Bandar directly since last year in training rebels at base in Jordan close to the Syrian border’

Al Monitor’s article, which was reported and expanded on in The Telegraph, claims that Bandar gave a thinly veiled threat to Putin that if he didn’t withdraw his support for Assad then Chechen Islamic terrorists would attack the 2014 Winter Olympics. He allegedly said to Putin that ‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future’. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I came across this- if true it’s an open admission from a senior Saudi official that they have a hand in Chechen terrorism, use Islamic terrorists against Assad’s regime in Syria, plan to abandon them if they win and most significantly an open threat to attack Russia if Putin refuses to comply. This was first reported in the Russian press, and then the Lebanese-based Al Monitor. Bandar went on to offer a grand deal which included ‘an alliance between the OPEC cartel and Russia, which together produce over 40m barrels a day of oil, 45pc of global output. Such a move would alter the strategic landscape’ according to The Telegraph. This is like something out of the 16th century; indeed the Saudi state does in many ways operate as if it were still in medieval times.

Putin was reportedly outraged at the threats and refused to back down from supporting Syria. Interestingly, The Telegraph claims that Bandar was ‘purporting to speak with the full backing of the US’. The EU Times then had an article about how Putin ‘Orders Massive Strike Against Saudi Arabia If West Attacks Syria’, but the online ‘newspaper’ has little credibility and the article fails to give substantial sources for its claims. Thankfully, this final part of the Putin-Bandar story seems to be a highly unlikely dramatization.


The Consequences

The repercussions of a strike by the West on Syria are impossible to predict accurately, but some inferences can be made. The International Committee of the Red Cross has claimed that ‘further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense’, a sentiment echoed by Christian Aid, which warned of ‘catastrophic effects’ if an attack is undertaken. Highly respected Middle East journalist Robert Fisk has said that an attack would be ‘the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world’, and warned that the US/UK would be on the same side as Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-linked forces, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, reminding one of the CIA programmes in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 80s. In Israel gas masks are being horded as fears of a retaliatory strike by Iran or Syria grow. If a strike goes ahead, the potential for a diplomatic solution will be severely weakened; already the US has unilaterally cancelled a meeting with Russia that was to set out plans for a grand conference to help end the Syrian crisis. Diplomacy is considered by most sane observers, such as former chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, to be the only hope for an end to the violence.

Furthermore public opinion is largely against ‘intervention’, with about 60% in the US opposed. A YouGov poll found that ‘77% of the British public support sending “food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies” to Syria. However, only 9% support sending British troops, while 74% oppose the action. Support is equally minor (10%) for sending full-scale military supplies or even small arms (16%) to the Anti-Assad troops’. One must further factor in the history of the West in Syria before we seek to appoint ourselves as global policemen. France is a former colonial master in Syria, and as this excellent article in The National Interest detailed, the US has a long record of overthrowing governments and imposing dictators in Syria. The article noted how a US government report even found that there is a ‘consensus narrative’ among the Syrian population that ‘foreign conspiracies’ had sought to control Syria in the past and that these were ‘associated with the United States’. We should bear these facts in mind when discussing what to do with Syria today- the West has the collective memory span of a fish, but in regions like the Middle East history holds great significance.

Thankfully momentum towards a strike seems to be slowing (as I write this parliament has voted against military action- a stunning, unexpected and happy result), although I fear that Obama is now too committed to back down. Ed Miliband has done one of the only decent things of his career so far in breaking the usual cross-party consensus on foreign policy and refusing to unconditionally back Cameron. He has called upon Cameron to wait for the results of the UN probe into whether chemical weapons were used, and to strictly abide by international law, very sensible proposals. The reaction from Downing Street has been one of outrage- how on earth could Labour be so reckless and oppose more endless violence and war from Britain?! A government source was quoted as calling Miliband a ‘fucking cunt’ over his decision. This reaction is unsurprising: Labour and the Conservatives usually fight it out over the most minute of policy differences, but if Labour dares to finally offer a break from the two-party consensus on fundamentals then he can expect to feel the wrath of Downing Street. Parliament, it seems, has just voted against military action, and credit needs to go to Miliband for this remarkable result.

International opinion also appears largely opposed, as one would expect. The Pope, Desmond Tutu, and Egypt have come out strongly against intervention. Even the Western-backed Jordanian state has refused to allow the US and UK to use Jordan as a launching pad for a strike, no doubt fearing the contempt it will receive from Arab public opinion and its own population, and perhaps even fearing that it could become the target of retaliatory terrorist attacks. The Arab League has refused to back an attack, despite being comprised mainly of Western-backed governments.


A protest has been called in London this Saturday by Stop the War Coalition to demonstrate against British involvement in Syria.Given that seconds before I posted this the UK backed out of intervention, it may not be needed, fortunately. Less happily, the US and France could still go for a strike. The last thing we need is another imperialist-driven war in the Middle East led by the US, particularly in a conflict so complex; the consequences are difficult to predict but it’s not impossible that this could flare up into a much wider regional or global confrontation with Russia and the US facing off. We haven't won this one yet.








[1] Some have suggested that actual Western policy on Syria is a ‘realist’ strategy to balance the forces within Syria and let them bleed each other to death- engage US enemies like Iran and Hezbollah in a protracted battle that saps their energy and resources whilst not giving enough support to the rebels to allow them to overthrow Assad, since that could lead to an even more anti-Western government. This has been suggested by Robert Fisk, Stephen Walt, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Drezner and Alan Berger, amongst others. It may have some merit to it, but space precludes the possibility of discussing it here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The War on Whistleblowers (and the population)



Today, a little foray into more domestic issues.

The US and UK (in particular) are making very little effort to cover up the fact that they are running a thuggish campaign to intimidate, imprison, chase and even torture those who are motivated by conscience to reveal government actions and wrongdoing. It’s reaching levels only seen in authoritarian states, and observers with their eyes open (a tiny minority) are starting to say as much.

Barack Obama, the ‘liberal’ president, has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the obscure 1917 Espionage Act than all other post-war presidents combined. Bradley Manning, who leaked the ‘Collateral Murder’ video showing war crimes by a US gunship, and thousands of diplomatic documents which have provided a treasure trove of information for journalists and activists for the past couple of years, was today sentenced by a military court to 35 years for his leaks. He’s already been held for around 3 years, spending 11 months in conditions which the UN said amounted effectively to torture. Amnesty International has already called on Obama to commute the sentence. In the 70s Richard Nixon pardoned William Calley, one of the participants in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, after he had served a tiny amount of his sentence. One highly doubts that Manning will get the same merciful treatment from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. So this is American justice: reveal the crimes of your government and army, receive 35 years. Massacre for your flag, and get let off by the President. One probably shouldn’t be surprised by the Nixon pardon though; after all, Nixon was himself one of the great mass murderers of the post-war era.

It’s not just Manning who has suffered under Obama- John Kiriakou was put in prison for revealing that the CIA had been involved in the use of water-boarding. Again; reveal the severe international crimes of a previous administration, and the next government will come for you. Thomas Drake, who tried to reveal the extent of NSA spying operations before Edward Snowden came on the scene, was also charged under the act. The list goes on. Now the Obama administration is after Snowden for publicising the horrendous mass spying that the NSA and GCHQ have been carrying out on millions of people all over the world, not just in their own countries.

And it’s not only the US- terrifying claims by the editor-in-chief of the Guardian were made yesterday. The newspaper was the main publication to carry the NSA/GCHQ revelations, excellent journalist Glenn Greenwald having received the documents from Snowden. Coming shortly after Greenwald’s partner was detained at Heathrow for 9 hours, given no legal rights, and having all his electronic equipment stolen from him by ‘security’, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the newspaper, revealed that he was ‘contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach’. He was told that “You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more”, and then was made to destroy the hard drives containing the Snowden documents whilst the government’s thugs from GCHQ watched. It has since been claimed that this order came from David Cameron himself, and that the US was given prior notice that David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, would be detained at Heathrow.

So in a couple of days the true face of the British state has revealed itself- one willing to try to enforce censorship on a newspaper seeking to release information detailing mass spying on citizens of Britain and the world, and willing to detain a journalist under section 7 of an ‘anti-terrorism’ law and steal all his belongings. Journalists are now apparently terrorist suspects. The whole story of the NSA/GCHQ leaks would be almost laughable if it weren’t true.  A while ago the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had his plane pulled down over Europe because it was suspected that Snowden was on board, despite huge objections from Latin America. John Pilger rightly described this as an act of ‘air piracy’; can you imagine the reaction if Bolivia hauled down President Obama’s plane because it was thought that Obama was shielding someone fleeing persecution? The US would probably go to war with Bolivia if it did that- or else instigate a murky CIA coup. The imperial arrogance of Europe and the US is astonishing.


Jacob Heilbrunn in the conservative National Interest got it about right when he said that the detention of Miranda signified the day that ‘the UK took a fateful step toward a meddling government that tells its subjects what they may read and say’. Juan Cole, respected blogger and former editor of academic foreign affairs journals, claimed that we are moving towards a ‘STASI authoritarian state’. This isn’t merely unhelpful hyperbole. We are seeing the logical conclusion of the absurd policies of an elite that is at war with the whole world, including its own citizens. David Miranda is now considered a terrorist suspect- and one shouldn’t be too surprised, since the label ‘terrorist’ is generally used for people who are opposed to the government. The aim of this ultra-rich, ultra-powerful elite is to keep ‘the herd’ quiet, subdued, passive, and in the dark, whilst those who know best can go about running the world, as is their natural right. We need to realise who our real enemies are. 








Update: The Huffington Post summed up the Manning sentence perfectly- 'The only person going to prison for US war crimes is the guy who revealed them'

Friday, 9 August 2013

The US Against the People of Egypt


“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot help but be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity”.
George Kennan, 1948[1]


I’ve just finished reading The Road to Tahrir Square by historian Lloyd Gardner, a decent account of US-Egyptian relations from around 1945 to the overthrow of Mubarak. It has helped me understand more clearly the current situation in Egypt, and has the odd fascinating piece of information about Middle Eastern relations in general. For Gardner, ‘there is a strong historical thread stretching from the agreements reached between the CIA and Nasser on Iraq in 1963 to the final days of Mubarak’s regime in early 2011’ (p.95).

To many, it is hard to contextualise the events of 2011 and see them relative to the historical ties between the US and Egypt. The US has invested around $50 billion in military and economic aid in Egypt over the past few decades, and this has given it no small say in Egyptian politics. During the 2011 crisis, ‘Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen had made phone calls to their counterparts almost every day’ (p.195). The Pentagon spokesman claimed that this was ‘just an example of how engaged we are with the Egyptians’. Gardner notes how the Guardian reported days before Mubarak’s downfall that the Obama administration ‘had refused to cut military aid to Egypt “and is instead working behind the scenes with the commanders of the armed forces on how to oust President Mubarak”’ (p.189). Indeed, as Kees Van der Pijl pointed out, the takeover of the Supreme Military Council was an outcome ‘announced to Congress by Leon Panetta, then head of the CIA, on February 10, the day before it happened’ (‘Arab Revolts and Nation-State Crisis’, New Left Review (70), p.27), something also commented on by Gardner. Earlier both Obama and Biden had refused to call Mubarak a dictator, or even authoritarian; despite, as an interviewer pointed out, the fact that 1000’s of people were tortured and imprisoned under Mubarak and his feared intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Obama even managed to duck the question with the astonishing claim that he tends ‘not to use labels for folks’. Indeed, for Obama, Mubarak was a ‘stalwart ally ... a force for stability and good’, a sentiment echoed by the laughably pathetic Tony Blair.

As Tariq Ali pointed out, Washington tried desperately to maintain their influence in Egypt, clinging on to Mubarak until it was clear the pressure was too great and that the whole edifice upon which US influence had been devised in Egypt was being threatened. When they finally abandoned Mubarak, Obama was largely  lauded by liberal commentators as having been on the side of the people all along; another example of the standard ‘liberal’ contempt for facts. The brutal Omar Suleiman was even ‘at one stage touted as Mubarak’s successor’ (‘Between Past and Future’ New Left Review (80), p.63), before the decision was made that all the hated figureheads needed to be changed, and the army was considered reliable enough by Washington and popular enough with the people to be the ones to take over. 

David Wearing, a SOAS researcher and up-and-coming writer, wrote an excellent summary and review of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance by Jason Brownlee in February; Brownlee generally argues the same thing. Wearing quotes a passage to sum it up perfectly: ‘Official US-Egyptian relations have been at odds with domestic public opinion in Egypt. Rather than fostering democracy in an incremental fashion, US and Egyptian officials have promoted an autocratic security state that supports a US-led regional order built around Israeli security and US influence over the Persian Gulf. By contrast, public opinion in Egypt favours a regional security order less dominated by the United States and Israel, and a government that respects political competition and civil liberties’. Gardner compares the way the US provided for Sadat’s own personal security with the way they helped train and create the brutal secret police in Iran under the Shah. This is of course unremarkable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of US foreign policy, but it may seem odd to those accustomed to the standard line in the media and academia- that the US, whilst it may make the odd mistake, is fundamentally committed to democracy promotion around the world. This is no more true than the idea that the Soviet Union was fighting for the poor and oppressed around the world, or that the Roman Empire had any interest in the wellbeing of its conquered subjects (or the British Empire for that matter). Every power in history has been concerned with its own interests, whilst claiming to follow a higher moral cause, and the US is unremarkable in this respect. Its rhetoric about promoting democracy in Egypt should be disregarded; the quote from George Kennan at the start of the article is a far more honest and accurate portrayal of US policy, from the pen of a man who did so much to shape its direction after World War 2.

As Brownlee points out, US policy is heavily at odds with Egyptian public opinion. Gardner cites a Gallup poll which revealed an ‘“overwhelming tsunami of negative opinions” about the United States’; more than half opposed any US aid to Egypt, and three-quarters ‘opposed any aid to specific political groups’ (p.201). He quotes Gallup’s chief analyst of the poll, who believed that the reason was simply because US aid was perceived as only serving to ‘perpetuate the condition of the Mubarak years’ (p.202). The recent uprisings had far more of an anti-US government flavour to them than the 2011 uprisings- it seems the Egyptian people offered the US a chance to redeem themselves and have now tired of extending the olive branch. Perhaps there is a recognition that the US isn’t, and never will be, on their side.

Anti-US government feeling across the region is quite easily explained for those who are genuinely interested, and don’t just want to have an idiotic rant about why the Muslims ‘hate us because they hate us’. A review article in Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago detailed a study by Amaney Jamal who found that so-called ‘anti-Americanism’ was the result of a ‘deeper rejection of undemocratic political systems in Arab countries, which for decades have been underwritten and supported by the United States’; not to mention more immediate grievances like the CIA and Pentagon’s global assassination, torture and kidnapping campaigns, and the mass crime which was the Iraq War (‘The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism’, Mark Lynch, Foreign Affairs, 92(3), p.147).

Most interesting is Gardner’s claim that the crisis in Egypt has ‘portended far greater long-term dangers’ for the US government than the debacles in Iraq or Afghanistan, something he quotes Henry Kissinger (the most powerful National Security Advisor in US history and former Secretary of State for Gerald Ford) as agreeing with (p.204). Egypt has been described by US officials as a ‘cornerstone’ of US policy in the Middle East, and that certainly has a lot of truth to it; today it is second possibly only to Saudi Arabia as a US Arab ally in the region.  The latest upheavals could turn out to favour or harm the US; it’s too early to tell.


 I will continue to write about Egypt in the weeks to come.




[1] Quoted in The Road to Tahrir Square by Lloyd Gardner. George Kennan was one of the major US government planners in the Post-War period. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Egypt: June 30th


I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in the last week trying to figure out just what has happened and is happening in Egypt. The events since June 30th have been fascinating and incredible; the 4 days of protests to push out former President Mohamed Morsi are claimed to have been the largest in human history- at least 10 million people took to the streets (maybe over 14 million) in a country of 84 million. By contrast Britain’s biggest ever demonstration was in 2003 against the Iraq War, garnering around 1 million people. The uprising was even greater than that which ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The events have so many dimensions, and examining differing elements in the mix- Western media coverage, the role of the US, the power struggle in Egypt, the causes of the uprisings- provides a microcosm of everything that makes international politics so interesting.



Informal spokesmen for the military had said in recent months that they would intervene in civilian politics if the ‘majority’ willed it- and a petition started by the ‘Tamarod’, or ‘Rebel’ movement claimed to have gathered around 23 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi to step down. Morsi’s approval rating was down to around 28%. The huge pressure on Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminated in the Egyptian Armed Forces deploying troops and tanks to the streets of Cairo and arresting Morsi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, even those which dealt with non-political elements of the organisation like the Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie. This decision was taken after consultation with leaders of several opposition organisations (like the Salafist Al Nour party and the National Democratic Front) and representatives of Egypt’s differing social groups (like the Coptic Christian’s Pope) and an interim civilian government was appointed, led by Adly Mansour, recently appointed head of the Supreme Constitutional Court. However no one should have any doubt that the real power currently lies with Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, or General Sisi as he is generally known, the Supreme Commander of the army, and of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which ruled the country during the transition from Mubarak to Morsi.

The military’s actions were met mainly with jubilation of the streets of Cairo; the scenes broadcast live on Al Jazeera from the mass crowds in Tahrir Square were incredible. There was some dissent: according to Ahram Online members of the ‘6 April Youth Movement , the Revolutionary Socialists, the Egyptian Popular Current and the Strong Egypt Party issued a statement last week in which they declared their refusal of both Muslim Brotherhood rule and military rule’. But the military still commands huge public approval- one poll puts it at 94%, the highest of any institution in Egypt. As The Economist pointed out, ‘one might have expected Egyptians to be especially wary of military intervention. The period of army rule between the fall of Mr Mubarak and Mr Morsi’s election was marked by hamfisted management, maladroit politics and vicious human-rights abuses. Before that, Egypt had suffered six decades of increasingly corrupt, army-dominated government behind a fa├žade of civilian presidents, all of whom had previously been army officers’. ‘Virginity tests’ on female detainees, thousands of civilians tried in military courts, their closeness to the US and hugely entrenched role in civilian politics and the economy should, it seemed, have rung some alarm bells. The reaction around the world has generally been negative- the African Union has suspended Egypt’s membership, Tunisia has slammed the Army’s action, as has the governments of Turkey and Germany, to name a few. It’s not difficult to see why a country like Turkey would be highly suspicious of military intervention in civilian affairs, given its long record of military coups. But many liberal commentators in the West have also joined the chorus of condemnation of this ‘military coup’- Rupert Cornwell writing in The Independent probably sumed up the feelings best when he contrasted the ousting of Nixon in the 70’s to the way Morsi was overthrown. Most good Western liberals believe that the best way to remove someone you don’t like from power is through the ballot box or a constitutional process, as Nixon was; the Egyptian people should have waited patiently another 3 years or so until the next presidential elections came around, rather than engaging in messy direct action to remove an official. However if you are one of the 25% of Egyptians living in poverty, or a member of the liberal middle class seeing a slow stripping of your hard-won freedoms by the Muslim Brotherhood, then you don’t have 3 years to spare, and there are no constitutional mechanism for removing a president before their term has finished in Egypt. The stakes are so much higher than they are in elections in the West, and so millions felt it was necessary to remove Morsi now, not in the future. Besides, most of the liberal commentators flocking to defend ‘democracy’ now had nothing to say during the decades of Western-backed dictatorship in Egypt, so their sincerity is in serious doubt.

The Brotherhood itself echoed the Western commentators by claiming that Morsi was the ‘legitimate’ government of Egypt, thereby painting the uprising’s demands as ‘illegitimate’. However this assumes that once a leader is chosen by the people they are bound to that choice until the term is up; as political scientist David Beetham has argued, the protests constituted an act of delegitimisation in themselves. The withdrawal of consent and demand for Morsi’s removal was in itself removing the legitimacy of the government. Furthermore, there are questions to be raised about how ‘democratically’ Morsi was elected. The West usually focuses solely on whether elections are formally ‘free and fair’- that is the absence of voting fraud or physical coercion. However a richer conception of the democratic process requires a relatively level playing field upon which candidates can compete. In 2012 the Brotherhood and the Mubarak-camp candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, had prior organisational capacity and vastly superior funding to all other candidates and parties. And not only that, but the Brotherhood was well known for going in to rural areas and providing social services to effectively bribe the poor to vote for them. In an interview with the BBC’s Shaima Khalil, the spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamad Zidan, responded to these accusations as follows: ‘that’s fine then… this is democracy. Let the others provide more services… then they will win the race. Let them do it, it’s a race’. This is a stunning admission from a senior FJP figure that the Brotherhood has a strategy of providing social services in return, effectively, for votes. Other parties and candidates lack the ability and money to do this (they don’t have wealthy backers in the Gulf) and so find themselves at a disadvantage.

As to the fact that the military took over; the unfortunate fact of Egyptian politics is that the Egyptian Armed Forces are still the real power brokers behind the scenes, and they were the vehicle that the protesters chose to use to remove the Brotherhood from power. What matters now is how the army uses their new found power, and how the protests monitor and keep checks on the army’s power until a new civilian government can fully take over. The early signs are worrying- what appears to be a relatively unprovoked massacre of 51 Morsi supporters in Cairo by the army has got events off to a terrible start. Evidence has emerged suggesting that many were shot as they were kneeling in prayer, including some children. It would take some stunning prejudice against the Brotherhood to think that the protesters could have been violent enough to warrant turning the area into a free-fire zone, injuring over 440 people. The Guardian reported that ‘the killings are being reported by state media as a legitimate action by the Egyptian Armed Forces in defence of the revolution’; words which can’t fail to remind everyone of the waves of terror that were unleashed ‘in defence of the revolution’ in post-revolutionary France, Russia and China. However, as Sheri Berman wrote in Foreign Affairs the other month, these problems often stem from the legacy of dictatorship- decades of oppression and divide and rule tactics means that deeply entrenched fault lines in society start to emerge, and the ‘deep state’ and old institutions remain more than a residue of influence upon the political behaviour. It’s not generally the revolution that causes the issues, but rather removing the hand of oppression freezing society allows the deeply infested poison of dictatorship to be drawn out, often with messy results. That said, the army is itself part of the old ‘deep state’, and so handing them the reins of power willingly is a risky strategy at best.

An interesting quirk of these events is that the urban revolutionaries have found themselves unwittingly allied with the United States government in one facet of the debate. Egyptian Streets declared that ‘THIS IS NOT A COUP D'ETAT’, arguing instead that the army was merely implementing the revolutionary wishes of the people. The US too, is reluctant to call it a coup, though for entirely different reasons. As chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote, ‘as soon as the United States declares that the Egyptian government has been overthrown by a coup, it is legally bound to cut off aid to Egypt’, something it doesn’t want to do given its close relationship with the Egyptian military. In Western commentary, one of the few voices cheering on the coup came from the conservative Wall Street Journal, which came out with this gem: ‘Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy’. Wishing the Pinochet treatment on Egyptians is a throwback to the old Cold War days, when US papers would openly praise neo-Nazi and genocidal dictators in their columns (example: Time described the takeover of General Suharto in Indonesia in the 60’s, who took power in a bloodbath of over 500,000 people, as the West’s ‘best news in Asia’). It is slightly disconcerting that the Egyptian revolution finds friends in such quarters. There are also other slightly dubious aspects about certain parts of the opposition, which I will write about in another post. 

A question needs to be asked about how everyone in the West failed to predict this (again). In fact, a close look back at pre-June 30th reporting shows some tentative signs of things to come. Mohamed ElBaradei, the respected figure-head of the opposition, former UN weapons inspector, and Nobel Peace laureate, was writing in Foreign Policy a month ago about how ‘people are now saying something that we never thought was possible before: that they want the Army to come back to stabilize the situation… Egypt is teetering on the brink’ (‘Case Study: Egypt’, Foreign Policy, 201). The afore mentioned Shaima Khalil of the BBC, who recorded an excellent 5-part documentary series for the BBC World Service covering all major aspects of Egyptian politics, found many protesters gearing up for a huge change in the country. Cairo has experienced protests nearly weekly since Morsi’s takeover, and she found demonstrators holding banners saying things like ‘the people want a military coup right now’. In the programme, a professor from the American university in Cairo said that ‘if we continue with this chaos, either on the economic or the political side, I expect that we are maybe going to see something of the magnitude of the revolution in the coming year or two’. The Tamarod movement was in fact already claiming that this was going to be a second revolution prior to the June 30th protests- so close observers of the country may have had a rough idea of things to come. However no one can really be blamed for missing it- political events, especially those as messy as revolutions, are nearly impossible to predict, because there are so many variables involved; ‘theorising’ in political science does us little good here. More worryingly, Khalil also reported that she heard two chilling words being uttered with disconcerting frequency in recent months: ‘Civil War’.


The next post will examine causes of the revolution and where the future of Egypt lies. 


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Egypt, the Arab Spring, and the US


Establishment international relations analysts in the West view the justification for their existence in terms of the utility their work has for decision makers. They often end their articles in academic journals with policy prescriptions for government officials. This partly helps explain the wide disparities in coverage and analysis of comparable conflicts and political events around the world: protests in Turkey are discussed in great detail, those in Bulgaria ignored; a war where millions die in the Congo is side-lined, but conflict in Syria has thousands of pages of analysis dedicated to it. This reflects, in part, the relative strategic priority assigned to different events and nations by the government of the state the analysts call their home. Most IR work is carried out in the US, and so they spend their time studying and coming up with policy prescriptions for areas the US considers to house its vital strategic interests; the Middle East is far more important to the US than Central Africa, and so the corresponding volume of academic analysis dedicated to the two regions reflects the incongruity in importance US planners and policy makers assign to the two areas.

I write this because recent events betray this fact in its entirety. Since the June 30th protests in Egypt several articles about the situation have already appeared on Foreign Affairs, the journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations (probably the largest establishment institution for IR analysis). Having several articles published on the website of possibly the main IR journal two days after a political event is notable. It signifies that analysts believe urgent policy advice is needed for US governmental planners for the Middle East; it signifies that the US considers Egypt to be a country of major importance to US interests.

There is ample evidence to suggest that this is the case and ample reason why it would be. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is located right at the heart of the Arab world in an incredibly important geo-political location. The Suez Canal is the connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the sea route between East and West. The Sinai Peninsula connects Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and is a historic locus of political strife involving Israel, Egypt and outside powers. Egypt is known as the ‘heartland of Arab discontent’, with a tradition of revolution and uprising; Nasser was once one of the biggest enemies of the West for his anti-imperialism and attempted moves towards Arab independence. What happens in Egypt effects the rest of the region, and what happens in the region effects the rest of the world.

It then comes as little surprise that the Egyptian military receives more military aid from the US- around $1.3 billion a year- than any other country in the world, bar Israel. US troops are stationed in the Sinai (more are being moved there currently), and close relations between the US and Egyptian governments have been entrenched since the days of Sadat.

The Arab Spring is a complex phenomenon that has been subject to many competing interpretations. The situation in Egypt is in many ways evidence of a true revolution taking place; democratic transformations don’t happen overnight. Sheri Berman detailed in Foreign Affairs the other month how most modern democracies had years long, sometimes generational struggles to achieve the gains they have today, on occasion even descending into civil war before coming out the other end (the US is a prime example). Those upheavals which we uncontroversially describe as ‘revolutions’ today often took years, and smaller events which were at the time described as revolutions, like those in the 2000s in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, will probably not be judged as such by history.

The struggle in Egypt has been characterised as taking on three parts- against the Mubarak government in 2011, against the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) regime in 2012, and against the new Morsi government in 2013. But there is another underlying and pervasive struggle against counter-revolutionary forces present which is often missed. As Tariq Ali claimed in New Left Review a couple of months ago, ‘any adequate analysis of the outcomes of the Arab Spring must reckon with Washington’s tight defence of its interests in the region’ (‘Between Past and Future’; New Left Review; 2013 (80)) . This isn’t merely leftist dogmatism; a careful reading of the establishment journals and a close look at US policy reveals as much. Writing in the same issue as Sheri Berman, Seth Jones of the conservative RAND Corporation gave a realistic assessment of US policy during the Arab Spring. According to him, the US and its allies ‘need to protect their strategic interests in the region- balancing against rogue states such as Iran, ensuring access to energy resources, and countering violent extremists. Achieving these goals will require working with some authoritarian governments’ (‘The Mirage of the Arab Spring’; Foreign Affairs; 2013; 92(1)). This is more or less what the US is doing and should be doing, according to him. He is honest when he states that ‘a number of authoritarian Arab countries… are essential partners in protecting [US] interests’. However the key piece of analysis comes at the end of the article, where he states that the reality is ‘that some democratic governments in the Arab world would almost certainly be more hostile to the United States than their authoritarian predecessors, because they would be more responsive to the populations of their own countries’, which he goes on to show are highly unsupportive of the US role in the region (i.e. in 2012 19% of Egyptians had a favourable view of the US, according to a Pew Research poll).

Jones inadvertently hit the nail on the head. He recognises that democracy is actually one of the biggest threats the US faces in the Arab world, something to be combated at all costs, at least for as long as the US defines its interests in a way counter to the wishes of the majority of the population. As Jones realises, any move towards democracy would make Arab governments ‘more responsive to the populations of their countries’, and since the vast majority of the populations want the US out of their country, to have domestic control over their country’s resources and foreign policies, and to have an economy run in the interests of the majority of the population, then almost by definition the US must be opposed to democracy in the region, Egypt included. And indeed US actions have shown this to be the case. Jones, for his part, concludes from this that it is quite proper for the US to be opposing democracy in the Middle East- and using his warped logic that is a rational course to take. For the sane majority, however, we should conclude the opposite: that the US should leave the region in accordance with the wishes of the population.



More to come on Egypt as events unfold.