middle east, politics

On Robert Fisk

Published on: Embassy Magazine, January 24th, 2013
[http://www.embassynews.ca/opinion/2013/01/24/foreign-correspondent-fisk-talks-harpers-foreign-policy-and-the-arab-awakening/43154]

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East at a public lecture Jan. 22 in Ottawa.

“I regard Mr. Harper as your personal problem, not mine,” said Fisk, who spoke to a packed auditorium of about 500 people at Carleton University. He was in Ottawa as part of a Canadian lecture tour hosted by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Having spent more than 30 years covering the Middle East for The Times and The Independent newspapers of Britain, Fisk’s knowledge of the region commands respect. Although many across the political spectrum may take issue with some of his political views, few doubt the breadth of Fisk’s experience.

This, of course, makes his harsh words toward the Harper government even more powerful. Aside from characterizing the current government’s approach to foreign policy as something “straight out of the Bible,” Fisk also pointed out that the Canadian government lacks imagination and vision when it comes to the Middle East.

“You will find that Western nations in general, their leadership, continue to follow Washington,” he said, “and as long as Washington does whatever Israel wants, which it largely does, there isn’t going to be any change.”

Fisk was of course alluding to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a problem that continues to plague the region, driving many of the afflicted toward anger and violence. To Fisk, this is the tragic, but prevalent nature of the relationship between the Western world and what it knows as the Middle East.

“The problem is that most of the dictatorships over the years in the region have been supported by us democrats,” he said. Because of this, when Western politicians like George Bush or even Barack Obama speak of “freedom” and “liberation,” the Arabs of Iraq and Palestine, among other places, have a very different perception of those terms than the rest of us.

Their vision of the “West” is an entity that delivers its form of “democracy,” no matter how principled and cogent in theory, through bullets and bombs. For Fisk, it is a bloody way to illustrate what is to him, and many others, an elemental truism: any form of democratic governance in the Arab world must arise indigenously.

The Arab Awakening

So among a largely tragic and self-admittedly “pessimistic” interpretation of events in the Middle East, Fisk views the Arab Awakening (his preferred term) as a “positive development.”

“The term Arab Awakening was the title of George Antonius’ great 1938 book,” Fisk said.

He pointed out that the book was written at a time when Palestine was crumbling out of Arab hands, largely thanks to British policy, or, as Fisk would have it, “British deception.” Britain’s inability to deliver on the promise of Arab sovereignty in return for Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century reminds one that current trends in the Middle East are not without historical precedence.

Fisk noted that the Arab Awakening has less to do with technology and social media than anger and education.

“When I went to Egypt in the past three or four years, as I often have done over the past 36 years, I find a population that knows more about the outside world,” he said. “Not just through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but because they’ve travelled.”

Fisk also said that the conditions of higher education in places like Egypt, even under dictatorship, improved drastically. This, combined with a better sense of the outside world, he noted, created an inevitable cosmopolitanism that made it easier for those in the Arab world to have a collective vision. In other words, they began to realize that things did not have to be the way they were.

Though current developments in Egypt, Syria, and other post-revolt nations have not been encouraging, the relatively cynical Fisk said that Arabs still see the Arab Awakening as a generally happy signal. He’s not the only one with this mindset. But for someone who has witnessed large-scale carnage, from the Lebanese civil war to present-day Syria, hope for a brighter future is not easy to come by.

“I lost my crystal ball a long time ago,” he lamented.

Fisk’s criticisms of the Syrian opposition have drawn anger from those who would otherwise agree with him on most other things. He has been quick to stress the “jihadi” elements in the Syrian opposition, along with its chronic corruption and use of violence, while also pointing out that Bashar al-Assad may not fall as inevitably as most would expect. His writings on the matter have elicited accusations that he has fallen for the “conspiracy theories” promoted by pro-Assad circles: a charge that Fisk flatly denies.

Having been in Hama during Hafez al-Assad’s great bloodletting in February 1982, no one can deny that Fisk knows what the tyrannical dynasty of Syria is capable of. But in typical Fisk fashion, he reminded the audience that while Western powers support the at least partially “jihadi” opposition in Syria, France is leading an offensive against similar groups in Mali.

If nothing else, one can draw from Fisk’s vast experience and knowledge the tiring (but worthwhile) reminder that foreign policy has always had more to do with circumstance and convenience than with conviction.

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middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Islamists vs. Liberals: a simplistic portrayal of the future

Published on: Embassy Magazine, September 26th, 2012 (with slight revisions)
[http://www.embassymag.ca/opinion/2012/09/25/islamists-vs-liberals-a-simplistic-portrayal-of-the-arab-spring/42520]

To Canadian foreign correspondent Hadeel Al-Shalchi, coverage of the Arab Spring by Western media tends to gloss over certain complexities.

“The term ‘Arab Spring’ itself is sort of a slogan,” said Al-Shalchi, a Reuters journalist based in Tripoli, Libya. She spoke to an audience of about 100 people at Carleton University last Wednesday in a lecture organized by the Centre for Media and Transitional Societies.

“The Arab Spring is comprised of a number of different conflicts, each with its own regional dynamic and implications,” she said. For example, the major framework of analysis and speculation that many analysts use when talking about these conflicts, be it in Egypt or in Syria, tend to boil down to the “Islamists versus Liberals” paradigm.

To Al-Shalchi, this type of reductive phrasing saves time and space, but is a weak tool for understanding the real situations in those Arab countries experiencing social and political turmoil. Indeed, she is right.

The ascent of Muslim political parties in Egypt and Tunisia, and the involvement of extremist militias in the Libyan and Syrian uprisings have experts worrying about the future of the Arab Spring.

Fear that powerful parties like the Muslim Brotherhood will impose theocratic rule and eclipse the aspirations of a liberal democracy are probably not wholly uncalled for. The problem, however, is not this and other similar concerns, but rather in the way such concerns are expressed in many major media outlets.

In other words, what does one really mean when one invokes the “Islamists versus Liberals” framework of analysis? The trouble with these terms is that they mean different things to different people.

Canadian political theorists like Charles Taylor and Nader Hashemi have pointed out this problem of definition time and time again. Hashemi says that the term “secularism” has had very different manifestations in Turkey, for example, than in France. Both societies have had their own experiences with political religiosity, and both have come up with unique ways of neutralization.

Nor are Middle Eastern societies neatly divided into liberals and Islamists, each with its own set of predictable sociopolitical behaviors. Al-Shalchi spent a substantial amount of time on the ground in post-Mubarak Egypt, and noted that many so-called liberals ended up voting for Mohammed Morsi, the “Islamist” candidate.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is the only political entity in Egypt with a coherent vision for the future,” Al-Shalchi said. “Those who are more left-leaning and liberal-minded did not consolidate themselves after the fall of Mubarak, and fell out of the race in many ways.”

She then noted that she was disappointed as a Canadian that the Harper administration has not engaged effectively with the Arab Spring, and has made a number of “questionable” policy decisions. Unfortunately, she did not elaborate on what these decisions were when asked to do so.

Nonetheless, one can delineate along general lines why there may be hesitancy on the part of the Canadian government when dealing with Muslim majority countries. Prime Minister Harper has publically expressed his concerns with international “Islamicism,” and the purported threats it poses to Canadians.

The success of Islamist political parties (the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the main opposition group in Syria, anchoring the Syrian National Council) across the Middle East in the past year-and-a-half probably don’t serve to quell Harper’s concerns.

Whatever the merits of such an assumption, it should be noted that the Arab Spring, a push toward general democracy and civil engagement, is a good thing for those frightened of violent groups in religious garb.

Vali Nasr, the dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has pointed out that the best way to treat religious parties who are upset with the status quo is to channel their momentum into the official political process.

For decades, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have been banned in their respective countries by dictators. Chances for armed political resistance only increases under such circumstances. But when incorporated into the electoral system of democratic representation, “Islamist” platforms and agendas are exposed to the public for scrutiny. A dialogue between the elected and those who do the electing can actually occur.

Naturally, when put under the pressures of social democracy, organizations such as the Brotherhood has to take into account those with differing views and beliefs, who also make up a substantial portion of the population. All this undermines the simplistic paradigm of a strict “Islamists versus Liberals” dichotomy, which boxes complex peoples into categories, and, as Al-Shachi pointed out, don’t correspond very much with reality.

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obama, politics

The future of Libya

Published on: The Canadian Charger, April 14th, 2011
[http://www.thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=868]

The airstrikes on Libya, as authorized by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, has a veneer of “internationalism” about that that needs to be addressed.

Compounded by the calls for a no-fly-zone from the Arab League, the African Union, and the provisional council set up by the Libyan rebels themselves, the air strikes—especially in the usual media corners—seem to be much, much more than an effort anchored by the United States.

This is a myth. The coalition forces of France, the United Kingdom, etc. was led by a U.S. commander—General Carter Ham.

The helm has since then been passed on to a Canadian official, who is supposedly heading up a joint NATO venture.  The U.S. has contributed substantially to a barrage of 110 Tomahawk missiles on Libya’s air defenses on March 19th, 2011. Named by the U.S. as “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” the multi-phased no-fly-zone/airstrikes operation was just beginning—and right off the bat, the Associated Press reported that the United States deployed a slew of B2s, F-15s, F-16s, Navy EA-18G electronic warfare planes and Marine attack jets. In other words—despite the carefully crafted image of “limited military action” from the Obama administration—it is clear that the United States is calling the shots and doing the heavy lifting.

The rebels have since then called for a ceasefire after losing one of their key oil ports, Ras Lanuf, while also being stopped at Brega.

Whether international intervention helped or not is a tough question to answer, given mixed results. Qaddafi’s forces have not been able to fight where they wanted to, but rebel leaders have also come out to criticize the foreign airstrikes. “NATO is not doing their job, the airstrikes are late and never on time. NATO is not helping us. Gadhafi still gets ammunition and supplies to his forces–that’s why he is pushing us back,” says Mohammed Abdullah, a rebel who defected from loyalist ranks. The UK Daily Telegraph has also reported that “strafing runs” have been carried out by NATO helicopters trying to rescue fallen allied pilots. This practise has put civilian lives at risk.

The purpose for Resolution 1973 was, basically, to obtain a ceasefire. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has made it clear that Operation Odyssey Dawn seeks to implement genuine regime change. This lack of overlap in terms of end goals gives some indication of what each party has at stake in Libya. Despite its rhetoric of massacre prevention and international cooperation, the Obama administration’s geopolitical vision extends beyond the conditions of war, and into the conditions of peace. Suffice it to say that if Libya was a land known for carrots, Qaddafi’s troops would not be facing constant airstrikes.

By now, the most likely scenario is a partitioned Libya, and thus a divided Libya. The rebels in Benghazi—aside from asking for a ceasefire—have also rejected an overture from the African Union to broker talks, and for good reason, given that 15% of the AU’s expenses were paid by the Qaddafi regime. Furthermore, the Transitional National Council in Benghazi has agreed to a temporary “trust fund” to help channel assets from “international donations,” according to Al Jazeera English. All this indicates that the situation in Libya is perhaps entering a stage of stalemate. Subsequent planning is not clear, and long-term peace may indeed—like many feared—be subject to the interests of the NATO powers who have so much at stake in Libya.

If the endgame involves the removal of Qaddafi and the dissolution of his regime (it is hard to imagine the coalition forces allowing Qaddafi to stay in power), then an imposition of a no-fly-zone will most likely be protracted into a “long war”. Indeed, according to a report by Reuters, Obama has already signed off on a presidential “finding” (although no admission has been made), that authorizes “covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, government…”

The best case scenario of course is for Qaddafi to be eliminated permanently, or to have him remove himself from power. This may be a possibility if the no-fly-zone is kept in place and works fluidly in order to protect places like Benghazi and Tobrouk from reprisals. If this happens, it may be possible to negotiate a political settlement. The talks can be brokered by international coalition forces and will most likely include the removal of Qaddafi—or at least an agreement from him to submit to parliamentary elections (or a trip to the International Criminal Court?). This, however, may be wishful thinking. For now, Libya’s war of liberation is looking more and more like a civil war. Support for Qaddafi is tough to quantify, and estimates have ranged from 10% all the way up to 30%.  Obama may do well to let the pro-Qaddafi towns alone, and focus strictly on protecting civilians. This will prove to be more and more difficult as airstrikes take on new configurations.

One can only hope that Resolution 1973 (1) does more good than harm when it comes to civilian protection, (2) works to facilitate more civilian involvement instead of restricting it, and (3) does not lead to foreign troops on Libyan soil.

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middle east, muslims, politics

No-Fly Zone in Libya: let us be clear

What is “liberal intervention” but a deceptively labelled concept meant for making military intrusion possible? The abstract idea of a utopic and humanitarian bouquet of bombs and missiles may be easy to imagine in a world filled with disinformation, but history has taught us that such pseudo-events do not exist. Remember the former Yugoslavia? Remember Iraq and Afghanistan? Those who tell us that Libya 2011 is “unique” embrace the overbearing clichés  churned out by the corporate media.

Libyans must determine their own fate. If a no-fly zone is unquestionably what the rebelling Libyans want, then so be it. But let us harbour no illusions and tell it like it is. Full stop. A no-fly zone imposed upon Libya will be a serious, multifaceted, military operation controlled by the United States and its lapdog, the United Kingdom (perhaps also France). Russia and China have both expressed serious reservations. Thus, the usual suspects have returned, as have the vague “responsibility to protect” (R2P) non-ideologies they espouse. It is like a bad dream recurring over and over again.

The top-dogs of the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Central command, Robert Gates and General James Mattis respectively, have both concurred that the implementation of a no-fly zone means—without any doubt—the destruction of Libya’s air defenses. This appears to be a standard prerequisite for the sending of any jets from a “protecting power”. Getting the United Nations to back a no-fly zone is tough enough, given the reservations by Russia and China, but certain international agreements (rules of engagement) will have to also be addressed, just so the forces controlling the air do not shoot at each other—or a civilian airliner for that matter.

The implementation of a no-fly zone is also commonly perceived as a reduction of violence. This is not true. First of all, it is ludicrous to say that Qaddafi’s instruments of death are confined by the air. His usage of mercenaries (mainly as snipers) is infamous by now. Second, a no-fly zone would mean more—not less—planes and missiles flying through the skies. What will this do to the surrounding areas?  If the Qaddafi air force is as formidable as some R2P apologists will have it, then a battle in the skies will ensue. What will this mean for the people on the ground? Anti-aircraft weaponry also includes missiles shot from the ground, operated by their corresponding personnel. This means U.S.-U.K.-France troops directly on the ground in Libya. What will become of them when—God-willing—Qaddafi is ousted?

Furthermore, how serious is Qaddafi’s aerial power—actually? The official numbers are 227 fighter aircrafts and 35 attack helicopters. It is certainly a scary tally, and should not be underestimated. However, let us again be clear. Most Western countries have their planes repaired, maintained, and serviced around half of the time. The rate is astronomically higher in Libya. So far, not more than a few planes have attacked the rebels. The bombardment of Brega, a key oil port in eastern Libya (quite close to Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte), was carried out by a single jet that dropped all but two bombs. Military and air force analysts have noted that “lone-wolf” operations are extremely rare to begin with, due to high risk, not to mention only to drop two bombs. This is the closest real indication of the Libyan air force one can get thus far. It means that either the Libyan air force has some seriously disenchanted pilots (the two bombs dropped on Brega were—according to some eye-witnesses—purposely off-target, and left no casualties), or that the fleet is so deficient that no more than one or two planes can get in the air at one time.

Given these ramifications, how desirable is a no-fly zone? Suffice it to say that a more serious assessment of Qaddafi’s military power will have to be done by the media (a difficult proposal given that the international media in Libya is  under lock-down and cannot move freely).

Wahid Burshan, a Libyan political analyst and activist, has expressed that “taking Libyan air defenses out…and things like that…in order for them [the U.S./U.K.-France] to manage the skies…could be problematic. The Libyan people may consider that hostile and it may tip the point to Qaddafi’s favour.” Burshan also pointed out on Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story that the military in Libya is not always 100% pro-Qaddafi, and seriously antagonizing the army may not be the best strategy. It may be useful to remember the two Libyan pilots who defected from the Qaddafi camp in February and landed their planes in Malta after a refusal to obey orders and bomb fellow Libyans.

At best, it seems that the Libyan people are divided on the idea of a U.S.-U.K.-France imposed no-fly zone. Based on all the information one can gather from rather opaque reports coming out of Libya, a no-fly zone may not be worth it right now—but a better assessment may be available to us and the people of Libya in the future.

Note that serious reservations for a no-fly zone as of now is not grounded in the opinion that it simply will not work. It may work, especially given Libya’s weak defenses. Rather, serious reservations arise out of several concerns: (1) once Western powers are involved in the Libyan revolution, they are involved in that revolution’s future outcomes—and the future of Libya—Qaddafi or no Qaddafi, (2) the information regarding the will of the Libyans themselves is extremely opaque, and a serious cost-benefit decision has yet to be made by Libyans, and (3) despite some calls not to compare Libya’s situation to other similar (proposed) interventions previously, serious analysts take into account the past behaviour of Western powers.

On that last point, let us just say that suspicion is a much understated sentiment as of now. Given that Prime Minister Cameron recently returned from a trip selling arms to his Gulf despot friends, the principle motivation for this R2P inspired spirit of intervention is just too hard to take seriously.

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