Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Romania's Communist Dictator Met End 25 Years Ago

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

This autumn marks a quarter-century since the demise of the Communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe. It all began on Sept. 11, 1989, when Hungary, which had opened its border with Austria four months earlier, gave permission for thousands of East Germans who had arrived on “vacations” to leave the country, in order to head for West Germany. 

It was the first time one of the Warsaw Pact nations broke from the practice of blocking citizens of Communist nations from going to the West. Suddenly, the Iron Curtain had been breached.

This quickly had a domino effect, and one after another of these regimes would collapse over the next few months.

Most of the transitions were bloodless, with one terrible exception – Romania. (The dissolution of Yugoslavia and its subsequent descent into civil war and ethnic cleansing was a different matter, and happened in the post-Communist period.)

Why was the Romanian case so different? Because the country’s long-time despot, Nicolae Ceausescu, in power since 1965, had cultivated an image of himself as a great leader and came to believe it.

Unlike the other, relatively drab, Communist satraps in the region, Ceausescu had developed a “cult of personality” that rivaled those of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong in China, and Kim Il-sung in North Korea.

The future “genius of the Carpathians,” as he called himself, was born in 1918 to a peasant family in what was, before the Second World War, a backward Balkan kingdom. A Communist, he spent many of his formative years in prison.

While in prison, Ceausescu had met Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, an influential revolutionary who was installed as ruler of the country by the Soviets when they occupied Romania after the war. Just before Gheorghiu-Dej died of cancer in 1965, he tapped Ceausescu as his successor.

As he consolidated his power, Ceausescu became ever more enamoured of himself. He and his wife Elena – always referred to as “Comrade Academician Doctor Engineer Elena Ceausescu” – began to treat themselves as demigods. 

Elena promoted her own fraudulent reputation as a great scientist, and, though barely educated, made sure that the University of Bucharest awarded her a PhD in chemistry. The contents of her many scientific papers were penned by others.

Meanwhile her husband by the 1980s had become the “torchbearer among torchbearers,” a leader as “unique as a mountain peak,” and a man of legendary brilliance. The Communist Party was placed in the hands of sycophants chosen for their abject loyalty to their leader, who was the very epitome of the Romanian spirit.

While the country was increasingly mismanaged, with impoverished ordinary Romanians going without proper food or shelter, there was little overt opposition to Ceausescu, partly because of the atmosphere of fear created by the dreaded secret police, the Securitate, which had spies and informers everywhere.

By 1985 it employed some 11,000 agents and had half a million informers in a country of 22 million people.

Any criticism was ruthlessly crushed; even typewriters had to be registered with the government, to prevent circulation of anti-regime pamphlets. This was a truly totalitarian state.

Giving full vent to his megalomania, in 1984 Ceausescu razed scores of buildings in the historic centre of Budapest to begin construction of his massive House of the Republic, a huge palace that would serve as a monument to himself and his wife. The largest administrative building in the world, at 3.7 million square feet, it today houses the Romanian parliament.

But the winds of change sweeping through eastern Europe did not spare Romania. The country’s Hungarian minority in Transylvania, increasingly persecuted by Ceausescu, erupted into open revolt in December 1989. Dissent soon spread, the Romanian army turned against its master, and Ceausescu’s regime disintegrated with amazing swiftness.

Having been out of touch with reality for decades, Nicolae and Elena were totally unprepared for their political downfall. On Dec. 21, addressing a mass rally in Bucharest, they were astonished when the crowd booed and called for their removal.

Though the Securitate remained loyal to the Ceausescus and fought the army, they could not prevail. The couple’s ignominious end came on December 25, 1989, three days after they tried to escape the country. They were captured, tried, sentenced to death, shot by a firing squad, and quickly buried, all within a few hours. 

Ion Ilescu emerged as leader of the anti-Communist National Front. He would serve as the first democratically elected president of Romania from 1990 until 1996, and again from 2000 until 2004.

Ilescu admitted in 2009 that the trial was “quite shameful, but necessary” in order to end the state of near-anarchy that had gripped the country. 

Romanians may never see their likes again – and that’s a good thing.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ever Volatile Politics of Greece

Henry Srebrnik [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Greece is in grave economic trouble. Its six-year recession has been deepened by budget cuts tied to $321 billion worth of loans from the euro area and International Monetary Fund. The lenders have demanded a structural overhaul of the economy in return for bailing out the country’s public finances.

This has cost Greece about a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) and left it with an unemployment rate of 27.2 percent.

The crisis has spawned extremist parties on both left and right. In the recent elections to the European parliament, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) won 26.6 per cent of the popular vote, good for first place, while the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn picked up 9.4 per cent, to emerge as the third-largest political party in Greece.

SYRIZA also controls 71 of the 300 seats in the Greek parliament, while Golden Dawn has 18.

But this is nothing new. Greek politics have always been volatile – and violent. It is a very polarized society.

Our images of Greece often focus on its ancient history – the classical monuments and statues, the temple of Zeus at Olympia, the Parthenon in Athens, the martial city-state of Sparta, and so on.

But today’s Greece is the heir, not of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, but of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, which lasted one thousand years before being destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Its religious and political capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul), not Athens.

The fervently Christian Greeks lived under Muslim Ottoman rule for some four centuries, slowly regaining their homeland after winning their independence in 1830 following a lengthy uprising.

While the last full-scale Greco-Turkish War was fought almost a century ago, relations remain tense, especially over the fate of the divided island of Cyprus, which has a Greek majority but is much closer to the Turkish mainland.

Greece was conquered by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in 1940-1941 and suffered greatly during the three-year occupation that followed. The Germans set up a collaborationist government, which included some high-profile officers of the pre-war Greek regime.

The occupation resulted in mass starvation; more than 40,000 civilians died in Athens alone. As well, the country’s economy was ruined.

Resistance movements were formed, and from 1943 on large areas of the countryside witnessed reprisals by Nazis and their collaborators, including the burning of settlements and massive executions by the Germans; tens of thousands perished.

The main group fighting the Axis occupation was the Communist-led National Liberation Front (EAM), with its military branch, the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS). By 1944 the EAM had established its own government in liberated areas. It dominated the country except for the major cities, especially Athens, where newly-arrived British forces supported the pre-war government.

Meanwhile, opposition from rival resistance groups from the centre and right evolved into a civil war in 1944.

In December of that year, British troops in Athens opened fire on a massive unarmed pro-EAM rally, killing 28 demonstrators and injuring dozens, and British troops would continue to battle the Communist-led forces. Greece had been a British client state in the 19th century and was again one.

In effect, the Cold War had begun -- – a full half year before the end of the Second World War itself.  The EAM-ELAS forces were supplied by the new Communist regimes in neighbouring Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. It took five more years, and massive amounts of American aid, before the Communists lost.

The civil war left behind bitterness and suspicion. At least 150,000 people had died, and another 100,000 had fled the country. Many of the anti-Communist military officers would become involved in the 1967 coup that seized power to forestall a scheduled election that would likely have been won by parties of the political left.

The “Regime of the Colonels” brought seven years of dictatorship, repression, and torture. It became illegal to strike, to demonstrate, to oppose the government, and to congregate for any purpose except for church.

The junta fell in 1974, after an abortive attempt to unite Cyprus with Greece, which led to a Turkish invasion and partition of the island.

Today, the country is led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, head of the New Democracy Party, founded in 1974. His coalition government includes members of the left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and Democratic Left (DIMAR).

Although Greece is once again a democracy, the legacy of dictatorship and civil war continues to haunt the country.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is a Rogue State More Dangerous than a Failed State?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The demise of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 has led to Islamic militias fighting for control of the country.

The overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003 has seen the country collapse, as a full-scale insurgency by Sunni Islamists has been mounted against the Shi’ite government in Baghdad.

In Syria, a weakened Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now one combatant in a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war that has resulted in the deaths of at least 150,000 people.

There are some unfortunate places in the world, such as these three, that seem to oscillate between being “rogue” and “failed” states. A lack of genuine consensus on the very nature of the country, and the consequent inability to compromise politically, makes the development of democratic political systems very difficult.

In these states, very deep divisions of clan, tribe or religious sect were temporarily papered over by artificial and enforced attempts at unity, either by a “strongman” who invents his own crackpot political creed, or by an ideologically-based political party that tries to transcend the profound fissures in the polity.

Once the facade of a united country cracks, the country quickly dissolves into militant factions at war with each other. 

Given these horrors, much conventional wisdom has it that such countries become vacuums that breed terrorist movements of one sort or another and as such become dangers to the international order. Afghanistan and Somalia are usually cited as a warning, since both, following their collapse, gave rise to the Taliban and al-Shabaab, respectively.

But are failed states necessarily more of a danger than rogue states? It may be true of Afghanistan, which was always a very weak entity, but not of the others. After all, as rogue states, they did an immense amount of damage, both to their own citizens and in foreign adventures.

Somalia collapsed 23 years ago, so many people forget that under the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, it was an aggressive irredentist state engaged in trying to bring all Somalis in the Horn of Africa under its rule. Siad Barre advocated the concept of a greater Somalia and fomented violence in Djibouti and Kenya.

In 1977, he launched a full-scale invasion of Ethiopia. In the war, which Somalia lost, each side lost over 6,000 killed. As well, Siad Barre’s final overthrow in the early 1990s cost the country 50,000 killed in internal fighting. 

In Libya, Gadhafi, who gained control in a 1969 coup, crafted his own belief system, the so-called “Third Universal Theory,” outlined in his Green Book, which was required reading for all Libyans.

A mixture of utopian socialism, Arab nationalism and Third World revolutionary ideology, it purported to solve the problems inherent in both capitalism and communism and bring genuine democracy to the Libyan people.

In reality, of course, Gadhafi ran a repressive police state. He also engaged in mischief throughout Africa, arming and bankrolling various terrorist groups in countries such as Chad; even the Irish Republican Army benefitted from his largesse.

He was also responsible for the downing of flight Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988. It was destroyed by a terrorist bomb, killing all 259 people on board.

Iraq and Syria were both ostensibly governed by wings of the Ba’ath Party. Founded in the 1940s, it espoused pan-Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism. This too was an attempt to overcome the myriad divisions of ethnicity and religion in the Arab world.

By the time Saddam Hussein gained power in Iraq in 1979, though, the party was a vehicle for a Sunni military dictatorship that held the country in an iron grip. Saddam’s secret police murdered dissidents by the thousands, and unleashed incredible violence against Kurds and Shi’ites.

In 1987-88 alone, the al-Anfal campaign in the north included the widespread use of chemical weapons; in one town, Halabja, a chemical attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people. Dozens of Kurdish villages were destroyed, and at least 50,000 people were murdered.

Saddam was also a menace to Iraq’s neighbours. In 1980 he invaded Iran, precipitating an eight-year war in which as many as one million people were slaughtered. Saddam also conquered Kuwait in 1990, and was only ousted after a major coalition defeated him in 1991.

The Assads have governed Syria since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized power and made himself head of the Syrian branch of the Ba’ath. He died in 2000, succeeded by his son Bashar.

Here too ideology was a veneer for ruthless authoritarianism. In 1982, the elder Assad quelled an uprising in Hama led by the Muslim Brotherhood, in which upwards of 40,000 people were massacred and much of the city destroyed.

Syria also gained virtual control over Lebanon in the years 1976-2005 and murdered many political opponents there. Following the alleged involvement of Syria in the assassination of the former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria was finally forced to withdraw.  Damascus also sought at times to destabilize Jordan.

Therefore, horrific as things are internally in these countries today, they are at least less of an external threat than they once were.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Conservative Republican Barry Goldwater Lost the Presidential Election in 1964

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The march of conservative Republicans to the White House, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, began fifty years ago this summer.

Barry Goldwater, the U.S. senator from Arizona, was nominated by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate in July 1964. He faced Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had become president after John Kennedy’s assassination a year earlier.

Goldwater rose to prominence in conservative circles with the 1960 publication of his book The Conscience of a Conservative. It explored the perils of power, states’ rights, civil rights, taxes and spending, and the welfare state.

But this was the era of liberal activism, and Johnson’s social reforms, collectively known as the “Great Society,” were designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period.

A number of eastern establishment moderate Republicans tried to stop Goldwater in 1964, but to no avail. At the Republican nominating convention in San Francisco, Goldwater won on the first ballot, with 883 votes to just 214 for Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, 114 for New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and 41 for Michigan governor George Romney.

I recall watching it on television in Washington D.C., which I was visiting as a teenager.

Already targeted by Johnson as a dangerous right-wing radical, Goldwater responded with this famous retort at the convention: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Rockefeller, Romney, and former president Dwight Eisenhower refused to endorse Goldwater in the general election, and his earlier Senate vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doomed him with moderate Republicans. But he did gain the backing of then Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who gave a well-received televised speech supporting Goldwater.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign proved devastating, highlighting statements in which Goldwater had advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam and had argued that Social Security be made voluntary. It also tried to link the Republican candidate to the Ku Klux Klan.

Most famous of Johnson’s attempts to scare the electorate into rejecting Goldwater was the so-called “Daisy Girl” television ad, which featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy in a field, counting the petals; it then segued into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion.

Goldwater lost to Johnson in a landslide, winning only five southern states that had been increasingly alienated by Democratic civil rights policies, along with his home state of Arizona.

Johnson’s percentage of the popular vote, 61.1 percent to Goldwater’s 38.5 per cent, gave him 486 Electoral College votes, against 52 for the Arizona senator. No post-1964 Democratic presidential candidate has been able to match or better Johnson’s performance in the Electoral College.

But Goldwater’s disastrous campaign planted to seeds for an eventual conservative takeover of the Republican Party. “A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away,” he had argued. Today, virtually all Republicans support “small government.”

Two years later, Ronald Reagan won election as governor of California. In 1976 he was narrowly defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for president by Gerald Ford, who went on to lose to Jimmy Carter. However, Reagan succeeded four years later, and then bested Carter in the 1980 presidential election. The rest is history.

Indeed, by the time Goldwater died in 1998, the Republican Party had moved so far to the right that he had joked, two years earlier, that by comparison he was almost a liberal.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Can Rand Paul Ride Isolationist Tiger All the Way to White House?

Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, NS] Chronicle Herald

Study after study has demonstrated that, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a wide gap between American elite decision-makers and the general public. And it has grown in recent years, given the massive amount of money and soldiers lost in the inconclusive wars waged since 2001, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

While America’s leaders are internationalists and promote globalization and the economic development of foreign nations, most Americans are more concerned with domestic matters, including their own economic welfare and security.

Will this lead to a new wave of isolationism, a recurring theme in U.S. politics?

The Republican Party was historically isolationist. Three Republican presidents between 1920 and 1932 kept America out of “foreign entanglements” in Europe. America’s armed forces were puny.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was by inclination more of an internationalist, yet he too was unable to swing American public opinion towards war and the defence of democracy abroad, even as Hitler, Mussolini and Japan were conquering large parts of Europe and Asia in the 1930s.

The U.S. did not have a defence treaty with a single country — including Canada — until 1940. It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that changed all that.

The Cold War saw a sea change in Republican attitudes, and Republican presidents after 1952 were committed to a world-wide system of alliances, particularly NATO, to contain the expansion of Communist states such as China and the Soviet Union.

Even so, it was Republican Dwight Eisenhower who ended the Korean War after his election in 1952, and it was Richard Nixon who slowly wound down the Vietnam War. He also ended the confrontation between America and China.

For all his bravado, Ronald Reagan made sure to stay out of any major conflicts during his eight years in office. But all of this changed with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Europe.

The 1991 Gulf War saw Washington engage in warfare in Iraq, followed by Bill Clinton’s wars in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, in the former Yugoslavia. Wilsonian liberal interventionism on behalf of “democracy” and “human rights” became the order of the day. (It didn’t, however, extend to the genocide in Rwanda.)

But George Bush’s wars after 2001 have led to war-weariness — they seemed endless and with no genuine resolution.

Barack Obama won election against John McCain in 2008 as the “anti-Bush,” but his own foreign policy is totally incoherent.

A “dove” by nature and philosophy, he seems unable to make up his mind as to whether to fight terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, and so he takes half measures such as drone strikes against jihadis in Yemen and Pakistan, and “leading from behind” in the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011. He has no idea what to do about the war in Syria.

The disputes between Russia and Ukraine, and Israel and the Palestinians, are other headaches he wishes would go away, even as they consume his days.

So what now? If we assume that Hillary Clinton gains her party’s nomination for president in 2016, where does that leave those Democrats who seek a less aggressive foreign policy? Unlike Obama, she supported George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and she’s definitely more of a foreign policy “hawk” than Obama is.

She is also an enthusiastic supporter of increased military support to those battling terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, is in the midst of a real period of soul-searching. It has voices who call for a more robust military policy abroad, even if it costs taxpayers money, but it also now contains many who feel America has over-stretched itself and faces huge problems at home.

Today, 63 per cent of Republicans believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth it, according to a recent poll. So the long-dormant isolationist wing of the party may be reviving, and coalescing around the improbable candidacy of libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Paul has long been wary of foreign intervention and also has spoken out against foreign aid programs.

In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in June, Paul recommended that Washington shouldn’t take sides in Iraq’s civil war.

Responding to attacks by McCain and former vice-president Dick Cheney, Paul noted that “Many of those clamouring for military action now are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war.”

Paul would face long odds, including opposition from the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned Americans about as he left office. Still, stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Where are Erdogan and Turkey Heading?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been Turkey’s prime minister since 2003, and also chairs the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has now been elected president of the republic for a five-year term.

Erdogan, the first popularly elected head of state, had the support of some 52 per cent of those casting their ballots in the election held on Aug. 10. His main rival, diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, captured more than 38 per cent of the vote. An ethnic Kurd, Selahattin Demirtas, took almost 10 per cent.

Parliament has in the past chosen the head of state and until now the presidency has largely been a ceremonial position, but this was changed under a law passed in 2010 by Erdogan’s government.

The ruling AKP will need to replace him as premier and party leader. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is seen as a leading candidate.

Turkey’s most audacious leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself, Erdogan has repeatedly stated his wish to use “the full extent of his constitutional powers” to be an “active president.” He apparently plans to change the constitution to establish a fully executive presidency, similar to the French or Russian ones.

Erdogan has been criticized for his increasingly autocratic ways, as he continues to steer Turkey along a more conservative and religiously Islamic path, thus continuing to reverse the political culture of the resolutely secular, indeed anti-clerical, Turkish state founded by Ataturk in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

“Today national will and democracy have prevailed again,” Erdogan told his supporters from his party’s headquarters in Ankara. “Today, greater Turkey has prevailed again.” Some analysts suggest that he will run again in 2019, in order to lead the country during the hundredth anniversary of the modern Turkish state in 2023.

Erdogan confronts a Middle East in turmoil, and his foreign policy has faced setbacks. Along with the small Gulf state of Qatar, he is a steadfast supporter of Hamas, and last year hosted Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal.

Hamas is now involved in war with Israel for the third time in a decade. As a consequence, Erdogan’s speeches have taken an increasingly shrill anti-Israeli tone in recent weeks.

 “Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” he said late last month. (The U.S. State Department called the remark “offensive and wrong.”) During an Aug. 2 election campaign speech Erdogan called on the international community to “stop Israel’s desire for genocide.”  He warned that “they will drown in the blood they lust for.”

Erdogan said that a normalization of ties with the Jewish state, in crisis since the death of ten activists during an Israeli raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza in 2010, was at this time out of the question.

Meanwhile Erdogan, who fancies himself perhaps the major figure in the region, has lost the support of the Arab world’s most important country, Egypt. From 2012 to 2013, under the leadership of former President Mohamed Morsi, a long-time member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, relations between the two countries flourished.

But when Morsi was ousted last year and replaced with Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Cairo’s enthusiasm quickly cooled.

Turkey’s Arab neighbours Syria and Iraq are both in the throes of vicious civil wars, and here too Ankara has ended up in trouble. Erdogan, a Sunni Muslim, has strongly opposed Bashar al-Assad’s Shi’ite regime in Damascus, nor is there any love lost between Erdogan and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki.
As well, the Saudis, who have always considered the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Hamas offshoot) a menace, have also looked askance at Turkey’s embrace of the organization.

Erdogan is now relatively isolated – something a few years ago he would have considered an improbable outcome of his foreign policy, when he and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced a policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbours. Many today are joking that it now has become “zero friends.” 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The "Tunnel War" Between Hamas and Israel

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The latest Gaza War has made it clear that Israel can’t win its conflict with Hamas without the massive destruction of Gaza, something the world won’t tolerate.

Israel’s “Iron Dome” defensive system has proved remarkably efficient in destroying missiles and rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza – though one rocket that landed near Ben Gurion International Airport did manage to stop much airplane travel to the country for a few days.

But Israelis can’t sit by as rockets rain down on their country -- bigger and better ones with each war (and maybe someday a nuclear-tipped one, compliments of Iran). So there will probably be more such “Groundhog Day” confrontations to come.

Hamas has proved remarkably adept and creative in confronting the overwhelming conventional military superiority of Israel, especially in its use of its massive network of underground tunnels, which are like an underground city, some reaching deep inside Israel.

According to an article in the Aug. 2 New York Times, of the 32 fortified tunnels that the Israeli military has exposed so far, at least 11 run deep beneath the border into Israeli territory. Others are part of an underground labyrinth inside Gaza connecting buildings, weapons stores and concealed rocket launchers.

Alon Ben David, an Israeli television journalist with experience in security affairs, filed a 25-minute report from within Gaza on Israeli television while accompanying Israeli soldiers as they went from post to post. They could clearly see that in almost every house there was a tunnel opening, hidden explosives, mines, rocket launchers outside, and so on.

An Israeli commander pointed out a command center abandoned by Hamas with plasma screens that were fed by cameras focused on the border fence tracking every Israeli patrol.

Ben David reported that there are also some 5,000 administrative, command or logistical, communication tunnels crisscrossing Gaza, allowing Hamas free movement underground almost all across the territory.

Israeli troops in Gaza have described Hamas gunmen who vanished from one house and suddenly popped up to fire at them from another. Hamas fighters are able to use the tunnels to surprise the forces from behind and to attack those in the rear.

The shafts leading to Hamas’s labyrinth are “inside houses, so we won’t see them from the air,” Eado Hecht, a military analyst who teaches at the Israeli military’s Command and General Staff College and at Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities, told the Times.

Hamas’ tunnel strategy has proved a potent psychological as well as military weapon and is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the use of tunnels by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. In that case, too, a vastly superior military power was unable to win a decisive victory.

In any case, Hamas’ fighters are now well-armed, well-trained and well-led. In an article written for the Washington Post on Aug. 1, Robert H. Scales, a retired U.S. Army major general, and Douglas A. Ollivant, a fellow at the New America Foundation, noted that Hamas units “stand and fight from building hideouts and tunnel entrances. They wait for the Israelis to pass by before ambushing them from the rear.”

As Hamas militants combine “their fanatical dedication with newly acquired tactical skills, renewed intervention might generate casualties on a new scale -- as the Israelis have been painfully learning.” Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political wing, would agree.

Israeli casualties in this conflict have been far greater than in the two previous encounters with Hamas, though of course far less than those on the Hamas side. It has been the country’s largest single-conflict military loss in nearly a decade.

Gaza was ruled by Egypt from 1948, when Israel was formed out of most of the British Palestine Mandate, until 1967, when it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. At first things were relatively quiet. I visited Gaza in 1967 – I remember seeing a burnt-out Soviet-made Egyptian tank sitting in a street -- and 1972, something inconceivable today.

But by 1987, when Hamas was founded, the tiny strip along the Mediterranean was a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism. Israel would have been wise to return Gaza to Egyptian oversight after 1967 – but that’s all water under the bridge (or sand in the tunnels) now.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Child Refugee Crisis at the Mexico-U.S. Boarder

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer:

First off, let’s get one thing straight: in the debate over immigration policy in the United States, people toss around phrases such as “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants.”

You’re not an immigrant unless you’ve legally entered a country. The Latin Americans crossing the Mexican-American border are, depending on the case, either economic migrants or refugees.

Also, the immigration discussion in the U.S. revolves around the issue of national identity. Few Americans, including right-wing Republicans, are opposed to people arriving from Asia, the Caribbean, or Europe, no matter their ethnicity or colour.

The conversation concerns Mexican and Central American Hispanics, who, the critics claim, are in effect pushing the Latin American cultural border further into the U.S., especially in states that were once part of the Spanish Empire and later, within an independent Mexico.

The noted Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington raised these concerns in his 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity.

He contended that the mass immigration of Latin Americans and the proximity of Mexico make this migration different from all those that came before it:

“Would America be the America it is today if in the 17th and 18th centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.”

In fact, all or parts of Arizona, California, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming were captured from Mexico during the 19th century American-Mexican War. In 1848, the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which called for a defeated Mexico to give up about half of its territory.

And the border has continued to be a sore point between the two countries. It marks the boundary between two cultures, as well as between the world’s most powerful and developed country and much poorer ones to its south.

The border issue has taken on a new urgency in recent months, as more than 57,000 children have crossed into the U.S. since last October. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries with severe issues of poverty and lawlessness.

Some politicians lay the blame on the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2008 law that passed the U.S. Congress nearly unanimously and was signed by President George W. Bush.

It gave new protections to children who were not from neighboring Canada or Mexico, stipulating that their asylum requests be fully adjudicated if they were picked up for being in the country illegally. It requires border agents to take them into custody and within 72 hours turn them over to the Department of Health and Human Services until a hearing can be held.

Administration officials say smugglers have exploited that statute and the long judicial processes that resulted from it, persuading Central American parents to risk sending their children on a dangerous journey to the United States in hopes that they would be able to stay permanently.

President Barack Obama has called the surge an “urgent humanitarian situation,” and recently sent a request to Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with these new migrants. Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, want to amend the 2008 law in order to allow quicker deportations of the arrivals.

Obama met with presidents Salvador Sanchez Cerén of El Salvador, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on July 25. He urged them to exercise what he called their “shared responsibility” to help stem the flow of migrant children toward the border, but the Central American leaders said America shares some of the blame for the crisis.

Hernandez suggested that the demand for illegal drugs in America is in part responsible for the violence that is causing the migrants to flee their homes in Central America. The drug cartels now have a great deal of control over much of northern Central America.

In many areas, drug traffickers operate with impunity. Honduras, for example, has the world’s highest homicide rate, at 83.5 murders per 100,000 people, as compared to one murder per 100,000 for Canada.

And when children become the targets of gang threats, there is often no better option available to their families than to send them north. So in a sense America is both the cause and the victim of this crisis.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

If you want to know whether the inhabitants of a certain country share a common sense of national solidarity, a good way to find out is – oddly enough – to look at where their emigrants have settled.

That’s because people from the same geographic area will, for either positive or negative reasons, not necessarily live together as immigrants in a new country. Ethnic and religious diasporas are often an indicator of differences back home.

Positive reasons may revolve around religious institutions and practices. Negative ones are usually the result of some form of oppression or persecution in the country of origin. Often both are involved.

Let’s look at immigrants from France. Historically, French Catholics, as part of the ruling group in France, founded royal colonies, such as today’s Quebec. On the other hand, French Protestants, known as Huguenots, fled the country following the mass murders known as the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre in 1572; at least 25,000 were slaughtered.

They ended up in Calvinist settlements, such as Protestant Ulster, Presbyterian Scotland, Calvinist Holland, Puritan New England, and the Afrikaaner settlements in South Africa. Many anglisized their names – Paul Revere, of American Revolution fame, was from a Huguenot family. His father had changed his name from Revoir to Revere.

It was religion, not language or place of origin, which determined where they settled. (Indeed, French Protestants were not even permitted in New France.)

Most so-called “Lebanese” diasporas are actually made up of Lebanese Christians, mainly Maronites. Arabs from Lebanon, if they emigrate, will move into “Arab” areas.

The same holds true for people from the ethnically contested island of Cyprus. “Cypriots,” who settled in many areas of the British Empire, including London, were usually Greeks, and Greek Orthodox in religion. Turkish Cypriots, less mobile, settled in their own neighbourhoods if they left Cyprus, or in larger Turkish ones.

Armenians, especially following their genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, fled to secular nations like the United States, or settled among fellow eastern rite Christians in places like Lebanon. Coptic Christians from Egypt have also followed the same pattern.

The “overseas Chinese,” from countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, have often been the victims of pogroms at the hands of Muslim Malay peoples. In sectarian violence in Malaysia in 1969, sources put the death toll at close to 600 Chinese; in anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998, more than 2,000 people died.

They settle in Chinese neighbourhoods when they come to the Americas. The last placed they’d want to live are in neighbourhoods inhabited by non-Chinese people from their countries of origin. Tamils and Sinhalese from war-torn Sri Lanka also live in separate ethnic enclaves.

Countries such as Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, and Trinidad have large South Asian populations who are often at odds with African-origin citizens (or, in Fiji, indigenous ethnic Fijians). When these people move to North America, they typically live within larger Hindu and Sikh districts – though immigrants of Muslim Indian ancestry from those countries may choose to live elsewhere.

The diasporic people par excellence are the Jews, who have lived among – and often suffered abuse from – various nationalities all over the world.

Most North American Jews, if originally from Europe, arrived from today’s Belarus, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. But when they came to Canada or the United States, these Ashkenazic Jews did not settle among the non-Jewish ethnic groups from those places. Instead, they lived in Jewish areas. This also holds true for Jewish citizens who settled in Argentina and Uruguay.

They may have identified themselves as Hungarian Jews, Polish Jews, Romanian Jews, and so on, but they did not consider themselves to be Hungarians, Poles or Romanians. Those were Christian peoples, who in turn also rarely considered the Jews as fellow compatriots.

The same is the case for Sephardic Middle Eastern Jews in North America or western Europe. They live apart from Muslim Arabs and Iranians.

Some diaspora communities maintain strong political ties with their homelands. This is particularly the case when they retain economic links and have advantages of language, culture and personal ties in doing business with compatriots in their country of origin.

But this is rarely true of those minorities escaping injustice. Jews are typically more concerned with Israel than with the countries which they left.

So if you want to get a picture of ethnic or religious differences “back home,” look to the diasporas of these peoples in their new places of residence.