Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006

Nationalism persists as a mobilizing force; ethnic and religious conflict remains the primary cause of war in the world.

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Fast Forward Weekly

These days, few people would deny the impact of religion in world politics. Yet this is something that many academics would have been reluctant to acknowledge a few decades ago.

Most 20th century social scientists embraced secularism, believing religion to be a diminishing force, something that, in the words of Philip Costopoulos, co-editor of the anthology World Religions and Democracy, "belongs to the childhood of the human race."

Today, he notes, scholars are forced to grapple with the issues raised by the challenges to democracy posed by various religious traditions.

Journalist Robert Fulford has admitted that he was one of many who failed to anticipate this development: "Of all the smug and foolish delusions that were part of conventional wisdom when I was young in the middle of the 20th century, two stand out in memory. One was the idea that nationalism was a 19th century concept, on its last legs. The other was that religion, as a force in worldly affairs, was slowly but inevitably fading away. At times I was stupid enough to believe both of these preposterous fallacies; but then, so was nearly everyone else."

A succession of analysts, Karl Marx and Max Weber among them, also postulated that ethnicity would dissipate, and ethnic and nationalist conflicts diminish, through the process of modernization.

But contrary to their predictions, the integration of ethnic populations into larger state structures and economic systems has not, in most instances, resulted in a decline in ethnic allegiance. There seems to be little correspondence between modernization and levels of ethnic group cohesion.

Instead, the role of ethnicity as a mobilizing force appears to be escalating, and the worldwide development of a sense of ethnic, national and religious consciousness constitutes one of the major political and social trends of this new century.

The persistence of such ethnic separatism in today’s world has also long confounded social scientists. For most thinkers of the modern era, ethnic nationalism is an "infuriatingly persistent anomaly," remarked Robert H. Wiebe in his book Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism.

"Nothing so thoroughly affronted the universalist values that the champions of human rights and of law and order alike used to measure the health of the world," he wrote. "It accumulated modifiers: atavistic, fanatic, xenophobic, blind, bloody."

But many scholars now recognize that the development of global markets, the disintegration of empires and the weakening of state structures do not necessarily lead to a lessening of concern with issues of national identity and territory.

On the contrary, they stimulate new demands for national recognition and new ethnopolitical conflicts arising from separatist movements within existing states, transnational ethnic linkages and, in some cases, forced migration, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

There are as many as 3,500 groups of people around the world who describe themselves in ethnic or national terms, so most of the world’s sovereign states are multinational patchwork units of different – often hostile – ethnic communities. On the other hand, there are some 77 multi-state national groups – ethnic peoples who live in more than one state. All this is a recipe for trouble.

"Myths justifying ethnic hostility, fear of ethnic extinction and the opportunity to mobilize around these themes," observes political scientist Stuart Kaufman in his book Modern Hatreds, will produce "a politics of extreme nationalist symbolism" that leads to ethnic warfare.

Since the Second World War, more people have been killed in ethnic and religious conflicts within states than have been killed in wars between states. Today, with ideologically based superpower rivalry a thing of the past, nationalist and religiously rooted doctrines are in the ascendancy, often bringing in their wake intolerance of minorities, hatred of neighbours and impatience with established frontiers.

The past two decades, especially, have seen the intensification of ethnic strife, especially in multinational states prone to such antagonisms. Indeed, friction between rival nationalities is the basis of most of today’s violence and has contributed significantly to global instability.

Of 30 major armed conflicts that are either still going on or have recently ended, 10 or 11 can be regarded as being between religious civilizations, and 14 are essentially ethnic conflicts, according to Harvard University history professor Niall Ferguson.

Since ethnic conflict remains our most intractable political problem, policies and techniques that promote ethnic accommodation ought to be of prime concern to political elites in multinational states. Yet even those political leaders who would rather place stress on economic or other issues have frequently found it easier to mobilize people along ethnic rather than class lines. This has all too often resulted in polarized and fractured societies with little overarching national loyalty.

Attempts made to ameliorate ethnic and religious discord within states through power-sharing and other forms of political accommodation have met with only mixed success. The role of international organizations such as the UN in trying to resolve such conflicts has also proved ineffective in all too many cases.

The seemingly immutable differences between communities has frustrated many. In his 1995 book, Black Sea, British author Neal Ascherson observed that this maritime crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and central Asia has always been a place where civilizations overlapped and diverse peoples intermingled.

Yet, though many groups have lived side by side on its shores, "the symbiosis has often been more apparent than real," he concluded. "My sense of Black Sea life, a sad one, is that latent distrust between different cultures is immortal." Necessity may bind such communities, but they remained "a bundle of disparate groups – not a helpful model for the multi-ethnic society of our hopes and dreams."

As Turkish political scientist Umut Ozkirimli contends in his study of Theories of Nationalism, humanity continues to be "torn apart by nationalist conflicts, cruel acts of ethnic cleansing and all kinds of fundamentalisms." Unfortunately, animosity between ethnic and religious groups remains the primary cause of armed conflict in the world.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

March 22, 2006

The U.S. is on the verge of losing the war in Iraq

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The United States toppled Saddam Hussein in a short and decisive campaign three years ago, yet is on the verge of losing the war in Iraq to a faceless insurgency three years later. What went wrong?

“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” may apply to people but not to wars. The impending American withdrawal from Iraq is, in Samuel Huntingtonian terms, a civilizational disaster, far worse than the U.S. defeat in Vietnam three decades ago.

Vietnam was a war that should never have been fought. The Vietnamese Communists proved to be no danger to the U.S. and were content, after 1975, to govern their own state, albeit, of course, in a non-democratic fashion. But at least they turned out not to be an international threat.

Iraq is different. The defeat there will leave the country in the hands of religious fanatics and terrorists who will be emboldened to launch further attacks on American allies in the region – and, eventually, on the U.S. itself.

The Iraq war has also demonstrated a major weakness in the ability of a western state to win a war against those who completely disregard the value of life – their own and those of fellow citizens as well as those of the opponent. The rules of war are to them totally irrelevant.

The only way to defeat such people is through massive terror of one’s own, which of course the U.S. and its allies will not (despite accusations to the contrary from left-wing radicals) engage in.

The Americans lost a war in Vietnam they could have won, but at a tremendous political and moral cost. But at least the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, though fighting as guerrillas, were still an identifiable military force, and did engage in regular battles against American and South Vietnamese forces

In Iraq, though, it seems that all it has taken to make the U.S. go home is simple terrorism – suicide bombers in cars, roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices lobbed at military units, and so forth.

The terrorists and fanatics are not even organized in guerrilla formations. And yet they have managed to defeat the mightiest power on earth, a country that accounts for almost half of all military spending in the world – the U.S. allocates more money for its armed forces than the next 17 states combined.

This does not bode well for the future of the Middle East, nor for the rest of the world as well.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

March 11, 2006

Examining our role in Afghanistan: Should we be there?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The 2,200 Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan find themselves under increased fire, now that we have taken command of the NATO troops in the southern region of the country. Canadian casualties mount around the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

This is causing increasing unease back home. A recent Ipsos Reid poll found that only 52 per cent of Canadians believe our combat mission in Afghanistan is vital to our national interest, while 48 per cent feel the troops should come home as soon as possible.

The latter figure is down from 66 per cent four years ago, when we first deployed the military there.

The new Conservative government has rejected calls from people such as NDP leader Jack Layton for a full debate on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay saying the mission isn't up for discussion.

How seriously should we take those who criticize our involvement in Afghanistan? Have not many of them done a complete about-turn in the past few years?

In 2003, the main argument made by Canadian opponents of the American invasion of Iraq was that it was `different' from the war in Afghanistan. They pointed to the fact that Saddam Hussein hadn't been involved with al-Qaida or the Taliban, that the invasion hadn't been authorized by the UN or NATO, that it wasn't a war of necessity, and so on.

They later felt vindicated by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. Fine.

Now they want out of Afghanistan as well, though back in 2003, they had seemed to imply that the Afghanistan mission, unlike the Iraq war, was a defensive and justifiable one.

Doesn't this demonstrate retroactively, so to speak, that their opposition to the Iraq conflict wasn't based on their rejection of the American rationale for toppling the Saddam regime, but simply left-wing pacifism? And that they now oppose the operation in Afghanistan - which, remember, was "ground zero" for Osama bin Laden before 2001 - for the same reasons?

If they really feel that we should not try to defeat, or at least neutralize, those who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks, they should state that clearly.

Of course, their job has been made easier by the reluctance, especially by the former Liberal government, to provide a degree of justification for the mission. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin acted almost as though they were ashamed of it, and made it a `stealth' operation. It was never debated in Parliament.

This reluctance to display Canada's colours in Afghanistan is not just metaphorical, but literal.

Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian commander of the multinational brigade in Kandahar, has had all Canadian flags and insignia (and those of other NATO countries) removed from bases and vehicles. The reason? `Cultural sensitivity'.
The only flag to be flown is that of Afghanistan.

How absurd is that? We are in the country at the request of its own government and our soldiers are dying on its behalf. Surely we should be allowed to make our presence evident.

Imagine watching film footage of Canadians landing on the shores of Normandy on D-Day, or fighting in the Korean war, without them being allowed to `show the flag'. Back then, we weren't ashamed to let our enemies know we were there to liberate those they had oppressed.