Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, July 28, 2014

Songs of War and American Culture

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

You can tell quite a bit about a country’s political culture by the songs it produces during wartime.

In the United States, the trajectory has been from songs celebrating religious patriotism through nationalistic tunes to more nuanced views of conflicts to outright anti-war lyrics.

The American Civil War produced the stirring Protestant anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” American writer Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics after visiting a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington D.C. in November 1861 and they were first published in February 1862.

The song is full of Biblical imagery. Here are the first and fifth stanzas and the chorus:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.

The popular martial song “Over There,” penned by George M. Cohan in April 1917 as the United States was entering the First World War, was designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight Germany. The two stanzas are aggressively buoyant, patriotic but not particularly religious:

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.
Hear them calling you and me,
Every Son of Liberty.
Hurry right away, no delay, go today.
Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy’s in line.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the “Hun” you're a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly
Yankee Doodle do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks.
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and blue.

The refrain sends out a warning to America’s enemies:

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

Second World War songs are less nationalistic and more sentimental. “When the Lights Go on Again,” written by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler in 1942 is wistful, making no mention of German “Huns” or other enemies. The song, made famous by Vaughn Monroe, expresses the hopes for an end to the war.

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello to love”

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world.

By the 1960s, an unpopular conflict led to the predominance of anti-war songs.

The poignant ballad “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became a hit during the Vietnam War. The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, with further verses added by Joe Hickerson in 1960. It was popularized by, among others, the folk song group Peter, Paul and Mary.

The first stanza asks:

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

And it slowly works its way up to the “message,” in stanza four:

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, every one.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

By 1967, the Kingston Trio had performed it on NBC-TV, one of the many indications that the American public was turning against the war.

All these songs can be heard on You Tube.

It’s interesting that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have produced no songs of note – perhaps because these conflicts, fought by an all-volunteer military, have had little impact on average Americans.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Rush to Make Russia a Pariah

Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, NS] Chronicle Herald

The tragic downing of a civilian Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17, presumably by so-called pro-Russian “rebels” or “separatists,” which resulted in the loss of 298 lives, has, predictably, further intensified hostility towards Russia. 

On July 21, an editorial in the Washington Post carried the headline “The West needs a strategy to contain the world’s newest rogue state -- Russia.” Calling Moscow’s policies regarding Ukraine “barbaric,” it asserted that Vladimir Putin now heads a “dangerous outlaw regime that needs to be contained.”Two days earlier, an article in England’s Daily Telegraph by John Kampfner called Putin a “pariah” who “must now be treated as such.”

But such rhetoric is truly alarming, the tropes reminiscent of anti-Soviet statements at the height of the Cold War. Is Russia now to be consigned to a new “axis of evil,” in the company of regimes such as the one in North Korea?

The Russians are being accused of presenting propaganda to justify their actions, but we’re not getting the whole story.

The Ukrainians are bombing civilians in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk. There are probably several hundred thousand refugees that have left these cities. The Kyiv government’s “anti-terrorist” campaign against its own citizens is virtually unreported in the U.S. media.

So the airplanes the “rebels” have been shooting down are Ukraine’s military warplanes that have come to bomb the women and children of these cities; hence the Malaysian Airlines disaster.

In 1999, an American-led alliance bombed Serbia for 78 straight days, in order to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, to topple Saddam Hussein, accused of harboring “weapons of mass destruction.” These countries were thousands of miles from American shores, nor were any Americans there in danger. 

I don’t recall any American newspapers calling the U.S. a rogue state.

Eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, borders Russia, and has a substantial population of ethnic Russians who fear the new nationalistic regime in Ukraine. And they have reason to do so.

The Russians must rue the day when they allowed NATO to move eastwards after the collapse of the Soviet Union, incorporating not just former Warsaw Pact countries but even the Baltic states, formerly part of the USSR itself.

While the Ukrainian military shells towns and drops bombs in eastern Ukraine, the West considers the “separatist” militias in the east Moscow’s pawns and holds Putin responsible for the carnage. Double standards anyone?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Problematic Identity of Israel's Arab Citizens

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The current Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, the third in six years, has resulted in Israeli Arab protests, led by Balad (National Democratic Assembly), Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), and the Islamic Movement in Israel, in various cities and towns.

Some of the protesters were reported to have waved Palestinian flags as they chanted slogans welcoming Hamas rocket fire at Tel Aviv.

Haneen Zoabi of Balad, the first Arab Israeli woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has been in the forefront of the recent demonstrations and has called on Palestinians to continue fighting, besiege Israel and refuse to negotiate.

In turn, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch have campaigned to oust Zoabi and her Balad Party from parliament.

All this points to the growing anger and frustration among Arab citizens of Israel, who feel sympathy for their fellow Palestinians and growing alienation from their fellow Israelis. As one person put it, “My state is at war with my nation.”

After all, when someone speaks of an Israeli, what comes to mind is someone Jewish. And no wonder: Israel considers itself the “state of the Jewish people”; its flag, coat of arms, constitution, Hebrew national anthem, monuments, and other iconography all stem from Jewish culture, history and religion.

The Law of Return allows virtually any Jew in the world to become an Israeli citizen as soon as he or she enters the country. The Zionist project involved the “negation of the diaspora” and the “ingathering of the exiles,” after the loss of Jewish sovereignty some 2,000 years earlier.

When the Jewish community declared its independence by creating the new Jewish state of Israel in most of Palestine, resulting in a war, the vast majority of Arabs fled or were driven away.

But a remnant, today’s Israeli Arabs, remained within the borders of the Jewish polity. Although they have full civil and political rights, they are, not surprisingly, alienated from the majority Jewish population.

Today, the Israeli Arab population of 1,658,000 represents about 21 percent of Israel’s more than eight million citizens.  Muslims, including Bedouins, make up 82 percent of the Arab population in Israel, the remainder Christians and Druze (an offshoot of Islam).

Acre, Haifa, Lod, Nazareth, Ramle, and other cities have substantial Arab inhabitants; much of the Galilee has a majority Arab population. The co-called “Triangle,” an area in central Israel adjacent to the West Bank, is also populated by Israeli Arabs: the towns of Umm al-Fahm and Tayibe are the social, cultural and economic centres for residents of the region.

Israeli Arabs tend to be poorer, and their cities and towns receive a lesser share of state spending on infrastructure, education, and other services. Arabs are also underrepresented in higher education and most industries.

However, Israeli Arabs are not just a “minority.” They are the kith and kin of the Palestinian Arabs across the 1967 borders, in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighbouring states such as Jordan and Lebanon.

And their Palestinian (and Muslim) consciousness, dormant in the first decades after 1948, has been growing.

Israeli Arabs in the past have backed various iterations of Communist parties, which had Israeli Arab leaders. Today, twelve Israeli Arabs, representing various parties, including Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am (United Arab List), sit in the Knesset. They seek to transform Israel into a “state for all its citizens,” rather than a solely Jewish one. But no Arab parties have ever been part of Israel’s coalition governments.

The rising sense of Arab consciousness has also led to the establishment of distinctly anti-Israeli groups, in particular the Islamic Movement in Israel, founded in 1971 by Abdullah Nimar Darwish. Today, he remains the spiritual leader of the more moderate southern branch of the movement, which participates in the Israeli electoral process, as part of Ra’am.

Sheik Raed Salah is head of the more radical northern branch, which opposes Israel’s existence. He served two years in an Israeli prison for raising millions of dollars for Hamas.

The northern branch sponsors an annual rally where it claims that Israel plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to have it declared an illegal organization.

Various Israeli politicians have raised the idea of transferring parts of the territory in the “Triangle”-- along with the 300,000 or so Israeli Arab citizens who live there -- to a future Palestinian state in return for annexing West Bank territory, including Jewish settlement blocs.

But right now this is a far-fetched possibility. In the meantime, Israeli Arab anger and frustration grows.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Yemen is a Chaotic and Failed State

Henry Srebrnik. [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Yemen, the poorest Arab state, with a gross domestic product per capita of little more than $1,400 a year, remains a country in political crisis.

Located at the south-western edge of the Arabian peninsula, the present-day Republic of Yemen  was formed in 1990, when the north, an ancient Arab kingdom and then a republic, united with the south, the former British colony of Aden and later a Marxist-ruled “people’s democratic republic.”

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in the north in 1978, ruled the loosely unified Republic of Yemen since its formation, until ousted three years ago.

Yemen is a small petroleum producer, but output from the country’s oil fields is falling and they are expected to be depleted by 2017 -- a major concern, since crude oil exports finance up to 70 percent of its budget.

Yemen’s income from oil exports tumbled by over 64 percent to $73.4 million in May from a year ago, due to attacks on an export pipeline, and the central bank’s foreign asset reserves shrank to their lowest since the end of 2011.

As a consequence, Yemen has relied heavily on aid from multilateral agencies to sustain its economy. It is hoping to get a $550 million loan from the International Monetary Fund this year that could help unlock more donor funds.

Yemen was swept up by the turmoil that spread across the Arab Middle East in 2011. It led to the ouster of President Saleh in February 2011. Vice president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi then assumed power.

Hadi was the sole candidate in the presidential election that was held a year later. His candidacy was backed by the ruling General People’s Congress as well as the parliamentary opposition.

Hadi had first served as a military officer in British-run Aden in the 1960s, then under the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and finally, after a 1986 split within the southern regime, in the armed forces of Saleh’s pre-unification Yemen Arab Republic.

Hadi has tried to unify the fractured country. He organized a National Dialogue Conference, a 10-month-long series of peace talks that concluded this past January.

It led to an agreement that Yemen would shift to a federal model of government in the future.

Hadi has also restructured the military, which included the removal of Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali from the head of the powerful Republican Guard.

But fighting in the northern provinces of Sa’ada and Amran, between Shia Houthis, Sunni Salafist fighters, and northern tribesmen continues. On July 8, Houthi fighters captured Omran, one of the main cities in northern Yemen, from Sunni tribesmen.

Meanwhile, another tribal uprising, in the province of Hadramout, and continued fighting in Al Dhale province, underscores the continued secessionist feelings in southern Yemen.

And then there is Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), formed in January 2009 from a merger of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches.

It claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the centre of the Yemeni capital that left nearly 100 people dead in May 2012. In December 2013, an attack on the Yemeni Defence Ministry in Sana’a killed at least 56 people.

The United States has been launching drone attacks against the militants. In September 2011 two high-profile members, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens, were killed in an air strike.

This past April, dozens of fighters were killed in the latest in a string of strikes. They came just days after al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a video showing its leader, Nasir al-Wahishi, speaking before dozens of followers.

But drones alone are unlikely to eradicate the threat the group poses to Yemen. Analysts contend that they will remain a serious menace unless the government can address challenges such as poverty, corruption, and inadequate security forces. Also, the deaths of civilians often leads to increased support for the militants.

“There are many reasons for the increase of membership of al-Qaeda, but we cannot rule out that the use of drones and the popular backlash it produced has increased the recruitment opportunities of al-Qaeda,” Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al-Iryani told the Reuters news agency.

As for Hadi, he plans to run for re-election next year and will no doubt win. But Saleh left behind a failed state which has little prospect for a transition to democracy and Hadi, despite his efforts, will do no better.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The 2003 Iraq Invasion Was Welcomed by Many

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

For decades I have kept files on virtually every country in the world. They consist mainly of magazine and newspaper articles, and students find them handy when researching term papers.

My filing cabinets would soon have no room for new pieces if I didn’t occasionally thin them out, and last week I was doing so with the Iraq files.

It was an interesting exercise, especially when I came across articles on the American invasion in March 2003, because today many read like fantasy and wishful thinking.

As early as Dec. 28, 2001, the National Post printed an article by Rich Lowry, “The Liberal Case for Attacking Iraq.” Lowry, editor of the conservative American magazine National Review, called on even “owlish professors and liberal columnists” to become “left-wing hawks.”

He provided six reasons: Saddam Hussein was flouting numerous UN resolutions (including the calls to destroy his “weapons of mass destruction”); women had little freedom in Iraq; 500,000 children had died since 1991 due to UN sanctions, so the “truly humanitarian position” was to overthrow Saddam, thus eliminating this problem; it was also necessary for effective arms control, would allow Muslims to practice their religion in peace; and allow for proper nation-building.

On Aug. 15, 2002, TV personality Ezra Levant, in another National Post column, “Why Canada Should Declare War,” chided “our pusillanimous European allies” as a bunch of fearful pacifist appeasers. And he accused then Liberal foreign minister Bill Graham of hiding behind the UN, instead of following the lead of the United States.

As war loomed, the National Post’s Andrew Coyne on March 7, 2003, in “12 Arguments Against the War; Rebutted,” did Lowry six better. It would not be a unilateral American action, he wrote, since “more than 30 countries” had declared their support. It met the standards of international law, since Saddam had failed to comply with at least 17 UN Security Council resolutions, and Iraq had never “produced a scrap of evidence to suggest it had destroyed” its “massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.”

Four days later, also in the National Post, University of Toronto political science professor Clifford Orwin made the case for a pre-emptive war. In “America is Justified in Striking First,” he suggested that, because of Iraq’s links with militant groups, the “military aspect of the war on terror does not lend itself to other means.”

Orwin warned that Saddam’s very possession of biological and chemical weapons “qualifies as a global threat. He has used these weapons before and he foresees using them again.” Saddam was, he contended, “a menace to international society.” Finally, the continued oppression of the Iraqi people would end with “their liberation at the hands of the Americans.”

In a follow-up article published on March 21, “The Uncertainty of War,” with the invasion already underway, Orwin remained steadfast in his support and criticized Canada for having “abdicated all responsibility” by refusing its assistance.

Finally, National Post journalist George Jonas, in his March 12, 2003 commentary “Why This Kosovo Dove Became an Iraq Hawk,” also pointed to Iraq’s many violations of UN resolutions, especially Security Council Resolution 1441, passed unanimously on Nov. 8, 2002, which had offered Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.”

As the war was winding down, Washington Post correspondent Antony Shadid filed an article on April 10, 2003, “Hussein’s Baghdad Falls,” in which he wrote of thousands of its residents pouring into the streets “to celebrate the government’s defeat and welcome the U.S. forces in scenes of thanks and jubilation.” They were greeted with “flowers, candy and occasionally, kisses.”

An article in the Globe and Mail of Sept. 23, 2003, “Iraq Makes New Pitch for Foreign Investors,” by Mona Megalli, assured readers that security conditions were improving, and that Iraq was “throwing its doors open to investment.”

University of Calgary political scientist Tariq Ismail was so optimistic that he planned to help found a new international university in Baghdad, reported the Calgary Herald on Jan. 24, 2004. It would become, he told reporter Robin Summerfield, “one brick in the foundation to rebuild civil society in Iraq.”

But the real war was just beginning. How did so many get it so wrong?

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Canadian-U.S. Border: Assymetrical, Long, and Peaceful

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Do we now live in a postmodern “borderless” world? Not really.

Most borders have not crumbled like the Berlin Wall. Instead, many boundaries have emerged as a so-called “third space” in between countries, occupied by heterogeneous and hybrid cultures, and inhabited by “halfway populations.” The border between Mexico and the United States is one example.

What about the very long border between Canada and the U.S.? The entire boundary, including small portions of maritime boundaries on the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, is 8,891 kilometres long, including 2,475 kilometres shared with Alaska.

It is our only land border, and Canada is by far the largest nation having a land border with only one country. Unlike most boundaries, it has been one of amity and peace for more than a century.

One of the foremost students of the border is Roger Gibbins, long-time professor of political science at the University of Calgary and now a Senior Fellow at the Canada West Foundation.

In his 1989 monograph “Canada as a Borderlands Society” he examined the differences between the way Americans and Canadians see themselves vis-à-vis the boundary. Gibbins concluded that while the international border had “very limited penetration into American society,” for Canadians “the border looms very large indeed, and its effects are felt not only in communities proximate to the border but also throughout the country.”

He highlighted the asymmetry of the border relationship, which sees most Canadians living relatively close to the border and thus affected by it, whereas most Americans live far away from the border and do not concern themselves with it.

From Maine in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, the land border on the American side is sparsely populated. States like Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana have very few people in their northern areas adjacent to the border.

The only places where Americans live close to Canada in this region are some cities along the water boundary between Ontario and the states of New York and Michigan in the Great Lakes region, where major bridges and tunnels connect Fort Erie and Buffalo, Windsor and Detroit, and Sarnia and Port Huron.

It’s a different story on the British Columbia-Washington State line along the 49th parallel. Vancouver is virtually on the border, and on the American side cities like Bellingham and even Seattle aren’t that far away.

However, as Gibbins found out in a study of two neighbouring towns only 10 kilometres apart on either side of that border, the Canadians were far more aware of American culture and politics than the reverse.

Sometimes ethnic groups and communities span the border, especially Aboriginal peoples who predated the formation of the two countries. Native peoples such as the Mohawks do not consider the border as applying to them. The Mohawk First Nation of Akwesasne straddles the intersection of the American-Canadian international border as well as the Ontario-Quebec provincial border, on both banks of the St. Lawrence River.

Most of the land is in New York state, where it is known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. Although divided by borders, the residents consider themselves to be one community. The Mohawks view their territory as a “sovereign nation.”

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the boundary between Canada and the United States became more apparent. The line itself did not change, but crossing the border became more protracted, less civil and generally more complex.

This “thickening” of the border resulted in delays at many checkpoints, as crossings were placed on alert, and measures were taken to enhance security. I was on an airplane flying between Winnipeg and Montreal that set down in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., on Sept. 11, 2001, where I spent the next three days.

The international bridge linking it to its neighbour on Michigan’s upper peninsula, also named Sault Ste. Marie, was shut and I couldn’t cross into Michigan.

Even so, the Canada-U.S. border remains one of the least militarized in the world.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do Elections Help in Divided Societies?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The following countries have held parliamentary or presidential elections so far this year: Afghanistan, Algeria, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Panama, Thailand, and Ukraine.

So what? you might remark. After all, that’s quite a rogue’s gallery.

Yet for many people, elections have become the sine qua non of democracy. Our television screens show us people lined up at polling stations, eager to cast their ballots, and commentators usually let us know how excited these voters are to “finally” have a say in the governance of their country.

But in fact, in states without a robust civil society, the rule of law, protection of human rights, and a political culture that tolerates diversity of opinion, elections may even exacerbate, rather than resolve, deep cleavages within the policy – even if they have been relatively free and honest.

In most such places, though, opposition parties often boycott what they consider to be a foregone conclusion; or, if they do contest the election, they invariably claim – usually correctly – that widespread fraud, intimidation, and other irregularities have rendered the result invalid. In many countries, furthermore, so many parties are in the running that no one ever wins a convincing mandate.

Also, only too often, governments brought to power are fairly quickly dispatched in coups (Thailand), or themselves become highly autocratic and sectarian (Iraq). Some countries seem to be in a permanent state of alternation between civilian and military-authoritarian  rule (Nigeria, Pakistan), or are such failed states, with component groups fielding their own armies, that elections are completely meaningless (Lebanon).

In yet others -- Central American oligarchies such as Guatemala and Honduras – incredible inequality makes for continuous political and criminal violence. Elections are irrelevant, held merely to please some foreign capital like Washington.

Political parties are typically simply the vehicles for non-democratic elements to gain control and impose their own brand of autocracy (and, not coincidentally, gain access to the state’s resources).

Elections can’t paper over issues of what political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan called problems of “stateness” in places where “there are profound differences about the territorial boundaries of the political community’s state and profound differences as to who has the right of citizenship in that state.”

These are matters relating to the very definition of the country and usually revolve around deep-seated class, ethnic, religious, and/or regional conflicts, often involving repression of aggrieved minorities without a share of power. Each group votes for its champion, so, as political scientist Donald Horowitz has written, elections are little more than a census count. Demographics neatly predict party support levels.

For example: Although Sri Lanka has never ceased to be an electoral democracy, the lack of genuine political power by the minority Tamils led to a vicious decades-old civil war in which tens of thousands of people were slaughtered. In pre-1974 Cyprus, ethnic bloc voting by Greeks meant that the Turks, with fewer people, could never hold power. It ended with partition.

In Africa, political violence broke out after the adoption of democracy in various countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, and Togo, as different ethnic and religious groups vied for power.

Such issues even affect states such as Canada, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and have led to violence, despite the fact that they are, unlike our earlier examples, robust democracies.

So, as author and journalist Robert Kaplan has observed, in many states without a genuine sense of national consciousness, what is left when authoritarian rulers are deposed are tribes, clans, and sects; they have now, for instance, become the most important actors in entities like Libya and Yemen.

Libyans went to the polls June 25 to elect a new parliament. But one of Libya’s most prominent human rights activists, Salwa Bugaighis, was assassinated in her home in Benghazi -- shortly after she had voted.

To make my point at its most basic level, ask yourself this: would you rather have lived in a colony without any internal self-rule at all, but with the rule of law, like pre-1990s Hong Kong, or in a sovereign state with “elections,” like Zimbabwe?

You know the answer.

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Sunni State in the Fertile Crescent?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The various Sunni jihadist groups, in particular the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who are battling the Shia regimes in Iraq and Syria, are attempting to carve out a Sunni emirate in parts of both countries (and possibly also in Jordan).

ISIS formally declared the creation of an Islamic State on June 29, its territory stretching from the northern Syrian province of Aleppo to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is its new leader.

But this should come as little surprise. These countries are all artificial creations, the fruits of French and British imperialist cartography following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Syria and Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia) were little more than geographic expressions prior to the 20th century. But the Allies would give them definite boundaries, which more or less remained stable until recent years.

In a secret 1916 accord between a British colonel, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, François Georges-Picot, London and Paris agreed upon the division of Ottoman territories should the Turks lose the war.

They were believers in the notion that the people of the region would be better off under the European empires.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Fertile Crescent. France obtained Lebanon and Syria, while Britain took Iraq and Palestine (today’s Israel and Jordan). Needless to say, no Arabs were consulted.

The deal was formalized by the newly-formed League of Nations after the war; it allocated these territories as “mandates” to be governed by France and Britain. Though the new Iraq was officially designated a kingdom, it was also effectively under British control.

The colonial powers lumped together Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities, with little regard for the animosities these groups had felt towards each other for many centuries.

From the 1950s through the 1990s, pan-Arabists sought to unite the Arab world into one super-state. This failed miserably. Since then, sectarian forms of Islam have replaced secular nationalism as a rallying cry, leading to the present discord in the region.

ISIS’s emergence can be traced to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which arose in response to the American invasion in 2003. The group was active in the insurgency in Iraq, but when civil war broke out along sectarian lines in Syria in 2011, many ISIS members crossed the border to fight with other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups against the Shia Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Now they are back in Iraq again. One of the reasons they were able to easily take cities like Mosul and Tikrit is because these are fundamentally Sunni cities that feel marginalized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia. Many ordinary Sunnis describe this as a popular revolution against a Shia-led government, not a terrorist onslaught.

Given the growing Shia-Sunni war throughout the region, other states and groups have also lined up with ISIS. A large part of their financing comes from wealthy benefactors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states.

On the other hand, Assad and Maliki depend on arms and money from fellow-Shia Iran. In little Lebanon, itself a microcosm of the region, the country’s Shia militia, Hezbollah, is fighting alongside Syria’s army, while Sunni Lebanese provide aid to the rebels.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are to some extent proxy wars that pit Saudi Arabia against Iran.

It seems the arbitrary borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the product of a now long-discredited zeitgeist, may soon themselves become little more than history.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Why Putin is no Hitler

Henry Srebrnik [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

At his own request, the upper house of the Russian parliament has revoked President Vladimir Putin’s authorization to invade Ukraine. The Federation Council voted 153 to 1 to cancel its resolution of March 1 allowing Putin to send Russian troops to Ukraine.

Yet American officials remain unconvinced that he has backed up words with deeds. They considered the move positive but symbolic, assuming that it was really meant to undercut European support for additional sanctions. Instead, they mocked Putin by calling it a “charm offensive.”

Ever since the crisis in Ukraine began, with the overthrow of the legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, war drums have been beating in the West.

They have defined as “aggression” Putin’s attempts to make certain Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine don’t get trampled by the nationalist Ukrainians in the west – the heirs of those who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in World War II.

To add to the insult, people like Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles, who should know better, have glibly compared Putin to – wait for it – Adolf Hitler! I guess even a lesser tyrant like Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of pre-war Italy, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad won’t do.

The comparison was due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But that’s a special case.
The great majority of the population of the peninsula, almost physically cut off from the rest of the country, is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously Russian. The majority of its population prefers to be ruled from Moscow rather than Kyiv and it has been part of Russia for centuries.

So why has it been Ukrainian? The answer: a dead dictator’s whim.  Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago detached Crimea from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic and gave it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, without consulting anyone – including the population of the peninsula.

It didn’t matter much anyhow, as in reality everyone in the Soviet Union was ruled from the Kremlin anyway. But after 1991, when the USSR collapsed, the Russians in the Crimea found themselves under Ukrainian sovereignty.

At least this time there was a referendum – the result overwhelmingly favourable to rejoining Russia.

But American observers insisted this annexation, which righted an historical injustice, was only the first step on Moscow’s part to grab more Ukrainian territory. CNN for weeks ran almost daily “breaking news” alarmist clips warning of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border – as if there was something illegal about a country moving its forces around within its own territory.

In fact, it’s the outgunned “rebels” in the east, not the Ukrainian army, that have been suffering most of the casualties, and have begged Putin to intervene. The Ukrainian military has been using air strikes and artillery attacks against them.

Unlike Hitler, Putin hasn’t sent forces across the border, though there has been enough provocation for him to invoke an international norm like R2P (“responsibility to protect”) to do so.

Instead, he keeps calling for substantive negotiations between the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko – who was elected with virtually no ethnic Russian support.

Putin said that declaring a cease-fire and asking the rebels to disarm without addressing their long-term political grievances would yield nothing. The separatists want increased autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk.

 “If we see there are substantive talks, so that people in eastern Ukraine can finally understand how their legal interests will be guaranteed, then there is a high possibility of success,” Putin indicated.

He also charged that Kyiv not done enough to disarm an anti-Russian group called Right Sektor. Without that, it did not make sense to call on the militias in the east to disarm.

The Ukrainian president has now also signed a sweeping trade deal with the European Union that calls for the establishment of a “deep and comprehensive free-trade area.”

Russia sees the agreement as a serious threat to its own historically close ties to Ukraine. “The anti-constitutional coup in Kiev and attempts to artificially impose a choice between Europe and Russia on the Ukrainian people have pushed society toward a split and painful confrontation,” Putin said. But again, there has been no threat of military action by Moscow.

If only Hitler had been more like Putin! The Second World War might never have occurred.