Learning the Lessons of Intervention in Libya Idealists Aren’t Empirical

March 22, 2016 at 6:03 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , )

French naval aircraft striking Qaddafi regime forces in 2011

French naval aircraft striking Qaddafi regime forces in 2011

Those who allow ideology to trump national interests are poorly equipped to learn from experience. Specifically, euro-federalists are constructivists who believe and work towards the utopia of politically uniting the continent that bred the nation-state. Constructivists are philosophically positivist since they believe that solutions can be engineered without regard for the past or for the context. These old world bastards of the American Enlightenment are thus simply unable to draw conclusions from experience.

This is alas a recurring problem in Brussels – and in Washington D.C., I imagine – where problems arising everywhere never seem to elicit a logical consequential response from those in power, or at least not one that questions the legitimacy of the system in place. Eurosceptic populism, failed nation-building efforts abroad, social conservatism in allegedly euro-enthusiastic societies, challenges from regional hegemons, none of it is worthy of reconsidering the very legitimacy of the sacred union. Instead, bland politically orthodox conferences and workshops in Brussels focus on communication: how does one ‘communicate’ to the European citizens that Brussels is actually doing what is right for them? The fact that past policies fail is admitted on occasion only insofar as it serves the purpose of justifying why European governments must double-down on such policies and/or endow Brussels institutions with even more power to make the policies work; a line of argument all too similar to the neocon creed that “history will do us justice”.

Empiricists on the other hand, look to the past for guidance and usually with greater success. That which is not questioned is that which has worked longest: the nation-state. There is room for innovation but not revolution and utopias. Take Vladimir Putin who finds no alternative but to fight XXI century wars around the control of population centres – as terrorism and the age of humanitarianism now force all states to do – but who also understands that wars must be kept limited in scope and always proportional to the means available. He is not one to go on crusades around the world, intervening in ungovernable exotic vacation spots for whichever asinine cause du jour. Putin doesn’t shy away from war but he tries to negotiate first. The Russian President seeks military control to achieve strategic goals, not to defend idealistic causes.

This long introduction thus serves to prepare the reader for what will be an analysis of what goes wrong when a positivist tries to analyse empirically.

Committed euro-federalist Daniel Keohane set upon himself to learn lessons from the intervention in Libya, a topic made pertinent given that “(…) there is mounting speculation that a coalition of Western countries will launch a new military campaign there to tackle the growing threat from the self-styled Islamic State”. As he tells it, since 2011 “(…) a civil war has prevented the formation of a functioning Libyan government”. In truth, that civil war is not quite so …random. It was the idea of some NATO member-states to abuse a UNSC humanitarian resolution in order to launch a full scale military campaign against the Qaddafi regime which ultimately killed him. It was also the responsibility of both NATO and the EU to abstain from supporting any other strong man – such as General Hiftar for instance – after the Qaddafi overthrow to fill in the power vacuum. That would have pre-empted the emergence of some nasty actors like the Islamic State but of course, that would have meant the puritan Liberal democracies getting their hands dirty …

The Libyan civil war – if one posits the existence of such a coherent entity called Libya – also caused according to the author “(…) large flows of migrants and refugees into the EU”. Oh by Jove, such a nuisance … Say, how come that is identified as a problem but not one single brain in all the think-tanks of the grey city ever came up with an obvious response: stopping the flows? How quick they are to assign military vessels to the Mediterranean …to rescue the illegals, to welcome them, not to stop them. Here’s a thought: if the flows are not a positive development, what about not encouraging or facilitating them?

“(…) Europeans have more direct security interests at stake in Libya, which is why France and the UK initiated the 2011 intervention”. This one is particularly rich: British and French have strong interests in Libya, thus a military intervention that turns the territory into an anarchic hell hole is the way to go. How can someone be so blind or disingenuous? How exactly were the interests of the UK and France defended by overthrowing Qaddafi? Because if the dictator was the problem and only a democracy can serve those interests, then I dare say that relations with any Middle East state are pointless. If the instability resulting from the Arab Spring was the problem then an easier and more productive solution would have been to follow the Michelle Alliot-Marie doctrine: launch an intervention all right, but one on the side of the dictators! In all likelihood the real reason for the Franco-British intervention was the prospect of easily getting rid of Qaddafi along with a regime which had been a geopolitical thorn in the Atlanticists side for decades. No love lost for Qaddafi here. Normally the French are utterly pragmatic about their interventions – if Françafrique is anything to go by. What is precisely the corrosive element in the mix here, is the ideological influence of organisations which should have remained intergovernmental but slowly grew into lobbies of their own importance – aimed at self-perpetuation. The EU and NATO are no longer instruments at the service of governments, they have developed rather as a cancer working against the interests of their member-states by promoting normative ideologies irrespective of results. The closer to Brussels a military intervention is carried out, the more compliant it will have to be with the politically correct narrative of the NATO HQ or the European Commission/Parliament. Hence the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy ignited a ‘Ring of Fire’ around the old continent whereas France’s client states in Africa or America’s in the Middle East remain quite stable: idealism breeds disaster, time-tested pragmatism ensures stability.

“(…) NATO now seems unlikely to act, partly because the image of its 2011 intervention is tarnished among some Libyans due to a lack of follow-up, and partly because the alliance is busy deterring Russia in Eastern Europe”. Again, if by lack of follow-up he means that another strong man was not backed to replace Qaddafi, then by all means, this is a valid statement. That, however, is not what he means: he means that more funding, more troops and more state-building would have staved off anarchy – you know, much like it did in Iraq or Afghanistan. In practice what Brussels sees as a solution in Libya, is a more muscled Bosnia-Herzegovina paradigm. “(…) the EU has strongly supported UN diplomatic efforts to form a unity government of rival Libyan factions and has deployed four missions to tackle some of the security challenges emanating from Libya since 2011”, see my point? The solution is to bribe and pacify local contenders ad infinitum. As for the Russian ‘threat’, if the supranational utopia’s legitimacy weren’t tied to universalist maximalist ideological principles, strategic compromises and tactical choices could be made to divert resources from one theatre to another. Yet the EU is no state which therefore prevents it from acting amorally. Therefore the actions of supranational ideological actors will always be maximalist irrespectively of the available means, and they will always move to confront all those who divert from their normative universalism regardless of the level of threat they represent: for universalists, every dissension is a vital existential problem.

Royal Navy's combined operations

Royal Navy’s combined operations

The second lesson is that the EU shouldn’t assist countries without legitimate governments”. True but only if one accepts the unwillingness to support non-liberal-democratic solutions. That said, whereas some EU states such as France have a national interest in protecting certain authoritarian regimes, most EU states in the East and North have nothing to gain by investing the political capital. Once again, divergent national interests prevent interventions overall.

The third lesson is that the EU has a useful military role in European homeland security”. Comes to mind that enforcing borders against mass migration could be useful but probably not what is on his mind: “(…) a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean code-named Operation Triton and coordinated by the EU’s border agency, Frontex (…) has saved thousands of lives since November 2014”…


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Was the Euromaidan a ‘Colour Revolution’? Liberal Revanchism in the post Pax Americana

September 9, 2015 at 5:21 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , )


Battle of Poltava – powers foreign to Eurasia have always elicited the help of locals against Russia. In the Great Northern War, it was Sweden enlisting Poles and Cossacks. Today it is the Anglosphere doing the same.

The Colour Revolutions of the early 2000s, styled to be Eastern Europe’s logical succession to Central Europe’s Velvet Revolutions of the 1990s, were the response of Eurasia’s Liberal elites to the narrative of the ‘end of History’. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and others around Russia’s periphery, were meant to replace leaderships and regimes still populated by CPSU cadres and Kremlin apparatchiks. The hope was, that just like it had occurred in the Visegrad countries, this would lead to closer ties to the Washington Consensus, renewed Western investment, the West’s military umbrella and more accountability and transparency from the new leaders.

The problem inherent to all of this is the belief that post-communist Europe was fundamentally transformed by the Washington Consensus. It was not: free markets of course bring more prosperity but Bulgaria and Romania still lag behind Poland and the Czech Republic, slavic countries are still more corrupt. Culture doesn’t change that easily.

The fall of the Milosevic regime in Serbia was the proto Colour Revolution. It was led by youth movements, inspired by Western values, and finally led to an EU path for Serbia. As with Ukraine, the EU path came at territorial cost: Belgrade was forced to abdicate its more than pristine claim to Kosovo, just as Ukraine’s Liberals compromised the country’s territorial cohesion by forcing an alignment with the West and a destruction of the neutrality consensus.

The problem is not the existence of Liberal movements in Eastern Europe since the proximity of the great Western capitals would have always led to some soft power and ideological influence in its periphery. The problem is the artificial expansion of the elites dependent on the Liberal narrative, through private and public Western funds flowing to societies  where the natural  Liberal instinct is small. Had it not been for the think-tanks, scholarships, NGOs and an elite dependent on Western funding for social and political relevance, the Colour Revolutions would have ended up in the same place as the Arab Spring.

Indeed, as soon as Moscpaintedmaidan003-10ow decided to match Western efforts and act as a spoiler to Western soft power in its near abroad, most Colour Revolutions either collapsed or burnt themselves out. The Orange Revolution, originating in the Liberal pro-Western intelligentsia of Kiev and Lviv, lost momentum and Moscow was even able to sponsor Viktor Yanukovych into the Presidency. The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan lost steam and the Rose Revolution in Georgia achieved so little, other than in symbolic terms (new flag, Bush avenue) that Saakashvili decided  to escalate politically by trying the military path, hoping for a quick victory and a rally-to-the-flag wave. The war turned to blunder and soon the hero of the revolution was ousted from power and is today on the run from Georgian judicial authorities.

Unlike what Russian propaganda will seek to infer, the revolution was not planned by the White House or the Pentagon. Most liberal democracies have no capability to think strategically or plan long-term and if some did, the incompetence of politicians would guarantee the planning went nowhere. It was most certainly not the European Union to arrange it as utopian Brussels has no notion of what ‘national interest’ actually means. What the West contributed, it did without planning and out of ideological obsession and cultural arrogance or condescension. 

The Euromaidan Revolution was a different animal but was it a Colour Revolution? There is a case to be made that it was not.

If on one hand, the revolution brought little in the way of a change of paradigm, it cannot be denied that the ruling regime has fundamentally changed. Ukraine was largely a free-market economy and a liberal democratic system before the revolution, and remained so after the revolution. What changed was its foreign policy and geopolitical alignment. The approach to the EU may yet bear fruit in terms of increased democratic transparency and less economic protectionism but for the time being, the oligarchic cliques are still in power and corruption did not magically disappear. Russia’s economic war on the country can keep it impoverished resulting in continued corruption levels. Moreover, the artificial attempt to homogenize a territory that was never autonomous or cohesive will either result in Russophones becoming second class citizens or renewed conflict. Nonetheless, the structural impediments to a more prosperous economy, will not go away with EU para-membership, just as they did not in the Balkan countries which joined the EU.  

Finally, there is the issue of external agency. If in the case of the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions, the West was not active in the process of regime substitution, that was certainly the case with Euromaidan where the West quickly endorsed the demonstrations and then the new regime. Similarly, Libya and Syria are not the best examples of the Arab Spring because the West intervened. These two along with Ukraine, should instead be regarded as a new phase of Liberal Revanchism after Iraq. 2003 Iraq, 2011 Libya and 2014 Ukraine belong in a separate category of conflicts and regime-changes with active Western agency, which is motivated by a perceived distinct failure of the Liberal model in the casein question. In Iraq, the ‘rogue regime’ had not been overturned by its shia and Kurdish rebellions, in Libya the rebellion was faltering and in Ukraine, Russia had actually seized the opportunity to kowtow Yanukovych into joining the Eurasian Economic Union.

artist's rendering of a fictional Ukrainian (Euromaidan regime) conquest of Donetsk

artist’s rendering of a fictional Ukrainian (Euromaidan regime) conquest of Donetsk

Liberal Revanchism is a particular type of revisionism which translates an inability to cope with the failure of the ‘end of History’ narrative. Coping would require pragmatism and ideological concessions which elites in Washington D.C. and Brussels find too distasteful and inconvenient, for their own agenda and personal standing.

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Red Lines Aren’t For Everyone

June 13, 2013 at 10:42 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Artwork:  "Alaska Air Command F-15's From Galena FOB Intercept a Soviet TU 95 Bear Over the Berlng Sea".  Artist:  Marc Ericksen (SF)

The conflict in Syria has raised many questions about international intervention. Critics from the right and left alike have berated President Obama for staying America’s hand and thus preventing any form of intervention. Indeed without US capabilities, as much as other states like France and the UK would like to intervene, they are unable to.

The Obama administration came under media fire especially when its self-imposed catalyst for intervention was reached: the use of chemical weapons by the regime. Obama’s red line was discovered to be more hazy than expected and the press cartoonists had a field day.

However, it is not unusual for democracies to display incoherent foreign policies given the political representatives’ dependence on popularity with the public. Other countries do not face the same level of scrutiny and Russia has been particularly coherent throughout the length of this conflict and even throughout the past decades. Vladimir Putin has himself drawn lines in the sand before, the difference being he tends to keep them. The West might want to borrow a few lessons from Putin’s playbook.


The first indicator of such an attitude was Chechnya. In the primordial days of Vladimir Putin’s top level political career, the PM was touted by President Boris Ieltsin as a prodigal son to bring order to Russia. The most distinctive legacy of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s first stint as PM was undoubtedly the 2nd Chechen War. Under his premiership Russia adopted a very clear policy of rejecting any secession that was not based on the territorial precedents of the USSR administrative divisions. The Russian Federation itself, while the self-proclaimed successor state of the SU, based its legitimacy for independence on self-determination for all the Soviet Socialist Republics.

Until then there was no consensus or doctrine on where the limits for self-determination should be drawn and Moscow had even briefly recognised the Chechen Republic. At the end of the first Putin government, Chechnya was subdued and Russia’s territorial integrity was no longer a matter for debate.

Missile Defence

With the internal front consolidated, Putin turned to foreign affairs. Unlike what Russian leaders had always pleaded, NATO progressively encroached into Eastern Europe by extending membership and similar agreements to central and Eastern European states. Russian leaders claimed that Eastern Europe should be left as a neutral buffer zone but Moscow was politely ignored and given the NATO-Russia Council as a reassurance.

In the 2000s, with Putin now President and Russia reeling in considerable oil profits, the tone changed and soon enough so did the actions: NATO’s plans to establish a missile defence system for Europe which was partly based in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania met with considerable Russian resistance and counter-pressure. Russia still maintains its Cold War nuclear armed intermediate-range missile deterrence, which makes Russian diplomatic outrage somewhat bewildering (as NATO’s limited systems could never hope to best Russian capabilities) but even if only motivated by Moscow’s preference to keep Eastern Europe as unimportant for NATO as possible, this has however been a battle that Vladimir Putin has chosen to fight.

L-39s seem to be a weapon of choice in small scale civil wars and certainly proeminently featured in the Arab Spring in both Libya and Syria

L-39s seem to be a weapon of choice in small scale civil wars and certainly prominently featured in the Arab Spring in both Libya and Syria

It is difficult to assess whether it is being won since NATO’s system is yet to be made operational but officially the deployment continues. Will Russia’s threat to redirect the targeting of its own ballistic devices towards Eastern European sites be fulfilled and will it persuade NATO to recede? It would seem Moscow is attempting to put forth objections to further fading of the geostrategic neutrality of Eastern Europe but given these countries inclusion into NATO, it is too late for that.


Another important red line was that drawn against the colour revolutions which Putin has now succeeded in reversing in practically every country they struck: the Orange coalition is out of power in the Ukraine, the Tulip revolution’s leaders were driven from Bishkek and then there was Georgia, the original sin. The Rose revolution was the first in which a Russophobe pro-Western regime came to power through civil society pressure. Saakashvili wasted no time in switching allegiances and soon found himself at loggerheads with Moscow. These tensions would eventually culminate in the 2008 Ossetian War, trade embargoes declared against Georgia, Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and finally Saakashvili’s own defeat in Georgia’s national elections.

Moscow was thus conveying a clear message: while Russia’s advanced Warsaw Pact buffer zone was now lost, the new buffer’s politically neutral integrity is sacrosanct. In other words, regardless of regime or leadership, no European state east of the ‘near abroad’ curtain – east of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova – has permission to adopt an anti-Russia geopolitical positioning.

The US, the French and the Germans understood and backed off; Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession to NATO was indefinitely postponed. It is not as if they could do much seeing as how their forces were not only tied in the Middle East but the campaign in Afghanistan actually depended on Russian air routes.

So far Putin has successfully drawn 2 out of 3 red lines against the West. There are those who would criticise Putin for his anti-Western stance and actually accuse him of anti-Western bias. Secretary Brzezinski notably stated as much last April in Bratislava, outraged that Moscow cannot see its interest in cooperating with the West against more dangerous foes like China. Putin however is flexible and has a keen strategic mind. Putin only cooperates with China as long as it is the West trying to encroach on Moscow’s sphere of influence; China on the other hand, attempts nothing of the kind. Putin probably does not believe that Russia can rely and trust in Beijing ad eternum, or even that Russia’s culture should be viewed as Eastern rather than Western, he however understands that were China to make any menacing moves towards Siberia, it would be as much a Russian interest to fight back as it would be a Western interest in general.


Syria is Putin’s latest attempt at drawing a line in the sand. This time Putin is not securing its domestic legitimacy or its hegemonic sphere of influence, this time Russia is claiming back a chief role in world affairs. Russia would never attempt something similar in Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia. The Mashreq though is of vital importance to a number of Russian strategic and geoeconomic interests. Russia is then drawing a line in which world affairs it perceives itself to be too weak to influence and those where it simply cannot allow its stakes to be overlooked by ultra-voluntaristic Western forces.

If Putin succeeds it will have proven once again that the new Russia is not to be trifled with. If he doesn’t, he will understand he overstretched his country’s projection abilities.

For the time being however, Russia’s actions cannot be criticised since the West rhetorically entrapped itself into being unable to negotiate with the Syrian regime. The time to negotiate was when the regime was on the defensive, but last year the West was too busy making arrogant demands for Assad to step down and surrender unconditionally. Now it may be too late.

If Putin can be accused of making mistakes, then the S-300 delivery to Syria would be one of them. If this actually takes place rather than being used as a bargaining chip, then Putin will be escalating the strategic implications of the conflict by risking that Syria delivers such systems to its patron Iran. This would incur the rightful wrath of both Israelis and Westerners and would unnecessarily broaden the conflict.MARCH 8, 2013 - Syria  illustration. Illustration by Chloe Cushman

One reason why the US has stayed its hand is because Barack Obama prioritises Iran and China over small sideshows like Syria. While defeating Assad would deal Iranian projection a severe blow, it would do nothing against the Iranian regime and its nuclear programme. Syria is also very much a regional power game rather than a global one. For the US to intervene would be to ask the Chinese to drop their cooperative diplomatic attitude in the UNSC.

Democracy is Geostrategy-adverse

One of the sad conclusions of the whole ‘red lines’ affair is once again that democracy does not deal well with long term planning. In a way, it is precisely because Russia has kept the current leader in place for over a decade, that such red lines can be drawn and successfully implemented. As much as liberal democracies would like to do the same, their emphasis on soft power undermines their red lines, as do their ever-changing geopolitical doctrines. There is much to be said for stability and coherence. Putin is not a firebrand, quite to the contrary he has remained remarkably steady in the course he set for himself and for Russia, and done so in the face of explosive interventionism by the West as well as unforeseen shifts like the Arab Spring.

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Democracy derived Rhetorical Entrapment

July 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Bombing of Hiroshima

Western foreign policy suffers from a major flaw: rhetorical entrapment.

What are Western interests in Syria? The question is not often asked because it is not politically correct to mention interests when innocent people are being slaughtered. In these situations only values are of importance. Our values dictate that we strive to save as many lives as possible.

But what do our interests dictate?

Syria is a nuisance for the West. It fights the West’s strategic and economic interests in Lebanon, the Levant and the Mashreq in general. Unlike Iran it does not do so out of prejudice but rather out of pure self-interest. Syria being dependent on the Lebanese economy and strategic position does not have an interest in seeing any other power dominate Lebanon other than Syria. Damascus had no interest in allowing the US to dominate Iraq and thus becoming a major hegemon in the Middle East, and it was a balance of power reasoning that compelled the Assad regime to help jihadists and Iranians in subverting Coalition rule of occupied Iraq. Syria has kept an alliance with Iran for the same reason: because without sharing borders and conflicting spheres of interest, Tehran and Damascus could mutually cooperate to counter-balance Turkey, Iraq and to discuss the Kurd problem. In addition relying on each other also meant becoming more independent from international superpowers like the US or Russia.

Syria is thus a nuisance because it interferes frequently with Western interests. Syria is not however a major threat since unlike Iran, it does not have the capability to project power (soft or hard) in the region and limits itself to acting in its adjacent periphery. It also does not have energetic resources that might influence the behavior of world markets – like Iran.

The West has therefore only one interest in Syria: to alter its foreign policy paradigm. The best way to do this is to break its alliance with Iran so as to make it more dependent on international superpowers and co-opt it into becoming more acquiescent regionally to Western concerns. An extra benefit would be to see Iran’s isolation grow and sufficient barriers to its adventure in Lebanon, be created.

Taking this into account, should the West intervene in Syria? The answer is ‘no’. Syria is not important enough for a financially vulnerable West to spend resources on, especially when Iran is much higher in the list of priorities. That said, why not make a small contribution to the subversion of the regime?

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – Mme Albright demanded of Slobodan Milošević nothing short of a perfect human rights record in Kosovo but no such demands were ever made of the UÇK

Here is where American and European foreign policy incurs in an error: Washington and Europe should only try and replace the old regime if there were sufficient guarantees the new regime would be loyal. At this point in time there are none since much of the rebellion is carried out by jihadists and much of Syria’s Sunni majority is by default anti-Western.

The subversion of Syria should serve the one and only purpose of forcing Bashar al-Assad to negotiate. It is not his regime which matters replacing but merely his foreign policy.

Yet the West will not negotiate and the reason is simple rhetorical entrapment. Assad and his regime have by now been so vilified that any political compromise with it would be politically damaging to all the Western leaders who helpless and unwilling to intervene, chose to attack with words instead.

The pattern is not new: during the Second World War, Hitler outsmarted the Franco-British strategy of setting Germany and Russia against each other by securing a non-aggression pact with the USSR and by attacking the West first. Instead of learning from Hitler’s example, the West refused to make a separate peace with the Reich and paid a heavy price for it: eastern Europe under Soviet orbit for the next 40 years. With Japan too, in spite of the fact that the militarist regime was not as ideological as Nazi Germany, no dialogue was opened and unconditional surrender was the only exit offered to Tokyo. The result was the resort to atomic weapons, the cost was a quarter of a million lives.

Since, the tendency has endured with Western demands for humanitarian and democratic principles to be upheld to impossibly high standards and resulting in military interventions by the West in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, which were ultimately counter-productive for its interests. The unwillingness to compromise is recurrently a consequence of populism and demagoguery in justifying military expenditure and intervention, to Western citizens. Instead of justifying them with pragmatic interests, politicians with a 4/8 year policy-making horizon, prefer to justify them manicheistically, making use of a Western fundamental rights and liberties narrative which confronted with violations of those rights automatically confers merit to action (“we have to do something”) and finally warrants intervention. This is nothing but short-termism and is now standard operating procedure in spite of some honourable exceptions such as President George H. W. Bush.

Gulf War

Gulf War

This tendency is a disservice to Western interests which often reaches the absurd of empowering adversaries of the West against Western allies.

It is a tendency also brought about by Western civilisational individualism, which sees the individual as the base of society (rather than family, clan or ethnicity), therefore requiring equal universal [individual] human rights which are reflected in foreign policy by an unreasonable demand for compliance with values endogenous only to the West.

A responsible and skillful politician would have negotiated a political solution to the conflict in Syria months ago. Populists in election year will stick to demands for unconditional surrender.

The West plays a dangerous game for not only does it force extreme outcomes – instead of middle of the road ones – but it also will be compelled to systematically trust the challengers of the regime: every regime has flaws in its ‘good society’ record – be these in democratic practices or humanitarian standards – whereas the challengers are by definition starting anew and are therefore as innocent as a newborn infant – a politically convenient tabula rasa…

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Brain Drain, Soft Power & Orientalist Revolutions

February 6, 2012 at 12:37 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , )


There is a narrative at work. Man has evolved from a savage uncivilised species to a level of sophistication which is today best exemplified by the Western world. This view of history is linear, it allows only for Hegelian progress and it is also ethnocentric since it makes Europe and America the leaders of human progress. Huntington’s “Western civilization” concept reflects this view.

When large political upheavals take place, most of the commentariat resorts in a pavlovian fashion to this narrative to explain them. Thus is the case with all the series of revolutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Velvet Revolutions, the Colour Revolutions and now the Arab Spring are all framed as being just one more step in the world’s adaptation to the Western concept of society and civilization. But are they?

If that were the case would they all happen to happen in Europe’s periphery? We have not seen dominos fall in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia or in the Far East.

The truth as British historian Timothy Garton Ash puts it is that:

“One might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones—and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies”.

NATO states gave their best efforts to influence the elites of the Central and Eastern European states during the Cold War. Propaganda and subversion activities aside, even if very few of these intellectuals actually visited the West, Western books and culture were predominant in the world and therefore also to a degree, behind the Iron Curtain. It is no surprise that Western influence continued to be felt in spite of Soviet censure since that had always been the case prior to the Cold War. Russian, Polish or Serb elites had always drifted westwards in search of inspiration and that did not change with the old continent’s division in ideological blocs.

The same holds true for the colour revolutions in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”

What to make of the Arab Spring? Unfortunately the same. It is not just a matter of European neighbours being demographically bigger and economically stronger, it is also the fact that the international narrative is dominated by European encultured states and societies: Europeans have colonised most of the world and the cultural standard is today a socially liberal, free market economy oriented, democratically ruled nation state.

Phenomena such as brain drain and soft power only further emphasize this tendency. Where do the wealthiest and brightest Arabs study and obtain their entertainment if not in Europe and America? Sayyid Qutb sensed this very phenomenon and called it Jahiliyyah—referring to the prevalent “ignorance” prior to Islamic rule to categorise a contemporary corruption from within which hinders Islamic values.

What is important to understand is not that Western values are wrong but that they aren’t absolute. They may make sense to Westerners but not necessarily to other cultures and it is wrong to frame every political struggle as a conflict aiming at emulating the West. This has been done before by the Orientalists who analysed eastern cultures only by holding them to a Western standard.

The consequence of this narrative is a growing décalage between the perception of reality and reality itself. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of a corporate culture which is embedded with graduates of European and American universities and which covered the Arab Spring—and the terminology here is telling—as a struggle for democracy and liberalism, as if the values of the nonsecular protestors who prayed in Tahrir Square were reason for shame.

Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov was deployed to the Syrian port of Tartus during the Syrian Spring. According to Western pundits in order to dissuade any military intervention under the guise of R2P. Tartus and Latakia are the most Alawite districts in Syria.

The mishaps of this décalage are evident in all of these cycles of revolution with socially conservative and illiberal parties and politicians “surprisingly” emerging in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Who knew that the same people who toppled dictators were prejudiced against homosexuals and Jews? Antisemitism, euroscepticism, homophobia or misogeny are just some of the most depressing gifts that media such as Al Azhar magazine or the Polish Radio Maria, bring us from these revolutions.

The most direct effect is counterrevolution and reactionary movements which view Western intervention and influence as intrusion in domestic affairs and turn to Moscow or Beijing for investment, trade and strategic relations.

Liberal elites are frequently the vanguard of revolutions in the West’s periphery but the people these intellectuals claim to speak for and liberate don’t often identify themselves with their Washington Consensus agendas. The Arab revolts cannot be Twitter or Facebook revolutions when most Arabs don’t use the Internet, much less in English, and they should never have been portrayed as liberal democratic revolutions when those values are indigenous only to Europe and European colonised territories.

(originally published in the Atlantic Sentinel)

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The Western Bloc Fights Back

April 16, 2011 at 8:16 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Many in the media have compared the Arab Spring to 1989. If none of the most obvious arguments against such analogy were enough, here is another: unlike the Soviet satellites, America’s are fighting back the revolutionary wave! Of course the socialist bloc was dependent on the unitary leadership of the USSR, the Warsaw Pact was imposed and did not serve the interests of the states in question (except for Russia of course), Gorbachev foolishly hoped eastern Europe to remain neutral and unilaterally decided to remove Moscow’s grip, the revolutionaries were unquestionably pro-western and last but not least the soviet bloc served ideals as much as strategic interests – unlike the strict usefulness of the current pro-western Arab regimes.

  •   You’re either very smart… or incredibly stupid’

What is the Obama Administration doing? No one knows. For all the proud transparency and democratic credentials of the leader of the free world, at times Obama and his team seem to be as Byzantine as a Eurasian regime. Gates says one thing, Clinton another and Obama says more than he does. Is Obama being extremely subtle, arranging behind the scenes deals – Chicago style – with the Arab regimes that will keep them in power while assuaging the young protestors? Or does he actually do what his speeches profess and he pushed for a fully free electoral system based new Egyptian regime without the tutelage of the Army? Was he truly not informed of the GCC’s mobilisation to Bahrain? If he really was not informed that should hardly be seen as something positive: either he is too weak to deserve the respect of his allies or he is consistently undermining them after reassuring them in private.

  • The Shia Crescent and Containment

What is at stake? The geopolitical control of the Middle East is at stake and Bahrain proves as much. Saudi Arabia has rarely intervened in the affairs of its neighbours. Notorious exceptions have been the wars against Israel, the support for Yemeni royals against Nasser, the fight against the shia Houthi rebels in the same country and now Bahrain. He who controls the flow of oil controls the world? At the very least, it helps. Most of all, depending on who controls the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, the world can be made more stable or less. Up to this point the US have controlled the Middle East. They are the only external entity that has the power to do so. The alternative is not the Europeans, or Russians or Chinese; the alternative is Iran. Can Iran be trusted to responsibly manage the region? The answer is unequivocally ‘no’!

Iran is led by a revolutionary regime that is more interested in the millennial narrative and the well being of its leadership than in the national interests of the state it runs. Why intervene in Lebanon? Why deploy its navy to Syria? What are Iran’s interests there?

Tehran also lacks the naval projection ability to control the Arabian and Red seas and its inevitable rivalry with Turkey would never make it an undisputed hegemon. Those who predict a Turko-Iranian condominium might also start by explaining who gets what; because Syria and Lebanon would be very much part of any Turkish sphere and Iran is not handling control of Hezbollah or Damascus to Ankara. No, stability is not what one can expect from the Islamic Republic.

Thus, the Arab powers have strived to contain Iran’s irredentist impulses and they have done so in spite of America’s squandering of the potential of local allies. In 1979, the regional supremacy of the Iranians was endangered by the Islamic revolution: the Iranian intelligentsia was chased out of the country, its military apparatus was purged, its closest patron – the US – shunned and the new regime turned to social endowments to seduce the part of the population it had not intimidated. The Arab leadership didn’t miss a beat and quickly moved to explore Iranian weakness. The jingoistic ambitions of Saddam Hussein suited them well and they financed their proxy’s aggression against Iran. By 1988 both Iraq and Iran were exhausted and Iran’s regional geostrategic hegemony was a thing of the past. Its military might gone, its economic potential kept in check by international sanctions, the shadow of Iranian deployments to the Middle East in case of world war, vanished. With the Arab League led by US allies – KSA, Egypt – the USSR in crisis and Iran isolated, the Arab world reigned supreme and trade between the Arabs and the West flourished.

The XXI century however brought the end of the Arab-American peace. America’s decline, the economic emergence of Russia and Turkey, the strategic rise of Iran (thanks to the War on Terror) and the European stagnation have levelled the playing field. Saudi Arabia and its allies have done their best to prolong the containment of Iran. They have financed the Sunni factions in Iraq’s internal squabbles, tried to do the same in Lebanon and have made sure Israel is undisturbed in the Levant, lest Egypt become distracted with a country which represents no threat to the Arab community. Containment has its limitations though, since Asia represents more and more a vital lifeline of FDI to Iran. China, Japan, Korea, Russia and to some extent India, help keep Iran afloat.

Now Egypt, one of the two pillars of Western-Arab Middle East supremacy, is in danger of falling under the influence of isolationist and/or constructionist elites. This leaves the KSA alone in the leadership of a pro-Western order in the Middle East.

  • From Suez to Syrte

In 1956, France and Britain mobilised to defend the international/European control of the Suez. In the wake of the formation of OPEC and widespread third-world nationalisations of first-world assets, Nasser turned to Egypt’s closest and most profitable European asset: the strategic passage of the Suez Canal. Paris and London wished to draw a line in the sand and determined not to lose any more of their empires, they allied with Israel and seized the Suez by force. The Sèvres Pact was ultimately not to succeed as it posed too great a threat to the new bipolar world order.  Paris and London walked out with different lessons learned. The UK used its anglosphere credentials to build a partnership with the US and was able to salvage some of its influence and assets from the anti-Berlin-Consensus and bipolar driven UN decolonisation process. Paris on the other hand understood the only answer to American-Soviet dominance was to build an alternative Gaullist lead sphere of interests.

  • Falklands, Françafrique

Interestingly, both policies paid off. When Argentina invaded the Falklands, the US looked the other way and abstained from enforcing its Monroe Doctrine mechanisms in favour of the ‘special relationship’. The UK was given free hand to engage the South American political game in its favour and defeat the Argentine military. France on the other hand supported anti non-aligned-movement (NAM) forces and alternative solutions to the decolonisation master narrative. In Biafra and Katanga, the French prerogative of preserving an independent sphere of third-world dependencies was very visible with Portugal, South Africa, Israel and others coming together to crush when possible the UN-NAM canon of colonial border maintenance – an entente the NAM would come to classify as ‘Unholy Alliance’ and which on rare occasions (like Biafra) managed to mutually reinforce itself with the socialist bloc’s own polar offshoot: the Chinese led communist alternative. While the fall of Portugal’s dictatorship, the RSA’s apartheid as well as France’s new found Arab policy prevented further cooperation, Paris went on to keep its own sphere of influence by intervening at will in Chad, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire.

  • The Hyperpower’s Orphan Offshoots

Now it seems that an American empire revamping itself from the War on Terror overstretch, prefers to leave its former allies to themselves. While the European partners may have enough power to defend their own interests, the second and third world ones, if left to fend for themselves, may eventually fall. At the moment the pro-western order in the Middle East is adrift but Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will not suffice to keep it afloat. The French military base in the UAE and the Arab League’s backing of the overthrow of Gaddafi – under Gulf designs no doubt – however seem to indicate that mutual cooperation in the near future is possible in an Euro-Arab understanding of sorts, which might become an adequate counter-weight to looming universalist challengers. The EU may become an obstacle though, just as inconvenient as UN based moral initiatives.

  • Incoherent Alignment translates as Fair Game

When one’s property degrades, one refurbishes. But the preference is for an upgrade, not for a temporary second-hand replacement. The principle of sovereignty, while well grounded, is deficient in the face of polities devoid of strategic coherence. A polity’s interests do not change according to ideology, they are constant. Thus, while sympathetic towards democratic movements throughout the world, any regime change would only be worth it if it entailed the maintenance of the status quo or its improvement. If the only governance alternatives imply a worse situation, they should be fought. Here, intervention is justified. Mubarak’s regime had been eroding for some time and certainly Washington should and could have facilitated a transition earlier. But not to a democratic model since as plainly visible now, the replacements anointed by the masses lack in realism what they over-profess in ideals.

It is important to further state that the burden of normative adaptation falls always upon the new political arrivals. Unlike what one hears from the Arab Street, it is not up to the US to adapt itself to an imperfect change (any support for the current regime may radicalise the opposition) but rather it is up to the revolutionaries to guarantee that Egypt’s strategic paradigm remains unaltered, in order to gain America’s blessing for the revolution. No country – even one as powerful as Egypt – can expect its domestic dynamics to remain undisturbed in the face of foreign policy changes – the world is interdependent. If on the other hand, foreign affairs were independent from domestic political dynamics, foreign intervention would not be legitimate; yet this isn’t the case with Egypt or with the rest of the Islamic world.

A good example can be found in Riyadh’s approach to Bahrain and Libya: in the former political change is objectionable, in the latter it is welcome. It is of little importance what kind of regime is in place so long as it serves the interests of the Kingdom.

A bad model is that of the Obama Administration: in Egypt the problem so far hasn’t been Obama’s inaction but rather – apparently – his wrongful choices. If he truly chose not to intervene that would have to mean abstaining from judging the actions of the government as well as those of the protestors; conversely he did intervene to undermine his allies in Egypt in favour of their (and America’s) rivals. As long as the military regime remains in place though, Obama should be given the benefit of the doubt.

The truth is that any and all polities that fail to solidify a coherent and bipartisan foreign policy orientation, become preferential targets of external intervention. Fortunately, principled multilateralism seems to be an affliction contained in just a few western capitals. Unfortunately additional antibodies to the disease of sympathy/moral ego, are nonetheless very much in need nowadays.

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Bandwagoning isn’t Strategy – Italy and the Failure of the Bureaucratic Model

March 8, 2011 at 5:16 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

These days the western media can’t help but give in to their magical feelings of wonder before a contemporary crumbling of a dictatorial bloc. Their darlings in the Middle East – the university educated youths – are a veritable intellectual vanguard for the overthrow of patriarchal royalty and the rise of a benign liberal democracy that will liberate the poor Arab masses…

The American right has caught on to the inherent problem that the West’s allies are falling and Iran is celebrating for a reason. This doesn’t make Fox’s pundits any less hypocritical but at least they are one step ahead of the liberal media which under the leadership of CNN has had nothing but kind words for the fall of loyal allies. In fact the western media in no way falls behind such outlets as Russia Today in the absolutely partial coverage of these events. The demonstrators always represent ‘the people of Egypt’, the regime is always tactical and never concerned for the national interest of the state in question.

The harsh reality is that much of the vulnerability of these regimes stems from liberalising reforms result of Western pressure. The reality is that many of these youths have no political platform whatsoever to replace the falling regimes. The reality is that corporatist domestic elites had a vested interest in ‘facilitating’ the exit of the economically liberal Mubarak clan. The reality is that the intellectual elite which is out in the streets may be secular but it also is leftist and will likely drive Egypt into a neo-Nasserite wave if elected. In fact the January 25th movement is not unlike the May of 68 one. A new order is envisioned based on lofty ideals, but just as the southern European democracies (5th Republic France, post-Franco Spain, 3rd Republic Portugal, 3rd Hellenic Republic) failed to emulate the civic and economic achievements of their social-democratic heroes of northern Europe, so too will Arabs fail to become liberal democratic republics – with the possible exception of Tunisia – even if so self-proclaimed in name.

Every regime distorts history in blaming its predecessor system for the economic faults of the state. In the case of Egypt and the Arab world, this will likely drive the new elites into a social endowment wave which will degrade even further the financial health of the different Arab societies. For all the hype that the corrupt regimes have left the Arab youth in poverty, Egypt was a notable case of fast economic growth in spite of a sluggish and over-centralised state apparatus. In fact Egypt’s credit ratings are still higher and healthier than Greece’s for example. All this will be endangered by any dramatic increase in social benefits. It is true that Egypt’s youth was driven to the streets by economic difficulties but it is also true that these are much more due to exaggerated demographic growth rather than economic mismanagement on the part of the government. Besides, there are protests against the effects of the global crisis all throughout the world and governments needn’t fall for that. No, the rhetoric of the youth of Egypt says nothing of one-child policies or birth-control, its platform is simply ‘more employment’ and this can only translate in more artificial government sponsored jobs. Any benefit in tackling corruption that freedom of speech might bring stands to be quickly squandered by more bureaucracy and true economic negligence stemming from demagogic policies.

If all this is true for many Arab states, Libya is a special case. Libya unlike Egypt, has never truly been an ally of the West. While the recent overture to American and European investment prevented further trouble for the Qadhafi regime – after all the country is located in NATO’s Mediterranean pond – Tripoli has persisted in remaining outside of the American sphere of influence. Its military purchases are made in Moscow, its diplomacy favours African and Arab fora and much of the investment that rivals with that of the West comes from Russia, China and Turkey. While Libya has apparently reversed its pro-terrorism pan-third-world stance, it is still rabidly and irrationally anti-Israel and anti-American.

For all these reasons, it isn’t as strange to find a lack of goodwill towards Libya in Western capitals, as it is towards Mubarak. Libya also demonstrates that the national interests of western states differ irrespective of the nature of their regimes (democracy) or constructivist arrangements (EU, NATO).

Not all capitals of the West would like to see Qadhafi gone. Rome stands out as the state with most to lose from an overthrow of Qadhafi. Half of Libya’s exports to the EU wind up in Italy and the Italian Republic provides for almost 40% of the Jamahiriya’s imports. This is mostly the result of a legitimate and natural pursuit by Italy of close relations with its former colony. The Berlusconi governments in particular have been avid pioneers in Libya’s opening to the West, also using in their favour the special relationship Italy has entertained with Russia for some decades now. Companies such as ENI, Finmeccanica, Ansaldo or UniCredit are to a great extent interdependent with the Libyan economy.

But Rome suffers from an original sin which is common in the West: lack of strategic posture. Scholars such as Patrick Porter have been keen on pointing out – a propos of Britain’s defence review – that “with no obvious major enemy to focus the mind, British strategy has been shaped by Washington’s agenda, and become overly concerned with ‘narrative’”. The same is true for much of Europe since naming likely enemies is politically incorrect and choosing interests over values, a media suicide.

Let us look at the foundations of modern Italy. Italy was born a kingdom for a reason yet the Allied Powers led by the US thought it best to turn it into a federal republic after its fascist experience during WWII. Usually the US despises the royals and with the exception of Japan, it is America’s model that serves as a stepping stone for the re-engineering of other countries (Germany, Italy, Iraq, Afghanistan). Consequently, without strong tradition in democracy, Italy becomes an expectedly fragile and unstable republic. Italian governments rarely fulfil their constitutional term and the country has become a ‘dictatorship of the Directors-General’. While some may see in this the technocratic ideal of governance, one of the problems is the inherent lack of strategic planning. It is all too well that Rome’s bureaucracy understands what Italy’s needs are and how to get them. Berlusconi’s opportunistic behaviour certainly brought a high degree of success. Ultimately though, Italy’s interests in Libya were not protected by any coherent strategy, as the diplomatic debacle of Berlusconi plainly demonstrates it now.

In simple terms: what’s the point of getting there first if you can’t hold your ground?

Strategy shouldn’t be too complicated but it should also be sustainable and coherent. Italy has in effect lost Libya (If the current regime falls, its replacement will seek ties with those who in the past aided the Benghazi rebellion. If the current regime survives it will become a pariah, probably under EU and UN sanctions, and giving preference to those who do not morally condemn it – Russia, China, Turkey) because it did not anchor its economic conquests with the necessary diplomacy to sustain dealings with radical regimes. At first the Italian government kept quiet and then it felt it had no other choice but to jump into the train of European and Western condemnation, thus risking forfeiting its business investments. Apart from incoherent positioning, Italy also found itself isolated. Couldn’t the Italians have reminded the French that they weren’t the only ones protecting a dictatorial regime? Couldn’t Rome have persuaded Germany that actively siding against Qadhafi might cost money in a near future? What about partnering with Turkey and others in demanding that the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) be put in charge of the response to the crisis – and in so doing prevent a consensus on intervention?

It is comprehensible that Paris and London are interested in removing Qadhafi, it is not that Rome doesn’t move a finger to salvage its assets.

This is also due in part to the pacifist indoctrination the country experienced to counter the legacy of Mussolini’s militarism. A great part of Italy’s elite, civil servants and diplomats abhors unilateral action. Italy embarks on every multilateral project without regard to the consequences. It doesn’t hold a permanent seat in the Security Council and indeed the ‘enemy state’ language is still in use, but Italy is one of the hardest proponents of UN backed legitimacy for intervention – hard to understand how it mustered the strength to prevent Germany from gaining a permanent seat in the UNSC. It is a central and founding member of the EU, yet it bows to the will of the Paris-Berlin axis. It adhered to the UfM, a structure under French leadership. It is a member of NATO and went along – even if reluctantly – with the campaign in Kosovo, even though it was for the benefit of Washington and Berlin.

The Italian MFA is a disgrace but so is Berlusconi for not having had the statesmanship to secure Italy’s national interest. Italy as a central country – in the Mediterranean, Europe – simply cannot afford to completely depend on others. It must engineer its own regional diplomatic framework to allow the prosecution of its interests. What good are its armed forces and financial power if only used for the sake of others? Libya is not a crucial territory for other European or Middle Eastern powers; if Italy can’t stand up for itself there, where can it do so?

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