31 December, 2008

Why is Gaza so overcrowded?

These days I find a lot of Robert Fisk's writing a bit overwrought, but he makes a good point in an article yesterday in the Independent ('Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony'): that when rockets are fired from Gaza to the Israeli town in Ashkelon, they are landing on the town many Gazans (or their parents, or grandparents) are from. Gaza is not naturally one of the world's most heavily populated places, but became so after Palestinian refugees found themselves stuck there when the state of Israel was established.

I understand that when Israel was admitted to the United Nations in the 1950s, one condition was that it was to allow the return of those who became refugees in the 1948-49 war. I also understand that this condition was not met.

30 December, 2008

Samuel Huntington

I will return to Israel and Palestine shortly, but first a few words on the late Samuel Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve. Huntington enjoyed a long career as a political scientist and intellectual Cold Warrior, writing The Third Wave, an interesting-sounding book on democratisation. In later years, he was best known for writing The Clash of Civilisations, first as an article in Foreign Affairs and then as a book. The timing of this work was interesting – it appeared in 1993, when the western world was still somewhat basking in the warm fuzzy glow that followed victory in the Cold War, with Francis Fukuyama's vision of history ending in a glorious and peaceful liberal future capturing something of the zeitgeist. Huntington rejected Fukuyama's optimism, foreseeing the future as one of conflict. His idea, crudely summarised (I have not actually read the article or book) is that the world is divided up into civilisations. Some of these civilisations are capable of relatively friendly interaction with the others, but some of them (notably the Muslim World and China*) are naturally going to want to engage with our civilisation in bloody conflict. Huntington's policy prescriptions are simple enough – those civilisations must be contained, and people from them should not be allowed into our countries unless they have been purged of their foreign ways.

I gather that for much of the 1990s, Huntington's ideas served to provide some intellectual backing for those who fancied a new Cold War with China. After 9-11, however, Huntington's ideas suddenly found a new audience. It suddenly became a lot more credible to say that there are people out there who are not like us and who hate us for what we are. Huntington's ideas may be a bit facile, but they were arguably the intellectual framework behind the War on Terror.

Huntington's death seems not to have attracted as much notice as might be expected. This could, perhaps, be a sign that his influenced has waned and the world is now embracing more sophisticated and nuanced analysis of world affairs. Or maybe I look at the wrong news sources.

Some links:

Wikipedia entry on Samuel Huntington

Telegraph obituary

Conservapedia entry on Samuel Huntington

28 December, 2008

What exactly is war good for?

If you've seen the news, you will be aware that Israel has launched an air offensive agains the Gaza Strip of unprecedented ferocity. There are reports of about 280 people killed and over 700 wounded. While many of these are members of the Hamas-controlled security services in Gaza, the BBC quotes reports that a third of the casualties are civilians. The Israeli leadership is talking about continuing and widening their air strikes, and seem to be suggesting that a ground offensive is on the cards. Meanwhile, one Israeli has been killed by rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip.

So, what is this all about? There had been a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The ceasefire had always been a bit shaky, and it came to an end before Christmas. Hamas cited Israel's failure to lift the siege of Gaza and its unwillingness to extend the truce to the West Bank, while Israel cited Hamas' failure to prevent the rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli border towns and lack of progress on freeing Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006).

Israeli forces have a tendency to lash out blindly, and this time is no exception. It is very difficult to see what exactly they are trying to achieve with this latest offensive. They would, obviously, like to stop Hamas and other Palestinian groups from using Gaza as a base to fire rockets into Israel, but on previous form no amount of air raids will accomplish that. They might get more results from launching a ground offensive into Gaza, but that could easily lead to an Armageddon-like battle in which enormous numbers of Palestinian civilians (and sizeable numbers of Israeli soldiers and Hamas cadres) are killed. Even with that, the rocket fire into Israel would be likely to resume once the Israelis withdraw, while a permanent occupation of Gaza would be regarded as a Fail by Israel. It does look a bit like the Israelis might be repeating the mistakes of 2006, by launching a war that they cannot win and that will make them look to the world like total cockfarmers.

That Clausewitz guy began his famous book by saying that war is a continuation of politics by other means. He meant interstate politics (or political struggles between princes, given the times in which he lived). But it is often striking how wars can result from the internal politics of countries. Israel is holding an election in barely a month's time. Binyamin Netanyahu, the loathsome former prime minister who essentially killed the Oslo process, was riding high in the polls with his promise to stop Hamas. It seems like the leaders of the current government have decided to act tough to try and undercut Netanyahu, and it is the Palestinians who are picking up the tab for the government's attempt to regain electoral support.

At the same time, one could ask what exactly Hamas are hoping to achieve by firing rockets at Israeli civilians. At one level, there is something a bit symbolic about Hamas' rockets – they hardly ever hit anything and serve mainly to say "We're still here!". But they are being fired at Israeli civilians, and they do occasionally kill them. From Hamas' point of view, one could see the rocket campaign as an attempt to force Israel to the negotiating table, by imposing a rough balance of terror. However, this has failed; the rocket campaign has instead united Israelis behind ever more draconian (and irrational) policies. I suspect that the main targets of the Hamas rocket campaign are actually the Palestinians. The rockets are meant to show Palestinians that it is Hamas, and not the waster quislings in Fatah, who are taking the fight to the Israelis.

That said, one has to be wary of making any kind of moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel. Israel is the power besieging Gaza (with the kind assistance of Egypt). The balance of forces between Israel and Hamas is tilted so in the former's favour that it is more or less inevitable that any Hamas retaliation to Israel's siege will be made against Israeli civilians. The leaders of Hamas should nevertheless ask themselves whether ineffectually trying to kill Israeli civilians is actually that likely to raise the siege of Gaza.

Some links:

Israel renews air strikes on Gaza (BBC)

Israel's mixed motives for strikes (BBC)

To be in Gaza is to be trapped (Guardian)

27 December, 2008

Contextualising "Waltz with Bashir"

Have you seen the film Waltz with Bashir? It is an animated film, directed by Ari Folman, in which he investigates his own inability to remember anything of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. As a conscript in the Israel's army, he was a participant in those events, but somehow the things he had seen and done were blanked from his memory.

One striking feature of the film is how little context it gives to the events it describes. Its focus is on the experiences of the director and the other Israeli veterans of the war he talks to, not on the big picture of the conflict. I found this quite refreshing. If, like me. you are a bit over-engaged with the politics of the Middle East then the film is a useful corrective, a reminder that there are human stories and human tragedies behind the region's military and political conflicts. People who are not so familiar with the events the film describes may however have found themselves wondering about how they came to pass. As a service to such people, I will now briefly give some background to the film; this is all stuff you could find out yourself, but maybe you would rather I did it for you.

In the 1970s, Lebanon erupted into civil war. This saw armed parties representing the country's Maronite Christians ranged against militias of Lebanon's various Muslim religious communities, with the latter allied with the Palestine Liberation Organisation's fighters who were at that point based in Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war saw many episodes of extreme savagery, with each side's fighters often happier to lay into civilians than engage the enemy in actual combat.

The Bashir of the film's title is one Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian and leader of the Phalange militia. Gemayel's goals were to establish himself as the pre-eminent political leader of the Maronites, to maintain the political hegemony of the Maronites generally, and to crush the Palestinian fighters who had established a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon. He was successful in his first goal (largely by applying extreme violence to any other Maronite barons who dared stand against him), but in his wider goals he was less successful. Staring defeat in the face, Bashir appealed first to neighbouring Syria, which obliged by sending a peace-keeping force to contain the Palestinians and the Muslim militias. Before too long, however, Bashir found the Syrian embrace suffocating, and he began to court Israel, Lebanon's neighbour to the south.

The Israeli state had an obvious interest in Lebanon, as Palestinian groups were using it as a base for attacks against it. Israel had briefly invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but Bashir Gemayel offered them the prospect of purging Lebanon of the Palestinian menace and turning the country into a friendly client state. By 1982, however, the Israel-Lebanon border was relatively quiet. The Syrians were anxious to prevent the Palestinians from stirring up trouble with Israel, and Yassir Arafats' PLO was observing a truce along the border.

Bizarrely, events in London triggered the events depicted in Waltz with Bashir. Palestinian gunmen attempted to assassinate Israel's ambassador outside the Dorchester hotel. Although the fringe group who carried out the attack was based in Iraq, the Israelis retaliated by bombing Palestinian targets in Lebanon. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the PLO responded by firing rockets over the border, and the Israelis launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.

At the time, Ariel Sharon was Israel's defence minister. Other members of the Israeli government have said that he promised them that the invasion would be brief, and that conflict with the Syrians would be avoided. However, the Israeli army pushed north towards Beirut and seems to have actively sought conflict with Syrian forces. While the Palestinians and Syrians did fight back, Israel's near total command of the air meant that the fighting was a bit one-sided (though the Israeli air force made sporting attempts to even the odds by occasionally bombing Israeli troops). Once the Israelis reached Beirut, however, they stopped. Moving into Muslim West Beirut, where the PLO was based, was likely to involve unacceptable levels of casualties, given the Palestinians skill at urban warfare. Instead, the Israelis intensively bombed West Beirut, while blockading it from land and sea.

The siege was broken by the USA and other leading western countries. They persuaded the Israelis to allow the evacuation to Tunisia of Palestinian fighters (but not civilians). With this, the war seemed over. The Lebanese parliament met to elect a new president for the country, and chose Bashir Gemayel. His election was assisted by the Israeli army, which prevented MPs who did not support his candidacy from attending.

However, before he could take office, Bashir Gemayel was killed in a car bomb attack. His murder is usually attributed to Syrian military intelligence (like many other car bombs that have killed politicians who have opposed Syrian interests), though Bashir had a lot of enemies, all of whom have been accused of his murder (as indeed have the Israelis, who were reputedly finding him less pliant than had been hoped). At the time, though, his Phalangist militia blamed the Palestinians for his death, and their blood was up for revenge.

The Israeli army moved into West Beirut, surrounding the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila. The Phalange was allowed into the camps to search for and eliminate terrorists. To assist them in their work, the Israelis prevented Palestinians from leaving the camps; at night, they fired flares over the camps so that the Phalange could continue their work around the clock. The Phalangists were only pulled back when the international media started reporting that they were massacring Palestinian civilians. By that stage, hundreds, or a couple of thousand, Palestinians had been exterminated.

As far as I know, no one has ever been punished judicially for their role in the massacres. A public backlash in Israel forced the resignation of the country's prime minister, and the political career of Arial Sharon was temporarily suspended. None of the Phalangists who carried out the murders ever faced legal justice, while the commander who led the massacres subsequently became a semi-respectable politician (before himself dying in a mysterious car bomb explosion).

21 December, 2008

Remembering Conor Cruise O'Brien

You may have heard about Conor Cruise O'Brien dying. He was this Irish polymath who seems to have been involved in everything possible over the course of his long life. For people my age or younger, the crankish positions he adopted in later life largely overshadowed the rest of his life, so his obituary on the BBC website is a welcome corrective, bringing back into view his astonishing achievements in various fields of endeavour. It does however focus more on his international achievements, so it misses what he might end up being most remembered for in Ireland - coining the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre, and Unbelieveable) in 1982 to describe the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

One thing that is striking about O'Brien is how he seemed to move from the left to the right over the course of his life. While involved in the Congo as a UN representative he played a major part in combating and exposing the destablisation of that country by western powers hostile to Patrice Lumumba, its post-independence leader. He also played a major part in exposing some international students union organisation as being under the control of the CIA. In later life, though, he turned into something a of a reactionary. He become a leading apologist for the Israeli state and an opponent of Palestinian aspirations. I recall him being rather less opposed to the apartheid regime in South Africa than might have been expected from the former scourge of imperialism. In Irish politics, he moved beyond mere opposition to militant Irish nationalism to a kind of embedded pessimism on Northern Ireland, where any attempt at political engagement was seen by him as a step on the road to intercommunal Armageddon.

I suspect it was O'Brien's period in government in the 1970s that caused the apparent shift in his political outlook. By that stage, he had moved beyond the Irish nationalism and was uncompromising in his opposition to the IRA and militant Irish nationalists. He, perhaps not unreasonably, saw those people as a dangerous and intrinsically undemocratic armed minority intent on subverting and overthrowing the constitutional order in Irish politics. Looking at who the IRA was palling with internationally, and what other causes were being espoused by those sympathetic to it, might well have made him reject all radicalism and move instead to supporting more establishment causes.

That is just supposition on my part. What is beyond dispute is the extent to which O'Brien managed to pack several lifetimes of achievement into his allotted span. He seems so much bigger and more active than the people who have succeeded him.

26 November, 2008

Off Message

A former ambassador of Georgia to Russia, Mr Erosi Kitsmarishvili, has caused consternation in Georgia by claiming to a parliamentary inquiry that Georgia started the recent war with Russia. The controversy caused by his comments is somewhat unusual, given that Georgia appears to have actually started the war (by launching an invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, accompanied by indiscriminate shelling and murders of Ossetian civilians).


22 November, 2008

"We try to draw the line at outrageous things, and this is sort of one of them."

In 2007, Conrad Black was convicted of defrauding the company he headed of US$ 6,100,000 (STR£4,000,000) and of obstructing the course of justice. He is serving a six year sentence in a US jail.

Mr Black is in the news again because he is asking George W. Bush to pardon him before he leaves the White House. Pardoning shady characters is a traditional act of outgoing presidents keen to piss on their legacy; in Bush's case, he does not even have a legacy to piss on, so there must be a great many shifty crims hoping for a pardon by the end of January.

One astonishing feature of Mr Black's appeal for clemency is that his lawyers have submitted legal bills relating to it to his former company - the victim of his crimes. An unnamed spokesperson from the company supplied the above quote.


When Post-Modernism Goes Bad

I was at an interesting talk the other night to launch the book Thinking Palestine*, a collection of essays based on papers delivered at that conference on the Palestinian "state of exception" I was at a while back. I will discuss the talk and the book in more detail later, but first an anecdote. Ronit Lentin, the editor of the book, mentioned a piece by Eyal Weizman, in which he discussed how some Israeli army training centre has taken on some crazy post-structuralist academics. The use of post-modernist and post-structuralist ideas in army training is apparently part of a whole new paradigm in urban warfare tactics the Israelis have been developing. After graduating from their course, the Israeli soldiers apply their post-structuralist ideas in a somewhat over-literal manner, deconstructing Palestinian houses by driving tanks through them.

As previously noted, elements of the Bush administration have also evinced a certain fondness for weirdo post-modernist ideas.

*Ronit Lentin (ed) (2008). Thinking Palestine. London: Zed Books

16 November, 2008

Jerusalem Votes

Jerusalem held mayoral elections last week. An article from last Saturday in the Financial Times profiles the candidates. One odd thing about the election was that none of Israel's main political parties bothered putting up a candidate for the top job in the country's official capital. This reflects the extent to which the city has moved to the margins of the country's life, something that seems to only have happened over the last decade or so. Teddy Kolleck, Jerusalem's mayor from 1965 to 1993, was a prominent world figure, while Ehud Olmert (still, just about, prime minister of Israel) used the mayoralty as his springboard to the top job. Now, though, the mayoral elections are the province of eccentrics and personality candidates.

The rise of the religious right in Israel may be a factor in the decline in importance of the city. The ultra-orthodox are increasingly prominent in Jerusalem, and their ascendancy has led to many secular or moderately religious Israelis leaving the city. The city has become less and less a place of commerce or intellectual activity, and more and more a devotional centre. Another factor might be the city's relative isolation from the coastal strip that is the effective core of the Israeli state. Such things are relative (you could probably drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in an hour), but its physical position might engender a certain detachment from its day to day concerns.

One thing I was struck by in that Financial Times article was how the only candidate who, to me, seemed to talk any kind of sense was Dan Biron, running on the marijuana-legalisation platform. Aside from his cannabis decriminalisation policies, he had some other crazy policies – like having public transport run on the Sabbath. No one voted for him, however, because unlike all the other candidates he did not spend his time shiteing on about how Jerusalem must remain the eternal undivided capital of Israel. That points to another odd feature of Jerusalem – its divided nature. When I visited the city, I was staying just outside the Old City, near the Damascus gate. That part of the city is very Palestinian. Apart from the Israeli soldiers and the occasional ultra-orthodox Jew in the immediate vicinity of the gate, you could be in any middle-eastern city. But if you walked for 25 minutes you would be in the down-town area of West Jerusalem. Apart from the occasional ultra-orthodox Jew, the fact that every second person was carrying a machine gun, and the security checks at the entrances to everything, you could be in any city in Western Europe. The two parts of the city have almost no interaction with each other, apart from the occasional eviction of Palestinians to make way for a new Israeli settlement. However, the fictional unity of the city is a core value in Israeli politics.

Jerusalem's Palestinians largely do not vote in Israeli elections. In fairness to the Israelis, they have extended notional voting rights to the city's Palestinian residents, but most Palestinians refuse to exercise these. The feeling is that to vote in Israeli elections would somehow legitimise Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. I feel that this is a somewhat quixotic position, and it might well contribute to the general neglect of the Palestinian east by the municipal authorities. Politicians ignore people who don't vote, while a voting Palestinian public might just be able to form alliances with some of the city's Israeli politicians and set its government on a less nakedly sectarian course. As is, the elections largely reflected the divisions within West Jerusalem that pit the ultra-orthodox Jews against their secular and moderately religious fellow citizens.

In the end, Jerusalem's voters chose Nir Barkat as their mayor. He comes from the secular side of Israel's divide, but is uncompromising in his support for Jerusalem remaining under Israeli rule. He promises to expand Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, presumably evicting more Palestinians in the process.


Profile: Nir Barkat (BBC)

Holy City facing splits and decline (BBC)

Ultra-Orthodox pitted against secular Jews in Jerusalem's mayoral election (Guardian)

28 October, 2008

Nazis – I hate those guys

I sometimes look at stuff written by Eric Martin, one of those "bloggers". He talks about international affairs and US politics in an interesting manner, and I am not just saying that because he uses Belle & Sebastian lyrics as post titles. Anyways, in this post he talks about the crazy world of the American Right, where people seem to think that if Barack Obama becomes president then he will force socialism down the throat of the freedom loving American people. The persecution complexes of these people are fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed one linked-to rightwing blog, where the chain of reasoning went like this:

FACT 1: An FBI informant in the Weather Underground declared that, back in the 1970s, people in that organisation* talked about the need to exterminate the 25 million Americans who would never accept socialism.

FACT 2: One member of the Weather Underground was Mr Bill Ayers.

FACT 3: Bill Ayers subsequently served on the board of an organisation with Mr Barack Obama.

FACT 3 (b): Bill Ayers may have corrected essays that Barack Obama wrote while in college.

CONCLUSION: Barack Obama may well exterminate 25 million Americans if he is elected president.

Meanwhile, the liberal controlled media have been talking about how two American Nazis have been arrested on charges of conspiring to murder Obama and a load of students in a school mainly frequented by African Americans. Obviously, nothing has yet been proved and it is easy to stereotype skinhead with swastika tattoos, but one thing about the case leaped out at me – the two skinheads are alleged to have planned to wear top hats and tuxedos while carrying out their murderous crimes. Does anyone know what this is all about? Do top hats have some kind of cultural significance that is lost on people from outside the USA?

Image source

*the Weather Underground, not the FBI.

27 October, 2008

October Surprise?

US helicopters have entered Syria from Iraq to launch an attack on the village of Sukariya, killing eight people. US authorities claim the helicopters were attacking dangerous al-Qaida targets, but Syrian authorities have stated that the dead were a local man and his three children, together with a farm guard and his wife, and a fisherman. Syrian analyst Joshua Landis speculates that the attack might have been on smugglers spotted by a satellite and mistaken for al-Qaida agents. As can be imagined, Syrian authorities and people in the area attacked are a bit annoyed by the Americans' actions.

It is being assumed that this attack, the first into Syria by US forces, must have been approved at the highest level in the US administration. The timing is puzzling to some. President Bush's administration is in its last days, and his likely successor favours engagement with Syria, as do the Democrats in Congress and the leaders of most western countries. The raid on Sukariya may be just a parting shot to an unfriendly country by a failed president keen to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. However, you would not have to be totally paranoid to wonder if this escalation is intended to create a bit of international tension that might distract attention from the economic crisis. If voters buy into the idea that John McCain is the man to deal with international issues then a period of tense confrontation with Syria could be just what his campaign needs in the few weeks before the election.

Syrian witness reacts to US raid
Syria hits out at 'terrorist' US
What could lie behind Syria raid?

Justice for Franco's victims?

One feature of the Spanish Civil War period was the number of extra-judicial executions it saw. While both left and right carried out these kind of crimes, the white terror of the Nationalists seems to have claimed far more victims and been far more systematic. In the early stages of the war, leftists and other perceived enemies of the rightists in the Nationalist zone were exterminated in a highly organised fashion. When Spain made its transition to democracy after Franco's death, many of the perpetrators of these crimes were still alive, but they were amnestied by a law in 1977 covering crimes committed during the civil war period.

Now Baltasar Garzaon, a senior Spanish investigating judge, has reopened some of these cases through an astonishing legal sleight of hand. In many cases, the bodies of the Nationalists' victims were never found. Garzon argues that this makes these cases ones of kidnapping, and the continued non-appearance of the bodies (or the victims) means that the cases technically continued after 1977 and so are no longer covered by the amnesty. Suddenly some very old men are facing the prospect of having to answer in court for the crimes of their youth.

As can be expected, Garzon's action is proving decisive, with many adopting a best-not-go-there approach to the crimes of the civil war period. It is certainly possible to sympathise with this kind of argument, and in post-conflict situations it is often necessary to forget the horrors of the past in order to embed transitions to democracy or peaceful politics. At this stage, though, Spain has been a democratic state for thirty years, and it is hard to really see how the country could be thrown back into armed conflict by the reopening of some very old criminal cases.

Spanish judge to probe Franco era
End Franco probe, say prosecutors
Franco inquiry polarises Spain

"The Battle for Spain: the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" by Antony Beevor

I have been reading this chunky book on and off for an age, and now I am finished. This book is a completely rewritten version of a book Beevor wrote on the Spanish Civil War ages ago, with the opening of the Soviet-era archives being what most justified a new take on the war. People who are interested in publication histories and versions of books may be interested to learn that this new book was originally published in Spain, and that it has been somewhat truncated for the Anglophone world.

So yeah, the Spanish Civil War. It's a depressing business, really. The bad guys win. The good guys never look they ever have a chance of winning. And the good guys aren't actually that good, being either total cockfarmers or total losers (or both). Just in case you have never heard of the Spanish Civil War, it began when some generals staged a coup against a leftist government. On one side we have the Nationalists – an alliance of right-wing generals, fascists, monarchists, Catholic traditionalists, and a bunch of weird monarchists called The Carlists; the Nationalists received considerable external support from Hitler and Mussolini. The other side, the Republicans, was a leftist hoe-down of liberal republicans, anarchists, socialists, and communists, together with some regional parties; the USSR gave the Republicans a degree of ambiguous support.

The Nationalists won for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they were far better at submerging their differences and uniting against the common enemy. Beevor shows well how the various Nationalist factions were willing to settle for an outcome that (for them) was often suboptimal, but which was better than letting the other side win. The Republicans remained internally divided, with the most bitter tensions being between the communists and their enemies and between centralisers and regionalists. The Nationalists also received much better support from their external allies, with the military assistance of Nazi Germany in particular playing a major part in their victory. The Republicans did receive support from the Soviet Union, and could not have continued the war without it, but nothing they received matched the power of the forces sent from Germany. The Soviets also tied their support to the advancement of their allies within Republican Spain while charging the Republicans exploitative rates for it. The third reason for the Nationalist victory was the grossly incompetent leadership of Republican forces, with battle after battle seeing the same failed offensive tactics being employed. The Nationalists did also make mistakes, but they seemed far more able to learn from them.

It strikes me that the two underlying narratives in this book are Franco's inexorable march to victory, and the extent to which the communists in Spain were total cockfarmers. You never really get any sense that Franco could have been stopped – he had so many cards in his favour that victory for the Nationalists seems almost pre-ordained. But the actions of the communists ultimately helped him on his way. While Soviet support played a key role in keeping the Republicans in the game, it came with an extra dollop of communist paranoia, Soviet advisors and secret police operatives bringing the show trial mindset to Spain. The Republican zone saw the emergence of a mini-police state, with the real or perceived enemies of the Spanish communists and the USSR suffering imprisonment or summary execution.

The effect of communist influence on the military field was perhaps more pernicious. Arms were often refused to units whose commanders refused to join the Spanish communists, and the Soviet advisors saw to it that the Republican war effort followed the stultifying line emanating from Moscow. This saw all efforts focussed on set-piece assaults by massed infantry, with the Republic staging a series of disastrous offensives that could have been lifted from the Western Front of the First World War. Communist paranoia meant that all failures were attributed not to bad military doctrine, unrealistic expectations, poor planning, or an unexpectedly vigorous response by the enemy, but to the influence of Trotskyist-Fascist fifth columnists, so military offensives were often followed by witch-hunts and purges in units that failed to meet their objectives.

But in this day and age, pointing out the failings of communists seems about as relevant as denouncing the double dealing of the Girondins. Does a study of the Spanish Civil War offer any useful insights into the conflicts of today? Eh, I'll have to come back to you on that one.

25 October, 2008

In other election news

Astonishingly, the United States of America is not the only country in the world that holds interminably drawn out presidential election campaigns. Iran too elects its presidents, and people are already limbering up for the next vote, scheduled for June 2009. Farideh Farhi takes us through the issues and likely candidates.

Apparently you need to win an Iranian election by at least five million votes to be sure of actually winning it, because it is always possible for the country's self-perpetuating elite to conjure up five million votes against someone they don't like.

Link originally from Brian's Study Breaks.

20 October, 2008

A job well done!

The BBC reports that Condoleeza Rice is very pleased with the successes of the Bush administration in the Middle East. She is especially proud of the situation in Palestine.

"The Middle East is a different place and a better place," Ms Rice is quoted as saying.

More. Even More

19 October, 2008

The Other Guy

One of the 20th Century's most iconic images is the one where two American medal winners give the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The two guys giving the salute are Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos (right). I used to wonder about the other athlete, who won the silver medal and was standing in front of the two Americans. Was he even aware of what was going on behind him? He seemed like he had accidentally found himself with a walk-on part in history.

It turns out, though, that the other guy was also an active participant in the events. His name was Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter who had grown up in the socially committed Salvation Army. Norman joined in Smith and Carlos' protest by wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights that they gave him.

Norman suffered greatly for his association with the Black Power protest. The Australian Olympic committee blacklisted him, and chose not to send him to the 1972 Olympics even though he was ranked #5 in the world. In 2000, he was the only living Australian Olympian excluded from making a lap of honour at the Sydney games. However, he was welcomed by the American team, who invited him to stay with them.

Norman died in 2006. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pall-bearers at his funeral.

His nephew, Matt Norman, has made a documentary film, Salute about the Black Power protest.

Picture and details of the film and Peter Norman's life from the BBC.

15 October, 2008

History has known many bastards

There is an interesting piece on the BBC News website by Simon Sebag Montefiore. He has some kind of historian fellow who has written a book about very bad people who have over the years troubled the world. In the article, he draws attention to some less known human monsters, thereby breaking away from the old reliables of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. Some of the people he writes about seem a bit second division, but it's nice to see King Leopold getting the recognition he deserves. I was struck, though, by the only living person on Montefiore's list - Ethiopia's mini-Stalin, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, leader of the maniacal communist regime that ruled the country from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Mengistu's regime was one of brutal internal repression against real or imagined enemies and uncompromising war against regional insurrectionists and the country's Somalian neighbours; his use of famine as a weapon of war pushed the death-toll into the hundreds of thousands.

Mengistu is currently resident in Zimbabwe.

And you can read the article here.

Trouble in Wallachia

Wallachia is a little-known country in eastern Europe, about the size of Luxembourg. Its main export is slivovica, a potent plum brandy. While the rest of the world is gripped by the financial crisis, the good folk of Wallachia are more exercised by the political crisis that has engulfed their nation. A dispute over the country's future direction erupted between Wallachia's King Boleslav I and its political strongman, foreign minister Tomas Harabis. Boleslav has attempted to dismiss Harabis from the government, while Harabis has declared Boleslav deposed in favour of a new queen mother. All eyes are now on the country's national guard – its support will surely decide the day in favour of king or foreign minister, but if it splits then the country faces civil war.

Disputes of this kind are common in countries where monarchs have remained in place in a figurehead role but retain notional reserve powers. While the more democratic elements in such countries argue that the monarch's prerogatives no longer exist in any real sense, the monarchs often feel that they are still entitled to act in an absolutist manner. Wallachia's current travails point out the necessity for clearly delineating the rights and obligations of different actors in the constitutions of democratising states.

More on Wallachia

City of welcomes?

Ireland is famous the world over as the land of a thousand welcomes, a place where people are always pleased to see visitors, especially ones keen to spend plenty of money. Many such tourists enjoy an Irish welcome on a trip to Dublin, Ireland's capital. What visitors may not appreciate is that Dublin is less welcoming to Irish people arriving from other parts of the country. These people from outside Dublin (known as "culchies"), are subjected to varying kinds of discrimination and hostility from capital's natives. In fairness, some of the "culchies" bring their fellow into disrepute through petty criminality or displays of public drunkenness, while it would be hard to say that many of them have made any efforts to integrate into the settled life of the capital. Nevertheless, the rise of particularist sentiment among the capital's natives is a worrying development, as this recent report on the Culchie Control Platform and its more violent offshoots reveals.

see also

06 October, 2008

Iceland on the brink

People in Europe are jittery about the financial situation, but at least we are not going through the economic meltdown that Iceland is experiencing. Some of the banks there have been nationalised to prevent their collapse, while the value of the Icelandic krona is apparently in free fall. There are reports of people panic-buying imported foodstuffs, as the foreign exchange is not there to keep buying them in. It all looks a bit grim, and there is a real prospect of Icelanders having to go back to a diet based on putrefying sharkmeat. The government there is in crisis talks with the country's trade unions, hoping that they can save the Icelandic economy by agreeing wage restraint and (perhaps more crucially) by repatriating the monies they have invested in foreign pension funds. The unions are demanding as a quid pro quo that the country apply immediately to join the European Union, something the country's elite have always opposed.

This to some extent reminds me of the unfortunate fate of Newfoundland. Though now a province of Canada, it was once an independent dominion. Then in 1934, its government went bankrupt, and the country lost its independence, reverting to direct rule from London, before it was merged into Canada in 1949.

05 October, 2008


I feel that I ought to make some ill-informed comments about the economic crisis currently sweeping the world. There were interesting developments last week, when my own government announced that the Irish state was going to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. Apparently this decision was made because there was a real likelihood of a major Irish financial institution going bust, something that would have had catastrophic effects for confidence in our economy. The government guarantee does seem to have restored confidence in the Irish financial system, even though some people are muttering about moral hazard and that kind of thing. Other people are complaining about the state bailing out bankers, though in this case it is more that the Irish state is becoming a deposit insurer - assuming that no bank actually goes to the wall (a big assumption, perhaps), this scheme looks like being quite a money spinner for the state, as the banks will have to pay something like 0.1% or 0.2% of their deposits to the state to be covered.

Greece also instituted a state guarantee of deposits last week. All of this caused some consternation in other European countries, where people complained about how a European-wide solution should have been sought. I think that is easy for them to say, but any kind of pan-European plan would have taken ages to bring together and would not have been easy to create, given the differing opinions on what was to be done. Some countries apparently did not even feel that anything needed to be done; German leaders in particular were reported as feeling that their banks were totally sound, and so did not want them to be entangled with a plan to help stupid banks in other countries. It is hard to know how serious and pressing the crisis in the Irish financial system was last week, but it really does sound like the authorities here could not wait for a European agreement to come into being.

Ireland and Greece did nevertheless find themselves in trouble with their European neighbours. British financial institutions feared that their deposits would disappear off to Irish safe havens, while EU figures talked of the state guarantees as being anti-competitive. For good or ill, however, it looks like the rest of Europe will find themselves having to follow the Irish example. Yesterday German leaders denounced the Irish and Greek move and agreed that there should be no more unilateral moves. Today they found that their banks are as shite as everyone else's, and the German government has announced that they are going to guarantee German bank deposits. The loss of the German middle class' savings in the 1920s is always seen as paving the way for the rise of the Nazis, so presumably Chancellor Merkel wanted to avoid anything similar happening today. Commentators reckon that it is inevitable that Britain will follow suit, with other European states having no choice but to bring up the rear.

Who knows what difference this will make in the long run? There is always a smoke and mirrors aspect to banking and insurance. European states do not even remotely have the funds to cover all their banks' deposits, should all of the banks fail simultanaeously. So as long as no banks, or only a few, fail then we should all be grand. Still, I have read predictions in the Financial Times that the European economy is likely to tank even worse than the US one, due to lower flexibility and stuff like that. We'll see.

28 September, 2008

Belarus & Realpolitik

So today Belarus is holding parliamentary elections. Belarus is a country with only the most tangential association with democracy, and these elections are likely to be a farce, with the opposition largely prevented from campaigning (sometimes by being killed), and the results largely known in advance. Previous elections in Belarus have been condemned in the West in the most stinging terms. However, this time around there are reports that the EU and USA are likely to be less scathing in their criticisms. It is suggested that they will instead focus on whatever scraps of democratic progress can be seen in Belarus, and that sanctions against Belarus' elite of unreconstructed Communist thugs are due for relaxation.

The reason for this is simple enough. Belarus has for the last number of years been a staunch ally of Russia. Recently, though, this relationship has come under strain. Moscow caused outrage in Minsk (the capital of Belarus) by suggesting that the country might want to pay something approaching market rates for the gas Russia supplies it. More recently, Belarus's leader, President Lukashenko, was slow to back Russia in its conflict with Georgia. The word is that the West is hoping to lure Belarus away from the Russian orbit, and if turning a blind eye to the regime's thuggishness is the price, then so be it.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the half-hearted way in which the West approaches democratisation in the Arab world. I reckon that Western leaders would genuinely like to see democratic regimes emerge in the Middle East. Unfortunately, they are also very keen to ensure that the Middle East continues to have governments who support Western interests. In most Arab countries, free elections would most likely bring less reliable elements into office, so the West mutes its criticisms of Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs. Friendly autocrats are preferable to independent democrats.

The West's feeble support for Arab democratisation and the suggested rapprochement with Lukashenko lend support to Realist theories of how international relations work. Realists see states as working fundamentally to advance their national interests. In both cases, the West has a sentimental attachment to democratisation, but this is jettisoned when it conflicts with core security interests.

A counter argument to this might be that making friends with dictators is ultimately an unwise course of action. In the long run, the West can benefit from exercising "soft power" – through the projection of touchy-feely liberal values and the promotion of human rights and all that. If the world is moving into a period of confrontation between a free and democratic West and a thuggish and dictatorial Russia (and China?), then some would see it as necessary for the West to not compromise on its commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights. Unfortunately, looking at recent history suggests that the West made that compromise some time ago, and it is not really in much of a position to lecture anyone about democracy and human rights.

22 September, 2008

News from Syria

If like me you are interested in Syria, the mainstream media can be a bit disappointing. Syria only really makes the news in the context of either Lebanon's travails or the Syrian-Israeli conflict, and when not much is happening in those areas Syria drops off the news pages. You also hear next to nothing about the internal politics and social economy of the country. This is not entirely surprising, given how authoritarian it is, but it does mean that reportage defines Syria almost entirely by its international relations.

One news source worth keeping an eye on if you want a broader view of the country is the Institute of War & Peace Reporting's Syria Programme. They carry a range of news stories not seen in the normal media, from a perspective broadly supportive of freedom of speech and expression. Their news is also available as an RSS feed, for people who like to subscribe to such things.

The IWPR also seems to cover a load of other countries and news items that are a bit underrepresented in the media generally.

The crazy world of US election rules

The BBC has an interesting article by Larry Sabato (politics professor in the University of Virginia) on one of the more arcane features of the US constitution: The US election nightmare scenario. He is talking basically about what would happen if the vote in November produces a tie in the electoral college, something that is not outside the bounds of possibility. Apparently the Senate then gets to elect the vice president (on the basis that the VP is the Senate's chair), and the House of Representatives picks the president. However, the House picks the president not by a straight vote, but by one in which each State's representatives have one vote between them (with a majority of the state's representatives deciding which way the state's vote goes). In such an election, California would have the same clout as Delaware, and the result could easily end up being completely random and bearing no relation whatsoever to the way the popular vote fell. Were this to happen, we may perhaps be spared the prospect of US leaders lecturing other countries on the benefits of democracy.

09 September, 2008

Egypt: Perv Capital of the World?

Egypt is famous for its ancient sites – the Pyramids, temples too numerous to count, plus more recent Islamic sites from the Fatimid Caliphate and the Ayyubids and Mamelukes that followed it. Increasingly, though, Egypt is attracting note for a less savoury reason – the country is increasingly being scene as one of the world capitals for male pervs, where women cannot walk the streets without being harassed and leered at. Over the last few years, there have been some particularly gross incidents, such as the mass groping by pro-government pervs of women opposition activists. There was also the 2006 incident in Cairo where large mobs of pervs used the celebrations of the Eid religious festival as an excuse to assault any woman unlucky enough to cross their path. But these seem not to be isolated incidents, but part of an endemic pattern of male perving. recent article in which some Egyptian women talk about as they go about their daily lives.

Egypt is not the only country in the Arab world (or the world generally) where male pervs are a significant problem, but it does seem a particular centre for sexual harassment and antediluvian gender politics. It is easy for those of us in the West to proffer lazy explanations for this kind of behaviour, with many no doubt saying that Islam is to blame for the ordeal Egyptian women endure. This is, however, simplistic. You would struggle to find anything in the Koran or the sayings of the Prophet and his companions to support the idea that women in public places are fair game to pervs. Likewise, I doubt there are any contemporary religious scholars who would see the assaulting of women on the streets as approved by Islam. In reporting on the Eid incidents, it was noted that both veiled and unveiled women were equally subject to attack, suggesting that the motivation here was not entirely religious. And the oppositional women mentioned above would probably have included devout women supporters of the Muslim Brothers, so the attack on them cannot be seen as some kind of obscurantist religious crackdown.

Some Egyptians quoted by the BBC have suggested that the country's problem with pervs is a product of the country's stagnation and economic dysfunction, with many young men unable to find the financial security they need before they can marry. In this line of thinking, their unmarried status leads to sexual frustration, which boils over into the harassment and assault of women in public places. I think this argument is maybe also simplistic, and it seems to make young Egyptian men into automatons unable to control their urges, but I reckon it does push the argument into a potentially more useful direction. Ultimately, Egypt's problem with sexual harassment is a social problem, and it may well have to be addressed in the context of the country's overall stasis and deep-seated gender inequalities.

Incidentally, it would be wrong to say that all Egyptian men are pervs - reports suggest that many of them are as shocked by the actions of their fellow men as people like us are.

08 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Dictatorship to Anarchy

In the last post, we saw how the Congo suffered under colonialism. In the late 1950s the Belgian colonisers decided to end their formal rule, and abruptly handed the country its independence. Whatever game the Belgians were playing, the Congo came under the rule of the charismatic and radical sounding Patrice Lumumba. The Congo's big problem, though, was that it was a large and sprawling country created at the 1888 Congress of Berlin, with no pre-colonial history as an even semi-unified entity. Many people in the Congo had little or no association or identification with their new country, leading to secessionist and particularist sentiment across the country. The rich province of Katanga attempted to secede from the country, perhaps prodded by Belgium or the CIA. This revolt was crushed, partly with the aid of UN troops (including some from Ireland). However, its macabre sequel was the overthrow and murder of Lumumba by his own armed forces. The sinister Joseph Mobutu seized power, appointing the former leader of the Katangan separatists to a senior position in his government.

Mobutu ruled the country until the 1990s. His regime has been described as a kleptocracy, and was marked by the naked exploitation and brutalisation of the country's people by its leader and his circle. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, perhaps to avoid confusion with the other Congo*. He also played the Cold War game well, aligning himself with the USA and acting against Soviet interests in his neighbours. This external support of the USA protected him from any pressures coming his way from any do-gooders concerned by his appalling human rights records.

It would however be unfair to entirely damn the Mobutu years. For all the regime's rapaciousness, the country and particularly its capital Kinshasa saw the emergence and development of a vibrant mass musical culture, based initially on bouncing ideas backwards and forward across the Atlantic to Cuba. More recently, this scene gave birth to the Congotronics music beloved of hipsters everywhere. Mobutu's role in fostering any of this was, of course, minimal.

Mobutu's regime may have been exploitative, but for many years it was also rock-solid, and the dictator was able to see off any internal threats. Mobutu's mercenaries crushed an insurgency by Cuban supported rebels in the later 1960s, and thereafter the regime faced no serious challenges. However, in the 1990s, following the Rwandan genocide, time ran out for Mobutu. After the Rwandan genocide, many Rwandan Hutus (including perpetrators of the genocide) fled to Zaire, and began to launch raids across the border at the new post-genocide Rwandan government. The Rwandan regime struck back by invading Zaire, in alliance with rebels clustered around long-time Mobutu opponent Laurent Kabila. Mobutu's armies disintegrated in the face of this threat, and his regime collapsed. Laurent Kabila became the country's president, renaming it the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his reign saw the eruption of ethnic insurgencies and civil war, while armies from Rwanda, Uganda, & Zimbabwe invaded in furtherance of their governments' own perceived interests. The DRC fell into a period of protracted violence of a scale recalling Germany's Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The death toll has been estimated as lying in the millions.

And that is it for now. President Kabila was murdered in a failed coup, and replaced by his son Joseph. He remains little more than a chess-board king of a country with a largely imaginary national administration. The Congo did manage to hold elections a few years back, but disputes over their fairness were settled by gun-battles in the capital. The bar-room-brawl civil war rises and falls in intensity. People keep dying, and the Congo remains emblematic of everything that has gone wrong in Africa.

image source

*A former French colony, often known as Congo-Brazzaville (after its capital) to distinguish it from The Congo.

07 September, 2008

So Not Gonna Happen

Rajendra Pachauri, a senior UN scientist, has suggested that people might want to eat less meat, if they are seriously concerned about global warming. This is something of a no-brainer - people eating less meat means less cows pumping methane into the atmosphere. It also means less pressure on CO2 absorbing rainforests from cattle ranchers. I suspect, though, that meat people would sooner cut their left hand off than eat less meat, so I don't know why Dr Pachauri is bothering.

BBC News report

Guardian report

Pakistan and semi-presidentialism

Pakistan's constitutional setup is somewhat interesting. Executive power lies with a prime minister who is responsible to a parliament, but the country also boasts a powerful presidency. The president can sack the prime minister and call elections, and is also head of the country's armed forces. Crucially, perhaps, it is not the prime minister but the president who controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The Pakistani president is not directly elected. Rather, it is the country's parliament who elect the president. This makes Pakistan a bit of a taxonomical anomaly. It is not semi-presidential, because every definition of semi-presidentialism requires the president to be popularly elected. But it seems problematic to think of the country as a parliamentary system, given the power over parliament exercised by the president*. And while the powers of Pakistan's appointed president are perhaps unusually high, the country is not unique in having an unelected president who is a serious player in the country's politics. Off the top of my head, the Czech Republic, Israel, and (to an extent) Italy spring to mind as countries where the president is appointed by parliament but plays more than a purely ceremonial part in national politics.

Definitions of semi-presidentialism focus on the direct election of the president**. This leads to the lumping together of countries with powerful activist presidents and ones where the president has a purely symbolic role. This is not necessarily that problematic, as you can then go on to ask interesting questions about why one directly elected president is powerless while another is the centre of their country's politics. But maybe in another way it misses something. Power is surely the currency of politics, and what makes semi-presidential systems interesting is the (real or potential) presence of two loci of power. By focusing on how presidents are appointed, semi-presidentialists look at one type of dual-executive set-up but ignore others. This does seem problematic, as you can end up analytically separating political systems that end up closely resembling each other.

If I was in the business of further academic research, one thing I would consider looking at would be some kind of comparison of presidents in countries where they are elected and countries where they are appointed by parliament. One thing I have picked up is that there has been relatively little academic research on appointed presidencies, even where these are players in their countries' politics, and this strikes me as an obvious gap that needs filling.

*this is aside from Pakistan's status as a country of questionable democratic credentials, where real power is exercised by a variety of entrenched yet dysfunctional elites immune from electoral accountability

**and their being faced by a prime minister responsible to parliament, obv.

06 September, 2008

Pakistan: The Lolz Continue

Asif Ali Zardari has today been elected president of Pakistan. Zardari is head of the Pakistan People's Party and, famously, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. He is also a man who has attracted numerous accusations of corruption. The Pakistani presidency is a powerful office, with control of the armed forces and the country's nuclear arsenal, as well as direct responsibility for the tribal areas that border Afghanistan and the power to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. Pakistan's president is not directly elected, but chosen by the country's parliament (where Zardari's party currently has a majority) when the post falls vacant.

Zardari's decision to appoint himself to the top job has caused the governing coalition to break. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the smaller Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz party wanted a compromise candidate, but Zardari ignored him and Sharif took the PML-N out of government. Zardari's party can govern without the PML-N, but the rupture is unfortunate, as it represents the breaking of the pro-democracy coalition that eased dictator Pervez Musharaf from power.

Since leaving the government, Sharif has suddenly found himself facing an indictment on corruption charges. No one is convinced by claims that the timing is purely coincidental. Like many Pakistani politicians, Sharif's hands may well have dipped into the till from time to time, but his indictment now is plainly an attempt by Zardari to crush a potentially dangerous rival. Zardari is fortunate in that he is covered by an amnesty issued by Musharaf for all corruption charges against him and Benazir Bhutto. The legality of this amnesty is questionable, but the comedy supreme court appointed by Musharaf remains in office. While in government, Sharif had campaigned for the reinstatement of the supreme court illegally sacked by Musharaf. Zardari was careful to block this move, lest the judges strike down his amnesty. So now Zardari is coasting to the top job in Pakistani politics, immune from investigation of his shady past, while corruption charges bury his rival.

Zardari is apparently considered sound on the War on Terror, so it is unlikely that any harsh words will come his way from Washington.

05 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Colony to Independence

I have to find out all about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), because I am hoping to enter an essay writing competition* on that country. In the next two posts, I will quickly state the current sketchy understanding of the country's development. Prior to undertaking actual research, this is everything I know about the Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo gets its name from the Congo river. So does its neighbour, the Republic of the Congo. When people talk about The Congo as a country, they invariably mean the DRC, given the country's much larger size and position in the heart of Africa. Like most of Africa, the Congo was colonised, but whereas other parts of the continent were taken over by European countries, the Congo in the late 19th century became the private empire of one man, King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold managed to persuade the leading European nations of the world to let him create the Congo Free State as his personal domain, seized for him by the Belgian army. The profits of controlling the Congo flowed solely into his pockets. And the profits were considerable, as Leopold turned the Congo into one of the greatest slave states the world has ever seen. In so doing he disrupted the fabric of established communities and may have inadvertently caused HIV to jump from chimpanzees to humans, but he became very rich indeed.

It is worth considering just how bestial Leopold's rule over the Congo was. Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa contains a picture taken in the Congo Free State. A Belgian official stands with two Africans. Initially, it looks like a scene from any African colony, but then you see what the Africans are holding in their hands. They are holding hands, severed hands. Leopold's Congolese quislings would cut the hands off any of their compatriots who were not working hard enough for their European master. It is small wonder, then, that some estimate Leopold's African Auschwitz-Birkenau to have halved in population during his rule, through a combination of the locals being exterminated or fleeing into neighbouring countries.

Eventually, though, do-gooders like Edmund Morel and Roger Casement alerted the world to the horrors that Leopold was perpetrating in the Congo, and people like Joseph Conrad wrote novels about the Belgian King's African Gulag. People were shocked, with many feeling that Leopold was giving colonialism a bad name. The Belgian government moved in to wrest control of the Congo from their monarch. What was his empire now became the Belgian Congo, and was run as a colony something like the other colonies then covering Africa. This meant that, in a purely notional sense, the Belgians were committed to "civilising" the Congolese, but in practice they were interested solely in exploiting them, just in a less shocking manner than Leopold. The Belgians took care to provide the Congolese with only the most rudimentary of educations and to keep them as insulated as possible from modernity, lest they develop troubling notions of the equality of all human peoples. The Congolese were naturally excluded from any say in how their country was run.

The European powers were weakened by the Second World War, and many of their African colonies saw the emergence of nationalist agitation in the post-war period. This led to an increasingly number of African countries becoming independent. Or maybe the colonists decided to replace direct rule by indirect control of newly "independent" states through local stooges. The Belgians sought to insulate the Congo from nationalist sentiment, but in the late 1950s the colony was rocked by the sudden and unexpected appearance of anti-colonial unrest. The Belgians did not have the stomach for a war against the nationalists, so they beat a sudden retreat, giving their colony an independence that few had expected it to achieve so quickly. Or perhaps the Belgians hoped that a hasty withdrawal would leave an independent Congo so weak that its inexperienced leaders could be easily manipulated from Brussels.

image source

The story continues in part two of this exciting series.

EDIT: I've been looking at Adam Hochschild's book on Leopold's African Empire, and the white guy in the picture above is actually an English missionary. I reckon the picture was probably taken by humanitarian Christians, to draw attention to Leopold's depraved regime in the Congo.

*I could post details of this competition here, but I do not want any Hunting Monsters readers entering the competition and stealing the prize that will rightfully be mine. However, keen users of Internet search engines will have no problem finding the competition's details.

24 August, 2008

More Georgia action

And here is an interesting article on Open Democracy by veteran sensible person Neal Ascherson: After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia

He reckons Georgia would be better off cutting its losses on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and accepting their permanent separation from the Georgian state. South Ossetia is probably doomed to absorption into the Russian federation (not necessarily a disastrous outcome for many South Ossetians, obv.), but Ascherson reckons that Abkhazia could ultimately go it alone. It was a separate republic within the USSR for a bit, and the place apparently has a good climate for tourism and high value agricultural production.

One thing Ascherson points out is that the Georgian authorities seem to have a fondness for cackhanded attempts to resolve secessionist conflicts by force. In 1993, Georgia's President Shevardnadze launched an offensive to crush the Abkhazian separatists, but Russian intervention tipped the balance. Saakashvili experimented with a more creative approach to his country's separatist regions when he recruited Boney M to headline a free concert that was meant to persuade South Ossetians that things would be better for them within Georgia. In launching his recent military offensive against them, Saakashvili seems to be reverting to more normal behaviour for Georgian leaders.

It is a shame that Russia's disproportionate response to Georgia's initial offensive has led to this conflict being largely covered as one of Russian aggression against a weak neighbour. The Irish Times is at least to be saluted for carrying an article suggesting that Saakashvili will soon be coming under increasing domestic pressure to resign, with many Georgians likely to blame him for bringing disaster upon the country through his reckless gamble against the separatists.

17 August, 2008

Phantom Countries: South Ossetia

A topical one this time! To have one phantom country occupying your claimed national territory would be unfortunate, to have two looks rather suspicious. This is the situation in which Georgia finds itself, with South Ossetia being the second of its secessionist regions. Like Abkhazia, South Ossetian secessionism has an ethnic base, with the region having many people who apparently consider themselves ethnic Ossetians. Stalin had drawn the internal borders of the USSR such that South Ossetia was part of Georgia (while neighbouring North Ossetia was in the Russian Federation). I have a vague memory of there being some trouble in South Ossetia even before the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it was when Georgia became independent that things seriously deteriorated. A war between South Ossetian separatists and the Georgian centre erupted in the 1990s, ending with an unrecognised regime being established in the enclave and Russian troops deployed there as "peace-keepers" to protect it. Until the start of the current unpleasantness, the conflict has remained frozen.

I can't tell you too much about the nature of the South Ossetian regime, or whether its leaders aspire to full independence or to joining their North Ossetian friends as part of Russia. The region looks chunky enough on a map, but from media reports I gather that its population (before the current unfortunate events) was pretty small, so maybe independence is not a realistic aspiration. It looks also like the South Ossetian regime is so dependent on Russia for protection from Georgia that it is hard to imagine it ever trying to pursue a fully independent course.

And so to current events. The rights and wrongs of the situation depend on your view of whether sub-regions of a state have a right to secede, and whether a state has the right to use force against secessionists. My impression is that international law hates secessionists, but then international law is written by national governments so this is not too surprising. Whatever about the morality of the situation, Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, comes across as something of a clown. The first rule of statecraft is never start a war you can’t win. Georgia had previously tried to undermine South Ossetian separatism using the disco power of Boney M, but then earlier this month Saakashvili escalated the frozen conflict, launching an offensive against the separatists and bombarding their capital. Maybe he thought that his US-trained army could over-run South Ossetia before the Russians reacted. Unfortunately for him, the Russian response was rapid and Israel-like in its disproportion to the initial Georgian attacks. Georgian forces were rapidly shattered and Russian soldiers moved beyond South Ossetia into Georgia-proper while Russian jets ranged at will over the country. If Saakashvili thought that his American pals would bail him out then he must now be cruelly disappointed; Bush and Rice issued statements about how concerned they are, but they are plainly not going to risk a direct confrontation with Russia.

For South Ossetia, I reckon that the net effect of Saakashvili's rash offensive is to make that region forever outside effective Georgian control, with its future destiny likely to be in ever closer links to Russia. The same is probably true of Abkhazia. For Georgia itself, I reckon its chances of joining NATO are now dead. If the country was in NATO now, then the alliance would be at war with Russia. Anyone with half a brain will not want the alliance expanded to include a country led by adventurists who could embroil them in a third world war at the drop of a hat. The Georgians themselves might be wise to replace Saakashvili with someone with a more realistic appreciation of their country's capabilities and a less reckless approach to conflict resolution. Ironically, Putin and Medvedev's declared unwillingness to deal with Saakashvili might just be enough to keep him in office, as no one likes an external actor telling you whom to have as your leader.

image source

22 July, 2008

Book: "100 Myths About the Middle East" by Fred Halliday

Are you the kind of person who likes to begin everything you say with "Actually, I think you'll find…"? Then this is the book for you, because in it Fred Halliday takes and repudiates a hundred widely held propositions about the Middle East. Halliday does all this with an acerbic writing style that displays a contempt for lazy formulas or uncritical thought processes, but he does this without drifting into the kind of facile contrarianism of someone like Christopher Hitchens. Halliday seems less to be saying that stupid people believe his 100 myths, but that anyone who pays attention and applies thought to these questions should be able to see through them. This book is very critical of the kind of duckspeak that masquerades for analysis on the part of the War on Terror's supporters, but he is equally dismissive of the knee-jerk positions of many Islamists and those on the political left. I would still nevertheless class this book as belonging in broad terms to the world of the left, if only because of its evisceration of arguments and propositions advanced by Bush and the neo-cons.

One thing that is striking in this book is Halliday's dismissal of arguments based on the claimed essential natures of the various Middle Eastern religions, or on the idea of peoples in the Middle East having fixed national characters or their being locked into permanent and timeless conflicts. Rather, Halliday sees the nature of a religion or a "national character" as being moulded and shaped by contemporary circumstances and objective conditions. This kind of analysis is broadly Marxist, in the sense of seeing culture as being a dependent variable rather than the other way round. It seems nevertheless to fit well with any kind of serious analysis of the region and the religions that came from there, given that one can see how all of these have changed and behaved differently in separate historical periods. Perhaps arising from this kind of viewpoint, Halliday seems especially hostile to the idea that a solution to the problems of the world is for the leaders of the middle-eastern religions to engage in some kind of interfaith dialogue. While this kind of ecumenical get together sounds entirely laudable (and is not without its merits), seeing it as the main way forward is to give a load of self-appointed bearded fuckwits* the right to speak for everyone else, excluding the voices of the secular or those of heterodox religious ideas.

The book also comes with a useful and somewhat ironic list of terms used to discuss either the Middle East or the War on Terror. And just in case you are wondering who this Fred Halliday chap is, he is an International Relations academic who focuses on stuff to do with the Cold War, the Middle East, and International Relations theory.

This is not the third in my troika of books about the Middle East, but it can be approached as one of the other useful books about that region.

*OK, so not all leaders of the three great monotheistic faiths are bearded or fuckwits, but you get the idea.

20 July, 2008

Phantom Countries: The Secret Life of Abkhazia

CAVEAT: I can't claim to know too much about Abkhazia, so I am willing to take corrections from my many readers on any factual inaccuracies contained here.

Abkhazia is a separatist region of Georgia, the country in the Caucausus that used to be part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the past, the region had a degree of autonomy within Georgia, but when the Soviet Union broke up a separatist movement came into being. Perhaps the Abkhaz separatists feared that their distinct ethnic identity would be swamped in an independent Georgia, or perhaps there were more sinister forces at work. Either way, the Abkhaz separatists successfully fought off Georgian armed forces and established a de facto regime in the former autonomous region. This achievement is all the more impressive when one recalls that ethnic Abkhazians were apparently only a minority of people in the Abkhaz autonomous region.

Since the war (which took place at some point in the 1990s), Russian troops have been deployed in Abkhazia, supposedly as peacekeepers between the separatists and the Georgians. It is widely believed, however, that the Russian troops are primarily there to protect the separatist regime and prevent the re-absorption of Abkhazia into Georgia. There are even those who see the whole business of Abkhaz separatism as a scheme of the Kremlin to weaken Georgia and undermine its independence, a proposition supported by the astonishingly well-armed and trained forces the Abkhaz separatists were able to deploy against the Georgian state. Further evidence of Russian partiality was seen recently when the Georgian flew an unmanned drone over the separatist region, only for it to be shot down by an unidentified jet. The Abkhazians do have their own air force (largely consisting of First World War biplanes and balsa wood aircraft powered by rubber bands), but the unidentified jet had the kind of twin tail-fin only seen in the latest Russian air force interceptors.

I am not clear on whether the Abkhaz separatists wish to set up their enclave as a little independent state, or whether they would ultimately prefer to merge it into Russia. Given the apparent links between Abkhaz separatism and the Russian state, it is perhaps not really appropriate to think in terms of the separatists as having any actual autonomous goals and desires – they may well be simply creatures of the Kremlin, people whose goals are defined by Russian political interest.

Picture from Wikipedia

13 July, 2008

Meanwhile in Mongolia...

Talking of semi-presidentialism, Mongolia has been seen as something of a success story for that institutional setup, with writers like M. Steven Fish crediting the bifurcating power structure with helping to embed democracy and protect Mongolia from dominance by either of its larger and more populous neighbours. Recently, however, the country has seen disputed elections and a state of emergency declared following riots accusations of electoral fraud against the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (the country's former communists). Perhaps not even semi-presidentialism can save Mongolia from sliding down the road towards the authoritarianism of other post-communist steppe countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkemenistan, etc.. I don't know that much about Mongolia, but I wonder if this kind of thing suggests a triumph of objective social conditions over institutions - supporting quasi-marxist ideas about institutions being fluff that sits on top of the real economic determinants of socio-politicals life.

Hey, nice blog!

If you have ever wanted to follow the latest semi-presidential action in blog form, then check out THE SEMI-PRESIDENTIAL ONE. As you know, a country is semi-presidential if its president is directly elected and it has a prime minister responsible to parliament, with presidential powers added to taste.

17 June, 2008

Hamas, Israel, and the European Union

I have been reading lately that Israel and Hamas have agreed a truce. However, I have also read that Israel decided to start the truce by killing six Palestinian militants, leading a Hamas spokesman to vow revenge. So which is it guys, truce or war?

In other news, the European Union is apparently about to upgrade its ties with Israel. In some notional sense, EU links to Israel are tied to Israel's human rights record, but the EU never feels that actions by Israel (such as, you know, killing people or building walls through their country) warrant any invocation of penalty clauses. At a time when even the USA's Condoleeza Rice is making vague noises about Israeli settlement expansion not being such a good idea, the EU is happy to deepen its links to that country.

15 June, 2008

Ireland's Berlusconi?

As you know, the Lisbon Treaty has been rejected by Irish voters in a referendum. This has happened despite the treaty being backed by something like 90% of the members of the Dáil, Ireland's directly elected parliamentary chamber. European treaty referendums have always seen a higher proportion of No voters than votes in the Dáil. This disconnect is even more apparent now that the treaty has been soundly rejected in a referendum with a relatively high turn-out.

One thing that was suggested about the No vote on Thursday was that people were expressing their distrust of the Irish political establishment. This may well be the case, and even if people voted on a careful weighing up of the proposals contained in the treaty, you would have to think that No voters must be somewhat dissatisfied with a political establishment that has solidly endorsed Lisbon. Ireland is, however, parliamentary democracy, and it was only last year that the Irish electorate voted in the people they now so distrust. It could be that events since the election have led to a massive erosion of trust in our political elite. My suspicion, though, is that a great many people do not really see elections as having anything to do with producing a government. Ireland has a constituency-based electoral system. My feeling is that many Irish people vote for local characters they either have a fondness for or whom they think will bring in cargo for the area or for them personally.

Lisbon's failure nevertheless suggests a considerable degree of dissatisfaction with Ireland's political elite. It may be that the country is ready for someone to tap that dissatisfaction. If that someone could make people register that it is in their power to remove the political elite, then it would be possible to mount an insurrectionary electoral campaign that would shatter the established pattern of Irish politics.

Declan Ganley of Libertas is surely the person best placed to ride the tiger. There were other players in the No campaign, but they were from fringe political movements that do not look like credible challengers for the political big time. Libertas, though, look like a political party in waiting, and it is striking how some of their posters seemed to campaign against the establishment ("Don't Trust Them!") as much as against the treaty. Ganley seems not to have ruled out the idea of running for public office, so maybe we will next year be seeing Libertas try to establish an electoral base.

People tend to think of populism as something you get in funny Latin American countries. However, many European countries have in recent years seen the emergence of populist parties led by charismatic leaders railing against the cosy consensus that dominates their countries' political life. These populist movements have enjoyed different levels of success in different countries, but in several (including Poland, the Netherlands, & Austria) they have spent some time in government. In Italy, meanwhile, such a party is now the dominant party in that country's governing coalition. It is perhaps not for nothing that, writing in yesterday's Irish Times, Stephen Collins wrote of Declan Ganley becoming the "Silvio Berlusconi of Irish politics".

I am not entirely sure that Ganley's political prospects are quite so good. My impression is that populist challenges work best where a leader can easily affect a direct relationship with the electorate. This is easy in the kind of presidential systems they love in Latin America, where people can directly vote for the populist leader. It is also something you might see in countries with parliamentary government where the electorate votes for a nation-wide list that the leader can head. It is a bit more difficult in constituency based parliamentary systems. In such countries, a populist leader has to find credible candidates to run in the constituencies, and faces always the possibility that their party cohorts may put down local roots and not function loyally as their creatures. Ireland's electoral system therefore provides some institutional blocks to Ganley's sweeping to political power.

14 June, 2008

Ethiopia Accused

The Guardian reports that Ethiopia has been accused of committing vile war crimes in an attempt to quell an insurgency in the Ogaden regime in the east of the country. Crimes against humanity including murder, mass rape, and torture have reportedly been used by the Ethiopian authorities, who are trying to crush an insurgency by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Unlike the rest of Ethiopia, the Ogaden is inhabited by ethnic Somalis, who may feel more kinship with their fellow Somalis in Somalia or Somaliland than with the inhabitants of Ethiopia's central highlands. My understanding is that the territory was acquired by the Ethiopian state during the late 19th century Scramble for Africa. Emperor Menelik II successfully played the European powers off against each other, defeating an Italian invasion force with arms supplied by the French; the Italians gave the Ogaden to Menelik so that he would not press on and invade their coastal colony of Eritrea.

More recently, the Ogaden has seen conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, with the latter trying unsuccessfully to wrest it from Ethiopia in a war in the late 1970s. It is possible now that tensions in the Ogaden are linked to Ethiopia's current occupation of Somalia, with the ONLF possibly receiving aid from or acting in sympathy with the Somali opponents of Ethiopia. Another potential source of support for the ONLF is Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia fought a border war in the 1990s. Eritrea has been linked to the Islamist Somalis against whom Ethiopia is fighting, and also with the mysterious Oromo Liberation Front, who have set off a number of bombs in Addis Ababa recently.

Whatever the source of the Ogaden insurgency, the Ethiopian state seems determined to crush it in the most draconian fashion possible. Aside from concerns about human rights violations, the fear must be that this kind of extreme response may crush the rebels in the short term but at the cost of so undermining the Ethiopian state's legitimacy that the Ogaden people increasingly embrace separatism. The Derg regime that preceded the current one was ultimately destroyed by regional insurgencies; the same could be the fate of the current leadership, if they do not play their cards carefully.

One area in which the ruling party in Ethiopia have played their cards well is the arena of international relations. In these troubled times, it always pays to cast yourself as an enemy of Islamist terrorism, and that is just what the Ethiopian government has done. The Islamic Courts movement in Somalia against which Ethiopia is fighting is certainly Islamist, but their relationship to international Islamist terrorism is tenuous to non-existent. Nevertheless, the USA seems to have adopted Ethiopia as its new friend in the region, which may be why stories of atrocities committed in the Ogaden are not receiving that much coverage.

In the interests of fairness, I should mention that the Ogaden National Liberation Front also stand accused of human rights abuses. In saying that the Ethiopian state appears to have committed ghastly crimes against the Ogaden people, I am in no sense saying that the ONLF are a fine bunch of fellows.

If you want to read my sketchy background notes on Ethiopia, click here: Ethiopia background

Here is an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian human rights abuses in the Ogaden: Ethiopia accused of war crimes to quell insurgency

And here is the Human Rights Watch report: Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia’s Somali Region