Category Archives: Comment & Analysis

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Asia and the Rest: Lines, Circles and Triangles

In this brief reflection Marco Pellerey explains why the international political chessboard should be understood as a set of straight lines, circles and triangles: a place where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the perpetual conflict between realists and the various schools of constructivism in international relations, the former are often accused by the latter of oversimplifying reality, cynically reducing and shaping every situation to strip political protagonists of every psychological dimension that is not rational, calculating and clearly self-serving. Here I would like to propose an extension of this reasoning, adopting a geometrical perspective in order to underline certain cultural aspects that I believe hold great relevance to the current international context.

I invite the reader to imagine the importance that the straight line (and the ideal of total inflexibility that it represents) have had in the development of the so-called “West”. Consider the Macedonian phalanx, with soldiers arranged in neat rows ready to confront the enemy standing directly before them. And so too it was in the trenches of the First World War and in the skies of the Second World War: courage, glory and victory only spring forth from head-on and decisive conflict. The game of chess embodies the epitome of the West in its binary arrangements: blacks and whites, ‘winning’ or ‘captured’ pieces, aristocracy and humble pawns. Nature’s metaphor would be that of the majesty of an oak, whose straight and unyielding trunk defies the elements, splitting rather than retreating.

The eastern equivalent could be represented by the bamboo. A flexible plant which, rather than resist with head held high, instead bends to the wind, adapting in order to then raise itself once more, tracing a wide circle in the air. The superlative quality transforms itself from rigidity to flexibility; a quality which is inherent to the Chinese strategy of war, as Sun Tzu stated in some of his most celebrated aphorisms:

The art of war lies in subduing the enemy without having to confront him;

In every conflict regular manoeuvres lead to confrontation, whilst unexpected manoeuvres lead to victory

This asymmetry is incompatible with linear European logic and has often been interpreted-especially by travellers in the 19th century-as a sign of unreliability, almost genetic ambiguity and therefore inferiority with respect to Europeans. On the battlefield it has been interpreted as cowardice typical of those wishing to avoid exposure to conflict.

The perceptual differences are primarily cultural and have deep implications for daily life. Whilst Asia seeks harmony between forms, always seeking to establish a cosmic equilibrium between the parts (Yin and Yang), avoiding verbal and physical conflicts as far as possible, on the contrary Westerners believe that from direct confrontation –above all in politics-new and innovative ideas arise, denouncing anything which does not proceed in a direct and unambiguous manner. Could we not term America the country of straight talk?

To these geometric metaphors, on which numerous scholars have commented at length, can be added a third, which is essential in order to better understand the political games in Asia: the triangle. How to resolve conflicts between individuals or nations without being too overt and therefore running the risk of causing offence, or worse, causing one ‘to lose face’ to the adversary? The solution is to delegate to third parties who act as intermediaries. It is a game which enables parties to lessen their exposure to risk but which allows greater efficiency and frankness. There is a need, however, to find a reliable interlocutor who enjoys the confidence of both sides.

The recent strengthening of regional agreements in East and South-East Asia should also be understood in this context. The ASEAN (The Association of South-East Asian Nations), for example, counts among its members nations who have gone to war with one another in the last thirty years. Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea in 1978 was particularly bloody; the centuries-old conflict between Thais and Burmese; border disputes which continue to this day between Thai and Cambodian control of a temple which lies on the border, or even the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian Army from 1975-1999. Although it is perfectly normal that an air of reciprocal mutual mistrust still lingers, ASEAN serves an additional purpose for its members, as it is able to act as a lubricant on the area’s political tensions, offering an ideal forum in order to abate conflicts between governments and institutions.

Other similar regional forums have been created with the intent of promoting a multilateral solution to problems regarding rival countries. The Mekong River Commission and Sustainable Development (MRC), based in Vientiane, is another sub-regional body, used as a diplomatic support to heal conflicts by way of intermediaries.

It would not, therefore, be incorrect to depict the international political chessboard as a geometrical set of straight lines, circles and triangles, where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.

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Original Article: Asia and the Rest: Linee, Cerchi e Triangoli

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: Present&Correct

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What is the Canadian Military? Is it time to rethink?

In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?

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[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently there has seen a number of news stories and article emerging about the state of the Canadian military. Questions of whether the navy should re-orientate itself to new challenges in the Pacific (China); the costs of stealth snowmobiles;  the ongoing procurement drama of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and this rather eloquent article on the middle power conundrum regarding military procurement.

A common theme of this discussion is the procurement and fiscal challenges facing the Canadian armed force. A former professor of mine Andrew Richter, wrote on the issue of Canada’s procurement challenges back 2003 titled Along Side the Best? The Future of the Canadian Forces. The article examines Canada’s long history of poor procurement practices and the tough decisions that would have to be made when the next round of procurement came about. Now, a decade later we are seeing this decisions (or lack there of) that Dr. Richter discussed coming to the forefront.

Part of the problem is that Canadians simply don’t care about the military when compared to the broader policy priorities (actual poll results here). The clip in the aforementioned link finds that the military ranks as a long term priority for a paltry 4% of Canadians. These numbers illustrate a rather obvious point that we as Canadians don’t put much stock into defense spending because Canada has no enemies (nation states) and we can easily free ride on the bloated military spending of the United States. As a result the military is seen as something that is nice to have and people want to use for missions that support our values but it is not seen as an essential part of Canadian society or a funding priority.  Despite the aforementioned poll being a year old, the year over year priorities for most Canadians tend to be relatively consistent with minor variation: the economy, health care, tax rates, the environment ranking near the top and the military ranking at or near the bottom. The impact of this policy catch 22 is that this apathy about the Canadian military has carried over into the political realm. The current Conservative government, which campaigned hard on a strong military has placed balancing the budget ahead of it campaign priorities resulting in the Department of National Defense facing steep budget cuts and constrained spending priorities.

This of course brings us to the crux of the real issue, what role do we as Canadians want to see our military play in the world and in turn, what sort of military do Canadians want to pay for? From a political standpoint the federal political parties are only talking about one option: maintaining an increasingly expensive all purpose military. Yes some are willing to ditch the increasingly expensive F-35s but the disastrous Cyclone Helicopter procurement and veiled threats from Lockheed Martin about canceling the F-35 contracts shows what can happen when the government makes a bad decision or changes it mind. The result can be an armed forces that are left empty handed while huge sums of money are wasted and could have been spent on alternative pieces of equipment.

With none of the political parties have engaged the public on the issue what sort of military do Canadians want and what other options are available. All of the parties speak of supporting the armed forces and ensuring our troops are trained and equipped properly for missions that they are sent on but none of them are questioning what sort of missions should we be sending them on. Canada obviously does not fund its military like the United States, yet there is a willingness to want to be able to do everything and be involved in missions that arises just as our armed forces capabilities have deteriorated to a point that may be unsustainable. In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?

All Purpose Military

Since the end of World War Two, Canada has maintained an all purpose armed forces, which simply means that we have three functioning branches to our armed force (an army, navy and air force). Unfortunately for us, due to years of constrained defense budgets, deferred procurement and expedited emergency replacement purchases all of the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. With an estimated cost of $490 billion for new equipment, needing to be purchased over the next two decades the that Canadian taxpayers will be paying a high price in order to keep this all purpose capability. In theory maintaining an all purpose military isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it enables Canada to remain flexible in its role and contribute to a wide variety of military missions on the international stage.

The fundamental problem is that Canada will never have a military that can project itself on the international stage alone. Any conflict that Canada becomes involved with, will be as a part of a larger coalition of nations. Since many of our NATO allies and particularly the United States have militaries that are larger and more capable it is likely that Canadian military contributions would just supplement their capabilities. Canada’s contributions would hardly be a deciding factor in any intervention going forward nor would the size of the impact be significant in scale due to the relatively small size of our armed forces.

Canada has never had a large military, and the rising costs are threatening to shrink it even further. The ever rising costs of the F-35s have already illicit comments about buying fewer planes and bombs for those planes. The sheer cost of these new aircraft and buying them in the numbers needed to be able to deploy an effective force is already resulting in other branches feeling pressure with reports of an infantry battalion being cut from the army to help offset the F-35s. Questions about the costs of the shipbuilding contracts as well as the ability of Canadian shipyards to deliver on time and on budget place the navy’s procurement plans in question as well.

What this illustrates is that Canada’s armed forces is underfunded and facing a poorly organized procurement schedule from the standpoint of maintaining a truly all purpose military. Now this isn’t to say that Canadians may not want an all purpose military and it is also safe to say that Canadians would want the best available equipment to keep our soldiers, sailors and airmen safe in whatever mission they sent. But there has been no discussion of what the costs are going to be in order to maintain this military. Would Canadians be opposed to a X percentage defense tax in order to fund the military properly or would they prefer cuts to other spending priorities? There is no answer to this question because no political party is willing to have a serious discussion about what the future of the military will be.

Specialized Military

If funding an all purpose military is deemed to be too costly, an attractive yet under examined alternative is the specialization of the Canadian armed forces. In this context specialization refers to the prioritization of a single branch of the Canadian armed forces both in use and funding, The non-prioritized branches of the military would be shrunk or reorganize to a minimum capability with the cost saving then being spent on enhancing the capabilities of the selected branch.

This specialization is already occurring in Europe where austerity has forced deep military cuts onto several NATO powers. The Dutch Army for example no longer has any tanks as their final two battalions were disbanded in 2011 in order to save money.  What these cuts have resulted in a degree synergy of capabilities between nations like Great Britain and France sharing aircraft carriers or the Dutch-German military cooperation in “a bid to better utilize ‘scarce and expensive resources and capabilities’ at a time when Europe is facing a financial crisis.” For Canada this would mean picking a single service branch and prioritizing it while cutting back the capabilities of the other branches, likely in cooperation with the United States.

Although it is impossible to say exactly what this specialization would look like, I would argue that the Navy or the Air Force likely have the leg up on being chosen as the preferred choice. The reasoning is relatively straight forward as “boots on the ground” missions have gone the way of the dodo for Canada in the UN (see link above) and after Iraq and Afghanistan the desire for western troops being deployed anywhere is in relative short supply. Second, the fact that only the United States shares a land border with Canada means that our army really isn’t needed to deter or defend us from invasion (if the US did invade our army wouldn’t stop them). Under this assumption, the army would likely be turned into a largely reservist force with specialized units like Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) and the Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) remaining to fulfill specialized needs as a part of a larger coalition where other countries provide the bulk of land forces.

As for the Navy or Air Force one of these two branches would likely be expanded and possible enhanced likely in the conjunction with out allies designs and desires as well as the capability to defend Canadian interests and sovereignty. So for the navy, it would likely see an expanded ship building program beyond that which is already planned. Since Canada doesn’t have the capabilities to build these vessels ourselves it would likely mean going abroad for some of the ships. One intriguing idea would be the possible purchase of Great Britain’s new aircraft carrier which is currently planned to be mothballed after it completes construction (although a recent policy reversal may change this).

If the Air Force is given primacy, we would likely see an expanded F-35 purchase or possibly diversification of aircraft purchases beyond the F-35. We would also likely see the purchase of attack helicopter, additional heavy lift aircraft, air refueling aircraft, airborne radar and an expanded drone force. These purchases would also be accompanied by a wider variety of ordnance with the adding of larger and more specialized weaponry like bunker busters and air to ground cruise missiles that would give the Canadian Air Force a strategic strike capability.

What we would also likely see is the emergence of some joint capabilities such as a Marine brigade being formed (if the navy is given priority) or an airborne brigade  (if the air force is given priority) with these new units gaining the means through which they can be effectively deployed to limited combat situations abroad. Such a convergence would allow some all purpose capabilities to be maintained but they would likely only be usable in the context of the broader support of allies or a limited deployment such as protecting an embassy or Canadians during a large scale evacuation similar to Lebanon in 2008.

The specialized nature of the single branch would result in Canada striving to become a leader in operations of that branch within NATO and other allied military operations. Canada providing a naval task force to the Persian Gulf in relief of an American one or being willing and able to launch the first round of strikes of an air campaign would become  standard and the norm rather then the current tertiary role that Canada currently provides.

Self-Defense Force

The self-defense role for the Canadian forces would see Canada’s military largely retreating from international deployments. Although some rudimentary capabilities for activities abroad such as the maintaining of our C-17 capabilities to provide humanitarian missions/disaster relief or JFT-2 for counter-terror operations; the bulk of the Canadian military would be transformed into a glorified domestic defense force. The Navy and Coast Guard would be merged into a single entity whose mission would be to police Canadian waters; the air force would be reduced to a minimum number of aircraft to protect our skies from foreign incursions and the army would be reduced largely to reservists whose primary purpose would be to assist in disaster relief and to provide limited aid for international humanitarian missions.

A slightly expanded version of this would see Canada maintain a true “Peacekeeping force” where a small, rapidly deployable force would be maintained that could be deployed for peacekeeping roles that are authorized by the United Nations. This is a double edge sword where fortunately for Canada, UN missions have become increasingly rare; unfortunately the missions that the UN tends to be deployed to have tended to be in far flung parts of the world where Canada has few interests in an effort to stop increasingly intractable conflicts.

The Icelandic Way

Finally, there is the Icelandic way. Let’s be frank, unless the United States invades Canada itself, no other nation will. Despite the rhetoric of the Cold War and Russians coming over the pole or the fantasy that are Red Dawn (the original was better) or Homefront geography dictates that Canada is a countries that is very difficult to attack from any direction but south. So the question is, do we actually need a military?

Although there would likely be some “backlash” from allies about abolishing the Canadian armed forces the fact of the matter is that Canada’s contributions to military endeavors are hardly deal breaking. If Canada hadn’t contributed to Kosovo, Afghanistan or Libya missions it is unlikely that the outcomes would have been any different. Fortunately, Canada can make it up to our allies in other ways if we aren’t willing to fund a military. The Department of National Defense budget estimate for 2012/13 totaled approximate $20.1 billion. Even if we put a portion of that amount towards subsidizing our allies military ventures that we support you would find that it has a major impact. The Kosovo air intervention in 1999 was pegged at $7 billion with another $100-150 billion for reconstruction and peacekeeping; the Libya intervention to remove Qaddafi was a relatively cheap 1.1 billion for the airstrikes; while Afghanistan although totaling likely in the several trillion dollar range, Canada’s portion costed $11.3 billion (excluding long term healthcare costs).

What this shows is that Canada could easily pay for more then its share of a military mission if we wanted to. Even if the 20.1 billion was split with half, with part paying down the national debt and other half being saved to fund military and humanitarian missions in a given year Canada could easily subsidize the costs to our allies for the deployment of their forces.

Conclusion

What is needed in Canada is a serious discussion on the fate of the Canadian military, unfortunately this isn’t a decision that our politicians are willing to have. With what is likely to be half a trillion dollars being spent on the armed forces over the next two decades Canadians need to be asked do they want to spend the money and what will that money buy? If Canadians don’t have this discussion, they risk being saddled with military of exorbitant cost that is without a clear mission or proper capabilities. This in turn will leave Canada isolated on the international stage unable to contribute properly to allied military ventures and lacking the financial flexibility to maintain a long term military operations without finding new sources of revenue or cutting expenses in other parts of the government.

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Photo Credit: Mike Kouxommone

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Morality and Practicality: America’s Syrian Intervention

What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s President Obama makes his case to the American Congress about intervention in Syria, his administration must confront contingencies and plan for unforeseeable challenges. Yet the most pressing question is not what might happen if something goes wrong. Quite the opposite. What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

On 3 September US Secretary of State muddied the waters of intervention, sending what TIME magazine called “mixed messages” against a congressional prohibition on the use of American soldiers in Syria: the feared “boots on the ground” option. In front of Congress, Kerry testified that “in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

There is a real chance that airstrikes, if targeted effectively, could help topple Assad’s government, at the very least providing a much needed morale boost and significant breathing room for the mixed rebel front. Such inputs, when factored into the complexities of war in Syria, may lead to unforeseeable and magnified results. In such an environment of uncertainty, a clear definition of American objectives is needed. Yet such a framework has not been debated adequately.

What does the White House count as a “success” in its proposed intervention plan? Knocking out Assad’s future capability to employ his heinous arsenal, a strategic military objective? Or punishing the Syrian regime, a moral goal? Although subtle, the difference between these two outcomes is important, and has been confused in both Congress and the broader discussion. One can be achieved without extensive military involvement, the other cannot. If the answer lies in a murky middle ground — as it seems to be for now — the implications could be deep.

Discussion of a moral imperative to intervene in response to Assad’s most recent chemical war crime — since when has the killing 100,000 citizens, over two years, not been a war crime? — is dangerous because of this ambiguity. When morality becomes intermingled with strategy the result is a tendency towards escalation, as recent American history in Iraq has shown. And when the phrases “humanitarian intervention” and “protecting American interests” are used in the same breath, there is little doubt that such a co-mingling of objectives has arisen.

Limits become fuzzy when generals and politicians are fueled by lofty and noble principles. What is in the national interest, and what is in the human interest, drift closer together until two become one. True humanists must demand full intervention, the destruction of Assad’s military capability so that he will release his murderous grasp on power: No man who willingly kills 100,000 of his citizens has a right to rule. If humanity is national policy, as Washington’s rhetoric implies, where does the national interest end?

It is in this unsuspectingly ambiguous environment that Kerry’s statements become incredibly pertinent. If the United States goes through with its plans for intervention, it will be faced with the tough task of placing limits on its action. The hybrid policy of morality and military practicality handicaps this process, and could lead to an overstepping of acceptable boundaries. A few more tomahawk missiles in key sites could mean the difference between Assad’s survival or his end. If the latter becomes reality, the feared Syrian power vacuum becomes reality as well and with it serious questions of who controls the regime’s remaining military technologies. If such a possibility comes to pass, Kerry’s intimations may become all too concrete, as the spiral of American “national interest” unwinds.

Before Obama, his cabinet, and the American Congress make any decision regarding intervention in Syria, they must confront their own definitions of success. They need to grapple with their motivations for involvement, and their ultimate objectives. For if they continue to confuse morality with strategy, and work in the middle, the results could be just as Kerry described.

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Photo Credit: stephen_medlock

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Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.

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Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi

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Egyptian Chaos: a European Problem

Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hilst Europe attempts to define a role in the Mediterranean, Egypt again finds itself at the centre of international attention due to its political instability, resulting from the fall of Morsi. After the gains of the 2011 revolution were progressively mobilised by the Muslim Brotherhood, due to their victory in the presidential elections, the country’s internal situation progressively deteriorated. This resulted in a coup carried out by the military which seems to have found, for the moment, the support of the population. At this point its western neighbours are presented with a dilemma that is not easy to resolve. It is a matter of understanding which are the real demands of the Egyptian people and which is the correct approach to ‘communicate’ with an Egypt in continuous evolution.

The Egyptian uprising helps to challenge a paradigm rooted in the West, that of electoral infallibility, according to which electoral results are a fundamental-and therefore immutable-element of civic life. As seen in Gaza in 2006, however, in the political realities in which democracy begins to take root, elections often yield results which are opposite to those expected-or rather, hoped for. In a sense, what is happening today in the Middle East previously occurred in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. If on one hand this opens up legal dialogues, on the strength of which there is no reason to boycott a government which has legitimately come to power, on the other there are numerous voices which contest the electoral result due to hypothetical pressures or ‘financial patronage’ exerted by the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems clear, however, that room for reflection is very limited and that it is instead necessary to act as soon as possible in order to facilitate a process of transition with as little trauma as possible. It is in fact in the common interest that the region finds its own equilibrium.

In this sense Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift. An economy which, moreover, is characterised by structural elements which make internal change difficult. Among them, the importance of the tourist industry, which is now affected by political instability; a strong tradition of high public subsidies, which do not, however, generate positive outcomes in terms of employment; and an elevated degree of military control over the economy. These factors result in very limited opportunities for an imminent recovery. Europe, on the other hand, could have a more incisive role through the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), created in 2008 by the Barcelona Process and driven by the French, and which in recent years has been found to be a very effective card in relating to the Arab Spring. To find a greater influence in the region, however, the UfM requires renewed confidence and momentum in terms of its capacity for action.

Looking closely, in contrast, what one perceives is a sense of disorientation experienced by western governments, which appear unable to understand the path along which Egypt is directed. Of course, this understanding is far from easy to achieve, and the regional scenario certainly does not make the picture clearer. In fact, the situation in Syria is becoming progressively more explosive, and risks being the subject of a bitter clash between the West and Russia, which has seen Damascus as its only decisive partner in the Middle East since the late seventies.

Ultimately, signs of openness towards a more secular Egypt, which is crucially able to equip itself with a stable and credible democratic system, are coming from the West. To date, however, it is precisely this choice of mediation which seems to be the greatest challenge faced by Cairo. In such a scenario, marked by the fluidity and succession of events, the questions of Europeans are, perhaps, identical to those of Egyptians themselves.

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Original Article: Il caos egiziano: un problema europeo

Translated by Lois Bond


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The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

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Obama & Reagan: Foreign Policies in Comparison

Unlike Reagan’s prompt reaction to the events of 1983 in Beirut, the supposed passivity of the current American president, shown following the attack in Benghazi, is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Stevens, President Obama responded with a resolute but cautious approach, in line with the foreign policy choices of his first term: “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

The voluntary preference for the term “act of terror,” and not “terrorism,” shows to what extent the strategy in presidential foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, is focused towards a path which diverges from that of the previous Bush administration, with both linguistic and cultural discontinuities. Behind such language there also lies the undeniable need to put into perspective a constant, and often exploitable, reference to the “Islamic” matrix of the attacks. The will to not concede to the easy temptation of military intervention further confirms the overall tendency towards caution and reflection.

A different reason for this behaviour is to be found in the additional aim of reaching a stabilisation of the political situation in the Middle East and a complex re-evaluation of the image of the United States. The current U.S. president has acted in awareness of America’s political limits in such a context, and has favoured an approach which is more pragmatic than the traditional idealism typical of U.S. foreign policy. The American presence in Middle Eastern and North African affairs during the 20th century has resulted in increased tensions, particularly post-9/11and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ordered by Bush. Anti-American sentiment, demonstrated by terrorist actions against sensitive U.S. targets, has grown in the last decade: it is one of the greatest problems faced by Obama, who was also elected for his promise of comprehensive normalisation.

Even the recent trip to the Middle East, described by the press, unsurprisingly, as a “maintenance trip“, showed Obama’s approach to be particularly tentative, almost reflexive, and his reluctance to take more incisive action, by virtue of a high-profile repositioning away from typical frenzied American interventionism.

The title of Fawaz Gerges’ essay, which appeared in March in Limes, effectively sums up  widespread opinion on the so-called Obama doctrine: “Barack the Cautious.” Gerges’ words underline Obama’s pragmatism in the Middle Eastern context, focused on maintaining the status quo by avoiding ideological excesses and encouraging a calmer atmosphere. According to Gerges, this approach is the result of a deliberate American disengagement from the Middle East, in favour of the Pacific. Michele Basso, however, wonders just how realistic this outcome is, and alternatively to what degree a pivotal role in crisis contexts is still a determining factor for America, thus confirming Washington’s presence, albeit in a “softer” manner.

In many respects the same policy of re-evaluation and American outplacement came to be implemented, albeit with different strategies, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The stated objective was to regain credibility among Middle Eastern countries as well as to encourage a process of pacification, however in a strategic framework strongly influenced by the 1982 Westminster Address. Reagan’s doctrine was based on the idea of facing the Soviets at a global level in low-level-intensity conflicts, that is, those not directly fought between the two superpowers, also supporting guerrilla groups and opponents of philosocialist or pro-communist regimes wherever necessary. This aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy, imbued with an anti-communism which was as superficial as it was simplistic, had a positive influence in the direct conflict with Moscow in the long term, but greatly tarnished the image of Americans in other contexts. The U.S. invasion, often maladroit in essentially local matters, such as conflict between Israel and Palestine, or between Iraq and Iran, led to a tightening of international relations, particularly in Lebanon, Iran, and Central America. The American intervention in Lebanon in support of Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had exploited the civil war to undermine the Israelis, was considered an act of interference. The reaction to this “reintegration” in the area was very violent with a long series of attacks and abductions of hostages that characterised the entire Reagan presidency. The most shocking episode, which was in a certain sense similar to that of the embassy in Benghazi last year, was in October 1983 in Beirut, which saw the death of more than 200 Marines. The attack, then claimed by Hezbollah, led to a ramping up of American political choices at global level.

Reagan’s reaction was therefore quite different from that of today’s commander-in-chief. The then Republican president showed no reluctance to talk of “terrorism”, condemning the attack and planning a military response, which resulted in the Urgent Fury mission in Grenada. Despite the facade of a reasoning which concerned the defence of civilian and military Americans in the country, where there had been a resounding advance of the philosocialist regime, in so doing Reagan expressed the will for a muscular politics which would restabilise the predominant role of the United States.

Such a modus operandi seems to have been abandoned by Obama, who has always refused military involvement akin to that of the Reagan era. According to Del Pero’s reading, the re-elected president has initiated a policy of “low cost interventionism”, characterised by a general caution, “approaching passivity,” dictated by the pledges established by President Obama himself in electoral campaigns. Observers within the international community are currently reflecting on the validity of this approach with respect to issues in the Middle East and wonder about the need for the U.S. to play a more decisive and incisive role.

At the same time, one should not forget that the president has not completely abandoned the instrument of interventionism: for example, the uses of drones in war zones or in operations like the one that led to the killing of Bin Laden.

In its results, such behaviour does not appear far removed from Reagan’s more aggressive approach, as the escalation of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and in neighbouring regions does not appear at all diminished. At this time the greatest doubt is found in asking whether Obama’s current foreign policy is an almost obligatory and voluntarily considered choice to change the balance of power in ever-changing contexts, especially in light of the great political and cultural upheavals of recent years. It is highly likely that the American president’s supposed passivity is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.

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Original Article: Obama e Reagan: visioni e scelte strategiche a confronto 

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: isriya

 

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Cyprus, the Mediterranean Pivot

The declared objective of the government of Nicosia is to use the geo-strategic position of Cyprus, between Europe and the Middle East, to make the country a true energy hub, with a central role in commercial transit and in the provision of European energy.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n recent years the Eastern Mediterranean has increased its own strategic importance at an international level following significant discoveries of hydrocarbons. In this region the recent offshore findings of natural gas are radically changing its geostrategic and economic status. Before achieving the ambitious objective of becoming a net exporter of energy the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus in particular, must confront regional challenges and interests-be they of an economic, politico-strategic or, inevitably energy-infrastructure nature-of the major powers in the area.

Two years on from the great discoveries of the Leviathan and Tamar fields on the Israeli coast, December 2011 was the turn of Cyprus: the USA company Noble Energy reported an initial discovery of offshore gas in block 12 of Aphrodite, with an energy potential estimated at between 5-8 trillion cubic feet (140-230 billion cubic metres). Evidence suggests that this area is an extension of the Levante basin: it is still the subject of an initial exploratory phase and, therefore, these initial estimates are considered conservative, with the prospect of their rising in the coming years. There is therefore a potential wealth for the island of enormous proportions. According to some experts, in fact, Cyprus could potentially be sitting on a goldmine of at least 60 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters) of gas, not considering the potential of the petroleum: it could generate revenue of up to $ 400 billion once commercially exploited.

The declared objective of the government of Nicosia is to use the geo-strategic position of Cyprus, between Europe and the Middle East, to make the country a true energy hub, with a central role in commercial transit and in the provision of European energy. A perspective, however, which does not consider the tensions and several unresolved questions that could hinder the energy development of the island, itself essential in reviving an economy in deep crisis.

Firstly, the strong political destabilisation resulting from the 1974 Turkish military invasion which produced a de facto division of the island, between the Turkish-Cypriot north and the Greek-Cypriot south. The discovery of energy resources in the southern part of Cyprus, as well as an absence of results from research conducted thus far into the offshore areas of the north, have added a new and relevant source of friction in relations between Nicosia and Ankara. The island’s peculiar political situation could therefore constitute a brake on the development of the country’s economy, capable of affecting decisions regarding investment by foreign companies, especially those who have strong interests in Turkey. The latter, in fact, threatened repercussions for those companies which intend to enter into agreements for the exploitation of resources with the Cypriot government. Such is the case for Eni S.p.A. which has seen the suspension of all projects undertaken with Turkey, due to its agreement to exploration signed with Nicosia in January. Ankara, in fact, maintains that such energy resources are located in international waters and that they should benefit all of the island’s inhabitants, and not only Greek-Cypriots. Turkish interests, profoundly connected to energy, therefore emerge. Furthermore, relations between Cyprus and Israel, in particular those relating to a possible project for the liquefaction of gas for export, feed the prospect of an energy partnership. Excluding Ankara, this could provide an alternative route for the transport of gas to Europe and Asia, obstructing the great Turkish mission to become a regional energy hub. According to several analysts, this prospect was one of the reasons behind the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel which, enabling the former to maintain its centrality as the country of transit, and the latter to have optimal conditions available for the export of its gas. Whilst in the long term, the economic advantages of cooperation between Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Athens and Ankara could be more convincing, in the short term, energy pressures feed tensions in an already established hotspot.

It is probable that Turkey’s firm stance on the Cyprus question is one of the reasons behind the Russian decision not to accept the bailout plan hastily proposed by Nicosia, in exchange for licenses for the exploitation of gas fields. To this must be added, among others, the European position and the special relationship between Berlin and Moscow, sealed by the agreement on the Nord Stream gas line, which might have suffered setbacks if Putin had decided to approve a bailout plan for a member country within the EU. Moscow’s position, then, is understandable when considering the multiplicity of interests that the country shares with other regional players, such as Germany, Greece and Turkey: these can be safeguarded only by a strategy of ambiguous realpolitik. Although the issue of the Cypriot bailout has put pressure on the relationship between Nicosia and Moscow, it is difficult to imagine a rupture of relations between the two countries, but rather a redefinition in the interests that still bind them. Moscow, in fact, has long-standing ties with the island of Aphrodite, ranging from banking and finance, to real estate and military strategy. There are strong suspicions, for example, regarding the role played by Cyprus in the trafficking of weapons from Russia to Damascus.

Brussels, for its part, seems determined to impose comprehensive change on the Cypriot business model and on its banking system, thus affecting its status as a tax haven for the offshore investments of Russian magnates. Discoveries of gas in the Cypriot Sea represent a great opportunity for Europe to diversify energy supplies, with respect to Russia’s dominant role. Cyprus’s economic problems, however, which have led to the forced levy on bank deposits, also herald strong domestic discontent:  the EU should not exacerbate the economic situation because, as the multiple demonstrations on the island show, anti-European sentiment is particularly widespread amongst the population and could become a source of political instability. This could obstruct a possible solution to the conflict with Turkey, a central obstacle in Ankara’s access to Brussels.

The framework outlined above seems far from optimistic given that, at least in the short to medium term, the European iron fist on bank accounts, the withdrawal of Russian support and Turkish pressure clamp the island in a vice which will only increase internal malaise and aggravate the downturn in the national economy. A situation which seems as if it will be unable to improve until exploitation of the energy resources of the Aphrodite gas field is at full capacity, something which may require several years.

On the contrary, within an extended timescale the need for cooperation between the main players involved can only increase, due to pressures deriving from the stabilisation of the Cypriot economy and the gradual exploitation of the rich intra-European gas fields. Turkey has already signalled to this effect: conscious of its role as transit towards international markets, Ankara has proposed to Nicosia its help in the development of gas, noting on the other hand that the benefits of such discoveries should be shared by all the inhabitants of the island. In conclusion, one aspect is more certain than others: without a resolution of the dispute over sovereignty of the island, an issue that has dragged on for 40 years now, eventual regional cooperation seems difficult to envisage.

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Original Article: Cipro, il pivot del Mediterraneo

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: magisstra

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The ‘Arab Spring’ Backfire

Egypt looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. 

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the ‘Arab Spring’ began, with Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, many Western countries and their overzealous administrations were quick to jump on the democracy bandwagon; quick was the change of discourse – away from decades of tolerable autocratic alliances, to outright denunciations of their friends of the past. Fair enough, dictatorship seems a much outdated concept with no place in the modern world; the evolution of political science has left no scope for debate in this regard. Yet, championing the cause of democracy so fervently was a mistake – the administrations of the Western world showed little tact and forward-thinking in their actions, as it has been made evident following the ousting of Mohammed Morsi.

The vehemence of external support empowered the people to act, perhaps not physically, but certainly psychologically. Concessions made by leaders in the Middle-East and, in certain cases, their deposition, meant that something which bore vague resemblance to democracy was born. The world rejoiced at the apparent demise of despotism. However, to revisit the self-immolation of Bouazizi, this almost completely missed the point. The man did not light himself on fire out of some uppity desire for democracy or political representation – this is a yearning of the intelligentsia. The masses, out in the past few weeks in Tahrir Square, belong to what would be categorised as the working class and their primary concern is often directed by necessity over want. In other words, people like Bouazizi would have appreciated the luxury of a vote, but they are much more inclined towards their own sufficiency. An end to corruption and a fair chance to make an honest living are what the masses desire; this was proved when the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected President, to the rejoice of a nation. As Fraser Nelson of the Daily Telegraph identifies, what the people of the Middle-East needed was not democracy but instead capitalism.

In truth, democracy is nothing but a quixotic concept in the context of the near future of the Middle-East. Stability is needed before democracy can be introduced. William Hague’s insistence that stability comes from democratic institutions is correct, but not in a situation as complex as that particular region. By starting the democracy bandwagon too early, the Western powers have enabled the Egyptian public to recognise their true potency. They have learnt that laws can be broken, that the constitution can be changed, whenever they so desire. Stability is becoming an object shrinking in the distance.

Now, Egypt finds itself in a difficult place, as do America and the UK. To call the military junta it is now dealing with a consequence of a coup d’état would rescind approximately $1.6 billion of aid to Egypt and plunge it further into instability. Simultaneously, these administrations fear that Egypt is to return to its past of a political battleground between corrupt military leaders and staunch Islamists. Whilst its generals maintain they want nothing for themselves, their actions suggest otherwise: the Egyptian military already rejected a draft constitution, fundamentally because it suggested an elected civilian authority to control the armed forces. Effectively, Egypt has slipped out of the control of the Western powers; its fate rests, and power lies, in the hands of its military. The US and UK may look on and observe, but they missed their chance; whole-hearted intervention may well have been practiced a few years before but with the economic downturn and memories of past failures, both the UK and the US were reluctant to intervene in a region crying out for the establishment of a genuine capitalist system.

As for the future of Egypt? It looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. What’s to stop them usurping another legitimate President? It’s a dire situation that’s just screaming out impasse.

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Photo Credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela

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Japan & Northeast Asia: Acknowledging History for Peaceful Relations

Japan’s acceptance of its history would be a beneficial start to demonstrate they are wholehearted in working with its neighbours towards a greater goal – striving for regional peace and prosperity.

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]saka’s Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s justification of Japan’s war crime in forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II, ignited outrage from its neighbours, particularly China and South Korea. This incident reminds us that although it has been almost 70 years since the war ended, there are still unhealed scars that will perpetuate mutual suspicion and disunity – particularly from its closest neighbours China and Korea who had suffered the most from Japanese military aggression.  Additionally, the Japanese government’s actions have continuously convinced China and South Korea they are not sorry for what they had done in World War II. However, if the Japanese government is willing to accept its history without attempting to downplay the atrocities that had happened, this will cement positive and healthy relations with the other two powers of Northeast Asia.

In May this year, Toru Hashimoto from the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), claimed it was  necessary for the Imperial Japanese Army to have “comfort women” (ianfu) – a term used to euphemise sexual slavery during World War II. Hashimoto defended that “to maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time”. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 women, many of whom originated from Korea, were trafficked into military brothels, where they suffered the most brutal forms of torture. As a result, enraged responses came from China and South Korea. Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of China, condemned Hashimoto’s remarks: “We are appalled and indignant about the Japanese politician’s comments boldly challenging humanity and historical justice”. South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Shin Kak Soo, commented: “I’m disappointed to know that a Japanese politician has such a poor understanding of history and women’s human rights”. On 16 May, Hashimoto offered to apologise to former sex slaves: “I think I have to apologise firmly for what Japan did as I talk to former comfort women”. However, in this statement, it appears that Hashimoto was attempting to soften Japan’s war crimes. He continued: “During World War II, neither the US nor the British militaries had comfort stations or comfort women, but it is an obvious fact that they made use of local women” and “Japan was not the only one doing so: everybody was doing bad things. I think Japanese people […] should offer objections if there is a misunderstanding of facts in the world”.

Although the Japanese government has apologised for its actions in World War II, they have lacked to convince both China and South Korea about their own bona fide. Contrarily, some Japanese deeds have strongly persuaded its neighbours they are refusing to acknowledge history. In 2001, the Japanese government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, permitted changes in history school textbooks that moderated Japanese war crime.  Such textbooks, called New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho), were written by a group of staunch nationalists, known as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai). The book included content related to sex slaves as “comfort women”; in addition, it whitewashed the Nanjing Massacre, where 300,000 Chinese unarmed soldiers and civilians were killed by the Japanese army in 1937. This decision flared up its regional neighbours: they questioned Japan’s motives and their apologetic attitudes towards imperialisation and military aggression. Furthermore, the South Korean government underlined how the textbooks still included rationalising and glorifying Japan’s past wrongdoings based upon self-centred interpretation of history.

Another controversial issue is represented by the visits paid by Japanese Prime Ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine. In the shrine were buried high ranking military officers who had committed war crimes, and the Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo (1884-1948). These visits rile up neighbours, and despite repeated angry accusations about Japan’s refusal to accept its history, Tokyo has always been ready to defend its decision. For instance, between 2001 and 2006, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made visits each year. In April 2013, 168 members of the Japanese parliament paid a visit to the Shrine and offered their prayers. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, was also one of the attendants: as a result, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se cancelled a meeting with his Japanese counterpart. A spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying said “no matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan’s history of aggression”. However, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga justified that “a visit to the Yasukuni is the matter of beliefs, and Japan ensures freedom of faith”.

Amidst the ire reactions over Hashimoto’s distasteful comments, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a photograph with a military jet that was numbered 731. In the photograph, Abe was smiling and flashing a thumbs up. Unit 731 was a chemical and biological experiment unit division located in Harbin of China. Many victims, from various countries such as China, South East Asia and Russia were forcibly subjected to horrific and inhumane experiments. The photo received furious condemnations from Korean and Chinese media. South Korea’s largest news publication, Chosen IIbo, commented the picture with the caption “Abe’s endless provocation!”.

Hashimoto’s comment, along with past Japanese leaders’ actions, clearly reflect the deep-rooted tensions between Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbours. China, Japan and South Korea are the leading economies in Asia, therefore healthy diplomatic relations are essential to regional stability. As Hong Lei observed, “the way they treat the past will determine the way Japan walks toward the future. On what choice Japan will make, the Asian neighbours and the international community will wait and see.”

Northeast Asia is also riddled with other complex and thorny issues: the disunity and mutual suspicion between the two Koreas, the uncertainty of regional stability due to North Korea’s unpredictable regime and the looming possibilities of a nuclear attack. Still relevant is the Sino-Japanese fiery dispute over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), Japan and South Korea’s competing claims over the Dokdo Islands (also known as the Liancourt Rocks, and called Takeshima by Japan), and the unresolved relations between China and Taiwan. These obstacles have continuously barred members of this region from having consistent positive diplomatic relations and mutual trust. Hence, it is essential that all members of this region must be more proactive in setting up good relations for future generations to resolve all these tensions. While this article is not suggesting that Japan’s acceptance of its history will solve all of East Asia’s conflicts, that would be a beneficial start to demonstrate they are wholehearted in working with its neighbours towards a greater goal – striving for regional peace and prosperity.

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Humble Pie For Economic Science

Starting from a reflection on the absence of satisfactory post-crisis economic corrective measures and on the strong disparities between the exponents of the principal economic theories, this article proposes two lines of thought regarding the complex question: “Why has economic science been unable to predict and respond to the crisis?”

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ive years on from the onset of the 2008 crisis the western world has not managed to propose a decisive economic political model. The economic debate has been heated, even stimulating, yet inconclusive and confused.

Restricting the summary of the debate to the Italian situation, it is shown that whilst Germany and the ECB supported and sponsored Mario Monti’s politics of austerity, Gustavo Piga keenly sought to explain its relative recessive character: it was not adapted to reduce the public debt/GDP ratio, and Wolfgang Münchau wrote in the Financial Times “Why Monti is not the right man to lead Italy.” Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi are also discordant voices, maintaining that the error does not lie with the politics of austerity per se, but the way in which it has been implemented: spending needed to be cut rather than taxes raised. The orchestra of soloists has a single shared score, sadly titled ‘The worst has passed but the recovery will be slow.’ In the meantime, the European Central Bank has stated that rates of unemployment have reached previously unprecedented levels in 2013, whilst Bankitalia has announced that the GDP will fall by 1% over the course of this year.

Why has economic science been unable to predict and respond to the crisis? This question is obviously complex. The present article limits itself to give two widely overlooked responses within the debate which, in the opinion of the writer of this article are, however, fundamental. The first response is structural, insofar as it concerns the essence of economic science itself and its characteristics. The second conversely makes reference to a relatively recent and hopefully correctable phenomenon.

1. Whether we like it or not, the predictive ability of economic models is limited. Fornino notes that economic sciences, unlike natural sciences, interact with their object of study, thus impairing their accuracy in the moment in which implemented predictions direct agents’ choices. If for example, proving by contradiction, an economic model were able to predict the exact trend of every variable of interest, all the economic agents would want to profit from the informative advantage and would sell or buy according to the expected price. It would, however, be the very same shared and simultaneous action of all the agents to make the predictions inexact. Furthermore, due to practical and ethical reasons, often it is not possible for economic science to test its own models through appropriate experiment: would an experiment aimed at assessing the effects of a politics of austerity be conceivable?   

2. Secondly, a growing separation has developed between political decisions and economic science. Research centres produce countless abstract studies, where in several cases the greatest contribution is to be found in the possibility of the insertion of a new publication in the author’s curriculum vitae. The debate between economists often culminates in fierce discussion on topics unknown to most, to justify the variable instrumental choice, or to discuss the dataset, or even the ways to evade potential endogeneity problems. Citing Dani Rodrik on this matter:

“Professors at the top universities distinguish themselves today not by being right about the real world, but by devising imaginative theoretical twists or developing novel evidence. If these skills also render them perceptive observers of real societies and provide them with sound judgment, it is hardly by design.”

On the contrary, in the recent Italian electoral campaign the central theme of economic politics to be implemented following the crisis has been marginal, and the opinions of several of the most influential parties have been elusive, to say the least. Let us be clear, the problem is not the empirical research in itself, or the data or the techniques used. The problem arises in the degree to which technique and technicalities precede ideas of economic politics. The few ideas in circulation remain marginal in the political debate due to their abstruse or politically inconvenient nature.

Historically, above all in periods of post-crisis, politics has found its primary ally in economic science. To support Roosevelt’s New Deal there had been Keynesian economic politics, whilst the influence of Fridmaniano’s economic thinking and the Chicago school on the choices of the British government under Margaret Thatcher and of the US government under Ronald Reagan is evident. Today, unprecedented western macro-problems, linked primarily to financial and labour markets, are affiliated with the old ideological clash between neo-Keynesians and neo-Classicists, as well as a little-appreciated, severe and aristocratic academic debate.

One of the few positive aspects of the economic crisis, as recalled by Monacelli, is that it conveys to us the complexity of understanding economic problems, which is essential and requires a capacity for extensive analysis. In the light of this, due to the recent failures of economic science and its own incapacity to provide and communicate comprehensive responses to the crisis, I believe that a slice of humble pie is required.

Returning to the two proposed responses, the pressing necessity for post-crisis economic corrective measures renders only the first still sustainable. The limits of the economic models are, indeed, structural, and economic science has reached sufficient maturity to recognise and address the practical and ethical shortcomings which characterise it. Rodrik, for example, confirms that the economy, unlike natural sciences, rarely produces definitive results, as every economic reasoning is contextual. All economic propositions are “if-then.” Consequently, understanding which remedy would function best in a particular context is a craft rather than an exact science.

I believe however, passing to the second reflection, that today like never before it is necessary for the economy to return to its direction of political-governmental choices. Accordingly, it is fundamental to preserve correct and scientifically valid methodologies, to not lose ourselves in useless attempts at academic elegance and to remember to construct the means, rather than the end. Krugman maintains that the problem does not rest with economic theory, but rather with economic politics; the undersigned would add that the problem lies in the manifest incapacity for dialogue between the two.

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Original Article: Un bagno d’umiltà per la scienza economica

Translated by Lois Bond 

Photo credit: infomatique

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Turkey: Democracy In Action

Erdoğan has recently become increasingly deaf to opposition instead of displaying the pragmatism he had previously. This has catalyzed in the current street protests in a response to an enfeebled political opposition.

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or many it would seem spring has sprung in Turkey, although in reality that is misguided and buys into a one size fits all mentality. After Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan was considered a rock star following the uprisings in much of Northern Africa and described as a trusted friend by Obama, the country’s “kemalist minority” appears to have got their vindication with the current protests and Erdoğan belligerence. However the protests that have erupted from the Gezi Park occupation is more than an ideological rift.

The conflict between the AKP with its openly religious leader and its opposition has been evident since even  before his election to power in the early noughties. The rise of his government has only exacerbated tensions between secularism and religious politics and  his administration has faced a number of challenges within the country throughout the term. However, the Erdoğan administration has made commendable progress on certain fronts; economically the country is booming, the military has had its stronghold loosened and the country is becoming friendlier towards its minorities. As a result of both the successes and challenges that have marked his career, media across the world have wavered between painting him as the poster boy of a democratic Islamic government or tarnishing him as an anti-democratic populist. Throughout, Erdoğan has never been adverse to ignoring resistance, he has sidelined the traditional political elite instead of bringing them into the fray and allowing them a real voice in government. This has led to hostility to what the secular portion of society sees as an assault on their values and the values of Ataturk. Nevertheless, Erdoğan has recently become increasingly deaf to opposition instead of displaying the pragmatism he had previously. This has catalyzed in the current street protests in a response to an enfeebled  political opposition. It would seem, as Firat Demir suggests, that perhaps Erdoğan has ‘succumbed to the authoritarian impulses that doomed so many other Turkish leaders before him’.

However, despite how easy it may be to paint the issues of Turkey as the problems of a fledgling democracy, it harkens back to Britain’s recent past of the Poll Tax riots of 1990. Margaret Thatcher was notoriously unwilling to listen to her party, never mind the opposition. However, she too became increasingly more “authoritarian” the longer she was in power. Much as Erdoğan has dismissed the protests and refused to back down from constructing the mall in Gezi Park that sparked the protests, Thatcher vowed to go through with her unpopular policy despite the violence and the dozens injured. Voices within the Conservative Party in the late 1980’s expressed their differences but were ignored; the AK Party similarly has no unified voice and any dissidence is disregarded, despite President Abdullah Gul, notably, has defended citizens’ right to peaceful protest.

Much like Thatcher, Erdoğan has fallen prey to the the pitfalls of being in power for too long and gaining a misplaced sense of imperviousness. Both display a misguided understanding of democracy, believing election results are enough to validate policy choices and in turn ignore voices within their own parties, the opposition and the electorate. The poll tax riots proved Thatcher to be out of touch with her country and Erdoğan’s response to the current unrest will result in a similar fate if he does not re-engage the electorate in an open and honest discussion.

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Photo Credit: AJstream

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What Germany should do about Salafism

Salafism is a challenge to German society. Groups that support or incite violence should fall within the responsibility of law enforcement, while those groups that stick to missionary activities might be an issue for society and normal politics and should be handled accordingly with the help of information programs and education.

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Salafism

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Federal Office for the Protection of the Consitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service, estimated for 2011 that about 3.800 people belonged to the Salafist movement in Germany. In addition, about 50 mosques are believed to subscribe to some form of Salafism although the BfV itself notes that this is only an estimate. Generally it is believed that this group is growing, however it is hard to come across more reliable numbers: since there is no Salafist “church” with registered members this will always be a challenge.

Salafism has different sub-groups that are more or less problematic. One of the major problems in the current debate in Germany is the lack of differentiation. Indeed, a difference lies between pious Salafists and more militant forms (lets call them Salafist-Jihadists). While the former pose a challenge on a social, political level only a fraction of the Salafist sphere in Germany subscribes to Jihadist thinking. This latter group is a potential threat to security. However, we also need to realize that “Jihadists” might be interested in becoming foreign fighters in e.g. Syria but would not commit terrorist attacks in Germany and not be a direct threat to the country.

Nevertheless, for historical reasons such a differentiation does not come natural to the German debate. In the German discourse exists the term “intellectual inciters” (geistige Brandstifter) and authorities tend to monitor and sanction them as well, through the BfV and other institutions. However, when it comes to government measures against radical Islamist groups such a differentiation might be crucial. Why is that? Well, Germany is a relative latecomer to this debate, given that the Salafist groups have spread over the country rather recently since ca. 2002. In the UK there has been a debate on whether pious Salafist groups might act as an ideological firewall against Jihadism or whether they actually provided the ideological underpinning for such activities. I personally believe that we lack empirically reliable evidence to make a decision for one of the two positions. It might very well be true that more activist individuals seek out pious Salafist groups to satisfy their radicalism but they move on because those are not radical enough. Such an assumption obviously blows in the face of the position currently held (German authorities have a couple of high class studies on this issue to which the public has no access, sadly).

Germany, on the one hand side has suppressed violent groups and groups it believed to incite violence (as displayed by frequent arrests and raids). On the other hand, it has started a dialogue with the wider Muslim community (that seems however stalling at the moment). The fact that since 2001 there has only been one successful Islamist inspired terrorist attack in Germany is the proof that authorities must be doing something right. Anyway, the level of care in dealing with the Salafist movement should be kept high, otherwise one might cause the radicalisation one wants to prevent. Groups that support or incite violence should fall within the responsibility of law enforcement, while those groups that stick to missionary activities might be an issue for society and normal politics and should be handled accordingly with the help of information programs and education (as well as kept under some surveillance: in the past Jihadist networks have formed in the proximity of these groups). On the individual level I believe Germany has expertise from the handling of sects to helping people that are willing to leave a group: those measures and efforts have been revealed to be effective.

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Photo Credit: Ahmadtal3t

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Religion, Society and the Woolwich Murder

The continued belief in religion is a symbol of the failure of multiculturalism; immigrants, and their subsequent families, are feeling like outsiders in the country they have chosen to call home and subsequently turn to things they know to be familiar in their own culture.

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Wednesday 22nd May, the brutal murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich shocked Britain. To state the obvious, the murder was unjustifiable and downright sickening. Nobody would make any attempt to contend that point, and nor would anyone, of sane mind, begin to attempt to justify the actions of the killers. Undoubtedly, the death of anyone is a humbling event and the tragedy in loss of life cannot be questioned. Yet, over the course of just 24 hours I’ve heard a host of opinions on the matter – none of which, in my eyes, come even close to exactly what the worst thing about this whole thing is.

I don’t have any plans to entertain the opinion of racists, or those who stereotype and discriminate in the most uneducated way. For the most part, I think Britain is in agreement that the killers do not represent any faction of Islam – the notable exception being the so-called English Defence League (whose overwhelming membership can be summed up by a delightful video). An opinion that I have found to be extremely common is one that emphasises the harmful role of religion. In this respect, I fully agree; religion has unparalleled power in the lives of ‘believers’. It must be stressed that this is the case in all religions: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and indeed Islam. By virtue of the sheer profundity of their beliefs religious followers have the capacity to be further indoctrinated – and so extremism is born.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction, p. 1, 1843)

If you had to make a list of quotes that had been overused, misquoted, and taken well out of context, Karl Marx’s reference to religion would be high up there. Few understand that Marx’s critique of religion is not actually that – it is a critique of society. People are quick, and perhaps with reasonable justification, to criticise the role played by religion for a variety of reasons: a) religious extremism fuels the majority of terrorism, b) religion advocates a number of prejudices and outdated laws, and c) religion highlights the incompatible blend of cultures. Religion does all these things, but what if religion is the symptom rather than the disease?

Why is it that, in a country as educated as Britain, that people choose to ignore scientific evidence and subject themselves to the subordination of a deity or scriptures? In the less economically developed world religion acts as an outlet of hope, born out of intrinsic necessity in such insufferable conditions. Thus, the only discernible conclusion to make is that the fulfilment gained from social bonds and interactions is inadequate; people turn to religion as a result of a broken society. In all respects it is true that the madmen who acted so horrifically in Woolwich were not acting out on the behest of social shortcomings, but their initial turn to religion was probably because of this.

The continued belief in religion is a symbol of the failure of multiculturalism; immigrants, and their subsequent families, are feeling like outsiders in the country they have chosen to call home and subsequently turn to things they know to be familiar in their own culture. It is a damning indictment of British society and social policy, that religion takes precedence over a British national identity. Never has it been more evident, than from the thick British accent of a terrorist, that certain communities are becoming isolated and alienated from the rest of British society. Obviously, this is not a justification for terrorism – I can only place that as a consequence of immoral, unscrupulous thinking, if not outright insanity. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people believing in what they want to believe, it just shouldn’t come at the expense of national pride – British togetherness. It is a sad fact that, because of our broken society, notions of national belonging and identity play second fiddle to religious beliefs.

Religion did not cause the events of Woolwich. However, if religion had not existed – if the killers had been secular, it would have been hard to imagine the barbaric murder of a soldier taking place, as it happened.

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Photo Credit: Mig_R

Bahrain-Unrest

The F1 Event in Bahrain: A Lost Chance For The Opposition

How did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces.

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Bahrain-Unrest

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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch to the chagrin of organisations like Amnesty International the F1 event in Bahrain went ahead and was earmarked to make around £26million for Bernie Ecclestone, let alone the huge amount of money generated by Grand-Prix-tourism and advertising for the Bahraini government. Even as some news agencies reported that the Grand Prix would be less eventful than last year, claims were being made that the government had arrested suspected pro-democracy supporters and had ejected an ITV news crew. In fact, even last week when I was in Manama, the tense mood was still apparent as I was stopped by the police on three separate occasions and asked which newspaper I worked for. Flattered though I was, I had to work hard to convince them of the truth that I was just a tourist. It is standard Bahraini government behaviour but still an opportunity for the opposition to attract more media attention.

So would it have been better if the Grand Prix had been cancelled, or if the event had continued with some reports of disturbances? A cancellation would certainly have caught the attention of the F1 fans, which had been waiting a whole week to see the continuation of the competition; how many of those fans are active human rights activists is unclear but probably not high given the level of spectation. However, the fact that the F1 continued gave the pro-democracy supporters an interesting opportunity to broadcast their grievances to the world. The mere fact that the majority of newspapers last week referred to the event as the ‘controversial Grand Prix’ is inadvertent propaganda for the revolutionaries. Interestingly, after his earlier dismissive reaction to calls for the F1 to be cancelled, Mr Ecclestone actually criticised the government for giving the opposition “a platform” to protest. He also told news reporters he would be meeting the opposition leader after the qualifying stage, for what purpose he did not say.

So how did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces. Before the F1 events began such a situation seemed highly unlikely given the large security force, long-running crackdowns and pre-emptive arrests, but it seems the protesters realised this too as demonstrations were stepped up the night before and the early-morning of the race. Tyre burnings in Manama also drew some attention, but the tactics were too mild or poorly timed to encourage the kind of attention that would bring their situation forward in the news.

Obviously the Bahraini government and the F1 organisers also had their own press strategies which were extremely harmful to the pro-democracy campaign. This included F1 legend Jackie Stewart weighing in on the side of the Bahraini government. His statement that the anti-government clashes are “no different to the Glasgow Rangers and the Glasgow Celtics [clashes]” is in my opinion a disgustingly naive (or purposefully destructive) assessment of the situation. The fact that this may have been taken as gospel by F1 fans threatens to undermine any pro-democracy efforts to get their word across to the very influential audience of the motorsport. It’s hardly surprising that Jackie supports the Bahraini regime though, seeing as he had a hand in the promotion of Bahrain as a location for F1 races.

The question of violence and destruction of property in Bahraini protests is also an interesting point to address. The branding of the pro-democracy protesters as ‘terrorists’ because the protesters burned tyres and clashed with police seem highly sensationalist to an opposition supporter. But strangely it seems to have worked in turning (at least the British) F1 spectators against the opposition efforts. A very heated and exhausting conversation with my warehouse colleagues showed that they were angry that the “selfish” and “irresponsible” opposition wanted to spoil a beloved international event; although they understood there was excessive and extreme police violence. It would seem that the Bahraini government’s attempt at alienating the opposition argument from F1 spectators has been, in this specific case, successful. Given the lack of international support though I would guess that has been the occurrence across the wider F1 spectator community as well.

The overall effectiveness of the opposition’s campaign to push their story into the global or western spheres seems to have been quite unsuccessful, at least in the long term. The news outlets are no longer running large stories on Bahraini affairs because the tournament has moved on and the Syrian situation has progressed very far in recent weeks. It seems that the only ways to really globalise this situation effectively are to either heavily disrupt a future F1 event to the point of cancellation or relocation (like 2011), or for the opposition movement to turn to much more violent means of resistance. The latter may gain intense media coverage, but is it worth the cost of human life?

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Photo Credit: Shabbirhtz