The current situation in Libya is far from simple.
In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar received from the new Russian envoy, Lev Dengov, the polite order not to reach Tripoli, which – however – is already surrounded from the South by the forces of the Benghazi General.
The conquest of Tripoli would not be the beginning of the unification of the two parts of the old unitary Libya of Gaddafi (and of Italo Balbo, who delayed – as much as possible – the implementation of racial laws in the Tripoli Governorate).
Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Al-Sarraj, is still the only one recognized by the UN and it has already budgeted 2 billion dinars, equivalent to 1.43 billion US dollars, to fund the war against Benghazi for the renewed control of the capital city by the GNA forces.
Funds to be provided without resorting to foreign loans, as Tripoli made it clear.
The funding for Tripoli’s government stemsabove all from the oil sale – currently 928,000 barrels a day – with 1.87 billion US dollars of net revenue, according to the latest data of April 2019.
Furthermore, Al-Sarraj acquires other funds from zero-interest loans from local banks to the Central Bankand finally from a 183% tax on foreign transactions made at official rates, namely 1.4 dinars on the US dollar.
The centralized collection of taxes, however, is decreasing ever more every day, even in the oil sector, and the leaders of the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) constantly complain about thefts and numerous unlawful acts.
As Hobbes used to say, if there is no fear, the “universal and legitimate condition of equality between men”, the clash between individuals leads to mutual aggression and results in bellum omnium contra omnes.
Hence the need for a pact between “subjects” that puts an end to the war of everybody against everybody else.
Indeed, we must apply Hobbes’ thinking to Libya.
As well as Machiavelli’s, when he reminds us that “ruling means to make people believe” and that “there is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of others”. Hence we need to immediately find a Libyan leader who – unlike Gaddafi, who discovered the Italian intelligence services in a meeting in Abano Terme – can reunite the country by “taking advantage of the beast and the man”, just to put it again in Machiavelli’s words.
This is the law of every “failed State”, due to the implosion of its central authority, which generates a crisis of confidence among all participants in the imaginative and yet real agreement to end the war of everybody against everybody else – which is exactly what is happening in Libya.
The unitary Libyan State failed not for its territorial extension, but for its lack – or illegitimacy for its subjects – of recourse to the use of force. In Gaddafi’s case, the use of force was materially prevented by Westerners, who wanted to get rid of him, after having squeezed him like a lemon of the many trees in Tripoli’s promenade.
As clearly stated in the Resolutions of the UN Security Council, however, General Haftar cannot sell the oil extracted from the territory under his control – although some trafficking has already taken place.
As the Security Council itself has recently decided, these Resolutions will be extended until 2020, albeit with the abstention of Russia and China.
General Haftar failed to conquer Tripoli, but instead hired a US political lobbying firm, Linden Government Solutions, for as many as 120,000 US dollars.
The firm has already spoken to President Trump, who is very careful about this type of advisory services.
General Haftar had already drafted an advisory contract with a Montreal-based consulting firm, Dickens & Madison, led by Ari Ben Menashe, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.
Hence, considering that General Haftar cannot use his oil proceeds on his own, he must operate with an account opened with the Central Bank of Libya long time ago, but both NOC and the Central Bank are obviously linked to Al-Sarraj’s government.
General Haftar’s attempts to sell oil on his own were partly blocked directly by the United States.
The conquest – albeit temporary – of the Fezzan tribes by Tobruk’s General and his rapid advance towards the areas of Al-Sarraj’s government were funded mainly by the dinars printed in Russia.
As is well-known, the Central Bank in Al-Bayda, namely General Haftar’s monetary entity of reference, split from the Central Bank of Tripoli in 2014.
As stated by Governor Al-Hibri, currently reserves amount to 800 million dinars, 60 million euros and 80 million US dollars.
The dinars printed in Russia – those with Muammar al- Gaddafi’s profile – even with the consent of the House of Representatives- amounted to 9.7 billion over a period of three years.
They amounted to 4 billion in 2016, 4 in 2017 and 1.7 in 2018.
For General Haftar, this money is mainly used to buy the Southern tribes and the mercenaries, from various parts of Africa and the Arab world, they use to fight GNA.
On Al-Sarraj side, however, the resources are equally drained by the need to pay his own mercenaries, who act both as internal security forces and as military groups against General Haftar.
Al-Bayda’s Libyan East sold its government bonds for a total amount of 35 billion dinars, but outside the official financial channels, considering that the Bank of Tripoli funds – in the East – only the wage bill of those who were civil servants before 2014.
Conversely, the Tripoli government spends an annual amount of 48.6 billion dinars, especially for the public sector’s wages and the subsidies for gasoline purchase.
The debt-to-GDP ratio of the GNA government in Tripoli is equal to 143%, with 70% of public spending going exactly on wages and salaries.
With specific reference to the two Libyan Central Banks, it should also be recalled that the establishment of the Central Bank in Al-Bayda in 2014 caused the interruption of the automatic clearing system with the Central Bank of Tripoli, namely the Real Time Gross Settlement. Later, apart from a few money transfers from Tripoli, in the East they sustained themselves by simply printing banknotes – as in the Weimar Republic -to the tune of 7 billion US dollars, equivalent to 10 billion dinars.
Does the global oil market need a producer like Libya undergoing an uncontrollable inflationary crisis? What would happen to OPEC and the other oil producers?
Hence the need for a Dawes-style plan, like the one for Weimar’s Germany, rescuing us from the Libyan contagion. How? Taking the formal value of wells into account? Calculating the nominal value of current or future concessions and licenses?
Certainly we could not draw up a budget by calculating the value of locomotives, as Dawes did for Weimar’s Germany.
The debt allocated in securities by the East-Libyan government, issued between 2015 and 2018, is currently worth 35 billion dinars, equivalent to 25 billion US dollars- a50% of which is still used to fund General Haftar’s forces.
Since 2017 the Tripoli government’s revenue deficit, concerning above all the fall in oil price and extraction, has reached approximately 15 billion US dollars a year.
Hence, considering expenses and lost revenue, currently the Tripoli government’s deficit is supposed to be 62 billion dinars, equivalent to 44 billion US dollars.
The Libyan East, however, signs checks from standard current accounts for its employees, that are changed and paid by the private banks where the employees have their own accounts.
Hence a system has been created parallel to the RTGS system, which applies to the official relations with Tripoli, and another one, which links the Benghazi-Tobruk government to all the Libyan private banks, including those in the West.
Hence the banks held their first guarantee system with the Central Bank of Tripoli and accumulated reserves and credits to support the operations ordered by the Central Bank in Al-Bayda.
The problem lies in the fact that the international financial institutions recognize Tripoli’s debt, but not Al-Bayda’s.
Currently commercial banks have 21 billion dinars of credits with East Benghazi banks, equivalent to 15 billion US dollars. This obviously leads to the fall in deposits.
In mid-March 2019, bank deposits in the Central Bank of Tripoli ranged between one and two billion dinars, but in the East they amounted to six billion.
A trade war disguised as a banking war.
This is certainly one of the reasons underlying the acceleration of war throughout Libya.
No defense and no advance can be maintained with these internal economies.
Nevertheless, if Haftar or Al-Sarraj fall, the funding of the two wars will take place completely “off the books”, as is still the case for the support of the jihad.
The latest polls show that 37% of Libyans want safety and security, in particular.
Whoever guarantees to put an end to the bloodshed in the streets wins the hearts of all Libyans. As would happen everywhere.
“Forgiveness” and “justice”, which are certainly not synonymous, rank second for Libyans (25%). This is a sign that, however, the sectarian tension and the war between factions have reached their psychological limit, which is also a limit to everyday recruitment and political bias and partisanship.
“Restorative” justice, in a context like the Libyan one, is favoured compared to “criminal or punitive justice”.
In other words, both in the East and in the West, the Libyan people want the return of what has been removed, the restitution of property – maybe even incomplete – in exchange for the undeterred, undaunted and useless continuation of the clash, or the dream of future reintegration at the end of the fight.
A metaphysical term, which is not used by chance.
40% of the Libyans interviewed by various Western research centers – and we consider a weighted average of data – answered that all belligerents should be forgiven, even those who perpetrated crimes. Clearly people cannot stand it anymore.
Libya and the Libyan people only want to live in peace, at last.
50% of the Libyans interviewed by Western research centers think that the Libyan diaspora should play a role in the peace process, while 43% do not believe so.
Said 43% do not want all those who made money in a “grey” way and ran away in time to still operate in Libya.
Nevertheless, there is still a vast Libyan diaspora of intellectuals, technicians, professionals, entrepreneurs and traders, who will inevitably be called back to their duties, when there is a credible peace project.
The pacification process must be led by Libyans, in a new national government and with the planned support of the powers interested in the stabilization (and unification) of Libya.
The splitting of Libya is just a silly memory of the peripheral vilayet(district) of the Ottoman Empire.
Certainly, as some agencies supporting populations at war or in a period of serious political crisis suggest, it will also be necessary to create new nation-binding initiatives between the various Libyan groups – possibly non-artificial – so as to eliminate the animosity, tension and hatred, which have naturally spread.
But “hate is a tiring exercise”, as Jean Rostand used to say.
Moreover, there will be the need for a reparation mechanism, organized by a Trust including European and Middle East banks appointed by their governments among the warring factions.
Paying means reigning, as Madame De Girardin maintained.
Hence stopping immediately – or in a reasonably short lapse of time – the endless discussions on the damage caused to shops, or even on the children murdered, or possibly on the unlawful damages received by banks.
Forgiving them their debts will be essential for genuine peace to materialize, without the anger and resentment of those who are or believe to have been damaged.
This is the reason why a Trust would be needed, funded with a share on the price of oil sold by Libya, plus a friendly, gracious and obviously anonymous contribution from the Libyan diaspora.
Clearly, women and young people shall be involved in a process of national reconstruction very similar to Gaddafi’s old “committees”.
The tradition of Gaddafism is still strong. Women are not excluded from social processes and civic participation, not even in areas with a very strong presence of radical Islamism.
Furthermore, neither of the two governments is fully trusted by Libyans: 63% of them reject Tripoli’s GNA and 71% reject Tobruk’s government.
The Libyans interviewed by the international organizations perceive the local units – that are parties to the conflict in all respects – as completely unreliable: only 28% of Libyans deem them effective.
Therefore, it will obviously be necessary to re-establish the local units, in agreement (only) with the Libyan central government, but with a different territorial design, avoiding tribal or sectarian localization and allowing the administrations’ military and social control.
Libya is large and the desire to still play the game of localist secession can be strong, especially in the presence of strong “natural” sources of income: oil, minerals, even water.
Hence a Parliament shall be created – albeit not similar to European national Parliaments, but rather a large Assembly appointed by the tribes, in their own ways (obviously, it is useless to democratize Fezzan) -as well as a national government, answerable both to the Assembly of the tribes, that cannot be eliminated, and to an elective assembly according to the traditional Western representation criteria.
The government shall have the vote of both bodies.
Rationally-designed areas of influence shall be created, with a view to resolving the OPEC Sunni countries’ struggle for Libyan oil, which emerged immediately after the silly war to bring “democracy” to Libya and to assassinate the “tyrant”, who was supported by all EU countries.
Needless to send Turkey away from the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar from Al-Sarraj’s GNA region.
We will never make it. The West is an old arthritic.
It will be a matter of regulating – by means of an international treaty – the relations of Turkey with Libya, as well as of Egypt, which has direct interests in Cyrenaica, or of Saudi Arabia or even France, which is now useless, considering the diplomatic relations broken off with Al-Sarraj and the friendly request to General Haftar to stop the Libyan National Army’s attack on Tripoli. The classic end of the too sly people or countries.
It will also be necessary for the United States, the European States, namely all the EU Member States, Great Britain and even Israel, to participate in the Libyan reconstruction, which will certainly be a long process.
Israel could guarantee remote security and the Libyan oil market’s future integration with the Lebanon-Cyprus-Turkey axis, which will be among the most important ones in the future.
A bank trust, an ad hoc agency, will ensure the sale of unitary Libya’s debt securities – with the set limits and some guarantees – by absorbing part of those still in circulation and possibly creating an international sales desk.
The Armed Forces will be rebuilt with the typical national criteria, but with a chain of command in which the Clausewitzian power of the political leader with respect to the military hierarchy will be very clear. There should also be a clear and innovative funding for the struggle against the illegal trafficking of migrants, starting from Fezzan and spreading to the other regions. All European countries will pay for it and will be very happy to do so.
We still need a great guardian in North Africa, but we also need to show that the Western madness of the “Arab springs” has been put to an end, thus stabilizing the other governments and starting to invest throughout North Africa, with the guarantees of a stable local government.
Otherwise, sooner or later, the sea of migration will engulf us, thus destabilizing the entire EU economy and our welfare State.
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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