International Politics Redux

Feb 01

Can Terrorists Rival States as Great Powers?

Every historical period has its own defining characteristics.  For the second half of the 20th century this was the Cold War, a bipolar rivalry between the reigning superpowers of the day – the United States and the Soviet Union.  The new millennium has yet to be defined in many ways, but one of its prominent features is the nearly universal fixation on terrorism. 

Governments under attack from self-declared freedom fighters, liberation movements and those seeking independence have been quick to label these elements as terrorists. But when governments engage in violence against civilians, can they then be labeled terrorists as well?

Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition for the word terrorism.  The simple reason for this is the raw politicization of the term, the conflicting ideologies underpinning its usage, the sheer number of cultures and countries sympathetic to the language of resistance and the justification of the use of violence in exceptional circumstances.  After decades of failed summits and conventions, the United Nations General Assembly agreed in 1994 to condemn terrorism with the following minimal characteristics:

“Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes… whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. 

The  language is loaded.  Who judges criminal acts, national or international courts?  How would one determine the intentions or calculations of supposedly rational actors?  What, exactly, constitutes a state of terror?  How many people make up the general public (as opposed to a specific public)?  And what about political purposes – is this behaviour acceptable for apolitical purposes? 

The point of this mental exercise is not to disparage the efforts of the United Nations or to diminish the work that countless others have done attempting to furnish the rest of us with a workable definition of terrorism.  No, the point is to demonstrate how different answers to these questions expose conflicting ideas about sovereignty and self-determination.  At stake in this unsettled debate are contrasting understandings of nationalism and unity, justice and progress, legitimate resistance and inexplicable violence.

Here are some historical examples.  American revolutionaries in the latter part of the 18th century would have been labeled rebels and terrorists under the British Empire by today’s standards.  It is also useful to note that one modern notion of “terror” comes to us from the French Revolutionaries’ penchant for the guillotine, a killing machine legitimized by the state’s need to root out remnants of the old regime.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary Marxists and socialists were branded by many monarchist and republican European states as no-good terrorists and extirpated from the body politic.

Meanwhile, the worldwide trend of decolonization following World War II led the colonial great powers to decry the many independence movements in Asia and Africa as criminals and terrorists.  Even today, the line between legitimate resistance and unacceptable terrorism is drawn in sand, not stone.

The world’s sole remaining superpower declared a global war on terrorism in late 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban in response to suicide attacks committed by al-Qaeda on September 11.  But terrorists are active in dozens of countries on several continents, and the United States is not at war with every single one of them.  It is a well-known fact that the United States funded, trained and armed al-Qaeda when they opposed the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, even being featured in Sylvester Stallone’s 1988 Hollywood blockbuster Rambo III as freedom-loving rebels. 

It may seem like peculiar reasoning when the United States delists one dissident group from its Foreign Terrorist Organization list, allowing it to operate, fundraise and establish contacts openly on American soil, only to add another with a similar strategy: to oust a dictatorial regime.  In 2012 the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK) was delisted after years of intense political lobbying on behalf of its struggle against the Iranian government, while a rebel group fighting an ever-more savage government in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was designated as a terrorist group because of its indiscriminate bombing of civilians, extreme Islamic ideology and organizational links to al-Qaeda.  What can explain the United States’ divergent approaches to what seem to be similar cases of anti-government terrorism?

Perhaps the answer lies in their tactics.  While the Syrian rebel group boisterously claims responsibility for massive blasts which kill dozens and wound hundreds of government sympathizers, the Iranian MEK renounced the use of all forms of violence in 2001.  But how important are these monikers anyway?  It is widely understood in the region that the MEK has received covert support from clandestine intelligence agencies for years while still officially a “terrorist” organization. So the move to delist is mainly symbolic. 

Similarly, Jabhat al-Nusra receives no support from the United States or other major governments as it stands, so calling them terrorists deprives them of no material benefits.  As a matter of fact, the opposite is true; al-Nusra has grown in credibility and notoriety on the Syrian street as a result, only serving to increase its influence relative to rival revolutionary militant groups.  Witness the law of unintended consequences in one of its finest performances.

In the end, what defines a terrorist is not as important as who defines terrorism.  The United States wields disproportionate power in in its role as a leader in world diplomacy, military might and global institutions.  As a general rule of thumb, not every country agrees with American decisions, policies or leadership.  When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, several countries vociferously objected.  Many governments similarly rally against American hegemony in their spheres of influence, with rivals like Russia and China leading the charge.  This leads to the interesting question of whether or not terrorist proxies will become the new fronts in the future great power wars. 

During the Cold War, capitalism versus communism was the defining ideological struggle, and rebel groups in developing countries received international support from one or the other superpower in their contest for power.  While great power wars can never be ruled out completely, they are more and more unlikely as globalization fosters further economic and technological interdependence. 

However, terrorist groups could potentially be coopted to serve the interests of one great power at the expense of another.  One example of how this policy works is evident in Iran’s guidance of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas against the state of Israel.  Similar allegations are made against Israel in the way that it targets nuclear scientists working inside Iranian facilities for assassination with the help of the previously mentioned MEK. 

Time will tell how these groups choose to wield their influence and what effect it will have on international politics, but they can no longer be ignored as irrelevant simply because they are technically non-state actors.  It is clear enough from the after-effects of 9/11 that terrorism is now a defining characteristic of global politics in modern times.  As France gears up for robust intervention in Mali, for example, Islamist militants in the African country’s north fighting the French-backed government have vowed to target French citizens as a result.  States need to recognize this threat to the international system for what it is and pool their resources to mitigate the danger.


Jan 21

Election Season in the Middle East

2013 will be an auspicious year for elections in the Middle East.  On Tuesday, January 22, Israelis head to the polls in a snap parliamentary election to in all likelihood re-elect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with the only real change being the composition of his ruling coalition.  A day later, on January 23, Jordanians hold their own parliamentary elections, though no substantive policy breakthroughs or systemic changes in the political system are expected in what is by now a familiar routine: misdirection of blame for the country’s woes from the king and onto the parliament in a style reminiscent of France’s King Louis XIV.  Both Israel and Jordan share many key features in common and will both be watching regional developments closely no matter what the outcomes of their respective elections.

First of all, Jordan and Israel are both U.S. allies in a part of the world that has come to have a bipolar reaction to everything American. Furthermore, both have Western-oriented foreign policies and are relatively liberal in social character in comparison to their neighbours.  Secondly, the leaderships of both countries have an unusually close relationship for two countries that were technically at war for nearly half a century and whose populations still have virtually no cross-border contact. Thirdly, both are extremely worried by the implosion of the Syrian state right next door, with Jordan absorbing over 200,000 refugees and Israel monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles with extreme concern.

Israel and Jordan have several other shared concerns, and both are waiting to see where the cards fall in the game that is internal Palestinian wrangling over reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, rumours of the Palestinian Authority’s disbandment and reversion to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the outcome of Palestine’s bid to seek membership in the United Nations, for starters.  Then there is the fate of Palestinian refugees, who are an integral part of the Jordanian national identity, the shared waters of the mineral-rich Dead Sea, how to deal with political Islam and the growing influence of Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the ever-looming question of Iranian influence in the Middle East and what it means for chronically insecure countries like Israel and Jordan.

Similarly, Egypt is expected to hold its sixth national elections in two years next month as the country gears up to reinstate a parliament that can ratify the controversial new constitution rushed through committee and haphazardly passed via referendum in late 2012.  It is virtually assured that the new parliament will resemble the old in the sense that Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Noor parties will dominate, while minority elements like the secularists, Christians, liberals and women will be pushed to the margins of political representation. As yet another video surfaces showcasing Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s anti-Semitic, anti-American and anti-liberal vitriol of the recent past, international observers must wonder what the future of Egypt has in store.

Another key election to watch will be held to determine who will succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June of this year. As you may recall, the last Iranian presidential election saw massive protests by and crackdowns against the Green Movement in 2009 as Ahmadinejad awkwardly assumed another 4 years in office. Whether the same kinds of demonstrations and countermeasures will erupt this time around remains to be seen, but the legitimacy of the regime has been shaken to its core and it is unlikely that this summer will be a quiet one in the streets of Tehran.  Who the leading candidates will be, which blocs in Iran’s labyrinthine political system will support them, what the role of the Supreme Leader will be in deciding the parameters of the election or its bound-to-be disputed results, and how the life of an ordinary Iranian will be impacted by all of this are all unanswerable questions at this point.  No matter what happens, the world will be watching.

And Tunisia, success story of the Arab Spring par excellence, has scheduled simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections for June as well, so that the results of these elections could serve as a model to be emulated by other revolutionary states in the region.  Championing a consensus-based system that has seen the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party share power in parliament with parties located elsewhere on the political spectrum, Tunisia is emerging as a fluid but stable, authentic yet progressive democracy in the Arab world.  The consciously inclusive character of the political revolution has managed to resist the encroachments of illiberal forces by limiting the power and influence of radical Islamist and Salafist parties in national political life. Other countries struggling with the same problems would do well to heed the Tunisian model in this regard.

There is no doubt that 2013 will be a monumental year of change and progress in the Middle East.  National elections will play a large role in determining the fates of the peoples of these countries, but the full consequences of the revolutions sweeping through the region will only be felt in years to come.


Dec 12

Soldiers of Fortune in the 21st Century

As 21st century warfare evolves, the growing trend of privatized military firms (PMFs) is a disconcerting reality. This is true whether we identify as national security hawks, human rights doves or somewhere in between.  These companies supply services that militaries once monopolized, like intelligence gathering, operational and logistics support, troop training, technical assistance, strategic planning, and even tactical combat operations.  Operating in dozens of countries and employed by thousands of start-up companies, PMFs are becoming increasingly important global actors.

The simple truth is that there is a massive market for them. Estimates place its value at upwards of $500 billion USD for military services that national governments are not willing to or able to offer.

The legal, ethical and practical issues accompanying this radical shift from state-backed militaries to corporate-funded mercenaries are easy to identify but notoriously difficult to resolve.  Peter W. Singer, an expert in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and the renowned writer behind Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, observes that “this is a very murky legal space, and we haven’t dealt with the fundamental issues.  What is their specific role, what is their specific status, and what is the system of accountability?  We’ve sort of dodged these questions”.

To be sure, PMFs exist because they provide valuable services to their clients.  Academi, for example, formerly known as Xe Services, known before then as Blackwater USA and before that as Blackwater Worldwide, is based in North Carolina and claims to operate “across the security spectrum: assess, train and protect”.  They advertise their clients as American and allied federal, state and local governments, global commercial customers, and law enforcement and intelligence organizations and agencies.  Academi touts the “ethical corporate governance and oversight” provided by their Board of Directors, allowing them to “develop cost-efficient and operationally effective solutions for clients”.  It is impossible to miss their “six core principles of integrity, governance, excellence, dignity, teamwork and innovation” as they are splashed across the organizations reading material.  With annual contracts in the tens of billions dollars US, it is easy to understand the allure of a corporate logic applied to military necessity.

A recent Humanitarian Policy Group report published by the Overseas Development Institute in London sheds light on how even humanitarian and developmental organizations have begun contracting PMFs.  They are used to counter hostile attacks against aid workers in challenging environments, especially in the wake of American firms in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The rationale for this is is their organizational know-how, equipment and time to adequately meet security needs in insecure places, and the lack of these abilities in the companies that hire them.  Contracting these desperately needed services out also reduces humanitarian organization’s costs and administrative burdens, while shifting any liability away from the aid group and onto a paid service-provider.  But is it really acceptable for an organization operating abroad to pass the buck if something goes wrong?

This is why critics of military privatization have no shortage of ammunition for their arguments.  Countless cases of egregious misconduct stain the industry’s name, like the South African-based Executive Outcomes, which fought on both sides of the civil war in Angola and whose leader was arrested in 2004 after provoking a failed coup attempt in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.  

During the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, U.S. military veterans working as security contractors for the PMF DynCorp were implicated in sex crimes, prostitution rackets and illegal arms tradingThe indiscriminate assaults suffered by the residents of Fallujah and Baghdad during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the negative publicity associated with Blackwater Worldwide is enough to understand why the organization felt compelled to change its name three times in the past decade.

Since stalwart advocates of PMFs could always excuse these cases as outliers, let us delve a bit deeper into the fundamental contradictions of these militarized security companies.  There are no international treaties regulating their conduct, so to whom are they ultimately accountable? Does this include governments of origin, host governments, international courts, and in the case that they are publicly traded, their shareholders?

Contractors accompanying American and British armed forces into battle, or that engage hostile civilians or troops offensively are subject to all [J1] provisions of military law.  Yet, when these civilian-cum-soldiers are court-martialled the punishments are not severe enough to deter flagrant violations of protocol.  And what about the dozens of countries and companies not interested in attaching the same legalistic restrictions to their contractors’ actions?

Aside from legal accountability, what about ethical responsibility?  National governments traditionally seek to monopolize the use of force within their borders and are very careful about when to use these capabilities in their foreign policies.  Within democracies especially, constitutional safeguards prevent the executive branch of government from launching unwarranted military operations without adhering to the proper legislative and judicial conventions. 

By allowing PMFs to flourish, governments are inevitably ceding the right and the ability to decide for themselves when and where to intervene militarily.  In this type of environment, why would radical terrorist movements like al-Qaeda bother to distinguish between U.S. military forces, PMFs and aid agencies?

Then there is loyalty.  Patriotism and nationalism are powerful ideologies that motivate soldiers to enlist and fight unknown enemies in in the name of protecting their homeland, their family and their community.  Profit is an emptier ideology but can be more powerful as a motivator, which can even be used to recruit veterans to fight against their former loyalties.  In terms of commitment, career-ending consequences are likely to follow a soldier’s desertion on the battlefield.  When national militaries are abandoned by the PMFs fighting alongside them, those companies could actually benefit as a result of more lucrative work elsewhere.  It is also not clear that these companies save governments any money.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. awarded nearly $100 billion in contracts in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, or 20% of the total costs of the war up to then.

U.S. Brigadier General Karl Horst, charged with Baghdad security after the invasion of 2003, famously remarked of DynCorp and other PMFs in Iraq: “These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff.  There’s no authority over them, so you can’t come down on them hard when they escalate force… They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath.  It happens all over the place.”  As anecdotal an example as this may seem, it symbolizes the difficulty that military commanders are having integrating their own forces with those of privatized military firms. 

Imagine the abuses of power that are possible when cash-rich, power-hungry warlords and dictators deploy hired guns against militaries, or even against their own people.  And ask yourself: what would you do if mercenaries invaded your country, even your hometown, and how would you feel about the rules governing their conduct then? 

The bottom line is that privatized military firms are here to stay and are only likely to grow in number and influence as time passes.  Western involvement in developing countries will call on the expertise of PMFs while illegitimate dictators struggling to survive will also be able to exploit their specialized services.  Banning PMFs outright is unfeasible because of the wide range of their activities and services.  Only a concerted effort on the part of responsible governments and interest groups can pave the way forward for a properly regulated privatized military industry.


Dec 10

Why the Arab Spring Actually Benefits Israel

Going strong for nearly two years now, the changes wrought by the Arab Spring on the Middle East and beyond continue to reshape the region’s geopolitical landscape in wholly unpredictable ways.  Just over a year ago, nobody could have predicted that Arab autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen would be ousted, while several more struggle to survive.  The fact that one of these deposed dictators, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, had honoured the Arab world’s first peace treaty with Israel – a treaty that led in large part to the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat – and the reality that he is now gone from power should worry supporters of Arab-Israeli peace, even Israel.

Amidst all the chaos and commotion, however, the questionable hypothesis that the processes unleashed by the Arab Spring are somehow inherently bad for Israel has become widely and uncritically accepted as common wisdom.  Even the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu revealed the Jewish state’s own misgivings about the Arab Spring’s sweeping revolutions, claiming that the Arab world was “moving not forward, but backward,” and labelling them “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic” in nature.  Although the risks and costs associated with these revolutions are real, so are the opportunities and benefits for many of the actors involved.

Let’s begin with the fact that authoritarian regimes are fundamentally unsustainable political entities, no matter how benign their leaders or how beneficial their existence may seem.  From this perspective, even the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was built on a proverbial hill of sand bound to be washed away by a tide not unlike the wave of popular unrest that unseated President Mubarak.  To be clear, the peace remains in place today, but the fear is that the inherently anti-Zionist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will seek to abrogate it after consolidating their domestic foothold on power – a distant prospect for the time being given the country’s current constitutional crisis.

This is unlikely to happen because it would harm the Brotherhood’s international standing and Egypt’s national interests.  Even if it did, though, why would a country roiled by revolutionary turmoil and on the verge of bankruptcy, rife with corruption and riddled with inefficiency, struggling to transition from military stewardship to civilian rule and seeking to feed, house, educate, and employ tens of millions of people suddenly decide that its highest priority was to wage a losing war against Israel?This is why no contradiction necessarily exists between Egyptian prosperity, Israeli security, and international peace.

Many of these autocratic regimes were in the past – and still are in the present – supported by the West as a result of their contributions to what western policymakers consider to be political stability, economic security, and foreign policy cooperation.  In spite of this fact, they remain illegitimate because they can only ensure their own survival through violence and would thus likely lose any free and fair elections held today. Middle Eastern non-democracies are entrenched regimes with decades of experience in repressing their populations and scapegoating Israel for their problems.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms reportedly spent a whopping $150 billion in 2011 on pampering their citizens and avoiding any protests, and many of their foreign policies are in lock-step with Western security and energy interests.  Realistically, who believes wholeheartedly that these countries can stifle domestic dissent and abuse human rights forever just because today’s models of industrial economic growth depend on abundant reserves of oil and gas?

Even the resource-lacking monarchies of Jordan and Morocco have managed to escape the fate that befell their fellow authoritarian leaders, largely because both have successfully leveraged patronage networks to enhance their own legitimacy and craft clever political reforms without relinquishing complete power in order to dampen the demands of protestors. It is useful to note that the quasi-democracies in Lebanon and Iraq have been spared the tumultuous upheavals of the Arab Spring, largely because the citizens of these countries can voice their concerns through semi-representative political channels non-existent in other Arab states. On the other hand, the civil war in Syria has dragged its neighbours into the conflict, threatening to undermine their stability and security in serious ways.  The arc of history is bending clearly in the direction of democratization, and any overthrow of an authoritarian or dictatorial leader is a step in the right direction.

The obvious question to ask at this point is what happens if whatever comes after the dictator is worse than what came before?  Is an Islamic theocracy not worse than a secular autocracy?  This question not only misinterprets the primary causes of the Arab uprisings but also mischaracterizes its final trajectory.  Thirty years ago, it was possible for a group of religious hardliners to hijack a revolution and marginalize any opposition, like the clerical establishment did in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.  Today this is not only extremely unlikely to happen, but even if it did, the same revolutionary forces of popular discontent that swept the old guard out of power would swiftly do the same to this new group.

What about Islamist political parties that gain support by winning elections, like the AK Party in Turkey, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Morocco?  Do they not pose some threat to the fabric of any future democratic society?  Firstly, they were elected by the people, and if they fail to live up to their campaign promises, they can be voted out of office just like anywhere else.  Secondly, theologically-inspired parties have existed in the West for centuries and democracy has survived.  Thirdly, as long as the basic institutions of democratic participation and representation are respected, Islamist parties should be welcomed as positive influences in a country’s path to democratization.  After all, are religious-affiliated political parties excluded from other democracies?

Now let’s assume that democracy is the inevitable end-result of these revolutionary changes. This is admittedly an idealistic assumption, but one that gains credibility at a time when the protestor has been dubbed Time’s Person of the Year, when social media and mobile platforms empower citizens at the expense of their governments, and when the mass media then broadcasts their messages to the rest of the world in real time.  Besides, for being the most legitimate form of government devised until today, democracy is good as a means and as an end.  Of course it benefits Israel when neighbouring regimes can resolve their internal problems without oppressing their people or spiraling into civil war, but it also means that Israel and its neighbours would be able to resolve their own bilateral problems peacefully.

The infamous democratic peace thesis suggests that democracies do not go to war with one another, meaning that Arab-Israeli differences could be addressed through conciliation instead of confrontation.  Furthermore, as the oldest and most successful democracy in the region, Israel is well placed to guide these democratizing post-revolutionary states in their quests for legitimacy among their own peoples, which could in turn pave the path for recognition, negotiation and peace between Arabs and Israelis.

As these Arab populations look inward and seek to rebuild their own fractured political systems so that they better represent domestic constituencies, the educated leaders of these countries would be foolish to ignore a regional powerhouse’s proven track record as a Middle Eastern democracy.  Israel has in the past 60+ years managed to integrate a multiethnic and multidenominational population – with a large minority group, no less – into a vibrant democratic framework.  With civilian control of the government, partisan political pluralism, robust media competition, independence of the judiciary, and guaranteed freedoms for all of its citizens, Israeli democracy can even benefit the Arab street – if they realize it.

Nov 27

Is the Use of Drones Justifiable?

As the United States government steps up its assault on al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen, drone warfare is becoming an increasingly integral part of a coordinated strategy against global terrorist networks.  Since the early 2000s, these drones have been deployed in other countries too – Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Turkey and Israel.  This is important because drones do not just represent a generation of more technologically sophisticated military machines; they are qualitatively different instruments altogether.  The distance from which a drone can find its target and the speed with which it can strike raise ethical questions that have so far been swept under the proverbial rug by those responsible for its use.  As thinking beings capable of rationality and empathy, and as members of Western democracies like the US and Canada with constitutionally enshrined human rights, we must face these issues sooner or later.

In this context, what is a drone?  A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a remotely piloted aircraft.  It is a flying machine that is either controlled by a ground operator or can direct itself according to pre-programmed instructions.  They are varied in design, ranging from the size of a hummingbird to a miniature plane and can be fitted with cameras, missiles, bombs – any type of deliverable package.  Most drones are currently used for observation and reconnaissance missions in warzones, but some have even been used for civilian purposes, like firefighting, search-and-rescue operations or surveying pipelines and other expansive infrastructure.  The real issue, however, is not with the use of these non-military drones.  The crux of the matter lies with drones that kill.

Why has the use of drones, by the US in particular but by more governments in general, become more prevalent in contested theatres of combat?  The most important factor is the low level of risk for the life of the soldier.  No boots on the ground means no loss of life for the invading army.  The second biggest consideration is the intelligence bonanza that these drones provide.  Nothing can replace real-time picture and video from directly above the battlefield.  Thirdly and most controversially is the ability to maim and kill enemy combatants at a distance.  This is where the thorniest ethical issues arise.

Legal experts and lawyers have convincingly argued that international conventions, charters and aspects of humanitarian law compel states using drones in warfare to obey certain rules.  Some of these documents are the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and precedents set by domestic and international human rights courts.  These legal scholars conclude that states must legally identify all casualties resulting from any drone use and the universal human right not to be deprived of one’s life depends on the identification of the deceased so that proper compensation can be paid in the case of wrongful injury or killing.  The fact that drones conduct their operations on moving targets, often in poor lighting conditions and from such vast distances, means that it is impossible to verify the identities of individuals before they are attacked.  This information tends to trickle through in local casualty reports, clearly violating these principles.

Other criticisms of the drone strategy are telling. For example, these “terrorists” being killed by the US military face no trial and no jury – just execution.  Advocates of drone warfare claim that foreigners are not entitled to the same rights and freedoms as US citizens, so their summary execution is justifiable because they are enemies engaged in armed struggle against US forces.  But international law protects the rights of individuals no matter their location or nationality.  Similarly, when US citizens challenge the US military in open combat, do their rights cease to exist?  A year after the radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, was killed in Yemen in 2011 by a drone strike, his relatives have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the US government on exactly these grounds.

Another pointed critique has to do with the civilian deaths that inevitably accompany targeted assassinations.  While the US Central Intelligence Agency claims that few civilians are killed in these strikes, the Conflict Monitoring Center in Pakistan states that of the thousands of drone-strike casualties since 2011, most have been civilians.  Daniel Byman of the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank estimates that on average ten civilians die for every militant killed by drone attacks.  On the other hand, the Long War Journal and Associated Press reports found the opposite results – terrorists and militants were the main victims of drone warfare, with well-publicized cases exist of the US passing on opportunities to kill militant leaders because women and children were present. 

The use of drones by in combat is clearly on the rise, and it is not explicitly limited to state actors.  As recently as October 2012, the Lebanese militant-terrorist organization Hezbollah claimed responsibility for an unarmed drone downed near Israel’s nuclear complex in Dimona.  Because drone use is growing, the urgency to address the ethical implications of its use has never been more urgent.  The apparent ease of its development and deployment by state and non-state actors in increasingly urbanized areas will no doubt lead to higher death counts and stronger opposition among the affected populations.  Public opinion in the US shows strong support for these drones in countries where al Qaeda is present, but will this support maintain when offensive drone technology is used against the citizens of the US or Europe?


Nov 26

Hamas vs. Israel: So What?

Operation Pillar of Defence (November 2012) represents the most serious military confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbours since Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 – January 2009). Coincidentally, just like Cast Lead, Pillar of Defence also took place in the Gaza Strip and also pitted Israel’s Defence Forces against militant Palestinian factions led by Hamas and their armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, but including others like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Popular Resistance Committees. After 8 days of Israeli strikes and Palestinian rockets, the dead number 170 Palestinians and 6 Israelis while the injured have nearly reached 1,000.

A tenuous ceasefire has been agreed to by both sides and will likely maintain because neither sees their purposes being served by escalating or prolonging the conflict. Without assigning blame to one side or another for starting the conflict or endangering the most civilians or committing the most heinous war crimes, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what this latest encounter means for Palestinian-Israeli relations and how it has altered the balance of power among competing forces in the region.

Palestinians and Israelis have been locked in a bitter contest over land for the past 65 years. Since 1993, the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel have been negotiating in one way or another in an attempt to resolve the conflict by granting self-determination to the Palestinians. Under the Oslo Accords, this was meant to begin with greater autonomy for the Palestinians, followed by increasing cooperation between them and the Israelis and concluding with sovereign statehood. This reality has not been realized for several reasons, but the Palestinian national identity has in the meantime been challenged from within, seriously undermining the long-dominant approach to dealing with Israel.

Recognition of Israel, peaceful resistance of it and formal negotiations with it have been hallmarks of Fatah – the dominant Palestinian party within the Palestinian Authority – for two decades now. Hamas and other rejectionist Palestinian organs have refused to recognize or negotiate with Israel, calling for its destruction and engaging in violence with it instead. For years it seemed that the conciliatory track would carry the day, that Palestinians needed to just be patient and diplomacy would deliver results. This latest confrontation changed that calculus by simultaneously handing Hamas a public relations victory, calling Israel’s deterrent capabilities into question and disparaging the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas has emerged from its political and diplomatic isolation in Gaza in splendid fashion. After seizing power from Fatah in Gaza in 2007, enduring years of Egyptian-Israeli blockade and being sidelined from Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the Islamist nationalist group Hamas demonstrated to the world in just over a week’s time that they can easily rally the support of dozens of Arab and Islamic states and their populations, and if the terms of the ceasefire are realized, then they will have also altered facts on the ground by easing the blockade.

For Israel, the mobilization of nearly 100,000 reserve troops and their deployment to the border with Gaza was a costly gamble. The decision to delay an invasion burdened an already hobbled economy, and the order to desist without having eliminated Hamas’ ability to launch more rockets into Israel in the future has weakened Israel’s deterrent credibility. Calculating that an invasion would undoubtedly kill hundreds more Palestinians and Israelis only to end in stalemate while seriously damaging Israel’s image abroad (and possibly collapsing Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties), Israel has signaled that it is unwilling to use its asymmetrical military advantage in heavily populated, civilian-endangered areas.

As Hamas welcomes heads of state and foreign ministers to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority continues its slippery descent into irrelevance. From corruption and nepotism to incompetence and SOMETHING, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have suffered blows to their reputation and their effectiveness when it comes to achieving substantial gains for the Palestinian people. After 20 years of negotiations, Palestine is still a long way away from obtaining sovereign statehood. At November’s end they will approach the United Nations to lobby for observer status, a minor diplomatic breakthrough that would still be too little, too late in light of Hamas’ recently engineered revival of fortunes.

The balance of power between Hamas and Fatah within the Palestinian arena has clearly shifted to the party that just emerged from a bloody showdown against the occupying Zionist enemy’s overwhelming military might with its pride and honour intact. In the broader region, Egypt’s mediating credentials have been bolstered by its acceptability as an interlocutor and its ability to bring the conflict to an end, though the president’s pharaoh-like gambit for power may dampen an otherwise deserved success. For having supplied, financed and trained Palestinian militants, Iran wields significant clout as well – without their smuggled arms and technological know-how, how could the faultless victims of Israeli aggression possibly defend themselves? Turkey, on the other hand, seems uncharacteristically impotent for having had no influence on either the Palestinian or Israeli combatants, settling for a foreign ministerial visit and photo opportunity while parroting the mandatory anti-Israel condemnations popular in the region.

New actors are emerging from the revolutionary governments of the Middle East and old alliances are being reconfigured as interests and identities evolve accordingly. Interestingly, these patterns and processes are not always predictable and will continue to shape the future outcomes of regional conflicts. For example, a revolutionary Egypt and an Islamist Turkey have not been receptive to “revolutionary” and “Islamist” Iran’s policies vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war. What the recent flare-up of violence in Gaza has demonstrated, however, is that the Israel issue is still a major point of contention in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It seems that no matter what the disagreements and contradictions endemic to the region and its actors, playing the Israel card is still the safest game in town.


Nov 13

From Cyber Security to Cyber Warfare

Public Safety Canada and the Department of Homeland Security in the United States recently announced the Cyber Security Action Plan of 2012, a bilateral initiative designed to improve both countries’ cyber security forces and protect mutually vulnerable digital infrastructure.  This plan indicates that cyber security threats are not bound by national boundaries or confined to the traditionally delineated nation-state.  Instead, cyber security has become a transnational and global phenomenon.  As global citizens traverse cyberspace in growing numbers and with growing ease, they afford themselves many opportunities.  These opportunities however, involve the increased exposure to more risk.  Cyber security is essentially a defensive response to the unauthorized access, manipulation or destruction of electronic information and infrastructure.  Understanding this concept and learning to mobilize measures of cyber security is increasingly becoming a necessity for individuals and institutions that are becoming more and more interconnected and dependent upon the Internet.

The recent birth and rapid development of the ephemeral cyber space has resulted in an explosion in the number of networks between people, governments, and institutions all via a multitude of online devices.  From a policy perspective, the risks and dangers inherent in this level of interdependence are monumental.  The Government of Canada’s 2010 Cyber Security Strategy notes three types of cyber threats demanding immediate attention: state-sponsored cyber espionage and military activities, terrorist use of the Internet, and cybercrime.  Interestingly, the first threat in this list exposes a fundamental feature of insecurity in a digitized and globalized world, cyber activities sponsored by one state and directed against another.  In other words, far from being a utopian realm of intellectual exchange, cyberspace is being transformed into a new theatre of rivalry between national governments.  This is indicative of a broader trend in the cyber discourse from cyber security to cyber warfare, a new realm of spatio-political competition.

In a historical sense, it is not at all surprising that cyber technology is being used to wage war by states against other states.  New technologies from medicine to ballistics to agriculture have historically led the way for novel forms and styles of combat between warring parties, but cyberwarfare is far from total-war.  As the Canadian Cyber Security Strategy points out, cyber attacks are growing more popular because they are often inexpensive, easy, effective and low risk.  Only a fraction of a state’s resources are tapped in the process of devising and implementing cyber attacks.  States, therefore, become more likely to engage in cyber warfare as this domain of sociopolitical space evolves.  In fact, several instances where this is already the case can easily be isolated and identified.

As China’s economic and military might gradually increase throughout East Asia and its various other realms of influence, it has become a formidable cyber foe.  China has clarified its position in the past that cyberspace represents a politically strategic domain (analogous to the US-Soviet space race).  Just recently, the US Congress labelled China “the most threatening actor in cyberspace” as it deploys intelligence agencies, hackers and cyber warfare militias across the world.  Furthermore, The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs tracked a cyber espionage network originating from mainland China called Ghostnet that infected hundreds of computers in foreign ministries, embassies and offices in over 100 countries.  Ron Diebert, Director of The Citizen Lab, was careful in this report not to attribute blame for the network’s existence to the Chinese state.  His bigger point, however, is that policymakers need to realize that opportunists will find ways to exploit strategic vulnerabilities, especially as the Internet evolves.

Intelligence agencies and terrorist networks also engage in cyber attacks and espionage techniques in the Middle East almost daily.  In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, worms and viruses have been the weapon of choice for sabotage and espionage.  From the Stuxnet worm in 2009 to the Flame virus in 2012, both were apparently programmed by sophisticated, state-backed entities to damage Iranian centrifuges and collect valuable information.  A wave of retaliatory cyber strikes seemed to follow between the US, Iran, Israel and key Arab states.  In January 2012, the websites for the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and Israel’s national airline were taken down by anonymous hackers shortly after personal credit card details for tens of thousands of Israelis were published online.  In August 2012 the Shamoon virus hit Saudi and Qatari state-owned oil companies, disabling over 300,000 computers and requiring two weeks of recovery.  In September 2012, botnets originating from the Middle East hijacked tens of thousands of computers and disrupted online banking services for some of the biggest US banks, including Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.  If nothing else, these examples indicate that immunity from cyber attacks is nonexistent.  Indeed, state agencies, institutions, and private citizens are all similarly vulnerable to the risks and the dangers posed by the modern realities of cyber security and cyber warfare.

The increasing democratization of technology and the strategic adaptation of cyber tactics by a variety of political entities is becoming a common vestige of the international security landscape. While conflict and competition persist in international politics, the potential for cooperation and collaboration exists as well. The Canadian-American initiative mentioned at the beginning of this article is an example of how countries can pool their intellectual and technological resources to resist the piracy, militancy and terrorism taking place online.  Instead of a bilateral cyber security action plan, imagine a multilateral, global one.  States are still the dominant actors in the international system, and as such, they are endowed with capabilities that can make a world of difference for the efficacy of cyber security and against the inevitability of cyber warfare.  For the sake of all the intellectual, cultural, and political benefits the Internet has brought, it would certainly be worth a valiant effort to invest the time and resources to ensure the mutually beneficial longevity of this ephemeral space.  Ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander called it the ether.


Nov 12

Killing the Leader - Political Assassinations in Brief

Few events rock a nation as hard as the death of a sitting leader.  The passing away of a national leader, whether in or out of office at the time of death, is typically a cause for mourning in its own right.  And when that death is natural or accidental, it is a bitter pill to swallow.  But when the cause of death is murder, cold-blooded and deliberate murder, the consequences of such actions are often unpredictable.  From Eglon the Moabite king (1200 BCE), to João Bernardo Vieira, the President of Guinea-Bissau (2009 CE), political assassinations as facts of political life date back thousands of years.

Killing the leader of a nation or state has huge repercussions on the international stage.  Since states are constantly competing with one another for power and influence, it seems logical that one set of leaders would target the national leadership structure of another state in a bid to increase their competitive advantage.  This runs contrary to customary diplomatic conventions that have been crystallized over thousands of years of international relations.  In the past few hundred years, especially within the empires and between the principalities that have risen and fallen in Western and Central Europe, these norms have been codified in what is today known as customary international law.  Simply put, practices that have developed over time out of culture, religion and politics now have legal precedent and are therefore considered legally binding internationally.  The assassination of foreign political leaders flouts diplomatic custom, violates national sovereignty and contravenes international legal norms.

When national figures are assassinated, it is almost always the actions of extremist elements originating from the domestic sphere.  In other words, members of that leader’s own country become the killers, claiming some tribal or ideological justification for their ignoble actions.  While these assassins are at least aware that an unprovoked murder such as theirs is clearly illegal under their national laws, as it would be in any nation of laws, the international fallout is much less than it would be if the killers were from another nation or state.  When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed by Islamic Jihad militants in 1981, domestic strife was rampant – chaos and confusion followed the assassination, which coincided with a rebellion in the Asyut region of Upper Egypt.  Egypt’s foreign policy and international relations, however, changed very little.  Sadat’s successor, President Mubarak, remained in the American sphere of influence, honoured the freshly signed peace treaty with Israel and maintained the unity and loyalty of the armed forces in the face of Islamic fundamentalism and in the most populous Arab state.

In other cases, these deaths have a huge international impact.  The catastrophic loss of life and eventual rebalancing of power that accompanied World War I was triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian terrorist movement in 1914.  In 1994 in Rwanda, the genocide that led to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians in 100 days by roving bands of Hutu militias was precipitated by the mysterious crash of a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents, Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprian Ntayamira, respectively.  In another interesting example, occupying Syrian troops would not have withdrawn from Lebanon in 2005 were it not for the massive explosion in downtown Beirut that led to the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed 20 others and wounded over 200.  It is debateable to what extent domestic extremist forces were behind all of these assassinations, but what is inarguable is the magnitude of their effects.

Sometimes, political leaders are killed to prevent something from happening.  In 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel was gunned down by a Jewish extremist in a transparent attempt to derail the nascent peace process between Israel and Yasser Arafat’s newly formed Palestinian Authority.  To prevent a further crackdown on separatists in the Punjab region, two of her Sikh bodyguards shot and killed Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.  Similarly, to prevent further military intervention in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers’ independence movement, her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was blown up by a powerful bomb hidden in a basket of flowers.  In all three of these cases, a preventative political goal motivated the assassination of a national political figure.

Assassinations are as old as human society itself and are always traumatic.  A violent strike aimed at the leader of a nation represents a direct assault on their honour and integrity.  This is why assassinations cause moral outrage far disproportionate to the murder of a fellow human being without comparable stature – tragic as it may be.  Deaths at the highest level like this can conceivably be accidental but look suspicious all the same.  Conspiracy theories inevitably surface but are in time replaced with acceptance, as in the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash en route to Russia – all the more mournful because on board with him were the army chief, central bank governor, members of parliament and leading historians from Poland.  Death is always a tragic event because it is permanent, but when that death is caused by forces outside of nature – in other words, when it is a manmade event – then the political consequences are much bigger and much more unpredictable than usual.

Nov 06

We Need America to Remain a Superpower

As US elections draw near, it is useful to reflect on their significance – not just nationally but globally.  The United States occupies a unique place in the geopolitical architecture of this world as the dominant hegemonic power.  Its military spending accounts for nearly half of the planet’s total; its economic output is still a quarter of the world’s GDP.  This means that the US has enormous potential to contribute to global security and prosperity, something which it has sought to do for nearly a century and is now poised to do more effectively than ever before.  As its immediate neighbour and historical companion, Canada is in a prime position to capitalize on this reality. 

Hegemony takes many forms, and in the case of the US it is complex and multifaceted.  The United Nations Security Council is supposed to authorize multilateral military interventions, but this never happens without the support of the US.  Even when the UN passes no explicit resolution, the US has acted with close allies to achieve its own objectives in cases like Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003.  But when the US decides to intervene in places like Afghanistan in 2001 or Libya in 2011, it is practically the only country in the world with the resources and capabilities to do so.  The US business community also wields extraordinary influence through the Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Reserve and controlling stakes in international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  In this way, the US is in a position to almost unilaterally impose crippling sanctions on non-great powers throughout the world.  Case in point: Iraq throughout the 1990s and Iran in the past few years.

There is another side to hegemony, though.  Contrasted with the “hard power” of military and economic might, the flipside of US hegemony is what Harvard University professor Joseph S. Nye calls “soft power.”  Instead of coercive domination, this concept denotes persuasive leadership.  Here the US leads through example, by virtue of its democratic institutions, robust foreign aid, constitutionally enshrined freedoms and liberties, and respect for diversity both within and outside of American society.  Where other ideologies have failed, the US leads the free world in the protection of liberal democracy and the promotion of capitalist enterprise.  In a cultural sense, Hollywood movies and pop music have set the standard for global competition.  Technological innovation and research and development still attract the brightest minds from around the world to US cities and corporations, all of which contribute to the American brand name, a reputation for excellence.

This type of power is not just beneficial for the citizens of the US; in many ways, it benefits the world.  US hegemony provides stability because it induces predictability in the international system.  Because no rival great power can match the US on its own, the rest are encouraged to play by the rules that the reigning superpower lays down for them.  Truth be told, it is sheer fortune that the US has a liberal internationalist outlook supportive of democracy and liberty (at least most of the time and in most places) as opposed to an inward-looking, ethnocentric or fundamentalist worldview, which other regional great powers like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany would have used to subjugate their enemies and ruthlessly suppress domestic and foreign dissent.  The result of US hegemony is that shipping lanes are open to vessels from all law-abiding nations, the Internet and mass media are uncensored and representative governance structures are encouraged for societies worldwide as legitimate and justified.

However, hegemony is not a perpetual-motion machine.  It does not last forever.  Just as the multipolar system of European great powers preceded the bipolar rivalry that defined the Cold War, multipolarity is likely to follow this “unipolar moment” in history.  Theories of hegemonic decline suggest that while the dominant power expends their resources maintaining the status quo, developing countries profit from the stability of that system to grow, expand and accumulate more power.  This can be seen today in the growing economies fueling larger militaries in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and among rising regional powers like Turkey, Indonesia and Nigeria.  Whether this multipolar system will in the end be better for the world remains to be seen, but the net benefits of US hegemony are clear.

Returning to the topic of election fever in the United States, the question becomes which candidate is better able to maintain, augment and project US hegemony around the world for as long as possible?  Whether Democratic incumbent Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney is elected president on November 6, 2012, the US will still possess intrinsic and unchangeable national interests.  It will also have to overcome monumental internal difficulties, not least of which is a national debt of over $16 trillion that threatens to bankrupt the US and an impasse in Congress over how to deal with it.

Any incoming president would have to face these challenges, but opportunities still exist and optimism is still alive.  Both candidates want what is best for their country, and both are dedicated to finding solutions.  That being said, neither Obama nor Romney has laid out a clear vision of how they would continue to promote US hegemony globally.  They have competing ideologies that pivot mainly around domestic policy issues.  Hegemony as a public good is in the common interest of both political parties, so Democrats and Republicans will both pursue it in largely the same way it has been pursued in the past, with input from institutions and bureaucracies that transcend any single administration.  Ultimately, Americans will decide upon a leader for themselves, as they should, and whoever it is will evidently be interested in avoiding US hegemonic decline.


Oct 15

The Shifting Sands of the Middle East

The tides are turning, the sun is setting, the sands are shifting – whatever expression describes it best, the reality is that the Middle East as a geopolitical and sociological theatre of action is undergoing its most profound transformations in generations.  These transformations are distinguishable because of their universalizing features, crossing what were previously rigidly demarcated national boundaries and blending peoples, communities and societies together in a web of increasing complexity and fluidity.  While the nature of these fundamental alterations to the Middle Eastern system of politics can be debated and expanded upon much further, a few brief examples will suffice to clarify the point being made here.

International politics is by its very nature characterized by shifting alliances, offensive military posturing, and secretive diplomatic intrigue.  Generally speaking, international relations theories differ on this point: realists recognize this state of affairs while liberals work to pacify it and constructivists build critiques of it, not to mention the whole slew of scholarship opposed to the dominant positivist epistemology.  In the Middle East however, most would agree that political realism best sums up the region’s geopolitical relationships.

Prior to 2010, it was possible to speak of rival blocs polarized by America’s role in the Middle East.  The pro-American bloc consisted of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, Egypt and other regional players, while the anti-US bloc comprised Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  The composition of these blocs suddenly began to unravel in the summer of 2010 when Turkey engaged Iran (with Brazil’s help) on a nuclear fuel-swap deal and shortly thereafter broke off relations with Israel over the now-infamous flotilla incident.  Then, in quick succession, the Arab Spring of 2011-2012 deposed pro-US leader Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and installed an Islamist government under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that has been traditionally critical of US policies.  The ‘new’ Egypt has flirted with the idea of improving its relations with Iran and Hamas.  At the same time, Syria has been severely weakened by a 19-month (and counting) insurrection that has drawn its allies Iran and Hezbollah in, while worsening its ties with Hamas.  The battle lines in Syria are being drawn between pro and anti-Assad factions, which do not run parallel to pro and anti-US ones.  Potential wildcards to watch in the future are a weak Lebanon, a destabilized Iraq, and Iran, following its 2013 presidential elections.

Acceptable forms of governance are also rapidly changing in the region.  Dictatorships are the bane of the Middle East’s existence. Tyrannical regimes for long were able to paint their repression with ideological brush-strokes  legitimizing the savagery of their rule with Arab nationalist or Islamic fundamentalist images, language, and symbolism.  Nationalist dictatorships have already fallen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  What they will be replaced with is another question entirely, but similarly oppressive regimes are on the defensive in Syria and Iran.  As democratization becomes the modus operandi of governments in this part of the world, a more inclusive system of governance and more progressive governance mechanisms will begin to emerge and change the Middle East’s geopolitical relations from the inside-out.  In today’s age of mass mobilization, citizen participation, and popular representation, dictatorships are no longer justifiable governance structures.

The power of protest has made itself manifestly clear in the past two years as the relationship between people and power, the governed and their governments, is forced to adapt to the changing times as well.  Civil society has been distorted for decades and the strength of the majority of the population has long simmered under the surface of dictatorial policies and structures.  Now that people have begun to act on their demands, governments must react appropriately or be swept aside by the tide of the masses.  It was the protesting throngs of disaffected Arabs that toppled Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh, in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, respectively.  Ousting Gadhafi in Libya necessitated NATO intervention and the arming of the country’s rebel forces, similar to what is taking place today in Syria, minus NATO’s involvement (for the time being).  In 2009, Iran witnessed its biggest protesters since the ouster of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini’s followers, and the very same political revolution could certainly happen there during and after next year’s elections.  Even minorities can express themselves more effectively today than ever before, with Coptic Christians in Egypt standing up for their rights under an Islamist-dominated regime, while secularists and liberals likewise demand a say in the drafting of the future Egyptian constitution.  When people organize and mobilize, governments must respond appropriately.

Finally, the advent of new and improved technologies and the relentless onslaught of globalization mean that people are increasingly empowered, while governments can either repress further or democratize further than they have before. Individuals armed with smartphones can now broadcast to the entire world what is happening before their very eyes, whether it be human rights atrocities or artistic and cultural exhibits. Satellite television networks, global news media outlets, and broadband Internet connections have all allowed for virtually instantaneous communications between communities, continents and societies.  Communications equipment was vital to the effort to oust Qaddafi, with rebels establishing their own telephone networks to counter state-sponsored propaganda.  In the midst of the Egyptian Revolution, Mubarak’s officials briefly disabled the country’s Internet but were forced to relent after massive opposition.  While a similar struggle is underway in Syria and Iran against government-enforced censorship and control of information and communication, technology and globalization can either work for or against an entrenched power structure such as an authoritarian regime.  The power of the people might be enough to overthrow this edifice, but what replaces it is a much more complicated story.

Oct 10

Can International Efforts Stop Iran from Developing a Nuclear Bomb?

Iran has, for years, created controversy over its process of uranium enrichment, allegedly as an attempt to develop nuclear weapons. Over the past decade it has been a lightning rod of criticism, while being diplomatically, commercially and financially marginalized.  The dangers of the situation are clear.  If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it weakens an already fragile non-proliferation regime, threatens to spark a regional arms race, upsets delicate geopolitical relationships and endangers global security by facilitating international terrorism by proxy or by jihadi elements. The Canadian government broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in early September. One of the justifications for this move was Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.  So, it seems as if Canada has jumped into the Iran debate and taken a clear side.

Part of the problem with the development of nuclear weapons is that it reduces the effectiveness of the international Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. So, what exactly does the treaty do?  It broke substantial ground when it entered into force in 1970.  The five nuclear-weapons states of the era – coincidentally, the same five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – had three simple objectives in mind when they signed and ratified the treaty. Reducing and eliminating the spread of nuclear weapons, the eventual disarmament of countries that already had weapons, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy technology.  Since then 180 other countries have signed or acceded onto the NPT, including Iran.  Notable exceptions include India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have never agreed to the treaty’s limitations and so developed their own nuclear arsenals. And North Korea, which abandoned the treaty in 2003 after contravening it by building its own nuclear weapons.

In the case of Iran, news of a clandestine nuclear program was leaked to the world in 2002 by an exiled dissident group based in Iraq, the Mujahedin e-Khalq. Interestingly, the same group that was delisted by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in late September, a major political coup for the collective Iranian opposition.  Since 2002, the United States verified several such claims over the years. With satellite photography and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a body set up by the United Nations in part to fulfill the mandate of the NPT, it has conducted multiple investigations and filed several reports on Iran’s nuclear program.  After highly enriched weapons-grade uranium was discovered in 2003 and two years of European diplomatic efforts achieved little progress, the IAEA found Iran in noncompliance with its commitments under the NPT in 2005.  This was reported to the UN Security Council in 2006 and marked the beginning of international pressure on Iran as the UNSC passed the first of many resolutions and sanctions.

Under the pressure of four rounds of comprehensive UN sanctions and tougher US-European measures, the Iranian economy has begun to show signs of strain.  Oil exports are down to 800,000 barrels per day – a low not seen since the Iran-Iraq war ended – from a high of 2.3 million just one year ago. Revenues have sunk dramatically as a result.  Unemployment is estimated to be at 20% and inflation 25%.  While the Iranian currency (rial) has lost two-thirds of its value relative to the dollar in the past year, it lost 30% of its remaining value in the past week due to speculation and government mismanagement.  International sanctions have effectively frozen Iran out of global financial institutions and banking mechanisms, making it prohibitively expensive for the country to borrow from abroad to finance a growing debt, subsidize traditional industries, pay public sector wages or import goods.

The Iranian government claims that it has a legal right as a signatory to the NPT to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.  Because uranium enrichment is part of its civilian nuclear energy program, the country sees no problem developing nuclear power to meet the country’s growing energy demands and to supply it with reactors useful for research and medical isotopes.  Furthermore, Iran claims that it “has constantly complied with its obligations under the NPT and the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency”.  While these are reasonable claims, they do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

First of all, Iran has a long history of non-cooperation with the IAEA dating back at least 10 years and has been consistently criticized in reports developed by the organization.  Second, Iran has been found in contempt of four cumulative rounds of UNSC resolutions explicitly demanding a halt in uranium enrichment activities.  As a result, it has been targeted with the most punitive sanctions by the international community.  Third, the Iranian government supports Islamic terrorist organizations and repressive regimes while espousing a fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam, qualities that would be strengthened by the possession of a nuclear bomb in their weaponry.  Finally, Iran has made its intention to eliminate Israel no secret, a task which would be greatly facilitated by the destructive potential offered by nuclear weapons.

The consequences of an empowered and emboldened nuclear Iran are serious.  Because of the risks and dangers posed by nuclear weapons technology, it is up to the Iranian government to convince the rest of the world of its benign intentions.  The fact that Iran continues to lob rhetorical grenades at its political enemies, especially to excoriate American imperialism and demonize Israeli existence, does not create any goodwill in its direction among those countries that can positively contribute to Iran’s success and rehabilitation in the international community.  On this note, war remains a very real possibility in the region, and this is in large part because of Iran’s refusal to desist from continuing with its nuclear program.  Its flagrant disregard for the IAEA and international law also undermines the long-term effectiveness of the NPT by weakening the collective ethos of non-proliferation that it represents.  The Iranian government is testing the limits of the NPT by behaving defiantly.  Whether and in what form the NPT survives the Iranian challenge will depend largely on how the international community reacts.


Oct 01

Turkey: Rising Power or Risible Player

The Republic of Turkey is by all accounts a rising national power.  Internationally, Turkey is well regarded as a founding member and active participant in several international organizations: NATO in 1949, OECD in 1961 and G20 in 1999.  Regionally, Turkey had until very recently adopted a non-confrontational foreign policy in its neighbourly relations that boosted its credibility and favourability among the governments and societies of Europe, Asia and Africa – especially in the Middle East.  Domestically, the country has experienced political stability unparalleled in its recent history.  It has been 15 years since the military’s “postmodern” coup of 1997 unseated an Islamist-oriented government without openly seizing power and decades since its three more “traditional” coup d’états took place in 1960, 1971 and 1980.  Alas, the events of the past few days have threatened to derail much of this vaunted progress.

After years of political machinations and 21 months of official judicial enquiry, the “Sledgehammer” case seems to have resulted in 326 high-ranking active and retired officers to imprisonment for an alleged plot to overthrow the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).  While all are expected to appeal, and 36 have already been acquitted, the old rank-and-file of the Turkish Armed Forces – the likes of former air force chief Ibrahim Firtina, former navy chief Ozden Ornek and former army commander Cetin Dogan – are clearly being purged.  This theory is strengthened by the inconsistencies and anachronisms used in the trial’s evidence, but this whole story is remarkable in light of the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of the Turks).  Historically, the military has acted in domestic Turkish politics to enforce secularism and curb Islamism, and considering the soft coup of 1997, it seems that the proverbial table has been turned against the secular sensibilities of the military and in favour of Erdogan and the AKP’s political Islamist leanings.

Erdogan sees these proceedings as victories in the long-running struggle between civilian governments and military dictatorships.  In essence, Sledgehammer is a triumph for Turkish democracy.  While there is some merit to this argument, it is more likely the case that Erdogan is boosting his own public profile and acting in his own political interest, possibly at the long-term expense of democracy in Turkey.  Just weeks before national elections in 2011, six high-profile opposition politicians suddenly resigned in a sex scandal, fortuitously handing the AKP a comfortable majority in parliament.  In this way, the results of Erdogan’s actions in Turkish politics mirror those of Nouri al-Maliki, the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister of Iraq.  Just as Erdogan eliminated the civilian opposition to his rule in last year’s elections, the imprisonment of hundreds of senior military figures removes the strongest source of secular opposition to the AKP’s openly Islamist policies.

As presidential elections approach in 2014, at least one commentator in The Guardian suspects that Prime Minister Erdogan will emulate Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and simply swap jobs, all the while centralizing and consolidating power at the top of Turkey’s political system.  In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Prime Minister Erdogan stated: “With respect to the presidency, depending on the demand, if there is one, from the people and depending on what my political party decides, we will see.”  In other words, there would be nothing to stop him from taking the job if he wanted it.

But there are a whole host of other problems bedevilling the Republic of Turkey that are extrinsic to this perennial struggle between the country’s civilian government and armed forces.  The Kurdish problem: 20% of Turkey’s population are ethnic Kurds, and while most accept Turkish sovereignty, militant groups in the country’s southeast have been fighting for autonomy and independence since the 1980s because of discriminatory policies that further marginalize this minority from successfully integrating into Turkish society.  The Greek problem: Turkey’s universally condemned invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition of the island into de facto Greek and Turkish halves has stoked hostility between these countries and hampered Turkish entry and membership in the European Union.  The Syrian problem: years of progressively improved relations with the Syrian government came to a gradual halt in 2011 as the regime resorted to increasingly brutal methods of urban pacification in that country’s ongoing civil war, which has also marred Turkey’s relationship with fellow regional heavyweight Iran.

These regional problems are perhaps the most obvious, but obstacles no doubt remain to be overcome at the domestic and international levels.  The political implications of the so-called Sledgehammer case have not yet revealed themselves, but whatever they are, they will weigh heavily on the government of Erdogan’s AKP going forward.  The future of the Turkish Republic is of enormous consequence because of its prime geographical location and its rising geopolitical influence.  During a recent speech at the Atlantic Council of Canada in Toronto, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, powerfully stated that “the destiny of Jerusalem is the destiny of humanity.”  Can the same not be said of the destiny of Ankara?

Sep 27

A Plan for a Sustainable World

Sustainable development—balancing resource use and its impact on the environment—is one of the critical global issues today.  The international community has been discussing sustainable business practices and governmental policies for decades, but only recently has the discussion taken centre stage.  Global climate change is one of the processes that have accelerated this transformation.  The stakes are high because there is only one planet Earth.  If decisive and concerted steps are not taken to increase sustainable practices and policies on the world stage, it will become more severe than it already is. 

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. It is a long-term strategy to reduce, stop and even reverse much of the damage now being done to the global commons by pollution and greenhouse gases.  The nightmare scenario is one in which humanity acts after it is already too late, leading to disastrous shifts in weather, sea levels, vegetation, animal habitats, and so on.  This would in turn influence migratory flows, continental demographics, natural geography, resource distribution, and other factors in ways that will undoubtedly have unforeseen consequences.  The issue deserves some attention.

As with so many other global issues, the United Nations has begun to marshal the resources needed to effectively address this problem.  The United Nations General Assembly is in the midst of inaugurating its 67th session this September in New York City.  The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be one of the major forums in which the debate on sustainable development takes place.  The results of the recent Earth Summit held in Brazil (Rio+20) will be assessed, and a way forward for sustainable development will be charted.  This is the official, institutional response of the global community to climate change, and for that reason alone it is an exceptionally important public policy issue at the global level.

Yet while the UN can serve as a potent symbol of international collaboration, it has no intrinsic power apart from the authority bestowed upon it by its member-states.  What this means is that the best way to achieve results at the UN is if governments take the lead in adopting sustainable development practices and resisting climate change through their own policies.  The European Union has for 15 years been crafting and fine-tuning such a strategy.  Australia is one of the first developed countries to adopt a nationwide carbon tax.  Even China, considered a rising global power but not particularly strong on environmental issues, is reallocating resources for its latest Five-Year Plan from environmentally harmful end-products to building long-term sustainable development infrastructure.  It is vital for the sake of sustainability in general that these governments become part of the solution to climate change, not add to the problem.

But politics and bureaucratic wrangling can stop progress in its tracks. They can oftentimes hinder substantial progress on issues of monumental concern.  Other players, like nongovernmental organizations or civil society, can help them stay on track and achieve their goals.  This statement from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development website sums up this notion well: “From the very beginning of the first Earth Summit in 1992, people realized that sustainable development could not be achieved by governments alone. It would require the active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people - consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest”.  With everybody involved working in diverse ways towards promoting, strengthening and achieving sustainable development objectives, a number of potential solutions are viable.

The cost of instituting sustainability-oriented policies at this stage in the development strategies of national governments worldwide is minimal.  And, while the costs of not doing so are staggering, they grow larger every day that solutions are delayed.  With attention focused on the beginning of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly this month, an open policy window is presenting itself to the countries of the world and their governments.  Either the national representatives of these governments can continue to play politics and conduct business as usual, or they can get serious around the negotiating table during this latest moment of simultaneous crisis and opportunity.  The risks, costs and benefits of their policies will last for generations to come.


Sep 17

Arab-Israeli Peace in Pieces

What has become of the Arab-Israeli peace process? Recent years have seen little to no progress, though several opportunities have presented themselves.  The Annapolis Summit in 2007 formally established the two-state solution, to which both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave their informed consent.  Since then, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – a disastrous Israeli assault on Hamas forces in Gaza – abruptly ended ongoing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis on one track and between Syria and Israel on another.  Then came the by-now infamous flotilla incident of 2010, which further derailed any efforts to find a lasting peace.  And in 2011, the biggest leak of confidential documents detailing Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking attempts and failures, collusion and cooptation, was exposed by Al Jazeera as the Palestine Papers.  Keeping this brief chronology of a failed peace process in mind, a lasting political settlement – whether between Arabs and Israelis or Palestinians and Israelis – is plainly and simply impossible at this point in time.  Here are four simple reasons why.

Lack of US leadership

President Barack Obama is running for re-election in less than two months, and has effectively been doing so for the better part of the past two years.  There is no substitute for the invaluable role that the United States has to play in facilitating peace talks between Arab and Israeli governments.  US President Jimmy Carter hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for weeks at a time at his presidential retreat in Camp David, working tirelessly with these two leaders and their entourages to hone the final text of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978-79.  It was less onerous for US President Bill Clinton to convince King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel to hammer out a peace treaty of their own in 1994, but this was only possible after the Palestinians and Israelis formally recognized each other’s authority as negotiating partners in 1993.  Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, even if it is a cold peace that faces significant opposition within both countries, especially in a post-revolutionary Egypt governed by the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Nevertheless, in both cases, the United States was the only credible interlocutor.  This remains the case today.

Palestinian disunity

It is no secret that Palestinian society is divided, polarized as never before between two camps – among other fringe elements.  This cleavage pits the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people against Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood created in the wake of the First Intifada in 1987.  Territorially, the PA governs the West Bank while Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip since 2007 after a near-civil war.  In terms of ideology, Fatah, the biggest group within the PA, is a secular nationalist organization that has been engaged in dialogue with Israel for 20 years; Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist group opposed to compromise and dedicated to destroying the state of Israel.  Strategically speaking, Fatah and the PA are friendly to the US and welcomed warmly in world capitals from Paris and Moscow to Ankara and Riyadh.  Hamas, on the other hand, has found allies in Iran, Syria (not since President Assad’s brutal crackdown began in 2011), Hezbollah in Lebanon and Egypt (since the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power in 2012).  The fact that these two factions are so far apart on substantive issues of policy, and that recent attempts at reconciliation have all failed to bridge these divides, spells disaster for a united Palestinian front in the ongoing peace process with Israel.

Israeli coalition politics

Israel is a pluralist society with a diverse range of actors and organized interests mobilized within political parties.  The election of 2009 delivered a Likud-led coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allied with nationalist parties like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Haredi parties like Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s Shas.  Likud, Beiteinu and Shas are united in their centre-right vision of constructing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, protecting a sovereign Israel through the use of overwhelming military force and adopting a hardline negotiating position with the Palestinians.  What this means for Netanyahu’s coalition is that the conditions of any final peace deal could be vetoed by any of his junior coalition partners if they refused to accept it.  But that’s not all.  In the process of scrapping the accord, they could pull their support from the Likud Party and join what would then become a majority opposition and force early elections, potentially depriving Netanyahu of his premiership and his party of predominance in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament).  For this reason, the current Israeli government would be in the awkward position of choosing between peace with the Palestinians or electoral survival in Israel’s domestic political scene in the event that an agreement were ever presented to him for ratification.

Arab rejectionism

This point is so critical to the inability of Palestinians and Israelis to resolve their differences that it is remarkable how little attention it is given in international forums.  The Arab countries of the Middle East have been locked in a struggle with Israel since the days of the British Mandate in Palestine, decades before Israel was even established as a sovereign state.  After the seminal war of 1967, the Arab League gathered in Khartoum and famously issued three no’s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, negotiations with it.”  This changed only when Egypt’s Sadat boldly flew to Jerusalem in 1977, addressed the Knesset candidly and admitted that he was ready for peace, recognition and negotiation.  However, Arab society from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen remains intransigently opposed to Jewish settlement in Israel, with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and hate speech commonly found in public discourse.  The Arab states were not bystanders in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their ancestral homelands; they were active participants.  This is not to say that Israel must not share its portion of the burden, but until governments and societies in the Arab world begin to assume responsibility for their policies and behaviours, there will be no solution for Palestine’s woes.


Sep 11

Female Literacy Campaigns: Key to Growth and Security

Without drawing broad generalizations, it is an unfortunate fact that too many individuals in the poorest and least developed countries on Earth lack the most basic skills needed to advance along the socioeconomic ladder.  One of the most important of these several skills is literacy, or the ability to communicate in written language.  Knowing how to read and write makes a monumental difference in anybody’s life, but it has an especially pronounced impact on the lives of those in the developing world.  Since women represent some of the most disenfranchised, marginalized groups living in developing countries, improving their situation is essential for fostering growth and promoting security in their communities.  This is why social campaigns that cultivate literacy in general and in females in particular are imperative for the future of global development.

The best known and most effective of all female literacy campaigns involves a combination of two out of eight of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Goal 2 is to achieve universal primary education, with the target that “by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”  The promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women are encapsulated in Goal 3, with the specific target of eliminating “gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.”  Taken together, MDGs 2 and 3 have guided much of the development communities’ approach to remedying female illiteracy in the developing world.

In the context of this analysis, it is important to distinguish between adult literacy (15 years and older) and youth literacy (15 to 24 years old) because this distinction indicates good news.  According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, the official monitoring source for educational and literacy targets associated with the MDGs, the global adult female literacy rate is 79.2% while the youth female literacy rate is a significantly higher 86.8%.  This upward trend is a strong sign that female literacy campaigns in developing countries are successfully boosting literacy rates in the next generation of female leaders.  Unfortunately, this still leaves hundreds of millions of illiterate adults and youth, some of whom are in the developed world.

Geographically, the continent of Africa still contains the most illiterate populations in the world, followed closely by the countries of the Indian Subcontinent.  As of 2011, adult literacy rates remained below 50% in 11 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Haiti, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone.  The youth literacy rate is predictably much more promising, with only 5 of these countries in sub-Saharan Africa registering a youth literacy rate of under 50%.  Because of the region’s sheer population density, more than half of the global illiterate population lives in South and West Asia, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh.  Surveys show that youth from poor and rural households are also more likely to be out of school, meaning the rich-poor and urban-rural gaps must be bridged in order to realize true progress when it comes to achieving female literacy in the developing world.

Female literacy is not just an end in itself, noble as it may be; it is also a means to achieve other developmentally relevant goals.  Perhaps the biggest indirect benefit of female literacy for society is the effect that it has on demographic pressures.  As a general rule, the higher the level of literacy among women, the lower the birth rate.  In other words, the more education a woman has, the fewer children she is likely to have.  This happens for many reasons: formal schooling delays the deliberate starting of a family for years, educated women learn how to plan families with contraception (meaning fewer unwanted pregnancies, and thus, fewer unwanted births), and education teaches women about opportunities in life other than immediate motherhood without alternative possibilities.

Other benefits accrue to society when the female population is literate.  Women are able to make better healthcare choices for themselves and their children when they have the knowledge that comes with education and literacy.  Women can pursue their own interests more effectively when they have the educational requirements needed to do so, whether this means creating more efficient small businesses, making smarter choices as consumers or organizing themselves into civil society groups with similar interests.  Though they are 50% of the global population, women perform 2/3 of all work hours while receiving only 1/10 of the world’s income and owning less than 1/100 of the planet’s property in return.  Women are also empowered when they increase their share of proportional representation at many levels of society – from politics to business, academia and industry. 

Of the 1 billion illiterates in the world, more than two out of three are women.  This stark reality can only change when global leaders are made aware of the importance of female literacy to overall development.  Then it becomes a looming crisis of massive proportions, a gross injustice in need of immediate rectification for global development to continue apace.  Because of the additional benefits that come with attaining female literacy, it becomes vital to meet these second and third MDGs as soon as possible.  Only at this point can women reach their full potential and contribute to the dynamic global social and economic environment shaped by more and more educated women as every day passes.