Politics & The World

In 2015, Michael Lüders wrote a seminal book on the hypocrisy of Western[1] politics in the Middle East. Allegedly driven by Western ‘liberal values,’ interventions from outside powers have been anything but constructive, leaving the region in a much worse, much more chaotic situation than before. Taking Lüders’ major claim as a guiding narrative, it is difficult to not see how the current quagmire in the Middle East, the growth of failed states, violent conflicts, the refugee crisis and the surge of terrorism are largely Western, self-inflicted dilemmas. This does not imply that the illusive concept of the West as a superior state order is responsible for the long list of terrorist attacks over the last months. However, without any doubt, the bottom line is that Western countries, first and foremost the United States, bear a great responsibility in creating their own enemies and accelerating chaotic circumstances and radicalisation.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The first fallacy of several American governments and their European allies has been to distinguish between “the good and the evil” among conflict parties in the Middle East. Policymakers claim to understand the local culture and political situation and choose local leaders to be “evil” where deemed appropriate. It’s a process chain that has been largely repeated on various occasions, probably starting with the ousting of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran 1953. Mossadegh had been a democratically elected chef d’état, and Iran was thriving as a showcase of liberties in the whole Middle Eastern region. Largely unknown to most of the public nowadays, the US and the UK were the main instigators behind the regime change in Tehran, putting into place a puppet government (led by the Shah), which catered to British and American economic interests in the country. Guaranteeing foreign domination of Iran’s oil sector for twenty years while neglecting the local population created a breeding ground for anti-US resentments among ordinary Iranians. Numerous are those who believe the Islamic Revolution of 1979 could have been prevented/would probably not have happened without the Western interference in Iran. As if history repeats itself, the same naming and shaming of evil leaders recurred on various occasions, from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Qadaffi in Libya to Assad in Syria. Former US President George W. Bush coined a famous phrase when speaking of ‘the axis of evil’.

The West is always the best

Of course: contrary to the evil, Western forces feel the need to represent enlightened values and disregard their own severe mistakes (that have cost the lives of thousands of innocent people in the region). They feel empowered to impose sanction regimes (as in Iraq and Iran) – which – by the way – never led to the envisaged regime change and improved social/political climate. Instead, Iraq is a horrific case where a society of well-educated people, including some of the best doctors and scientists in the Middle East, was destroyed by an externally-sanctioned regime. Throughout the 1990s, the country was so badly hit that at times even first-aid mechanisms and vaccinations for childhood diseases were missing. Western ignorance also surfaces when it comes to the choice of “friends” in conflicts in the Middle East. While cooperation with Russia was always seen as an option of last resort, supporting dubious proxies on the ground was done without the blink of an eye. Blatantly, the American decision to dissolve all armed forces of Saddam Hussein and replace them with an Iraqi army of their own liking pushed thousands of former soldiers into the arms of more radical forces such as the Islamic state. Equally opaque, US weapon support to allegedly moderate Islamist forces ended up arming Jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war. The Islamic State would not have been able to acquire such weapons without indirect, unintended American assistance.

The axis of instability

Speaking of an axis of evil has been an American narrative, and the war against terror has been continued by Barack Obama with much smoother language, using drones and surrogate warfare without any ‘boots on the ground.’ Hypocritical positions by consecutive American administrations have magnified the situation. Take Egypt, a de facto military dictatorship, tolerated by all Western forces for reasons of stability and even financed with trillions of dollars (making it the largest rentier state on earth). Take the Gulf States, whose citizens often finance radical Islam in the region, but who are still best partners, mostly Saudi Arabia. Or the Israel-Palestine conflict, which the West has considered for a long time as so one-sided pro-Israel that the real underlying problem has not been understood.  Could it be worse? Well, the EU has admitted to its own ambivalence and narrow-mindedness by adopting a far more distanced, differentiated neighbourhood policy towards Middle Eastern countries.  Accepting one’s own mistakes, not forcing one’s own views on states in the region are some first steps to be taken … but from the American side there is no such thing to be expected in the near future. There’s a new President about to be elected, either a candidate that wants to abandon NATO and pull back all American troops. Or an expansive agenda by the less radical, yet still belligerent democratic candidate, which could lead to new tensions/errors in the Middle East. Finally, supporting the Arab uprisings has been the right and only choice by Western countries, but not following up afterwards has been a cardinal error, as the crumbling state structures in Libya and Iraq demonstrate. The reality is that the Middle East resembles an axis of instability stretching from Syria to Libya, and the US remains invested in all major conflicts – without a clear idea where this investment will lead to.

 [1] The „West“ is here understood as a concept delineating mainly the United States and its allies in Europe – all countries which claim to support liberal democracy, rule of law etc.

inspired by:  Michael Lüders (2015): Wer den Wind sät: Was westliche Politik im Orient anrichtet. German Version.

photo from flickrccl.

Politics & The World

  • From Istanbul, reports Sebastian Franzkowiak

Fans of Game of Thrones or House of Cards are used to incredible turns and twists in the series’ plots. Violence, intricate power games and cold-blooded calculations are constant features of those shows and shed a negative light on politics. What is going on in Ankara might be increasingly seen as one of the latest episodes developed by writers for HBO or Netflix. Taken to the extremes, Turkish politics are also a game, with an aspiring Sultan trying to impose his rule over his realm. Let’s take a look at an anecdote from last week to clarify:

The leading article in Günes, one of the most government-friendly Turkish newspapers, blamed the recent bomb attack in Istanbul on Germany, which had allegedly not been able to ‘cope with the harsh Turkish reaction’ to the Bundestag’s recent resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Subsequently, President Erdoğan announced an ‘action plan against Germany’, publically denouncing the members of German parliament of Turkish origin as co-conspirators with terrorist forces in Turkey. When most German newspapers criticised Turkey’s reaction and direct attack on the parliamentarians, the Turkish narrative went so far as to present this as a clear proof that press freedom in Germany was under threat.

Conspiracies like this are as recurrent as is the public bemoaning of officials of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who feel notoriously disadvantaged and discredited by alleged ‘enemies’ from both within and outside Turkey. We are not in the realm of fictional TV series, but paradoxically it appears that as the discourses by Turkish politicians become increasingly unpredictable and absurd, the AKP rules the country as unchallenged as never before. What is going on in Turkey, a country that was cherished as the rising regional force in the Middle East, a growing economic power and as some tend (or would like) to forget, which is still an official EU accession candidate?

A self-inflicted predicament

Part of Turkey’s current predicament is self-inflicted. Take the Kurds. One year ago, the pro-Kurdish HDP landed a major election success by entering Turkish Parliament. For the first time since thirteen years, the AKP had failed to win an absolute majority in the legislative elections. Observers were hoping for a more peaceful Turkey that could leave the past violence behind it. Instead of a continuous armed conflict between the militant Kurdish wing (PKK) and the Turkish army, Turkey’s Kurds would get the chance to use Parliament as an arena to assert their political rights. What an illusionary thinking.

One year on, HDP-Parliamentarians have a hard time in Turkey. Erdoğan did have two choices when the Kurdish party won a considerable number of votes in summer 2015: accommodating them in a coalition government or re-launching the conflict and scheduling new elections. The AKP managed to regain its absolute majority in the newly held November 2015 elections, and is now stronger than ever before: recently, the immunities of Kurdish parliamentarians were lifted and Erdoğan replaced the too critical Prime Minister Davutoğlu, with a less critical figurehead (Yildirim). The establishment of a semi-presidential system with a strong presidential mandate for Erdoğan seems to be a palpable vision. The Sultan-like personal empowerment strategy however happened at the expense of the peace process with the PKK and the conflict resumed increasing levels of violence.

Turkey in 2016 is a different country than it was only a year ago. You can literally feel that something is in the air when strolling through the streets of Istanbul. On Istiklal Street, the major shopping avenue, a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March 2016, inflicting the death of five tourists and many more wounded. It was another heavy blow in a chain of deadly attacks throughout the country that had started in autumn 2015, and already the second one in Istanbul including foreign tourists in 2016. Although life in a metropolis like Istanbul must go on, people are anxious about Turkey’s fate – as the country now faces the threat of both the Islamic State and Kurdish extremists willing to use bomb attacks for their political goals.

Failing in Syria and beyond

Turkey’s foreign policy failure in Syria is the major factor behind the Turkish predicament. While Turkey does a great job hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in the Syrian conflict is constrained by opposing any solution involving Al-Asad. Moreover, uneasiness with the growing autonomy of Syria’s Kurds has put Ankara at odds with the United States, who favour the Kurds as effective fighters against ISIS. Ankara’s preferred solution – regime-change, will most probably not manifest itself in the near future. Too many things are at stake in Syria, and the global repercussions of the proxy-war mean that any final solution is beyond Turkey’s capacity to act. Furthermore, as long as Ankara does continue targeting PKK positions instead of decisively fighting ISIS, rumours about ties between ISIS and the AKP will not cease. Some officials speak of Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’ in the Middle East, as Turkey would arguably benefit from having stood with the people that rose against autocratic regimes in the region in the long run. Realistically speaking, this is a strategy to mask failure to the Turkish public, particularly in Syria.

Arguably, the aspiring Sultan has to be careful that the wind does not blow too harshly from all sides. Despite Erdoğan’s conviction to ‘fight terrorists until the end’, and despite the apparent stability of the governing AKP, the actual prospects of a stabilisation of the situation are very unclear. Turkey appears to be in a flummoxed state. Usually, cordial ties with allied countries should be a top priority for Ankara. Messing up the relations with major international players – Russia, the US and now Germany to name a few – is not in the long-term interest of the government. Because finally, while there is some truth in the idea that especially the EU needs Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, Turkey also depends on its allies in terms of trade and investment relations. At worst, disenfranchising allies and purporting absurd discourses might reveal that the apparently stable house of cards can be knocked down. If Erdoğan does not recalibrate his risky posturing, a very long winter might be coming for Turkey.


cover image: flickr_cclicense

Politics & The World

by Hoai Tram Nguyen

People who know me call me a European Federalist, as I admire the way in which the EU’s foreign policy is conducted: with the long term goal of peace, democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, sustainable development and good governance. But the truth is that the EU has two faces when it comes to its foreign policy. On the one hand, the EU is trying to promote its values in the world. On the other hand, the EU is prioritizing economic benefits over its own values. These economic benefits are particularly prominent in the arms trade business. Though limited research has been conducted within this highly sensitive field, I am convinced that exporting arms is never the road towards a stable, peaceful world. In this article I will show that several Member States (MS) have exported arms to the Middle-East, and in particular to Libya. I am therefore wondering: is the EU contradicting its own norms and values by exporting arms to conflict zones?” The arms trade is a phenomenon that I strongly oppose, as it is hypocritical and contradictory to everything the EU is standing for. One can simply not promote democracy, peace and stability in the world, while simultaneously undermining this by selling weapons.

When the civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, many refugees were stranded on Lampedusa. Italy argued it did not have the capacity to solve this problem on its own, and turned to the EU for help. The people fleeing from this civil war were on the run from Gaddafi’s violent regime. The alarming part in this story is that the weapons used against the Libyan people were manufactured in Europe and exported by EU MS. Data [1] shows that the worth of the military equipment exported to Libya by MS exceeded € 900 million prior to the civil war (2005-2010). In particular, Italy exported more than € 300 million worth of arms to Gaddafi’s regime, including bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, rifles, military vehicles and so on. This is the same country that turned to the EU for help when it became confronted with the results of its own arms trading by being overwhelmed by Libyan refugees.

I must also stress the other side of the story; in short, all this does not mean that MS can export arms without facing difficulties. Officially, there are eight criteria set out in the Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP that must be considered before granting export licenses of military/arms exports to a third country. The Common Position has been adopted as a politically binding tool within the CFSP, yet the CFSP still remains intergovernmental – making it non legally binding. Research conducted by Hansen & Marsh (2015) shows that many MS did not take these criteria into account in the case of Libya, resulting in a high volume of arms exports. I would like to emphasize three of the eight criteria:

  1. Respect for human rights conditions in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law;

According to Amnesty International, human rights conditions in Libya were consistently violated by the regime. These reports warned that small arms and military vehicles could be used for internal repressions. Hansen & Marsh’s research shows that the UK exported military vehicles nonetheless, ignoring the reports. Hence, if you have seen photos in the headlines of vehicles patrolling the streets in Libya during the uprising in 2011, you know where they might have come from. Also, the New York Times reported that cluster munitions from Spain were used against civilians in Misrata by the regime.

2. Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted with the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions;

In relation to the redistribution of arms, MS should have abstained from exporting arms to the Gaddafi regime. The past has shown that the regime has re-exported these under undesirable conditions to, amongst others, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone and many more.

3. Preservation of regional peace, security, and stability.

This criterion should have clearly prevented arms exports to Libya as there was a serious threat of instability. Gaddafi’s regime had not shown itself to be a responsible partner to trade arms with, as it had been in conflict with several of its neighbors: it supported military coups in Ghana, and had several territorial disputes with Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia.

In sum, taking the above mentioned points, one can conclude that the EU must put more pressure on its MS to refrain from exporting arms. Even if there is only a slight doubt that the arms will be re-distributed in the wrong hands, MS should not export them. Especially if we look at the situation in the Middle East now. Libya was just an example, but for all we know, there is a possibility that ISIS is fighting with weapons manufactured by EU countries. However, it is important to note that EU countries are not the only arms exporters in the world. As a matter of fact, next to France, the UK and Germany, the countries with the largest arms industries are China, the USA, and Russia. Five of these countries are Permanent Members in the UN Security Council to “maintain international peace and security”. Ironic, isn’t it?

To a certain extent, the EU has contributed to regional instability, increased the levels of armed conflicts, and failed to preserve peace. Thus, regarding the current situation in the Middle East, it can be concluded that the EU has been acting in a hypocritical way by exporting arms, knowing that the consequences will go against its own values. War and conflict can be a great business for countries with big arms industries as they can profit from these “ideal-suited-situations”, a phenomenon that prevails over values for peace. But if we want to have sustainable peace in the world, I urge all arms-exporting countries in the world to stop exporting!

Image by ϟ†Σ, taken from flickr