Why Libya? Why now?

Many people have been asking, why intervene in Libya when there are other people who are struggling against their tyrannical governments who also need support? There is more than one answer. I do not purport to have them all–someone in my position could not, as we do not know what backroom deals have been arrived at, nor how and with whom, to approve this mission in the UN Security Council. (Where is Wikileaks when you need it?)

One reason is probably that Libya seems to be the only state whose resistance has a leadership structure states can deal with on their own terms, as distinct from an amorphous mass of protesters. France recognised the rebel group as Libya’s new government two weeks ago, and all other governments involved are under pressure to follow suit.

The idea of oil interests is of course also floated as a possibility. Libya’s daily oil production runs somewhere between that of Angola and Algeria, constituting about 2% of world supply. If the US, Canada and so on are perceived as entering Libya to steal its oil, their reputations worldwide will drop to levels of unpopularity that would impress the colonel himself. A larger share of 2% of the world’s oil is not enough to motivate the powerful states to take such a big risk. While of course Big Oil would like to get its tentacles on that oil, especially at today’s prices, I do not think oil alone would provide the political support this mission needs, nor explain why Libya is the target.

Here is why Libya is the target. What is the name of the guy killing people in Libya? Muammar Gaddafi, of course. What else do we know about him? He is a crazy dictator. What are the names of the bad guys in Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen? How many Americans, British, Canadians and French can name them? Never mind them; we have the epitome of evil to take care of. In the US and Canada in particular, people are raised on a diet of super heroes and super villains. The Joker, Cobra Commander, Megatron and Skeletor, the villains I grew up with, wanted nothing but power, and commanded bands of evil mercenaries to kill innocent people. Muammar, like Saddam, fits this image perfectly: a one-dimensional, insane and funny-dressing dictator, massacring innocent people.

Moreover, the Libyan diaspora has no love for Gaddafi, and has been demanding his downfall in all the countries in question. (See this protest in London, for instance; some 20 Libyans were even yelling anti-Gaddafi slogans on the steps of the BC parliament.) The voters generally accept or encourage the decapitation of Libya. Along with the acquiescence of the Arab League and the United Nations, these facts explain why an intervention in Libya is politically possible.

A better comparison might even be made with Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of Belgrade, who became the target of the 1999 NATO mission to protect Kosovo from Serbia, and grant it independence. The invasion was by no means an unqualified success. Despite every measure taken to target military infrastructure and minimise civilian casualties (which, by law, is necessary in war), hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Innocent Libyans will die in this “no-fly zone”.

The violence in Libya seems to occupy far more news media space than Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. According to polls, Americans are watching news about Libya, approve (60-70%) of intervention and generally agree that the comic book villain Lord of Libya should be removed from power. (That said, Europeans are less enthusiastic.) Barack has stated he will not send in ground troops, which means none of the invading states will. The ideal for the intervening governments is a quick victory and end to the conflict, and quick elections to remake Libya in the image of the West. Foreign casualties will be minimal, as they were in Kosovo (after all, how are Gaddafi’s forces supposed to hit submarines launching cruise missiles?). The heads of state ordering this mission will look like heroes and their approval ratings will rise at home. (Always watch the election cycle–Canadians may soon be heading to the polls.) That is, until things go wrong.

In fact, I see little reason to expect that everything will go as planned. The governments involved in Libya have consistently shown they have no plan for the countries they send their militaries to, and that their ad hoc planning rarely results in progress. Humanitarian interventions require long-term campaigns involving nation-building at the bottom and state-building at the top. Publics in these countries, who need to approve of such controversial commitments if their states are going to see them through, have short attention spans and low tolerance of casualties. If the violence in Libya ends when Gaddafi’s regime falls, like in Kosovo, the country can begin to rebuild. If not, it will be Iraq all over again.

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Stop trying to combat terrorism

It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.

Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?

Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.

Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.

Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.

The chain of future conflict, part 2

See part 1 here.

A ship carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka has landed on the shores of my hometown in Canada. Some of them may be members of the Tamil Tigers, but there are hundreds of men, women and children on board.

This event is not an isolated incident. First, it is not the first boatload of Tamil refugees to wash up on Canada’s shores since the end of the civil war last year. Second, it is not the first boatload of refugees from the wartorn world to appear in the rich world. This ship is part of a trend that we would be foolish to ignore or misread.

When originally outlining the chain of future conflict, I posited the following pattern.

* Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
* People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
* Barriers to immigration will rise.
* Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
* Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
* The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
* A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

The refugee boat trend is slightly different, as it is not related to environmental change but conventional war. War and conflict have not abated in our brave new world and are not ready to end any time soon. As a result, more refugees will appear on the shores of the rich world.

The immediate reaction is to raise barriers to immigration. The US border with Mexico, for instance, which is fighting a terrible drug war, is the object of a debate on whether to erect an enormous fence to keep Mexicans out. The Canadian government’s approach to the Sri Lankan refugees has so far been somewhat more compassionate: letting them alight in Canada and then determining if they should be sent back or not.

This approach may be the most realistic, at least at the moment. However, should refugee numbers increase, it might become wishful thinking. Criminalising refugees tends not to decrease numbers of refugees but increase the amount of violence employed in both bringing them in and sending them back. Sending Canada’s navy to intercept today’s boats costs money. If too many boats come, which is the fear, more naval vessels will be dispatched to stop them. At some point that I will let economists estimate, it could cost more money to stop people coming in than to let them in.

Moreover, criminal syndicates are heavily involved in human trafficking and their income and power increases when a market is prohibited. If there is demand, someone will fill it; if the act is illegal, it will continue but in the form of crime.

The current course may be politically and economically realistic at present, but if trends continue we will need new policies and attitudes to survive the possible nightmares of the future. Putting more effort into ending war and environmental destruction is one possibility. More intercultural education and integration is another. Criminalising everything we find unpleasant is not.

Conflicting news for the future of the War on Drugs

Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico and prosecutor of the War on Drugs, has declared that it is time to debate drug prohibition. It sounds like great news: the first step toward rejecting violent conflict and admitting the facts. Other states in Latin America are gradually following suit, some of whom have decriminalised drugs.

But disturbing news is coming from Canada this week as the Conservative government takes measures to raise punishments on drugs, gambling and prostitution. It is building new prisons to accommodate the undesirables it plans to encarcerate. Against all logic, the Canadian government is cracking down on personal choice issues and using its taxpayers’ money to take away their freedom.

I am on record as stating that I believe the War on Drugs is slowly but inexorably coming to a close. The Conservatives’ move might be a swan song; it might be a continuation of their tough-on-crime, loose-on-facts policies; or it could just be a way of feeding the government’s addiction to the War on Drugs. But if other governments, even Mexico’s, can open the possibility of change, why would Canada’s try to push more crime underground? Polls suggest Canadians want at least pot to be legal. Well, sorry Canadians: we are not interested in your views. You work for us. We are the decision makers, and you pay for it.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

September 11th’s legacy: success for the terrorists, failure for the rest

Before you read this post, consider the following question: what do you think terrorists want to achieve with their actions?

Is the world a more dangerous place after 9/11? Perhaps. Now there are wars in Afghanistan (good idea) and Iraq (bad idea), which have increased (and will continue to increase) the polarisation between extremist muslims and liberal democratic governments. There will be more violence to come. But does that mean that citizens in the West should be afraid?

Whether or not they should be, they are. The CBC called the United States “a nation still bleeding from the wounds it suffered five years ago… and millions of Americans still live in fear.” Who is bleeding? American soldiers, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the families of the 9/11 victims. That’s it. The rest of the people have nothing to worry about. Yeah, there could be another terrorist attack, but there has only been one in the US in five years. Why are we so afraid of terrorism when all but the most irrational of us know we’re more likely to die of cancer, AIDS, car crashes, gunshots, heart attacks and anything else you can think of?

Now the Canadian and American governments are working hard to restrict everyone’s access to airlines, slowing down traffic across the border and using billions of dollars of public money in order to provide the illusion of security. Taking away our freedoms and money are backward ideas designed either to scare us more or make us safer from terrorist attacks, but there is no evidence we’re any safer. If you don’t think it’s all an illusion, answer me this: do you really think you couldn’t find a way to kill a bunch of people and scare everyone? Of course you could.

So we’re not much safer, in spite of all the freedoms taken away, all the money spent, all the racist suspicion and all the killing. Do you have an answer yet for my initial question? What do terrorists want to achieve? Terror! Well, congratulations Mr bin Laden et al., you are successful.

Worried about the draft? Don’t be

Many North Americans have been worrying lately that the governments of the United States and Canada will reinstate the draft, conscripting civilians of the right age to fight in the wars to which they have committed (or in which they are entangled, whichever your point of view). My advice is, don’t worry: they are not bringing the draft back for a long time. Here’s why.

In both the US and Canada, conscription would be extremely unpopular right now; and despite what the cynics say, politicians are held to account by public opinion. In recent polls, Stephen Harper’s popularity was falling to about 36%. George Bush’s is no better. If they instate conscription, their popularity will fall further and further. Their parties will not get elected again. In fact, if the Conservative Party of Canada attempted to push conscription through parliament, it would be defeated in a vote of no confidence; and if the Republicans tried the same in Congress, they would lose the midterm elections in November. So we’re safe in the short term. But what about the long term?

Sure, it’s hard to predict what will happen years from now. But I’m going to anyway. Tell me if this sounds presumptuous, but the draft is such an unpopular idea that unless there is an enormous crisis that presents a clear and present danger to the people and the state, it will remain unpopular enough to defeat any politician or party that backs it seriously. I use the word “seriously” because one Democratic congressman named Charles Rangel symbolically (facetiously) introduced a bill to universalise military service in the United States right before the War in Iraq. Well, Michael Moore can try to sign up the sons of congresspeople all they want, and he is about as likely to succeed as Charles Rangel, and for the same reasons.

First, the draft is still remembered not from when it was a good idea (the World Wars) but from the highly unpopular Vietnam War. Public opinion brought that war to an end and the same sentiment will disallow it for a while to come. Second, the governments fighting these wars, and the wars themselves, are sitting on restive electorates that will not take lightly to being buffaloed into accepting that they should die for the good of some far away group of people they don’t understand. From this argument I get my third point, that most North Americans do not understand why they should care what happens in Afghanistan and Iraq, forgetting that the planning of a certain World Trade Center bombing took place in Afghanistan after being ignored after the end of the Cold War. Fourth, as Wikipedia points out, and Michael Ignatieff endorses, the emphasis in developed countries today is not on numbers, but on strategy, better trained forces and better technology.

So if you are afraid that you will be drafted to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, or some other war you are afraid that your government is about to enter into, don’t be. They won’t be sending you anywhere against your will. And if I’m wrong, you’ll see me doing something I’ve never done before: attending a political protest.