After an alcoholic induced euphoria on New Year’s Eve, a geopolitical hangover looms….
The first of these is the Hot Arab Winter to come….
Looking beyond the hype about the Arab Spring, which has clouded our minds and given rise to unrealistic expectations, we are beginning to see what lies behind it and what the future is likely to bring.
This, the Launchpad for the change in political climate, has indeed made some progress toward ceding a voice to the people, but the monarchy still retains considerable control over critical ministries such as Defence and Interior. With greater upheavals in Egypt and Libya to come, it is difficult to expect the revolution in Tunisia to be satisfied with crumbs from the King’s table. If not, there should be continuing unrest and, in fact, there are already numerous cases of self-immolation in protest against living conditions under the new regime.
Libya, the second domino to fall, is in the process of proving that it is “better the devil you know”. The highly and loudly touted revolution supported by the “West” will come back to haunt the West. The US and its European satellites recognised as a government in exile one that had no grass roots base throughout Libya. In fact, it is doubtful that any Libyan government acceptable to that fragmented tribal country will have the capacity to govern without an autocratic or dictatorial leadership a la Ghadaffi. Ghadaffi forged a government in 1969 by buying off the loyalty of tribal chiefs and creating a strong internal security apparatus. To have anything resembling a nation-state something similar will be required by any successor to Ghadaffi. The revolution is far from over and we might well see eventually a country divided into a Benghazi/Tripoli partition with the tribal chiefs in south selling their souls to one or the other. It also remains to be seen what role the Libyan Brotherhood will play in any future government but I am betting on a strong Islamist influence here and any other Arab countries moving toward change.
Another unfinished revolutionary saga. The Brotherhood unsurprisingly were the big winners with the Al-Nour party the surprising runner-up. However, whether the Egyptian military will cede significant power to a parliamentary majority held by these two parties is the big question. If that issue is not realised to the satisfaction of all concerned, we will be witnesses to a very nasty confrontation and one that is already causing reverberations throughout the Middle East amongst not only Arab countries but in Israel as well. The new Egypt will no longer be the willing partner and mouthpiece for US Middle East foreign policy, in particular regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Keep in mind too that the vital oil artery from the Middle East, the Suez Canal, is in the hands of an Egyptian government.
Turmoil in Process
Several embryonic revolutions, those still in gestation, have yet to be defined but they could have just as great an impact on the region as Egypt and Libya. To wit, there are Bahrein and Yemen sitting on the Eastern coast and southern borders of Saudi Arabia respectively, the world’s largest supplier of oil, both in political ferment.
Bahrein possesses both oil and a very sensitive geopolitical position in the Persian Gulf. It is another example of a religious divide and discrimination reminiscent of Iraq, namely a Shia majority governed by a Sunni minority. Yemen, although not beset by religious divide, is a poverty stricken country and threat to stability in Saudi Arabia harbouring many Saudi dissidents and home to very extreme Islamists.
Syria is big in the headlines and again, one must ask if the West’s constant criticism and support of dissidents is in their and Israel’s interest. I believe it is highly significant that Israel has maintained a studied silence. Better the devil you know?
So many of these Arab Spring movements are fraught with grave risk to the region and the West. They seem to be largely a protest for change without a concrete agenda and, like Libya, without a coherent and cohesive leadership.
Israel, the root of all problems in the Middle East, remains under the protective umbrella of the United States and, if the Republican party prevails in November, Israel will become even more arrogant and aggressive. Obama has had the good sense to restrain both the hawks in the US congress and Netanyahu with regard to Iran, but the reins would come off under any Republican President. Romney, as example, said he would turn over control of US Middle East policy to Israel. Astonishing and frightening! Whether a Republican or a Democratic President, the Israeli conundrum will remain un-resolved. A two state solution is not practicable. There is too much bad blood between the two and Israel would be unwilling to partition Jerusalem or grant right to return, the two big unresolved issues. Eventually only demographics will solve the problem. Another century?
Saudi Arabia, an autocracy held in power by dint of its oil and, perhaps even more so, by an agreement with fundamentalist Wahabism, the dominant faith of Saudi Arabia and much more extreme than the Sunni and Shia. The Saudis reached a Faustian agreement with the Wahabi many years ago that boiled down to the Saudis handing over control of its citizens’ daily life to the Wahabi in return for the Wahabi not interfering in the Saudi family’s dissolute life and their oil industry. Should that accord come unstuck it will be goodbye to the Saudis and place the West’s energy supply in the hands of the most extreme of the Arab fundamentalists.
Iraq, as I have posited since 2003, does not and will never qualify as a nation state. It is already in the process of disintegration, one that by all rights should result in a partitioning of the artificially constructed Iraq. Such a partitioning could well lead to a much closer relationship with its religious homeland and neighbour, Shia Iran, and redraw the borders of the balance of power in the Middle East. In the meanwhile there is every prospect of an all out civil war looming. The war here has not ended; it has just begun.
Iran is more likely to be a victim of US-Israeli policy to maintain Israel’s nuclear exclusivity in the region than as a threat to anyone. Should the West opt for military action and regime change in Iran, such action could result in a far greater catastrophe than either the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq. With the close ties between the Shia in Iraq and Iran I could envisage Iraq coming to the assistance of Iran against the West or, at the very least, not allowing its territory for NATO over flights or supply routes – sweet irony! In addition to the threat of blocking the Straits of Hormuz, through which most of the oil from Saudi Arabia flows, Iran, in an ultimate act of retaliation against the West, could also hit the two main refineries in Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf with a conventional missile strike, a distance of only 200km. No one has mentioned this nightmare scenario.
Afghanistan. The resurgence of the Taliban and its inevitable participation in the coming government will make a tragic joke of the US failed policy and military intervention. Afghanistan, another failed-state, will, in the near future, revert to a tribally governed territory with either the Taliban or an extremist Islamic party in control.
Pakistan. A far greater threat than Iran with its established nuclear capability and long distance deliverance system in the hands of a pro-Islamist military and intelligence operations. At a certain point the US will not be able to buy off Pakistan’s military’s increasingly tepid support and the Pakistani people are now the most anti-American of all Arab countries. That volatile combination could precipitate another huge crisis for the US. If the US were willing to attack a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, what would they do to put down a much larger Islamist nation already armed to the teeth with a nuclear arsenal?? Call in favours from nuclear-armed India? A pretty scary scenario!
So, the US sponsored, European supported middle east foreign polices will eventually have brought more grief than relief to both the Middle East and the US/European Alliance.
China. So far the Obama administration has kept the manic US congress in check by holding off nutty legislation such as applying import duties on all goods produced in China and delayed a decision on branding China a currency manipulator. The former would increase the cost of goods coming from China by 25% and, since most of US appliances and 70% of Walmart goods are produced in China, the big losers would be the US consumer and result in a rise in inflation. The latter action, regarding a charge of currency manipulation, would involve sanctions against China and that could seriously damage China’s economy, something China would not and could not accept without resorting to retaliatory action. One scenario, oft discussed, is that China could cease buying US debt and treasury notes, which would effectively leave the US unable to finance its debt. China could also go a step further and begin dumping treasury notes and diversify some of its $3 trillion foreign reserves, most of which are in US dollars into gold or other currencies. This would prompt other countries holding US IOUs and US dollars to dump them. End game = a US dollar worth as much as the 1920s Reichsmark and a Great(est) Depression?
Pundits believe such a Chinese counterattack unlikely, calling this theoretical sequence of attack and counterattack ‘mutually assured destruction’. I am not so convinced. If China’s economy, social and political fabric and stability were threatened by US financial sanctions, I could well see them taking extreme economic measures which could bring down the US more quickly and comprehensively than any military action. Too, China’s centralised government could better organise and contain a controlled collapse than a government such as the US having to deal with a recalcitrant and unpredictable war hawk congress.
The other issues related to China policy are Taiwan and Japan, the former looking more manageable with the reelection this week of Ma, the prime minister with a pro-mainland China policy. Japan is torn between needing China as a trading partner and fear of China’s growing economic, political and military clout. Japan recently attended a round table with the US and India and shortly thereafter signed an agreement to promote trade amongst themselves and, at the same time, reached a similar accord with China. Eventually Japan will have to come down off the fence and decide whether its long-term interests lie with Asia or the US.
The US is trying to play China’s ancient strategy game of Wei Qi by enlisting Australia, India and Japan in containing China in the Pacific/Asia region, by placing US troops in Australia and recognising Burma. However, the US employs military might to gain footholds and allies whereas China uses trade and investment to encourage alliances. Both require large financial outlays but only China has the financial resources to further its policy.