Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
“So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy.” – T.E. Lawrence, February 1915
It was a curious comment by the oddball but unarguably brilliant British agent and scholar, Thomas Edward Lawrence. The time was World War I, and England and France were locked in a death match with the Triple Alliance, of which Ottoman Turkey was a prominent member. But it was nonetheless true, and no less now than then. In the Middle East, to paraphrase William Faulkner, history is not the past; it is the present.
In his 1915 letter, Lawrence was describing French machinations over Syria, but he could just as well have been commenting on England’s designs in the region, which Allied leaders in World War I came to call the “Great Loot”—the imperial vivisection of the Middle East.
As Iraq tumbles into yet another civil war, it is important to remember how all this came about, and why adding yet more warfare to the current crisis will perpetuate exactly what the “Great Loot” set out to do: tear an entire region of the world asunder.
Divide and Conquer
They are names most people have never heard of, like Sixth Baronet of Sledmere Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot. In 1915, these two mid-level diplomats created a secret plan to divvy up the Middle East. Almost a century later that imperial map not only defines the region and most of the players, but continues to spin out tragedy after tragedy, like some grotesque, historical Groundhog Day.
In 1915, the imperial powers’ major goal in the Middle East was to smother any expression of Arab nationalism and prevent any unified resistance to the designs of Paris and London. France wanted Greater Syria, Britain control of the land bridges to India. The competition was so intense that even while hundreds of thousands of French and British troops were dying on the Western Front, their secret services were blackguarding one another from Samarra to Medina, maneuvering for position for when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the compromise aimed at ending the internecine warfare. France would get Greater Syria (which it would divide to create Lebanon), plus zones of influence in northern Iraq. Britain would get the rest of Iraq and Jordan and establish the Palestine Mandate. All of this, however, had to be kept secret from the locals, whom the British and French incited to rebel against imperial Ottoman rule even as they plotted to impose their own.
The Arabs thought they were fighting for independence, but London and Paris had other designs. Instead of the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and access to the Mediterranean the Arabs had been promised, they would get the sun-blasted deserts of Arabia and the rule of monarchs, who were easy to buy or bully.
However, to run such a vast enterprise through the use of direct force was beyond the power of even London and Paris. So both empires transplanted their strategies of exploiting religion, sect, tribe and ethnicity—which had worked so well in Indochina, India, Ireland and Africa—to divide and conquer, adding to it a dash of chaos.
The French put the minority Christians in charge of Lebanon to keep down the majority Sunnis and Shiites. They recruited the minority Alawite Shiites in Syria to head up the army that ruled over the majority Sunnis, while the British installed a Sunni king in Iraq to rule over the country’s majority Shiites. In Palestine the British used Zionism much as they were using Protestantism in Northern Ireland to keep down the native Catholic Irish and keep both communities divided. Communities ended up fighting one another rather than their imperial masters, which, of course, was the whole point of the matter.
Now those demons are on the loose.
Names on the Ledger
There are new players in the Middle East since Sykes and Picot drew up their agreement. Washington and Israel were latecomers, but eventually replaced both imperial powers as the major military forces in the region.
The enemy of the “Great Loot” was secular nationalism, and the United States, France and Britain have been trying to overthrow, isolate, or co-opt secular regimes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya since they first appeared. The rationale for the hostility is that secular regimes were run by dictators. Many have been, but they’re arguably no worse than the Wahhabi fanatics in Saudi Arabia or the monsters the Gulf monarchies have nurtured in Syria and northern Iraq.
Why is Syria called a dictatorship when Saudi Arabia is not? This past February, the kingdom passed a law equating anything that offends “the nation’s reputation or its position”—including dissent, the exposure of corruption and campaigns for reform—with “terrorism.”
The list of names on the ledger of those who nurture terrorism in the Middle East is long. Yes, it certainly includes the Bush administration, which smashed up one of the most developed countries in the region, dismantled the Iraqi state, and stoked the division between Sunnis and Shiites. But also the Clinton administration, whose brutal sanctions impoverished Iraq and eviscerated its middle class. And further back, during the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush pounded southern Iraq with toxic depleted uranium, inflicting a massive cancer epidemic on places like Basra. It was Jimmy Carter and the CIA who backed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, because the Baathist dictator was particularly efficient at torturing and killing trade unionists and members of the Iraqi left.
Not to mention members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, along with associated states Morocco and Jordan—that fund the Islamic insurgency in Syria. Some of those countries may decry the excesses of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, but it was they who stoked the fires in which ISIL was forged.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also on that list. It is through Turkey’s borders that most fighters and supplies pass into Syria. So is the Obama administration, which farmed the insurgency out to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and is now horrified by the creatures that those Wahhabist feudal monarchies produced.
France’s Imperial Grudge
And don’t forget T.E. Lawrence’s French.
Paris has never forgiven the Syrians for tossing them out in 1946, nor for Damascus’s role in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, which dethroned the French-favored Christian minority who had dominated the country since its formation in 1943.
The French have been enthusiastic supporters of the insurgency in the Syrian civil war and, along with the British, successfully lobbied the European Union to drop its ban on supplying the rebels with military hardware. Paris has also earned favor from Saudi Arabia by trying to derail efforts to find a solution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. France is a member of the group of powers known as the P5+1—France, the United States, Russia, Britain, China and Germany—involved in talks with Tehran.
The Gulf Council praised France’s attempted sabotage, and Paris promptly landed a $6 billion contract to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s air defense system. It is negotiating to sell $8 billion worth of fighter-bombers to the Emirates and almost $10 billion worth to Qatar.
Saudi Arabia recently donated $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese Army on the condition that it be used to buy French weapons and ammunition. It is a somewhat ironic gift, since the major foe of the Lebanese Army lately has been Saudi-supported Wahhabists in the country’s northern city of Tripoli.
And that’s not all. Apparently French President François Hollande met with the foreign ministers of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates last September to discuss a plan for Pakistan to train a 50,000-man Sunni army to overthrow the Syrian government and defeat Al Qaeda–affiliated jihadist groups.
Members of that army may already be on their way to Europe, much as the mujahedeen from Afghanistan did a generation ago. According to Western intelligence services, more than 3,000 European Union citizens have gone to fight in Syria—ten times the number who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The gunman who killed four people on May 24 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels was a veteran jihadist from the Syrian civil war.
For now, the Gulf monarchies see themselves as pulling the strings, but they have virtually no control over what they have wrought. Those Wahhabi fanatics in Syria and northern Iraq may do what Osama bin Laden did and target the corruption of the monarchies next.
The gulf countries are rich but fragile. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is between 30 and 40 percent, and half the country’s 28 million people are under 25 years of age. In other Gulf nations a tiny strata of superrich rule over a huge and exploited foreign workforce. When the monarchies begin to unravel, the current chaos will look like the Pax Romana.
But chaos has always been an ally of imperialism. “The agenda has always been about imposing division and chaos on the Arab world,” wrote longtime peace activist Tom Hayden. “In 1992, Bernard Lewis, a major Middle East expert, wrote that if the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity…. the state then disintegrates into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.” And that is just the kind of disintegration that foreign powers have sought to exploit.
Military intervention by the United States and its allies will accelerate the divisions in the Middle East. If the White House is serious about stemming the chaos, it should stop fueling the Syrian civil war, lean on the Gulf monarchies to end their sectarian jihad against Shiites, pressure the Israelis to settle with the Palestinians and end the campaign to isolate Iran.
And tell the French to butt out.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
At first glance, the Arab region appears to have entered a new period of crisis—perhaps the greatest in its modern history. The Arab revolts of 2011 seem to have given way to a “Jihadi Spring,” with the civil war in Syria providing a haven for radical extremist groups from across the globe. As the crisis in Syria spills over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, the world is confronting a frightening revival of the Al Qaeda franchise.
In 2011, North Africa witnessed the dramatic downfall of three dictators: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But in much of the region, “deep state” security apparatuses have proven more resilient than any one political leader. Cabals of military officers managed to frustrate democratic transition in Egypt and hold onto power in Algeria, with Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently claiming landslide victories in sham elections that were largely boycotted by the progressive left. The oil-rich sheikdoms of the Middle East, meanwhile, have brutally suppressed any form of domestic opposition, while leveraging their huge cache of petrodollars to appease their restive citizens through a combination of expanded welfare and new employment opportunities.
More worryingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a uniquely vicious offshoot of Al Qaeda, has upended the twentieth-century map of the Middle East. The shocking brutality of ISIS—and the overweening ambition of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—prompted the Al Qaeda “general command” led by Ayman al-Zawahiri to disown the group. After pulling off a lightning defeat of the Iraqi armed forces across much of the country’s western and northern regions, ISIS announced the formation of an “Islamic caliphate,” a new political entity at the heart of the Middle East that connects various Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq and Syria.
Just as the British Philosopher Edmund Burke decried the French Revolution for replacing monarchical stability with republican terror, many modern-day pundits have lamented, in varying forms, how the Arab Spring has supposedly paved the way for a renewed era of instability in an ever-combustible region. This mistaken narrative has allowed autocratic regimes across the world to use the slogan “stability” to smash and delegitimize any organized call for democratic freedom.
On closer inspection, however, German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel may provide a better framework to understand the likely trajectory of the Arab uprisings. Although cognizant of the immediate and terrifying outcome of the French Revolution, Hegel maintained that a true break with the past inevitably requires a violent rupture with the ancien régime—part of a dialectical transition toward a new historical epoch.
After decades of centralized, autocratic leadership, the advent of popular revolutions has naturally created new power vacuums, which have been temporarily filled by well-organized reactionary groups and extremist terrorist groups. But none of the above groups is likely to provide any lasting solution to the agonies of the Arab street, from massive youth unemployment to economic stagnation and political repression. Although the Wahhabi-Salafist ideology of the Al Qaeda franchise, and particularly the extremist version embraced by ISIS, appeals only to a small minority of people, the secular autocracies in places such as Algeria and Egypt, in turn, are recycled versions of long discredited post-colonial Arab regimes.
This lack of appealing alternatives is precisely where progressive forces can build on the democratic gains of the 2011 uprisings.
Perils of Revolutionary Transition
Strongmen in Algeria and Egypt may have managed to frustrate any meaningful democratic transition in the short-to-medium term, but neither Bouteflika nor Sisi has proposed any remedy to the myriad political and economic problems that afflict their nations.
The aging Algerian leader is struggling with health issues and has been barely visible to the public. There are serious concerns over the prospect of violent intra-regime jostling once Bouteflika passes away. In Egypt, Sisi’s popularity could melt away as soon as the majority of people realize how he and his colleagues in the military have little understanding of how to run the Arab world’s largest country. By violently crushing the Islamist opposition, the Algerian and Egyptian regimes have opened up the space for the liberal-democratic opposition to take the initiative.
As for ISIS, its emergence as a potent force for mayhem has had the unintended effect of unifying historic rivals such as Washington and Tehran, as both powers scramble to support the government in Baghdad. A warming in the relationship between the two countries could significantly strengthen the domestic position of pragmatists in both capitals, especially the Rouhani administration in Iran, which has tirelessly sought to repair Tehran’s broken ties with the West.
The rise of ISIS has also undermined the largely sectarian rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has come under local and international pressure to step down in favor of an “inclusive” government. Alarmed by the frightening ramifications of an extremist resurgence in their own backyard, Arab sheikdoms in the region have also cracked down on local supporters, including top-level officials, of jihadi groups in Syria and elsewhere. In short, both the patrons of “counterrevolution” and the forces of “jihadi revolution” are by no means secure, as pragmatists and progressive actors unify against a common threat.
But what of the Arab Spring? Today’s gloomy reading of it tends to overlook a fundamental factor, which not only explains the regrettable turn of the recent revolutionary upheavals, but also holds the key to resuscitating the democratic aspirations of the Arab street. And it is here that the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, arguably history’s greatest economist, could be of greatest help.
The Keynesian State
Reflecting on the roots of the Great Depression , Keynes analyzed the immanent instability of capitalism in the absence of proactive state intervention. Unlike Marx, however, he didn’t call for the abolition of capitalism. Instead he proposed a set of macro-economic policies to empower the state to manage the excesses of the markets for the benefit of the greater population.
His direct participation in the establishment of the Bretton Woods system paved the way for a measure of stability and openness in international trade, which in turn facilitated the rapid industrialization and recovery of economies across the world. Many developing and industrialized economies used Keynesian theories to strike an optimal balance between capitalist expansion and sustained national development. The result was the emergence of welfare states in the West and developmental states across Asia. This marked the “golden age” of capitalism.
But as Richard Posner intelligently observed, the heirs of Keynes failed to appreciate the necessity of preventing government “from exceeding the limits of optimal intervention.” It was this particular mistake, coupled with the devastating impact of the Vietnam War and the multiple oil crises in the Middle East, that allowed neoclassical economists to eventually marginalize Keynesian thinking, advocate “pro-market” policies and call for the retrenchment of the state in recent decades.
The 2007–08 Great Recession, however, served as a wake-up call by violently interrupting almost three decades of neoliberal economic stupor. The economic crisis undermined the naïve belief in orthodox economic models, which stubbornly defended the supposed rationality and self-correcting dynamism of impersonal markets.
Consequently, a growing number of policymakers and academics have come to realize the wisdom of Keynesian thought, which elegantly articulates the inherent necessity of judicious public management of economic cycles. No wonder that recent years have seen a huge push to both re-inject more Keynesian principles into the curricula of the world’s leading economic departments and espouse robust state participation in, and regulation of, both the national and global economy.
An Arab Economic Revolution
As I argue in How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Arab Uprisings, the 2010–11 Arab uprisings were fundamentally a reflection of the failure of the post-independence Arab states to internalize Keynesian economic thinking. There was neither a sober appreciation of the benefits of capitalism nor any effort to establish an autonomous, developmental state.
Many Arab states witnessed the emergence of quasi-socialist regimes, which were undemocratic, heavily militarized and dependent on strategic or hydrocarbon rents. These personalistic Arab regimes failed to institute genuine land reform, blocked the emergence of a vibrant entrepreneurial class and squandered their national resources in pursuit of autocratic consolidation—all at the expense of sustained industrialization and economic diversification. The result was an economic crisis in the 1980s, which forced much of the Arab world, especially non-oil-exporting countries, to undertake aggressive pro-market reforms over the succeeding decades.
Instead of transforming Arab economies into dynamic emerging markets, however, the economic liberalization of the 1990s allowed many autocratic regimes to outsource welfare responsibilities, transfer the ownership of state-owned companies to favored clients and abolish support mechanisms for strategic agricultural and industrial sectors. Although the pro-market reforms allowed Arab states to establish a modicum of macro-economic stability, the result was double-digit unemployment, widespread poverty, high dependence on food and commodity imports, and heavy reliance on speculative and service-oriented economic sectors such as tourism and real estate.
It is no surprise, then, that the 2007–08 Great Recession had a devastating impact on the Arab street, precipitating massive food insecurity and a macro-economic downturn across the Middle East. With minimal assets, fiscal resources and policy space for intervention, many Arab regimes had limited capacity to cope with the impact of the crises. In the absence of genuine democratic mechanisms to express their economic discontent, it was arguably just a matter of time before the middle and working classes would unite against the autocratic regimes—and spark a revolution.
Today, however, the Arab Transition Countries (ATCs) have failed to adequately appreciate the structural economic roots of the Arab Spring. None of the major post-revolutionary contenders for leadership has provided a coherent policy agenda to address systemic economic vulnerabilities. Instead, much of the public discussion has boiled down to questioning the democratic credentials and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots across the Arab world.
A cursory look at the ATCs reveals how post-revolutionary governments have largely pursued the macro-economic policies of the previous regimes. And this is precisely why there has been a wobbly march toward genuine democratic transition. Unless the ATCs establish a new economic paradigm, focusing on public welfare, inclusive growth, macroeconomic resilience and industrial and agricultural revival, there will be no genuine democratic transition.
After all, beyond freedom of expression and ritualized electoral exercises, democracy is about establishing an egalitarian economic system that empowers the greater citizenry to fully participate in the shaping of the political order. Keynes’s ideas are the greatest guide to achieving an optimal balance between democracy and economic development, serving as the blueprint for the progressive-democratic forces that hold the promise of resuscitating the spirit of the 2011 revolutions.
In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, moderate Islamists (especially the dominant Ennahda Party) and progressive liberals have managed to negotiate, albeit painstakingly, the foundations of perhaps the first truly democratic country in the Arab world. Having established a modicum of democratic political consensus, the next step for Tunisia is to embrace an egalitarian economic policy, which will translate rising discursive freedom and political openness into social justice for the majority of the people. The Arab spring is far from over.
Read Next: Juan Cole on the resilience of Arab Millenials
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Shortly after their conquest of Mosul, young men armed with assault rifles went door to door in Iraq’s second-largest city, taking “women who are not owned” for jihad al-nikah, or sex jihad.
From June 9-12, women’s rights activists documented thirteen cases of women who were kidnapped and raped by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DAIISH, the Arabic shorthand for the group’s name. Of the thirteen women, four committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the shame. One woman’s brother committed suicide because he could not bear the fact that he was unable to protect his sister.
The dispatches from Mosul are just one account of the extreme violence that has plagued Iraq since Sunni ISIS militants seized control over large portions of the country. Being a woman in Iraq was difficult before the current conflict. But the latest wave of militarization threatens to make life even worse.
“Women are being taken in broad daylight,” said Yanar Mohammad, co-founder and president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. “Men have the weapons to do whatever they want and [ISIS’s] way of dealing with things is to kill.”
Now military leaders are handing guns to young, untrained, undereducated and unemployed Shia men. These men are promised big salaries if they leave their homes to fight, according to an anonymous Global Fund ally in Baghdad.
“When we [women] commute to our office, walk in the street or take the bus, we experience harassment,” added the Global Fund ally, who remains anonymous due to security concerns. “But now, all of the men have weapons. I think maybe he will kidnap or shoot me if I don’t do what he wants. They will shoot and do anything, and because of the fatwa [urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists] no one asks questions.”
Sectarian Violence Slows Women’s Progress
With a death toll of 1,000 and rising since the beginning of June, the sectarian conflict has forced most women’s rights organizations to scale back their programs.
The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was in the middle of a campaign against Article Seventy-Nine of the Jaafari Personal Status Law—which, among other women’s rights violations, would grant custody over any child two years or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and fifteen for boys, and even open the door for girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. Now it takes everything the organization has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.
“We cannot speak of women’s rights now unless we are speaking of the livelihood of those who are totally jeopardized, such as women who lost families and young girls who are vulnerable to corrupt officials or clerics,” said Yanar Mohammad. “We went from legal work and improving the rights of women to working in a state of emergency and trying to find the lowest chain in society and get them to safety.”
The Tangled Web the US Wove
Such extreme sectarian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, said Mohammad, who is “sick and tired” of Western pundits saying there is no hope for Iraq.
“The mainstream media trashing Iraqi people is unbearable and is a total manipulation of the facts of America’s role in dividing the Iraqi people,” she said. “The political process that the US government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.”
The damage comes in the form of, among other things, a generation that didn’t have access to education.
“This generation listens to whatever the clerics and politicians say,” said Mohammad. “They are ready to throw themselves in the fire and they do it in the name of their imam.… Both politicians and religious heads are pushing the country into a very sectarian divide, and it’s frightening.”
Refugees Flee to Kurdish Region
As the fighting intensifies in northern and western Iraq, more than 300,000 people have already fled to the Kurdish region for safety, where the United Nations and relief organizations have set up a refugee camp in the arid region of Khazer.
“It is very hot and there is no water; we were not prepared for this influx of refugees,” said a Global Fund ally in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “The situation is by no means sustainable. The majority has nowhere to go and is staying in parks. Entire families are left without the most basic of shelter, food and clothes.”
While these waves of displacement to Kurdistan include Shia, Sunni and Christian families, the pressure on Iraqi Christians has been strongest due to the infamous brutality of ISIS.
“Christian women in the areas controlled by ISIS are forced to wear hijab or face death,” said a Global Fund ally who lives in Baghdad. “They must pay a protection tax, or jizyah, to ISIS to stay safe.”
If the violence is not seriously addressed, our ally in Erbil says, Iraqi women know exactly what is going to happen next because they have endured it repeatedly since the US invasion in 2003, and during the Iran-Iraq War and Persian Gulf War before it.
“We know what has happened to women in Iraq—a lot of murders and violations—and we have already suffered to an unbearable extent,” said the Global Fund ally in Erbil. “There is nothing they haven’t done to us, which is why panic spreads among women as soon as we hear of another crisis. Women are used as a weapon for retaliation.”
Read Next: Aaron Ross on Sex Trafficking in the Middle East
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On June 9, outside of Seoul, 91-year-old Bae Chun-hui took her last gasp of air at the House of Sharing, a communal home established for former “comfort women” in South Korea to live out their remaining years in peace.
Bae was kidnapped at the age of 19 and taken to Manchuria, where she was forced into sexual slavery until the end of the Second World War.
Not only did Bae die without achieving justice. In her final days, she also witnessed Japan’s shameful efforts to wash its hands of war crimes that its military committed against an estimated 200,000 women and girls from throughout Asia during the Pacific wars of the 1930s and ’40s.
Bae was among the Korean women who spoke out after the former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun broke her silence in 1991 and publicly recounted her abduction and sexual torture by Japanese soldiers. In her testimony, Kim painfully recalled: “A commissioned officer took me to the next room which was partitioned off by a cloth. Even though I did not want to go he dragged me into the room. I resisted but he tore off all of my clothes and in the end he took my virginity. That night, the officer raped me twice.”
Kim lifted the floodgates for other Korean women to come forward. Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander women verified that their experiences were not isolated, but were the outcome of a systematic, well-organized government program to establish “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers throughout Asia and the Pacific.
The Japanese government has vigorously resisted calls to repent for its actions. But a growing global movement is ensuring that if Japan won’t hold itself to account for its grievous crimes against these women, then history will.
In 1991, three Korean comfort women filed a lawsuit in Tokyo demanding an official apology from the Japanese government, to which Japan responded that there was no proof verifying their stories. These women, many of whom had lived their entire lives in shame and in isolation from their families, had risked everything to challenge the state’s official narrative.
They were finally vindicated when Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi scoured the Japanese Defense Ministry’s library and uncovered documents bearing the personal seals of Imperial Army officers that outlined the military’s direct management of the so-called comfort stations.
The groundswell of testimonies and official historical evidence forced the Japanese government to respond. In 1993, following an official review, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged his government’s role in organizing military brothels and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery—an admission that became known as the Kono Statement. “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities,” he said. Women and girls “were recruited against their own will” and “lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”
The statement hinted at a pending formal apology and reparations for the former comfort women who had risked so much to come forward. “We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them,” it promised, “and take them to heart as lessons of history.”
In 1995, however, the Japanese government endorsed the Asian Women’s Fund, a private effort that collected money from ordinary citizens to compensate comfort women. Many of the women refused the money, which did not come from the government and was not accompanied by any formal apology.
Fast forward to 2014.
Not only has Japan failed to compensate the surviving comfort women, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led a nationalist campaign to adamantly deny Japan’s shameful criminal past, has revised history textbooks that previously contained information about Japan’s military sex slaves and is also threatening to revise the Kono Statement.
The issue is playing out on the international stage. The South Korean government is demanding that Japan formally apologize, as it promised in 1993, and directly give reparations to Korean survivors. But the Japanese government claims that reparations for colonial and wartime atrocities were resolved in a treaty signed between Japan and South Korea in 1965, complaining that Seoul “moves the goalposts” for domestic reasons.
In March 2014, a key aide to Abe suggested that the Abe administration would water down the Kono Statement “if new findings emerge.” The Abe government alleges that the Kono Statement was issued under pressure from South Korea and that more research was needed on the testimonies of sixteen South Korean comfort women interviewed in the Japanese study that helped produce the statement. A revised statement would almost certainly dilute Japan’s culpability or challenge the veracity of the comfort women, most of whom have since passed away.
Abe is in denial of the growing, indisputable evidence documenting Japan’s direct management of the brothels. Since 1993, Professor Yoshimi and other historians have compiled 529 documents—30 percent of them from the Japanese Defense Ministry—containing proof that the Japanese military and government trafficked girls and women from Asia into sexual slavery.
According to Japanese historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a large body of information has been gathered by the Japanese government, UN inquiries, researchers and NGOs, and is substantiated by testimonies from comfort women, brokers, military records and postwar memoirs by Japanese soldiers. “This information,” Suzuki concludes, “unequivocally documents the existence of a vast network of ‘comfort stations’ throughout the empire and including the front lines of battle.”
Monuments to the Truth
In 1992, on the eve of the Kono Statement, there were 237 living South Korean comfort women registered with the government. Today there are just fifty-four survivors, with an average age of 88.
As the number of survivors dwindles, activists have taken to installing more permanent memorials to preserve their history. Since 1992, at noon on every Wednesday, irrespective of rain or snow, Korean comfort women and their supporters have stood across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, calling upon the Japanese government for justice and reparations.
On December 14, 2011, to commemorate the 1,000th protest, they installed Pyeonghwa-bi, or the Peace Monument—a golden bronze statue of a barefoot teenaged girl sitting in a chair with her hands gently resting on her lap. On her left shoulder rests a small bird symbolizing the innocence of the young girls and women forced into sexual slavery.
The following year, in July 2012, the Korean-American community organized to have a comfort woman statue installed in the Central Park of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Despite tremendous opposition from the Japanese-American community and the Japanese consulate, the Glendale City Council voted in favor of erecting the memorial in tribute to the comfort women. “Despite the pressure that we had not to install this monument,” said Glendale City Councilwoman Laura Friedman, “I know that the city is doing the right thing. We stand on the side of history, we stand with the truth and we stand with the Korean population.”
And just last month, in a suburb outside Washington, DC, a comfort woman memorial was erected behind government buildings adjacent to a 9/11 memorial in Fairfax, Virginia.
“The comfort women issue is one of the earlier examples of mass performed human trafficking organized by a military and government,” says Jung-shil Lee, an art history professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and vice president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women. “We wanted to honor their endurance and bravery—especially under a Confucianist society—because many women wanted to kill themselves from the shame.”
The memorial, a granite stone, includes language from US House Resolution 121, a nonbinding statement organized by Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) urging Japan to apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery. “For the women still alive, and for the countless who have passed, official recognition and acknowledgment is the only way to bring proper closure to this terrible chapter of World War II history,” Honda said in a statement. As comfort women die one by one, Lee adds, the story will be forgotten. “The purpose of the memorial is to remember” and to provide “a starting point for public awareness for future generations.”
In response to vocal protests from Japanese groups, Japanese government officials and Japanese residents in Fairfax, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Sharon Bulova countered that the memorial made a symbolic stand against human trafficking happening in Fairfax. And in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Siyoung Choi wrote from Seoul: “Korean Americans are the largest minority group in Fairfax County (where I lived from 2002 to 2005). They may have had a particular interest in erecting the memorial. However, it is for every peace-loving soul who cherishes the intrinsic values of humanity. Such is the case with the Holocaust memorials and museum that are scattered widely throughout the United States.”
In addition to Glendale and Fairfax, New Jersey also is home to a plaque honoring the comfort women survivors.
Bringing Women Together
In recent weeks, activism on behalf of comfort women has ramped up.
From May 31 to June 3, survivors and their families and supporters gathered in Tokyo from Korea, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and the Netherlands for the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference on the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery. Its resolution concluded: “The Japanese Government now has the duty to respond immediately to the voices calling for justice for the aging survivors, as well as voices from the international community calling for Japan to take legal responsibility through an apology and compensation for the victims.”
This month in Geneva, 87-year-old former comfort woman Gil Won-Ok—affectionately known as “Grandma Gil”—delivered 1.3 million signatures urging the Secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council to act on behalf of the hundreds of surviving comfort women throughout the Asia-Pacific. And on June 13, Beijing announced that UNESCO’s World Memory program had accepted China’s documentation of comfort women and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
The comfort women issue has played a significant role in bringing women together across the Asia-Pacific to ensure justice for the survivors and to challenge the further militarization of their countries and region. “Through the action for justice for the ‘comfort women’ survivors, the women in victimized countries and women in Japan have worked together,” Mina Watanabe of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time, if we can make the Japanese government accountable for the grave human rights violations of women in the past, it would become a big precedent to make any government accountable for past sexual crimes in conflict, even after half a century.”
In Within Every Woman, a forthcoming film by Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, the lives of three comfort women from South Korea, the Philippines and China are woven together. In the trailer, Hsiung travels with Grandma Gil to Tokyo to deliver 680,000 petitions gathered worldwide to the Japanese Parliament. As Grandma Gil and another Korean comfort woman in a wheelchair approach the government building, Japanese men—old and young—curse and shout at the elderly women, “Go home Korean whore! Don’t you feel ashamed! Get out old bitch! You’re just prostitutes!”
Hsiung also had the rare chance to document the meeting of North and South Korean women this spring in Shenyang, China, to discuss how they could strengthen efforts to work together for comfort women justice. It was particularly emotional for Grandma Gil, who could hardly summon enough strength to deliver her testimony, because she was born and raised in North Korea but was unable to go home after the war due to the country’s division.
With geopolitical tensions on the rise throughout East Asia, many activists now hope that the US government will pressure its allies to make peace over their historical grievances. “Politically the United States is now playing a bigger role between Japan and South Korean relations,” says Hsiung. “It takes a US president to intervene for Japan to possibly respond to South Korean demands regarding the ‘comfort woman’ issue.”
On his trip to Asia in April, President Obama said in Seoul: “I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.”
In a recent letter to President Obama, US Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mark Begich (D-AK) urge him to help resolve the issue. They affirmed the president’s statement that the comfort women deserved “to be heard and respected” and that this issue was critical to improving trilateral relations with Japan and South Korea.
“The survivors’ longstanding efforts have kept the issue alive and put the issue in the international concern,” WAM’s Watanabe writes, but “the role of the U.S. is very important.” Watanabe credited US pressure with Shinzo Abe’s preservation—thus far, at least—of the Kono Statement, but said she hoped that Washington would do more. Since the Japanese government does not listen to the governments of South Korea or China, Watanabe says, “it was regrettable that the US did not push the government to make a formal apology when Obama visited Japan.” She said that seventeen foreign embassy staff participated in the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference, including two ambassadors from Africa, but that neither US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy nor any of the US embassy staff accepted invitations to attend.
Despite Abe’s shameful efforts to deny Japan’s criminal past, he will not be able to shut down a global movement that is uniting to secure justice for comfort women. Steadily and persistently, surviving comfort women are telling their story to millions of people around the world before they die. Their allies are documenting this tragic history through film, by erecting memorials in cities around the world and having their records preserved by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, placing their testimonies alongside the Magna Carta and the diary of Anne Frank.
With or without an apology, comfort women are having their truth recorded around the world. “All of us are over 80 and 90 years old,” says Grandma Gil. “After we’re all dead and gone, the Japanese think it’s all going to end, but it won’t.”
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
It’s World Cup season. But far from the favelas of Brazil, another drama is playing out in the annals of international soccer.
In an effort to bolster its global status, Israel has placed a bid to host the 2020 European Championship, known as Euro 2020. That means that one of the world’s largest international soccer tournaments might be coming to Jerusalem.
Hosting mega sporting events is an increasingly popular way for countries to build a positive international image, but it can also provoke criticism—as seen in Brazil, where the eviction of impoverished residents to make way for stadiums has prompted massive protests, as well as in Qatar, where the preparations for World Cup games have led to worker deaths and labor unrest. Israel, which has been accused of violently targeting Palestinian soccer players, is no exception.
Sports and Politics
The Euro is one of the world’s most competitive international soccer tournaments, second only to the World Cup. The winner is crowned the best national team in Europe, home to some of the strongest sides in international soccer. As the Arab boycott has precluded Israel’s participation in the Asian Confederation, Israel has been considered part of Europe’s soccer confederation since 1994.
To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the tournament, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has decided to depart from tradition. Rather than hold the tournament in one host nation as usual, UEFA has decided to choose thirteen host cities throughout the member countries. In September UEFA will select these cities from the existing nineteen bids. That makes Israel, which hosted the UEFA Under-21 European Championship in 2013, a strong contender.
But the Palestinian Football Association and Palestinian solidarity activists have already raised opposition to Israel hosting the tournament. A recent letter in The Independent—signed by Desmond Tutu and Alice Walker, among others—called for UEFA to leave Jerusalem off the list of host cities as long as “Israel continues to perpetrate its devastating military occupation of the Palestinian territories, flouts international law, totally disregards UN resolutions, and imprisons hundreds of Palestinians, including children, without charge.”
We like to believe that during large sporting events, like the Olympics or World Cup, political conflicts should take a backseat to what happens on the field—politics and sports, some say, don’t mix. But for Palestinian soccer players, separating the realms has proven impossible.
Since FIFA recognized the Palestinian national soccer team in 1996, Israel has mixed politics and sports in a lethal way, targeting Palestinian players, coaches and facilities. In ruthless attacks largely unreported in the United States, Palestinian footballers have been arrested, maimed and killed by the Israel Defense Forces. Thanks to Dave Zirin of The Nation, many of these incidents have been reported to wider audiences.
The most recent incident was last February’s brutal shooting of two young players, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, at a checkpoint in the West Bank. Both players were severely injured, with one reportedly suffering ten bullet wounds to his feet—a strong indication that the Israeli soldiers knew that the teenagers were footballers and targeted them accordingly. When they attempted to return from Jordan, where they had received medical treatment, they were arrested without charge—a practice known as administrative detention.
These young players are hardly the only Palestinian soccer players to languish in administrative detention. Goalkeeper Omar Khaled Abu Rouis and talented striker Mohammed Sadi Nimr were arrested in 2012. Another national team star, Zakaria Issa, was jailed for allegedly being a member of Hamas in 2003. Sentenced to sixteen years, he was released after nine years because he had a terminal illness. The most famous incident of unlawful detention is the story of Mahmoud Sarsak, who was jailed for over three years. Despite never formally being charged with a crime, Sarsak was unable to communicate with friends and held in solitary confinement for much of his time in prison. After a three-month hunger strike Sarsak was released, but only after his plight came to the attention of FIFA and the world players’ union, FIFPro.
Other players have also fallen victim to violence. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008–09, three soccer stars, including one national team player, were killed within seventy-two hours of each other by Israeli missile strikes on their homes. Other attacks have targeted Palestine Stadium in Gaza, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2006, only to be rebuilt with FIFA funding after the international soccer association found that the attack was “without any reason.” Israeli explosives leveled the stadium once more in 2013, when the IDF again claimed that missiles were being fired from the field. FIFA has pledged to rebuild the stadium yet again.
Despite these hardships, the Palestinian team continues to play. Or at least, it tries to. The team has traditionally recruited players from the diaspora due to the difficulty Palestinians face in getting permission to leave the occupied territories. In 2007 the team was even forced to forfeit its first-round World Cup qualifier in Singapore after eighteen players were refused permission to travel by the Israeli government.
These incidents are not random, but suggest a concerted effort to target one of the prominent symbols of Palestinian nationhood: the national soccer team. By preventing the Palestinian team from participating in matches abroad or maintaining a stadium for home games, Israel is purposefully undermining Palestinian national pride and unity.
Politics by Other Means
Sports reflect political realities. But like any cultural institution, they can become tools for political agendas and violence. Like the soccer riots in post-Mubarak Egypt or the famed 1969 soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras, problems arise when soccer becomes a continuation of politics by other means.
The reflection of politics in soccer, however, adds meaning to the richest moments the game has to offer. In Spain, the annual meetings between Real Madrid and Barcelona, known as El Clasico, can’t be fully comprehended without an understanding of the symbolic importance of FC Barcelona in Catalan autonomy and the importance of Real Madrid to the Franco regime (a story Franklin Foer explains in his excellent book How Soccer Explains the World). Likewise, the Falklands Crisis of 1982 adds context to the 1986 Argentina victory over England, a famous international match known for Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.”
Perhaps one day, Israel and Palestine will meet on the pitch in a legendary rivalry informed by politics and history. The game would be bitter, tackles would be hard and perhaps a few inappropriate chants would emanate from the stands. But that would be a vast improvement over the indefinite detentions, shootings and unwarranted destruction of facilities Palestinian footballers endure today.
Until that day, Israel must be held responsible for its actions. If UEFA selects Jerusalem in September, the choice can only be seen as an implicit endorsement of these tactics.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Libya is teetering on the verge of its worst crisis since the 2011 overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.
Last month, forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar launched a brazen assault on the sitting national congress in Tripoli, accusing the Islamist-dominated Parliament of being complicit with hostile militias and of fostering terrorism.
Proclaiming an anti-Islamist offensive to rid the country of what he calls foreign-sponsored terrorism, Haftar called for the suspension of Parliament and for a new council to take over running the country. Haftar had reportedly been planning the coup attempt for over a year, quietly solidifying his military power to gain political authority. While the Parliament remains intact and has approved new Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq in a vote of confidence, the situation remains tenuous. Now General Haftar’s chosen tactic appears to be to use extralegal force to attack Islamist militias in hopes of garnering support for a future electoral bid.
A member of the small band of military officers who took part in the 1969 coup that installed Muammar Qaddafi, Haftar was later captured in Libya’s war with Chad in the mid-1980s. Apparently sour on Qaddafi, in Chad he was reportedly part of a unit of commando soldiers trained and organized by the United States to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. After the Chadian government itself fell in 1990, Haftar was granted asylum in the United States, where he spent twenty years in Virginia—just miles from CIA headquarters—as an active figure in the Libyan opposition movement.
Haftar was a leader of the military wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) throughout the 1990s, which he claims received assistance from the CIA. According to historian Dirk Vandewalle, US and French support enabled the military wing of the NFSL, the so-called Salvation Forces, to carry out a number of attacks against the Qaddafi regime over the years. The Salvation Forces were one of the few clandestine groups that reportedly had the capacity to target Libyan government officials traveling outside Libya.
Haftar returned to Libya after the uprising against Qaddafi began in 2011, arriving in Benghazi to command rebel forces under authority of the National Transitional Council. Distrust within the NTC of Haftar’s connections with the US government, however, led to serious infighting and the appointment of another commander to lead the rebels, Abdul Fattah Yunis. Yunis was later assassinated by rebels in eastern Libya, highlighting the internal strife among the opposition.
In March 2011, as NATO’s intervention in Libya was getting under way, US President Barack Obama predicted that Libya would face serious challenges to ensuring stability, a result of what he called forty years of tyranny that had left “Libya fractured without strong civil institutions.”
Qaddafi’s legacy is surely relevant. But the current instability is also a direct result of the NATO intervention itself, which fueled the proliferation of armed militias and heavy weaponry in the country and has contributed to the spread of arms throughout the region
The Libyan Intervention and Its Aftermath
The mandate for the use of force in Libya was based on UN Security Council Resolution of 1973, which authorized international military force to protect civilians (UNSCR 1973). But the ostensibly humanitarian mission quickly expanded from protecting civilians under assault by government and paramilitary forces to ensuring the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.
France was the first nation to admit to providing arms, ammunition and tanks to the Libyan rebels, acknowledging that it had air-dropped more than forty tons of arms and munitions and smuggled tanks via Tunisia. Qatar also provided weapons, including modern French-manufactured anti-tank missiles, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipped matériel—all with the approval of the United States. Investigations conducted by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya found that both Qatar and the UAE violated the arms embargo established in UNSCR 1970 (the resolution passed before 1973) by directly providing weapons and ammunition to the Libyan opposition. Reports also indicate that special operations forces from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Qatar provided tactical support and training to the rebels while collecting information on the ground for NATO strikes.
The foreign involvement directly shifted the tide of war and helped transform Libya’s plethora of insurgent militias into powerful armed brigades. But the intervening powers failed to ensure that a proper disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program was enacted after the war. Instead, they left Libya a heavily militarized country in the hands of non-state armed actors—like Haftar’s forces—that have battled for control in scattered pockets of the country. Reports estimate that approximately 1,700 armed groups emerged from the rebel forces that fought during the 2011 conflict.
Lacking the manpower or political will to consolidate control, Libya’s postwar government has relied on the revolutionary militias to provide security in Tripoli and across the country. The February 17 Brigade, for example, was tasked to provide security for the US consulate in Benghazi—a decision that may have facilitated the 2012 attack on it that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
It has become abundantly evident that the goals of many of these militias are far from democratic. Powerful rebel forces have committed serious abuses, targeting and displacing groups perceived as having been loyal to Qaddafi. UN bodies and human rights organizations have also documented sweeping detentions by the rebel factions in the wake of the war, as well as the regular practice of torture in the prison system under control of the non-state armed actors.
Although the United States reportedly approved many of the weapons shipments that were paid for and supplied by Qatar and the UAE, US officials later voiced concern that the weapons, including French and Russian-designed arms, were ending up in the hands of Islamist militants. Indeed, the UN Expert Panel determined that “the deliveries of arms and ammunition during the uprising in Libya were completed without any control measures on the ground, resulting in the uncontrolled movement of materiel.”
As a result of both an influx of arms and the interim Libyan government’s failure to secure the Qaddafi regime’s weapons, arms trafficking has exploded in Libya, turning the country into a source of weapons for conflicts all over the region. Trafficking patterns have followed routes from Libya to the Sahel, as well as from eastern Libya to Egypt and on to the Gaza Strip. UN experts have identified cases involving more than twelve countries in the region where heavy and light weapons, including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), have been transferred illicitly.
The spread of weapons from Libya is fueling conflicts in other countries at an alarming rate. According to the UN Panel of Experts, the Libyan conflict had a severe impact on countries in the Sahel, such as Mali and Niger, where “new armed opposition groups have emerged, and greater space for terrorism organizations and international criminal networks has opened.” Reports indicate that the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria has been bolstered by weapons from Libya as well, including AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles.
The Syrian conflict has also been exacerbated as a result of an influx of both rebel fighters and weapons from Libya. Former Libyan rebel commanders, such as Mahdi al-Harati, have given interviews to reporters from within Syria, where they say they are fighting with the Free Syrian Army. Reports of Libyan weapons flowing to Syrian rebels started circulating as early as November 2011 with the approval of the NTC. Syrian-bound weapons are reportedly routed through Turkey and are said to include rocket-propelled grenades and portable surface-to-air missiles that have assisted the rebels in targeting the Syrian Air Force. The UN Panel of Experts found that these transfers “have been organized under the supervision, or with consent of a range of actors in Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic and in countries neighboring the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The lack of consideration for the possible consequences of the Libyan intervention can only be regarded as a dramatic strategic failure on the part of the United States and its NATO allies. The failure to make the connection between conflicts that spread across borders is demonstrative of a myopic approach to policymaking, where officials base decisions on immediate concerns without sufficiently taking into account longer-term ramifications. This approach to conflict situations only examines isolated contexts, without considering corresponding transnational threats and global concerns.
The recent assault on the Libyan Parliament and the rampant arms proliferation stemming from the country should serve as cautionary tales about the unintended consequences of foreign military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Now that the dust has settled from the recent elections for the European Parliament, it is time to take a deep breath and see what really happened.
No, Britain is not about to toss its immigrant population into the sea. No, France’s Marine Le Pen is not about to march on the Elysée Palace. And as repulsive as the thugs of Hungary’s Jobbik Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn are, it was the continent’s left to whom the laurels went in last month’s poll.
Parties that targeted unemployment, austerity and the growing wealth gap in Europe did well. The dramatic breakthrough of right-wing, racist and xenophobic parties in France, Britain and Denmark had less to do with a neo-Nazi surge than with the inability or unwillingness of the mainstream parties in those countries to offer a viable alternative to a half-decade of economic misery.
Indeed, if there was a message in the May 25 EU elections, it was that those who trumpeted austerity as the panacea for economic crisis were punished.
Hence Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took a drubbing, France’s ruling Socialists were blitzed and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost eight seats, while her Social Democratic opponents picked up four.
In contrast, where there was a clear choice between economic democracy on the one hand and “let’s blame it on the immigrants and Roma” on the other—as in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and most of Central and Eastern Europe—voters went left. As Srecko Horvat, Croatian philosopher and author of What Does Europe Want?, commented in the wake of the election, “The European left is back in the game.”
“Earthquake” was the metaphor most used in describing the triumphs of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark.
But if there was a result that shifted the foundations of Europe, it was the victory of Greece’s Syriza Party and the “out of nowhere” appearance of Podemos—“we can”—in Spain.
Syriza emerged from the wreckage inflicted on the Greek economy by the so-called “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. For the price of a bailout—most of it siphoned off by big European banks—the Greek government instituted massive layoffs; made huge cuts in pensions, healthcare and education; and privatized government-owned property. The jobless rate rocketed to 28 percent—over 50 percent for young people—and millions of Greeks were impoverished. While Greece’s creditors did well, the austerity did nothing to turn the depressed economy around.
Syriza took 26.5 percent of the May 25 vote to become the biggest party in Greece. That figure, translated into a general election, would net the party 130 seats in the 300-seat Greek Parliament. In contrast, the two governing parties that oversaw the austerity program lost over 10 percentage points between them.
Much of the media focused on the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, which won 9.4 percent of the vote—a 2.4-percent jump over their 2012 showing. Golden Dawn will send three representatives to the European Parliament, where the Greek left will swamp their representatives.
Another right-wing Greek party, the Popular Orthodox Rally, lost voters.
While Syriza focused on the Greek domestic crisis, it also consciously attached itself to other left-leaning anti-austerity movements throughout the continent. “What happened in Greece is not a success story but a social tragedy that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere in Europe,” Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said during a debate among candidates for the post of European Commission president.
Anywhere in Europe
That “anywhere in Europe” resonated in other countries entrapped in the troika austerity formula or struggling to emerge from stagnant economies and long-term unemployment. Besides Greece, the most conspicuous example was Podemos in Spain.
Podemos came out of the massive anti-austerity rallies that paralyzed Madrid and other Spanish cities in 2011, and which impelled similar demonstrations in Europe and the United States, including the Occupy Wall Street movement. Podemos, says its leader Pablo Iglesias, is “citizens doing politics. If the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will. And that opens the door to their robbing you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet.”
The Spanish party consciously modeled itself on Syriza, not only in program, but also in its grassroots, bottom-up organizing tactics. While Podemos has only been in existence four months, it took 8 percent of the vote nationwide and 11 percent in Madrid. With the Podemos showing added to the success of left parties in Catalonia, Valencia and the Basque Region, plus the votes for the Spanish Green Party and the Socialist Party, Spain’s ruling right-wing People’s Party is now a decidedly minority organization.
That pattern was repeated in several other countries.
In Ireland the two parties that oversaw the austerity program—Fine Gael and Labour—dropped 16.5 points and 12.5 points respectively, while left and independent parties like Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party and People Before Profits, cornered 45 percent of the vote.
The anti-austerity Portuguese Socialist Party defeated the center-right coalition that has overseen the troika’s recipe for Lisbon, and the Portuguese Communist Party took 12.7 percent of the vote.
Italy saw the center-left Democratic Party emerge as the number-one political force in the country, with 40 percent of the vote, while Beppe Grillo’s angry and iconoclastic—but program-light—Five Star Movement took a beating, coming in at 21.2 percent. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia took third at 16.8 percent. And a Syriza look-alike, L’Altra Europa (the “Other Europe”), garnered a respectable 4 percent and three seats in the European Parliament after only a few months campaigning. In contrast, the much older and established racist Northern League lost four seats and took an anemic 6.2 percent of the vote.
In Slovenia the United Left won 5.9 percent of the vote, which in a general election would have given the party six seats in Parliament.
The extreme right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands lost two seats, and Finland’s right-wing Finns Party dropped from the 19 percent it scored in 2011 to 13 percent.
The Right Rears Its Head
Not that it was all sweetness and light.
Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik took 14.7 percent of the vote, but that was an almost six-point drop from what the party received in last month’s general elections. Poland’s reactionary Congress of the New Right jumped from 1 percent in the 2011 general elections to 7 percent, and Lithuania’s conservative Order and Justice Party scored 14.3 percent. The anti-immigrant New Flemish Alliance won in Belgium, and Austria’s Freedom Party came in third, with 19.7 percent of the vote. However, right-wing parties like Ataka in Bulgaria, the Greater Romanian Party and the Slovak National Party all lost voters.
The right won parliamentary seats in ten out of the twenty-eight EU countries—and increased its representation in six of those countries—but also lost seats in seven other countries.
The triumphs of the National Front in France and the UKIP in Britain are certainly worrisome. Both ran virulent, anti-immigrant campaigns, and the Front in particular has long been associated with anti-Semitism and anti-Roma ideology.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that everyone who voted for the two parties share their penchant for ethnic hatred. Some of that support was indeed racist, but the parties also tapped into voter anger over the economic policies of the EU that have kept both countries locked into near-recession conditions.
The “traditional” left in the two countries—the Socialist Party in France and the Labour Party in Britain—have gone along with some of the troika’s austerity measures, and have also been sotto voce about immigrant bashing. The absence of a serious left critique of EU policies in both countries let many people surrender to their dark side and buy the fable that immigrants have swamped the job market and plundered social services—especially since many of the rightist parties opportunistically adopted anti-austerity planks.
It was a pattern that played out elsewhere as well. In Denmark, for instance, the center-right Venstre Party campaigned on denying welfare benefits to immigrants, hardly a platform to contrast itself with the far-right Danish People’s Party.
A Better Solution Than Hate
Politically, the continent has rejected the troika’s strategy, much as Latin America did in 2000. “We are opposed to everlasting austerity as a means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds,” says Syriza’s Tsipras. “The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason why we have the crisis today.… We predicted from the onset” that “austerity-based policies would backfire.”
The trick now will be to pull the various left forces together to hammer out an alternative. Podemos’s Iglesias has declared that the Spanish party intends to work “with other parties from Southern Europe to say that we don’t want to be a colony of Germany and the troika.”
Syriza has already proposed a European summit modeled on the 1953 London Debt Agreement, which canceled 50 percent of Germany’s World War II debt and spread out payments on the rest over thirty years.
As for the so-called “earthquake” on the right: the neo-Nazis and immigrant bashers will make a lot of noise, but they offer nothing but hate as an economic solution. The left has a better one, and they are back.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
There were plenty of important statements from Pope Francis during his recent three-day trip to Palestine and Israel—including a plea for “justice,” a traditional call for peace and a reference to the “State of Palestine”—but at the end of the day it was all about the photo-ops.
The pope’s visit was carefully orchestrated—shaped not only by security concerns but by his insistence on avoiding Israeli checkpoints. American and other official visitors often work diligently to avoid having to see—or be photographed seeing—the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints or the apartheid wall that snakes through the West Bank, separating Palestinians from their land and dividing the area into tiny, noncontiguous pieces of territory.
But Pope Francis’ complicated logistics were not aimed at pretending not to see but at refusing to acknowledge Israeli power and control over the Palestinian territories. Instead of crossing into the West Bank through the Israeli military–controlled Allenby Bridge, for example, his helicopter flew directly from Jordan to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. He said mass at Manger Square, but what got all the international attention were his meetings with Palestinian refugees, his visit with kids at the Dheisheh refugee camp and his unexpected invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres for a “prayer summit meeting” at the Vatican.
But by far the most lasting image of the trip was the popemobile’s seemingly unscripted halt in Bethlehem. For days, Bethlehem’s kids had fought a running battle with Israeli troops—not with stones, but with spray paint. Each day, the troops whitewashed the graffiti that covers the apartheid wall, which in that area separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Each night, the Palestinian kids would return to recreate their art.
This time, the kids won. When the pope drove by, he read “Apartheid Wall” and “Bethlehem is like the Warsaw Ghetto” on the twenty-four-foot-high cement panels that make up the wall. He got out, walked to the wall, leaned his face against it and prayed. The photo, splashed across the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and probably most of the daily newspapers in the world, remains the main take-away of the papal visit.
Not surprisingly, Israel tried to “balance” the pope’s trip, insisting on visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism. But, as Palestinian lawyer and longtime analyst Diana Buttu pointed out in The New York Times, those sites are monuments to Israel’s past, which diplomatic protocol requires every official visitor to visit. The apartheid wall, on the other hand, “is ongoing, something that Palestinians live with every day,” she said. “I think he really displayed compassion in visiting the wall and really understanding what people are living under.”
The one part of the pope’s Israeli itinerary that stood out was the requisite visit and wreath-laying at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the late-nineteenth-century founder of modern Zionism credited with the idea of creating a separate state for European Jews. What if the pope’s advisers had provided him with some of Herzl’s own language to cite?
Perhaps a line or two from Herzl’s letters to the infamous British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who conquered much of Africa for the British crown, might have been appropriate. “You are being invited to help make history,” Herzl wrote to Rhodes. “It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews.… How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.… I want you to…put the stamp of your authority on the Zionist plan.”
Maybe next trip.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
After declaring martial law on Tuesday, May 20, the Thai military announced a full-fledged coup two days later. The putsch followed seven months of massive street protests against the ruling Pheu Thai government identified with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The power grab by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha came two weeks after Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was ousted as caretaker prime minister by the country’s Constitutional Court for “abuse of power” on May 7.
The Thai military portrayed its seizure of power as an effort to impose order after two rounds of talks between the country’s rival factions failed to produce a compromise that would provide Thailand with a functioning government.
Deftly Managed Script
The military’s narrative produced few takers. Indeed, many analysts saw the military’s move as a coup de grâce to Thailand’s elected government, following what they saw as the judicial coup of May 7.
It is indeed difficult not to see the putsch as the final step in a script deftly managed by the conservative “royalist” establishment to thwart the right to govern of a populist political bloc that has won every election since 2001. Utilizing anti-corruption discourse to inflame the middle class into civil protest, the aim of key forces in the anti-government coalition has been, from the start, to create the kind of instability that would provoke the military to step in and provide the muscle for a new political order.
Using what analyst Marc Saxer calls “middle class rage” as the battering ram, these elite elements forced the resignation of the Yingluck government in December; disrupted elections in February, thus providing the justification for the conservative Constitutional Court to nullify them; and instigated that same court’s decision to oust Yingluck as caretaker prime minister on May 7 on flimsy charges of “abuse of power.” Civil protest was orchestrated with judicial initiatives to pave the way for a military takeover.
The military says that it will set up a “reform council” and a “national assembly” that will lay the institutional basis of a new government. This plan sounds very much like the plan announced in late November by the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which would place the country for a year under an unelected, unaccountable reform panel.
The military’s move has largely elicited the approval of Suthep’s base of middle-class supporters. Indeed, it has been middle-class support that has provided cover for the calculated moves of the political elites. Many of those that provided the backbone of the street protests now anticipate the drafting of an elitist new order that will institutionalize political inequality in favor of Bangkok and the country’s urban middle class.
The Thai Middle Class: From Paragons to Enemies of Democracy
The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once celebrated the Thai middle class as paragons of democracy. But in recent years, middle-class Thais have transmogrified into supporters of an elitist, frankly antidemocratic agenda. Today’s middle class is no longer the pro-democracy middle class that overthrew the dictatorship of Gen. Suchinda Krapayoon in 1992. What happened?
Worth quoting in full is an insightful analysis of this transformation provided by Marc Saxer:
The Bangkok middle class called for democratization and specifically the liberalization of the state with the political rights to protect themselves from the abuse of power by the elites. However, once democracy was institutionalized, they found themselves to be the structural minority. Mobilized by clever political entrepreneurs, it was now the periphery who handily won every election. Ignorant of the rise of a rural middle class demanding full participation in social and political life, the middle class in the center interpreted demands for equal rights and public goods as ‘the poor getting greedy’… [M]ajority rule was equated with unsustainable welfare expenses, which would eventually lead to bankruptcy.
From the perspective of the middle class, Saxer continues, majority rule
overlooks the political basis of the social contract: a social compromise between all stakeholders. Never has any social contract been signed which obligates the middle class to foot the tax bill, in exchange for quality public services, political stability and social peace. This is why middle classes feel like they are “being robbed” by corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to “buy votes” from the “greedy poor.” Or, in a more subtle language, the “uneducated rural masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an effort to get a hold of power.”
Thus, Saxer concludes, from the viewpoint of the urban middle class,
policies delivering to local constituencies are nothing but “populism,” or another form of “vote buying” by power hungry politicians. The Thai Constitutional Court, in a seminal ruling, thus equated the very principle of elections with corruption. Consequently, time and again, the “yellow” alliance of feudal elites along with the Bangkok middle class called for the disenfranchisement of the “uneducated poor,” or even more bluntly the suspension of electoral democracy.
However, the elite-middle class alliance is deceiving itself if it thinks the adoption of a Constitution institutionalizing minority rule will be possible. For Thailand is no longer the Thailand of twenty years ago, where political conflicts were still largely conflicts among elites, with the vast lower classes being either onlookers or passive followers of warring elite factions.
What is now the driving force of Thai politics is class conflict with Thai characteristics, to borrow from Mao. The central figure that has transformed the Thai political landscape is the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic, if corrupt, billionaire who managed through a combination of populism, patronage and the skillful deployment of cash to create a massive electoral majority. While for Thaksin the aim of this coalition might be the cornering or monopolization of elite power, for the social sectors he has mobilized, the goal is the redistribution of wealth and power from the elites to the masses and—equally important—extracting respect for people that had been scorned as “country bumpkins” or “buffaloes.” However much Thaksin’s “Redshirt” movement may be derided as a coalition between corrupt politicians and the “greedy poor,” it has become the vehicle for the acquisition of full citizenship rights by Thailand’s marginalized classes.
The elite-middle class alliance is dreaming if it thinks that the Redshirts will stand aside and allow them to dictate the terms of surrender, much less institutionalize these in a new Constitution. But neither do the Redshirts at present possess the necessary coercive power to alter the political balance in the short and medium term. It is now their turn to wage civil resistance.
Since the coup, about 150 people have been reported detained—including Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent reporter for Thailand’s Nation newspaper known for his criticism of the anti-government protest movement that precipitated the military’s intervention.
What now seems likely is that, with violent and nonviolent civil protest by the Redshirts, Thailand will experience a prolonged and bitter descent into virtual civil war, with the Pheu Thai regional strongholds—the North, Northeast and parts of the central region of the country—becoming increasingly ungovernable from imperial Bangkok. It is a tragic denouement to which an anti-democratic opposition disdaining all political compromise has plunged this once promising Southeast Asian nation.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
At the beginning of last summer’s blockbuster film Elysium, three rogue shuttles from Earth approach a space station that houses a super-rich enclave. It’s the ultimate offshore gated community, where the inhabitants possess magical machines that rid them of disease so that they can live practically forever. The shuttles, meanwhile, contain the poor, the sick, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In this science-fiction scenario, the Earth has been become little more than a Third World outpost of hovels, prisons and unregulated factories.
Two of the shuttles containing illegal border-crossers are immediately shot down. One of them, however, manages to land on Elysium. A mother and her disabled child break into a sparkling clean house and locate the magic machine. The child lies on the flat surface, the machine hums and her handicap disappears. It’s a short-lived triumph, as armed guards seize the intruders and repair the security breach.
The future, as Hollywood imagines it, rarely looks good. We’ve either bombed ourselves back into barbarism (Mad Max, The Road), trashed the environment (Soylent Green, Wall-E) or somehow eliminated our ability to procreate (The Children of Men). In Total Recall, the horrors of unregulated capitalism have been outsourced to Mars, where an autocrat runs a mining operation designed by Hieronymus Bosch.
If in the past we imagined a future of distant penal colonies for the criminal 1 percent, we now are projecting a penal Earth for the outcast 99 percent. Elysium is almost a parody of this 99-to-1 dichotomy, for the space station is home to only a tiny handful of people, while Earth looks like the crack-ravaged South Bronx of the 1980s. In this scenario, the wolves of Wall Street have siphoned up as much wealth as they can before departing, not for some exclusive Caribbean island—rising waters have presumably eliminated those tax havens—but for the insulated comforts of outer space.
Hollywood projects our dreams and fears. In the past our cinematic apocalypses have reflected our obsessions with nuclear holocaust and environmental degradation. We’re certainly still worried about those fates—along with pandemics and zombies—but gross inequality now competes for our attention. The Occupy movement no longer squats in our squares, and the indignados have faded into the European woodwork. But the analysis and demands of the 99 percent have managed to trickle up.
Consider the new book by Thomas Piketty, the French economist. In his analysis of tax records in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, Piketty shows how capitalists have run away with capitalism and left the workers behind. In more formal terms, when the rate of return on capital outstrips the growth rate of the economy, inequality rises. Moreover, Piketty shows how public policy has had a profound impact on wealth and poverty in society. The trends associated with the rise of finance capitalism and the spread of globalization have certainly encouraged the consolidation of a class of super-rich and the erosion of wages for the middle and working classes. But certain governments—France, Germany, Japan—have used tax and welfare policies to redistribute the wealth without any appreciable impact on growth.
Not that I’ve read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has become virtually impossible to obtain. I recently walked into the country’s largest independent bookstore—Powell’s in Portland—and asked for the bestseller. The clerk explained that every copy had been eagerly snatched up and that I should come back in a couple weeks.
What explains Piketty’s extraordinary success? His book is certainly not the first study of economic inequality. My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies have been hammering at this issue for more than a decade. Chuck Collins published 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It a couple years ago. The most recent version of our CEO pay report, which has documented the outrageous compensation packages for our titans of finance and business, focuses on the growing divide in the restaurant industry between the richly compensated (Howard Schultz of Starbucks) and the barely hanging on (the toilers in the fields of fast food). “CEO Howard Schultz pocketed $236 million in exercised stock options and other ‘performance pay’ over the 2012-2013 period,” the report explains. “That translates into an $82 million taxpayer subsidy for Starbucks—enough to raise the pay for 30,507 baristas to $10.10 per hour for a year of full-time work.”
And even before Piketty became a surprise bestseller, we were awash in statistical evidence. “In the United States, according to the economist Emanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, the richest 10 percent increased their share of total pretax income from about 33 percent in the late 1970s to 50 percent by 2012,” Paul Starr writes in The New York Review of Books. “The top one percent alone now capture more than 20 percent of total income, double the share they received before the Reagan years.”
Piketty, however, provides the kind of continental, academic imprimatur that mere number crunchers in the United States lack. His use of an extensive data set appeals to the empirically-minded, his prescriptions satisfy the policy-minded and his references to Austen and Balzac impress Paul Krugman. And he offers the long view, situating today’s inequality in the much larger historical context of oscillations in income distribution. Finally, his book has put the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute on the defensive, as they dust off their usual arguments about the dangers of taxation.
But perhaps the most important reason for Piketty’s success here in the United States is a latent outrage at the deal that the Obama administration made down at the crossroads at midnight in the wake of the financial crisis. As we all know, the US economy did not collapse in 2009, though it came close. Many people continue to suffer from the financial follies of the 2000s, their homes foreclosed on, their jobs gone, their pension funds looted. But the Obama administration can point to larger, statistical successes: much lower unemployment rates (6.3 percent today compared to 10 percent in October 2009) and some modest growth (close to 3 percent last year). More critically, for all the high rollers on Wall Street who supported Obama’s campaign, the stock market has gone steadily upward, with the Dow Jones now cresting above 16,000 (a 94 percent increase over the last five years).
The deal with the Devil, however, was an ugly one. Only one person is going to jail as a result of the widespread malfeasance connected to the financial crisis—Kareem Serageldin of Credit Suisse. His story reads like one of those cautionary Mafia narratives in which one of the mobsters takes the rap for the entire gang, keeps his mouth shut, does his time and returns for his payout when his time is up.
For despite a very brief period of self-imposed austerity at the depths of the crisis, the financial world has continued to enjoy extraordinary success. Just take a look at how our oligarchs—oops, I’m sorry—our “wealth generators” have benefited. The top twenty-five hedge fund managers took in an average $134 million in 2002. By 2009, their earnings went up to a billion dollars (that’s right: they each made a billion dollars a year!). The market “correction” didn’t send them back to zero or to Sing Sing. Rather, by 2012, they were still making tons more than in 2002: $537 million. In fact, in 2010, these top twenty-five managers together made four times as much as the CEOs of the top 500 Standard and Poor companies—combined. These numbers make space station Elysium look more and more plausible.
As for the Obama administration’s effort to regulate Wall Street, it has been frankly half-hearted. The business world tried to upend Dodd-Frank and largely failed, but implementation of the reforms remains sketchy. Even that notoriously risky financial instrument, the commercial mortgage-backed security, is staging a comeback.
The 2016 presidential elections will address a range of issues, many of them entirely irrelevant. Foreign policy will inevitably surface as candidates debate the pros and cons of the Obama doctrine. But unless a major war has broken out by that point, Americans will focus as they usually do on their own wallets. As such, the wisest candidates will focus on gross inequality. Piketty’s book, whether it’s read or not, should be a wake-up call for politicians. If inequality sells in the stores, it will sell at the polls as well.
At the end of Elysium—spoiler alert!—the 99 percent have given up their strategy of trying to break into the ranks of the super-wealthy on a case-by-case basis. It just wasn’t working. Instead, thanks to the Christ-like sacrifice of the Matt Damon character, they transform the entire system so that the healthcare benefits of the magic machines are available to all. It’s a powerful promo for universal healthcare, even it doesn’t address the tough questions of how the limited resources of a heavily slanted economy can be shared fairly among all. But where Hollywood films end is where US politics must begin.