Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany feels free to criticize openly and even harshly all the powerful nations with which she deals. They all continue to try to court her. She has incredibly high support in German polls, and seemingly in world public opinion. Yet nothing in her background would lead anyone to expect this remarkable show of strength for herself personally and through her for Germany as a nation. This is a paradox that needs to be explained.
She started life as a physical chemist with a Ph.D. from a university in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). She navigated the political scene as a non-participant. She joined the government-approved Free German Youth but did not participate in its coming of age ceremony, preferring to follow a Protestant ceremony. Her father was a Protestant pastor.
She entered political life only at the moment that East Germany was collapsing, and rose rapidly in the transitional government. With formal integration into the German Federal Republic, she became an active member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Elected to Parliament, she was soon in the cabinet, and was considered a protégé of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
In pursuing her ascension within the CDU, she had to overcome several negatives. She was a woman. She was from the old East German zone. She was a Protestant in a party that was largely supported by Catholic voters. After the CDU lost an election to the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) in 2002, she became the Secretary-General of the CDU and then its Leader. The CDU with its partner party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), together narrowly won the 2005 election. Neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD had enough support to govern alone and had to form a grand coalition. In the vote of parliament for Chancellor, Merkel was chosen, but with considerable opposition.
Today, some nine years later, she has become the longest-serving head of government in the European Union, with undisputed control of the politics and foreign policy of her country. In her recent re-election as leader of her party, she received 96.7% of the vote.
Clearly, a part of her present strength is the seemingly strong economic parameters of Germany, with very positive export surpluses and relatively low unemployment. Merkel has taken this position to pursue quietly but very effectively firm foreign policy objectives.
She has chided very publicly France (and Italy) for not meeting their obligations under European Union (EU) policy to reduce their fiscal deficit to less than 3%. She met strong resistance from President François Hollande of France, who came into office originally as a sort of “anti-Merkel” calling for greater flexibility in the application of EU fiscal obligations. The outcome of this public disagreement was France’s reshuffling of its cabinet. Manuel Valls, who has a position close to that of Merkel, was named as Prime Minister, and Arnaud Montebourg, representing the point of view of left elements in France, resigned from the cabinet. Not only has Hollande ceded more or less to Merkel but he gets no reward for it from French public opinion, his polls declining catastrophically while Merkel’s are higher than ever.
Merkel has been equally ready to take on Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron thought that, as fellow conservatives, Merkel would understand his need to make strong demands on the EU that would help him hold off the growing anti-EU sentiment in Great Britain. There have been two immediate issues. The EU has a complicated mode of fiscal adjustment in the sums that members must pay each year. This year, Great Britain was assessed an extra 1.7 billion pounds and Cameron has flatly refused to pay it, although such reassessments are quite normal.
More important however is Cameron’s demand that Great Britain be allowed to create quotas for migrants from other EU countries. Merkel has made it clear, very loudly, that she regards free movement of EU citizens within the EU as a cornerstone of the EU, untouchable. She warned him that pursuing such a policy would only be possible if Great Britain left the EU, exactly what Cameron is trying to avoid. Yet, Cameron’s internal political squeeze is so great that he has no alternative but to continue to plead with Merkel.
Merkel was been equally critical of President Obama. Although presumably strongly supportive of a close relation with the United States, she has publicly expressed her great disappointment at the report that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on her directly and more generally on German internal affairs. All Obama promised to do was to review the most grievous aspects of such espionage, while Merkel has said that the end does not justify the means and that “trust needs to be rebuilt…[W]ords will not be sufficient.”
Perhaps more important however is probably her persistent foot-dragging on Ukraine sanctions. She has frustrated all U.S. attempts to increase sanctions, insisting on the priority of diplomacy.
That brings us to the question of her position on Russia. Publicly her criticisms of Russia’s policies in the Ukraine are stringent and growing stronger. In practice, Merkel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia have spoken directly more than 40 times since the so-called Ukraine crisis began. Merkel is fluent in Russian and Putin in German, so communication is quite clear. The search for a diplomatic “solution” to the differences is supported very strongly by Germany’s Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD who has long sought to pursue friendly diplomacy. This is seconded by the more than 4000 German firms who have direct economic interests in Russia. Further sanctions might hurt Germany as much as Russia.
One leading British conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, evaluated very sensibly Merkel’s political secret. “She makes deals, not speeches, and puts compromise ahead of controversy….She is the ultimate political realist, always willing to strike a deal, but never at any price.”
Merkel is a centrist conservative and in no way a radical of any sort. In a sense what she has been trying to do is to teach other powerful countries and their leaders that, if they want a centrist conservative outcome, they have to play the game her way. Of course, this assumes that the fundamental structure of the world-system is not itself under threat, and that Germany can continue to seem so economically strong. I doubt that. I think that several years from now Germany will most probably succumb to more of the negatives the current state of the world-system is imposing on all countries. Still, for the moment Angela Merkel rules the roost.
On November 27, The New York Times headlined an article “Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast.” But this is not new. U.S. standing in the Middle East (and elsewhere) has been eroding for almost 50 years. The reality is far larger than the immediate dispute between anti-Assad forces in Syria and their supporters elsewhere on the one hand and the Obama regime in the United States on the other.
The fact is that the United States has become in the expression derived from onetime nautical practice a “loose cannon,” that is, a power whose actions are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous to itself and to others. As a result, it is trusted by almost no-one, even when many countries and political groups call upon it for assistance in specific ways in the short run.
How is it that the erstwhile unquestioned hegemonic power of the world-system, and still the strongest military power by far, has come to this sorry state? It is reviled or at least sternly reproached not only by the world left but by the world right and even such centrist forces as remain in this increasingly polarized world. The decline of the United States is not due to errors in policy but is structural – that is, not really subject to reversal.
It is perhaps useful to trace the successive moments of this erosion of effective power. The United States was at the height of its power in the period 1945-1970, when it got its way on the world scene 95% of the time on 95% of the issues, which is my definition of true hegemony. This hegemonic position was sustained by the collusion of the Soviet Union, which had a tacit deal with the United States of a division of zones of influence, not to be threatened by any military confrontation between the two. This was called the cold war, with an emphasis on the word “cold” and by their possession of nuclear weapons, guarantee of “mutual assured destruction.”
The point of the cold war was not to subdue the presumed ideological enemy but to keep a check on one’s own satellites. This cozy arrangement was first threatened by the unwillingness of movements in what was then called the “Third World” to suffer the negatives of this status quo. The Chinese Communist Party defied Stalin’s injunction to compromise with the Kuomintang and instead marched on Shanghai and proclaimed the People’s Republic. The Viet Minh defied the Geneva accords and insisted on marching on Saigon to unite the country under their rule. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria defied the French Communist Party’s injunction to give priority to the class struggle in France and launched its struggle for independence. And the Cuban guerillas that overthrew the Batista dictatorship forced the Soviet Union to help them defend again U.S. invasion by taking over the label of Communist Party from the group that had colluded with Batista.
The defeat of the United States in Vietnam was the result both of the war’s enormous drain on the U.S. Treasury and by the growing internal opposition to the war by middle-class youth draftees and their families, which bequeathed a permanent constraint on future U.S. military action in the so-called Vietnam syndrome.
The world-revolution of 1968 saw a worldwide rebellion not only against U.S. hegemony but against Soviet collusion with the United States. It also saw a rejection of the Old Left parties (Communist parties, Social-Democratic parties, national liberation movements) on the grounds that, despite coming to power, they had not changed the world as they had promised and had become part of the problem not part of the solution.
The United States under presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (and including Ronald Reagan) sought to slow down U.S. decline by a triple policy. It invited its closest allies to change their status from satellite to that of partner, with the proviso that they not drift too far from U.S. policies. It shifted its focus in the world-economy from developmentalism to a demand for export-oriented production in the global South and the neoliberal injunctions of the Washington Consensus. And it sought to curb the creation of further nuclear powers beyond the five permanent members of the Security Council by imposing on all other countries an ending of their nuclear armament projects, a treaty that was not signed by and ignored by Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.
These U.S. efforts were partially successful. They did slow down but not reverse U.S. decline. When in the late 1980s the Soviet Union began to collapse, the United States was in fact dismayed. The cold war was not meant to be won but to continue indefinitely. The most immediate consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Soviet Union was no longer there to restrain Iraq in the interest of U.S.-Soviet arrangements.
And while the United States won the Gulf war, it demonstrated further weakness by the fact that it could not finance its own role but was dependent for 90% of its costs on four other countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan. The decision by President George H.W. Bush not to march on Baghdad but content himself with the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty was no doubt a wise judgment but was seen by many in the United States as a humiliation in that Saddam Hussein remained in power.
The next turning-point was with the coming to power of President George W. Bush and the coterie of neo-con interventionists that surrounded him. This group seized upon the September 11 attack by al-Qaeda to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This was seen by the interventionists as a mode of restoring waning U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Instead, it badly backfired in two ways. The United States for the very first time lost a vote in the U.N. Security Council and Iraqi resistance to U.S. presence was vaster and more persistent than anticipated. In sum, the invasion transformed a slow decline into a precipitate decline, which brings us to the efforts of the Obama regime to deal with this decline.
The reason neither President Obama nor any future U.S. president will be able to reverse this is because the United States has been unwilling to accept this new reality and adjust to it. The United States is still striving to restore its hegemonic role. Pursuing this impossible task leads it to pursue the so-called “conflicting policies” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Like a loose cannon, it constantly shifts position seeking to stabilize the world geopolitical ship. U.S. public opinion is torn between the glories of being the “leader” and the costs of trying to be the leader. Public opinion zigzags constantly.
As other countries and movements regard this spectacle, they place no trust in U.S. policies and therefore pursue each their own priorities. The problem for the world is that loose cannons result in destruction, both of the perpetrators and the rest of the world. And this increases the role that fear plays in the actions of everyone else, augmenting the dangers to world survival.
The official mythology is that between 1945 (or 1946) and 1989 (or 1991), the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) confronted each other continuously – politically, militarily, and above all ideologically. This was called the “cold war.” If it was a war, the word to underline is “cold” since the two powers never engaged in any direct military action against each other throughout the entire period.
There were however several institutional reflections of this cold war, in each of which it was the United States, and not the USSR, that took the first step. In 1949, the three western countries occupying Germany combined their zones to create the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) as a state. The Soviet Union responded by restyling its zone as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
In 1949, NATO was established by twelve nations. On May 5, 1955, the three western powers officially ended their occupation of the FRG, recognizing it as an independent state. Four days later, the FRG was admitted to membership in NATO. In response to this, the USSR established the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) and included the GDR as one of its members.
The treaty establishing NATO was supposed to apply only within Europe. One reason was that the western European countries still had colonies outside of Europe and did not wish to allow any agency to have the authority to interfere directly in their political decisions concerning these colonies. The moments of seemingly tense confrontation between the two sides – the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis – all ended with a status quo ante outcome. The most important invocation of the treaties to engage in military action was that of the USSR to act within its own zone against developments they deemed dangerous to the USSR – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981. The United States intervened politically under similar circumstances, such as the potential entry of the Italian Communist Party into the Italian government.
This brief account points to the real objective of the cold war. The cold war was not meant to transform the political realities of the other side (except in some moment very far into the future). The cold war was a mechanism for each side to keep its satellites under control, while maintaining the de facto agreement of the two powers for their long-term partition of the globe into two spheres, one-third to the USSR and two-thirds to the United States. Priority was given by each side to the guarantee on the non-utilization of military force (especially nuclear weapons) against each other. This came to be known as the guarantee against “mutually assured destruction.”
The collapse of the USSR in two stages – the withdrawal from eastern Europe in 1989 and the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – should have meant in theory the end of any function for NATO. Indeed, it is well known that, when President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR agreed to the incorporation of the GDR into the FRG, he was given the promise that there would be no inclusion of the WTO states into NATO. This promise was violated. Instead, NATO took on a new role entirely.
After 1991, NATO bestowed on itself a role of world policeman for whatever it considered appropriate political solutions to world problems. The first major effort of this type occurred in the Kosovo/Serbia conflict, in which the U.S. government threw its weight behind the establishment of a Kosovo state and a change in regime in Serbia. This was followed by other such efforts – in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban, in Iraq in 2003 to change regime in Baghdad, in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and in 2013-2014 to support so-called pro-Western forces in Ukraine.
In point of fact, using NATO itself turned out to be difficult for the U.S. For one thing, there were various kinds of reluctances of NATO member states about the actions undertaken. For another thing, when NATO was formally involved, as in Kosovo, the U.S. military felt constrained by the slow political decision-making about military action.
So, why then the expansion of NATO instead of its dissolution? This had once again to do with intra-European politics, and the desire of the U.S. to control its presumed allies. It was in the Bush regime that the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked of an “old” and a “new” Europe. By old Europe, he was referring especially to the French and German reluctance to agree with U.S. strategies. He saw the western European countries as moving away from their ties to the United States. His perception was in fact correct. In response, the U.S. hoped to clip the wings of the western Europeans by introducing eastern European states into NATO, which the U.S. considered more reliable allies.
The conflict over Ukraine illuminates the danger of NATO. The U.S. has sought to create new military structures, obviously aimed at Russia, under the guise that these were meant to counter a hypothetical Iranian threat. As the Ukrainian conflict played on, the language of the cold war was revived. The U.S. uses NATO to press western European countries to agree with anti-Russian actions. And within the U.S., President Barack Obama is under heavy pressure to move “forcefully” against the Russian so-called threat to the Ukraine. This combines with the large hostility in the U.S. Congress to any accord with the Iranians over nuclear development.
The forces in the United States and in western Europe who are seeking to avoid military folly risk being overtaken by what can only be called a war party. NATO and what it symbolizes today represents a severe danger because it represents the claim of western countries to interfere everywhere in the name of western interpretations of geopolitical realities. This can only lead to further, highly dangerous, conflict. Renouncing NATO as a structure would be a first step towards sanity and the world’s survival.
On Oct. 26, Pres. Dilma Rousseff of Brazil of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) won re-election in the second round of voting by a narrow margin against Aécio Neves of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB). Despite the name of the PSDB, this was a clear left-right struggle, in which voters generally voted their class position, even though the programs of the two parties were on many fronts more centrist than left or right.
To understand what this means, we must analyze the somewhat special politics of Brazil. Brazil’s politics are in many ways closer to those of western Europe and North America than almost any other country in the global South. Like countries in the global North, the electoral struggles in the end come down to a struggle between a left-of-center and a right-of-center party. Elections are regular and the voters tend to vote their class interests despite the centrist policies of the two main parties, who usually rotate in power. The result is constant dissatisfaction by the voters with “their” party, and constant attempts by the real left and the real right to push policies in their direction.
How these left and right groups pursue their efforts depends a little on the formal structure of elections. Many countries have a de facto two-round system. This permits the left and the right to run their own candidates in the first round and then rejoin the main party vote in the second round. The major exception to this two-round system is the United States, which forces left and right forces to enter into the main parties and struggle from within.
Brazil has one exceptional feature. While in all these countries politicians change parties from time to time, in most countries this is a tiny group. In Brazil, such party-switching is virtually an everyday occurrence in the national legislature, where neither main party normally has more than a small plurality of votes. This forces the main parties to spend enormous energy on constantly reconstructing alliances, and accounts for somewhat more visible corruption, although probably no greater actual corruption than elsewhere.
In this election, the PT was suffering from the growing disillusionment of its voters. A third-party candidate, Marina Silva, tried to offer a via media. She was known for three qualities: as environmentalist, evangelical, and a non-White of very poor origins. At first she seemed to take off. But as she began to propose a very neoliberal program, her popularity collapsed and voters turned back to Neves, a more traditional rightist.
The disillusionments with the PT centered around its failure to break structurally with economic orthodoxy, plus a failure to carry out its promises concerning agrarian reform, environmental concerns, and the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples. It also repressed popular demonstrations of left movements, most notably in June 2013. Despite this, the social movements of the left joined forces, and very strongly, with the PT in the second round.
Why? Because of the strong positives of the 12 years of PT government. First of all, there was the greatly expanded Bolsa familial, which paid a monthly allowance to the poorest fourth of Brazil’s population and significantly improved their daily life. Secondly, and scarcely mentioned in the western press, there was Brazil’s highly successful foreign policy – its major role in the construction of South American and Latin American institutions that held at bay the power of the United States in the region. The left was sure that Neves would reduce the social welfare thrust of the PT and ally Brazil once again globally with the United States. The Brazilian left voted for these two positives despite all the negatives.
That same weekend, there were three other major elections – Uruguay, Ukraine, and Tunisia. The election in Uruguay was rather similar to Brazil’s. It was the first round of the presidential elections. The governing party since 2004 had been the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and its candidate was Tabaré Vázquez. The Frente Amplio was truly broad – from center-left to Communists and ex-guerillas. Vázquez faced a classically right candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional, but also a candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, of one of two parties – Partido Colorado (Red Party) – that had ruled Uruguay repressively for over a half-century.
On the first round, Vázquez got 46.5% of the vote over circa 31% for Lacalle, not enough to avoid a second round. Bordaberry, with about 13%, has now thrown his support to Lacalle, but it seems likely that Vázquez will win, and more or less for the same reasons as Rousseff has won. In addition, unlike Brazil, his party will control the legislature. So, Uruguay too will reaffirm the effort to build an autonomous geopolitical structure in Latin America.
Ukraine was totally different. Far from being constructed around a left-right class struggle with two centrist parties trying to secure votes, Ukraine’s politics are now constructed around a regional ethno-linguistic divide. In these elections, the west-oriented government held elections in which the dice were loaded in favor of excluding any real role for the so-called separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. The latter therefore boycotted the elections and announced they would hold their own for regional offices. In the Kiev-ordained elections, it seems that those who now govern – President Petro Poroshenko in alliance with his rival, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of another party – will maintain themselves in tandem in power, excluding the truly ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) party from any role.
Finally, Tunisia is also quite different. Tunisia has been seen as the launcher of the so-called Arab Spring, and today seems to be its only survivor. Ennahda, the Islamic party that won the first elections, lost considerable strength by pursuing a too rapid program of Islamization of Tunisian politics. It was forced some months ago to yield place to a technocratic interim government, and lost large number of votes (even of Islamists) in this second election.
The winner was Nadaa Tunis (Tunisia’s Call). Its politics are in one sense clear. It is a secular party. Its leader is a venerable 88-year-old politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in the so-called Destourian governments that had led the country after independence until he became a major dissident. His problem is to hold together a very split coalition of many secularist forces – primarily both the young people who led the uprising against President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and various leading members of that very government who have now re-entered the political arena.
In any case, though Nadaa Tunis had a plurality of 85 seats out of 217 and Ennahda reduced to 69, the others are scattered among several smaller parties. There will have to be a coalition government, possibly even an all-party coalition. So, while the Tunisian young revolutionaries of 2011 are celebrating their victory against Ennahda, no one is sure where this will lead.
I say, hurrah for Brazil, where the most important of these four elections was held. But there as elsewhere, the game is not over. Not at all!
Amid the many and ever-evolving shifts of policies and geopolitical alliances in the various countries of the Middle East, one used to be at least sure what are the prime objectives of the major actors, both in the region and in the outside world.
This is not true of Syria today. Syrian politics today are formed by a triad: supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime; supporters of the caliphate that calls itself the Islamic State (IS); and so-called moderate Islamic groups that claim to be fighting both of the other two groups. Triadic struggles are notoriously difficult both to analyze and to predict because triads have an almost fatal way of reducing themselves in the relatively short run to a clearer two-sided struggle. However, in this case many of the main actors in the region and beyond are highly ambivalent about what it is they want. Many of them prefer to maintain the triad if they can, and are afraid of being forced to choose to which dyad they give priority. This ambivalence is particularly true of Turkey, although also of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Turkey shares a large border with Syria. It has been governed for some time now by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), an Islamic party that seeks to project itself as oriented to Islamic values and practices but nonetheless tolerant of other perspectives and commitments. It started its rule with an announced foreign policy of maintaining its links with the western world as a member of NATO and a country seeking to join the European Union while at the same time attempting to restore Turkey’s role as a major power in the Middle East, one that would maintain good relations with all other Middle Eastern countries.
When the civil war began in Syria, Turkey offered its services as a mediator. In the process, at some point, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had lied to him. Deeply affronted, he turned from being a mediator to being a leading proponent of a change in Syrian regime.
Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority to which the successive governments have always denied recognition, devolution, and linguistic rights. Ever since the establishment of a Turkish republic over ninety years ago, Turkish governments have reacted to Kurdish demands with total suppression, some even denying that there was such a group as the Kurds. Some thirty years ago, a Kurdish militant Marxist-Leninist movement, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), sought to achieve Kurdish objectives with armed revolt. The leader of this movement, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A few years ago, the present Turkish regime changed course and surprised the world by entering into negotiations with the PKK to see if a compromise could be realized. For its part, the PKK indicated that they no longer were a Marxist-Leninist movement and were ready to contemplate devolution as an objective instead of independence for the Kurdish region. These discussions have been difficult but ongoing and seemingly promising.
The Syrian civil war upended the internal situation in Turkey. The caliphate forces (so-called IS) expanded considerably in northern Syria and have been seeking to control the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. This is actually a region peopled largely by Syrian Kurds. Their main movement, the PYD (Party of Unity and Democracy) has been the principal target of IS attack as well as the principal force in the zone that is resisting the advance of the IS. The IS is presently attacking Kobani, the de facto capital of the Syrian Kurdish region.
The movement of Syrian Kurds is also in close relation with Turkey’s Kurdish movement, the PKK. When the United States announced its policy of creating a “coalition” of forces to fight the IS forces and using its airplanes to try to stem their advance, Turkey found itself immediately under considerable US pressure to join the struggle. In particular, the Kurds on both sides of the border, and the United States, have called for Turkey’s opening its borders in both directions: to permit Syrian Kurds who are under threat in Kobani and elsewhere from the IS forces to enter Turkey for safe haven and to allow Turkish Kurds to enter Syria to assist militarily the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey has been most reluctant to accede to any of these requests. President Erdogan declared that, from Turkey’s point of view, both the IS and the Turkish Kurdish movement, the PKK, are equally terrorist movements, and Turkey saw no reason to open its frontier in this way. This is a strange position to take since the Turkish government has been negotiating for some time with the PKK despite the fact that they label it as a terrorist movement. The Kurdish movements, the PKK and the DYP, cannot in any sense be equated with the IS which is pursuing a very aggressive military campaign against all and sundry.
So what is Turkey saying to the world? The government has argued that fighting the IS will strengthen Bashar al-Assad. This is probably true. But therein lies Turkey’s choice and its ambivalence. The Turkish government is demanding a promise from the United States that it will not be diverted from pursuing a struggle against the al-Assad regime, and in particular that it establish now a no-fly zone on the frontier. The United States argues this is impossible to do without troops on the ground, which they will not send.
And here is the choice: which dyad? If one gives priority to the struggle against the IS, it does reduce the support given to the ever smaller so-called moderate Islamists in Syria. If one gives priority to fighting al-Assad, it does strengthen the IS and will undoubtedly lead to a widespread massacre of Syrian Kurds by the IS, as the United Nations Syria envoy has just warned.
The other Turkish ambivalence concerns their negotiations with the PKK. If Turkey turns its back on the dilemmas of the Syrian Kurds, it will probably lead to a rupture in the negotiations with the PKK in Turkey. They have been so warned publicly by the PKK. But if the Turkish government turns more actively against the IS, the result could be that the PKK would have a stronger position in the continuing negotiations.
In addition, Turkey has been trying to improve its relations with Iran. The two countries share strong common interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even support the same forces in Palestine. But not fighting actively against the IS will interfere with this attempt to increase ties. On the other hand, active opposition to the IS will interfere with Turkey’s attempt to present itself as a champion of Sunni Islamists.
One way or the other, Turkey will have to come to a more coherent policy in the very near future. Otherwise, its claim to be a major actor in the region will fall flat. And its internal struggle with the Kurds will probably explode into violence again. Ambivalence is not admired in a zone of such hot struggles.
When does this story begin? It is difficult to decide. The modern story began in the nineteenth century, when the British and the Russians fought the “great game” competing to influence and control Afghanistan. They struggled directly and via Afghan proxies. The British thought they did better, but it was largely an illusion. I would call the contest a draw.
In the 1960s, the game was resumed with the coming to power of a ruler who sought to institute a new “liberal” constitution. He failed but opened the way for the emergence of parties of the left and right. His successor, Mohamed Daoud, was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), actually a Communist party. The PDPA established a totally secular regime, with full equality for women. The great game had resumed. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA regime and the United States (successor to Great Britain), supported the mujahidin who struggled against it and in favor of an Islamist regime.
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President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.
The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.
Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014
There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.
They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.
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