Tag Archives: Western world

Preliminary Libyan Scorecard: Acting Beyond the UN Mandate

6 Sep

            In Western circles of influential opinion, the outcome of the NATO intervention in Libya has already been pronounced ‘a victory’ from several points of view: as a military success that achieved its main goals set at acceptable costs, as a moral success that averted a humanitarian catastrophe, and as political success the creation of an opportunity for freedoom and constitutionalism on behalf of a long oppressed people. This is one of those rare results in an international conflict situation that seems to please both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives because it was a show of force that reaffirmed Western primacy based on military power. Liberals because force was used with UN backing in accordance with international law and in furtherance of human rights and liberal values.


Qaddafi and his loyalists are apparently a spent force, and the future of Libya now becomes a work in progress without any clear understanding of who will call the shots from now on. Will it be the Libyan victors in the war now battling among themselves for the control of the country? Will it be their NATO minders hiding behind the scenes? Will it be the NATO representatives doing the bidding of the oil companies and the various corporate and financial interests that make no secret of seeking a robust profit-making stake in Libya’s future? Or will it be some combination of these influences, more or less harmoniously collaborating? And most relevant of all, will this process be seen as having the claimed liberating impact on the lives and destinies of the Libyan people? It is far too early to pronounce on such momentous issues, although sitting on the sidelines one can only hope and pray for the best for a country substantially destroyed by external forces. Even before the dust of the original conflict settles it is not too soon to raise some skeptical questions about the unconditional enthusiasm in mainstream Western circles for what has been done and what it portends for the future of UN peacekeeping.


            What has transpired since March when the UN Security Council gave its go ahead for the use of force to protect civilians in Libya should never have become an occasion for cheering despite the military and political outcome of the intervention. This unfortunate triumphal spirit was clearly voiced by the normally critically sensitive Roger Cohen. Writing in the New York Times Cohen insists that the Libyan intervention should be viewed as a historically momentous discharge of the global moral responsibility that somehow rests on the shoulders of post-colonial pro-active leaders in the West:  “..the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21sr century less cruel than the 20th .” This rather extraordinary claim cannot be tested by reference to Libya alone, although even narrowly conceived the grounds for such confidence in Western uses of force in the global south seems stunningly ahistorical. But if the net is enlarged, as it must be, to encompass the spectrum of recent interventions under Western auspices that include Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan the self-absorbed gaze of Cohen seems like a dangerously misguided form of advocacy relating to the use of force in international relations. Looking at this broader experience of Western intervention makes one squirm uncomfortably in reaction to the grandiose claim that the willingness of leading Western countries to police the world is humanity’s ‘best hope’ for the future. Cohen is not timid about insisting that the Libya operation up to this point provides a positive model for the future : “The intervention has been done right—with the legality of strong backing, full support of America’s European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels.” A contrast with Iraq is drawn, presumably, in contrast, an intervention ‘done wrong.’


            There is a heavy dose of implicit paternalism, condescension, and passé consciousness, not to mention wishful thinking, present if the West is to be identified as the best hope for the future just because it managed to pull off this Libyan intervention, that is, even assuming that the post-Qaddafi experience in the country is not too disillusioning in this one set of circumstances. What about putting the failed interventions into the balance, and then deciding whether it is helpful or not to encourage the West, which means mainly the United States, to take on this protective role for the rest of the world? I seem to remember not that long ago such self-empowering phrases as ‘white man’s burden’ and ‘civilizing mission’ being used by colonial apologists with a straight face. The West has quite a record of barbarism of its own, both within its geographic confines and in its encounters with others.  It seems arbitrary and contentious to situate barbarism geographically, and it certainly seems strange to think that the long exploited and abused non-West generates a new breed of barbarians at the gates.


            And let us not be to quick to heap praise on this Libyan model? It is certainly premature to conclude that it has been a success before acquiring a better sense of whether the winners can avoid a new cycle of strife and bloodshed, and stick together in a Libya without the benefit of Qaddafi as the common enemy. Or if they do, can they embark upon a development path that benefits the Libyan people and not primarily the oil companies and foreign construction firms. Any credible assessment of the Libyan intervention must at least wait and see if the new leaders are able to avoid the authoritarian temptation to secure their power and privilege within the inflamed political atmosphere of the country. The majority of the Libyan people undoubtedly have strong expectations that their human rights will now be upheld and that an equitable economic order will soon be established that benefits the population as a whole, and not the tiny elite that sits on the top of the national pyramid. These are expectations that have yet to be satisfied anywhere in the region. The challenge is immense, and perhaps is beyond even the imagination and aspirations of the new leaders, posing a challenge that exceeds their capabilities and will.


            Yet such worries are not just about the uncertain future of Libya. Even if, against the odds, Libya turns out to be the success story already proclaimed, there are still many reasons to be concerned about the Libyan intervention serving as a precedent for the future. These concerns relating to international law, to the proper role for the UN, and to the shaping of a just world order have been largely ignored in the public discussion of the Libyan intervention. In effect, once NATO helped the rebels enough to get rid of the Qaddafi regime, it has been treated as irrelevant to complain about aspects of the undertaking and such issues have been completely ignored by the media. In the rest of this blog I will try to explain why the Libyan intervention is far from providing future diplomats with an ideal model. I believe we should learn from the Libyan experience, and reject it as a precedent.


            As the World Court made clear in the Nicaragua decision of 1986, modern international law does not allow states to have recourse to force except when acting in self-defense against a substantial prior armed attack across its borders, and then only until the Security Council acts. The United Nations, normally the Security Council, but residually the General Assembly, has the authority to mandate the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on behalf of peace and security, including on the basis of UN evolving practice, for humanitarian ends under extreme circumstances of the sort that arguably existed in Libya during the latter stages of Qaddafi’s rule. This humanitarian extension of UN authority has been challenged as opening a loophole of indefinite dimensions that can be used to carry out a post-colonial imperialist agenda. Even granting that humanitarian ends should now be understood to have been legally incorporated into prevailing ideas of ‘international peace and security,’ a crucial further question exists as to whether the force used by NATO remained within the confines of what was authorized by the Security Council.


            The Security Council debate on authorization indicated some deep concerns on the part of important members at the time, including China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Germany, that formed the background of SC Resolution 1973, which in March 2011 set forth the guidelines for the intervention.This extensive resolution articulated the mission being authorized as that of protecting threatened Libyan civilians against violent atrocities that were allegedly being massively threatened by the Qaddafi government, with special reference at the time to an alleged imminent massacre of civilians trapped in the then besieged city of Benghazi. The debate emphasized the application of the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) endorsed by the Security Council a few years ago that sought to allay fears about interventions by the West in the non-West by refraining from relying on the distrusted language of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and substituting a blander way of describing the undertaking as less of a challenge directed at the territorial supremacy of sovereign states and more in the nature of a protective undertaking reflecting human solidarity. The R2P norm relies on a rationale of protecting vulnerable peoples from rulers that violated basic human rights in a severe and systematic fashion.


            But once underway, the NATO operation unilaterally expanded and qualitatively shifted the mission as authorized, and almost immediately acted to help the rebels win the war and to make non-negotiable the dismantling of the Qaddafi regime. NATO made these moves without even attempting to explain that it was somehow still acting primarily to protect Libyan civilians. This was not just another instance of ‘mission creep’ as had occurred previously in UN peacekeeping operations (for instance, the Gulf War of 1991), but rather mission creep on steroids! It would have been possible during the Security Council debate to explain in a forthright manner what obviously must have been the real intentions all along of NATO. It would have been possible and respectful of the integrity of UN discourse to have made the attempt to convince the members of the Security Council that the only way the Libyan people could be protected was to help the rebels win the civil war and to be sure that Qaddafi was taken out of the picture. Presumably such forthrightness was avoided by the pro-interventionist states because it would almost certainly have turned several of the already reluctant abstaining five countries into negative votes, including in all likelihood, those of China and Russia that are permanent members whose votes have a veto effect, which in this case would have prevented the Security Council from reaching a decision. So the pro-interventionists admittedly faced a genuine dilemma: either dissemble as to the ends being pursued and obtain the legitimacy of limited advance authorization from the UN or reveal the real goals of the operation and be blocked by a veto from acting under UN auspices. If so blocked, then the further issue arises as to whether to intervene in the absence of a UN mandate.


A similar dilemma faced the intervening governments prior to the 1999 NATO’s Kosovo War. It was resolved by ignoring the legalities altogether, with NATO acting without any UNSC authorization. It was also a controversial precedent, and some blamed the Kosovo reliance on ‘a coalition of the willing’ or on a military alliance as providing a sufficient authorization, for the later claim of de facto authority to carry out the Iraq invasion without gaining prior UN approval. In both Kosovo and Iraq circumventing the UN’s legally prescribed role of deciding when to authorize non-defensive force on behalf of international peace and security was criticized, but the unlawfulness of the action led to no clear repudiation of either intervention after the fact, and rather highlighted the weakness of the UN. In both cases the UN after the fact acted to ratify the results of uses of force that clearly violated the UN Charter’s unconditional prohibition imposed on all uses of non-defensive force by member states. The rogue recourse to force was especially disturbing in Iraq as the attack legally amounted to a war of aggression, a crime against the peace in the language of the Nuremberg Judgment rendered in 1945 against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II.


            With regard to Libya, the culprits are not just the states that participated in this runaway operation, but the members of the Security Council  that abstained from supporting Resolution 1973 and the Secretary General of the United Nations have a special duty to make sure that the limits of authorization were being respected throughout the undertaking. It would seem to be a matter of constitutional responsibility for all members of the Security Council to ensure respect for the Charter’s core effort to prevent wars and seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. When exceptions are made to this generalized Charter prohibition on the use or threat of force it should always be strictly formulated, and then continuously monitored and interpreted, and if limits are exceeded, then the supervisory authority and responsibility of the Security Council should kick in as a matter of course, and in a spirit of upholding the autonomy and legitimacy of the United Nations. The Secretary General also has secondary responsibility to take appropriate steps to call the attention of the membership to such blatant departures from an authorizing resolution as an essential aspect of his role as custodian of the integrity of UN procedures and as the UN’s de facto ombudsman in relation to ensuring fidelity to the Charter. This allocation of responsibility seems more important when it is realized that the actions of the Security Council are not subject to judicial review. This controversial doctrine of judicial self-restraint within the UN System was ironically decided by the World Court in the 1992 Lockerbie case involving sanctions imposed on Libya in apparent violation of relevant treaty law. The majority of the judges concluded that whatever the Security Council decided needed to be treated as authoritative even if it went against international law, that the Security Council always had the last word in shaping UN policy even when it was acting unwisely or irresponsibly.


            Against this background, the abstaining states were also derelict at the outset by allowing a resolution of the Security Council involving the use of force to go forward considered that it contained such ambiguous and vague language as to raise a red flag as to the scope of the proposed authorization. Although Security Council Resolution 1973 did seem reasonably to anticipate mainly the establishment of a No Fly Zone and ancillary steps to make sure it would be effective, the proposed language of the resolution should have signaled the possibility that action beyond what was being mandated was contemplated by the NATO countries and would likely be undertaken. The notorious phrase ‘all necessary measures’ was present in the resolution, which was justified at the time as providing the enforcers with a desirable margin of flexibility in making sure that the No Fly Zone would render the needed protection to Libyan civilian.  Almost immediately once NATO launched its operations it became obvious that an entirely new and controversial mission was underway than what was acknowledged during the debate that preceded the adoption of 1973. The U.S. Supreme Court has often invalidated Congressional action as ‘void for vagueness,’ and this is something in the UN setting that Security Council members should have been prepared to do on their own in their role as final guardians of constitutional integrity in relation to war making under UN auspices. Given the Charter emphasis on war prevention and peaceful settlement of disputes, it should be standard practice that exceptional mandates to use force would be interpreted strictly to limit the departure from Charter goals and norms, but the UN record even before Libya has been disappointing, with geopolitics giving states a virtually unlimited discretion that international law purports to withhold.


            There is a further related issue internal to best practices within the United Nations itself. The Security Council acts in the area of peace and security on behalf of the entire international community and with representational authority for the whole membership of the Organization. The 177 countries not members of the Security Council should have confidence that this body will respect Charter guidelines and that there will be a close correspondence between what was authorized and what was done especially when force is authorized and sovereign rights are encroached upon. This correspondence was not present in the Libyan intervention, and this abuse of authority seems to have barely noticed in any official way, although acknowledged and even lamented in the corridors and delegates lounge of UN Headquarters in New York City.


This interpretative issue is not just a playground for international law specialists interested in jousting about technical matters of little real world relevance. Here the life and death of the peoples inhabiting the planet are directly at stake, as well as their political independence, the territorial integrity, and economic autonomy of their country. If the governments will not act to uphold agreed and fundamental limits on state violence, especially directed at vulnerable countries and peoples, then as citizens of the world, ‘we the peoples of the United Nations,’ as proclaimed by the Preamble to the Charter need to raise our voices. We have the residual responsibility to act on behalf of international law and morality when the UN falters or when states act beyond the law. Of course, this imperative does not imply a whitewash for tyrannical rule.


27 Aug

[This post is written jointly with Hilal Elver. It reflects our experience as members of the Intellectual Forum that held meetings in Istanbul during May 2011 parallel to the UN inter-governmental conference on the problems and future of the LDCs, and our continuing role in the Academic Council that was established by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide an intellectual input to the policy forming process, both by way of critique and prescription.]


by Hilal Elver and Richard Falk


         The unfolding tragedy in East Africa is a dramatic indicator of what humanity as a whole can expect in the near future ‘if business as usual’ continues to be the phrase that most accurately expresses global climate change policy. The unwillingness of the developed countries to provide adequate humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable peoples in the world also helps explain this worsening regional tragedy has reached such dire extremes.

East Africa is currently suffering from its most severe drought in 60 years. According to UN estimates 12.4 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. 25% of Somalia’s 7.5 million people are currently displaced. Famine has spread to all parts of the Horn of Africa. As we write, 4.8 million Ethiopians, 3.7 million Somalis, and 3.7 million Kenyans are being catastrophically victimized.

Somalia has been hit worst of all countries in the region. An aggravating cause of the Somali crisis arises from the fact that much of the countryside is controlled by the Islamist Shabab movement that forbids most international aid agencies from entering territory controlled by its forces. More than 100,000 people have arrived in Mogadishu in the last two months in desperate search for food and subsistence, some by walking as much as 100 kilometers.

It is generally accepted that the larger continental expanse of sub-Saharan Africa is now the region of the world most negatively affected by global climate change, particularly by global warming. Such a generalization needs to be qualified as not all African countries are suffering from climate change to the same extent, the degree of impact from country to country reflecting varying conditions on the ground. Farms in moist or dry savannah are more sensitive to higher temperature and reduced rainfall than are farms in humid and forest areas. These latter areas may actually experience higher agricultural yields despite adverse climate change trends.

Drought is not a stranger to the peoples of East Africa. According to Klaus Toepfer, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program: “It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared. These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts.”  These remarks support our belief based on the evidence that climate change is a significant element of African humanitarian crises. Toepfer’s words also show us why human induced environmental damage further aggravates preexisting adverse environmental and economic conditions.

It is not possible to determine conclusively that the famine in Somalia is attributable to climate change alone or even predominantly, or is a result of the wider environmental context, as well as a belated consequence of colonial and post-colonial exploitations of Somali resources. A post-colonial example of this Western role in aggravating Somali misery involved the destruction of Somali coastal fisheries due to the activities of high technology distant fishing fleets that virtually rendered traditional Somali fishing obsolete.

Also contributing to Somalia’s downward spiral was illicit toxic dumping by global corporate interests. With no patrols along its shoreline after the collapse of government in 1991, Somalia coastal waters became a dumping area for the developed world’s toxic wastes resulting in severe damage to the fish stocks upon which the Somali fishing industry and population had so heavily depended. Westerner economic actors were desperate to discover places to escape from strict and expensive environmental regulations in their own countries that regulated the discharge of their industrial wastes. As a result, the lives and livelihoods of Somali fishermen along Somalia 3333-km coast were being seriously jeopardized.


It is tragic to realize that piracy has replaced fishing as the dominant coastal means of livelihood for these traditional Somali communities. This piracy has been criminalized, but without   account being taken of Western responsibility for depriving Somalia of a leading source of its food and in the process destroying employment opportunities in a previously vibrant commercial activity.

Taking advantage of this difficulty of connecting the dots of causation, the climate deniers are making the most of a highly selective use of meteorological statistics to insist that there is no occasion for special worry or measures in response to Somalia’s crisis. These problems should be interpreted as nothing more threatening than a routine phase of the African weather cycle that the region has been living with for centuries.

Climate change skeptics are not alone in their contentions, but have some unexpected allies. Somalia’s extremist Islamist group, allegedly linked to Al Qaida, Al Shabab, contends that the “drought is caused by Allah and people should pray for rain.” This evasion of problem-solving by reliance on a pre-modern religious mentality has become politically fashionable even in Western countries. Not long ago the governor of Oklahoma urged residents to pray for rain to end a state-wide drought and the Republican Party presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, preceded the recent announcement of his candidacy by holding a public prayer meeting. Another American presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, sounds remarkably similar to Al-Shabab militants when she warns that advocates of action to reduce greenhouse gasses are displacing the work of God.

In addition to its presumed distrust of foreign intrusions, Al-Shabab has a material reason for its belief that the Somali drought and famine were not a result of human behavior. A UN investigator, Matt Bryden, recently concluded that “Al-Shabab has evolved from a small, clandestine network into an formidable organization that generates tens of millions of dollars a year by organizing charcoal export to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.” Bryden suggests that the deforestation that has taken place in areas under the control of al-Shabab have probably contributed to the famine by their indiscriminate plunder of forest areas. It is well established that unregulated deforestation is responsible for reduced rainfall.

To be sure, Al-Shabab has its reasons for denying that the famine in Somalia is due to environmental damage, including the detrimental impacts of global warming. Perhaps, if its membership were more sophisticated about the nature of climate change, Al-Shabab would shift their argument, and blame the West, which can be presented as overwhelmingly responsible for the harmful impacts currently being felt in Africa due to almost two hundred years of industrialization with its accompaniment of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. There is little serious dissent from the view that it is the engines of modernity that have led the climate change challenge to reach its present crisis proportions.

It seems likely that the leaders of Al-Shabab do not have the scientific background needed to appreciate the seriousness and nature of climate change as it bears on the future of Somalia. Their leaders do seem to operate themselves according to the major premise of capitalism, to wit, that selfish economic interests come before the wellbeing of people, even those starving to death. From such a perspective, the leadership of Al-Shabab rejects what must seem to them to be an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of their country by the international community, plausibly fearing that their own political existence might be jeopardized under the pretext of carrying out ‘humanitarian’ operations under Western auspices. Recalling the disastrous effort of the Clinton presidency to impose a centralized governmental structure on Somalia in 1993, this suspicion about Western intentions seems reasonable, although tragically costly for the people on the ground daily suffering from inadequate supplies of affordable food.

In such a situation it is not surprising that many Somalis are blaming Al-Shabab for the severity and prolongation of the food shortage, which has weakened the movement’s political credibility with the populace. Islamists in Somalia themselves now seem deeply divided. Earlier Al-Shabab enjoyed considerable popular support during a period when chaotic conditions prevailed due to the absence of a competent  government. Prior to the onset of the current emergency in 2006, the majority of the Somali people longed most for an end to the lawlessness and rampant corruption that has paralyzed the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and saw Al-Shabab as offering this prospect.

For all these reasons, combined with the abject poverty of the country, Somalia has become the international poster child for failed states, environmental disaster, and human misery. This has also made Somalia seem to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world, both because of these extreme internal conditions and due to its appropriation as a base for international terrorism. Despite these perceptions, the Turkish Foreign Minister observed in relation to the Turkish Government’s state visit to the country in August of 2011 that “there is no reason that Somalia could not recover from its problems.”

Despite the crisis, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took the highly unusual step of visiting Somalia in the company of several ministers in his cabinet, their families, and a group of Turkish business leaders. This was truly a dramatic initiative that contrasts with the approach taken toward Somalia in recent years by other governments. It a fact that despite its woes Somalia is one of the few countries in the world that no Western leader has dared to enter over the course of the last 20 years, presumably fearful of the chaos and unrest, as well as concerned by security threats posed by religious extremists, warlords, criminal gangs, and worried about the health risks associated with the uncontrolled presence of several lethal infectious diseases.

Against such a background, it is only natural to wonder ‘why’ Turkey has decided to take such an initiative at this time. Several important symbolic and functional reasons have been given by Turkish officials to explain the timing and purpose of this high profile diplomatic event situated outside of Turkey’s geographic orbit of normal diplomatic activity. “The purpose of the visit was first symbolic,” Erdogan declared. He went on to say “[t]here was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu; we try to destroy the perception. We came, many others can come.”

There is a second kind of explanation not far in the background. A few months ago Turkey hosted in Istanbul the Fourth United Nations Least Developed Countries (UN-LDC) Summit. Somalia may well be the most afflicted of the 48 LDCs, and so Turkey singling the country out in this way to call attention to its broader concern with world poverty. After all, the LDC summit was held under Turkish auspices because Ankara had expressed a willingness to take on the responsibility for shaping UN policy towards these ‘poorest of the poor’ during the next 10 years. In view of this initiative it would have been difficult for the Turkish government to close its eyes to the desperate situation in Somalia. Such a show of indifference would also have seemed incompatible with its professed desire to do everything possible to help address the challenges faced by the LDCs.

Thirdly, as a devout Muslim, Prime Minister Erdogan was undoubtedly moved by the ordeal confronting the Muslim community in Somalia during the holy month of Ramadan. As all Muslims are deeply aware, this is a time when religious devotion encourages generosity to others less fortunate. The Somalia case presents a compelling opportunity for Erdogan and associates to fulfill their religious duties during Ramadan.

It is also relevant to observe that shortly before the Somalia visit, Turkey hosted a major meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at which $500 million was set as a goal pledged by the assembled government to assist drought and famine stricken Somalis. The Turkish government is additionally sponsoring a national campaign for Somali emergency relief that is seeking to raise an additional $250 million in funds from private Turkish donors.

In the course of an impassioned speech to Muslim leaders during the OIC meeting, Erdogan provocatively called negative attention to the luxurious life styles of the leaders of oil rich countries. Some commentators interpreted these remarks as an attack on capitalism, but it is more reasonably understood as a warning and diatribe against the excesses of some capitalists! And the importance of acting responsibly toward those who are less fortunate.

We need remind ourselves that Turkey has done very well in the Erdogan period of leadership by adhering to economic policies based on free market principles. Erdogan and the AKP are far from the orientation of such avowedly anti-capitalist leaders as Hector Chavez or the Castro brothers. Yet his ideological affinities with capitalism does not mean that Erdogan is not responsive to the social principles of Islam, or that he is being inconsistent when he calls for what used to be promoted by Western leaders under the banner of ‘compassionate capitalism.’  In some speeches to Turkish audiences Erdogan does not hesitate to use language that incorporates Islamic thought, which probably comes very naturally to him when he speaks, as he often does, spontaneously, and without a prepared text. This Muslim influence or style of advocacy was not common in Turkey during the Kemalist years when strictly secular politicians were running the country, and it remains somewhat unfamiliar to those Turks whose identity is derived from European models.

Erdogan also does not hesitate to criticize the West. While in Somalia, he said: “The tragedy in Somalia is testing modern values. What we want to emphasize is that the contemporary world should successfully pass this test to prove that Western values are not hollow rhetoric.” Such a direct challenge seems warranted when the leading Western countries have turned increasingly away from the humanitarian emergency conditions affecting not only Somalia, but all the LDCs. Also neglected by the affluent societies are the large enclaves of extreme poverty in a variety of countries that have relatively high average per capita incomes, but skewed income distribution patterns favoring the ultra-rich and containing deep pockets of extreme poverty.

We can affirm the Turkish initiative associated with the recent visit to Somalia as an imaginative and brave step to mobilize public concern throughout the world. The real test of its worth comes during the years ahead when Turkey and AKP will be under self-imposed pressures to take the lead in tangibly exhibiting empathy for the most deprived segments of humanity along with displaying an increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the climate change dimensions of these economic conditions.  Of course, this Turkish role should not be interpreted as offering a free ride to other countries, including those in Europe, North America, and Asia. The governments of these countries have the resources and responsibilities to act as world citizens in an era of ever increasing globalization both in relation to pursuing economic policies that could dramatically reduce world poverty and taking on climate change for which their past and present activities are primarily responsible.

Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan?

6 May

             Understanding the Western response to the Arab Spring, a colorful designation of the democratizing movements of varying character that have rocked the foundations of the Arab world, is an ongoing process.  These movements are also seen as posing possibly serious threats to the structure of economic and strategic interests associated with long standing American and European influence in the region.  On the surface after some obvious hesitation, even ambivalence, the liberal democratic governments of the West, headed by the United States, declared their support for the Arab Spring, and even mounted a ‘humanitarian intervention’ (disguised as a No Fly Zone to protect the Libyan civilian population so as to discourage Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council) to help the rebels prevail in their civil war against the Qaddafi regime. Everywhere in the region the political outcome of these unfinished uprisings remain shrouded in multiple doubts.


Having just visited Egypt for a week I came away with this dual sense that the revolutionary dynamics have produced remarkable results that form a glorious chapter of Egyptian history, but also that there are a variety of dark forces that are working under the radar to contain if not reverse this exhilirating democratizing momentum. In the foreground was the widespread acknowledgement by all sectors of public opinion in Cairo that the more reflective governing policy is of popular sentiments the more likely is a definite adjustment of diplomatic stance with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This stance is already evident in the opening of the Rafah Crossing and in the robust Egyptian encouragement of Palestine Authority/Hamas reconciliation.


Looking from outside, I encountered one brief insight into real American thinking about the Arab Spring that was for me particularly revealing. It was published in the comment section of the May/June 2011 online website of Foreign Affairs, the most influential voice on foreign policy in the United States. It was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, and opened with this rather startling sentence: “The upheavals in the Middle East had much in common with the recent financial crisis: both were plausible worst-case scenarios whose probability was dramatically underestimated.” What an odd comparison! The equivalence was premised on the negative character of both occurrences, which led the authors to identify the emancipatory movements in the Middle East with the perjorative label of “upheavals,” thereby ignoring the manifest revolutionary and reformist challenges being directed at the established repressive political order. At their worst, these movements could be downgraded to ‘uprisings,’ rather than the image of ‘upheavals’ that mainly suggests purposeless disorder.


The most remarkable aspect, by far, of the Taleb/Blyth comment was to treat these Middle Eastern events as illustrative of unanticipated “worst-case scenarios.” Worst-case? Such a perception only makes sense if it unintentionally reflects the undisclosed underlying strategic consensus that the Arab Winter was far better for the West than the Arab Spring. In effect, that authoritarian government in the region was a necessary correlate of Western grand strategy long built around petropolitics, and more recently extended to the containment of political Islam and sustaining Israeli

regional security goals. Netanyahu and other political leaders in Israel acknowledged as much by their outspoken admission that they were sorry to see the Mubarak regime collapse.


             Nissam Nicholas Taleb is a financial risk analyst who made a wider stir when he published his book Black Swan  a couple of years ago. It has as its central and compelling thesis that there is a pervasive tendency for history to be shaped by unpredicted events, and especially by occurrences that have not taken place in the past. His vivid central metaphor is the assumption that all swans are white because no other color had been seen until the black swan variety was discovered in Australia. This is an interesting alternative approach to what I have been calling ‘the politics of impossibility,’ a phrase meant to suggest that the impossible repeatedly happens, making future studies based on past trends and statistical projections almost certain to be wrong.


            I am not contesting the idea that implausible happenings should be taken into far greater account when contemplating the future. What I am remarking critically upon is the bland classification of the Arab Spring as ‘a worst-case scenario,’ and the fact that such a comment could survive scrutiny from the normally very adept gatekeepers at Foreign Affairs. Is it to be explained as an accidental political oversight or more darkly as a revelation of the mindset so ingrained within the American foreign policy establishment as to be unnoticeable? If the latter, then, it is not surprising that such a phrasing would not even be noticed because it was accurately expressive of the private discourse among foreign policy elites on the impact of these developments. Supportive of this latter interpretation is the fact that this Black Swan comment has remained featured on the Foreign Affairs website.


            It is possible that I am exaggerating a flourish that is nothing more than a slip of the pen! At the very least, however, it should serve as a reminder, if not a warning, that there is not only pro-democracy cheering going on in the Washington situation rooms that shape the foreign policy of Western countries, especially the United States, with respect to what to hope for in the Middle East. As the Chinese supposedly believe: “two persons sleep in the same bed but they have different dreams.”