January issue 2017
The Wrongs of Right
By most accounts, the year that has just passed into history was a particularly awful one even in the broadly depressing context of the 21st century’s trajectory thus far. It is difficult to disagree. From Brexit and the broader trend towards far-right ascendancy pretty much across Europe, to the election of Donald Trump as the most powerful individual in the world, a dystopian recipe is being put in place – even if one were to discount the killing fields of Syria and Iraq.
These bloodied battlegrounds rarely find a place in the dominant narrative, even when their relevance ought to be indisputable. The murder last month of the Russian ambassador to Ankara obviously cannot be disconnected from the Syrian conflict, given the audacious assassin’s declarations as he performed the dastardly deed. Much of the attention has nonetheless focused on the Turkish-Russian relationship, which has warmed considerably over the past year.
As for the massacre at a Christmas market in Berlin, the critical focus has zeroed in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s incredibly decent decision in 2015 to accommodate almost a million refugees from the wars in Syria and elsewhere. It was inevitable that the influx would include a proportion of economic migrants. Nor is it surprising that a minuscule number of asylum-seekers should turn out to have terrorist, or more broadly, criminal intent. Is that cause enough to argue for a blanket ban on refugees, as some of the more fascistically inclined elements in European politics have been doing?
Rumblings within her Christian Democratic party amid its declining fortunes recently persuaded Merkel to make the odd gesture, such as calling for a ban on full-face burqas. More broadly, she deserves credit for striving to sustain liberal values in a Europe thoughtlessly drifting towards an illiberalism not witnessed in the West since the Second World War effectively slew the spirit of the 1930s, as represented by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, not to mention Emperor Hirohito.
A defining feature of the times was fairly widespread enthusiasm, among continental and American elites, for the strongmen of Europe (England had to sacrifice a king to get over it, well after a point where Nazi predilections were no longer in doubt). The devastating war obviously changed attitudes, and once it ended, there was already a new enemy in place, notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union had belatedly been instrumental in defeating the Nazi scourge. Europe had by then been split up into zones of influence, with the East largely ceded to Josef Stalin and the West resuscitated by the Marshall Plan.
The trouble was that even in the West, local Communists had often been key to the partisan resistance against Nazi occupation, which stood them in good stead among voters. In places where the threat of a Communist electoral victory was most acute, as in Italy, the CIA stepped in to guarantee “positive” results. In Greece, Stalin held back while his former allies collaborated with Nazi sympathisers to crush a popular left-wing insurgency. Seventy years later, the European Union effectively castrated the democratically-elected Syriza government through financial means, prompting former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to proclaim that whereas coups once required tanks, now they are propelled by banks.
A second way to stave off the threat of Communism was variations on social democracy, whereby the state undertook to regulate the vagaries of capitalism by providing a safety net, alongside such innovations as free healthcare and education, with Britain under the Attlee government stepping up to the mark before anyone else, and conservative governments undertaking, explicitly or otherwise, to maintain the contract. Even the US largely held to the economic compromise all the way through to the 1970s.
The advent of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led to a paradigm shift, with the contemporaneous collapse of the Soviet Union contributing to their monetarist audacity. There was worse to come after the Soviet threat of an alternative order disappeared altogether. The individualism sprouted by the neoliberals had less to do with personal liberty than with cutting people loose from the moorings to which they had been accustomed. As Thatcher infamously proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as society.”
The disarray across the West is commonly attributed to growing disenchantment with the political and economic elites. That’s not inaccurate, but it avoids the c-word. What we have been witnessing is a crisis of capitalism, epitomised by the vast and rapidly growing gap between the captains of industry and the wage slaves whose outrageous exploitation serves to enhance the phenomenal wealth of the CEOs and their ilk.
The US witnessed two parallel revolts against this trend in the long run-up to last year’s election. Trump and Bernie Sanders both attracted the backing of the disenchanted and the disengaged, with some overlap, while offering largely different solutions to the malaise. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, effectively stood up for the status quo, in a milieu where the hope and change that Barack Obama promised in 2008 had long ago evaporated.
There are those who continue to claim that a contest between Sanders and Trump would have led to a landslide for the former. A victory for Sanders, both in the nomination contest and the general election, is at least not inconceivable, had the Democratic establishment not been as alarmed by his ascendancy as the Republican establishment was by Trump’s. True, Clinton scored a lead in the popular vote that extended to almost three million, becoming the highest rated loser in the process. She failed to win the crucial rustbelt states. Of course the electoral college is a particularly absurd element of American exceptionalism, something the founding fathers dreamt up to thwart the ambitions of undeserving candidates. It has obviously outlived its utility. But the Clinton camp were well aware of the rules under which the contest was operating. And they failed.
Would Sanders, who promoted himself as a democratic socialist, been a disaster in the White House, not least in the face of an implacably hostile Congress? Perhaps. One can be certain, though, that his proposed cabinet would not have been split up between billionaires and generals, in almost every case a person profoundly unsuited to the portfolio they have been allocated.
It’s not just Trump’s proposed – or at least tweeted – potential domestic policies that provide deep cause for concern. His view of the wider world is not just blinkered but essentially contradictory. He loves Vladimir Putin, for instance, but hates Iran; how will that work out in Syria, where Moscow and Tehran are effectively on the same side? Then there’s the apparent determination to launch at least a trade war against China, its extensive participation in the US economy apparently being the root cause of American decline. How will Trump’s support base react to rising prices and the depletion of what little welfare that still exists?
The Obama administration has lately been going out of its way to trip up the incoming president, notably with its decision to abstain on a United Nations Security Council resolution explicitly condemning the ongoing expansion of exclusively Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led regime, accustomed to US vetoes guarding it against international censure, responded with predictably inane ferocity to the gesture, as well as to Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent critique of Israeli tendencies, while drawing sustenance from Trump’s supportive tweets.
The American shift would obviously have mattered a great deal more had it occurred well before Obama turned into a lame duck. However, notwithstanding his personal discomfiture with Netanyahu, his regime had hitherto been spectacularly supportive of the Likudites. What the latter fear most is an international campaign along the lines of the one that effectively disabled South African apartheid a few decades ago. It hasn’t come to that yet, but Netanyahu’s outrageously intemperate reaction to the UN resolution, which reportedly included describing New Zealand’s sponsorship of it as an “act of war,” should help to bring on the crunch.
Trump, on the other hand, claims to have a solution for all international disputes, including the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation. Yet his nominee for US ambassador to Israel is a man who positions himself several degrees to the right of Netanyahu. Meanwhile, with all manner of massacres by a range of perpetrators continuing apace in Syria, and the military effort to retake Mosul seemingly bogged down in Iraq, the president-elect has proposed to bomb Islamic State into oblivion.
That is a ridiculous proposition in practical terms, given that any such attempt would inevitably entail civilian casualties on a scale not witnessed since the Second World War – and, besides, spur terrorism across the West. Despite the horrendous level of “kills” to its credit, it is unlikely the US military would acquiesce in an enterprise that involves moving up to a whole new level of wanton destructiveness. But one of the legacies Obama leaves behind, which he has chosen not to reassess, is the drone-killer programme that operates not just on the peripheries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also in various other countries, including Yemen, which has been battered beyond recognition by a Saudi-led assault based on Riyadh’s ready access to American and British weaponry, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and certain other parts of Africa. How far will the Trump administration take it?
We shall have to wait and see, as in the case of the confrontational course Trump has embarked upon in relation to China even before being sworn in as president. Washington’s wariness about Beijing is par for the course, but outright hostility would unleash a geopolitical convulsion, the consequences of which are hard to predict but easy to fear. For instance, the Philippines’ foul-mouthed, mass-murdering president Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June, has been wooing China while cursing the US president’s mother, but he accurately perceives a kindred spirit in Trump. The region’s other leading nations, such as Malaysia and Indonesia – both of which face complex domestic dilemmas – have hitherto struck a balance in their relations with the US and China. Which way will they lean if it comes to a crunch? The fact that they are geographically wedded to China may well ultimately prove decisive.
Such contradictions abound amid oceans of uncertainty in an era that has witnessed too many instances of the surfacing of the strongman, from Netanyahu, Duterte and Trump to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who presides over a more repressive regime than that of Hosni Mubarak, and who was the first head of state to receive a call from president-elect Trump – and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who survived an apparent coup attempt last year, only to embark on a course of overreach unprecedented in his nation’s history of sporadic civilian rule. Iran, meanwhile, sweats it out, without scaling back on the regional proxy wars in which it is involved. Trump has threatened to rescind the nuclear deal between Tehran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council – something he cannot unilaterally do. But even new pressures could play into the hands of the conservative clerics dismayed by the reformist inclinations of Hassan Rouhani, possibly aiding predominantly Shia Iran’s regression to a more accurate mirror image of its appalling Sunni rival Saudi Arabia.
The land of the holy shrines itself faces convulsions as receding oil revenues supposedly necessitate curbs on domestic expenditure – and thereby possibly drastic changes in the hitherto generously subsidised lifestyle of its denizens. But somehow there’s always enough in the coffers to pay for the latest shipment of lethal weaponry, and a malign influence that stretches well beyond the region. Any nation gullible enough to allow mosques or madrassas to be set up with Saudi largesse is playing with fire: the mere glimpse of Pakistan’s fate since the 1980s in the face of the Salafist ascendancy ought to spur second thoughts. Yet Saudi-sponsored religious institutions abound right around the globe.
There have been reports claiming a connection between this phenomenon and the most recent terrorist outrage in Germany. Whether or not that is indeed the case, there can be little doubt that the widespread and growing antipathy towards Muslim refugees and immigrants plays into the hands of both Islamic State and the European far right. The latter is expected to do exceedingly well in the electoral contests coming up in the Netherlands and France early this year, not to mention Germany a few months later. But there is scope for some hope, as exemplified by Austria, where the far-right Norbert Hofer came dangerously close to winning his contest against former Green party leader, Alexander van der Bellen, then successfully challenged the result – but was resoundingly defeated in the rerun, not long after Trump’s triumph.
Of course, as they say, one swallow does not a summer make, and Europe could face a number of setbacks before the summer of 2017, with the EU bracing for more blows after Brexit – a prospect that Theresa May’s British government has been struggling to make sense of ever since she was propelled into the prime ministership after the unexpected referendum result and David Cameron’s subsequent resignation. Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding re-endorsement as leader of the opposition Labour Party was a rare silver lining in gloomy British skies last year, along with Sadiq Khan’s election as the mayor of London in the face of a racist campaign against him. All too many Labour MPs and the entire media predictably remain virulently opposed to Corbyn’s social-democratic agenda, though – a sad reminder of the extent to which the so-called centre of British politics drifted rightwards under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But the next election isn’t due until 2020, and the popular mood could change.
Justin Trudeau’s election as the prime minister of Canada also provided a glimmer of hope in a year rather bereft of positive signals, following an extended period of dire conservatism. Whatever Trudeau’s shortcomings, Canada should be able to serve as a counterpoint in the dark days ahead to the multiple crises that are bound to unfold south of the border. The left tide in Latin America inaugurated by the redoubtable Hugo Chavez at the turn of the century has been steadily receding of late, most notably in Venezuela itself, where Chavez’s successor proved to be drastically unequal to the task he faced, but also in Brazil, where the ouster of Dilma Rousseff was orchestrated by demonstrably corrupt conservative politicians, and in Argentina.
Who knows, the Trump presidency may help to change that trend. The US president, whatever he might do or not do, is bound to be the key player in international affairs this year, and possibly for years to come. It’s a dreadful prospect on every level. But there could be surprises ahead, given his notoriously short attention span, combined with a tendency to sharply switch positions with little warning. His tweeted inclination to rev up the nuclear arms race is unequivocally appalling – but will he remember what he said by the time he is sworn in? The world will need to keep its fingers tightly crossed as it braces for the fulfillment, yet again, of that ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.