Category Archives: Europe

Continental Drift: Europe’s Breakaways

Continental Drift: Europe’s Breakaways

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

April 2, 2014

 

 

“Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

 

The opening to Tolstoy’s great novel of love and tragedy could be a metaphor for Europe today, where “unhappy families” of Catalans, Scots, Belgiums, Ukrainians, and Italians contemplate divorcing the countries they are currently a part of. And in a case where reality mirrors fiction, they are each unhappy in their own way.

 

While the U.S. and its allies may rail against the recent referendum in the Crimea that broke the peninsula free of Ukraine, Scots will consider a very similar one on Sept. 18, and Catalans would very much like to do the same. So would residents of South Tyrol, and Flemish speakers in northern Belgium.

 

On the surface, many of these succession movements look like rich regions trying to free themselves from poor ones, but, while there is some truth in that, it is overly simplistic. Wealthier Flemish speakers in northern Belgium would indeed like to separate from the distressed, French speaking south, just as Tyroleans would like to free themselves of poverty-racked southern Italians. But in Scotland much of the fight is over preserving the social contract that conservative Labor and right-wing Tory governments have systematically dismantled. As for Catalonia—well, it’s complicated.

 

Borders in Europe may appear immutable, but of course they are not. Sometimes they are changed by war, economic necessity, or because the powerful draw capricious lines that ignore history and ethnicity. The Crimea, conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783, was arbitrarily given to the Ukraine in 1954. Belgium was the outcome of a congress of European powers in 1830. Impoverished Scotland tied itself to wealthy England in 1707. Catalonia fell to Spanish and French armies in 1714. And the South Tyrol was a spoil of World War I.

 

In all of them, historical grievance, uneven development, and ethnic tensions have been exacerbated by a long-running economic crisis. There is nothing like unemployment and austerity to fuel the fires of secession.

 

The two most pressing—and the ones most likely to have a profound impact on the rest of Europe—are Scotland and Catalonia.

 

Both are unhappy in different ways.

 

Scotland always had a vocal, albeit marginal, nationalist party, but was traditionally dominated by the British Labour Party. The Conservatives hardly exist north of the Tweed. But Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Party’s record of spending cuts and privatization alienated many Scots, who spend more on their education and health services than the rest of Britain. University tuition, for instance, is still free in Scotland, as are prescription drugs and home healthcare.

 

When Conservatives won the British election in 2010, their austerity budget savaged education, health care, housing subsidies, and transportation. Scots, angered at the cuts, voted for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 2011 elections for the Scottish parliament. The SNP immediately proposed a referendum that will ask Scots if they wanted to dissolve the 1707 Act of Union and once again become be an independent country. If passed, the Scottish government proposes re-nationalizing the postal service and throwing nuclear-armed Trident submarines out of Scotland.

 

If one takes into account its North Sea oil resources, there is little doubt but that an independent Scotland would be viable. Scotland has a larger GDP per capita than France and, in addition to oil, exports manufactured goods and whisky. Scotland would become one of the world’s top 35 exporting countries.

 

The Conservative government says that, if the Scots vote for independence, they will have to give up the pound as a currency. The Scots respond that, if the British follow through on their currency threat, Scotland will wash its hands of its portion of the British national debt. At this point, there is a standoff.

 

According to the British—and some leading officials in the European Union (EU)—an independent Scotland will lose its EU membership, but that may be bluster. For one, it would violate past practice. When East and West Germany were united in 1990, some 20 million residents of the former German Democratic Republic were automatically given EU citizenship. If 5.3 million Scots are excluded, it will be the result of pique, not policy. In any case, with the Conservatives planning a referendum in 2017 that might pull Britain out of the EU, London is not exactly holding the high ground on this issue.

 

If the vote were taken today, the Scots would probably vote to remain in Britain, but sentiment is shifting. The most recent poll indicates that 40 percent will vote for independence, a three percent increase. The “no” votes have declined by 2 percent to 45 percent, with 15 percent undecided. All Scottish residents over the age of 16 can vote. Given the formidable campaigning skills of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, and leader of the SNP, those are chilling odds for the London government.

 

Catalonia, wedged up against France in Spain’s northeast, has long been a powerful engine for the Spanish economy, and a region steeped in historical grievance. Conquered by the combined armies of France and the Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), it was also on the losing side of the 1936-‘39 Spanish Civil War. In 1940, triumphant fascists suppressed Catalan language and culture and executed its president, Lluis Companys, an act no Madrid government has ever made amends for.

 

Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began its transformation to democracy, a road constructed by burying the deep animosities engendered by the Civil War. But the dead stay buried only so long, and a movement for Catalan independence began to grow.

 

In 2006 Catalonia won considerable autonomy, which was then overturned by the Supreme Tribunal in 2010 at the behest of the current ruling conservative Popular Party (PP). That 2010 decision fueled the growth of the Catalan independence movement, and in 2012 separatist parties in the province were swept into power.

 

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s PP is pretty much an afterthought—19 out of 135 seats—in Catalonia where several independence parties dominate the Catalan legislature. The largest of these is Province President Artur Mas’s Convergencia i Unio (CiU), but the Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna (ERC) doubled its representation in the legislature.

 

That doesn’t mean they agree with one another. Mas’s party tends to be centrist to conservative, while the ERC is leftist and opposed to the austerity program of the PP, some of which Mas has gone along with. The CiU’s centrism is one of the reasons that Mas’s party went from 62 seats to 50 in the 2012 election, while the ERC jumped from 10 to 21.

 

Unemployment is officially at 25 percent—but far higher among youth and in Spain’s southern provinces—and the Left has thrown down the gauntlet. Over 100,000 people marched on Madrid last month demanding an end to austerity.

 

Rajoy—citing the 1976 constitution—refuses to allow an independence referendum, a stubbornness that has only fueled separatist strength. This past January the Catalan parliament voted 87 to 43 to hold a referendum, and polls show a majority in the province will support it. Six months ago, a million and a half Catalans marched in Barcelona for independence.

 

The PP has been altogether ham-fisted about Catalonia and seems to delight in finding things to provoke Catalans: Catalonia bans bull fighting, so Madrid passes a law making it a national cultural heritage. The Basques get to collect their own taxes, Catalans cannot.

 

How would the EU react to an independent Catalan? And would the central government in Madrid do anything about it? It is hard to imagine the Spanish army getting involved, although a former minister in the Franco government started Rajoy’s party, and the dislike between Madrid and Barcelona is palpable.

 

There are other fault lines on the continent.

 

Will Belgium split up? The fissure between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south is so deep it took 18 months to form a government after the last election. And if Belgium shatters, does it become two countries or get swallowed by France and the Netherlands?

 

The South Tyrol Freedom Party (STFP) is gearing up for an independence referendum and pressing for a merger with Austria, although the tiny province—called Alto Adige in Italy—has little to complain about. It keeps 90 percent of its taxes, and its economy has dodged the worst of the 2008 meltdown. But some of its German-Austrian residents are resentful of any money going to Rome, and there is a deep prejudice against Italians—who make up 25 percent of South Tyrol—particularly among those in the south. In this way the STFP is not very different than the racist, elitist Northern League centered in Italy’s Po Valley.

 

It is instructive to watch the YouYube video on how borders in Europe have changed from 1519 to 2006, a period of less than 500 years. What we think of as eternal is ephemeral. The European continent is once again adrift, pulling apart along fault lines both ancient and modern. How nations like Spain and Britain, and organizations like the EU, react to this process will determine if it will be civilized or painful. But trying to stop it will most certainly cause pain.

 

 

—-30—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Europe

WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 10, 2014

Is the Russian occupation of the Crimea a case of aggressive expansionism by Moscow or aimed at at blocking a scheme by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to roll right up to the Russia’s western border? WikiLeaks has revealed a secret cable describing a meeting between French and American diplomats that suggests the latter, a plan that has been in the works since at least 2009.

Titled “A/S Gordon’s meeting with policy makers in Paris,” the cable summarizes a Sept. 16, 2009 get-together between Philip Gordon, then assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and French diplomats Jean-David Levitte, Damien Loras, and Francois Richier. Gordon is currently a special assistant to President Obama on the Middle East.

While the bulk of the cable covers an exchange of views concerning Iran, the second to last item is entitled “NATO’s enlargement and strategic concept.” At this point Levitte, former French ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2007, interjects that “[French] President [Nicholas] Sarkozy was ‘convinced’ that Ukraine would one day be a member of NATO, but that there was no point in rushing the process and antagonizing Russia, particularly if the Ukrainian public was largely against membership.” Gordon goes on to paraphrase Levitte’s opinion that, “the Bucharest summit declaration was very clear that NATO had an open door and Ukraine and Georgia have a vocation in NATO.”

Levitte is currently a fellow at the conservative Brookings Institute.

At the April 2008 NATO summit in Romania, Croatia and Albania were asked to join—they did so in 2009—and postponed a decision concerning Georgia and Ukraine until December 2008. But in August, Georgian forces attacked the breakaway province of South Ossetia—possibly under the delusion that NATO would come to their aid—setting off a short and disastrous war with Russia. The vote on Georgia and Ukraine was shelved both by that war and a Gallup Poll indicating that 40 percent of Ukrainians considered NATO a threat, while only 17 percent had a favorable view of the alliance.

The move by NATO to extend the alliance to the Russian border is a controversial one that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a February 1990 agreement between then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany.

The issue at the time was Germany and NATO. Under the treaty ending World War II, the Soviets had a right to keep troops in Eastern Germany. The U.S. and the Germans were trying to negotiate a reunion of the two Germanys that would remove the 380,000 Soviet troops in the East, while maintaining U.S. and NATO forces in the West.

The Russians were willing to exit their troops, but only if U.S. and NATO forces did not fill the vacuum. On Feb. 9, Gorbachev told Baker “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” Baker assured him that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward.”

The Baker-Gorbachev meeting was followed the next day by a meeting between Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who assured the Soviet leader that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. And, in a parallel meeting between West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Genscher told Shevardnadze “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand to the East.”

But none of the assurances were put in writing and, as the Soviet Union began to implode, the agreement was ignored and NATO forces moved into the old East Germany. Despite Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s complaint that NATO’s eastward march “violated the spirit” of the agreement, Russia was in no position to do anything about it.

As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, the decision to expand NATO was considered to be “recklessly provocative” by a number of foreign policy experts. “As eminent Cold War historian John Lewis wrote, “Historians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-considered, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”

But with Russia severely weakened, Cold War triumphalism took over: President Bill Clinton took NATO to war in Yugoslavia in 1995, and put troops into Bosnia. By 1997 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, followed in 2004 by seven Soviet bloc countries, including former Soviet republics Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” was expanded to include the former Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The recent “bailout” offer to Ukraine by the European Union contained a clause that would have tied Kiev to the EU’s military organization.

In short, Russians feel like they are surrounded by hostile forces, a fact critics of Moscow’s moves in the Crimea should keep in mind.

The danger of pushing a military alliance up to the borders of a potential adversary was made clear this week when NATO began deploying forces in the Baltics and Poland, and the U.S. sent a guided missile destroyer into the Black Sea.

The Pentagon announced it was sending F-16 fighter-bombers and F-15 fighters to Poland and the Baltic States, as well as C-130 transport planes and RC-135 aerial tankers. In the case of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, this will result in an increase in NATO forces on Russia’s northern border.

The USS Truxtun is an Arleigh Burke class destroyer armed with cruise missiles and anti-ship Harpoon missiles. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. According to the U.S. Navy, the Truxtun’s mission has nothing to do with the crisis in the Ukraine but is simply carrying out joint maneuvers with the tiny Romanian and Bulgarian navies.

It is unlikely that the USS Truxtun will go looking for trouble or that the F-15s and F-16s will play chicken with Russian MIGs and Sukhois, but mistakes happen, particularly when tensions are high. It is exactly the current situation that Gorbachev was trying to avoid back in 1990, and why NATO’s relentless march east puts more than the Ukraine in harm’s way.

—30—

7 Comments

Filed under Europe, Military

Ukraine Revolt’s Dark Side

Ukraine Revolt’s Dark Side

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Mar. 2, 2014

“The April 6 rally in Cherskasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom.”

–Jewish Telegraphic Agency,

April 12, 2013

While most of the Western media describes the current crisis in the Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.

“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-rightwing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.

And that even the demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration, “ admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”

And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported Feb. 26 that Svoboda Party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Supplies, and Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources.

Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovitch, the Party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of the Regions’ Yanukovitch. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.

Svoboda –which currently has 36 deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April, 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for the western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”

The Waffen SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party, and while serving along side the regular army, or Wehrmacht, the Party controlled the SS’s 38-plus divisions. While all Nazi forces took part in massacres and atrocities, the Waffen SS did so with particular efficiency. The post-war Nuremberg trials designated it a “criminal organization.”

Svoboda has always had a soft spot for the Galicia Division and one of its parliament members, Oleg Pankevich, took part in a ceremony last April honoring the unit. Pankevich joined with a priest of Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Lviv to celebrate the unit’s 70th anniversary and re-bury some of the Division’s dead.

“I was horrified to see photographs…of young Ukrainians wearing the dreaded SS uniform with swastikas clearly visible on their helmets as they carried caskets of members of this Nazi unit, lowered them into the ground, and fired gun salutes in their honor,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder wrote in a letter to the Patriarch of the Ukrainian church. He asked Patriarch Filret to “prevent any further rehabilitation of Nazism or the SS.”

Some 800,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine during the German occupation, many of them by Ukrainian auxiliaries and units like the Galicia Division.

Three months after the April ceremony, Ukrainians re-enacted the battle of Brody between the Galicia Division and Soviet troops, where the German XIII Army Corps was trying to hold off the Russians commanded by Marshall Ivan Konev. In general, going up against Konev meant a quick trip to Valhalla. In six days of fighting the Galicians lost two-thirds of their division and XIII Corps was sent reeling back to Poland. The Galicia Division survivors were shipped off to fight anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia. In 1945 remnants of the unit surrendered to the Americans in Italy, and in 1947 many of them were allowed to emigrate to Britain and Canada.

The U.S. press has downplayed the role of Svoboda, and even more far right groups like Right Sector and Common Cause, but Britain’s Channel 4 News reports that such quasi-fascist groups “played a leading role” in organizing the demonstrations and keeping them going.

In the intercepted phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, the two were, as Russian expert Stephen Cohen put it to Democracy Now, “plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of the Ukraine.”

At one point Nuland endorses “Yat” as the head of a new government, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, who indeed is now acting Prime Minister. But she goes on to say that Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok should be kept “on the outside.”

Her plan to sideline Tyahnybok as a post-coup player, however, may be wishful thinking given the importance of the Party in the demonstrations.

Tyahnybok is an anti-Semite who says “organized Jewry” controls the Ukraine’s media and government, and is planning “genocide” against Christians. He has turned Svoboda into the fourth largest party in the country, and, this past December, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Tyahnybok at a rally in Kiev.

Svoboda has links with other ultra-right parties in Europe through the Alliance of European National Movements. Founded in 2009 in Budapest, the Alliance includes Svoboda, Hungary’s violently racist Jobbik, the British National Party, Italy’s Tricolor Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats, and Belgium’s National Front. The Party also has close ties to France’s xenophobic National Front. The Front’s anti-Semitic leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was honored at Svoboda’s 2004 congress.

Svoboda would stop immigration and reserve civil service jobs for “ethnic Ukrainians.” It would end abortion, gun control, “ban the Communist Ideology,” and list religious affiliation and ethnicity on identity documents. It claims as its mentor the Nazi-collaborator Stephan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred Jews and Poles during World war II. The Party’s demand that all official business be conducted in Ukrainian was recently endorsed by the parliament, disenfranchising 30 percent of the country’s population that speaks Russian. Russian speakers are generally concentrated in the Ukraine’s east and south, and particularly in the Crimean Peninsula.

The U.S. and the EU have hailed the resignation of President Yanukovych and the triumph of “people power” over the elected government—Ambassador Pyatt called it “a day for the history books”—but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Prior to the deployment of Russian troops this past week anti-coup, pro-Russian crowds massed in the streets in the Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and seized government buildings. While there was little support for the ousted president—who most Ukrainians believe is corrupt—there was deep anger at the de-recognition of the Russian language and contempt for what many said were “fascists” in Kiev and Lviv.

Until 1954 the Crimea was always part of Russia until, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons, it was made part of the Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was one of 15 Soviet republics.

The Ukraine is in deep economic trouble, and for the past year the government has been casting about for a way out. Bailout negotiations were opened with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU), but the loan would have required onerous austerity measures that, according to Citibank analyst Ivan Tchakarov, would “most probably mean a recession in 2014.”

It was at this juncture that Yanukovych abandoned talks with the EU and opened negotiations with the Russians. That turn around was the spark for last November’s demonstrations.

But as Ben Aris, editor of Business News Europe, says “Under the terms of the EU offer of last year—which virtually nobody in the Western media has seriously examined—the EU was offering $160 million per year for the next five years, while just the bond payments to the IMF were greater than that.”

Russia, however, “offered $15 billion in cash and immediately paid $3 billion…Had Yanukovych accepted the EU deal, the country would have collapsed,” says Aris.

The current situation is dangerous precisely because it touches a Russian security nerve. The Soviet Union lost some 25 to 27 million people in World War II, and Russians to this day are touchy about their borders. They also know who inflicted those casualties, and those who celebrate a Waffen SS division are not likely to be well thought of in the south or the east.

Border security is hardly ancient history for the Kremlin. As Russian expert Cohen points out, “Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, beginning with the expansion of NATO…all the way to the Russian border.”

NATO now includes Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, and former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact members Albania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comment that the IMF-EU package for the Ukraine would have been “a major boost for Euro-Atlantic security” suggests that NATO had set its sights on bringing the Ukraine into the military alliance.

The massive demonstrations over the past three months reflected widespread outrage at the corruption of the Yanukovych regime, but it has also unleashed a dark side of the Ukraine’s history.  That dark side was on display at last year’s rally in Cherkasey. Victor Smal, a lawyer and human rights activist, said he told “the men in the T-shirts they were promoting hatred. They beat me to the ground until I lost consciousness.”

Svoboda and its allies do not make up a majority of the demonstrators, but as Cohen points out, “Five percent of a population that’s tough, resolute, ruthless, armed, and well funded, and knows what it wants, can make history.”

It is not the kind of history most would like to repeat.

 

—30—

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

Letter From Sofia: Old Tanks and Modern Mayhem

Letter From Sofia: Old Tanks & Modern Mayhem

Dispatches From The edge

Oct. 15, 2013

Sofia, Bulgaria

The military museum in this sprawling capitol city consists of a tiny building and a huge outdoor display of weapons that look as if they had been wheeled in fresh from the battlefields and parked, higgledy piggledy: mountain howitzers that shelled Turks in 1912 rub hubs with Cold War era Russian artillery.  MIGs, dusty and weather beaten, crowd a sinister looking Luna-M “Frog” tactical nuclear missile.  Two old enemies, a sleek German Mark IV Panzer and its dumpy, but more lethal adversary, a Russian T-34, squat shoulder to shoulder.

Poor Bulgaria. The Russians won’t be back, but once again the Germans are headed their way, only this time armed with nothing more than a change of currency and the policies of austerity that go along with it. The devastation those will inflict, however, is likely to be considerable.

Bulgaria is preparing to jettison its own, the lev, and adopt the Euro, the currency of the European Union (EU), although the country has dragged its heels about actually making the switch. With good reason. Currency control is a practical and commonsense way for countries to deal with interest rates, debt, and inflation, as well as to stimulate economic activity. The U.S. Federal Reserve constantly manipulates the dollar to accomplish these goals.

But the Euro is controlled by the European Central Bank based in Frankfort, Germany. Because Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and is at the center of a “core” of wealthy nations that also use the Euro—France, Austria, and the Netherlands—Berlin largely calls the shots. That has translated into a tight-fisted control of the money supply, an aversion to economic stimulation, and years of enforced austerity for countries trying to recover from the 2007 economic crisis sparked by the U.S..

The result, according to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, is that in addition to Mercedes and BMWs, Germany “exports bankruptcy and unemployment.”

Hardest hit by these policies are the “distressed six”: Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, where draconian austerity policies have created soaring unemployment, devastating social services cutbacks, and widespread misery.

Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron—Britain retains its own currency, but has been an enthusiastic supporter of Germany, and has applied austerity to its own economy—the strategy has been an unmitigated disaster.

While supporters of this “slash and cut” approach to reviving the European economy claim their policies are a success—German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble says the world should “rejoice” at recent economic figures, and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne crows that critics of the strategy have been proven wrong—figures show a very different picture.

The overall EU jobless rate is 12 percent, although that figure is misleading because it varies so much by country, region, and cohort. Unemployment is 12 percent in Italy, 13.8 percent in Ireland, 16.5 percent in Portugal, 26.3 percent in Spain, and 27.9 percent in Greece. And even these figures make the jobless rate look sunnier than it is. Unemployment among Greek youth is 60 percent, and areas of southern Spain post numbers in excess of 70 percent. Indeed, an entire generation of young people across the continent is being cut out of the economic pie.

“It is true that unemployment figures have improved in recent times, but it is equally true that unemployment is at such a high level that any marginal improvement is irrelevant,” an Madrid-based economist for Exane BNP Paribas told the Financial Times. “Many people are no longer actively looking for jobs and long term unemployment already affects more than 50 percent of the total unemployed population.”

Figures also show that EU growth rates are essentially dead in the water, which means that it will be years before there is any real fall in the jobless rate. EU gross domestic product is 3 percent below pre-crisis levels and those figures go sharply south for the distressed six: down 7.5 percent for Spain, 7.6 percent for Portugal, 8.4 percent for Ireland, 8.8 percent for Italy, and 23.4 percent for Greece.

It is true that growth in Britain is up 2.2 percent, but that figure is over three years and remains 3.3 percent below pre-crisis levels. Moreover, the Office of Budget Responsibility projected back in 2010 that the economy would expand by 8.2 percent by 2013. Economists Oscar Jorda and Alan Taylor of the University of California at Davis estimate that austerity probably knocked about 3 percent off of the British growth rate.

The EU is turning into a house divided. A wealthy core that keep their economies on an even keel and unemployment rates relatively low—Austria and Germany have the lowest jobless rates in the EU at 5.2 and 5.3 percent, respectively—while the south and the periphery turn into low wage, high unemployment labor reservoirs. If “core” workers grumble at stagnant wages and reduced benefits, there are always Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and Portuguese willing to take their places.

What the distressed countries really need is a serious stimulus program to jump-start their economies by putting people back to work. But that is not something they are likely to get, especially given the outcome of the recent German elections, where Merkel’s Christian Democrats and her allies in the Bavarian Christian Social Union retained power. Merkel told a rally in Berlin, “Our European course will not change,”

and the Greek newspaper Ta Nea glumly called it a victory for the “Queen of austerity.”

In reality, the German election was less a vote for more austerity than a reflection of domestic concerns about stability. And, in any case, Merkel’s opponents actually won the election. Merkel and her allies control 311 seats in the Parliament, but the Greens, Social Democratic Party and Left Party won 329 seats. While the Greens and Social Democrats have acquiesced to some austerity policies, they are not as hard line as Merkel. If the Greens and the SDP could overcome their hostility to the Left Party—which took 64 seats, one more than the Greens—the center-left could form a government that could potentially alter the economic chemistry of the EU.

In the meantime, Bulgaria awaits its fate with an odd combination of clear sightedness and illusion.

Surveys show that most people think the Euro will cut their living standards and have a negative impact on the economy. Bulgaria is already in difficult straits, partly because when it joined the EU it lost its biggest customer, Russia, partly because it is small, and partly because it still suffers from a post-communist hangover. It is the poorest country in the EU.

Like many former communist bloc countries, when Bulgaria broke loose from the domination of Soviet Union in 1990, it went on a privatization tear that ended up largely gutting its industrial and agricultural base. It is now trying to claw back by reviving agriculture and building up the tourist industry.

But tourism is volatile, and Bulgaria appears to have over expanded, much as Spain did. The Black Sea coast south of Burgas is lined with high rises and gated communities, but many of them are dark when the sun goes down. There is a distinct feel of a real estate bubble.

The illusion is that Bulgarians support EU membership because they think it means the Union will bail them out of any future trouble, as it did Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. In fact, the Union did not bail out any of those countries; it rescued failed banks and financial institutions that had recklessly gambled away their assets on real estate speculations. These “loans” also required huge cutbacks in social services and massive layoffs of public workers.

When the bubble popped, it was taxpayers in those countries who ended up picking up the bill, including those incurred by “core” French, German, Dutch, Austrian and British banks.

In the coming war over “stimulus vs austerity” Bulgaria is unlikely to play a pivotal role, though conquerors have underestimated her in the past. The question is, will the country resign itself to second tier status in the EU, or will Bulgarians join with increasing numbers of Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese who are saying “enough”?

A good start toward turning things around would be to take up a call by Greece’s Syriza Party for a European debt summit similar to the 1953 London Debt Agreement, That pact allowed Germany to recover from World War II by cutting its debt by 50 percent and spreading payments out over 30 years.

The Mark IVs Panzers are museum pieces. These days the power to wreak destruction doesn’t depend on commanding armored divisions. All one needs to overrun Europe now are currency control, banks and obsequious politicians.

—30—

7 Comments

Filed under Europe

Italy’s Election: Lighting the Lamp

Italy’s Election: Lighting The Lamp

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 28, 2013

 

 

On the eve of the World War I the British diplomat Sir Edward Gray is purported to have said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.” In the wake of the recent Italian election one might reverse that phrase: after years of brutal austerity, collapsing economies, widespread unemployment and shredding of the social welfare net, Italians said “basta!” “Enough!”

 

And lamps are going on all over Europe.

 

Slovenians just turned out their conservative government and handed the reins to Alenta Bratusek, who compared austerity to “medieval medicine.” Tens of thousands of Bulgarian demonstrators forced their austerity-addicted government to resign. Support for the ruling parties of Spain and Portugal, which have overseen higher taxes and massive cutbacks, has dropped precipitously.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Democratic Union took a beating in local elections. France’s Socialist Party rode an anti-austerity program to victory, and the leftist Syriza Party in Greece is now the most popular in that country.

 

Nowhere in Europe, however, has the austerity policies of the “troika”—the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—taken such a thorough shellacking as in Italy. Prime Minister Mario Monte’s government of technocrats, who piled on regressive taxes, cut pensions, slashed jobs, and dismantled social programs, was crushed, while parties running on anti-austerity platforms swept the field.

 

It was an odd grouping that ran the table in Italy. The biggest vote getter was the center-left Democratic Party (29.5 %), followed by former Prime Minister’s Silvio Burlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom Party (29.1%).  The quirky Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppo Grillo, which ran on a five-point platform that included a jobs program and a halt to pension cuts, came in third (25.5 %). Fourth place went to the Monti’s Civic Choice (10.5%).

 

In spite of the political differences among the three top voter getters, all ran on anti-austerity programs of one variety or other. So while there is little common ground between Burlusconi, Democratic Party leader and former Communist Pier Luigi Bersani—most likely the next prime minister—and self-described “wildman” Grillo, all agreed that two years of austerity had done nothing but impoverish Italians and throttle whatever life remained in its fragile economy.

 

In Europe’s corridors of power, however, the judgment by the overwhelming majority of Italians that austerity had been tried and found wanting was greeted by an avalanche of outrage, ranging from characterizations of Italy—the third largest economy in the eurozone—as a country of “clowns” and “children” to a few outright threats should any other countries dare follow in their wake:

 

*“More than half of Italians voted for some form of populism,” complained the German newspaper Die Welt. “This amounts to an almost childlike refusal to acknowledge reality.”

 

  • German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble warned “the onus is now on political leaders in Italy to…do what the country needs, namely form a stable government that continues on the successful path of reform.” Germany’s former finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, remarked that he was “horrified that two clowns won the election,” referring to Brillo and Berlusconi.
  • “We should be serious when we discuss economic policy and not give in to immediate political or party considerations,” sniffed European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
  • Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the election was “a jump to nowhere with positive consequences for nobody.”
  • Moody’s Investors, which rates countries’ credit status, released a statement that the election “raised the risk that the structural reform movement achieved under the government of Mario Monte will stall, if not come to a complete standstill.”

 

The “successful path” and “reform” that the Monti government put into place has increased Italy’s unemployment rate to 11 percent—50% for youth—shuttered 100,000 small firms, the heart of the Italian economy, and driven a million university graduates out of the country. Growth is a negative 0.9 percent, and the country is facing it second recession in four years.

 

It is not just EU officials and the continent’s mainstream media that have closed ranks to scold Italian voters for not doing what the troika wanted them to do. The U.S. media has taken much the same slant on the election’s outcome, led by the New York Times.

 

A Times piece headlined “Inconclusive vote in Italy invites new wave of financial instability” uses phrases rarely seen outside the editorial pages: “political dysfunction,” “dashed hopes,” failure to form “a credible government,” and characterizing the anti-austerity outpouring as a “protest vote.”  It scolded “mass movements” for having “no patience for missteps or difficult reforms,” and lauded Monti as someone who had “been praised across Europe, for his steady hand and willingness to try to reform the economy.” More ominously it warned that should the Greeks have the audacity to elect a government led by the anti-austerity, leftist Syriza Party, “European leaders” would kick Greece “out of the euro.”

 

The “reforms” the Times refers to—sometimes preceded by the adjectives “difficult” or “painful”—are austerity measures from which the IMF has begun to distance itself.  A report released by the organization this past summer found that the lending organization had profoundly underestimated the negative impact that austerity programs would have on economies, particularly those in Europe. Indeed, the IMF’s chair, Christine Lagarde recently tried unsuccessfully to get the EU to moderate its austerity demands on Greece, and asked Germany to reduce the interest rate it was charging. The effort failed.

 

In a letter to the Financial Times, Emiliano Brancaccio, a professor at the University of Sannio, Italy, and Professor Guiesppe Fontana of Leeds University (UK) argued that the Italian election was “a democratic way to tell policy makers to change course.”  They go on to point out the IMF study and the finding that “countries that have imposed harsh economic measures have suffered deep economic recessions: the harsher the measures, the deeper the downturn,” and that austerity has increased debt ratios, not diminished them.

 

Those massive debts were not the result of profligate public spending—Italy and Spain had budget surpluses—but the product of bank-driven speculation that led to huge housing bubbles. When those bubbles collapsed, economies all over the continent tanked, and taxpayers were asked to bail out the financial institutions that sparked the crisis in the first place. It was this formula of a free pass for speculators and austerity for the average citizen that fueled the anger behind the Italian elections.

 

How those elections shakedown in the short run is unclear. The Five Star Party seems unwilling to join a coalition with the Democratic Party, in part because while the latter is considered center-left, it supported many of Monti’s policies. Berlusconi—well, the moniker “clown” is not far off the mark for him if one adds the word “evil” in front of it—is hardly someone with whom one would want to enter into a coalition, especially because it would include the openly racist, pro-fascist Northern League. In the end, it is possible that Italy will go back to the polls sometime in the coming year.

 

But the anti-austerity lamp is lit and putting it out will not be easy, because Italy is hardly alone.

 

“Portugal has entered a recessionary cycle that has no end in sight,” editorialized Lisbon’s leading newspaper Publico. “Social conditions are worsening and democracy is suffering…the program has failed and it has to be changed. Portugal’s economy is projected to shrink 2%, and unemployment is at 17.5%.

 

The IMF predicts that economic growth in the eurozone as a whole will fall 0.2% in 2013.

 

Even countries considered “stable”—read quiescent in the face of high unemployment, frozen economies and widening economic disparity—like Germany, Britain and the Netherlands are not immune from the spreading anger at the EU’s prescription for economic crisis.

 

Probably the clearest voice of Europe’s anti-austerity movement is Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza Part. “For our part” says Tsipras, “we are opposed to everlasting austerity as means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds. The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason why we have the crisis today…we predicted from the onset, well before the IMF admitted to its predictive failures, that austerity-based policies would backfire.”

 

The Greek economy will contract 4.5% in 2013, and the jobless rate is 27 percent, a staggering 62% for young people.

 

Tsipras concludes, “For us, economic policy ought to be inextricably linked to social policy with a view to look after the social needs of the people, of social justice, of intergenerational solidarity and of environmental balance.”

 

Most of Italy, and a growing number of Europeans, would agree.

 

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Europe

Horses and Horsepucky

 

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 21, 2013

As the Great Horsemeat Crisis continues to spread—“gallops” is the verb favored by the European press—across the continent, and countries pile on to blame Romania (France, Holland, Cyprus, etc.), what is becoming increasingly clear is that old-fashioned corporate greed, aided and abetted by politicians eager to gut “costly” regulations and industrial inspection regimes is behind the scandal.

In a sense it is fitting that the whole imbroglio began in Ireland, where inspectors in Ulster first indentified that hamburgers should have more properly been labeled “horsewiches.” The Emerald Isle has more horses than any country in Europe, and, according to the Financial Times, in 2007 Ireland produced 12,633 thoroughbred foals and has some 110,000 “sport” horses.

The year 2007 was just before the Irish real estate bubble imploded, bankrupting the nation and impoverishing millions. And the year the “Celtic Tiger” died was very bad news for horses. Thousands of the creatures were simply turned loose by their financially strapped owners, and the number of horses sent to slaughterhouses jumped from 2,000 in 2008 to 25,000 in 2012.

The Irish-horse connection goes back to when Celtic speaking people first burst out of Central Europe during the second century B.C.  Celtic cavalry and chariots—the Celts introduced the latter to Europe—were pretty formidable, as the Romans discovered on a number of occasions.

Horses have always been a high status item in Ireland, and during the colonial period the English figured out a devilishly clever way to take advantage of that. According to the Irish Penal Laws of 1692, no Catholic—the vast majority of native Irish were Roman Catholics—could own a horse worth more than five pounds. So the English would go into the countryside, select a thoroughbred, and force the breeder to sell them his horse for a pittance. Sometimes the “buyers” would then turn right around and re-sell the animal to its former owner for hundreds of pounds.

When the Irish first discovered horsemeat in the food chain, they claimed innocence and blamed the Poles. It turns out, however, that a small slaughterhouse in Tipperary was shipping horsemeat labeled as beef to the Czech Republic. The British blamed the Romanians, and Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Sun, took the opportunity to indulge in his favorite sport: ethnic bashing. A “grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU (European Union) cash” was the culprit, blared the largest (and sleaziest) tabloid in England.

The Romanians did indeed use EU cash to build a plant, but the slaughterhouse produced records showing that they had correctly identified the meat as horse. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta complained that Romania was routinely made the EU’s scapegoat.

Then the Swedes got into the act and blamed France, and it does appear it was the French company Spanghero that slipped “old Dobbin” into the food chain. Spanghero denied the charge and, in its defense, trotted out yet another animal: a weeping crocodile. “My first thought is for the employees,” said a choked up Laurent Spanghero at a press conference. “My second thought goes to our kids and grandkids that carry our name. We have always taught them the values of courage and loyalty and today we have been plunged into dishonor.”

Except, according to French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon, Spanghero could hardly have failed to notice that the meat it was importing from Romania was much cheaper than what the company normally paid for beef.  A kilo of horsemeat costs .66 cents, a kilo of beef, $3.95. According to Hamon, Spanghero made $733,800 substituting horsemeat for beef.

Then things got really murky.

The Netherlands said the Cyprus-based meat vendor Draap that sold the meat to Spanghold was responsible, and the company’s track record would suggest the Dutch had a point. In 2012 Draap was convicted of selling South American horsemeat labeled at German and Dutch beef.

But it turns out Draap—based in Cyprus but run by a trust in the British Virgin Islands—is owned by the company Guardstand, that in turn owns part of the arms dealing company, Ilex Ventures. According to prosecutors in New York, convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout owns Ilex Ventures. Guardstand’s sole shareholder, reports Jamie Doward of The Observer, is Trident Trust, which sets up companies in tax-free nations. Guardstand helped set up Ilex.

Sorting this out will be nigh on impossible, because tax havens like Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands are not about to give up their secrets, and the powerful corporations that shelter their ill-gotten gains there know how to keep inspectors at bay.

Hypocrisy has been in abundance during the Great Horsemeat Crisis.

Owen Paterson, the British environmental secretary who oversees food safety and a member of the Conservative Party, thundered in Parliament about an “international conspiracy.” However, the current Conservative-Liberal government has instituted cutbacks on inspections by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and turned enforcement over to some 330 local authorities.

“It is a shame that testing by the FSA has been reduced,” Dr. Chris Smart told the Guardian. “I am sure there will be other crises that come along in the next few years.” And given that UK food prices have risen nearly 26 percent that will surely be the case. Inspectors have already uncovered adulterated olive oil and paprika made from roof tiles.

At the heart of this are the continent-wide austerity programs that have driven up the ranks of the poor, requiring low-income families to rely on cheap meat or go without. “Why was horsemeat present in beef burgers?” asks Elizabeth Dowler, a professor of food and social policy at Warwick University,  “Because the price has to be kept as low as possible.” Horsemeat is one-fifth the price of beef, so the temptation is to either adulterate beef with horse, or sell it as cheap beef. “This has the most impact on those with low income and large numbers of children,” says Dowler. “People in this situation have no money to buy better quality burgers, or to go to a butcher and make their own mincemeat. Instead they depend on special 3-for-2 offers. The problem is linked to poverty.”

Horsemeat for some, beer and skittles for the likes of Spanghero.

But the real culprits in this crisis are the banks in Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain that ignited the economic crisis by artificially pumping up real estate bubbles. Up there in the docket with the bankers should be the politicians who shoved through development schemes, waved environmental regulations, and turned a blind eye to speculation. And when everything crashed, the taxpayers—the vast majority of whom never got in on the boom years—got stuck with the bill.

Poor Ireland. The EU enforced austerity scheme has raised the unemployment level to above 15 percent—30 percent for young people—and saddled homeowners with onerous tax and fee hikes. Wages have been cut, health care fees raised more, and welfare butchered. In spite of these “reforms,” the economy grew an anemic 0.9 percent in 2012, and is scheduled to rise to 1.5 percent in 2013, down from the 2.2 the government originally predicted.

And the Irish economy is actually much worse than the figures indicate, because much of the wealth Ireland currently creates goes into the coffers of huge multinationals attracted to the island’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate, the lowest in Europe. As the Economist points out, “The Irish people have fared much worse than the Irish economy.”

And the pain for the average Irish working person is due to get worse. The 2013 budget will cut spending $4.6 billion, increase taxes, and add yet more austerity in 2014 and 2015. All of this woe has drawn widespread praise from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, which suggests that if a bank praises you, it is time to reach for a barricade.

This is not just a European problem, because the trend toward cutting back on regulations and inspections is worldwide.  For instance, under pressure from the agricultural lobby, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has backed off trying to reduce the amount of antibiotics used on livestock.  According to a recent report by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, 80 percent of all the antibiotics manufactured in the U.S. are used on animals. The result is that antibiotic-resistant salmonella is spreading rapidly in chicken and turkey populations, and turning up in hospitals, clinics and gymnasiums.

Horsemeat is going to be the least of our problems.

 

—30—

1 Comment

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

Obama and Europe’s Meltdown

Four More Years: Europe’s Meltdown

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 6, 2013

This is the last of five articles analyzing the key issues the Obama administration faces over the next four years.

Back in the 1960s, the U.S. peace movement came up with a catchy phrase: “What if the schools got all the money they needed and the Navy had to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier?”  Well, the Italian Navy has a line of clothing, and is taking a cut from a soft drink called “Forza Blu” in order to make up for budget cuts. It plans to market energy snacks and mineral water.

Things are a little rocky in Europe these days.

Unemployment is over 25 percent in Greece, Spain and Portugal—and far higher among young people in those countries—and most economies are dead in the water, if not shrinking. Relentless austerity policies have shredded Europe’s traditional social compact with its citizens, fueled a wave of debt-related suicides in the continent’s hard-hit south—Greek suicide rates jumped 37 percent from 2009 to 2011—and locked much of the continent into a seemingly endless spiral: austerity means layoffs, fewer jobs equal less revenue, lower revenues leads to more austerity=the classic debt trap.

“The economic situation in Europe is moving from bad to catastrophic,” says Douglas McWilliams, chief executive for the Centre for Economic and Business Research. “There is a danger that economic problems will spill over into social breakdown.”

So why hasn’t the U.S. Treasury pressured lending agencies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to shift from austerity formulas to stimulation policies? Why is the Obama administration pressing Europeans to increase military spending? And what should it matter to Washington if Britain remains in the European Union (EU)?

It is not just that Europe is in crisis, it is that, as one Portuguese pensioner told Reuters, “We see no light at the end of the tunnel, just more pain and difficulties.” In November the European Commission reported that unemployment on the continent—now in excess of 25 million people—would continue to rise. “The economic outlook is bleak and has worsened in recent months and is not expected to improve in 2013,” the Commission found. “The EU is currently the only major region in the world where unemployment is still rising.”

A UN report predicts that Europe will not recover the jobs lost in the 2008 financial crisis until at least 2017. One EU study found that the crisis threatens to turn the 94 million Europeans between ages 15 and 29 into a “lost generation.”

All this translates into a level of economic misery that Europeans have not seen in more than 80 years. Indeed, Standard & Poor says Greece’s meltdown is worse in “duration and scale” than Germany’s was during the 1930s. The aid agency Oxfam reports that if the Madrid government’s current austerity policies continue, the percentage of people below the poverty line in Spain could rise from 27 percent to 40 percent. United Kingdom Chancellor George Osborne says he expects his country’s austerity program to continue until 2018.

The pain is so intense that it has helped fuel credible regional secession movements in Spain, Belgium, and Scotland.

But the push for yet greater austerity has less to do with a deep concern by Europe’s elites over debt—it is high but manageable—than as part of a stealth campaign aimed at dismantling rules and regulations that protect worker rights, unions, and the environment.

“We are seeing some worrying signs of anti-business rhetoric among some of Europe’s leaders and believe that this is not a productive and collaborate approach to take,” DuPont’s head man for Europe, the Middle East and Africa told the Financial Times. “Business and government need to collaborate to face the challenges of the future.”

The “anti-business rhetoric” comes mainly from workers—and increasingly members of the middle class—desperate to hold on to jobs and a living wage. Ford, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, Citibank and Japan’s Nomura Bank have cut jobs, increasingly moving their operations to “developing countries,” that is, those with weak unions and/or authoritarian governments. While U.S. executives increased their investments in Europe by only 3 percent, they have amped up those in the “developing world” by 25 percent.

In short, corporations are saying to Europeans, give up your working conditions, wages, and benefits, or we export your jobs.

Workers have not taken this employer offensive lying down. There have been strikes and walkouts from Spain to the Czech Republic, and austerity adherents have suffered ballot box reversals. Chancellor Angela Merkel—the queen of harsh economic policies—took a beating in the last round of German state elections.

The Obama administration could help halt Europe’s plunge from first world to second world status, but is has been largely silent on the austerity/debt formula. For instance, last summer an IMF study indicated that endless austerity would not only tank economies across the continent, but also increase the debt problem. However, that study has yet to be translated into policy, even though the fund’s current managing director, Christine Legarde, was the White House’s candidate for the post.

Much the same could be said for the World Bank. The U.S. nominated its current American president, Jim Yong Kim of Dartmouth College.  Rather than stepping back from austerity programs, however, he recently warned developing nations not to use economic stimulus to improve their economies, because it would raise “indebtedness and inflation.”

So, while the U.S. Treasury Department has issued a few mild dissents about the efficacy of austerity programs, the two major economic organizations that the U.S. dominates have held the course—straight for the iceberg.

One thing the White House could do is endorse the call by Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek Syriza Party, for a European summit on the debt. Tsipras proposes that such a gathering could do what the 1953 London Debt Agreement did to help post –war Germany recover: cut the debt by 50 percent and spread payments over 30 years.

A major concern for Washington is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), originally created in 1949 to deal with a supposed threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe. Recent archive research demonstrates that the Soviets never even had such a plan on paper. The hordes of Red armor pouring through the Fulda Gap was a construct of the Cold War, little more than a rationale for maintaining significant U.S. military forces on the continent.

But NATO’s role shifted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Violating a pledge not to push NATO eastwards, the alliance vacuumed up former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now two countries), and Albania, and added Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. There are currently 28 members of NATO, including the U.S, and Canada.

While NATO intervened in the 1995 Bosnia-Herzegovina war, it was not until the 1999 war with Yugoslavia that the alliance shifted from defense to offense. But the war against Serbia was still “in country,” so to speak, because Yugoslavia is part of Europe. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed all that. While it was the U.S. and Britain that initially invaded Afghanistan, within two years some 50,000 NATO troops were serving in the war, and NATO graduated from a regional formation to an international military alliance.

Its most recent “out of area” operation was Libya, where NATO’s airpower, weapons, and Special Forces overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. NATO is currently involved in the Syrian war, but so far only to deploy missiles in Turkey and support the insurgents with money, supplies and intelligence. Direct intervention is a possibility, but the muddled nature of the opposition to the Assad regime apparently gives some in the alliance pause. Libya’s current status as a failed state, and the wash-over of that war into the current crisis in Mali, is on everyone’s mind.

The U.S. has long pushed for NATO to become a global alliance that could deal with unrest in Africa, instability in the Middle East and tensions in South Asia and the Pacific. But the Afghanistan experience was a wrenching one for NATO. Rather than a quick war and some feel-good nation building, the war has turned into a quagmire. Member by member, NATO has bailed out in the last three years, and the war is extremely unpopular on the European home front.

But Europeans are not the only people turning away from foreign engagements. The Afghan War is also deeply unpopular in the U.S., which creates a problem, because military power—its actual use or threat of it—has been central to American foreign policy since the 1846 Mexican War. Besides Afghanistan, the U.S. is currently fighting wars in Yemen and Somalia, aiding the French in Mali, chasing after the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, setting up drone bases in North Africa, and increasing its military footprint in Asia and Latin America. The U.S. is also contemplating attacking Iran over its nuclear program.

But while the U.S. economy is currently stronger than Europe’s, spending vast amounts of money on foreign wars is not popular. Having someone to share the bills with—financial and political—is central to strategy. That, in part, explains why the Obama administration has come down so hard on Britain’s Conservative-Liberal government’s plan for a referendum that could see London exit the EU. Britain is one of NATO’s heavy hitters and anything that might weaken that alliance is frowned upon in Washington.

The fact is that the U.S. needs NATO, because it no longer has the resources to go it alone.  That is why the Obama administration is leaning hard on NATO members to step up their military spending, hardly a popular request when the continent is on the ropes financially. The U.S. currently pays about 75 percent of NATO’s bills and would like to see other countries take on more of that burden. It will be a hard sell. Italy, for instance, is cutting 33,000 troops and 30 percent of its senior staff over the next decade. Britain’s Conservatives are finding their plan to spend $36.3 billion on a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines an uphill battle.

The current NATO plan to install anti-missile systems in Romania, Poland, and Turkey is ill-considered and unnecessarily annoys Russia. While the Obama administration was initially skeptical of anti-missile systems—they are expensive, don’t work, and accelerate the arms race—the White House now endorses the deployment. As a result, the Russians are modernizing their missile forces and have halted talks over arms control on the continent. Since Iran has neither the warheads nor the missiles to threaten Europe, one can hardly blame the Russians for assuming the NATO ABM system is aimed at them.

The Obama administration should revitalize the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the Bush Administration dumped and stop the deployment of destabilizing and provocative ABM systems in Europe (and Asia as well).

NATO is an artifact of the Cold War and long since past retirement. It is also dangerous: if you build an alliance you will eventually use it. The debacle of the Afghan War and the chaos that the Libyan war has unleashed on Africa is a warning that the use of military power is increasingly outdated. It also drains valuable resources better used to confront the economic and environmental challenges the world faces.

—30—

11 Comments

Filed under Europe, Military

2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

2012: “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 30, 2012

 

Every year Dispatches From The edge gives awards to news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2012.

Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ‘em.   Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

Baron Gilbert went on to gild the lily: “I am absolutely delighted that nuclear weapons were invented when they were and I am delighted that, with our help, it was the Americans who invented them.” The residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Runner up in this category is the Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman for researching the use of nuclear powered drones that would allow un-piloted aircraft to stay aloft for months at a time.  Nuclear-powered drones, like the Reaper and the Predator, would not only be able to fly longer and further, the aircrafts could carry a greater number of weapons.

This comes at a time when the Obama administration has approved the use of drones in the U.S. by states and private companies. “It’s a pretty terrifying prospect,” Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK told The Guardian. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot.” Iran recently claimed to have brought down a U.S.  Scan Eagle drone and to have fired on a Predator. Last year Iran successfully captured a CIA-operated Sentinel drone.

Pandora’s Box Award goes to the U.S. and Israel for unleashing cyber war on the world by attacking Iran’s nuclear industry. The Stuxnet virus—designed by both countries—successfully damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and the newly discovered Flame virus has apparently been siphoning data from Iranian computers for years.

But the “malware” got out of Iran—what do these people not understand about the word “virus”? —and, in the case of Stuxnet, infected 50,000 computers around the world. Two other related malware are called Mini-Flame and Gauss.

Iran retaliated this past summer, unleashing a virus called “Shamoon” to crash 30,000 computers in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Saudi Arabia provides 10 percent of the world’s oil needs.

A Russian anti-virus specialist recently told computer expert Misha Glenny that cyber weapons “are a very bad idea,” and his message was: “Stop doing this before it is too late.”

The Golden Lemon Award has three winners this year, the F-35 “Lightning” fighter, the F-22 “Raptor” fighter, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The F-35 and F-22 are repeat winners from last year’s awards (it is not easy to cost a lot of money and not work, year after year, so special kudos to the aircraft’s manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman).

At $395.7 billion, the F-35 is now the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, and the costs are still rising. It has constant problems with its engine,  “unexplained” hot spots on the fuselage, and software that doesn’t function properly. Because the cost of the plane has risen 70 percent since 2001, some of our allies are beginning to back away from previous commitments to purchase the aircraft. Canadians had some sticker shock when it turned out that the price tag for buying and operating the F-35 would be $45.8 billion. Steep price rises (and mechanical problems) have forced Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia to re-think buying the plane as well. If that happens, the price of the F-35 will rise even higher, since Lockheed Martin was counting on U.S. allies to buy at least 700 F-35s as a way to lower per-unit costs. The U.S. is scheduled to purchase 2,457 F-35s at $107 million apiece (not counting weapons). The plane coast $35,200 per hour to fly.

The F-22—at $143 million a pop—has a major problem: the pilots can’t breathe. When your traveling 1500 MPH at 50,000 plus feet, that’s a problem, as Capt. Jeff Haney found out in November 2010 over the Alaskan tundra. The Air Force had to wait until the spring thaw to recover his body. Since then scores of pilots have reported suffering from hypoxia and two of them recently refused to fly the aircraft. The breathing problems did not stop U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from deploying two-dozen F-22s to Japan, although the planes are restricted to lower altitudes and have to stay no more than an hour and a half from land. That will require the pilots to fly to Alaska, and then hop across the Pacific via the Aleutian Islands to get to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The cost of operating an F-22 is $128,389 a flying hour. In comparison, the average income for a minimum wage worker in the U.S. is $15,080 a year, the medium yearly wage is $26,364, and average yearly household income is $46,326. Dispatches suggests paddling the planes to Japan and raising the minimum wage.

The LCS is a very fancy, shallow water warship with lots of bells and whistles (at $700 million apiece it ought to have a few of those) with one little problem: “It is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” according to one Pentagon weapon’s tester. Since combat is generally “hostile” that does restrict what the ship can do. And given that cracks and leaks in the hulls are showing up, it might not be prudent to put them in the water. So while it may not work as a traditional ship—floating, that is—according to the LCS’s major booster in the Congress, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala) “It’s going to scare hell out of folks.”

Particularly the ones who serve on it.

The LCS was originally designed to fight Iranian attack boats, but the feeling now is that it would lose in such encounters. But all is not lost. According to Joseph Rella, president of Austal USA, the company in Alabama that builds the LCS, “If I was a pirate in a little boat, I’d be scared to death.” Dispatches suggests that rubber “wolf man” masks would accomplish the same thing for considerably less money.

The Golden Sow’s Ear Award to U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky) for successfully lobbying the Pentagon to buy an oil drip pan for the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter for $17,000 a throw. The manufacturer, Phoenix Products, is a major contributor to Rogers’ campaigns. A similar product made by VX Aerospace costs $2,500 apiece. But Phoenix does have a strong streak of patriotism: The oil drip pans are discounted from the $19,000 retail price.

The Misplaced Priorities Award to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party for shelling out $28 million to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812—including $6.3 million in television ads—while cutting $5.2 billion from the national budget and eliminating 19,200 federal jobs. The cuts have fallen particularly hard on national parks and historic sites.

Canada was not Canada in 1812, and the war was between the U.S. and the British Empire. Canada did not become a country until 1867.

The Queen of Hearts Award also goes to Harper and his Conservatives for “streamlining” the process of approving new oil and gas pipelines and limiting public comment. “Limiting” includes threats to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that protest the pipelines and unleashing Canada’s homeland security department, Public Safety Canada (PSC), on opponents. The PSC considers environmentalists potential terrorists and lumps them in the same category as racist organizations. Dispatches suggests that Harper and Co. study the works of Lewis Carroll on how to sentence first, try later. Saves time and money.

The Chernobyl Award to the Japanese construction company BuildUp, hired by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant that melted down in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami. A government report found that TEPCO did not issue radiation detectors to most of its workers even though it had hundreds of dosimeters on hand. BuildUp admitted that it had workers put lead plates over the detectors to avoid violating safety thresh holds.

Teruso Sagara of BuildUp said the company only had their employees’ best interests in mind and thought that “we could bring peace of mind to the workers if we could somehow delay their dosimeters’ alarms going off.”

The report also cited the government for refusing to use computer projections on fallout from the crippled plant. In one case, two communities were directed into the middle of the radioactive plume.

The Chicken Little Award to the British government and the International Olympic Committee for approaching the 2012 London Olympics in much the same way the allies did the beaches at Normandy in 1944.  The government deployed 13,500 ground troops, 20,000 private guards, plus the Royal Navy’s largest warship, along with armed helicopters, armored personnel carriers and Starstreak and Rapier anti-aircraft missiles.

According to Linden Empson, Dispatches intrepid reporter on the scene, the announcement that surface-to-air missiles were going to installed on six housing projects in the city were “delivered via a pizza company.” She suggested that was both “terrifying and hysterically funny.” One resident of Fred Wigg Tower told the New York Times that the leaflets “looked like one of those things where you get free pizza though the post, but this was like free missiles.”

The local residents were not amused and sued to stop the deployment. “Is the government seriously suggesting the answer to potential airborne threat is to detonate it over the city?” a former Royal Artillery officer wrote in a letter to The Guardian. The court eventually ruled against the residents.

The cost of all this security is close to $900 million at a time when the Conservative-Liberal government is slashing social welfare programs, education, and health care.

The Selective Reporting Award to the Los Angeles Times for reporting that the Assad regime was using cluster bombs, which “have been banned by most nations.” The newspaper pointed out that more than 100 countries had signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but that Syria did not.

Quite true. What went unmentioned was that neither did the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, the weapons “caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.” The U.S. also used clusters in Afghanistan. American cluster weapons still take a steady toll of people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. All of those cluster weapons were made in the USA.

The most egregious use of clusters in the last decade was by Israel, which spread four million submunitions in Lebanon during its 2006 invasion of that country. According to the UN, one million of those “duds” remain unexploded.

But the U.S. also uses the weapon on many occasions. In 2009, President Obama ordered a cluster strike in Yemen that ended up killing 44 people, including 14 women and 21 children. And the White House, according to The Independent, “is taking the leading role “to torpedo the global ban on clusters.” The administration argues that clusters manufactured after 1980 have less than a 1 percent failure rate, but anti-cluster activists say that is not the case. The widely used BLU-97, for instance, has a failure rate of 30 percent.

According to Handicap International, 98 percent of the casualties inflicted by clusters are civilians, 27 percent of those children.

 

 

—30—

134 Comments

Filed under Asia, Europe, FPIF Blogs, Iran, Israel, Middle East, Military, Pacific, Syria, Year Awards

Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Turkey Haunted by Hubris

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Nov. 1, 2012

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply.

What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with Illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause.

If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

Population-wise, the two countries are among the largest in the region, and both have industrial bases in an area of the world where industry was actively discouraged by a century of colonial overlords (the Turks among them). Ankara recently offered $2 billion in aid to cash-strapped Egypt, and both countries have moderate Islamic governments. Cairo and Ankara have also supported the overthrow of the Assad regime.

“Apparently now Egypt is Turkey’s closest partner in the Middle East,” Gamel Soltan of American University in Cairo told the New York Times. But while Egypt was once the Ottoman’s wealthiest provinces, 2012 is not the world of sultans and pashas, and, in this case, old memories may well be a trap.

Egypt is deeply mired in poverty and inequality. Indeed, it was as much the economic crisis gripping the region as issues of democracy and freedom that filled Tahrir Square. Cairo is in serious debt and preparing a round of austerity measures that will sharpen that inequality. The government of President Mohamed Morsi announced it will slice gas subsidies, which will fall particularly hard on the poor, especially given a jobless rate of over 12 percent and youth unemployment running at more than double that.

At first glance, both governments have a lot in common, particularly because Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are considered “moderately” Islamic. But many in the Brotherhood consider the AKP and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan far too “moderate”—in Turkey it is still illegal to wear a head scarf if you run for public office or work in a government office.   While the West considers Morsi’s and Erdogan’s government “Islamic,” some of the jihadists groups Cairo and Ankara are aiding in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria consider the Egyptian and Turkish government little more than non-believers or apostates.  As Middle East expert Robert Fisk puts it, the jihadists are a scorpion that might, in the end, sting them both, much as the Taliban has done to its Pakistani sponsors.

Turkey apparently hopes to construct a triangle among Ankara, Cairo, and the wealthy oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (Jordan and Morocco, two other monarchies, have been asked to join). The combination of population, industry, and wealth, goes the thinking, would allow that alliance to dominate the region.

The Council does have enormous wealth at its disposal, but how stable are autocratic monarchies in the wave of the democratic aspirations raised by the Arab Spring? Bahrain’s king rules through the force of the Saudi Army. Saudi Arabia itself is struggling to provide jobs and housing for its growing population, while weighed down by inequality, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and a restive Shia minority in its eastern provinces. Jordan’s monarch is wrestling with an economic crisis and a political opposition that is pressuring king Abdullah II for a constitutional monarchy.

How this new alliance will affect the Palestinians is not clear. Turkey had a falling out with Israel in 2009, and Egypt and Qatar have been sharply critical of Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Palestinians. So far, however, it appears the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza will benefit more than the secular Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.

With the exception of Bahrain, all the countries involved have large Sunni majorities that, at first glance, would put them on the same page religiously. But most the Gulf monarchs are aligned with radical Islamic groups, some of which have morphed into al-Qaeda-like organizations that have destabilized countries from Pakistan to Iraq. On occasion, these groups have turned on their benefactors, as Osama bin Laden did on Saudi Arabia.

Such Islamic groups are increasingly active in the Syrian civil war, where Turkey finds itself in a very similar role to the one played by Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war. Some of the groups Pakistan nurtured during those years have now turned on their patrons. Will Turkey become the next Pakistan? In an interview with the Financial Times, one Syrian insurgent said that many of the rebels were stockpiling ammunition for “after the revolution.”

Bulent Alizira of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times that Turkey is in danger of becoming “like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”

And why would the Erdogan government pick a fight with Russia? Russia is a major trading partner, and Turkey is keen on establishing good relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded by Russia and China in 2001. The organization includes most of the countries in Central Asia, plus observers from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The SCO accounts for 75 percent of the world’s energy resources and population, and coordinates everything from trade to oil and gas pipelines. Why would Ankara irritate one of the major players in the SCO?

Might it be pique at Moscow for blocking more aggressive measures by the UN Security Council to intervene in the Syrian civil war?  Russia, along with China, has consistently called for a political resolution to the Syria crisis, while Turkey has pursued a strategy of forcible regime change.  Erdogan has a reputation for arrogance and letting his temper get the best of him.

“His personal ambitions and overweening certainties may be eclipsing his judgment,” Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation told UPI, “and affecting Turkish interests.” Abramowitz served in the Carter and Reagan administrations and was appointed ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. He is also a director at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Relations between Turkey and Iran have also cooled, in part because of the U.S. anti-missile system, but also because Ankara is trying to overthrow one of Iran’s few allies in the region. In any case, backing Sunni jihadists against the Alawite Assad regime is hardly going to go down well in Shia Iran, or for that matter, in Shia Iraq. The Alawites are a branch of Shism.

Why, too would Turkey alienate major trading partners like Iran and Iraq? It is possible that the wealthy monarchies of the Gulf—who are anti-Shia and view Iran as their greatest threat— made Ankara an offer it can’t refuse. Whether the monarchies can deliver in the long run is another matter.

In the meantime, the Syrian war has unleashed the furies.

*Car bombs have made their appearance one again in Lebanon.

*The Kurds have bloodied the Turkish Army.

*Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Syria, and the fighting inside the country is escalating.

*Anti-aircraft missiles—the Russian SAM-7, or Strela, most likely “liberated” during the Libya war—have made an appearance. The hand-fired missiles may indeed discomfort Syrian aircraft, but if they get into the hands of the Kurds, Turkish helicopters will be in trouble as well, as will any number of other air forces, from Lebanon to Jordan. A Strela was fired at an Israeli aircraft in the Gaza Strip Oct. 16.

Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war finds little resonance among average Turks. Some 56 percent disagree with the policy, and 66 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the country.

“We are at a very critical juncture,” journalist Melih Asik told the New York Times. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China. Behind us we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the US.”

Four years ago Turkey set out to build strong ties with other countries in the region—“zero problems with the neighbors”—and decrease its dependence on the US. Today those policy goals are in shambles. But that is where illusion and hubris lead.

—30—

7 Comments

Filed under Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Syria

Syria & The Phantom

Syria & The Phantom

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

June 26, 2012

What was that Turkish F-4 Phantom II up to when the Syrians shot it down?

Ankara said the plane strayed into Syrian airspace, but quickly left and was over international waters when it was attacked, a simple case of carelessness on the part of the Turkish pilot that Syrian paranoia turned deadly.

But the Phantom—eyewitnesses told Turkish television that there were two aircraft, but there is no official confirmation of that observation—was hardly on a Sunday outing. According to the Financial Times, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the newspaper “the jet was on a test and training mission focused on Turkey’s radar defense, rather than Syria.”

Translation: the F-4 was “lighting up” a radar net. It is a common—if dangerous and illegal—tactic that allows one to probe an opponent’s radar system. Most combat radar is kept in a passive mode to prevent a potential enemy from mapping out weaknesses or blind spots that can be useful in the advent of an attack. The probes also give you valuable information on how to neutralize anti-aircraft guns and ground to air missiles.

“Lighting up” radar was what the US Navy EP-3E Aries II was doing near China’s Hainan Island when it collided with a Chinese interceptor in 2001. Nations normally take a very dim view of warplanes entering their air space, particularly if there is tension between the countries involved.

As a warplane, the F-4 is a pretty ancient. It was introduced back in 1960, and became the mainstay of the U.S. air war in Southeast Asia. In its day it was a highly capable aircraft, able to hold its own against interceptors like the MIG-21 in a dogfight, and could also carry heavy bomb payloads. It was also cheap and relatively trouble free, unlike the current crop of US high performance aircraft.

It is doubtful that Syria indentified exactly what the Turkish plane was, just that an unidentified warplane, flying low—generally the altitude one takes when trying to avoid radar—was in Syrian airspace. Paranoia? In 2007 Israeli warplanes—US-made F-16s, not Phantoms—slipped through Syria’s radar net and bombed a suspected nuclear reactor.

Even if Syria identified the plane as a Phantom, they could have taken it for an Israeli craft. Israel was the number one foreign user of F-4s, although they retired them in 2004. Indeed, the Turkish Phantom might even have begun life as an Israeli warplane.

If the Syrians are on hair-trigger alert, one can hardly blame them. The US, the European Union (EU), and NATO openly admit they are gunning to bring down the Assad regime.  Turkey is actively aiding the Free Syrian Army organize cross-border raids into Syria, and it is helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply arms and ammunition to the rebels.

For Turkey to send a warplane into Syrian airspace—or even near the Syrian border—on a radar mapping expedition at this moment was either remarkably provocative or stone stupid. The explanation could be more sinister, however.

NATO has established a command and control center in Iskenderun, Turkey, near the Syrian border, that is training and organizing the Free Syrian Army. It surely has a sophisticated setup for tapping into Syrian electronic transmissions and, of course, radar networks. If NATO eventually decides to directly intervene in Syria, the alliance will need those electronic maps. NATO aircraft easily overwhelmed Libya’s anti-aircraft systems, but Syria’s are considerably more sophisticated and dangerous.

There are a number of things about the incident that have yet to be explained. Turkey says the F-4 was 13 nautical miles from Syria when it was attacked—which would put it in international waters—but it crashed in Syrian waters. Damascus claims the plane came down less than a mile from the Syrian coast.

Turkey says one of its search planes was shot at as well—the Syrians deny this—and has called for a meeting of its NATO allies. So far, Ankara is only talking about invoking Article Four of the NATO treaty, not Article Five. Four allows for “consultations”; Five would open up the possibility of an armed response.

A thorough investigation of the incident seems in order, although Turkey’s Davutoglu says, “No matter how the downed Turkish jet saga unfolds…we will always stand by the Syrian people until the advent of a democratic regime there.” In short, regardless of what happened, Turkey will continue to pursue regime change in Damascus.

The Assad regime’s heavy-handed approach to its opponents played a major role in sparking the current uprising, but the default position of regime change by the EU and NATO has turned this into a fight to the death. Assad is broadly unpopular, but not universally so, and the support of the regime is not limited to his own Islamic sect, the Alawites, or other minorities, like the Christians.

Nor is all of the opposition a paragon of democratic freethinking. The heavy role played by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supplying arms and money to the rebels, means the deeply conservative Salafist sect of Islam has a major presence in the resistance. This is exactly how the Afghan mujahedeen mutated into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The demand for regime change by the US, the EU, and NATO torpedoed the United Nations effort for a diplomatic solution. The Assad regime had no stake in a peaceful resolution, since it would mean its ouster in any case. And the opposition knew it need not respect a ceasefire, since everyone who supports them supports regime change.

It was into this situation that Turkey flew an F-4 Phantom through Syrian airspace. Exactly what did Ankara think Syria would do? On the other hand, maybe it knew exactly what Syria would do.

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempierseries.wordpress.com

—30—

55 Comments

Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs, Middle East, Military, Syria