John Hickman – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 22 Sep 2022 02:17:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can the UN be Reformed? Turkish President Erdogan’s “A Fairer World is Possible.” – A Review Thu, 22 Sep 2022 04:08:23 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – I avoid reading books written by politicians. They are all too often nothing more than exercises in annoying self-promotion disguised in improbably high-minded language. Yet circumstance tempted me beyond the powers of resistance to buy a copy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 2021 book A Fairer World Is Possible: A Proposed Model for a United Nations Reform in the Istanbul Airport this summer. During the semi-chaos of disembarking after a 13-hour flight – my wife Jane and I pulling luggage, carrying our two sleepy preschool princesses, and helping a frazzled Russian mother and grandmother who also had children in tow retrieve their carry-ons from the overhead – my half-read copy of John J. Mearsheimer’s 2018 The Great Delusion vanished into the seat-back pocket, and thence on to whatever Turkish Airlines does with such items. With our other books in checked through baggage, I was left effectively bookless during the layover before our flight to Athens. Fellow bibliophiles will know that possession of a good book can be as a coping mechanism. Thus, a suspiciously inexpensive copy of the very intensely promoted A Fairer World Is Possible was purchased. What with being reunited with our other hoard of books, marching preschool princesses up and down the Acropolis and keeping them focused during the Big Skinny Greek Wedding, etc. A Fairer World sat only half-read until the beginning of Fall Semester. But finish it I did.

Here is what I learned: Erdoğan’s cognitive style is decidedly more hedgehog than fox. Recall Archilochus’s adage that, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We are divided between generalists with many tools or solutions and specialists with one tool or solution. With A Fairer World Is Possible, Erdoğan does a splendid job of explaining exactly what is wrong the United Nations Security Council.

Although its permanent membership and veto powers of the Security Council might have made sense in the aftermath of the Second World War, that membership is now a poor reflection of relative power in the world and has reduced the United Nations to ineffectiveness and threatens its irrelevance. He is correct that the repeated exercise of the veto by the United States to defend Israeli impunity is a disaster.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A Fairer World is Possible. Istanbul: Turkuvaz Kitap, 2021. Click.

Alas, Erdoğan’s analysis fails to offer a workable re-engineering of decision-making in the United Nations. He proposes to replace the veto of the five permanent members of the Security Council with supermajority voting in the General Assembly. Although vague on this point, he appears to propose selecting the Security Council through an auction of states willing to fund the United Nations.

The obvious problem with the supermajority component is that state sovereignty and UN membership may reflect relative power in the world even more poorly than the permanent membership of the Security Council. Barbados, Malta and Nauru would have the same voting power as the United States, Russia and China. Although liberal societies must be governed via the legal equality of individual citizens, the international system probably cannot be governed as legally equal sovereign states. Rather than vie with one another financially for a seat on a powerless Security Council, the great powers would rationally ignore the United Nations. The world’s quasi-parliament is already an almost useless talking shop. Erdoğan’s reform would reduce it to complete irrelevance.

A workable fix would be a new nine-member Security Council reflecting relative economic and military strength together with population and territory size: representatives from China, India, United States, Indonesia, Japan, European Union, African Union, Organization of American States and Arab League. States would be denied multiple representatives or voting in multiple bodies to elect representatives. Rather than the permanent member veto, Security Council decisions would be taken by Qualified Majority Voting, akin to that used in the Council of the European Union.

There are other obvious, predictable holes in A Fairer World Is Possible. Although the author returns repeatedly to important humanitarian concerns about the Palestinians, the Rohingya and Syrian refugees together with security concerns about terrorism, climate change is barely mentioned, nothing is said about historical responsibility for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrian Christians. Forget Kurdish self-determination. Also notably missing is any discussion of the maritime geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Given the flaws in the proposed reform of United Nations decision-making and silence about multiple unmentioned issues, A Fairer World Is Possible is an ironic title. Perhaps readers should be grateful that it was not A Fair World Is Possible.

Discussions of Iran’s Nuclear Enrichment ignore Israel’s Atom Bomb Arsenal: What if Iran’s Program is a Deterrent to War? Mon, 02 Aug 2021 04:04:52 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – According to the latest news coverage, Iran-U.S. negotiations to revive the 2015 JCPOA are in trouble. The main sticking points involve a guarantee demanded by Tehran that Washington will not abandon the deal at some future date as it did in 2018 under the previous administration and promises demanded by Washington that Tehran will enter into regional and missile negotiations. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is counseling extreme distrust and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is warning that negotiations (or waiting to resume negotiations) cannot go on indefinitely. All of which could be the sort of hard posturing that goes on before a deal is struck, but it is enough to excite the martial fervor of the establishment in Israel and their neocon allies in the United States lusting for war against the Islamic Republic. What they appear to have in mind is the sort of high tech air war that helped to topple the governments of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Libya in 2011, one where the U.S. does the heavy lifting and Israel garners the international legitimacy of serving as its sole junior ally. The goal would be to destroy or degrade the ability of Iran to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In arguing for their optional war, the proponents seek to elicit a sense of dire urgency. Their message is that Iran must be prevented from going nuclear or something terrible will happen. Some readers may recall the false alarm sounded about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. This is different. Without the JCPOA or a similar agreement, Iran will likely acquire real nuclear weapons. The more accurate historical analogy is to the near hysterics in the United States in the early 1960s about the People’s Republic of China acquiring nuclear weapons. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors discussed a pre-emptive attack on “ChiCom nuclear capability” as it was described in the strange terminology of the period. Kennedy wisely listened to the saner voices and declined to sign-off on the attack. On October 16, 1964, China tested a nuclear warhead and the world did not come to an end. What did change was that both the United States and China began to treat one another with greater circumspection.

What Kennedy knew was that wars between great powers are easy to begin but difficult to end. Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer prize winning history The Guns of August was one of the president’s favorites. Those who now lobby for a U.S.-Israeli air strike on Iran ALSO know that wars between great powers are difficult to end, indeed that is an important part of their agenda. The air war they have in mind would go on indefinitely, a periodic rain of death and destruction on Iran funded by the U.S. taxpayer that prevents Iran from emerging as a regional rival to Israel and prevents the U.S. from ever detaching itself from Israel. Think of Israel’s periodic punishment of Gaza, but scaled up roughly 40 times.

Against the prospect of a bitter war without end that would dwarf the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, a world with a nuclear armed Iran deserves a second look. Although nuclear weapons proliferation is often portrayed as leading inexorably toward their use but the historical record is that nuclear weapons have not been used to wage war since 1945, when only one state possessed them. Nuclear deterrence between the U.S. and Soviet Union explains the complete absence of great power war since the end of the Second World War. The existential threat posed by nuclear weapons endangers a sober risk aversion among decision makers, at least with respect to other nuclear weapons states. The United States and Soviet Union had to be more careful with China after it acquired the bomb; China had to be more careful with India after it acquired the bomb; and India had to be more careful with Pakistan after it acquired the bomb. The U.S. handles a truculent North Korea with extreme care for the same reason.

What would a nuclear armed Iran mean for the Middle East? Israel would no longer possess a regional nuclear weapons monopoly. Nuclear deterrence between Israel and Iran would not silence to their high-volume rhetoric against one another but it would restrain both from engaging in security provocations that could result in interstate war. The risks involved in a nuclear exchange would also mean that the United States would be less willing to give Israel a blank check in its relations with neighboring Arab states.

Nuclear deterrence might permit something unexpected. It is worth remembering that liberalizing social and political reforms enjoyed a heyday under the grim shadow of nuclear obliteration during the Cold War. Both the United States and Soviet Union became more open societies in the 1960s and subsequent decades. Perhaps Israel and Iran would become similarly less repressive.

That Iran with the bomb might result in nuclear deterrence rather than doomsday is a heretical idea in contemporary public discourse. Yet it is certain that decision makers in every one of the concerned capitals have thought it even if they haven’t voiced it aloud. If the negotiations to revive the JCPOA are ultimately unsuccessful, war is an option that need not be selected.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Informed Comment.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Airirang News: “Blinken says negotiations with Iran to revive nuclear deal cannot go on indefinitely”

The Int’l Community at Berlin II wants Oil and a Stop to Emigration from Libya; What Libya needs is Strong Institutions and Peace Mon, 28 Jun 2021 04:04:03 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – A lazy international press corps is missing the big story on Libya. English language news coverage of the June 23rd Berlin II International Conference on Libya has been focused almost exclusively on the presence of foreign mercenaries while eliding information crucial to understanding the negotiations and the civil war they are intended to eventually end. First, although Libya was formally represented in these negotiations by the four-month-old Government of National Unity, a façade regime for the two sides of the conflict – a coalition controlling the capital Tripoli and surrounding region of Tripolitania in the west and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), controlling Cyrenaica in the east and Fazzan in the south – a unified Libya does not really exist. All this did not stop German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas from crowing that, “we are no longer talking about Libya, but above all with Libya.” He is correct but only in the strict sense that Libya was not formally represented at the previous Berlin I International Conference on Libya on January 19, 2020.

Second, the important international participants at Berlin II have geopolitical interests in the ultimate outcome of the negotiations and civil war. For conference host Germany, the MENA is nearly as geopolitically important as Eastern Europe. As the EU’s economic powerhouse, Berlin’s foreign policy makers are focused on European economic interests across the frontiers of the EU to the east and south. Peace is good for business in Europe and what is good for business in Europe is good for Germany. That Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa and massive natural gas deposits rivets the attention of foreign policy makers in Europe and beyond.

The EU is also interested the development of a state security apparatus better able to stop African migrants and refugees from departing by sea for Europe. So Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy, commented that a “fully functioning Libyan state” was needed to help the EU “control migration. “It is a concern for us,” he said, “it is a humanitarian problem.”[1] The reality is that the migrants and refugees are experiencing a humanitarian problem. What EU politicians like Borrell are experiencing is a domestic political problem: xenophobic voters with seemingly no historical memory of the trauma of refugee flight in 20th century Europe.

The US and UK also support the GNU, motivated by oil and gas business interests and historic security interests. Both had military bases in the country in the early Cold War when it was ruled by a monarchy established by London. Libya under the subsequent revolutionary regime of Muammar Gaddafi presented a constant source of security challenges to the US and UK. What Washington wants from any negotiations involving Libya is a low profile. The 2011 NATO bombing campaign that secured the victory of Libyan rebels over Qaddafi’s forces is still a source of some embarrassment in Democratic Party circles because of the role played by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in persuading President Barack Obama to join the crusade.[2] Like the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that detached Kosovo from Serbia under President Bill Clinton, the 2011 NATO bombing campaign was also a ‘no boots on the ground’ air war without US combat military casualties.

Unlike Bill’s military intervention, however, Hillary’s resulted in political fragmentation that morphed into civil war in 2014. In 2016, Obama would famously describe the aftermath of the intervention as the “worst mistake” of his presidency.[3] The Libyan air war thus provided Secretary Clinton with nothing to brag about in her 2016 campaign for the White House.

Egypt and the UAE support Haftar because the general is anti-Islamist. Egypt and Libya share a long, porous border and Cairo wants to stop the infiltration of jihadists. Egypt is also interested in telecommunications contracts that would bind Libya more closely.

The main topic at Berlin II was of course the presence of thousands of mercenaries deployed by Turkey and Russia. Although there are also hundreds of Turkish troops on the ground in Libya, Ankara has been more willing to risk the lives of Syrian mercenaries to achieve its largely maritime geopolitical goals. That Libya was once a possession of the Ottoman Empire no doubt appeals to the Neo-Ottomanism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[4] But more important to Turkish geopolitics are the oil and gas deposits in the floor of the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Turkey. In an effort to secure those resources Ankara has signed agreements with Tripoli drawing maritime boundaries at the expense of Greece and Cyprus.[5] Athens and Nicosia were not invited to participate in Berlin II.

Russia’s mercenaries in Libya are also largely Syrian, deployed there to support Haftar. Moscow’s interest in the Libyan civil war appears both geopolitical and economic. Supporting the general frustrates the Western powers and profits from selling weapons and military services. Libya under Gaddafi was a major market for Soviet weaponry and it makes sense to keep doing what you do well. For Vladimir Putin, continued stalemate between the two sides works almost as well as the victory of his client.

Civil wars invite intervention by more powerful countries. With its regional antipathies, oil and gas riches, and small population, Libya is a tempting geopolitical prize. It would still be attractive without the mercenaries deployed Turkey and Russia. Peace and competent government in Libya will require political institutions that all Libyans, and their foreign patrons, can live with. Everyone concerned needs to be at the negotiating table to create them.

[1] Libya Review. “EU’s Borrell Calls for Withdrawal of All Foreign Forces from Libya.” 23 June 2021.

[2] The Secretary of State was supported by fellow humanitarian hawks NSC Director Samantha Power and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice but opposed by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Bill Gates.

[3] “President Obama Libya Aftermath ‘Worst Mistake’ of Presidency.” April 11, 2016.

[4] Italy seized Libya in the 1911-1912 Italo-Turkish War as imperialist ‘compensation’ after France seized Tunisia before for Italy could achieve its colonial ambitions there.

[5] Al Jazeera. “Libya, Turkey Sign Deals on Security and Maritime Jurisdictions.” 28 November 2019.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Africanews: “Berlin conference on Libya makes ”progress” towards elections”

What NPR’s “All Things Considered” won’t Tell you about the Iran Nuclear Issue (Like that Iran is Weak and has no Nukes while Israel is advanced and Does) Tue, 15 Jun 2021 04:05:36 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – What news audiences of National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered have and have not heard about the Iranian nuclear program since the election of Joe Biden offers a neat boundary delineation of the Hallin spheres of mainstream reporting on the topic. Daniel Hallin’s classic study of American news coverage of the War in Vietnam[1] identified three concentric spheres of discourse. Information and assumptions deemed to be beyond dispute lie in the consensus sphere; those about which disagreement may be reported lie in the sphere of legitimate controversy; and those beyond the bounds of acceptable expression lie in the sphere of deviance. What All Things Considered reports matters because its listeners are generally better educated and more liberal than other broadcast news audiences. They are the demographic in Biden’s electoral base most attentive to foreign policy. Program content tends to legitimate and thus lock in the range of acceptable policy choices for decision makers.

The most frequently repeated element in the consensus sphere is that negotiations between Washington and Tehran to “revive” or “resurrect” the “Iran nuclear deal” or “2015 nuclear deal,” informal phrases that replace the formal sounding JCPOA, is an important part of Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Another undisputed element is the assumption that Iran’s “advanced missile program” or “ballistic missile program” together with its “support for militant groups” is a “threat to the region.” Nevertheless, Iranian nuclear weapons are assumed to pose an existential threat to Israel, as is Israeli responsibility for sabotage and assassination operations against the Iranian nuclear program. Also, in an April 9, 2021 broadcast, NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez allowed an assertion by Michael Singh, a Middle East adviser in the Georgia W. Bush administration, that Iranian nuclear weapons are a “serious threat” to the United States to pass unchallenged. (Iran has no nuclear weapons or even a program to make them, simply a civilian nuclear enrichment program to make fuel for reactors for electricity generation.)

The sphere of legitimate controversy is narrow, largely confined to the question whether the JCPOA will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state or would simply “kick the can down the road” until it does. Framed in part as a partisan disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, the news story is reduced to whether Washington should extract additional concessions from a vulnerable Tehran for rolling back economic sanctions.

That the Iranian nuclear weapons program might be a rational policy response to the Israeli nuclear arsenal, understandable as nuclear deterrence, is relegated to the sphere of deviance. Indeed, comparisons drawn to any case of nuclear proliferation other than North Korea appears discursively verboten. The tabooed context is that deterring dangerous rivals has been crucial to decisions to acquire nuclear weapons historically. The Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons because the United States had them. India acquired them because them the People’s Republic of China had them. Pakistan acquired them because India had them. Possessing nuclear weapons did not always prevent war between these dyads but it appears to have prevented nuclear war and also gave nuclear weapons states powerful incentives to prevent conventional conflicts from escalating. Iran almost certainly wants nuclear weapons to deter nuclear and conventional attack from its nuclear-armed rival Israel (unlike Iran, Israel actually has really-existing atom bombs, over 100 of them, similar to India’s arsenal).

There are other reasons for countries to go nuclear. Apartheid era South Africa acquired a nuclear arsenal of a half dozen warheads to intimidate neighboring states in a region where it was isolated. Israel’s nuclear arsenal appears to have been constructed for the same reasons. The good news is that South Africa’s nukes were disassembled with the change to a majority rule in the early 1990s.

The precise boundary between the spheres of legitimate controversy and deviance for this news story is identifiable in the only recent All Things Considered broadcast acknowledging the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an April 12, 2021 interview by NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Karim Sadjadpour. The interviewee said the following:

“[I]f you look at this through a geographic lens, Iran is goliath and Israel is David. Iran is 75 times larger than Israel. If you look at this through a military lens, Israel is Goliath, and Iran is David. Israel has over 100 nuclear weapons. Iran has none. So both countries see themselves as kind of the victim fighting injustice. And you know that old expression, all is fair in love and war.”

Sadjadpour can be forgiven his Biblical metaphor to describe dueling victim ideologies, though not his assertion of comparable military power. Yes, Iran has 75 times the area of Israel but that is a silly metric. The two countries don’t share a land border. What is relevant is that only Iran is vulnerable to nuclear bombardment. Israel’s minimum estimate of 110 nuclear warheads, 80 deployed as ballistic missiles and 30 as gravity bombs[2] are enough firepower to destroy Iran’s 18 cities with populations of 500,000 or more together with its 26 major military bases, and still have plenty remaining to continue intimidating neighboring Arab countries.

Sadjadpour continued by evoking the perspective of Israelis but not of Iranians: “For the Israelis, they say they’re not going to outsource our security to any other country. Iran poses a threat to us, and we need to counter them.” Ignoring that invitation to listeners to perceive the conflict solely from the Israeli vantage, Kelly then shifted attention back to the consensus sphere item that negotiations will probably resume. This was not an inspiring example of journalism.

If the editors and reporters at All Things Considered want their listeners to understand this news story, they should describe nuclear deterrence as a rational motivation for the Iranian nuclear program and report rather than adopt the national security perspectives of both Israeli and Iranian decision makers. More generally they should cover events in the Middle East using language that leaves no doubt that the lives of Iranians and citizens of majority Arab countries are just as valuable as those of Israelis.

[1] Daniel Hallin. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press,1986. Pp. 116-117.

[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

CGTN Europe: “Iran nuclear talks to resume in Vienna as election looms”

“Lethal Disregard:” UN report on Deaths of Migrants in Mediterranean goes too Light on Libyan, Italian Navies Mon, 07 Jun 2021 04:03:39 +0000 Mt. Berry, Ga. (Special to Informed Comment) – The diplomatic language used in official human rights reports often fails to express the horrors that they reference. So it is with the May 2021 report issued by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet: “Lethal Disregard: Search and Rescue and the Protection of Migrants in the Central Mediterranean” Reading like an indictment where the prosecutor neglected to name most of the individual perpetrators in a large transnational criminal enterprise, the document details behaviors by the maritime police forces of Libya, Italy and Malta that have resulted in the preventable deaths and suffering of migrants at sea as well as the human rights abuses of migrants returned to Libya. Although the report performs important work by describing the crisis using statistics and personal accounts of anonymous survivors, the names of individuals and many of the organizations that have exploited it for economic gain and political advantage are missing from the text.

The scale of the crisis tends to be obscured in news coverage that is focused on individual tragedies. As “Lethal Disregard” notes, 2,239 migrants are known to have died attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean in its reporting period between January 2019 and December 2020. That figure represents 69% of all of the fatalities of the larger Mediterranean migrant crisis which also encompasses seaborne crossings in the Aegean and Atlantic/Western Mediterranean. Another 632 migrants have died so far in 2021 The report points out that the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), which is funded by Italy, increased its interceptions and returns of migrants to Libya from 8,403 in 2019 to 10,352 in 2020.

If international law is actually law in the proper sense – always a question given that its enforcement is based on international consensus and/or national self-help – then what is described in the report is clearly a massive criminal enterprise. The major crimes perpetrated as part of the enterprise include deliberate delays by governments in fulfilling the obligation to engage in search and rescue operations at sea, preventing private organizations from undertaking search and rescue operations at sea, and violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they face peril.

Under both the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the governments of coastal states, military ships and merchant ships are obliged to offer assistance to people in distress at sea. These treaties articulate duties that have been part of the customary law of the sea for centuries. Sailing past capsized or sinking vessels and ignoring appeals for help communicated by radio and cellphones violate unambiguous legal obligations. Among the most chilling observations in the report is that Italian and Maltese authorities responsible for search and rescue played ‘not me’ bureaucratic games with desperate migrants asking for help when their maritime zones are unclear or overlap.

Claiming that humanitarian NGOs like Sea Watch operating their own search and rescue operations to fill the gap left by governments were incentivizing migration, the Italian government impounded resources and targeted activists like Carola Rackete with criminal prosecutions.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol and other international treaty prohibit the returning refugees to the countries from which they have fled under the principle of non-refoulement. The civil war and organized crime characterizing Libya and its post-2011 history of brutality toward African migrants make it unsafe as a destination for the deportation of migrants and doing so a violation of international law. “Lethal Disregard” relates the case of migrants taken into custody by individuals in LCG uniforms and then imprisoned for eight months on a farm operated by smugglers.

At the core of every criminal enterprise is a quid pro quo that motivates the violation of law. Here the exchange is between conservative populist Italian politicians who win elections with xenophobic appeals and Libyan politicians who receive Official Development Assistance for the LCG to intercept migrants and haul them back to Libya. The names of Italian politicians who have stoked xenophobic feeling and violence against migrants are hardly secret: Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio, the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi.

There is more to the contemporary Italo-Libyan relationship than migrants. Investments in oil and gas production together with construction contracts shape form the deepest layer of their connection. The partially state-owned Italian oil giant ENI operates the Western Libya GAS Project that includes major onshore and offshore fields as well as the Greenstream gas pipeline.

The same economic interests were pulling the two countries together before the 2011 intervention by NATO to support the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi’s government and it is unsurprising that they are doing so again a decade later. What is different this time is that ten years of instability in Libya have made it a lawless environment conducive to human trafficking.

“Lethal Disregard” makes oblique reference to the quid pro quo by framing it as a relationship between the supranational European Union (EU) and its member states with the maritime police force of Libya with the following recommendation:

“Ensure any cooperation with the LCG is premised on due diligence and suspend the provision of funding, training and logistical support to the LCG, making the continuation of such support dependent upon a consistent and sustained demonstration of respect for international law by the LCG.”

In the alternative universe for which “Lethal Disregard” appears to have been written, the EU pursues a unified foreign policy vis-à-vis Libya, which is adhered to by EU member state Italy rather than electoral advantage of Italian politicians and profits of Italian business firms. That the report references the LCG rather than a unified Libyan national government is a departure from diplomatic make-believe. Additional concessions to reality will need to be made to accurately assess the gravity of the crisis.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Dramatic migrant rescue as UN warns of rising deaths in Mediterranean and North Atlantic – BBC News

Let Lebanon be Lebanon: Paris should Stop Threatening Beirut with EU Sanctions Mon, 24 May 2021 04:03:30 +0000 John Hickman

“Governing Lebanon is surely more daunting than governing France.”[1] That pearl of wisdom in an essay defending consociational democracy by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Brendan O’Leary has never been more accurate. A delicate balance of domestic interests with institutional vetoes at the best of times, Lebanese politics has been stalemated for months as the parties have failed to agree on a coalition government which would be responsible, among other pressing items, for negotiating with international creditors. More than a year ago, Lebanon failed to pay a $1.2 billion Eurobond, defaulting on a sovereign debt for the first time in its history.[2] Surprising in itself, Beirut has successfully dithered rather than accommodate the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with the sort of painful domestic policy package that sees foreign banks repaid at the expense of domestic living standards.

The country once described as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ for its own international banking is no longer a ‘stalwart debtor’ in the reputational schema of Stanford University political scientist Michael Tomz. But will it become a fairweather or perhaps even a lemon debtor? Stalwart debtors never default. Think Norway. Fairweather debtors sometimes default but repay when they can. Think Thailand. Lemon debtors almost invariably default. Think Argentina. Lebanon could afford to be a stalwart debtor back when it had no competition as the financial, entertainment and media capital of the Arab World, before the influx of Syrian refugees and before the Covid-19 Pandemic hammered its economy together with the rest of the world.

Today, Lebanon is economically prostrate and there is little elite interest in accepting the sorts of economic and social pain the IMF has in mind. Viewed from Paris, London or Washington, the protracted process of forming a new government might look like a collective action problem. Viewed from Beirut, however, it may appear a means of delaying the pain and saving Lebanese leaders from the onus of imposing it.

French bankers and thus the French foreign policy establishment are so unhappy with Lebanese recalcitrance that they have threatened to impose economic sanctions via the European Union on Lebanese officials they hold responsible.[3] Economic sanctions are what the Global North has heretofore imposed for horrific war crimes committed by African warlords and predatory organized crime by post-Soviet oligarchs. Using them to punish the failure to form a government is something new.

The unprecedented threat is attributable in part to the perennial unhappiness of the French political class with its Lebanese counterpart. France, as the League of Nations mandatory power, is responsible for establishing Lebanon and Syria as separate states despite their common history. Colonial fantasies about the Frankish Crusader states perhaps inspired the effort to create a Christian dominated Arab client state. Yet the Lebanese have always displayed an inclination to be themselves rather than French. Lebanese consociationalism, with the modus vivendi political cartel among elites in a society deeply divided by religion, in particular has irritated French republican elites since the Free French opposed the 1943 Lebanese pacte nationale.

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic describes France as indivisible, though obviously it is not, but Paris wants its former colonies and semi-colonies to embrace the adversarial democracy implicit in that sort of national identity. One of the ironies here is that the Quay d’Orsay threatens to use the economic might of the European Union, itself the planet’s most complex and extensive consociational entity whose state membership includes a host of successful consociational democracies, against the planet’s second oldest consociational democracy. (The Netherlands has an older consociational regime than Lebanon).

That Lebanon is today an economic mess is undeniable. Consumer banks have been unable to pay their depositors in hard currency, a shocking dysfunction given the country’s dependence on remittances. Sudden losses in the value of the Lebanese pound have led to rioting. The Lebanese public understandably blames both official corruption and international lenders for their economic distress. A 2019 public opinion poll found that 91% of Lebanese respondents considered government corrupt to medium or large extent and 59% of respondents anticipated that the economic situation would be worse or much worse over the next two to years.[4]

Economic distress is compounded by the extraordinary stresses of its regional environment, especially Syrian refugee flight and the violations of its sovereignty by Israel. Lebanese airspace sovereignty is regularly violated by Israeli military aircraft without apparent objection from Washington, London or Paris. Against this it is amazing that today’s Lebanon has not as yet succumbed to civil war or military dictatorship. European consociational democracies have confronted nothing comparable since the end of the Second World War.

What decision-makers in the Global North ought to recognize is that Lebanon functions, whether well or badly, only when its political class is permitted to negotiate shifts in domestic relative power without excessive foreign meddling. Rather than threatening economic sanctions, France should exercise patience until a vulnerable, exhausted Lebanon rises from the dust. Paris should act less as a harassing debt collector and instead like a responsible former mandatory power. The reality is that Lebanon is unlikely to repay any of its sovereign debt in the near future without significant help. Failing to provide it risks transforming a former stalwart debtor into a permanent lemon debtor rather than a temporary fair-weather debtor. More importantly, the only hope for Lebanese to develop the sense of secular Lebanese-ness the French political class ostensibly desires, is to allow it to emerge organically from public policy problems effectively managed. The Swiss are as Swiss as they can be because and not despite their consociational institutions. Nothing more than that should be asked of the Lebanese.

[1] Brendan O’Leary. “Debating Consociational Politics: Normative and Explanatory Arguments.” In From Power-Sharing to Democracy: Post-Conflict Institutions in Ethnically Divided Societies, (Ed.) S. J. R. Noel. (Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005), pp. 3-43.

[2] M. Amlôt (8 March 2020). “Lebanon’s Eurobond Default: Here’s What Happens Next.” Al Arabiya.

[3] Al-Jazeera. “France Sanctions Lebanese Figures ‘For Preventing Crisis Exit’.” 29 April 2021.

[4] Arab Barometer (2019). Arab Barometer V, Lebanon Country Report. Accessed 30 November 2020.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

France 24 English: “French envoy visits crisis-hit Lebanon as pressure builds”