A victory for moral clarity

It’s hard for the West to understand the full scope of the disaster that’s befallen Libya. It’s happened, in part, because no one in or outside Libya bothered to figure out what the country might really look like after the dictator was gone.

BusinessWeek, August 7, 2014

Early this year, the Libyan Investment Authority filed suit against Goldman Sachs. LIA claims that, “Goldman Sachs abused the relationship of trust and confidence with the then newly-formed LIA…The fund suffered significant losses.”

How significant? In 2008, the LIA made a $1.3 billion investment with Goldman. The money evaporated. For their formidable investment advice, Goldman also received $350 million in fees.

Just Goldman doing what Goldman does, perhaps.

The LIA was formed in 2006. After the Qaddafi regime made a clean breast of its chemical and nuclear weapons programs, and paid reparations to the families of Lockerbie victims, Libya was removed from the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif drove the establishment of the largest sovereign wealth fund in Africa, seeing it as a way to diversify the Libyan economy away from its dependence on oil. (Although under the table payments from western investment banks may have helped him see the light.)

The Libyans, now able to engage western financial institutions, but not terribly sophisticated, seem to have become the targets of every sharp operator from Société Générale to Goldman Sachs. Which I suppose is just investment banks doing what investment banks do – that is, exploit every asymmetry available to them.

The story might have ended there, with only a slow bleed into the shark pool while Libya learned to swim. But then came Libya’s version of the Arab Spring, only this time with an opposition armed and supported by NATO.

When protesters clashed with Libyan security, western powers decided to take the moral high ground. Libyan government forces had fired on civilians. The Libyan government was therefore evil. The opposition was therefore good. Q.E.D.

With NATO money, weapons, and 26,000 airstrikes, the opposition was, not too surprisingly, victorious. Although you have to stick to a pretty narrow definition of “victory” to appreciate it.

Thousands of heavily armed gangsters daily roaming the streets, kicking down doors and breaking into government ministries, extorting millions on a whim, torturing or killing anyone who crosses them or maybe just looks funny – the victors make Latin American drug cartels look like buttoned-down businessmen doing lunch at the rotary club. You’d rather work for the cartels.

Three years after Qaddafi was killed and nearly everyone involved in running the government either sent packing or summarily executed, virtually nothing in Libya works, except the oil terminals. The one thing the gangsters seem to agree on is to keep the cash coming.

As BusinessWeek put it, “…Libyans who opposed Qaddafi and fought for a more equal and democratic future, have been murdered. Their deaths have passed without any demonstrations…a measure of how irrelevant the causes for which Libyans fought three years ago have become. Libya’s economic future, once touted as the brightest in Africa, looks equally bleak.”

This morass of anarchy is a direct result of “moral clarity” in the west – truly a form of negligence. Focus on one particular ‘evil’, trumpet it long enough and loudly enough, and we can all forget the messy, inconvenient details.

And that is exactly what we have done.

 

 

 

The quagmire deepens

The quagmire of Iraq is merging into the larger morass of the Middle East, the morass growing deeper weekly with the military successes and sensationalized brutality of the Islamic State.

President Obama has taken to describing IS as a ‘cancer’, ordering airstrikes whose objectives are morphing from the humanitarian, i.e. facilitating the escape of persecuted  minorities, to the ostensibly moral, i.e. defeating the ‘cancer’ itself.

Editorials, blogs, and bloviating ‘experts’ made up and mic’ed for TV are ominously warning of the threat to the West. Apparently, jihadists recruited from Europe may go home again and cause trouble there.

The President is wading in deeper, not because he has a plan to fix Iraq, or Syria, or Gaza, or anything else, but because he’s being driven by politics into doing something. Airstrikes are ‘something’; we know how to do it; so we’ll do that. Maybe we’ll be able to kill enough IS fighters that the thing will disintegrate, and we can resume our withdrawal from the region.

Maybe. But the Middle East will not change, because the cancer that eats at that part of the world is not the Islamic State, or even jihadism. It is a cancer that was first planted and cultivated nearly 100 years ago by France and Britain after the First World War, when they carved up the old Ottoman Empire to suit themselves and their thirst for oil.

The cancer is political weakness.

Like many parts of the world, the Middle East is a stew of ethnicities and religions. There is nothing wrong with that. Even disparate peoples who must live together usually learn to get along. They develop commercial and social relationships. They intermarry. But they are also tinder for ambitious political adventurers who are good at striking sparks and fanning flames. (See The Politics of Tinder.) Political power is what keeps the adventurers down and the flames dowsed. Sarajevo, for instance, was once a cosmopolitan European city where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived in peace and raised families together. It even hosted the Winter Olympics.

Then the Soviet Union disintegrated, the adventurers came out of the woodwork, and Sarajevo became synonymous with “ethnic cleansing”.

So it is in the Middle East. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt understand this all too well, and do whatever it takes to keep the adventurers down, whether it means buying off radical religious leaders or jailing and killing political opponents.

But the fragmentation and weakness of the Middle East go hand in hand with the machinations of Western politicians and security services, who dispense with humanitarian and democratic niceties in pursuit of short term ‘realpolitik’. Like selling anti-air and anti-armor weapons to the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s. Like cultivating Saddam Hussein as a covert client when the Islamic Republic used its weapons to invade Iraq as far as Basra. Like acquiescing to Saddam’s plan to cross the border into Kuwait, because he was such a good covert friend (see April Glaspie).

The only way to grow a civil society is for a government to become strong enough to defeat the anarchists, and to become reliant on tax revenue for its continued existence – not oil or Western aid. This is how the virtuous circle is started and maintained, where a government thrives because its people do, and its people thrive because their government ensures civil order. This was appreciated as long ago as William the Conqueror.

Apparently not so today. It is inconceivable that Western democracies are capable of either helping to bring this about in the Middle East, or even refraining from undermining it, were it to begin on its own. Ultimately the cancer of political weakness persists because we in the West want it to – for many reasons, open and covert, not the least of which is competition for oil.

The US military may well defeat the Islamic State, but the morass of humanitarian, political, and economic issues and conflicts will only deepen, principally because the web of Western interests is a Gordian Knot that no one is willing to cut.

We will instead moralize. Throw political darts. Attend conferences. Announce cooperation and reconstruction. Throw money at our ‘friends’. Kill a few people. Moralize some more.

As we have done for a hundred years.

 

Don’t be naive, right?

The government in Beijing has quietly removed a number of Apple devices from its approved purchasing list, including iPads and MacBooks. Some sort of trade sanction? Nope. They believe iOS has been hacked by the NSA.

They have good reason to believe it. We’ve all heard about the PRISM program, about something called Dropout Jeep, and about Shotgiant.

Shotgiant began as a program to hack into Huawei servers and steal information. But it didn’t end there. It morphed into a program to insert backdoors into Huawei communications products:

Rather than stop at simply collecting more information than it could process, however, a NSA special-operations unit bored into the company’s technical data, eventually compromising servers holding source code for the firmware that runs the routers and switches Huawei builds for large corporations and telecommunications companies.

The goal was to build secret backdoors or security flaws into the source code, which Huawei would then build into its own products and distribute to a customer base so large that Huawei boasts that its products connect a third of the world’s population.

EETimes Asia

More of the ‘good fight’, right? They do it to us, so we do it to them.

Maybe. What strikes me is that it’s a long, long way from the hoary notion that a fully interconnected and integrated world will be a peaceful one, because no one wants to upset the shared prosperity. This may in fact be the long term goal of many a statesman, such as those behind the Euro project. But it isn’t the goal of the security services of Russia, China, or the US. Their goal is much simpler: Beat the other guys.

The security services of at least two of these nations are arguably beyond control of their respective civilian governments. I’m not so sure about China. Beijing might possibly be in control, or the PLA may enjoy even more autonomy than it appears.

The UK’s GCHQ seems to be an adjunct of the NSA. This leaves the rest of Europe, which years ago became a battleground in US-Russia tensions.

To me the underlying reality traces back to the ‘military-industrial complex’, made so notorious by President Eisenhower in his farewell address. It’s really a National Security Complex (NatSecCom?), shifting with the latest designated adversary, that uses secrecy and fear to build careers and acquire power. China has one. Russia has one. And so do we.

Russia may implode. And then there will be two, plus possibly another failed state to add to the list of casualties of the war that never ended.

 

A laboratory for democracy?

ISIS-fatigue is setting in.

News stories are dropping out of the headlines and lower down the page, or relegated to the “World” section, even as one crack after another appears in what was supposed to be the Iraqi state. Kurdistan took over Kirkuk and started doing business as though it were a sovereign state. The Maliki government explicitly recruited Shiites to defend Baghdad, further alienating Sunnis, until Moktada al-Sadr (remember him?) recently declared that his Shiite followers in the Mahdi Army would not answer to the central government.

Maliki looked to Iran for support, and Secretary of State Kerry apparently put out feelers in that direction. Now Saudi Arabia is warning Iran off.

Tens of billions of dollars in equipment and training for tens of thousands of soldiers in the Iraqi army were not enough. And before you blame Iraqi soldiers for the failure, consider they have been fighting for months, ignored by Western news media, while their commanders were replaced with inept Maliki loyalists and their cause apparently abandoned by the same Maliki government now pointing its finger at them.

“Political power” is something we in the West hold in disdain. (See the Netflix series House of Cards.) Beyond achieving office and steering legislation for their campaign donors, it is something our politicians regularly misunderstand and neglect. Look at Iraq. This is what the lack of political power looks like.

China – 1; The West – 0

What made the US such a formidable factor in WWII was the size of its economy, its underutilized assets, and the ability of government to effectively organize it. It was a war not won by valour or brilliant tactics or clever code-breaking, as glamorous, inspiring, or important as those things were. The war  in Europe, especially, was a war of attrition, with the Soviet Union slowly grinding up half of Germany’s military might in the east, while the US relentlessly chipped away from the west. Germany fought on, enduring inconceivable punishment without surrender, until she had nothing left to fight with, until the Allies could finally claim victory over a wasteland of burnt-out cities and a defeated population. Continue reading

Battle Declined

The President of the United States went to a funeral this week, to express his condolences for those killed in an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, most of them first responders battling a fire that apparently caused several thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate to detonate, demolishing homes and schools in the area and leaving a crater in the ground nearly one hundred feet in diameter.

If the firefighters had known about the ammonium nitrate, their priority almost certainly would have been to organize an evacuation. But they did not know. Continue reading