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Friday, 25 September 2015

Libya is Obama's Mess To Own

Libya's Lost Generation 
As his administration enters its twilight years, President Obama certainly has several key policy pieces he can proudly tout as his legacy; healthcare reform that eluded the Clinton administration, a resurgent economy as well as wins on several social issues.  Even his record on foreign policy, relatively muddled as it may be, holds several moves which in time could prove to be shrewdly negotiated wins.  The same cannot be said however, for how this administration has handled its involvement in the Libyan Civil War.  Given the renewed questions about potential American involvement in Syria due to Russia ratcheting up its support of the Assad regime, the time is now ripe to revisit the country’s last foray into a messy civil conflict in the region and see what lessons can be learned.    

in 2011, what began as a string of popular protests against the oppressive rule of Libya’s longtime strongman Moammar Gaddafi, inspired by similar movements in nearby countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain that later came to be collectively dubbed as the “Arab Spring”, turned bloody.  As the chorus calling for extensive reforms grew louder, Gaddafi initially cracked down in brutal fashion.  Perhaps remembering what happened the last time the West plead ignorance to flagrant atrocities being committed right under its nose, the United States led an effort to secure NATO a UN Security Council mandate to intervene by means of a no-fly zone in hopes of averting a potential humanitarian catastrophe.  President Obama would later say “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi -a city nearly the size of Charlotte- could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”  And so not long after receiving authorization in a tenuous vote where both the Chinese and Russians were convinced to abstain, NATO warplanes made the first bombing sorties over Libya.  Already facing pressure from a fractious alliance of several until-recently-largely-suppressed tribal and militant groups, now being armed by sympathetic countries both in the Gulf and the West (via Qatar), Gaddafi's forces didn’t stand a chance.  In a matter of months the tables turned dramatically.  By October, Tripoli had been overrun and Gaddafi summarily executed by a bullet to the head.  

Western analysis of the situation in the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi being deposed declared the intervention a success, having prevented large scale atrocities and seen the ultimate toppling of, by some accounts, a very brutal dictator.  The US’s representative to NATO even went so far as to pen an article where he declared the alliance’s involvement a victory and went on to call it a “model intervention”.  Now four years later this cheery assessment rings hollow, when the country’s internationally recognized government is now unable to exert control over its own ports and oil fields, Islamists and tribal groups run roughshod over large swathes of its territory and Libyan weapons ransacked from its armories have turned up in other hotbeds for Islamist terrorism across the region.

But before turning an eye towards the extent to which radicals have infiltrated the political and social fabric of Libya itself, it is important to consider the ripple effect of toppling Gaddafi, and what role it played in nurturing the Islamist insurgencies many other countries in the region are now grappling with.  Perhaps the most jarring example of illicit weapon flows from Libya fueling conflicts abroad however, can be found in Mali.  The first wave was caused by ethnic Tuaregs within the country’s security services taking their weapons and fleeing to Mali following the fall of the regime.  Hoping to assist the Tuareg minority in that country launch an insurrection of their own, it instead was hijacked by the Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine with whom they had formed an uneasy truce in hopes of driving Malian forces from the north of the country.  Indirectly or not, the Libyan rebels played a key role in the war, allowing weapons to be funnelled out of the country through Tunisia and Niger and into Northern Mali.  While ISIS made waves last summer when it declared the establishment of a “Caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria, Mali quietly gained the notorious distinction of being host to the largest swathe of sovereign territory controlled by a terrorist organization.    

And to make matters worse, it does not simply stop there; Libyan weapons have also been smuggled through Egypt and Lebanon and into the hands of militants everywhere from the Gaza Strip to Syria.  Of particular concern to arms control experts is the widespread proliferation of man-portable air defence systems, often referred to as MANPADs.  Light enough to be carried by individual infantry, they are capable of shooting down anything from a helicopter to a commercial airliner.  Approximately 15,000 went missing in the aftermath of the war, and a buyback effort by the United States has only managed to secure roughly 5000.  Perhaps even more frighteningly, a report on the subject added that several hundred of the missiles were still completely unaccounted for, potentially having wound up in the hands of groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or Hamas in Gaza.  And any doubts regarding this assertion were shattered during 2012’s Operation Returning Echo, when an IDF helicopter was nearly shot down by a missile that subsequent investigations determined originated from Libya.  More recently, militants in Egypt successfully shot down a military helicopter using the missile.  Other Libyan arms have surfaced in arms markets frequently used by terror groups in places such as Yemen and Somalia.  That NATO intervened without seriously considering the intentions of the groups it would implicitly be backing, or made any effort to secure Gaddafi’s arsenals, instead trusting that the militias would agree to unilaterally disarm was foolish and naive on the part of the Obama administration and its allies.  Of course all the blame for what transpired cannot be placed upon the United States, for Gaddafi’s weapons represented just one stream of armaments that flowed out of the country following the war.  NATO’s mission was imperilled from the get-go by the actions of its supposed allies, who purchased billions in weapons for various militant groups that later went on to fuel other conflicts across the region.  It became incredibly difficult for participating states to credibly state that the reason for intervention was purely humanitarian in nature when moves by allies widely seen as being done in concert with NATO efforts were blatantly aimed at propping up one side in the civil war.  The Russian ambassador to the UN made note of this when he said “NATO forces frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called ‘no-fly zone’ over it they started bombing it too.”  Whether NATO expanded its mandate at the behest of Gulf state allies or if they intended to take sides in the conflict all along is up for debate, but regardless, doing so enabled the nearly uninterrupted flow of weapons to Islamist terror groups, who once rid of Gaddafi (a strong ally with regards to U.S counterterrorism efforts in the region) were now free to pursue their goal of fomenting instability in the region armed with billions in newly acquired weapons.

Due to the efforts on the part of the UAE and Qatar, who in defiance of an arms embargo supplied arms to several militias, most of whom later refused to disarm once the conflict was over, a fertile breeding ground for terrorist groups was created.  Many of these very same fighters and militias would go on to play significant roles in other terror hotspots in nearby countries, affiliating themselves with groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL.  Qatar in particular, who continued to funnel arms to Libyan militias as late as September 2014 (two years after the attack on the American compound in Benghazi by a group nominally supported by Qatar), seemingly took no lessons away from Libya, for they continue to arm radical groups in Syria, constructing a potential post-Assad power paradigm that is increasingly likely be eerily similar to that which we now have in Libya.

The government which supplanted Gaddafi’s regime in the years since its fall can only be considered an unmitigated disaster.  This is the case for several reasons, chief amongst them being the totally outsized role played by the tribal militias who deposed Gaddafi.  As previously mentioned, upon the war’s conclusion just about every militia, rather than disarming, instead turned towards consolidating and expanding their territorial holdings.  As a result, the interim National Transitional Council that was appointed to oversee a speedy return to free elections had its hands tied.  Its largest source of funds, oil, was virtually cut off as the majority of the country’s ports, fields and refineries were in the hands of militias who refused the NTC’s demand that they disarm and stand for election if they wished to play a role in government.  Entrusting the momentous task of implementing regime change to a group of insurgents that the West did not seem to fully understand backfired spectacularly, especially when you consider how atrocities against civilians have still continued post-Gaddafi, with hospitals being the site of kidnappings and rocket attacks.    

 The narrative widely peddled in the media as to why intervention was necessary in the first place claimed that Benghazi was the site of an impending massacre by Gaddafi’s  forces.  And yet reexamining the regime’s actions in the months before intervention reveals a portrait of relative restraint.  While the actions taken by Gaddafi’s forces would not have been acceptable from Western forces, intervening only seemed to worsen the situation.  Initial reports on casualties seemed to vindicate NATO action; in September 2011 rebels claimed that 30,000 had been killed.  However the NTC’s subsequent investigations following the war poked several holes in this figure, revising the number down to 11,500 including regime and rebel fighters, as well as missing persons.  In the years since the conflict however, supposedly a period of peaceful transition towards democracy, 2012 and 2013 both saw low level conflict that is estimated to have killed roughly 500 a year.  2014 essentially saw the return of open civil war, and with it the deaths of over 2,750, three years removed from a supposedly successful intervention.

“Throw away your weapons, exactly like your brothers in Ajdabiya and other places did. They laid down their arms and they are safe. We never pursued them at all.”

As the legacy of Western intervention in the country becomes more clear, so is just what really happened.  An alternative narrative has emerged, that Libyan nationals in Switzerland, sympathetic to the rebel forces who were on their last legs in Benghazi, leaked false information pertaining to a potential massacre of the besieged troops and civilians in the city.  Regardless of how true this claim was, their plea for help worked; NATO swiftly intervened and completely reversed the tide of the war, handing the rebels who were previously on the brink of defeat a stunning victory.  Lending credibility to this story are the numbers from Syria.  Before the Libyan intervention commenced in March of 2011, protests had been largely nonviolent and the regime response, criminal as it was, had not yet morphed into the all out war on its citizens that it would soon become.  But by that summer, it is not unlikely that the Syrian opposition took up armed insurrection in hopes of provoking a regime response that would trigger NATO involvement similar to what transpired in Libya.  What did occur was a drawn out war with no end in sight four years after the fact.  And now as the Russians seem intent on taking a more active role in the war there, it's concerning that the only lesson President Obama took away from Libya was that the United States and its allies didn’t intervene enough.  In an interview with the New York Times last year he said “I think we underestimated the need to come in full force.  If you’re going to do this there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies.”  If NATO had more carefully studied the conflict it entered, there might not have been any need to rebuild in the first place.  

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Swallowing The Poison Pill

                              Voters in Greece rejected further EU-led austerity today (Photo: AFP)

The stage for a confrontation years in the making was finally set last week, when the Greek government failed to repay a $1.7 billion USD instalment and announced its intention to hold a referendum on whether or not to accept a bailout package which Eurogroup creditors insist be contingent on further austerity measures the leftist government there was loathe to implement.  While some likened the latest twist in the ongoing crisis as a game of chicken to see which side blinks first, it increasingly looks like the rest of the currency union's patience is beginning to wear thin.  Eurozone leaders last week warned that a "no" vote would only serve to isolate Greece and drive it further into insolvency.  Evidently it wasn't enough to convince Greeks however, who have grappled with levels of unemployment which now see 1 in 4 people jobless, as well as youth unemployment just shy of 50%, for they voted overwhelmingly in favour of rejecting the deal as is.  A significant reason why was the successful narrative painting the referendum as the reassertion of the democratic process in negotiations, which many in the country view as the realm of European technocrats and politicians more interested in their European Union pet project than the plight of the average Greek.  When the results were announced, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was jubilant, and for good reason; a "yes" vote would have been disastrous for his vehemently anti-austerity party, who were key in spinning the ultimately winning narrative.  To illustrate, the Minister of Labour later said "I believe there is no Greek today who is not proud, because regardless of what he voted he showed that this country above all respects democracy."

But what of the already dire situation which is now only set to become worse?  After the ECB cut emergency liquidity in response to Greece defaulting, the government was forced to implement capital controls, something which should have been done months earlier while the banking system was still receiving regular injections of liquidity.  While tightly controlling the flow of money out of the system has bought Greece some time, it has done little to stave off a potential banking collapse, with most estimates forecasting that the banks will run out of cash on Monday.  Some have suggested that the use of "scrips", or IOUs presents a potential way forward in the event of a now inevitable liquidity crunch, pointing out that such a system was successful in 2009 when California was undergoing significant economic turmoil.  Ignoring the fact that the system was only in place for two months (even then banks had ceased purchasing scrips in exchange for USD, fearing potential overexposure) and that Californians were okay receiving incomes, pensions and benefits in IOUs was in part because of 3.75% annual interest to be paid upon maturity, the fact of the matter is that Greece's creditworthiness is such that borrowing on such a scale is virtually impossible.  July 13th is when the government must pay salaries, benefits and other liabilities, a de facto deadline which will certainly test the mettle of Tsipras's government, whose officials have repeatedly insisted they can get a new deal done within a 24-48 hour time frame.

And that claim raises yet another issue.  The government got a favourable result in the referendum by promising to extract greater concessions from the Eurogroup, something which it must now do.  It wants budgetary restraint on its terms, favouring an increased tax net rather than further cuts to social programs that will only be more necessary as the economy's plunge accelerates.  While austerity failed to cut into Greece's debt at the anticipated rate, European leaders would likely lay the blame for that at the feet of successive Greek governments which failed to improve competition, fight corruption and combat rampant tax evasion, all of which played a role in turning the aftershocks of the 2008 global financial crisis into a six year recession.  As such, it is hard to imagine any of the involved parties being in a charitable mood come Monday.  The initial responses to the referendum and Greek entreaties for continued talks only confirm this grim assessment.  Eurozone finance ministers shot down the idea of emergency meetings Monday, point blank saying they "would not know what to discuss".  The ECB reluctance to agree carte blanche to continue providing emergency funds to Greek banks, despite the potential for such a move to cause the country to collapse, speaks volumes to the fact that the Greek debt crisis has reached uncharted territory; and the rest of Europe isn't ruling out anything.

"You have to do things that are going to be fundamentally impossible to explain to people" - Former U.S Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner 

Taken alone, the jubilation in Athens today could have made one forget about how Greece currently sits at the precipice of total economic collapse.  Retailers in the city go sometimes days without a single customer, and even butchers and grocers who still do brisk business are feeling the pinch from their suppliers abroad, who are beginning to demand payment upfront.  The now uncertain future of the country's economy has rendered Greeks unable to import everything from simple foodstuffs to desperately needed medical supplies.  The fact that many in the country didn't know what exactly they were being asked to vote "yes" or "no" to, or that the government there won by appealing to Greeks' wounded pride, all signal a dark future ahead for Greece.  Tsipras's referendum might have been a win for democracy, but it carries with it a significant price;  the rest of Europe is now reconsidering its support for the Greek economy, and behind the government's hopelessly optimistic assessment that it can get a deal done in a matter of days, as opposed to weeks, complete silence about the coming unravelling of the country's economy makes the "democracy at work" narrative being peddled ring hallow.  Successful bailout programs, such as TARP in the United States as well as Sweden's rescue of its banking sector in the 90s, were both reviled by the public when they were first unveiled.  And yet the architects of such programs are now lauded for their work, and the model of isolating toxic assets in "bad banks" first pioneered by Bo Lundgren in Sweden has been emulated in several debt crises since.  

Antagonizing your creditors is never a good idea, (something Argentina knows very well) even when their methodology isn't working as intended.  Should a productive relationship be reestablished however, there may be hope yet for Greece.  Recently the IMF released a white paper containing its latest analysis of Greek debt, and came to the conclusion that given the sheer heft of Greece's debt load, its unlikely Greece's creditors will ever be repaid the entirety of the sum they are owed.  Among some of the figures thrown out, perhaps the most interesting was the fund's assessment of Greece's ability to both service and pay down its considerable debt.  In the IMF's estimation, the country not only requires a third bailout to the tune of $67 billion USD, but that the maturities on its debt obligations be doubled to 40 years.  The hope for Greece however, lays in what was said next; it is vital that a significant portion of Greece's debt be written off, to the tune of $59 billion USD.  This makes sense, given that the economy will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future.  A restructuring of the country's debt would allow the Greek government, which has drained funds from areas such as healthcare and education in order to make repayments, to further stabilize the economy without having to resort to further cuts to important social programs.  Surprisingly, it was the Eurozone which first proposed such a move three years prior, in exchange for reforms.  Should such terms be reintroduced, the EU will get the fundamental changes to the Greek economy it wanted, and Greece gets more favourable terms in the form of long term debt relief.  While by no means sufficient, such a deal would firstly put Greece on a path to recovery, and provide a roadmap for the Greek economy going forward.  But it simply cannot happen if the current admittedly rather frosty state of affairs between involved parties persists.

The current austerity regime is far from perfect, having misjudged the impact of cuts and overestimated the Greek economy's capacity to grow in order to compensate.  And yet the wholesale rejection of austerity, combined with a seeming abdication of responsibility on the part of the Greek government for the role of its fiscal policies in initiating this crisis reflect a seeming dissonance between Greece and its fellow EU confederates.  One argues that a messy and fraught economic issue should be placed in the hands of those who simply cannot hope to understand it, while the other believes that such problems best be left to the brightest minds.  Greece has no clear path forward, but a messy divorce from the eurozone, now a real possibility, certainly will not help matters.  Sensible solutions have been put forward for years, now both sides simply need to listen.    

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Fallacy of America's Love Affair With The Confederacy

“You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting.
You do it the night before the election.”
Last week, Americans underwent a routine that has become depressingly familiar over the past few years.  In Charleston, North Carolina, nine people were killed in a racially motivated mass shooting at one of the country's most prominent black churches.  In the aftermath, the usual once-rousing but now tired-sounding tributes and entreaties for change were made.  A defeated sounding Obama told the nation: "I've had to make statements like this too many times."  He reiterated his frustration with Congress for their steadfast refusal to enact a single iota of legislation aimed at curbing the free flow of guns in the country.  Despite yet another incident of mass violence carried out using weapons banned in just about every other industrialized country (and yes, that includes Switzerland), it seemed like one of America's most sacred cows would remain beyond reproach.

And while American reverence for their Constitutionally granted right to bear arms seems destined to remain intact for the time being, it was another questionable aspect of the country's cultural fabric which seemingly began to unravel in the aftermath of the shooting; the Confederate flag.  Ever since the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, elements of various Confederate flags have appeared everywhere from Okinawa to the flags of several southern states to The Dukes of Hazzard.  Georgia reintroduced elements derived from the rebel flag to its own banner in 1956, widely held to have been in response to the Supreme Court desegregating schools two years prior.  And while this period marked the reemergence of Confederate symbols as a direct counterpoint to the advancement of the black cause in America, the airbrushing of the Confederacy that began almost immediately during Reconstruction (including the troubling depiction of Dixie life in Gone With The Wind) ensured that no black person would truly strive to be equal to their white counterpart long before then, lest it cost them their life.  

While the war settled the Constitutional aspects of white supremacy, it left several important questions by and large unanswered.  Where the federal government had previously enforced the racist social hierarchy, Klansmen took the reigns.  In some cases, members of the Klan and the government officials who in theory were supposed to protect blacks from them were one and the same.  Benjamin Tillman, a Reconstruction era lawmaker from South Carolina whose likeness stands outside the state's capitol to this day once said on the floor of the U.S Senate "We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will.  We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."  This narrative of inherent racial inferiority spun by policymakers sought to rationalize the reasons for which their southern forebears had chosen to secede, painting the war as one to maintain the division of powers outlined in the Constitution, claiming that President Lincoln's administration aimed to infringe on their sovereign rights.  This version, popularized as a "War of Northern Aggression," was instrumental in propagating the myth that slavery was a benign institution, servitude was something blacks desired, that whites were performing a "civilizing mission" by bringing slaves to the west from Africa, and that the Civil War had simply been northern elites imposing their will unfairly and illegally on a way of life that all parties involved were happy to be a part of.  This is patently false.

And yet refocusing the scope of the war to the preservation of a way of life as opposed to the institution of slavery is what allowed what is essentially the flag of traitors (on par with those of Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa) to proliferate so extensively that it now features quite prominently in American cultural identity.  Those from the south oftentimes considered a flag to be a symbol of their heritage, a relic of a simpler yet better time.  And yet it is an evil emblem, whose sole reason for existence was to symbolize the continued economic and political subjugation of blacks.  Its continued role since then has only reinforced this; during the Civil Rights era, KKK members who harassed Freedom Riders and marchers brandished them, and to this day they have been a common sight at right-wing rallies protesting the actions of President Obama (including an infamous incident where a protester flew one right outside the White House, the offensiveness of which cannot be overstated).  Bringing down the flags wherever they fly is the easy part.  Addressing the ignorance of the realities of being black in America which allowed these symbols to exist outside of a museum 150 years after the Civil War had concluded however, will not be so simple.          

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Real Outrage About Omar Khadr

"I like my son to be brave...I would like my son to be trained to protect himself, to protect his home, to protect his neighbor, to see a young girl innocent, being raped or attacked, to really fight to defend it. I would really love to do that, and I would love my son to grow with this mentality...[a]nd you would you like me to raise my child in Canada and by the time he's 12 or 13 he'll be on drugs or having some homosexual relation or this and that? Is it better? For me, no. I would rather have my son as a strong man who knows right and wrong and stands for it, even if it's against his parents."

Those were the words of Maha el-Samnah, the matriarch of the now-infamous Khadr family and an Al Qaeda sympathizer whose husband was killed in a 2003 U.S drone strike on Taliban militants in Pakistan's volatile border region with Afghanistan.  It was her and her husband's decision to uproot their young family and move to Pakistan in 1987 which inflicted the first in a series of injustices against Omar Khadr and his siblings.  During the years that followed, Khadr flitted between Canada and Pakistan, later being manipulated by his father's associates into planting IEDs and ultimately engaging in combat with American soldiers under the guise of serving as a translator to foreign "visitors".  Omar Khadr during this chapter of his life committed acts that were undoubtedly wrong, and yet it is important to note that the crimes he was accused and convicted of were committed by a brainwashed fifteen year old with little understanding of the conflict in which he was engaged, an assessment shared by the United Nations, who officially designated him a child soldier in 2010.  The frankly galling failure of those in Guantanamo, Washington and Ottawa to account for this fact in their subsequent prosecution of Khadr was the primary reason behind the ultimately needless fifteen year legal saga which ensued.

Omar Khadr was tried in a court which could not provide a fair and transparent trial.  Since the military tribunals commenced in 2001, 3 of the military personnel appointed to serve as prosecutors resigned, citing a biased and unfair legal process.  Further, Colonel Fred Borch, who served as Chief Prosecutor, was forced to resign when leaked memos purported to reveal that he had bragged about jeopardizing the integrity of the proceedings, and that the officers on the commission had been chosen because they could be trusted to convict those brought before them.  Furthermore because much of the evidence provided by the government in these cases are legally flimsy intelligence reports, if the same notions of evidence and "the burden of proof" which exist in the civilian court system were applied to the Guantanamo proceedings, the government would simply not be able to convict.  To that end, the standards for evidence admission were tweaked so that the reliability and validity of such reports would not be questioned.  In doing so, U.S officials ensured that the tribunal system would not pass muster if an American citizen were to be tried there, seeing as how they blatantly infringe upon several 6th Amendment rights.  And then there's the matter of "enhanced interrogation", and how the confessions and intelligence extracted from them were oftentimes false and/or of little value.  Khadr's attorney claims that his client was waterboarded during his time at Guantanamo, a claim which the U.S government vehemently denies.  If true, the confession to murder which was the bedrock of the plea deal that labelled Khadr a terrorist and war criminal would not be admissible as evidence in court.  Even if we were to not recognize children utilized by terror organizations as child combatants, Khadr's trial was nonetheless a travesty in the eyes of not just international law, but American law as well.  

But perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this case was what wasn't done.  As a Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr was entitled to certain protections and a degree of support from his government, chief among them ensuring that he was receiving fair and equitable treatment under the laws of the United States.  Not only was this not fulfilled, RCMP officers sent to interview him turned their notes over to prison officials, abetting an illegal detainment.  Further, consular officials are supposed to encourage the speedy processing of cases against Canadians held abroad, but this was also not done, nor was a formal repatriation request made by the government at any point during Khadr's detainment without charge.  While Omar Khadr's ordeal began under Paul Martin's Liberal government, it worsened under Stephen Harper.  Countless NGOs, legal experts and even the Supreme Court of Canada harshly criticized the Tory government's actions with regards to Khadr, and yet they only doubled down.  Earlier this week in a last ditch attempt to prevent him from being released, the government argued that releasing Khadr on bail would do "irreparable harm" to U.S-Canada relations.  This failed, as the presiding justice said that the government had failed to produce evidence that the U.S shared this belief.

And so as this decade-and-a-half long ordeal finally winds down, what actually was Khadr?  A war criminal, as the government suggests?  A victim of terrible circumstance, as his many boosters claim?  As he embarks on his new life with hopes of becoming a medic, we shall no doubt find out.  Currently a $20 million civil suit against the government is underway, and Khadr is appealing his criminal conviction in the United States.  So while the ultimate fate of Khadr remains up in the air, an important question to consider is this; When the Canadian government willingly abets the torture and illegal imprisonment of one of its own citizens, a 15 year old boy nonetheless, who is the real war criminal here?     

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Coronation of Hilary Clinton

Portrait by John Springs 
For the staffers who have been frantically working on the worst kept secret in Washington, the months of working out of coffee shops and crashing on relatives' couches in and around New York are as of this Sunday over.  After carefully crafting the framework of the formal campaign machine for the better part of four months, Hilary Clinton finally announced her candidacy for president in 2016 last Sunday.  Being the only big ticket candidate on the Democrats' radar for the better part of two years, her announcement came as a surprise to nobody.  And yet while several analysts have warned of the dangers of inevitability, as more of Clinton's campaign team and network of advisors are revealed it increasingly looks like the Democratic Party establishment has not only accepted Clinton but embraced her.

In the months leading up to the announcement it was interesting to note that many of the names being floated for top jobs on the campaign were veterans of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns as well as recent departures from the White House.  John Podesta, who has been tapped to serve as campaign chairman was until recently a key advisor to the Obama Administration and served on the President's transition team in 2008.  Furthermore, some of the players who were instrumental in implementing Obama's youth targeted and data driven "get out the vote" initiative back in 2008 have resurfaced here in similar roles.  Obama's 2008 and 2012 digital strategists Teddy Goff and Andrew Bleeker are expected to be advising the Clinton campaign on its own plans for utilizing the Internet.  This is all in marked contrast with this point in the 2008 election cycle, where establishment Democrats were visibly split into several camps, with John Edwards, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and even Joe Biden also being posited as viable candidates early on.  Compare that to now where nine months out from Iowa, Clinton has successfully monopolized the support of beltway Democrats.  And unlike the time when establishment Republicans faced open rebellion from their party's Tea Party elements in 2012, the anticipated progressive rebuke of Clinton's "establishment" credentials has so far failed to materialize.

Having gained the implicit approval of liberal champion and congresswoman Elizabeth Warren, Hilary Clinton has likely removed the final potential roadblock to the 2016 Democratic nomination.  The two other frequently mentioned candidates, former congressman Jim Webb and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, simply do not pose the same threat to Clinton that Warren and the progressive wing of the party do.  While it is easy to understand why Webb, a gun-loving former Reagan administration official, has limited appeal, O'Malley is a more interesting case.  He served as Mayor of Baltimore for eight years, and another eight as governor.  In 2011 he was elected Chair of the Democratic Governors Association, which he served as for two years.  Articulate, intelligent and well liked, in 2005 Business Week called him one of the Democratic Party's "rising stars", alongside Obama and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanual.  But while Obama, then a freshman congressman, was able to launch himself onto the national stage, why have O'Malley's national ambitions largely stalled?

A fact that's largely been overlooked regarding Obama's rapid rise to prominence since first being elected to Congress in 2005 is the significant establishment backing that was required to launch his brand nationwide.  His personal story is compelling yes, but the central role of that story in his initial presidential campaign was the careful result of a DNC effort to find a message that would resonate with key swathes of the electorate.  Obama's story, that of a young, charismatic, mixed-race, Harvard Law educated freshman congressman who had spent years organizing at a grassroots level in Chicago was, in the DNC's estimation, fresh enough to mask the centre-left policy positions he shared with most mainstream Democrats.  That many of the voters targeted by Obama (students and college educated women, both of which are overwhelmingly liberal) found him "not liberal enough" just months into his administration only confirmed it.  "Change" was an intoxicating slogan, projecting the image of a political outsider as fed up with Washington as the average voter.  And yet, Obama was still at the core an establishment candidate who received backing from some of the Democrats' wealthiest donors.  Normally, the monolith that was Obama's donor base in 2008 and 2012 would be dispersed amongst several viable candidates, but instead it seems that many prominent Obama financiers threw their support behind a Clinton campaign over a year ago.

 O'Malley has stated that he is running for president, and judging from his record as a mayor and governor it is not unreasonable to think he'd be a good one.  But running a presidential campaign today means ad buys, PACs, data and staff, all of which require a fairly extensive donor network.  Having locked up vast swathes of the Democrats' donors roughly a year before the first primaries means that, barring a surprise Warren entry, Hilary Clinton has effectively iced out competition from other mainstream Democrats.  While Hilary Clinton will go to great lengths to stress that there is no "air of inevitability" this time around, party officials and donors' actions seem to suggest otherwise.  Sunday was a coronation, and make no mistake, Democrats firmly believe that Hilary Clinton is their ticket to the White House.  

Friday, 10 April 2015

Cyprus And Its Own "Grexit": A Roadmap for Greece?

Greek deputy finance minister Dimitris Mardas reassured the finance world last week that Greece would in fact meet an April 9th deadline to repay a 450 million euro IMF loan instalment on time, after comments his superior had made on television were construed by many to suggest that the country was actively considering renegading on its debt.  It did little to help already skittish investor confidence, and reignited speculation amongst many financial journalism outlets on a potential "Grexit" that is now to be expected whenever the newly installed anti-austerity government in Greece pokes its creditors in Brussels and Berlin in the eye.  But while the fracas unfolded in Athens, across the Mediterranean an unlikely and largely unheralded success story quietly wound down Monday.

in late 2012, the Cypriot government was in trouble.  Facing an over leveraged banking system exposed to (perhaps ironically) the stumbling Greek economy and an overheated real estate market, the subsequent downgrade to "junk" status of the country's debt meant that Cyprus was suddenly unable to turn to global equity markets in order to finance the stimulus and rescue packages needed to save its faltering economy.  Facing a looming default, in March of 2013 the Cypriot government agreed to a rescue package with the "troika" (the IMF, ECB, as well as the European Commission and Eurogroup representing the EU) consisting of a 10 billion euro bailout as well as strict reforms meant to forcibly instill confidence in the Cypriot banking system as well as the creditworthiness of the government.  The portion of reforms aimed at preventing a large scale exodus of money from Cyprus's banks are known as "capital controls", and were implemented in the hopes of buying more time for efforts to recapitalize the country's banking system and prevent panicked runs on the banks, which would most likely have resulted in a collapse of the system.  Initially quite strict (withdrawals from personal accounts were limited to 300 euros per day, and transfers to foreign banks were severely limited as well), the restrictions on the Cypriot euro were gradually lifted as the banks were further stabilized and confidence was slowly restored.

The measures were never popular, with leftist parties opposed to the package floating alternatives ranging from a reduction in the size of the military, a corporate income tax increase, and even outright nationalization of the banking sector.  A common theme among many opponents was resistance to what many believed amounted to EU-imposed austerity, championed by technocrats in Brussels who were only interested in preserving their economic and political union and cared little for the average Cypriot.  A blog attached to The Economist even went so far as to call the package "unfair" and "self defeating", arguing that the high political cost of such austerity preconditions for bailouts made them impractical if the EU hoped to maintain the goodwill of its constituent states.  Others worried that the implementation of such harsh measures would push Cyprus into the arms of Russia, from whom it had already received substantial financial aid.  Ultimately, it was not an easy road to recovery in Cyprus; the country's significant community of wealthy Russians who had stashed their wealth there had to be placated, and the first parliamentary vote on an assistance package failed amidst widespread protests.  And yet last month, two years removed from the bailout, a Bank of Cyprus official referred to the capital controls as "irrelevant", suggesting that the country's top economists were now confident enough in the state of the recovery that they were considering doing away with the last of the monetary restrictions first put in place two years ago, a milestone they quietly fulfilled earlier this week.

Cypriot president Nicos Anistasiades heralded that admittedly largely symbolic day as indicative of "the full restoration of confidence in our banking system and the stabilization of the economy of Cyprus."  And he's not wrong in asserting that significant progress has been made.  The flow of money within the country is now unhindered, the country has resumed borrowing (paywall) and the economy is finally expected to return to growth in 2015 after three years of recession.  While decisive action on the part of the ECB and Cypriot lawmakers no doubt played an important role in staving off a default and subsequent exit from the Eurozone, capital controls were imperative in allowing the structural issues within the economy (the banking sector's debt obligations at one point were nine times greater than the size of the Cypriot economy) to be resolved.  Despite initial public backlash, Cyprus today is in markedly better condition than Greece.  While the full extent of Greece's sovereign debt issues mean that capital controls, should they be implemented, would be in place for potentially much longer than they were in place in Cyprus, they present a more desirable alternative to the "Grexit" as a means of quarantining the country's financial troubles until a deal finally resolving the crisis is struck (or the ruling Syriza party in Greece is voted out), as opposed to continuing to simply bankroll the Greek government while subjecting it to austerity measures which are doing little to improve the long term viability of the country's economy.  But given how the Bank of England has all but thrown in the towel when it comes to Greece, it remains to see how much appetite remains amongst the EU's other core economies, especially Germany, for continued support in order to stave off a Greek default, especially given the latter's penchant for creative schemes aimed at alleviating its strict bailout conditions.  Barring a significant change in tune from the government in Athens however, its looking highly unlikely that a currency quarantine will be given a chance to help rectify the country's long running debt issues.    

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Russia's Love Affair With Europe's Far Right

A Cossak confronts a demonstrator (Associated Press)
Russia under President Vladimir Putin has forged an unusually aggressive foreign policy, a fact widely circulated in Western news media.  What has received little coverage outside of think tank and NGO circles however, is the full extent to which Putin and his inner circle have consolidated power within the country.  While military expenditures have increased significantly since Putin first took office in 1999, it has been accompanied by brutally effective asymmetrical tactics, which although successful at resolving internal conflicts like in Chechnya, have eroded civil liberties and subverted the democratic process to such a degree that in some aspects Russia now resembles North Korea as a crony-capitalist kleptocracy masquerading as a democracy.  Why has nothing or nobody, neither domestic nor otherwise, been able to put a significant dent in Putin’s seemingly imperial and authoritarian ambitions?

The 1990s were a tumultuous time for the then-nascent Russian Federation.  Still smarting from the breakup of the Soviet Union, which many blamed on the weakness of final Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and plagued by civil strife, many in the country were understandably not optimistic about the future.  Radical privatization (dubbed “shock therapy”) of the Soviet era economy by Western-backed President Boris Yeltsin, whose supporters were pushing for rapid implementation of free market reforms, had resulted in the now infamous “cash for shares” fire sale of state-controlled assets at a fraction of their value to a small group of Soviet era political elite.  Global recession in 1998 exacerbated Russia’s economic woes, and brought the ruble to the precipice of collapse.  Yeltsin’s government underwent a period of significant political turmoil, with Yeltsin appointing several Prime Ministers in quick succession.

This was the scene in Russia when the world was first introduced to Vladimir Putin, then a largely unknown politician with roots in the foreign intelligence community.  Yeltsin spoke very highly of the technocrat-turned-Prime Minister, once even proclaiming Putin his heir presumptive.  Almost as if he was making good on a promise, Yeltsin abruptly resigned not much later, making Putin Acting President.  And so began a stranglehold on power which is now entering its 15th year.  During his time in office Putin has proven himself a master at populist politics, deftly weaving a network of support amongst seemingly disparate segments of Russian society.  By embracing revered institutions such as the military and Orthodox Church and tapping Russia’s proud military tradition, he has been able to propagate a myth that the country is under attack from a Western conspiracy; that the economic hardships of the 1990s was the result of seeking rapprochement with the West.  Putin has cast himself as a defender of the proverbial “Motherland” from foreign meddling, a theme increasingly prevalent in almost every facet of Russian policymaking today.  A “gay propaganda” law pushed through the Duma last year included clauses which seemed to insinuate that the Russian government viewed same-sex rights activists as foreign agitators.  Liberal minded opposition media outlets are regularly accused by what are likely Kremlin-backed “internet trolls” of parroting the American line. Conflating the fiercely nationalistic rhetoric of his supporters with “patriotism” has allowed Putin to virtually silence his opposition and justify actions within the purview of his agenda which otherwise would not be deemed acceptable.  Much like how the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, Putin has framed cold relations with the west, domestically at least, as a clash of values.  His brand of “leadership” has been lauded on Fox News, and provided as a contrast to President Obama’s purported weakness.  His methods have proven successful in stifling dissent and sending his popularity domestically soaring, but have left Russia isolated as the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals have alienated the West.  And yet for years Putin has quietly championed a policy that is only now beginning to bear fruit.

A peek inside the conference. (Associated Press)
What may turn out to be an auspicious day for Russian foreign policy began in decidedly unsexy fashion on a dreary Sunday last month.  The inaugural Russian Conservative Forum kicked off as leaders of North American and European right wing parties gathered at a Holiday Inn in downtown St. Petersburg to ostensibly advance the brand of global conservatism.  And yet there was quite possibly nary a discussion of conservatism to be had.  Delegate after delegate tripped over themselves to declare their disgust with the supposed “European” and “American” way of life, and all of its homosexual, multicultural, globalized trappings; it was no coincidence that each party was essentially parroting Vladimir Putin’s agenda.  While his name was not attached to the meeting, it was hard to ignore the influence his United Russia party exerted over the proceedings.  The assembled parties were an array of distasteful ideologues which included Greece’s borderline neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and Italy’s Forza Nuova, amongst the more vanilla attendees.  Guests at what amounted to a fascist pep rally also included Holocaust deniers, Nazi sympathizers, and a Russian skinhead notorious for beheading a puppy in the name of publicity.

It is not surprising that this gathering was reminiscent of “Communist International”, an association of communist parties founded as an instrument of Soviet control over international communism back in 1919, a period of hostile relations with the West.  Internationally isolated, Lenin and his bolsheviks turned to the forum as a means of finding support and allies abroad.  While the first congress was attended almost exclusively by Soviets and had few foreign delegates, the organization soon came to be recognized as the face of international communism.  Reports indicate that today Russia is engaging in a similar campaign of currying favour amongst ideologically friendly parties not just in neighbouring countries but in western Europe as well.  Confirming what various reports and papers say, the French right wing party Front National admitted to taking a roughly 9.5 million euro loan from a state controlled Russian bank.  The FN went on to make unprecedented gains in last year’s European Parliamentary elections, forming a substantial pro-Russia bloc within European Parliament, a decent return on investment.  Under Putin, the Kremlin has sought closer relations with an array of far right political parties, from Hungary’s Jobbik to Austria’s Freedom Party, to Belgium’s Vlaams Belang.  Many backed Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, and last year declared the referendum on Russian annexation of Crimea legitimate which begs the question; why would such fiercely nationalistic parties seemingly contradict themselves by unquestionably following the lead of another country?

 The answer has less to do with fascism, Russia, or even conservatism and more to do with political marginalization and hatred of a U.S and EU pecking order they feel their own countries are beholden to.  Hence the defiant policymaking and disdainful regard for both displayed by Vladimir Putin has won him many admirers amongst Europe’s far right, and made Kremlin funds much more effective at achieving its goals.  Having smartly nurtured such parties for years, rampant anti-EU sentiment amongst many Europeans over the past year or so mean that Moscow is just now beginning to cash in on its far right strategy.  As these parties increasingly score significant victories at the polls, actions like further Russian sanctions or even renewal of current ones might eventually become quite difficult.  Russia didn’t create Europe’s far right but Moscow cultivating vocal allies willing to sing Russia’s praises in European Parliament and legislatures across the continent is a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.