Obama: Pacifist or prisoner of the system?

By Ameen Izzadeen
International relations are a dynamic field of study. With the change in perceptions of national interest and national security, today’s enemies can become friends tomorrow. Allies can become avowed enemies. Similarly, today’s superpower can become a spent power in time to come. The US-centric world order of today could become an X-centric world order, with the X here being any country that will one day supersede the United States.
What I want to stress here is that world politics is in a state of flux. So are the foreign polices of nations. Who could have imagined a few years ago that Iran and the United States would hold heart-to-heart talks and the US Secretary of State and the Iranian foreign Minister would sip coffee sitting at the same table? Who would have imagined a few years ago that the leaders of the US and Cuba would shake hands one day and open embassies in each other’s capitals? In 1973, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked when he thought his country would establish diplomatic relations with the United States, he said it could only happen when the Catholic Church had a Latin American Pope and the United States an Afro-American President. It was a prophetic message, though Castro was more than certain that neither of these two would happen. But they happened during his lifetime and contemporarily, too.
It was only months ago that Fidel Castro, the iconic revolutionary leader, described the US-led NATO as a Nazi force. It was only a little more than a year ago, he slammed US President Obama as being “bellicose and hypocritical”.
But on Monday, Cuba and the United States expressed optimism when they opened embassies in each other’s capitals after a gap of five and a half decades, symbolically bringing to an end one remaining vestige of the old Cold War. Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez was in Washington for the flag-raising ceremony at his country’s new Washington embassy. He was hosted by his US counterpart, John Kerry — the first formal meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries since 1958.
Ahead of Monday’s historic events, the US initiated several confidence building measures, which include easing of restrictions on travel and foreign currency remittances. In May, President Obama removed Cuba from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism. But the two countries acknowledge that much more needs to be done before they normalise ties. While diehard socialists in Cuba are still wary of the US moves, they welcome any peaceful resolution of the Cold War conflict. In the US, the opposition to the new détente is equally strong, especially from Republicans relying on the votes of rightwing Cuban Americans. But Kerry, who is expected to visit Havana on August 14 to formally raise the American flag over the US embassy there, explained the virtue of engagement.
“This milestone does not signify an end to the many differences that still separate our governments… But it does reflect the reality that the cold war ended long ago and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement… Nothing is more futile than trying to live in the past,” he said, signalling a significant shift in the foreign policy of the US.
Cuba says future progress would be contingent upon the end of the trade embargo that has for decades suffocated the Cuban economy and the return of Guantánamo Bay, a Cuban territory where the US is running a notorious prison with detainees being denied rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. But Kerry said President Obama was keen to lift the trade embargo but he was not clear on the demand for Guantanamo Bay. But making concession for the sake of peace in the US is no easy game, however sincere the intentions of Obama are. He has to deal with an increasingly hostile Congress, which is controlled by Republicans opposed to the thaw in relations with Cuba and Iran.
Foreign policy is an extension of a nation’s domestic policy and is determined by a nation’s national interest. In a democracy, foreign policy is not the prerogative of the Executive branch alone. The legislature has a role to play. In addition, the people’s mood also matters. But in a capitalist democracy, apart from the legislature and the public mood, also playing key roles are lobbies and captains of capitalism.
Given this scenario, Obama is facing a daunting task. On the one hand, he appears to tread the path of pacifism without compromising the US national interest or security. On the other, his idealist realism is checked by forces such as the Neoconservatives, the Zionists, the capitalists and political opportunists.
Given these hurdles, Obama’s achievements in the world political arena are praiseworthy. He seriously and genuinely tried to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He sent Kerry on mission after mission to the Middle East for talks with leaders of Israel and Palestine and even set a deadline. But, alas, his efforts came a cropper, largely because of the intransigence of Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Crestfallen, Obama then shifted his focus from what he could not achieve to what he thought he could achieve. When he decided to re-double efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and bring to fruition talks with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, he had successfully completed a drawdown of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoided being dragged into a war with Syria.
If talks are the means by which Obama tries to make peace with Cuba and Iran, he has adopted pressure tactics to check China’s militaristic ambitions in the South China and East China Seas. With regard to the United States’ dispute with Russia over Ukraine, it is Obama the prisoner of the system who is making the moves, instead of Obama the idealistic-realist. While Obama the idealistic realist may prefer talks with Russia, the system wants him to treat Russia as the number one enemy of the US. Last week, two nominees for the top positions of the US armed forces told the US Senate confirmation hearing that Russia was the main threat — an existential threat — to the US.
Will Obama succeed in his efforts and emerge as a man of peace for the history books? He has time till January to shift his focus from what he could to what he could not. Without succumbing to pressure from the Zionist lobby, let’s hope he will revive the Middle East peace process and help the Palestinians achieve statehood. Let’s also hope, he will take steps to free the Middle East from the clutches of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorism.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Historic nuclear deal with Iran: Lanka also can roll out the barrel

By Ameen Izzadeen
By Ameen Izzadeen
It was as clear as floating oil on a glass of water that Sri Lanka was among the countries that were worst affected by the tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran in December 2011. Although the sanctions were aimed at forcing Iran to abandon any nuclear weaponisation programme, they also hit several developing countries. This is because the US warned that it would cut off from the US financial system foreign firms, state-owned or otherwise, that did business with the Iranian government.
For the oil-import-dependent economy of Sri Lanka, the sanctions dealt multiple blows. Prior to the crippling sanctions, Sri Lanka had been importing crude oil from Iran on concessionary terms. Iran accounted for almost 93 percent of Sri Lanka’s oil needs. Sri Lanka had been importing 39,000 barrels a day. After the sanctions were placed, Sri Lanka’s oil-import bill rose sharply. This rise in the oil import bill added more fuel to the fire as far as the economy was concerned, while the country was trying to recover from a 30-year separatist war.
Although the sanctions regime had a clause that allowed some countries to import a limited amount of crude oil from Iran, Sri Lanka could not make full use of this facility. This was because international insurance companies avoided dealing with Iran, for fear of being punished by the United States. Even Sri Lanka’s banking sector refused to open letters of credit for the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the country’s chief importer of oil. Iran, meanwhile, offered Sri Lanka a loan facility, in the hope that it could persuade Sri Lanka to buy Iran’s oil. But Sri Lanka could not find tankers to go to Iran, because no shipping company wanted to be blacklisted by the US.
Sri Lanka’s case was made worse because its only refinery at Sapugaskanda – a half-a-century-old national asset — had been fine-tuned to refine the type of crude found largely in Iran. Earlier, Teheran had promised US$ one billion in aid to upgrade the Sapugaskanda refinery. But with the sanctions tightening the grip on Iran, the aid was deferred indefinitely. When the sanctions began to hit Iran, Sri Lanka’s oil supplies ran thin, bringing the Sapugaskanda plant to a virtual halt. A desperate Sri Lanka bought crude from Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Vietnam at much higher prices. But this caused more problems. The Sapugaskanda plant suffered regular breakdowns because it could not cope with the high sulphur content of non-Iranian crude.
Citing the desperate situation it had found itself in as a result of the sanctions on Iran, the then Sri Lankan government appealed to the US. But Washington, with which the then government had locked horns over war crimes allegations, refused to budge, prompting President Mahinda Rajapaksa to describe the December 2011 sanctions on Iran as sanctions on Sri Lanka. However, over the years, helped by the falling oil prices and adjustments to the refinery, Sri Lanka managed to overcome the crisis to some extent.
Against this backdrop, the news on Tuesday that Iran and the world powers have reached a historic deal that will end the crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic, has made Sri Lanka jubilant. With Iranian oil glutting the market, oil prices are expected to take a further plunge or continue at the current low level for a longer period. Indeed, this heralds glad tidings for Sri Lanka, whose oil import bill constitutes 25 percent of its total import bill. The lifting of sanctions will also help Sri Lanka’s exports to Iran, especially tea. Iran had been a key market for Sri Lanka’s tea. Even after the sanctions were imposed, Sri Lanka was able to export 30 million kilos a year to Iran. Now that Iran is coming out of the sanctions and getting back all its money – around US$ 100 billion – frozen in the West, the demand from Iran for Sri Lanka’s exports, especially tea, will rise.
But the government cannot count oil tankers, dreaming of the coming windfall. Instead it should learn lessons from the sanctions episode. One key lesson is that the policy of depending on one country for all or much of its oil imports can lead to economy-crippling consequences.
Even now, there is little guarantee that the deal reached on Tuesday will stand the test of time, given the acrimonious Middle Eastern politics. Already, Iran’s foes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – two of the staunchest US allies — have made no effort to hide their anger or disappointment over the deal. Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the deal as a “stunning historic mistake” while pro-Israeli lawmakers in the US have also vowed to defeat it. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, fears an Iran freed from sanctions will have enough wealth to sustain the Syrian regime, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi forces.
For US President Barack Obama, the Vienna deal on Tuesday was indeed a signal achievement that will find him a place in the history books. When he leaves the White House in January 2017, he can look at his Nobel peace medal and feel that, after all, he deserves it because he has made peace with an enemy which had labelled the United States as the Great Satan and held 52 US diplomats hostage for 444 days at the Teheran embassy. It was also a victory for US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It is said that Kerry had spent more time with Zarif than with any other world figure.
Although public opinion in the US is divided over the deal, in Iran the mood was joyful, with President Hassan Rouhani saying it was an answer to the prayers of the people of Iran during Ramadan. Many analysts believe that this may be a key turnaround in relations between the two countries which find themselves on the same side as far as many global issues are concerned. They include Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Saudi officials have voiced fears that increasing contacts between Iran and the US could lead to Iran replacing Saudi Arabia as America’s main ally in the region. In the coming days, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter will travel to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to convince or console them that the deal does not mean that that they are being ditched in favour of Iran.
Amidst this tough opposition from staunch US allies, a huge question mark hangs over Tuesday’s nuclear deal, according to which Iran will drastically reduce its enriched uranium stockpile and centrifuges and allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. The deal is fraught with clauses that warn Iran that the sanctions could be re-imposed in case of violations. Now the interpretation of a violation of a treaty clause of this nature has more to do with politics than with the law.
Therefore, the Sri Lankan government should work out a comprehensive strategy to avert a similar crisis in the future. The strategy should involve investing in a second refinery. Instead of building a second international airport for ghost flights at Mattala, the then government should have spent that money on a second refinery.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Lessons for Lanka from the Greek tragedy

By Ameen Izzadeen
As Greece teeters on the brink of economic ruin with a Sunday deadline set by European creditor nations being seen as a last chance to salvage itself from bankruptcy, the crisis offers valuable lessons to Sri Lanka, which was hurtling towards its own debt crisis prior to the January 8 presidential election. If not for the change of government, the country would have found itself in a Greece-like economic mess sooner rather than later.
Yet, it appears the new government has only slowed the speed at which the country was plunging towards an economic crisis. A comprehensive plan complete with efficient economic management guided by professional advice is still the crying need. The interim budget in January did not give an economic formula to put the country on the right track. It was a budget with a pending election in focus — more so, a Greek budget that allows the state to spend lavishly without increasing the revenue through taxes and other measures.
But what is reassuring is that the new government, at least, seems to understand the urgent need to restructure the economy. Within weeks of coming into office, it approached the International Monetary Fund for a US$ 5 billion bailout deal – low interest loans to settle project loans obtained at commercial rates, mostly from China. But political uncertainty and the relatively satisfactory status of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves prevented a commitment from the IMF. The government is now said to be seeking low interest loans from Japan to cushion the sting of high interest project loans.
In a recent article in the Business Times section of the Sunday Times, Economist Palitha Ekanayake said the foreign debt issue had taken a dangerous upward trend since 2010 due to the previous regime’s policies and he called on the present government to manage it properly to avoid a debt crisis.
“At the end of March 2015, the overall volume of foreign debt would have reached $70 billion or nearly five times of the government revenue while debt repayment is almost equal to the revenue. According to the evidence, the country could be closer to the ‘Dangerous Red Line’ of debt crisis…. The gateway out of the debt crisis lies in between the destiny of continuing to take foreign debt in the future and creation of a strong economy leading to earning sizeable volumes of foreign exchange while taking appropriate policy reforms to prevent a debt crisis. In addition, the probable remedial measures that can be taken to avoid this crisis lie in a politically stable government in Sri Lanka in the near future…,” he said.
It is not only on the score of foreign debt that Sri Lanka can be grouped together with Greece. Corruption and the cooking of figures, too, put the two countries in the same category.
In 2004, Greece admitted that it fudged budget figures to join Eurozone and to avoid being downgraded by rating agencies. In the centre of this deception was Goldman Sachs. This investment bank was accused of helping Greece to hide the true extent of its debt. If Greece had shared the true picture with the Eurozone nations, the problem could have been solved at the beginning. But this is not the only reason why Greece is where it is today. Apart from spending beyond its means with borrowed money, Greece has become a cradle of corruption.
Last week, the London Daily Mail published an article based on a new book — ‘The Full Catastrophe: Travels among the New Greek Ruins’. In it, author James Angelos lays bare the corruption which filtered through all levels of Greek society.
It was the rumours of an ‘island of the blind’ which first brought Angelos, a journalist, to Greece in 2011. He had heard that on Zakynthos, something like two per cent of the population were registered blind. All was not quite how it seemed, however, and it transpired that 61 of the 680 ‘blind’ residents were quite happily driving around the island. In fact, an astonishing 498 of those 680 were not blind at all — or even partially sighted. But being ‘blind’ had its advantages — in particular, the €724 paid in benefits once every two months, and a reduction in utility bills. It was a scam which could be traced back to one ophthalmologist and one official…. And, as Angelos discovered, it was only the tip of the iceberg.
The book also reveals how tens of thousands of families continue to draw the pensions of their dead parents. Another issue was tax evasion. A Daily Mail investigation has revealed that opulent mansions and villas with their own swimming pools were, on paper, homes of virtual paupers.
“They were all allowed to declare their own income for tax purposes — and officially, they were only earning €12,000 a year, below the tax threshold. Apparently, only 5,000 people admitted to earning more than £90,000 a year — prompting one economist to describe Greece as a ‘poor country full of rich people’,” said the Daily Mail evoking little sympathy for collapsing pensioners outside ATMs in a country where everyone has joined the gravy train.
Corruption and tax evasion of this magnitude take place with official connivance. In Greece, the people call it fakelaki, which literally means a small envelope, but figuratively means bribes that one needs to pay even for surgery in state-run hospitals.
Anti-corruption activists say roughly €1 billion a year is paid by companies in bribes to public institutions, while they estimate the total amount of bribes at roughly €3.5 billion a year. In Transparency International’s corruption index, Greece ranked at 49th in 2004, was down to 57th in 2008, and slumped to 94th in 2012 and recovered to 69th place in 2014, still the worst performer in Europe. Sri Lanka, where the issue of corruption has been dominating public discourse since December last year, was placed in the 85th position among 175 countries in the 2014 index.
In the case of Greece, richer Eurozone countries had rescued it every time it tottered near bankruptcy, unable to pay its international loans. This is because they fear that if they let Greece exit Eurozone – the media call it Grexit — and evade repayments of its loans, the repercussions would be equally disastrous to their economies. This explains why the European creditor nations and the IMF are still talking to Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The premier won a resounding victory at last Sunday’s referendum where an overwhelming majority rejected the tough austerity measures proposed by the creditors, including the European Central Bank.
But if Sri Lanka faced a crisis such as that of Greece, there would be hardly a country, monetary institution or bank to rescue it. The country may face the Latin American situation of the 1980s when country after country in the region plunged into what economists call a ‘lost decade’ as a result of their foreign debt exceeding by many times their revenue. One of the main tasks of the next government will be to prevent the economy from moving towards a Greek tragedy based on corruption and mismanagement.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Surge in ISIS terror fits Israeli script

By Ameen Izzadeen
The more one studies the canker that is ISIS, the more one is certain that the group is not only far from Islam, but also has the support of some powerful hidden forces. A neighbour of the killer who mowed down 38 foreign tourists, 30 of them British, on the beach of Tunisia last Friday said, “Seiff killed Islam”.
Seifeddine Rezgui, the gunman with links to ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), did not visit the mosque in his neigbourhood, according to the neighbour, and consumed alcohol, though his university colleagues said he had extremist views.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in an oped article to the Daily Telegraph said, “unshakeable resolve” and a “full-spectrum response” were needed to tackle Islamist extremism, which he described as a “poisonous ideology”.
Police and security services must be given the tools to tackle online propaganda and terrorism must be dealt with “at its source” in places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya by supporting governments to tackle political instability, Cameron said.
Then he went on to remind the British people — still recovering from the worst terror attack since the July 7, 2005 London bombing — that British aircraft were involved in air strikes over Iraq, airborne intelligence assets were assisting other countries over Syria, and the UK was working with the UN, EU and US to support the formation of a Government of National Accord in Libya.
Laughable indeed, if these were the measures Cameron thinks would stop the ISIS. The United States and Britain are part of a grand coalition formed to take on the ISIS. The coalition also includes Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. But these Arab states have of late scaled down their participation or virtually opted out of the coalition.
The coalition’s military operations started in August 2014, but air attacks for one year have miserably failed to stop ISIS. On the contrary, during this period, ISIS has grown from strength to strength, gaining more territory and spreading its spiteful ideology to every nook and corner of the Arab world and beyond. Western media reports say ISIS is controlling large swathes of territory in northern Afghanistan and fighting the Taliban. ISIS videos show captured Taliban fighters being executed by Afghan ISIS members. Reports also say ISIS is seeking a presence in Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population.
Last Friday, the day the world witnessed the butchery on the beach in Tunisia, Kuwait was also shocked by the carnage at a Shiite mosque when an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 27 worshippers during Friday prayers.
Early this week, an ISIS suicide bomber targeted a Shiite funeral in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, killing scores of people. A month ago, ISIS struck a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia. In March, in Tunisia, gunmen suspected to be having links with ISIS killed 19 foreign tourists at a museum in the capital Tunis. In lawless Libya, ISIS has established a strong foothold. It is said the Tunisian killer was trained in an ISIS camp in Libya, which is being used by the terror group as a command centre to destabilise and disintegrate North Africa, including Egypt. On Wednesday, more than one hundred died in clashes between ISIS-backed militants in Sinai and Egyptian security forces.
What is more abhorrent is that the surge in violence comes at a time when the Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan during which they are required to discipline themselves to achieve ‘Taqwa’, which, according to scholars, means God-consciousness or a state of mindfulness that prevents one from doing evil and thinking evil.
But ISIS, turning the teachings of Islam upside down, urged its supporters around the globe to launch attacks during the holy month. “Make it a month of disasters, defeats and disgrace for infidels everywhere,” ISIS spokesman Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, said. According to ISIS, even Muslims who do not subscribe to its version of Islam are infidels. That is why it is killing Shiites, the Druze and even Sunni Muslims such as the Kurds and members of Syrian rebel groups such as Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra.
The call to kill infidels came as ISIS marked the first anniversary of the caliphate declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. During this one year, according to IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, ISIS has carried out 3,097 attacks.
Now how did ISIS become so powerful? How could it capture territory after territory? Why could not US satellites and intelligence foretell ISIS movements when the group marched towards Ramadi in April? Why have the air strikes by the US-led coalition turned out to be a damp squib?
It appears that the US and the West have little interest in eliminating ISIS. The US and British air attacks have been largely perfunctory, probably aimed at misleading the people into believing that their governments were fighting the evil forces. One can hardly describe the coalition’s military operations against ISIS as intervention. In comparison to George W. Bush’s ‘Shock and Awe” during the early days of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the air strikes against ISIS appear ‘Peck and Caw’. This almost amounts to non-intervention, which, according to international relations scholars, is also a kind of intervention. This happens when the country that has the moral obligation to intervene sees an advantage in the outcome of its non-intervention. It is not known whether the US and Britain benefit from ISIS success, but their ally, Israel, certainly does.
Israel keeps the Arabs busy fighting each other, so that it can continue its land grab and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Two weeks ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a damning report on last year’s Gaza war, stating that the Israeli attacks amounted to war crimes. The report made news, but within a day many mainstream news outlets ignored it, because they were focusing on ISIS and the Greek debt crisis.
Also under-reported in the media was an attack by the Druze in the occupied Golan Heights on an Israeli military ambulance that was carrying two wounded Islamic militants. One of the wounded militants died in the attack. The incident adds credibility to claims made by Iraqi and Syrian officials that Israel maintains a corridor to provide medical and military aid to ISIS rebels.
What is unfolding in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East fits the script of Oded Yinon, an Israeli strategist. In a strategy paper he presented in 1982, he called on Israel to reconfigure the geopolitical environment of the Middle East through the balkanisation of the Arab states into smaller and weaker states, so that the Jewish state could maintain its regional superiority and set up Greater Israel, stretching from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq.

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The spirit of the Magna Carta needs revival

By Ameen Izzadeen
When was the Magna Carta signed? A Brit asked this question from an American friend during a business lunch at a New York restaurant. When the American shook his head in ignorance, displaying the average American’s trouble with history, the Brit, with his nose in the air, said twelve fifteen. The American looked at his watch and said, “Oh, I missed it by 15 minutes.”
If this is a quotable joke, what happened in 2012 was a public embarrassment for British Prime Minister David Cameron. When US talk show host David Letterman asked Cameron when the Magna Carta was signed, a confident Cameron replied: “1215, on an island in the Thames.” Well, it was pointed out to him that Runnymede where it was signed was not an island but an open space. Cameron was then asked whether he knew what the literal translation of ‘Magna Carta’ was. The Eton educated Cameron was stumped. All what he could say was: “Again, you are testing me.” Letterman replied: “Oh, it would be good if you knew this.” Cameron said: “Yeah, well it would be….”
A commercial break saved the day for Cameron. When the show resumed, Lettermen told viewers, “Magna Carta literally means the Great Charter.”
Jokes and jigsaws apart, politicians and civic rights activists in Britain and the United States often invoke the Magna Carta when they see an erosion of liberties or feel the freedom they enjoy needs further guarantees.
On Monday, the world marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. But the celebrations were largely confined to Britain, and, on a lesser scale, the United States, whereas it should have been a grand global event. There were no democracy seminars, fairs or carnivals at global level to mark this great event, to which we owe constitutional democracy.
In many democracies, Sri Lanka included, the day dawned, and disappeared with little or no celebrations that could have been used as a platform to reinvigorate the commitment of those in power to democratic principles. Civil society in Sri Lanka also failed to seize the event to expose the democracy deficiency in the country. Civil society in Sri Lanka could have kindled a countrywide debate on the state of democracy.
Of course, there was a gala ceremony in Runnymede, 32 km west of Central London on Monday to mark the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter, regarded as the touchstone of modern democracy and the font of freedom. Attended by the royals, the Lords and governmental leaders, the event saw Prime Minister Cameron, by now an expert on the Magna Carta, hailing its spirit and championing a British Bill of Rights. If Sri Lanka – or for that matter any other troubled democracy — had held a similar event, our lawmakers, most of whom have not even passed the GCE Advanced Level could have at least got an opportunity to learn what the Magna Carta is and how it contributed to the development of notions such as the rule of law, human rights and freedom with responsibility.
Our politicos could have learnt that the Magna Carta — a document written in Latin — reduced the powers of King John the tyrant. The wise among them could have drawn a parallel between the determination of the 13th century Barons in England and the public mood for change in Sri Lanka ahead of the January 8 presidential election and even now. True, the Charter only empowered the Barons, who were tyrants themselves within the fiefs they controlled. The charter did not improve the lot of the commoner. But it, gradually, set the stage for the commoners to fight for their rights — and the spirit of the charter was visible in the universal adult franchise, the rule of law and many democratic implosions, including the French Revolution. Across the Atlantic, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the slogan “No representation, no taxation” during the American independence war.
Internationally, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the universal declaration of human rights. When the UDHR was adopted in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights activist and widow of the late US President Franklin Roosevelt, described it as the international Magna Carta of all people everywhere.
It’s because of the Magna Carta that, in the late 1980s, Eastern Europe rose against dictators who were pseudo-communists. When the people of the Arab world braved the tyrants’ bullets during the Arab Spring in 2011, it was the spirit of the Magna Carta that drove them to do so.
Yet even in developed democracies, politics produces rulers who know little and care less about the Magna Carta. In 2003, the then US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not show respect for the tens of millions of people who protested against the Iraq war. Bush, who also faced a Cameron-like situation when he told a journalist that he thought the Taliban was a rock band, in fact reversed the march of the Magna Carta and introduced legislation that eroded liberty. The spirit of the Magna Carta was mummified in Egypt, where anti-democratic forces ousted a democratically elected president, held questionable elections and elected a military strongman as president.
In Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy in Asia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa got the 18th Amendment passed with a two-thirds majority, murdering the spirit of the Magna Carta, bringing about a constitutional dictatorship and reviving the old notion of the Divine Right to rule, which the Magna Carta had challenged and got rid of.
When President Maithripala Sirisena came forward as the common opposition candidate for the January 8 election, his slogans and manifesto were seen as a Magna Carta for Sri Lanka, for he pledged to abolish or reduce the powers vested in the executive presidency, eliminate corruption, bring about transparency in government, strengthen parliament and empower the people through progressive legislation, including a Right to Information Bill.
Although President Sirisena and the United National Party Government claim they have honoured most of the pledges during the 100-day programme, their promises were largely under-fulfilled. The classic example is the final shape of the 19th Amendment. This was not what the people wanted. The Eldorado that the people hoped for when they voted for Sirisena at the January 8 election now appears to be an illusion.
Notwithstanding the somewhat better situation we now enjoy in terms of freedom and liberty, the fact remains that there is a little bit of King John in every politician in power. Sirisena is no exception, though, to his credit, he has pruned his presidential term and pledged that he would not contest for a second term.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on June 19, 2015)
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Backgrounder
Richard, the Lionheart, King of England had spent much of his reign outside England fighting wars in the Middle East and France. To pay for these he had taxed the English heavily. In 1199, Richard died and his brother, John became king.
John continued to fight wars in France, but he kept losing battles. He needed more money so his government in England ruthlessly demanded more taxes from the nobility who were expected to pay tax if the King asked.
The Barons became very unhappy about John exploiting their loyalty and belief in his complete power. They rebelled and took over London and forced John to negotiate.
— courtesy BBC

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Complex ruptures in the US-Saudi oil vessel

By Ameen Izzadeen
In a monopoly market, a trader can make one thousand rupees by selling a commodity he is dealing with in two ways – by selling a few items at a high price or many items at a low price. Saudi Arabia and some other member states of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which with its 80 percent of the market dominance acts like a near monopoly, has opted for the latter method – selling more oil to reach the desired revenue.
But Saudi Arabia’s motive is aimed not at raising the revenue alone. It has political agendas with economic undercurrents. What seemed like a political move to punish Russia and Iran has now backfired, with the United States itself looking at the Saudi moves with much suspicion.
The US-Saudi ties were once like that of conjoined twins. So much so that some described Saudi Arabia as the United States’ desert kingdom. But instead of blood vessels what kept the ties warm were pipelines and tanker vessels. Saudi Arabia had declared itself an independent country in 1932 after centuries of Ottoman rule. A year later, American companies led by Standard Oil set foot in Saudi Arabia, which possessed one fourth of the world’s crude oil reserves. At the height of the Second World War, the then US President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, aboard a US cruise ship in the Suez canal and signed a deal, according to which the US undertook to protect the kingdom and the royal family from internal and external threats. Since then the Americans have done all they could do to keep the Saudi royal family in power and, in turn, ensured that US oil companies brought home billions of petrodollars.
But recent developments indicate a serious rupture in the ties. The relations between the two nations have entered a phase where one’s national interest is in conflict with the other’s. Usually, a nation works towards a balance when it realises that its national interest is in conflict with that of a key ally. But in the US-Saudi ties, we see no such compromise. There seems to be, instead, mutual suspicion of each other’s moves. This explains why Saudi Arabia’s new King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, did not show up at last month’s Gulf summit which US President Barack Obama hosted in Camp David. Analysts say the Saudi king’s absence was nothing but a huge snub.
The strain in the ties did not come about with the new king ascending the throne four months ago. It began more than two years ago when President Obama desisted from attacking Syria even after strong evidence emerged that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia applied pressure on the US to attack, but Obama took cover behind congressional and popular opposition to the war to justify his stance.
An angry Saudi Arabia ditched the US and decided to intervene in Syria its way.
If that was the first indication of a rupture, the second came when the United States intensified contacts with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s enemy number one. In addition to a telephone conversation between President Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013, the US together with the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany has been holding in the past two years regular meetings with Iran on Teheran’s nuclear programme. The talks reached a breakthrough in April and, much to Saudi Arabia’s chagrin, the two sides are set to sign an agreement next month. The deal is likely to lift some of the sanctions imposed on Iran. If that happens, Iran will be able to attract foreign investors to modernise its aging oil industry and increase its oil and gas output. Saudi Arabia feels that an economically stronger Iran will be a bigger threat than it is today. At present, Iran is providing military assistance to Iraq and Syria to fight the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Iran is also the godfather of the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and is said to be backing the Houthi rebels against whom Saudi Arabia has been waging a war for the past two months.
The third parting shot was Saudi moves to glut the oil market. Initially the move had the US nod because it targeted Iran and Russia, the world’s number one oil producer, which had spurned Saudi Arabia’s request that it stop propping up the Assad regime.
But soon the US shale oil industry players realised the move also targeted them. The US shale oil industry blossomed when world market prices were going over US$ 100 a few years ago. Thanks to shale oil, by 2013, the US surpassed Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production. The US which depended on Middle East oil to meet half of its energy needs could halve its imports from the Middle East. But when the prices plunged as a result of Saudi oversupply, the US shale oil industry was hit hard. Many small-scale shale oil producers in North Dakota – the key drilling area for shale oil – went out of business. Even after last week’s OPEC talks in Vienna, where members failed to reach accord on supplies and prices, Saudi Arabia continues to glut the market. But now with the oil prices stabilising at US$ 60, some of the big shale oil players have developed cheaper ways of extracting shale oil and are set for a showdown with Saudi Arabia. The shale resilience is no good news for Saudi Arabia.
Also bad news for Saudi Arabia is the US decision to increase its military involvement in Iraq in the fight against ISIS – a move that may increase military contacts between Washington and Teheran. Iran is said to have sent more than 30,000 military advisors to Iraq and is training and arming the Shiite militia groups which are in the forefront of the battle against the ISIS in Iraq. Though Saudi Arabia is officially in the US-led coalition against ISIS, its soft corner for the extremists, who subscribe to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam just as the kingdom does, is no secret. Saudi Arabia’s main aim is to oust Assad. It does not care who does it.
The United States is also unhappy about the Saudi decision to continue the war on the Houthis in Yemen, because Washington regards the Houthis as a counterweight to al-Qaeda. Here, too, the Saudi policy is in conflict with that of the US.
With the US dependence on Middle Eastern oil declining, the only other factor that keeps US focus on the region is the security of Israel. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy finds some common ground with that of Israel, which also sees Iran as its biggest enemy. Don’t they say, my enemy’s enemy is my friend?
(This story first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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China between war and peace

By Ameen Izzadeen
China has read the Riot Act. The warning, as forthright as forthright could be, is aimed not only at regional countries with whom China is embroiled in territorial disputes, but also at the United States, which is, under its Pivot-to-Asia policy, beefing up its military preparedness in the region.
The warning in the form of a Cabinet (State Council) document came a day after Beijing lodged a protest with Washington after it spotted of a US surveillance aircraft over the Spratys – a series of South China Sea islands which China insists belong to it.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked,” read the State Council document, demonstrating China’s growing confidence in its military prowess.
Widely known as the biyearly defence white paper, the document titled “China’s Military Strategy” outlined plans to expand the Chinese armed forces’ operational activities beyond what it regards as traditional boundaries, including its offshore territories.
The defence white paper – the ninth since the first such paper was published in 1998 — also accused unnamed foreign countries of “meddling” in the South China Sea. In the past, the document was much looked forward to by policy analysts and journalists alike not so much for its content as its hidden message or the warning between the lines. But this time the message was clear and we need not pore over the words or read between the lines in search of a hidden message. It is perspicuous and stern — and, simply put, it says China’s navy will expand its operations from offshore areas to the open seas, while its air force will shift its focus to include offensive operations in defence of China’s territory.
The white paper says the new military strategy, which it describes as China’s ‘maritime security struggle’ was designed to confront new security challenges, including the United States’ defence buildup in the region, Japan’s decision to overhaul its defence policy and “provocative actions” from neighbouring countries in the South China Sea.
Behave or be ready to face the ire of the fire-breathing dragon, the white paper seems to warn the United States, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and other regional countries with whom China has burning territorial issues. Analysts say the tense situation could lead to a major regional or world war if negotiations are not started immediately to sort out the disputes in a peaceful manner.
China claims sovereignty over much the South China Sea, through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes. The disputed island chain is believed to hold large oil and gas deposits. The tensions reached high-tide proportions recently after China, in a lightning move, built artificial islands and lighthouses in the Spratly archipelago. The US and China’s neighbours charge that the creation of artificial islands would enable Beijing to control the surrounding waters and airspace.
Given the many territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea where China and Japan are sabre rattling over the ownership of the disputed Diayu (to the Chinese)/Senkaku (to the Japanese) islands, countering China’s military threat has become a major defence headache for countries in the region.
Next week, the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino will meet Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo during a visit aimed at bolstering defence ties between the two countries in view of the rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Abe, meanwhile, is seeking to enact legislation which will enable him to circumvent the constraints in the country’s pacific constitution and deploy Japanese soldiers for overseas military activities. If the bills being debated in the National Diet (parliament) are passed, Japan could be dragged into action in the South China Sea in support of US forces.
China’s latest defence white paper has created more than a ripple in the United States, where Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has instructed his staff to come up with ways in which Washington could deal with the China threat. China’s new defence strategy is expected to dominate the discussions at this weekend’s Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. Attending the international defence conference will be US Defence Secretary Carter and Adm. Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China’s official news agency Xinhua in a commentary, described the document as proof of China’s commitment to peace and its promise to improve military transparency to the highest degree.
“As many military experts would agree, laying bare its strategic intentions represents a very bold move for a country which has pledged to be more transparent about its military capabilities and war preparedness,” Xinhua said.
It charged that the Western media were seeking to play up the ill-founded notion that China would extend its military reach possibly to the detriment of regional stability. The commentary said the Western media should be reminded that China was entitled to adjust its military strategy in accordance with the latest developments that may pose a security threat, since the same was happening everywhere.
“Unlike world powers that adopt preemptive military strategies, emphasise preventive intervention and take the initiative in attacks, China takes a strikingly different path by following the principles of defence, self-defence and post-emptive strikes,” the commentary said.
But the question that looms large is: Will China, which relies heavily on a peaceful and stable international environment to sustain its economic growth, start a war that will spell doom to the whole world?
Unlikely. China is taking rapid measures aimed at reaching markets in every nook and corner of the world as fast as possible. It is building a network of highways across Central Asia, South Asia and Eastern Europe, reviving the ancient silk road. Parallel to the Silk Road Economic Belt – as this network of roads and oil pipelines is called – will be its maritime silk road, which passes through Sri Lanka’s Hambantota harbour, among other Asian ports. These mega infrastructure projects which are being funded by the newly set up Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) indicate that China’s objective is to promote its trade through world peace.
This is why China is facilitating secret peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and applying pressure on Pakistan to contribute to the peace process. Pakistan was promised US$ 4.8 billion in aid during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Islamabad.
World peace is in China’s interest, but the white paper seems to indicate that this peace won’t come at the cost of China’s national interest.
The way forward is peace talks between China and the countries with which it has territorial disputes. The United Nations can play a key role. Unfortunately, there is little movement in the direction of peace. Don’t they say conflict prevention is better than conflict resolution?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on May 29, 2015)

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