Iranian protests are about freedom, not fruit (& Russia eyes Libya)

December 03, 2019

Iraqi protesters burned down the Iranian Consulate in Najaf, Iraq last month, the second Iranian consulate to be destroyed as anti-Iranian regime demonstrations spread across Iraq

 

FINALLY…

[Notes by Tom Gross]

I attach four articles below (three from today, one from yesterday) on Iran, Iraq, Libya and China. There are extracts first for those who don’t have time to read them in full.

In the first piece, the New York Times finally reports that up to “450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained.”

I attach this piece not because it is news to readers of this Middle East dispatch list, but to note that the New York Times is finally reporting that “Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago.”

The BBC has also finally begun to report that it is Iran, not Iraq, that has been coordinating the shooting dead of hundreds of pro-democracy protestors in neighboring Iraq these past weeks.

The failure of these two influential news organizations to report news in the Middle East accurately is part of a long-standing pattern of downplaying or appeasing the crimes of the Islamic regime.

In fact the New York Times, late as ever, is behind with the figures. At least 600 have been shot dead in Iran according to reliable reports.

Meanwhile (as not reported in the NY Times) the head of the feared Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Qasem Soleimani, who controls large parts of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on behalf of the Iranian regime, and also financed and directed last month’s Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket attacks on Israel, is ready to pick a new puppet prime minister for Iraq:

http://www.shafaaq.com/en/iraq-news/sheikh-ali-controllers-in-iraq-submitted-three-candidates-to-soleimani-waiting-for-his-approval/

 

IRANIAN PROTESTS ARE ABOUT FREEDOM. NOT FRUIT

Although the western “liberal-left” media are finally beginning to report on the deadly crackdown, many are still trying to persuade their readership that the unrest is primarily about a hike in oil prices.

As A.J. Caschetta writes in the Washington publication The Hill:

“Anyone who thinks that the recent protests in 100 cities throughout Iran were about gas prices did not pay attention to what the protesters were saying. The immediate spark that led to the Arab Spring was the 2010 self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor, but the Arab Spring revolution was not about Tunisian citizens’ ability to obtain permits to sell fruit. Likewise, this unrest in Iran was not about the price of gas. Iranian protesters (and rioters) chanting “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon!” “Leave Syria and think of us,” and even “Death to Palestine!” indicates that something much larger than the price of gas drove their outrage.”

 

ARTICLE EXTRACTS

“THE GUARDS PILED THE DEAD ONTO THE BACK OF A TRUCK”

Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone report in the New York Times:

Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed – and possibly hundreds more – as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force…

In many places, security forces responded by opening fire on unarmed protesters... In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators – mostly unarmed young men – in a marsh where they had sought refuge…

Altogether, from 180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained…

The gas price increase, which was announced as most Iranians had gone to bed, came as Iran is struggling to fill a yawning budget gap… protests had erupted in 29 out of 31 provinces and 50 military bases had been attacked, which if true suggested a level of coordination absent in the earlier protests. …

The property damage also included 731 banks, 140 public spaces, nine religious centers, 70 gasoline stations, 307 vehicles, 183 police cars, 1,076 motorcycles and 34 ambulances, the interior minister said…

When the [Iranian Revolutionary] Guards arrived near the entrance to a suburb of Mahshahr, Shahrak Chamran, populated by low-income members of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, they immediately shot without warning at dozens of men blocking the intersection, killing several on the spot, according to the residents interviewed by phone.

The residents said the other protesters scrambled to a nearby marsh… The Guards immediately encircled the men and responded with machine gun fire, killing as many as 100 people, the residents said.

The Guards piled the dead onto the back of a truck and departed, the residents said…

 

IRAN DEMANDING MONEY TO RETURN BODIES OF CHILDREN KILLED BY SECURITY FORCES

Sune Engel Rasmussen reports in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Since the internet was reconnected [the Iranian regime shut it down last month in order to try and limit the protests spreading – Tom Gross], dozens of unverified videos have appeared online showing security forces beating and shooting at protesters, including from rooftops. Storyful, a social-media intelligence company that has a partnership with Dow Jones [publisher of the Wall Street Journal], verified the location of a video showing security forces firing at protesters from the judiciary building in Javanrud in western Iran.

Other videos showed protesters ransacking government buildings, targeting banks and burning gas stations… Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said that as many as 200,000 people participated in the protests, which damaged 50 police stations, 70 gas stations and more than 700 banks across the country.

Iranian protesters inside the country declined to speak to a reporter from foreign media… In audio files collected by Iranian journalists and activists outside the country, several people describe authorities demanding payment before handing over the bodies of relatives killed in the protests. Others report they were forced to say that their relatives were murdered by antigovernment thugs.

The tactic of demanding money from families for releasing dead bodies has been used to subdue protests in the past. In the 1980s the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini charged families of victims of mass executions fees to pay for the bullet used to kill their relatives…

 

“A KREMLIN-BACKED STRONGMAN IN TRIPOLI WOULD BE A DISASTER FOR U.S. INTERESTS”

Emily Estelle writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Hundreds – maybe thousands – of Russian mercenaries joined the battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, this fall, fighting alongside aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar. Russia’s primary interest isn’t Libya, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Vladimir Putin interpreted the Arab Spring, and particularly the NATO intervention that led to the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, as Western threats to the survival of his autocratic regime. His interventions in Syria and now Libya are attempts to shore up faltering strongmen. Putin wants to put a new Gadhafi in power to show that revolutions are doomed to fail and that he, not the U.S. or NATO, is an effective power broker in the region…

The U.S. has only worsened the situation by appearing to be an unreliable ally – to the Kurds in Syria and to the Libyan forces who fought ISIS with U.S. support but now face Haftar’s airstrikes…

The security implications of the Libyan civil war are real and dire. Haftar’s supporters argue that as a strongman, he would curb terrorism and control migration. Experience suggests the opposite. The violent suppression of nonviolent Islamists strengthens an extreme and violent alternative, Salafi jihadism. By crushing peaceful political expression and victimizing vulnerable populations – which Salafi jihadist groups then exploit – Haftar’s methods and those of his backers invite future insurgencies.

 

“COLD WAR II HAS BEGUN”

Niall Ferguson writes in today’s New York Times:

The New Cold War? It’s with China, and it has already begun… The one big risk with Cold War II would be to assume confidently that the United States is bound to win it. That is a misreading of both the first Cold War and the present situation. In 1969, an American victory over the communist enemy seemed far from inevitable. Nor was it a foregone conclusion that the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would be so free of bloodshed.

Moreover, China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did. Historical estimates of gross domestic product show that at no point during the Cold War was the Soviet economy larger than 44 percent of the economy of the United States. China has already surpassed America by at least one measure since 2014: GDP based on purchasing power parity, which adjusts for the fact that the cost of living is lower in China. The Soviet Union could never draw on the resources of a dynamic private sector. China can. In some markets – notably financial technology – China is already ahead of the United States.

In short, 2019 is not 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed 70 years ago to counter Soviet ambitions; nothing similar will be set up to contain China’s. I do not expect a second Korean War to break out next year. Nevertheless, I do expect this new Cold War to get colder, even if Mr. Trump attempts a thaw in the form of a trade deal with China…

Cold War II has begun. And, if history is any guide, it will last a lot longer than the president on whose watch it started.


ARTICLES

WITH BRUTAL CRACKDOWN, IRAN CONVULSED BY WORST UNREST IN 40 YEARS

With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years
By Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone
New York Times
December 2, 2019

Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed – and possibly hundreds more – as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force.

It began two weeks ago with an abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices. Within 72 hours, outraged demonstrators in cities large and small were calling for an end to the Islamic Republic’s government and the downfall of its leaders.

In many places, security forces responded by opening fire on unarmed protesters, largely unemployed or low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26, according to witness accounts and videos. In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators – mostly unarmed young men – in a marsh where they had sought refuge.

“The recent use of lethal force against people throughout the country is unprecedented, even for the Islamic Republic and its record of violence,” said Omid Memarian, the deputy director at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group.

Altogether, from 180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained, according to international rights organizations, opposition groups and local journalists.

The last enormous wave of protests in Iran – in 2009 after a contested election, which was also met with a deadly crackdown – left 72 people dead over a much longer period of about 10 months.

Only now, nearly two weeks after the protests were crushed – and largely obscured by an internet blackout in the country that was lifted recently – have details corroborating the scope of killings and destruction started to dribble out.

The latest outbursts not only revealed staggering levels of frustration with Iran’s leaders, but also underscored the serious economic and political challenges facing them, from the Trump administration’s onerous sanctions on the country to the growing resentment toward Iran by neighbors in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

The gas price increase, which was announced as most Iranians had gone to bed, came as Iran is struggling to fill a yawning budget gap. The Trump administration sanctions, mostly notably their tight restrictions on exports of Iran’s oil, are a big reason for the shortfall. The sanctions are meant to pressure Iran into renegotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers, which President Trump abandoned, calling it too weak.

Most of the nationwide unrest seemed concentrated in neighborhoods and cities populated by low-income and working-class families, suggesting this was an uprising born in the historically loyal power base of Iran’s post-revolutionary hierarchy.

Many Iranians, stupefied and embittered, have directed their hostility directly at the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called the crackdown a justified response to a plot by Iran’s enemies at home and abroad.

The killings prompted a provocative warning from Mir Hussein Moussavi, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate whose 2009 election loss set off peaceful demonstrations that Ayatollah Khamenei also suppressed by force.

In a statement posted Saturday on an opposition website, Mr. Moussavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011 and seldom speaks publicly, blamed the supreme leader for the killings. He compared them to an infamous 1978 massacre by government forces that led to the downfall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi a year later, at the hands of the Islamic revolutionaries who now rule the country.

“The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a nonreligious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” he said. “Then the commander in chief was the shah and today, here, the supreme leader with absolute authority.”

The authorities have declined to specify casualties and arrests and have denounced unofficial figures on the national death toll as speculative. But the nation’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, has cited widespread unrest around the country.

On state media, he said that protests had erupted in 29 out of 31 provinces and 50 military bases had been attacked, which if true suggested a level of coordination absent in the earlier protests. Iran’s official media have reported that several members of the security forces were killed and injured during the clashes.

The property damage also included 731 banks, 140 public spaces, nine religious centers, 70 gasoline stations, 307 vehicles, 183 police cars, 1,076 motorcycles and 34 ambulances, the interior minister said.

The worst violence documented so far happened in the city of Mahshahr and its suburbs, with a population of 120,000 people in Iran’s southwest Khuzestan Province – a region with an ethnic Arab majority that has a long history of unrest and opposition to the central government. Mahshahr is adjacent to the nation’s largest industrial petrochemical complex and serves as a gateway to Bandar Imam, a major port.

The New York Times interviewed six residents of the city, including a protest leader who had witnessed the violence; a reporter based in the city who works for Iranian media, and had investigated the violence but was banned from reporting it; and a nurse at the hospital where casualties were treated.

They each provided similar accounts of how the Revolutionary Guards deployed a large force to Mahshahr on Monday, Nov. 18, to crush the protests. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the Guards.

For three days, according to these residents, protesters had successfully gained control of most of Mahshahr and its suburbs, blocking the main road to the city and the adjacent industrial petrochemical complex. Iran’s interior minister confirmed that the protesters had gotten control over Mahshahr and its roads in a televised interview last week, but the Iranian government did not respond to specific questions in recent days about the mass killings in the city.

Local security forces and riot police officers had attempted to disperse the crowd and open the roads, but failed, residents said. Several clashes between protesters and security forces erupted between Saturday evening and Monday morning before the Guards were dispatched there.

When the Guards arrived near the entrance to a suburb, Shahrak Chamran, populated by low-income members of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, they immediately shot without warning at dozens of men blocking the intersection, killing several on the spot, according to the residents interviewed by phone.

The residents said the other protesters scrambled to a nearby marsh, and that one of them, apparently armed with an AK-47, fired back. The Guards immediately encircled the men and responded with machine gun fire, killing as many as 100 people, the residents said.

The Guards piled the dead onto the back of a truck and departed, the residents said, and relatives of the wounded then transported them to Memko Hospital.

One of the residents, a 24-year-old unemployed college graduate in chemistry who had helped organize the protests blocking the roads, said he had been less than a mile away from the mass shooting and that his best friend, also 24, and a 32-year-old cousin were among the dead.

He said they both had been shot in the chest and their bodies were returned to the families five days later, only after they had signed paperwork promising not to hold funerals or memorial services and not to give interviews to media.

The young protest organizer said he, too, was shot in the ribs on Nov. 19, the day after the mass shooting, when the Guards stormed with tanks into his neighborhood, Shahrak Taleghani, among the poorest suburbs of Mahshahr.

He said a gun battle erupted for hours between the Guards and ethnic Arab residents, who traditionally keep guns for hunting at home. Iranian state media and witnesses reported that a senior Guards commander had been killed in a Mahshahr clash. Video on Twitter suggests tanks had been deployed there.

A 32-year-old nurse in Mahshahr reached by the phone said she had tended to the wounded at the hospital and that most had sustained gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

She described chaotic scenes at the hospital, with families rushing to bring in the casualties, including a 21 year old who was to be married but could not be saved. “‘Give me back my son!,’” the nurse quoted his sobbing mother as saying. “‘It’s his wedding in two weeks!’”

The nurse said security forces stationed at the hospital arrested some of the wounded protesters after their conditions had stabilized. She said some relatives, fearing arrest themselves, dropped wounded love ones at the hospital and fled, covering their faces.

On Nov. 25, a week after it happened, the city’s representative in Parliament, Mohamad Golmordai, vented outrage in a blunt moment of searing antigovernment criticism that was broadcast on Iranian state television and captured in photos and videos uploaded to the internet.

“What have you done that the undignified Shah did not do?” Mr. Golmordai screamed from the Parliament floor, as a scuffle broke out between him and other lawmakers, including one who grabbed him by the throat.

The local reporter in Mahshahr said the total number of people killed in three days of unrest in the area had reached 130, including those killed in the marsh.

In other cities such as Shiraz and Shahriar, dozens were reported killed in the unrest by security forces who fired on unarmed protesters, according to rights groups and videos posted by witnesses.

“This regime has pushed people toward violence,” said Yousef Alsarkhi, 29, a political activist from Khuzestan who migrated to the Netherlands four years ago. “The more they repress, the more aggressive and angry people get.”

Political analysts said the protests appeared to have delivered a severe blow to President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, all but guaranteeing that hard-liners would win upcoming parliamentary elections and the presidency in two years.

The tough response to the protests also appeared to signal a hardening rift between Iran’s leaders and sizable segments of the population of 83 million.

“The government’s response was uncompromising, brutal and rapid,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. Still, he said, the protests also had “demonstrated that many Iranians are not afraid to take to the streets.”

 

AUTHORITIES DEMAND MONEY TO RETURN BODIES OF THEIR CHILDREN KILLED BY SECURITY FORCES

Iran Takes Hard Line to Keep Protests Down
People describe authorities demanding money to return bodies of their children killed by security forces
By Sune Engel Rasmussen
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 3, 2019

The treatment of Mr. Rasouli’s family couldn’t be independently verified, but it fits a pattern of intimidation by Iranian authorities trying to stop a resumption of protests that rippled through the country before they were quashed, according to activists and Iran experts.

An information blackout during the protests made casualty numbers hard to verify, but Amnesty International says at least 161 protesters were killed. The Iranian-based opposition website Kaleme said at least 366 people were killed. Iran’s government has called the numbers exaggerated.

Such tactics may only amplify anger among some Iranians – particularly the young – as discontent over lack of political and social freedoms help intensify a cycle of unrest, analysts say.

The repression, which included shutting down the internet, “makes people think, is this the kind of society we want to live in?” said Amir Handjani, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, a left-leaning national security organization. “It forces people to re-evaluate the social contract they have with the government.”

While Iran saw a long stretch of calm following the Green Movement protests, anger and dissent over the economy have become more frequent in recent years, in turn sparking more brutal repression by the government.

In 2017 and 2018, protesters across the country decrying poor economic conditions and government corruption were also met with violence. Authorities say they are fighting rioters supported by foreign powers.

The trigger behind the recent protests was the sudden removal of subsidies on gasoline that dramatically raised prices – but the discontent is deeper, as a sense of lost hope and political paralysis drive the dissent.

Mr. Rasouli, who lost his job as a factory worker, was struggling to make ends meet as a cabdriver. The skyrocketing gas price sent him out into the street.

“He didn’t make enough money, not even for a simple life,” Mr. Mehrani, who fled Iran after spending two months in jail during the 2009 protests, said.

The internet blackout, intended to prevent protests from spreading, coupled with the price increase likely helped fuel the protests, as both moves affected nearly all Iranians and cost local businesses significant income, Kevan Harris, a sociologist at the University of California with expertise in Iran, said.

Authorities have arrested nearly 7,000 protesters, a hard-line lawmaker said last week, including eight who authorities said were linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Iran routinely arrests Iranian citizens on such allegations without providing evidence.

Officials also said they arrested more than 200 “ringleaders” accused of conspiring with Islamic State terrorists, exiled opposition groups and Kurdish militants to foment unrest. They have offered no evidence to support such claims.

“The enemies had spent a great amount of money designing this conspiracy and were waiting for an opportunity to implement it with destruction, killing, and villainy,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Wednesday.

Since the internet was reconnected, dozens of unverified videos have appeared online showing security forces beating and shooting at protesters, including from rooftops. Storyful, a social-media intelligence company that has a partnership with Dow Jones, verified the location of a video showing security forces firing at protesters from the judiciary building in Javanrud in western Iran.

Other videos showed protesters ransacking government buildings, targeting banks and burning gas stations. Some protesters were filmed handing flowers to security forces.

Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said that as many as 200,000 people participated in the protests, which damaged 50 police stations, 70 gas stations and more than 700 banks across the country.

Iranian protesters inside the country declined to speak to a reporter from foreign media. Mr. Rasouli’s family declined to talk, citing security concerns.

In audio files collected by Iranian journalists and activists outside the country, several people describe authorities demanding payment before handing over the bodies of relatives killed in the protests. Others report they were forced to say that their relatives were murdered by antigovernment thugs.

The tactic of demanding money from families for releasing dead bodies has been used to subdue protests in the past. In the 1980s the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini charged families of victims of mass executions fees to pay for the bullet used to kill their relatives.

The recent protests vented pent-up frustration with an economic crisis that shows little signs of letting up.

When President Hassan Rouhani negotiated a deal in 2015 to restrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities in return for sanctions relief, many Iranians hoped it would break the country’s international isolation and open it to foreign investment.

But last year, President Trump withdrew from the accord, saying the pact didn’t sufficiently clamp down on Iran’s nuclear activities and did nothing to contain what the U.S. sees as Tehran’s aggression in the Middle East. The administration imposed heavy sanctions that have cut the country off from international financial systems.

Those dashed hopes, along with Iranian rulers’ longtime economic mismanagement, has sent the economy into recession. The International Monetary Fund projects a 9.5% contraction next year.

Sanctions have slashed the Iranian government’s revenue from oil exports to between $10 billion and $12 billion from $50 billion last year, the head of Iran’s budgeting department said this week. Oil exports will only make up 7% of the budget next year, he said, according to the state-run Press TV. About a quarter of last year’s budget relied on oil revenue, compared with about half before the sanctions. The central bank announced a record budget deficit of $5.8 billion last year.

For many Iranians, the recession has meant higher prices on goods and a deteriorating lifestyle. Meat is now a luxury, and some medicines have become hard to obtain. A young entrepreneur in Tehran, who declined to be named for security reasons, said that while the country’s currency had devalued by about 70% since 2018, her rent had doubled, forcing her to move into a smaller apartment.

Still, Iran’s economy isn’t yet on the verge of collapse, says Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech with expertise in Iran. The dramatic currency slide spurred last year by the sanctions has stalled since the spring. Prices remains high but inflation is slowing, standing at 6.1% in September. Employment is even growing, likely because of the government’s focus on strengthening domestic industry over imports.

“I don’t get a sense that the middle class is hitting rock bottom,” Mr. Salehi-Isfahani said.

Subsidies have kept Iranian gasoline much cheaper than in neighboring countries. The decision to cut the subsidies was aimed at financing a cash handout program to 60 million Iranians to alleviate the economic pain.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad conducted a similar plan of raising commodity prices to fund welfare-cash handouts for the poor.

But while Mr. Ahmadinejad warned about it months in advance, Mr. Rouhani introduced gas rationing and higher prices without notice late on a Friday evening, before delivering the compensation for the poor, generating widespread outrage. The government this week said it had delivered welfare payouts to 60 million people, amounting to about $57 million at the official rate.

Such anger could boil over again, analysts warn. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has heavily subsidized several areas of its economy, such as electricity, water and bread. If revenues continue to fall the government will likely have to cut other subsidies, too.

“They didn’t do a proper campaign to educate the Iranian people on what was coming,” Mr. Handjani said. This time fuel prices kicked off protests, he said. “Next time it will be another issue that sparks.”

 

DON’T LET RUSSIA DOMINATE LIBYA

Don’t Let Russia Dominate Libya
A Kremlin-backed strongman in Tripoli would be a disaster for U.S. interests.
By Emily Estelle
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 3, 2019

Hundreds – maybe thousands – of Russian mercenaries joined the battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, this fall, fighting alongside aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar. Russia’s primary interest isn’t Libya, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Vladimir Putin interpreted the Arab Spring, and particularly the NATO intervention that led to the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, as Western threats to the survival of his autocratic regime. His interventions in Syria and now Libya are attempts to shore up faltering strongmen. Mr. Putin wants to put a new Gadhafi in power to show that revolutions are doomed to fail and that he, not the U.S. or NATO, is an effective power broker in the region.

Mr. Putin aims to undermine America’s post-Cold War leadership of the international order by casting the West as hypocritical and building an alliance system of like-minded autocrats. (China’s rise, and its development of technology that strengthens other autocracies, compounds this trend.) The U.S. has only worsened the situation by appearing to be an unreliable ally – to the Kurds in Syria and to the Libyan forces who fought ISIS with U.S. support but now face Mr. Haftar’s airstrikes.

The Kremlin today would probably like to install as Libya’s president either Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, or Mr. Haftar, a would-be autocrat in the style of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Either result would send the message that democracy has failed in Libya. If Mr. Haftar’s forces succeed, it won’t be for a lack of Libyan resistance – many have striven against the militias’ rise to power in the years after Gadhafi’s fall – but because the free world did not do enough to help them succeed when guns overcame ballots.

Russia isn’t alone in its fight against democracy in Libya. America’s Arab allies and partners – notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – are backing Mr. Haftar. They’re preventing the formation of a pluralistic democracy, a kind of government that could provide a model that their citizens could use to challenge them. These regimes are particularly threatened by the possibility of a democracy that allows the participation of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is part of a larger competition to shape the future of governance in the Arab world. Islamist parties – often backed by Turkey and Qatar – bring their own challenges, but it is almost certainly better to let elections play out than to try to stamp out voters’ preferences through repression.

The security implications of the Libyan civil war are real and dire. Mr. Haftar’s supporters argue that as a strongman, he would curb terrorism and control migration. Experience suggests the opposite. The violent suppression of nonviolent Islamists strengthens an extreme and violent alternative, Salafi jihadism. By crushing peaceful political expression and victimizing vulnerable populations – which Salafi jihadist groups then exploit – Mr. Haftar’s methods and those of his backers invite future insurgencies.

The Trump administration is slowly waking up to this reality. The State Department last month strongly condemned Mr. Haftar’s forces and Russia. While this is an important step – needed to clarify the U.S. position after President Trump’s April phone call to Mr. Haftar was perceived as giving support for his offensive on Tripoli – a statement isn’t enough. Mr. Haftar’s forces and Russian mercenaries intensified their attacks on rival militias in Tripoli immediately following the U.S. denunciation. U.S. officials subsequently met Mr. Haftar to discuss a cease-fire, but his forces’ attacks have continued, including airstrikes on residential areas.

The U.S. has a choice: keep trying to improve Libya’s economy, security, and governance on the margins as the war rages on, or take measures to end the conflict – and to deny Mr. Putin and his fellow autocrats another victory. Europe is too divided on the subject to play this role. The U.S. should take the lead in convening Libyan and foreign leaders alike to reach a cease-fire in Tripoli. Washington should be willing to use some of its abundant leverage over Arab allies and partners to curb flagrant violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. The U.S. should also step up efforts to curb Russia’s use of private military contractors and encourage European allies to impose sanctions on them as well.

These actions are a necessary first step to alleviate the suffering of innocent civilians, reassert American leadership and open a path to what the Libyan people have long awaited – the opportunity to govern themselves.

 

CHINA POSES A BIGGER ECONOMIC CHALLENGE THAN THE SOVIETS EVER DID

The New Cold War? It’s With China, and It Has Already Begun
By Niall Ferguson
New York Times
Dec. 3, 2019

When did Cold War II begin? Future historians will say it was in 2019.

Some will insist that a new Cold War had already begun – with Russia – in 2014, when Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine. But the deterioration of Russian-American relations pales in comparison to the rise in Sino-American antagonism that has unfolded over the past couple of years. And though the United States and China can probably avoid a hot war, a second Cold War is still a daunting prospect.

Pedantic scholars may say the new Cold War actually began with Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, or his initial imposition of tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, many of which are made in China, in January 2018. Others will suggest early October 2018, when Vice President Mike Pence denounced Beijing’s use of “political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence,” as a plausible starting point.

Yet it was not until 2019 that the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to China was effectively embraced by members of the policy elite on both sides of the partisan divide. With remarkable speed, Mr. Trump’s hostility went from foreign policy idiosyncrasy to conventional wisdom. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, began calling for a tougher line toward Beijing.

Public opinion made a similar shift. A Pew Research Center survey showed that the percentage of Americans holding an unfavorable view of China jumped to 60 percent in 2019 from 47 percent the year before. Only 26 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the country.

Something else changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war – a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft – rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar.

Older readers will probably regard another Cold War as a bad idea. Their memories of the original might include near-Armageddon experiences, such the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and multiple conventional wars fought in countries from Vietnam to El Salvador. But there is no obvious reason Cold War II should feature nuclear brinkmanship or proxy wars.

For one thing, China is so inferior to the United States in nuclear weaponry that any confrontation is much more likely to occur in cyberspace, or in space itself, than with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The People’s Republic does not have the same approach to global expansionism as the Soviet Union either. Chinese money goes into infrastructure projects and politicians’ pockets, not foreign guerrilla movements. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature overseas investment program – does not aim for world revolution.

If Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems – one democratic, the other not – its benefits could very well outweigh its costs. After all, the economic spinoff from research and development operations associated with the original Cold War were part of the reason American growth was so strong in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, there was also a political benefit. Once the spasm of McCarthyism had passed, as Americans came to a consensus that they all faced a common foe, domestic divisions decreased notably. It is telling that one of the biggest sources of political and social strife in the Cold War era was a war against communism that the United States failed to win – against Vietnam.

If Americans are now waking up to a new external enemy, might it not reduce the notorious internal polarization of recent times, which we can see in the decline of bipartisanship in Congress as well as in the vehemence of discourse on social media? It is possible.

Maybe the notion of an external enemy could persuade politicians in the United States to devote serious resources to the development of new technologies, such as quantum computing. Evidence of Chinese espionage and influence operations in American academia and Silicon Valley is already pushing the government to reprioritize national security in research and development. It would be nothing short of disastrous if China won the race for quantum supremacy, which could render all conventional computer encryption obsolete.

The one big risk with Cold War II would be to assume confidently that the United States is bound to win it. That is a misreading of both the first Cold War and the present situation. In 1969, an American victory over the communist enemy seemed far from inevitable. Nor was it a foregone conclusion that the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would be so free of bloodshed.

Moreover, China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did. Historical estimates of gross domestic product show that at no point during the Cold War was the Soviet economy larger than 44 percent of the economy of the United States. China has already surpassed America by at least one measure since 2014: G.D.P. based on purchasing power parity, which adjusts for the fact that the cost of living is lower in China. The Soviet Union could never draw on the resources of a dynamic private sector. China can. In some markets – notably financial technology – China is already ahead of the United States.

In short, 2019 is not 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed 70 years ago to counter Soviet ambitions; nothing similar will be set up to contain China’s. I do not expect a second Korean War to break out next year. Nevertheless, I do expect this new Cold War to get colder, even if Mr. Trump attempts a thaw in the form of a trade deal with China. The American president might have been the catalyst behind the big chill, but it’s not something he can just undo when he pleases.

In 2007, the economist Moritz Schularick and I used the term “Chimerica” to describe the symbiotic economic relationship between China and the United States. Today, that partnership is dead. Cold War II has begun. And, if history is any guide, it will last a lot longer than the president on whose watch it started.

 

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