Tag Archives: Middle East



It’s been exactly a hundred years since an assassin’s bullets opened up an ethnic can of worms across Europe, the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the world.

Prior to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Europe was not exactly free of ethnic tensions or religious divides.  Irish Catholics had been campaigning for Home Rule for decades; Hungarians wanted to rule themselves but remain under the Hapsburg crown; Poles wanted to be free of Russia, Germany, and Austria, free to resurrect their own nation again; Zionists wanted their own state in what is now Israel.

But, prior to 1914, imperialism was in vogue.  Large empires composed of multiple nationalities were more the norm.  Globalization was all the rage.

It all came crashing down as the most significant assassination in history led, 37 days later, to “the war to end all wars.”  After the war, the peace treaty allowed a number of different ethnic groups to have their own independent nation state.   The Czechs and Slovaks were grouped together in Czechoslovakia; the Poles got their own country; the Finns, too; Hungarians were formally separated from Austria; the Serbs, who, arguably started the war in the first place, got their own country with the Croats in the new Yugoslavia;  even the Ukrainians had a brief period of independence.

They have just had another such period, this time for over twenty years.  It may be coming to an end again.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

The vote in the Crimea on Sunday is a foregone conclusion, with 58% of the people in the region Russian speaking.  It’s not that the vote will be rigged – there’s no need for that.   The majority will vote to switch allegiance from Kiev to Moscow.  If it wasn’t a certainty, Russia would not be holding a referendum.   This vote, it is hoped, will justify their invasion and put an end to the whole matter.

It won’t be that simple.

What about the Ukrainian minority inside Crimea?  What about the Russian speaking areas in the east of Ukraine?  Will Russia invade them?  What about the Tatars?

Ah yes, the Tatars.

They constitute 12% of the population of the Crimea.  They were the pre-Russian inhabitants of the peninsula, invaded by Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century.   They are a Turkic people left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire.  They are Muslims.  More significantly, they got a raw deal, a real raw deal, from Russia under Josef Stalin, who had them all forcibly removed from their homes and transported to Siberia with only 15 minutes notice.  They dread a return to Russian rule.

It may be that they have little to fear.  After all, neither Stalin nor Catherine were actually Russian.  But Russia is having difficulties already with its Muslim minorities – it’s unlikely the Tatars will fare any better than the Chechens.

The ethnic complexities of the region are symbolic of the wider European ethnic quilt.

Spain doesn’t want Crimea to break away from Ukraine because they don’t want their own Catalans to break away from their country; the Scots are voting in September on possibly breaking away from the United Kingdom; Belgium has had serious ethnic divisions ever since the country was created almost two centuries ago; the Balkans always has further potential for ethnic conflict; Rumania has a significant Hungarian minority that would like to join Hungary; while Hungary has its own minorities.

The EU has actually made the problem worse.   It is possible now for every small ethnic group to have its own country and still be economically viable through the European Union.  If Scotland breaks away from the UK, it can seek membership of the EU and minimize the economic consequences of breaking away from the bigger whole.

In theory.

They would actually have to have approval of the other member countries, including England.   And none of them has a vested interest right now in approving Scottish membership.  It might encourage separatists in their own countries.   Additionally, the last thing the 28-member EU needs is yet another voting member, holding back further progress toward European unity.  They also don’t want more members needing a bail-out.

However, it’s also possible that the proliferation of smaller countries in the EU could lead to a resurrection of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, a motley assortment of political entities that all owed allegiance to a common German emperor.

Rather than Sunday’s vote bringing an end to the European crisis, it may turn out to just be the beginning!


Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch Film "Sherlock"

Benedict Cumberbatch is a British actor who is famous for his radical portrayal of  “Sherlock Holmes.” 

More recently, he has narrated an IMAX documentary on “Jerusalem” and starred in the critically acclaimed movie, “12 Years a Slave.”

The producer of the documentary, interviewed on CBS, revealed that, at the end of making the documentary on the 3,000 year old city, Cumberbatch asked:  “Why didn’t they teach us all this in school?”  I am not surprised that British schools no longer teach the basics of Christianity, another casualty of multiculturalism.  So Cumberbatch shouldn’t feel too bad about his historical ignorance on the significance of the ancient city.

He would, however, not be wise to venture into further comments on history.

He recently made the film “12 Years A Slave,” which tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in New York, who was kidnapped prior to the Civil War and taken into slavery.  While the story is tragic, Cumberbatch was ingenuous when he apologized for his ancestors’ role in the business of slavery.  His apology only fuels the frequently raised demand for financial compensation.

How can we apologize for our ancestors?  The world was a very different place two centuries ago and we cannot sit in judgment of those who came before us.

Slavery was universally practiced throughout history.  It wasn’t just a black and white problem.  In the eighteenth century, one million white people were held as slaves by Muslims across the Middle East.  Considered property, they were called “White Gold.”

To my knowledge, the Muslims have never apologized for this, nor have any of their descendants demanded compensation.

According to a book on the origin of surnames, my family name “Rhodes” owes its origin to the island of Rhodes.  The Rhodes’ were apparently Jews on the island, expelled when the island was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1522.  I would very much appreciate it if the Turkish government would apologize for confiscating our family property and offer compensation, adjusted for inflation, of course!

Perhaps the British government should take up the cry and demand the Italians apologize for the Roman occupation of their island that lasted almost four centuries.  As the Italians are currently rather broke, they might have to take an IOU to be claimed at some future date.

As stated, slavery was a universal condition throughout history.

What is significant, and Cumberbatch should know this as a Brit, is that Great Britain was the most progressive of all the major powers two hundred years ago when it abolished slavery.  The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was a major step forward in liberating mankind from this great evil.  But a change in the law did not change everything.

The Royal Navy was then given the job of stopping ships on the high seas and freeing slaves, white or black.  The famous missionary and explorer David Livingstone went into Africa determined to stamp out slavery.  He was well aware that African chiefs were selling their own people.  The expression “sold down the river” dates back to this time.

The slave trade in Livingstone’s time was carried out by Muslims, who took Africans to be sold in the Middle East.  The Arab slave traders were aided by Africans themselves.

The Royal Navy patrolled the West African coastline throughout the nineteenth century in its determination to end the trade.

Sadly, according to the UN, five decades after independence, slavery is back in every African country!  Only one African leader has apologized for it – former Ghanaian President John Kufour, who recognized that his own people were actively involved in the slave trade – and explained that slavery continues in his own country (a fact further publicized by Oprah Winfrey on her television program).  His apology coincided with the two hundredth anniversary of the British abolition of the trade, sponsored by William Wilberforce.

Actors need to be careful venturing into history.  Mel Gibson made two of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made, “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.”  After making the second one, he snapped at a film critic who challenged his interpretation of history, making it clear where he stood.  As I remember it, he said:  “We’re not in the business of teaching history.  We’re in the business of producing entertainment!”

This, of course, does not mean that movies aren’t influential – “Braveheart” has been very influential in fueling the fires of Scottish nationalism, which may result in Scotland leaving the UK in September of this year.  Few voters will have read that the movie contains a record 87 historical inaccuracies (that’s not my figure, I only realized three – but you can Google it).  (You can also Google “To Kill a King,” described as the most historically accurate movie ever made.)

Let’s all remember when we watch an historical movie to realize that it’s first and foremost entertainment provided to make money; and let’s also realize that no actor is qualified to comment on history any more than a historian is qualified to act.



Numbers say a great deal.

I read a few days ago that there are 102 million adult Americans NOT working.

A few days ago, CBS announced that the percentage of American adults working is now 62.8%, the lowest figure in over four decades.

At least these two figures agree.

The figure that clearly doesn’t agree with the above is the monthly unemployment figure, currently 6.7%, down from 7% a month ago and 7.8% a year ago.

Let’s be clear here – government statistics say that the number of people out of work is clearly on a downward trend, at the same time as the number of people without a job is increasing!

I realize that doesn’t make any sense, but neither does the US economy.

Let’s put it another way – unemployment today is worse than it was in the 1930’s!

Of course, many of the 102 million who are not working are retired.   Many more, for some reason, choose not to work.  But many incalculable tens of thousands (or millions) who want to work have given up trying to work because things in their local area are really bad.

A case in point is North Carolina, arguably the most depressed state at this time.

The Guardian’s Paul Lewis wrote from Hertford, N Carolina, on January 15th, about people begging for food, soap and even toilet paper, as savage cuts in unemployment benefit have hit many people hard.   Help is not likely as many in government see the decreasing unemployment figures and really believe government policies are working!  (Article:  “As Congress wrangles with whether to restore long-term unemployment benefits, North Carolina is already experiencing the hardship likely to unfold unless the program is restored.”)  

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder delivered his “State of the State” address Thursday evening, declaring the state of Michigan “the Comeback State.”  Explaining in detail how bad things were a few years ago (under a different administration) and how much better they are now, the Governor then called for more immigrants to give a further boost to the economy.   More immigrants when 102 million American adults are not working!

I can understand that certain skills may be needed, but do we really need more people to work in fast food outlets, depriving the low-paid of jobs?

Google The Guardian article – it’s a really good read.   It’s the kind of reporting we rarely see.

Numbers say a lot about the Middle East, as well.

The number of al-Qaeda sponsored attacks in Iraq has increased dramatically in recent weeks, threatening an increase in sectarian violence.

Prior to western intervention in Iraq, al-Qaeda did not operate in the country.   The nominally Sunni Saddam Hussein ruled the country with an iron fist.  He was not a religious man and kept the fanatical Islamic element at bay.

Anglo-American intervention changed all that.

The majority Shias now dominate the country, boosting Iran’s influence and connecting Shias in Syria and Lebanon to their main source of support in Tehran.   Without intending to, the West created a Shi’ite arc of influence connecting all four countries.   With Iran’s nuclear potential, Shia Islam is now a major force, even though only 15% of Muslims are Shia.

This, of course, scares the Sunnis.  They may be a minority in Iraq, but they are the majority in Syria and just about everywhere else in the region.

As an expert on the BBC nightly news mentioned last week, sectarianism is a bigger problem in Iraq than in any other country.

Add to this quagmire, growing US disinterest in the area and there’s a great potential for increased conflict.

An article by David Lev on the Israelnationalnews.com website, posted January 16th, is titled:  “US Abandoning Middle East, Leaving Iran in Charge.”

Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran was an American ally.   The United States was quite happy to have the Shah of Iran playing a major defense role in the Middle East, effectively saving the US money and manpower.

It’s unlikely that the US is deliberately planning on Iran taking up that responsibility again, but it can certainly be the end result of American negligence.

This would mean a Shi’ite superpower in the region.

A superpower that would spread fear throughout Sunni Islam.

Watch for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and others to work together to present a united Sunni front against Shia Islam.

The Sunni-Shia divide is already a daily violent conflict in Iraq and Syria.   It could easily spread to engulf the whole region.



It’s too early to assess all the repercussions of the Syrian debacle.  But some conclusions come immediately to mind:

  1. The Russians are better diplomats than the Americans.
  2. Syria’s President Assad is likely to stay in power indefinitely.
  3. Dictators around the world can use chemical weapons without fear of US reprisal.
  4. The current US Administration has lost all support in Syria, having succeeded in alienating the rebels as well as Assad.  Earlier this summer, the US lost all support in Egypt.  Washington isn’t doing very well in this part of the world.
  5. The European allies had better learn to take care of themselves.
  6. Americans do not want another war, especially in the Middle East.
  7. America’s seven decades of pre-eminence are rapidly coming to an end.

Apart from the above, nothing has changed!

In one poll, only 29% of Americans supported President Obama’s request for Congressional approval to attack Syria.  One late night comedian found something positive in the poll  – “this means that 29% of Americans know there is a country called Syria.”  Of course, that doesn’t mean they know where it’s located!

President Obama himself said the US cannot be the world’s policeman, yet that is exactly what the US has been since President Truman.  What he is signaling now is that it’s over – leadership of the western world is up for grabs.  Understandably, there is reluctance on the part of the second and third richest US allies to pick up the reins – Japan and Germany.  We could be in for a rough ride until somebody somewhere is ready to take over!   History shows the worst times are the periods when no country is leading.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Norman Podhoretz quoted Conrad Black:

Summing up the net effect of all this, as astute a foreign observer as Conrad Black can flatly say that, “Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.”

Podhoretz showed in his article “Obama’s successful foreign failure”  (September 8th) that it has always been the goal of this Administration to reduce the US down to the same level as other countries, that the world should no longer look to the President of the United States as the leader of the free world.

“For how else to characterize a president who declares war against what he calls a great evil demanding immediate extirpation and in the next breath announces that he will postpone taking action for at least 10 days – and then goes off to play golf before embarking on a trip to another part of the world?  As if this were not enough, he also assures the perpetrator of that great evil that the military action he will eventually take will last a very short time and will do hardly any damage.  Unless, that is, he fails to get the unnecessary permission he has sought from Congress, in which case (according to an indiscreet member of his own staff) he might not take any military action after all.”  (This was written before the Russian proposal, which changed everything – maybe!)

One day later, in the same paper, Middle East expert and former editor of the Jerusalem Post, Bret Stephens, noted the significant change in US policy over a single decade. “America’s way of war” has gone “from shock-and-awe to forewarn-and–irritate.”  (“The Bed Obama and Kerry made,” WSJ, September 9th).

Assuming the Russian plan goes ahead, the US and its western allies are going to be in the unbelievable position of relying on the Russians to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, at least where Syria is concerned.

Never mind, we can’t afford another conflict anyway.

An article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, quoting from the Bipartisan Policy Center, points out that the US has never before defaulted on loan obligations, but may have to sometime between mid-October and early November, when the money runs out and the debt ceiling needs to be raised again.  President Obama is likely going to find it harder to get the debt ceiling raised than it was to get approval for an attack on Syria.

“The thinktank’s estimate is in line with a warning last month by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew that the government would exhaust its borrowing authority by mid-October and be left with just $50bn cash on hand.

“The government has never defaulted on its obligations.  Raising the $16.7tn borrowing cap promises to be a major struggle for House Republicans and President Obama.”  (US could default on its debt obligations by mid-October, thinktank warns,” The Guardian, September 10th).

Failure to get approval will affect all US government spending, from social security benefits to military pensions, welfare, and the military.

This is always an interesting time of the year.  This year is proving to be no exception.   Significant changes are taking place in the US and in the country’s relations with the rest of the world.


assad_damascus_2011_3_29                john-wayne

Over thirty years ago, my wife and I lived in West Africa.  We travelled extensively in that part of the world.  Cameroon is one of the countries we frequently visited.  

We had American friends there, based in the capital, Yaounde.  The husband worked for the US Embassy.

On one of our visits he was telling us how his current job was to recommend which side the US should take in the Chadian civil war, which was raging in neighboring Chad.  The war lasted three decades before there was a semblance of peace.

My logical response was to ask why take any side?  My friend replied that the US always has to take sides.

Why?  What’s the compulsion that drives the United States to take sides in every conflict?  In reality, it comes down to the John Wayne Syndrome.

I never did like John Wayne movies, so I can’t claim to be an expert on them.  But it seemed to me that the tried and tested formula was there always had to be a clear good guy (white hat) and a clear bad guy (black hat).  This wasn’t just true of John Wayne movies – most Hollywood movies are that way – always have been and likely always will be.

That’s the way Americans like their movies to be – and their foreign policy.  The US must always support the good guys against the bad.

This goes right back to the beginning.

The American Revolution is often depicted as a conflict between the Americans and the British.  But that oversimplifies the reality.  The reality was that the Revolution, like all revolutions, seriously divided the country.  Revolutions typically divide a country three ways – one faction is the revolutionaries, another is those who want to maintain the status quo, and a third faction are those who just want to stay alive through the chaos.

This was the case during the American Revolution.  The vast majority of incidents involving fighting were between Americans, not Americans and the British.  Loyalists and Patriots battled it out.  Both wanted freedom – they just had different ideas of what freedom meant.

Syria also has three factions, those loyal to President Assad (the Alawites), the rebels (amongst whom is al-Qaeda), and those who are just trying to stay alive and feed their families.

What side should the US take?

Options are to support the thug/murderer Assad, or the thugs and murderers who comprise Al-Qaeda.  There is no prospect of democracy coming out of this.  Surely, we’ve learned that lesson during the past decade in the Middle East?

As regards chemical weapons, there is little doubt Assad has used them but so would the rebels if they took control.

It’s frequently said that Assad has used chemical weapons “against his own people,” but that’s not really correct.  His own people are the Alawite clan, who are only 12% of the Syrian population.  They were at the bottom of the social pile prior to World War One and owe their elevated status to the period of French colonial rule between the two world wars.  Perhaps this is why France supports US action against Assad, which gives them an opportunity to at least partially rectify the mistakes of the past.

In Assad’s mind, killing non-Alawites is perfectly acceptable.  This is the way tribal politics works all across the Middle East and, indeed, Africa.  Assad will never give up using chemical weapons if that’s the only way for him and his clan to retain power.

It’s hard for the US to understand this because it’s so alien to the American experience, simplified by Hollywood.  There are no good guys in this conflict.  There are only bad guys.

Complicating the matter further is that the US is increasingly seen as one of the bad guys right across the Middle East, especially after the way the Administration has handled Egypt and Syria during the last few weeks.

Washington is in a no-win situation with this one.


Le penseur de Rodin

“A world in which the US abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states.  A world, in short, where the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must, and those with an option hurry up and get nuclear weapons . . . Not a pleasant thought”.

(“American Withdrawal and Global Disorder” by Eliot Cohen, Wall Street Journal, March 20th, 2013).