"The collapse of the Libyan state has had region-wide repercussions, with flows of people and weapons destabilizing other countries throughout North Africa." This statement came from the Soufan Group's recent Intelbrief, entitled "Fighting Over Access to Libya's Energy Supplies" (24 January 2020).
Are you listening, Barack Obama?
"There's a bias in this town [Washington, DC] toward war,” President Obama said to me and several others assembled in the White House's Roosevelt Room on September 10, 2015, almost seven years into his presidency. At the time, I thought he was thinking particularly of the tragic mistake he made by joining the intervention in Libya in 2011, ostensibly implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, was sitting right beside the president as Obama spoke. I recall asking myself at the time if he were lecturing Kerry as well as lamenting his own decision, because Kerry had been rather outspoken at the time about heavier U.S. participation in yet another endless war then — and still — transpiring in Syria. Obama however, was apparently having none of that.
The reason is that the Libya intervention not only lead to the grisly death of Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi — and set in motion a brutal and continuing military conquest for the title of "who rules Libya,” invite outside powers from all over the Mediterranean to join the fray, and unleash a destabilizing refugee flow across that inner sea — it also put the weaponry from one of the world's largest arms caches into the hands of such groups as ISIS, al-Qa'ida, Lashkar e-Taibi, and others. Additionally, many of those formerly Libyan weapons were being used in Syria at that very moment.
Before we offer faint praise for Obama having learned his lesson and thus not deciding to intervene in Syria in a more significant manner, we need to pose the question: Why do presidents make such disastrous decisions like Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and, tomorrow perhaps, Iran?
President Dwight Eisenhower answered this question, in large part, in 1961: "We must never let the weight of this combination [the military-industrial complex] endanger our liberties or democratic processes. … Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals."
Simply stated, today America is not composed of an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, and the Complex that Eisenhower so precisely described is in fact, and in ways not even Eisenhower could have imagined, endangering our liberties and democratic processes. The Complex creates the "bias" that President Obama described. Moreover, today the U.S. Congress fuels the Complex — $738 billion this year plus an unprecedented slush fund of almost $72 billion more — to the extent that the Complex's writ on war has become inexhaustible, ever-lasting, and, as Eisenhower also said, "is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government.”
With respect to the "alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” an outcome not only in the long-term attributable to proper education but in the short-to-medium term principally inculcated by a responsible and capable "Fourth Estate,” there is an abysmal failure as well.
The Complex for most of its nefarious purposes owns the media that matters, from the nation's newspaper of record, The New York Times, to its capital city's modern organ, The Washington Post, to the financial community's banner paper, The Wall Street Journal. All of these papers for the most part never met a decision for war they didn't like. Only when the wars become "endless" do some of them find their other voices — and then it's too late.
Not to be outdone by print journalism, the mainstream TV cable media features talking heads, some of them paid by members of the Complex or having spent their professional lives inside it, or both, to pontificate on the various wars. Again, they only find their critical voices when the wars become endless, are obviously being lost or stalemated, and are costing too much blood and treasure, and better ratings lie on the side of opposition to them.
Marine General Smedley Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, once confessed to having been "a criminal for capitalism." An apt description for Butler's times in the early days of the 20th century. Today, however, any military professional worth his salt as a citizen as well — like Eisenhower — would have to admit that they too are criminals for the Complex — a card-carrying member of the capitalist state, to be sure, but one whose sole purpose, outside of maximizing shareholder profits, is facilitating the death of others at the hands of the state.
How else to describe accurately men — and now women — wearing multiple stars ceaselessly going before the people's representatives in the Congress and asking for more and more taxpayer dollars? And the pure charade of the slush fund, known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund and supposed to be strictly for operations in theaters of war, makes a farce of the military budgeting process. Most members of Congress should hang their heads in shame at what they have allowed to happen annually with this slush fund.
And Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's words at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week, ostensibly spoken to illustrate "new thinking" at the Pentagon with regard to budgeting, suggest no indication of real change in the military's budget, just a new focus — one that promises not to diminish cash outlays but to increase them. But rightfully so, Esper does indicate where some of the blame lies as he glibly accuses the Congress of adding to already bloated budget requests from the Pentagon: “I’ve been telling the Pentagon now for two and a half years that our budgets aren’t gonna get any better — they are where they are — and so we have to be much better stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar. … And, you know, Congress is fully behind that. But then there’s that moment in time when it hits their backyard, and you have to work your way through that."
"[T]hat moment in time when it hits their backyard” is an only slightly veiled accusation that members of Congress often plus-up Pentagon budget requests in order to provide pork for their home districts (no one is better at this than the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in his many years in the Senate has provided millions of taxpayer dollars — including to Defense — for his home state of Kentucky to ensure his long-lived hold on power there. And he's no piker either in receiving money from the defense sector into his campaign coffers. McConnell just might be different, however, from other members of Congress in the way he returns to Kentucky and openly brags about the huge amounts of pork he brings annually to his state in order to offset his increasingly bad poll ratings).
But Esper continued in a far more telling manner: "We’re at this moment in time. We have a new strategy. …We have a lot of support from Congress. … We have to bridge this gap now between what was Cold War-era systems and the counter-insurgency, low-intensity fight of the last ten years, and make this leap into great power competition with Russia and China — China principally."
If the old Cold War brought sometimes record military budgets, we can expect the new cold war with China to outstrip those amounts by orders of magnitude. And who is it that decided that we needed a new cold war anyway?
Look no further than the Complex (from which Esper comes, not coincidentally, as one of the top lobbyists for Raytheon, a stellar member of the Complex). One of the Complex's sine qua nons is what it learned from the almost half century of the cold war with the Soviet Union: nothing on earth pays out so handsomely and consistently than a prolonged struggle with a major power. Thus, there is no stronger, more powerful advocate for a new cold war with China — and throw Russia into the mix too for extra dollars — than the Complex.
However, at the end of the day, the very idea that the U.S. must spend annually more money on its military than the next eight nations in the world combined, most of whom are U.S. allies, should demonstrate to an even unknowledgeable and not-so-alert citizenry that something is seriously wrong. Roll out a new cold war; something is still seriously wrong.
But apparently the power of the Complex is simply too great. War and more war is the future of America. As Eisenhower said, the "weight of this combination" is in fact endangering our liberties and democratic processes.
To understand this explicitly, we need only examine the futile attempts in the past few years to wrest back the power to make war from the executive branch, the branch that when equipped with the power to make war, as James Madison warned us, is most likely to bring tyranny.
Madison, the real "pen" in the process of writing the U.S. Constitution, made certain that it put the war power in the hands of the Congress. Nonetheless, from President Truman to Trump, almost every U.S. president has usurped it in one way or another.
The recent attempts by certain members of Congress to use this constitutional power simply to remove America from the brutal war in Yemen, have fallen to the Complex's awesome power. It matters not that the bombs and missiles of the Complex fall on school buses, hospitals, funeral processions, and other harmless civilian activities in that war-torn country. The dollars pour in to the coffers of the Complex. That is what matters. That is all that matters.
There will come a day of reckoning; there always is in the relations of nations. The names of the world's imperial hegemons are indelibly engraved in the history books. From Rome to Britain, they are recorded there. Nowhere, however, is it recorded that any of them are still with us today. They are all gone into the dustbin of history.
So shall we someday soon, led there by the Complex and its endless wars.
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.