Upon Reflection (13 November-17 November)

Time to consider weekly global headlines in an ever-changing world

Selected News Headlines

for the
Working Week
13 November-17 November 2017

The Prime Minister of Lebanon’s Unnerving Interview

13 November 2017, BERUIT, Lebanon – The Atlantic – Saad Hariri’s resignation as Lebanon’s Prime Minister in the Saudi capital of Riyadh sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East.

He was forced to step down as a consequence for being outspoken and wanting to negotiate a calm political environment with political rival and known terrorist organisation, southern Lebanese Hezbollah.

The problem that the Saudis have with Hezbollah is that it is an Iranian proxy.

Not just that; as an extension of Iranian strategic power in the Middle East, Hezbollah fighters have been liberally used in Iraq, Syria and Yemen by Tehran. With every new battlefield they have been deployed to, Hezbollah’s military competency, already rated has high by regional standards, increases.

Complicating the situation even more is the fact that within Lebanon, Hezbollah is both a military and political force with no rival.

From the Saudi’s point of view, if Prime Minister Hariri eases the political situation within Lebanon, this will only make Hezbollah stronger. Saudi Arabia wants to put pressure on Hezbollah and roll back its recent successes inside and outside Lebanon.

The ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, is driving a massive reform agenda within Saudi Arabia to strengthen its society for the challenges yet to come, including the possibility of war with Iran.

Publicly punishing Hariri for not acquiescing to Riyadh signals a hardening of Saudi Arabia’s regional position.

In a state where compromise and consensus between powerful domestic groups has been the mainstay of keeping the kingdom together, MBS wants a new system. A system in which the power of the monarch is centralised and those centres of authority that underpin the monarchy are clearly seen to support the monarch and his policy direction. Also, that regional allies who have used Saudi financial support can be brought to account for their actions in a way that up until now has not been possible.

What Saudi Arabia did to Prime Minister Hariri will have consequences.

Lebanon is a fragile state. It is a dysfunctional political plurality representing very different and often conflicting sectarian interests, but which together, has kept an imperfect peace in Beirut.

There is a recognition that Hezbollah is ‘first among equals’ at the Lebanese table and that should it be pushed into a corner, the terrorist group, well trained, battle hardened and well-armed, could do enormous damage to Lebanon, including igniting a civil war, or encouraging another Israeli invasion.

MBS will need to ensure that he does not overplay his hand.

His internal purges have made him many enemies within his homeland. Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen has tied down much of the Saudi military in an inconclusive struggle against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels – the very military that MBS will need to rely on to keep his power.

And then there is the rapid drive to modernise the Saudi state.

While in another time, this would have been a welcome development, coming at a time when oil wealth is no longer guaranteed, when a key member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar, is under a Saudi-initiated economic and diplomatic blockade and when the prospect of a shooting war directly involving Saudi Arabia and Iran is high, liberalising the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and centralising power might unleash multiple unforeseen circumstances. The sacking of Lebanon’s Saad Hariri might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The US Navy just showed North Korea its worst nightmare with 3 aircraft carriers and bombers in the Pacific

14 November 2017, TOKYO, Japan – Business Insider Australia – In what has been called a once in a decade show of force, 3 US aircraft carrier battle groups and an unspecified number of USAF bombers mobilised for drills in the Western Pacific.

The exercise, synchronised perfectly for President Trump’s visit to Asia, was a signal to allies, foes and ‘frenemies’ alike.

To allies, it was to demonstrate American resolve to remain militarily engaged in the Asian region. To enemies, such as North Korea, the drills signalled what may come its way should the current crisis over that country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs fail to rein in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’s’ baser instincts. But importantly, to Xi Jinping’s China, a country that sits along both the trading partner and strategic threat spectrum, it was a warning not to indulge too fully in its game of strategic ambiguity.

Of course, the display of American naval and air might made good international headlines. It allowed the Americans to feel good about themselves – active military displays often do, especially at a time when the White House is mired in controversy – one misstep after another.

During times of political instability in Washington D.C., the US military, long considered the bastion of conservative values and common sense, stands tall in the eyes of the average American voter when the politicians fail to even just pretend to connect with their electors. President Trump knows this.  He also knows the value the international community places in the consistency of a powerful US military presence in troubled parts of the world, and Asia is rapidly becoming one of them.

However, besides signalling American hard power to Asia and the world, what does this mean in terms of actual capacity to wage war?

A military signal is only powerful when there is a credible showcasing of a country’s war fighting capability. Three aircraft carrier battlegroups, and a number of strategic bombers can certainly do a lot of damage were they unleashed against an enemy state. But if they are only a temporary display of American power, how serious is the capability they pose? Furthermore, how comforted are America’s Asian allies? After all, once the carriers and bombers redeploy, US power will have dissipated as quickly as it appeared, giving the balance of power back to regional forces China and North Korea.

Perhaps that was the signal. To show the speed at which the US can assemble a good-sized fighting force.

But when America’s Asian allies probably need a longer period of reassurance and would take greater comfort from US power being ‘on call’ just in case the predatory instincts of North Korea ratchet up tensions, or China pushes up against the strategic interests of those countries with which it shares borders – especially maritime borders – how useful was this assemblage of US firepower? And coupled to President Trump’s ‘America First’ speech at the APEC Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, where Trump again signalled his desire to pull back from international obligations, these mixed messages are likely to play merry hell on policy makers in Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila and Hanoi.

But to sceptics and enemies of American global hegemony, this is a desired end point, a time to see nations imagine a world where US power plays a far less obvious role. It is time for a remaking of global power.

The EU signed a “historic” deal to integrate 23 armies to shake off its US dependence

14 November 2017, BRUSSELS, Belgium – Quartz – In what has been hailed a historic agreement, the European Union signed off on the Continent’s first ‘unified army’.

The ambition has always been there to undertake this option, but the strength of political will was always overshadowed, or more properly, undercut by Europe’s post-war commitment to, or, supplication to the US-dominated NATO alliance.

Western Europe for all of the Cold War (1947-91) and for much of the post-Cold War period has sheltered under American military might.

Even during the Cold War’s high point, the Washington beltway accused its European allies of individually and collectively shirking their responsibility for their own defence – European defence budgets being at their all-time lows. But placed in the context of two of Europe’s most damaging conflicts, World Wars I & II, perhaps post-World War II Europeans can be forgiven for not placing too much emphasis on military force to back its diplomacy, and for allowing America to take the lead on these matters. But times have changed.

With the Trump White House indicating that it does not share previous American administrations’ ambitions to lead the international community economically and/or militarily by subsiding multilateral arrangements and military alliances, the perception is that Europe has been left to its own devices.

NATO is still a strong presence in Europe and will remain so for a while yet, but the expectation is that Trump and future presidents may not see American dominance over NATO as something to give central importance to.

If European states have a crisis of confidence over the state of transatlantic relations, what guarantees will there be should any European state or all of them, through the EU, be challenged by a wiley Russia eager to take back strategic territory that volunteered its way out of its orbit and into the Western camp during the 1990s and early 2000s?

But the problem is not just whether EU states contribute more money to native defence budgets, it is about making sure any ‘European army’ has standardised training, weaponry and logistics in order for it to move across the Continent wherever and whenever it is needed.

Money alone will not make this happen, neither will signing a paper.

What will be needed is a long-term commitment to replace the security guarantee of NATO with an entirely new structure that will take far more money than Europe will want to invest. Furthermore, it will take an extremely robust European economy to sustain the creation of a new security architecture.

Without the latter, one cannot plan on having the former.

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