• July 19, 2024

Oiling democracy’s decline

(First published on October 19th, 2019)

How often does it happen that you want to debate something entirely different but one book or idea compels you to go into an entirely different direction? For me, Rachel Maddow’s Blowout was such a book this week. It tells the story of the big oil industry which seems to have held the world hostage for the past many years. It is a breathtaking tale of power, wealth, corruption, deceit and manipulation at the highest level. Since it’s her first book that I have read, I was positively surprised by her storytelling gift. Unputdownable as it is it forces you to ask if the regulation mechanism for big business and such an important part of the world economy is so badly broken, why are countries like Pakistan being forced to take the breathalyser, the polygraph and a host of other tests and asked to walk on a straight line by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Don’t get me wrong. I am not for whataboutism of any kind. The purpose here is to show how it is the classic case of being penny-wise but pound-foolish and that if we are serious in fixing things, far bigger things need your attention. Ignoring them while going after small fry only, undercuts the legitimacy and moral authority of the entire operation.

Ms Maddow’s book is important because it also seeks to answer the question everyone has been trying to answer since 2016: What went wrong? It is a courageous attempt and every bit worthy of your dime and time but there are places where this project falls apart. For instance, while she is meticulous in documenting the pre-2016 big business operations and associated incidents of corruption, where a definitive relation needs to be established between Trump’s victory and a wider conspiracy, she highlights a few random facts like the choice of ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, subsequent reluctance to slap more sanctions on Russia and the Mueller Report’s conclusions to make her case. If you are surprised by the absence of the granular details here that you grow accustomed to in the first part of the book you should know there is a reason why this is so. If such a clear open and shut case was on the record, Trump would not still be in the White House. The fact that he is still there tells you such evidence does not exist.

This discussion is important because it also attempts to study the rise of populist leaders in the West even beyond Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. The author’s explanation is that the blowback from Crimea’s annexation convinced Putin that while he could do precious little in fixing Russia’s economic problems and democracy deficits, he could muddy the waters by sabotaging other democracies and making Russia look good in comparison. An interesting conclusion and the one we have grown accustomed to since 2016. But it starts falling apart when we compare the timelines. Crimea’s annexation took place in February-March 2014. By then, the Republicans already controlled the US Congress and the tea party movement was in full swing. Netanyahu had not addressed the Congress against the Obama administration’s wishes but his populist policies in the Middle East continued unabated. India was about to hold general elections in a month. These fateful elections would bring Narendra Modi and his populist regime into power. There is zero chance that these developments could be attributed to Putin because the said inflection point, the imposition of sanctions on Russia, did not transpire till August 2014. And yet 2014 and 15 remain the most important years for the careers of populist leaders. In 2014, Erdogan became President of Turkey. In 2015, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died, the house of King Salman took over, the Iran nuclear deal was inked, and Netanyahu went berserk.

Another factor missed here is the role of other industries. For instance, the Mercer family claims to have played a crucial role in Trump’s victory by offering him the services of Steve Bannon. The Mercers are known for their hedge fund and data expertise apart from their funding of the conservative causes. In 2015, Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon were trying to open Breitbart India ostensibly to support Modi’s government. Another example is of Erik Prince, the former head of mercenary Black Water who chose to settle in UAE in 2010. Prince’s role in Trump’s victory can be discerned from the fact that his sister, Betsy DeVos, later became his Education Secretary. While there are ways to link all of these to one industry — oil — and one country — Russia — if you look closely and dispassionately, you realise the problem is far bigger than one industry or one country. And these names and influences for some reason do not find any mention in Ms Maddow’s books.

Another way to look at it is to ask who has benefited from the rise of the populist leaders since 2014 and who has not. The oil industry is not the only beneficiary since then. And although it is an inquiry into the visible threat to democracy posed by the rise of populist leaders around the world, I was shocked not to find any reference to Steve Bannon’s campaign in support of far-right leaders in Europe. Mr Bannon is known to have publicly admired Ms Maddow’s work in the past. It also does not focus on Stephen Miller’s anti-immigration drive which could hardly be of concern to Russia.

I have argued in many previous pieces that it is impossible for any hostile power to easily undermine the American democratic system. The erstwhile Soviet Union could not have any luck despite trying desperately for too long. Only a US ally with access to the US intelligence community, capital markets, and media industry could pull off something as brazen as this. The media’s obsession with the drip-drip-drip of Hillary’s e-mail scandal while ignoring far more complex issues with the Trump campaign, misleading intelligence leaks and a remarkable amount of money involved, would suggest as much. This book does not change that.

If it is about undermining democracy for the sake of one country’s individual interest, Russia or even China could not accomplish such a feat. The mind then wanders off to the populists that were already in office in US-allied nations. The first name that comes to mind is of Benjamin Netanyahu. But he has been in power for far too long and did not attempt anything of this kind in the past. If there is opprobrium for him it is because he proved gullible and ostensibly corrupt enough to take the bait in his final years. The only other country which could benefit from a dystopian state of affairs in the West is India under Modi. Think about it.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2019.

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