You are here

Foreign Policy in Focus

Subscribe to Foreign Policy in Focus feed
A think tank without walls
Updated: 1 hour 31 min ago

If Aleppo Was a Crime Against Humanity, Isn’t Mosul?

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 11:35am

Mosul following the U.S. invasion of 2003. (Photo: California National Guard / Flickr)

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major Islamic State stronghold in the country, is nearly under Iraqi government control.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, has occupied the city since June 2014. Now, with the help of U.S. airpower, the entire eastern portion of the city has been retaken, and roughly 33 percent of Mosul is in Iraqi government hands. ISIS is “completely surrounded,” according to Western-coalition officials.

But what’s happening in Mosul could be called “massacre” just as easily as it could be called “liberation.” And the choice of words and focus is instructive.

Don’t Call It Aleppo

Compare it to the feverish Western coverage of the siege of rebel-held Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Just three months ago, on the eve of Aleppo’s fall to the Syrian regime, the New York Times declared that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Iran were “Aleppo’s destroyers,” and decried the slaughter of civilians and intense shelling of residential neighborhoods. There was little discussion of the rebels, many of which had received U.S. funding or weapons at some point during the conflict — and almost all of which had engaged in severe violations of human rights of their own.

The Times assigned complete responsibility for the disaster to the Syrian government, which it said had “ignored the demands of peaceful protesters and unleashed a terrifying war.” That position unsurprisingly mimicked the U.S. government’s. (The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, even compared the fall of Aleppo to the Rwandan genocide and the massacre at Srebrenica.)

If stripped of the hyperbole, the Times was not wrong. The population of Aleppo had been subjected to a brutal siege carried out by the Syrian military and its allied militias. Barrel bombs had devastated the city for years, destroying primarily civilian infrastructure such as mosques, hospitals, and schools. Humanitarian access to the eastern half of the city was made difficult by regime checkpoints and attacks.

In February 2015, the Syrian government expelled the UN officials responsible for coordinating humanitarian access, while both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the siege of Aleppo as a crime against humanity.

Meanwhile, in government-held areas of Aleppo, the Syrian regime operated as a police state usually does: by arresting and torturing dissenters. The report released by the UN Human Rights Council on March 1 makes it clear that that the Syrian regime is guilty of heinous crimes in Aleppo, including summary execution and the use of chemical weapons.

And while it is gross negligence for the Western press to completely ignore the crimes of U.S.-backed rebels, there is ample justification for focusing disproportionately on the crimes of the Syrian government and their Russian backers, who possess a disproportionate share of firepower and therefore possess the greatest potential to unleash devastation at a moment’s notice.

In Iraq, the fall of Mosul looks remarkably similar to the fall of Aleppo — but without the same sort of Western denunciation.

Torture and Murder in Mosul

The obvious distinction between the two battles is that eastern Aleppo was occupied by U.S. and Gulf-backed rebels, while the universally despised Islamic State occupies Mosul.

There is no moral equivalency between the two, but we would do well to remember that life in Aleppo under the rule of extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jahabat al Nusra, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki wasn’t pleasant either. These groups engaged in and continue to engage in widespread human rights abuses, persecute religious minorities, and implement draconian laws.

Not all rebel groups in Aleppo were hardline reactionaries, and even if they were it would hardly excuse the Syrian and Russian siege and slaughter. Likewise, the occupation of Mosul by the Islamic State does not justify the wholesale destruction of parts of the city by U.S. airpower. Nor does it justify the abuses by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and its allied militias.

The battle of Mosul began in earnest in mid-October 2016, with Kurdish and Shia militias tasked with taking back villages surrounding the city while Iraqi forces entered Mosul itself, all while the U.S.-led coalition provided support from the air.

A number of these Shia militias, including the Badr Brigades and the Hezbollah Brigades, had previously detained, tortured, and disappeared fleeing civilians during the sieges of Tikrit and Fallujah. The Iraqi government has a similar record of cruelty, to say nothing of the U.S. military — which had very recently twice turned Fallujah, the “city of mosques,” into a city of rubble.

As Iraqi forces and allied militias began to re-take Mosul’s suburbs, they began to abuse the civilians that came under their control.

To no one’s surprise, militia fighters carried out “revenge attacks” against suspected collaborators. But the abuses carried out by the Iraqi military are undoubtedly worse. Videos show Iraqi forces torturing young boys with hammers and running them over with tanks. The Iraqi military carried out summary executions of both captured Islamic State militants and civilians in villages surrounding Mosul. These violations continued well into the offensive. As recently as late January, images and videos of Iraqi forces torturing and executing captives were still being released.

Crimes from the Sky

As in any modern conflict, crimes committed by ground forces are particularly unsettling for their visibility and their plain inhumanity, but the worst crimes come from the sky. The Iraqi military and their allied militias are brutal indeed, but they are no match for the barbarism of U.S. airpower.

The toll of coalition airstrikes worsened dramatically once Iraqi and allied forces had retaken the surrounding villages and began to enter the densely populated city from the east. By early January, the Iraqi military had retaken eastern Mosul with “significant humanitarian cost to civilians,” the casualty-tracking site reports. U.S. airstrikes in Mosul increased 33 percent in January, it calculates, and “a record number of civilians were killed,” including whole families.

By late January, the UN counted 1,096 people killed during the offensive, half of them civilians. That toll has only continued to increase in recent days as the Iraqi military pushes west.

Just as in Aleppo, civilian buildings such as hospitals and mosques have been the targets of U.S. attacks. In one incident, Nineveh Media Center — Mosul’s main news outlet — was hit, killing an estimated 50 civilians. Activists claimed the center was targeted due to its publication of ISIS propaganda, which even so would be a disturbing and violent attack on press freedom. Elsewhere, U.S. Apache helicopters, along with Iraqi ground forces, shelled and pummeled buildings in the Dawasa neighborhood, killing 130 civilians.

White phosphorus, a chemical weapon capable of burning human flesh to the bone, has also been used by coalition forces in the city.

It is estimated that the coalition killed up to 370 Iraqi civilians, including scores of children, in the first week of March alone. In the words of one Mosul resident, “Now it feels like the coalition is killing more people” than ISIS.

International Law

The United Nations has routinely expressed “deep concern” that coalition airstrikes were targeting civilian infrastructure in Mosul. To compound matters, fuel, food, and water are quickly running out. The UN and other humanitarian organizations place the blame squarely on the U.S.-imposed three-month siege that cut all supply lines to the city. Essential food items are “virtually unattainable” for many of Mosul’s inhabitants, the New York Times reports.

Excuses for the slaughter abound, and they are both entirely familiar and unconvincing.

The standard response is that the Islamic State hasn’t allowed civilians to leave Mosul and instead uses them as “human shields.” This is likely true — but it was also true in rebel-held Aleppo, according to the UN Human Rights Council. This didn’t stop the editors of the New York Times from condemning Russian airstrikes that devastated the city.

In fact, bombing densely populated cities anywhere is guaranteed to kill civilians. The U.S. and its coalition partners know this. They simply don’t believe those civilians matter enough.

The State Department rejects any comparison to Aleppo, an Obama-era spokesman said, since “in Mosul you have an entire coalition of some 66 nations who have planned for months” with “the vast support and legitimacy of the international community.”

This statement is absurd. War crimes don’t get a pass when more nations participate in them.

And the use of the word “legitimacy,” which has precisely no legal meaning, is meant to distract from the fact that Russia’s intervention in Aleppo was also legal under international law — no less so than Washington’s in Iraq, since both countries have welcomed by the respective regimes they’re fighting to preserve. However, the legality of the intervention does not absolve one from the obligations imposed by international humanitarian law in the course of the intervention.

The Scoundrel’s Last Refuge

In the end, all attempts at differentiating the siege of Mosul from the siege of Aleppo reduce to the scoundrel’s last refuge: It’s acceptable when we do it. It’s no surprise that Western talking heads purport to care very much about a massacre committed by a rival power, which we can’t do much about in any case, while either ignoring or supporting a different massacre carried out by U.S. hands.

Furthermore, what’s happening in Mosul is in danger of being repeated. President Trump has already increased the frequency of drone bombings and U.S. raids — a sign that he harbors even less concern for civilian life than did President Obama. The U.S. recently announced it will deploy another 400 troops to Syria to assist in the battle for Raqqa, Syria.

Above all, there is little evidence that removing the Islamic State from Mosul by shelling and bombing dense civilian neighborhoods will result in lasting stability. Once the U.S. destroys a city, directly or indirectly, it summons the kind of chaos and resentment that guarantees it will soon need to intervene militarily once again to safeguard its newly constructed client.

What happens after Mosul? Look to Fallujah, where disdain for both the Iraqi government and the U.S. runs high in the aftermath of multiple coalition campaigns. What happens after Raqqa? Look to Damascus, where suicide bombing has increased after the rebel “defeat” in Aleppo.

Many Iraqis residing in Mosul will be glad to be free of the Islamic State, but many will also be mourning the loss of their family members. And if history is any guide, they will blame the U.S. occupier and its client government in Baghdad.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Evan W. Sandlin is a PhD Candidate and Instructor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. 

Why Spend $54 Billion More on the Pentagon? To Start a War, Obviously.

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 4:29pm

(Photo: Joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr)

So, let me see if I’ve got this right.

North Korea has been pushing its ally China to rein in the United States. Pyongyang is worried that Washington is about to launch a preemptive attack, so it has tried to use whatever minimal amount of influence it has to persuade China to use its considerable economic leverage with the United States to get those knuckleheads inside the Beltway to listen to reason.

Or maybe I misheard the report on the radio.

How about this: As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to stop reckless U.S. military interventions overseas, like the one he so disliked (after it failed) in Iraq. So, as president, he is withdrawing all troops from Syria, reducing U.S. military presence in Asia, and pulling the United States out of NATO. Oh, and he’s going to cut the military as part of his overall promise to downsize government.

Perhaps I misheard that report as well.

During the Obama administration, the comic duo of Key and Peele famously introduced the “anger translator” who could give voice to what President Obama was really thinking as he provided measured responses to all manner of nonsense lobbed in his direction. Ah, those were halcyon days when we made fun of the American president for not giving voice to his true feelings.

What kind of translator do we need for the Trump era? Perhaps a “reality translator” that reveals the simple, id-like intentions behind the current president’s Tweet-rants and policy proposals.

Type in “Obama bugged Trump Tower” and out comes: “Hey, hey, stop looking at my links to Russia, okay!?” Type in “2017 budget proposal” and out comes: “I’m gonna destroy every potential source of resistance to me and my ambitions.” Type in “Trumpcare” and out comes “I’m going to rob poor Peter to pay propertied Paul.” (To quote just one example: Trumpcare would encourage health care companies to pay their overpaid CEOs even more money!)

I’ve come to the conclusion, after about 60 days of presidential antics, that the problem is not “fake news.” The problem is a fake administration.

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump, as president, just makes things up. He’s been doing that all his career. But now an entire government is being re-engineered around the pathological dishonesty of the executive and his advisors. This is bait-and-switch on a level never seen before in the United States.

It would all be rather amusing if millions of lives weren’t at stake — both domestically through the self-destruction of the federal government and internationally through the very real prospects of war.

This president, with his insuperable ambition to score some “wins,” is in search of some missions to declare accomplished. North Korea and the Islamic State are at the top of the list. But don’t be surprised if the $54 billion that Trump wants to add like an enormous cherry on top of the Pentagon’s over-rich sundae will translate into even more conflicts around the world.

Let’s Go to the Numbers

If Trump’s proposed Pentagon increase of $54 billion were the military budget of a distinct country, it would come in fifth on the list of global military expenditures. Basically, Trump wants to add an entire annual British military budget on top of what the United States already spends — which already towers above any imaginary coalition of potential rivals.

With the rest of his deplorable budget request, Trump will encounter pushback from Congress and cities and major constituencies like the over-65 set. Some of his own voters might finally come to their senses when they realize that Trump the Great is waving his magic hand in the air to distract them from seeing the other hand pick their pockets.

But on the military side, Trump has, if anything, underbid. Congressional hawks are complaining that Trump is not throwing enough money at the Pentagon. They say that he’s only offering a 3 percent increase over what the Obama administration estimated for 2018, that Trump the candidate made even grander promises, that the Pentagon should get at least another $37 billion. If Congress comes back with this figure, it would increase the increase to $91 billion. Trump’s boost alone would then rise to number three on the list of global spenders, after the United States and China.

What does Trump want to spend all this extra money on? He wants a 350-ship navy — even though the Navy is already undertaking a 30-year program to raise the number of ships from the current 272 ships to 308. He has hinted at pulling out of the New START treaty with Russia — once he found out what it was — so that he could build more nukes. There would be more soldiers, including as many as 60,000 more in the Army.

But all of this is just skirting the real issue. Donald Trump wants to spend more money on the military because he wants to go to war.

First: Islamic State

As a candidate, Donald Trump focused most of his martial fury on the Islamic State. He promised to “bomb the hell” out of ISIS and, within 30 days in office, come up with a plan to defeat the entity. When he was elected, radical jihadists predictably rejoiced: Bring it on, they effectively said.

Within 30 days, Trump indeed published a memorandum on defeating ISIS. Bottom line: We need to come up with a plan.

In the absence of a strategy, what Trump has done is chilling enough. He has unleashed the CIA to conduct drone strikes, reversing an Obama administration order. He has continued to sanction B-52 strikes, like the one this month in the Syrian village of Al Jinah that killed dozens of civilians. He’s sending 1,000 troops to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. He wants to rely more on Special Forces in raids like the one in Yemen in January that went so spectacularly wrong, leaving one Navy SEAL and several civilians dead.

In some ways, Trump is merely continuing Obama-era practices. But it promises to be a no-holds-barred version of the last administration counter-terrorism program.

Even our allies in the region are getting concerned. Trump met this week with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, pledging to stand side-by-side with Iraq in the campaign to defeat ISIS.

But after the meeting, Abadi apparently had second thoughts. “Committing troops is one thing. Fighting terrorism is another thing,” he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “You don’t defeat terrorism by fighting it militarily. There are better ways.” Perhaps Abadi was thinking of the Trump administration’s initial inclusion of Iraq among the seven countries on the “Muslim travel ban” list. Or maybe he was thinking of Trump’s alarming pledge to seize Iraqi oil now under ISIS control.

Or perhaps the “better ways” simply referred to all the non-military parts of U.S. foreign policy — diplomacy, food aid, cooperation with international organizations — that Trump wants to ax from the federal budget. Even stalwart Trump supporters like Bob Dole are up in arms about humanitarian programs — like the Dole-McGovern initiative that provides school meals to 40 million children around the world — that are now on the chopping block.

What better way of creating the next generation of America haters?

Next: North Korea

Rex Tillerson, the empty suit that Trump has installed in the now supererogatory position of secretary of state, is trying to get back in on the action. On a recent trip to Asia, Tillerson sat down with Chinese premier Xi Jinping to plot the further isolation of North Korea.

Tillerson pointed out that the “strategic patience” approach toward North Korea had failed over the last eight years. That’s obviously true. The alternative, however, was much worse: Tillerson said that all options, including military ones, were on the table.

All of the military options come with unacceptable risks of retaliation and escalation to full-scale war. The United States could try to destroy a single missile launch, take out as much of North Korea’s nuclear complex as possible, or attempt a full regime change a la Iraq. “North Korea would perceive even a limited strike as the start of a war,” Max Fisher points out in The New York Times, “and respond with its full arsenal.”

Given the relatively crude ICBM capability that North Korea currently possesses, the people who would suffer from an escalation would be Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.

Perhaps Trump is simply trying to scare the Chinese into doing more to rein in its erstwhile ally. But China doesn’t have that kind of influence in Pyongyang (just as it doesn’t have that kind of influence in Washington to change the Trump administration’s policies).

Or perhaps the Trump administration will go to war simply out of a general attitude of un-strategic impatience.

Beyond ISIS and Pyongyang

Building the Navy up to 350 ships and inducting another 60,000 people into the Army have little to do with dealing with either ISIS or North Korea, unless the Trump administration anticipates sending another large occupation force to the Middle East or Asia. Even Trump knows that dispatching tens of thousands of American troops to a warzone is a political mistake.

Partly Trump’s moves are about ensuring that the military is on his side. Partly it’s about tilting government in general away from soft power and toward hard power. Partly it’s about Trump’s personal vulnerability on military matters given his decision not to fight in Vietnam. It wouldn’t be the first time that a guy stocked up on weapons as part of a grand scheme of compensation.

There’s been speculation that Trump is really bulking up for a showdown with China. Given Trump’s phone call with Taiwan, his threats to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, and his bellicose rhetoric about China’s role in the island dispute in the South China Sea, there does seem to be some good evidence for this possibility. But the Trump administration has recently dialed back the hostility. Trump himself assured Chinese leader Xi Jinping of U.S. commitment to the “one-China” policy. Tillerson followed with a visit in Beijing that emphasized “mutual respect.”

The uncomfortable truth is that Trump probably doesn’t have any specific war-fighting scenario beyond laying waste to ISIS territory and declaring mission accomplished over the smoking ruins. Rather, he wants to put the United States on a permanent war footing as a way to sustain his unpopular presidency.

Until a challenger emerges that can focus U.S. national security concerns, Trump will let fire at range of targets such as terrorists, journalists, and Germans. Perhaps his provocative rhetoric and actions will encourage some small country to stand up suicidally against the United States and allow Trump to declare a Grenada-like or Panama-like victory.

Like the $19.5 billion that the Trump administration is giving NASA for its Mars program, Trump’s war plans are long shot. Casinos know that once a gambler wins on a long shot, they’ll go bankrupt trying to reproduce that once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, bankruptcy in Trump’s case means collective ruin for the rest of us.

Any chance we can convince NASA to send Trump on its first manned mission to Mars — so that he can return to the planet that birthed him?

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

These Are the Elections That Will Decide Europe’s Fate

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 8:30am

(Photo: Jose Maria Cuellar / Flickr)

Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold — The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The right was on the march, the left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.

It’s a grand image, rather like Game of Thrones. But the reality is considerably more complex.

There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: right-wing parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.

But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war, and treachery.

A Shot Across the Status Quo in the Netherlands

The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders’ right-wing, racist Party for Freedom faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes didn’t break the gates, though they did pick up five seats.

Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics — and, most pointedly, the consequences of abandoning principles for power.

The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the GreenLeft’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income, and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.

Rutte’s coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years, the Dutch Labor Party has gone along with Rutte’s program of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending, and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.

Rutte’s party also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” isn’t what voters want either (though it’s still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament).

There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center.

What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers, and parties on the left and center left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.

France on the Brink

Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional right-wing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.

With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron, and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.

If you’re attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.

Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by neoliberal EU policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39 percent of 18-to-24 year olds, compared with 21 percent for Macron and 21 percent for Fillon.

Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he’s been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly with the young, and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to that of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programs sound much like Donald Trump’s: Cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers, and give tax cuts to the wealthy.

Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“On Our Way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation. At 39, he’s young, telegenic, and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it’s not clear there’s a there there.

Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs. Macron runoff, with Macron coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50 percent of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.

There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38 percent of Fillon’s supporters say they’ll jump to Le Pen — that’s 2 million voters — along with 7 percent of Hamon voters and 11 percent of Melenchon backers.

What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45 percent of Melenchon voters say they won’t vote at all if Macron is the anti-Le Pen candidate in the second round. Some 26 percent of Fillon’s voters and 21 percent of Hamon’s voters would similarly abstain.

Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win, and the Front has never won more than 6 million nationally. But if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brexit vote.

If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There’s no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union. And if they leave, that will be the huge trade organization’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.

Surprising Strength on the German Left

Germany will hold national elections on September 24, but the story there is very different than the one playing out in France.

The German government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. The alliance has been a disaster for the Social Democrats, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20 percent.

But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany has drained Christian Democrat voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.

The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU president Martin Schulz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The party is now neck and neck with Merkel’s bloc, and some polls show Schulz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schulz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the chancellor’s Christian Democrat alliance tops the polls at 34 percent, the Social Democrats are polling at 32 percent and climbing.

Schulz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers, and almost 20 percent of workers age 25-to-34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.

In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40 percent of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.

That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the Social Democrats, the left-wing Die Linke Party, and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8 percent. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: The Social Democrats and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organization.

But there is a model out there that gives hope.

Portugal is currently run by a three-party center-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt, and NATO membership, but for the time being they’ve decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost a decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.

An Italian Wild Card

And then there are the Italians.

While Italy hasn’t scheduled elections, the defeat of a constitutional referendum supported by Democratic Party leader and then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last December almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.

Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It’s the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.

Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party still tops the polls, but only just, and it’s fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd.

Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several right-wing parties in the European Parliament. It applauded the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.

Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the party’s mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running — in truth, even the ancient Romans found it a daunting task — and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.

The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13 percent, and the racist, xenophobic Northern League at 11.5 percent.

The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot, with protestors tossing rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

There are informal talks going on about uniting the two right-wing parties. Berlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.

There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5 percent. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.

If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU, and there is no guarantee that Italians — battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group — won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.

Europe’s Choice

Predicting election outcomes is tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being cases in point.

The most volatile of the upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but even if Merkel survives, the center-right will be much diminished and the left stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.

The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy, and a robust debate is not a bad thing.

None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalization of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?

In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and one of the founders of the left organization DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”

The New Deal has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centering more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include “large-scale” investment in green technology, guaranteed employment with a living wage, an EU-wide anti-poverty fund, a universal basic income, and anti-eviction protections for the vulnerable.

None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The right-wing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.

Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education, and social services with the slogan, “There is no alternative.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.

But there is an alternative, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at and