Monday, February 28, 2005

Syria In The Crosshairs

Middle East expert Juan Cole writes "The Syrians found Saddam Hussein's half-brother in Beirut and handed him over to the US. (If there is an Arab city where US intelligence ought to have been able to find a high Iraqi official by itself without help from Syria, it should have been Beirut)."

This is being seen as a concession to the severe pressure that's being exerted upon Syria by the US and others. Last week Syria pulled back its troops in Lebanon following the furore over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Damascus has been implicated. Though Syria may well be guilty of what its accused of there seems to be little conclusive evidence at present, and those making the accusations happen to be the ones with the most to gain from doing so.

As in the run-up to the Iraq war, its worth taking a step back from the diplomatic manoeuvring and asking whether there's anything Syria can do to placate its accusers, or whether one demand for better behaviour will follow another until we get to a point where the US can say it has no choice but to take some form of action; rather like the US/UK taking the "UN route" in 2002-2003 when in fact the outcome of that charade had been determined long before.

In the last few hours the Lebanese government, widely seen as a puppet of Syria, has resigned under opposition pressure. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in the mid seventies to intervene in the civil war. They’ve remained there ever since and Syria has continued to exert its influence on the nominally democratic and sovereign government, ostensibly to provide security and prevent civil war. Syed Saleem Shahzad gives some good background at Asia Times Online.

This is of course despicable behaviour on the part of Syria. Imperialist, interfering in another countries affairs, contrary to the will of the international community and so on. The US and its allies certainly won’t be standing for it any longer. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Iraq, the US government exerts decisive control over the nominally democratic and sovereign government, and retains a massive troop presence ostensibly to provide security and prevent civil war. This is completely different.

It seems that every concession by Syria is followed by the pressure being ratcheted up a notch. The question is where it ends.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Threat of a new war intensifies, while the last war casts its shadow

The repercussions from the suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday could be extremely serious. Although the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships seem to be trying to ensure that the carnage doesn’t derail their current truce, the bad news is that fingers of blame are now being pointed at Damascus.

Its been well known for some time that Syria is one of the nations on Bush’s hit list. Bush’s second administration is stuffed with neo-conservative fanatics who support both aggressive Israeli expansionism and a fiercely militaristic US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Syria remains a long-standing rival of Israel, which it is technically still at war with, and a disobedient irritation for the US.

The charges against Syria are now these: that its been providing assistance to the insurgency in Iraq, that it had a hand in the recent murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and that it was involved in Friday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

If Syria really is responsible for these crimes then, given the bloodthirsty disposition of the current administration in Washington, Damascus must have a developed either a death wish or terminal stupidity to act in such a crude and provocative way. If the charges stick then the US and Israel will have what political capital they need to threaten and to inflict military consequences, hardly something they’d shy away from. It should also be noted that the actual evidence for Syrian involvement seem extremely thin on the ground. For example, the accusations of Hezbollah involvement in the Tel Aviv bombing don’t ring true considering the current policies of that group.

Middle Eastern nation in the neo-con crosshairs. Flimsy evidence of wrongdoing used to justify military action…….is any of this sounding familiar?

Will the UK trot along behind any more disastrous American military adventures? The British government will be especially displeased that its behaviour in the run up to the Iraq invasion is back under the microscope if a new chapter in Bush’s “War on Terror” is about to begin. The picture now emerging is that Britain promised the US total support on Iraq in April 2002, then spent a year lying about how military options remained open, pursued UN authorisation for something it would do anyway because it needed the legal cover and, when that authorisation was not forthcoming, concocted some torturous legalistic justification of its own to the effect that this was not really a new war but effectively a resumption of the 1991 Gulf War.

With the current tensions over Syria and Iran, and with the governments responsible for the last disaster still in power and supremely unapologetic, the demonstrations against US/UK warmongering in London on 19 March will be more important than ever. As former US Marine and UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter warned recently, Iraq might come to be remembered as a relatively minor event that preceded an even greater conflagration. Whether or not that proves to be the case is entirely in the hands of the western public. Our governments can hardly act without our consent, or at least our acquiescence.

About The Democrat's Diary

[last updated - 29 / 1 / 2010]

Who I am

I'm currently studying for an PhD in Political Science at University College London's School of Public Policy. My research aims to identify the concentrations of socio-economic power, domestic or external, that shape British foreign policy, and to explain how their influence is exerted in practice.

Here's my homepage at UCL.

As well as studying, and blogging here, I write analysis and comment articles for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and the New Left Project, a site which I co-edit. I also micro-blog daily on Twitter.

When I write

I post here maybe 3 or 4 times a month, so a better way to follow my writing is via my Twitter page. I post there daily, mainly with links to interesting articles and reports in the global media. When I produce any original material, either for one of the publications mentioned above or for this site, I'll link to it via Twitter. Major stuff will appear on my UCL page.

What I write

My main interest is Western foreign policy, so I write a fair bit about current affairs where they fall into that broad catagory. Sometimes I'll post a formal, detailed article on a given topic, other times something quicker and shorter. I also post up anything I discover in the course of my PhD research that I think may be of interest to people visiting this site, be that on the historical evolution of Britain and its foreign policy, or various analyses of how elite groups exert their influence over policymaking.

Why I write

I take the view that, because I enjoy a good level of political freedom in my country, I therefore share responsibility for what my government does in the same way as I'm responsible for the predictable consequences of my own personal actions. This website, and my PhD research, is an attempt to make use of the freedoms I enjoy in order to honour those responsibilities. Any genuine progressive change that's ever occurred in politics has nearly always been the result, not of gifts from the powerful, but of the small collective and individual efforts of people articulating a case, trying to change people's minds and generate pressure on those in power. My writing represents a small, personal contribution to that end.

Guiding principles

The short essay below is an attempt to set out the principles and the general interpretation of the global political economy that underpins my writing.


My writing frequently explores the extent to which the policies of Western governments (principally the UK and its allies) are consistent with their purported liberal democratic values, and the dissonance between words and actions. Readers will find that the views I express are at odds with much of mainstream political debate in the West. This itself is instructive since the fundamental basis of my political thought is the same set of liberal-democratic principles upon which, we are told, our government's actions are based. These were best articulated over two centuries ago, in the words of the American Founding Fathers:

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organising it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”.

Most of us are probably aware that many of the individuals who subscribed to that original declaration at the time it was made were themselves guilty of acting somewhat contrary to its core principles, e.g. by owning slaves, committing genocide against the native American population, and so on. Sadly, it is just as true in the early 21st century as it was in the late 18th that powerful figures who praise the virtues of liberal-democracy often display profound contempt for those ideals in practice. There remains a sharp dissonance in other words, between the things our leaders say and the things that they do.

The West is often mistaken for a beacon of democratic liberalism (though that mistake is made rather less often outside its own borders, where the luxury of ignorance of the true nature of Western power is not something most can afford). The freedom the Western peoples have won for themselves in their own societies should not be underestimated, but that freedom - and the liberal nature of those societies in the way they engage with others in the world - is heavily compromised. In my view, Western liberal democracy is most significantly and effectively undermined by the fundamental conflict between the democratic and the modern capitalist systems.

Democracies distribute social power – in the form of the vote – on the basis of human equality. Markets distribute social power – in the form of control over resources - according to ability to pay. Governments must answer to the electorate every four years or so, but they must answer to those who own the country every day of the week. Every day the corporate media can bring pressure to bear on our government the like of which the average voter alone could never muster. Every day, private employers can threaten to take their business to another country; somewhere that will permit them to employ people more cheaply and with less employment rights. Every day, business can threaten to withdraw its resources from national economies unless these, and other favourable investment conditions, are created or enhanced. These pressures and threats - sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, never democratic – govern capitalist democracies with much greater effectiveness than mere votes. They drive nation states into a race to the bottom; a bidding war whose costs are paid by their citizens. In the end, the line between the democratic state and the concentrations of material wealth dissolve as both collaborate in manipulating the social machinery to serve their own interests and to lock the public out of power to the greatest extent possible.

The American Founding Father John Jay once said that, "the people who own the country ought to govern it". For all the fine talk of democracy and open markets, Jay's maxim remains the operative principle for his successors in the governing class.

Under neo-liberal democracy, therefore, the effective role of a single-mother on a minimum wage is to ensure that the wealthiest in society can fill their off shore bank accounts at an ever increasing rate, and maintain the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. If they cannot, the great and the good will demand that our single mother be a little poorer in the next financial year, in order to improve their margins. Those are the priorities of the deformed polyarchy that develops in a democracy where material wealth holds the whip-hand.

While real and widespread popular freedom is an anathema to social elites, its promise certainly makes for a potent sales pitch. Just as the Bolsheviks used the prospect of release from bondage to consign their subjects to a dungeon, so western capitalist states use the language of freedom – laissez faire, the free market - to justify transferring socio-economic power from the general population to narrow private ownership. But these privatisation programmes are designed to advance not the freedom of all people to pursue happiness on an equal basis, but the freedom of the economically powerful to feed their self-interest.

Thus, in the neo-liberal capitalist democracy, the extent to which you are free, and the extent to which you are able to influence the way your society is run, is the extent to which you have economic power. Not quite the same as the human equality of democratic principle. As an example, contrast the dedication of our politicians and corporate media to the freedom to make profit, one the one hand, with their views on the free movement of human beings to cross national borders in order to find work, on the other. The relative positions of money and human beings in this value system are revealed in clear and unmistakable terms.

In the “War on Terror”, like the Cold War before it, western powers have eagerly grasped an opportunity to further debase the democratic ideal. The West has, to be sure, a record of alliances with relatively free societies (e.g. NATO) and even of creating new ones (e.g. modern Germany and Japan). However, the West has also created, armed and otherwise backed some of the most brutal regimes in the post-war era. The rogues gallery includes such butchers as Pinochet, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, the Nicaraguan Contra death squads and many more; mass murderers who enjoyed material support from the west while they committed their worst crimes. In addition, the West has itself intervened to devastating effect where its creations and/or allies have failed to serve its interests. More memorable highlights include the liberation of around 3 million souls from this mortal coil during the Vietnam War, and the continuing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through wars and economic sanctions. The theme common to all this behaviour is not a reverence for democracy or a yearning for human rights – the ideals our leaders invariably proclaim when embarking on adventures abroad - but the pursuit of policies designed to further Western strategic and economic interests whatever the human cost.

Crucial to this system is the ability of state-economic power to shape political discourse in order to defend itself from those most able to challenge it: the Western publics. Through the corporate-owned media, through academia, and through material restrictions on the range of options in public policy, a single ideology becomes embedded in our political culture in the form of a set of deep and unquestionable assumptions governing thinkable thought in the mainstream political arena. This seriously devalues the democratic process, for example with two wings of the business party constituting the only alternatives for voters on election day. An effort to challenge the political assumptions underpinning mainstream discourse - thus widening the range of possibilities for society to consider for itself - must therefore be a significant part of any serious attempt to effect meaningful societal change. This is what I aim to do with my writing.

If our ideals and principles are what we say they are, then our task is to reclaim them from the fraudulent rhetoric of political and social elites, and act collectively to apply them in line with their true meaning. As humankind develops its ability to destroy itself, through environmental degradation or the development of WMD, the consequences of our failure to do so scarcely bears contemplation. The Democrat's Diary is my own contribution to a broader effort, currently manifesting itself in a wide variety of ways throughout the world, to reclaim liberalism from the "liberals" of state-economic power and to finally put its principles into practice.


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Why to Vote and How to Make it Count

“The argument was familiar. I had even made it myself, here and there, but I was beginning to sense something very depressing about it. How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but ‘regrettably necessary’ holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?”
From “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” – Hunter S Thompson

These familiar frustrations, when manifested in a low turnout, are often misinterpreted by the political classes as ‘voter apathy’. Given the chance to vote for something I suspect voter interest in the coming election would be rather higher. In fact, since many smaller parties exist, it’s probably the option of voting for a candidate that stands any chance of making a difference that people feel is missing. So is it worth voting at all? Does voting matter?

Why Vote?

So as to be as uncontroversial as possible I’ll use the starkest, most obvious example of how governments make a difference to peoples lives and why its therefore worth, in however small a way, trying to influence who forms those governments: Iraq.

Through war and sanctions the present UK government’s policies have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis. Whether or not you think the price was worth paying the fact remains that these deaths are the shared responsibility of everyone in this country. We live in a relatively free and democratic society; there’s no secret police to kidnap and torture us if we speak out or organise in opposition to our government. Whether by voting or by abstaining, by taking direct action or by staying at home, the net result of all our political activity or non-activity is the government of this country, no matter how poor our electoral system or how narrow our choices. Since how Britain is governed is literally a matter of life or death, any contribution we can make to influence this, however small that contribution may be, is something we should take very seriously indeed. When we’re talking about one of the most powerful governments in the world small differences can make for significant outcomes.

Of course voting is just one way we can influence how our societies are governed. What we can contribute to organisations, pressure groups or charities like Amnesty International, Oxfam or the Stop The War Coalition can be just as important. There are four to five years between national elections and plenty we can do in between times. But the election plainly influences how our country is run so the question is how to make best use of it.

Making your vote count

Whatever your political inclination, and indeed whatever voting system you’re faced with, the tactics a voter should employ are pretty much always the same. You vote for the candidate or platform that’s closest to your own views and most likely to have an impact. When choices are at their narrowest you vote for the candidate or platform you find least abhorrent to stop a yet more abhorrent candidate from prevailing. Thanks to the UK's ludicrous first-past-the-post system, and to the difficulties in presenting a less than totally corporate friendly set of policies in a capitalist economy, the choices we’re presented with are severely limited. What sort of genuine democracy could replace this grotty little pantomime is something I’ll return to in the near future. We have vast amounts of time between elections to work towards getting there, but for one day every four years we must work with what we’ve got.

Unlike a grown-up democracy the UK voting system does not throw together a varied range of politicians representing the myriad of political views that make up a diverse civil society; representatives who must then work together and compromise much as we all do in our day to day lives. Rather we elect one group to dominate the scene. Under our system a party must win the most votes in a regional constituency to have a representative in parliament. The result is that parties with a degree of support across the country but no actual majority in any one place (e.g. the Greens) have no representation whatsoever in government. Many voters who understand this dynamic then abandon the small parties they might otherwise have voted for, holding their noses and voting for the ones they know can win. The system under-represents the small parties and over-represents the large ones, which in turn encourages voting behaviour that exaggerates this disparity further. The outcome is parliaments dominated by one party, as opposed to ones that represent a balance of all views. The dominating party might have the support of less than two fifths of the population, and many of them may have only supported it for what they perceive as pragmatic reasons.

So the progressive vote may not be able to change the course of government at one fell swoop. But by accepting that it can then use the voting system to win that victory in increments, election by election. Instead of individuals voting centre-right (Labour) to keep out the hard right (Tories) a concerted and collective effort could be made by progressive voters to abandon party loyalty and concentrate voting behaviour on moving British politics in a progressive direction. In a marginal seat that’ll mean voting for the most progressive candidate of those that have a chance of winning. In a safe seat it means voting entirely with your conscience and so demonstrating that there are votes to be had in a progressive set of policies. The latter is as important as the former, though the results are less tangible. Moreover, a high turnout from hitherto frustrated progressive voters is essential. Whilst the success of this method of tactical voting is not guaranteed, staying at home is an absolute guarantee of failure. If we accept the need for patience that is required we can now consider ourselves to be voting for something: increasingly progressive government.

Put very simply, this would mean applying the following formula:

If your seat is marginal Conservative/Labour, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Labour
If your seat is marginal Conservative/Lib Dem, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Lib Dem
If your seat is marginal Lib Dem/Labour, or there’s an outside chance of a challenge, vote Labour
If your seat is completely safe for any of the main parties, vote Green or Respect
If you live in Wales or Scotland, lucky you. Vote nationalist and have a cigar.

One complicating factor is of course that political parties, despite the best efforts of their leaders, are not homogenous groups. Take the marginal Lib Dem/Labour seats. In one seat we might have an anti-war, anti-privatisation Labour MP versus a pro-privatisation Liberal Democrat who was only anti-war until the shooting started. In another we might have a Blairite android who’d cheer Bush on if he invaded Canada versus a Liberal Democrat who’s bravely spoken out against the hysteria over asylum seekers coming to murder your first-born. Using the vote to inch Britain away from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair and Howard will require a close look at candidates in individual constituencies. That is especially true when one issue dominates the scene.

The single-issue election

The factor that sets this election apart is of course the war. Plainly the election of a government involves a wide variety of considerations. Hospital waiting lists, quality of education, improvements in public transport, whilst all important factors, are things many Iraqis would love to be the extent of their concerns. The slaughter and devastation visited on that country by our backing of Saddam in the ‘80s, the vicious sanctions regime, the massive aerial bombardment from two wars and the hellish anarchy that has held sway for the last two years are not a secondary issue to better public services in the UK. Nor is the launching of a war of aggression, i.e. attacking a country that poses no threat to us, an act the Nuremberg judges described as the supreme international crime. British governments have committed unspeakable acts abroad in the past, but this barely concealed return to western military colonialism, which has cost so many thousands of lives already and could well be a mere prelude to far greater disasters in Syria and Iran, is of a greater order of magnitude than any domestic concern and must be dealt with urgently. How can we use the vote to achieve this?

Whilst some Conservatives opposed the war, a Tory candidate that is acceptable to a genuinely anti-war voter will be extremely hard to come by. The question of voting anti-war will more clearly arise in marginal Lib Dem/Labour seats, but again that will depend on the candidates in question. The difference from the formula mentioned above is in safe seats where the sitting MP voted in favour of the war. Previously in safe seats I recommended a clear vote with your conscience. However, in certain cases I think a concentrated effort around a single progressive anti-war challenger could seriously worry, or even bring down some very senior figures responsible for the invasion. If Martin Bell can unseat Neil Hamilton for corruption can a couple of senior Blairites not be unseated for waging an unprovoked war? Craig Murray, the former Ambassador to Uzbekistan who was removed for speaking out against the brutality of our allies there, is standing against Jack Straw in his Blackburn constituency. If the anti-war vote could unite around his candidacy, others could step aside to give Murray a clear run, and if this could be repeated in Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon’s constituencies, a clear message could be sent, by targeting the ringleaders, that left-liberal voters had drawn a line in the sand; indicating the limits of what they would accept. Claiming any one of those three, or even giving them a decent scare, would be a massive victory for the anti-war movement. The political cost of war is raised by every vote for an anti-war candidate in every constituency, and by raising those costs further wars might just be prevented and thousands of lives saved. Isn’t that something positive to vote for?

I’ll return to tactical voting in the coming weeks.