Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Incitement to racial hatred

In the UK, the Conservative Party escalated the political arms race on refugees and immigration yet further yesterday, proposing a new "tax" on employers who give jobs to non-British and EU citizens and a new security force "to secure Britain's borders". In his speech announcing the measures Tory leader Michael Howard made clear that he saw Britain's "lax" immigration system as posing a potential security threat, as he painted a picture of a nation under siege.

"We face a real terrorist threat in Britain today - a threat to our safety, to our way of life, and to our liberties. But we have absolutely no idea who is coming into or leaving our country. There are a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers living in our country today. No one knows who they are or where they are. To defeat the terrorist threat we need action not talk - action to secure our borders."

Both the Tories and Labour claim to be addressing the public’s “legitimate concerns” about immigration. But if we examine the terms of the debate over asylum and immigration, how well the debate is informed by the facts, the role played by politicians and the effects on society as a whole, a rather different picture is revealed.

The immigration debate is driven for the most part by the tabloid press. But according to Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, the tabloids "don't seek to inform their readers. They don't try to be fair, let alone balanced. They don't respect journalism's first requirement: to tell the truth. They set out to mislead and distort. They whip up the mob. They appeal to the basest of human instincts. The Daily Express ran 22 front page articles in a month about asylum-seekers, many of which stretched facts to breaking point. Its stablemate, the Star, ran a remarkable story which alleged that Somali asylum-seekers had stolen, killed and eaten donkeys from Greenwich royal park. There wasn't a scintilla of proof for this nonsense and you could laugh it off if it didn't form part of a pattern of far-fetched stories guaranteed to incite racial hatred. Some broadsheets have been infected by this kind of prejudicial journalism too. Test the facts in many Sunday Times stories and they just don't stand up. The Sunday Telegraph ran a story which claimed that six councils had banned schools from giving their pupils hot cross buns in order to avoid criticism from Muslim students. It was a totally false story which fomented racial tension. In similar vein, the Sun ran a front page which alleged that eastern European asylum-seekers had killed and eaten swans on the Thames. Again, there wasn't any evidence for this story - another in a sad catalogue of fakes. I've lost count of the scare stories about Britain being swamped by asylum-seekers, every one based on figures supplied by Migration Watch, a small organisation which happily provides guesstimates to journalists who then present them as fact."

The campaign of disinformation Greenslade describes has real and wholly predictable consequences. A poll conducted by MORI showed that on average young people believe the UK takes 31% of the world's refugees and asylum seekers (actual answer 1.98%), with only 4% selecting the correct figure. Only 19% of young people said they would be welcoming to asylum seekers/refugees in their community, compared with a mere 26% of adults. This is in spite of the fact that Britain’s is the world’s fourth largest economy and the vast majority of asylum seekers come from the most violent, dangerous and repressive places on earth. In 2003, the highest number of asylum applications came from people fleeing places like Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Iran and Afghanistan.

In this climate it should hardly have been surprising when The Observer (one of a small minority of trustworthy papers on the subject) reported last weekend that "violence against asylum seekers and ethnic minorities is more widespread than ever". Some particularly gruesome murders were mentioned in the report. Kalan Kawa Karim, an Iraqi asylum seeker, was beaten up and left to die while walking home after a night out in Swansea. Isa Hasan Ali, an Afghan asylum seeker, died after being beaten by a gang in a Southampton park. Firsat Dag, a Kurdish asylum seeker, was knifed while walking through Glasgow's Sighthill housing estate. And in one of the most shameful cases, Johnny Delaney, a 15-year-old Gypsy, was beaten to death at a playing field in Ellesmere Port.

Needless to say that these real-life killings of members of ethnic minorities by British nationals received far less tabloid attention than the fictional accounts of foreigners mistreating British livestock; a fact which neatly summarises the value systems of the newsrooms in question. One can imagine few barriers to full front-page coverage had the victims been British and the perpetrators been asylum seekers or gypsies. Even the customary obstacle of telling the truth might have been surmounted in such an instance.

Nor should it have been surprising when an ICM poll for The Guardian last week revealed that more than half of Britain’s members of ethnic minorities have been subjected to name-calling or verbal abuse, or that one in five had considered leaving Britain because of racism.

Given these unpleasant statistics one might hope that the relentless publication of "far-fetched stories guaranteed to incite racial hatred" in the press would attract some attention from the authorities. After all, the law clearly states that "a person commits an offence if he publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting, in a case where, having regard to all the circumstances, hatred is likely to be stirred up against any racial group in Great Britain by the matter or words in question." In fact, faced with a rising tide of prejudice and all the implications for public order and social cohesion that entails, politicians have sought not to counter the bigotry, but to pander to it.

At last year's conservative conference the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said that immigrants were placing a burden on housing, health, education and public services in areas where that burden was already heaviest. In 2002 the then Home Secretary David Blunkett said that asylum seekers were "swamping" some British schools, mirroring Margaret Thatcher's controversial comment about Britain being "swamped by an alien culture". Despite criticism from the Campaign for Racial Equality, which described the remarks as "hugely emotive", Blunkett was unrepentant, insisting that the children of asylum seekers should be taught in separate "accommodation centres".

The notion of immigrants and asylum seekers being a "burden" on the state completely contradicts the government's own evidence. A recent Home Office report shows that people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10% more to the economy in taxes and national insurance than they consume in benefits and public services. Instead of fully realising this potential contribution the Government withdrew asylum seekers' right to work in June 2002, a couple of months after Blunkett made his infamous remarks. If the "swamping" reference was aimed more towards the cultural pressures of mixed schooling one might ask why Blunkett chose not to examine how the racist press had exacerbated those pressures, but to stigmatise foreign children instead.

The policy of appeasement adopted by both main parties is best summed up by an election campaign poster recently released by the Conservatives which reads, "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's not racist to impose limits on immigration". Of course, the Tories would have some difficulty finding anyone who actually advocated unlimited immigration. But the real point here is to reassure anyone harbouring ill-informed prejudices that they remain firmly within the bounds of respectable opinion and that the Tories share their concerns. Both the voter targeted by the advert and the Conservative Party are offended more by their being accused of racism than by the reality of racism itself. Similarly the Prime Minister has said that "the public are worried about this, they are worried rightly, because there are abuses of the immigration and asylum system". However, the lying hate campaign pursued by the press, and the serious effects it has on the welfare of minorities, is somewhat less likely to be the subject of Tory campaign posters or reassuring statements from the Prime Minister.

The dynamic is one that has been played out to varying degrees across the world and throughout history on countless occasions. Prejudice and hatred is whipped up against a vulnerable minority. The authorities either stand back or actively pander to these prejudices, claiming to be addressing “legitimate concerns” and thus lending prejudice an air of respectability. These forces combine to create a climate in which abuse and violence can flourish. The familiarity of the story is profoundly depressing. As is the prospect that only those observing from the vantage point of history will recognise the pattern of events and behaviour unfolding, and wonder despairingly how a society where such things occur could possibly consider itself civilised.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Blessed are the peacemakers

The Bush administration took the world a step further on the road to peace, stability and democracy yesterday by agreeing to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Pakistan is ruled by a military general, Pervez Musharraf, who assumed the presidency in widely condemned coup, and has since awarded himself powers to dismiss parliament unilaterally and remain in his post until 2007. It is armed with nuclear weapons and has fought three wars with its neighbour India, also armed with nuclear weapons.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed "great disappointment", saying the move would exacerbate India's security concerns.

Washington’s move is particularly helpful, coming at a time when thawing relations between the two regional powers appeared to be leading towards a breakthrough with the proposal of the “peace pipeline”, a natural-gas pipeline to run across the Pakistani-Indian border.

Asia Times reports that, “Progress in the peace process between India and Pakistan which began in January last year has led to the unravelling of several differences that were considered insurmountable just a few months back, including such matters as a bus service between Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir. With the bus service in place, the gas pipeline is seen as the first big ticket breakthrough, moving far beyond confidence-building measures, such as the removal of travel and transport restrictions between India and Pakistan, that are more symbolic in nature.

Washington’s problem is with where the gas pipeline will originate: Iran. In her recent visit to New Delhi “Rice made it clear to her Indian counterpart, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, that if India proceeds with the pipeline, it could invite US ire under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act”.

The F-16s appear to be Washington’s reward for Islamabad’s agreement to support action against Tehran. Asia Times says that “This reinforces a number of reports by Asia Times Online's Syed Saleem Shahzad over the past months that Pakistan had agreed to host American troops and intelligence assets near its long border with Iran in Balochistan province in preparation for a possible attack on Iran, including the training of special US forces in Karachi - see, for example, US keeps Iran in its sights of January 28”. The deal may also be a reward to Pakistan for providing material evidence of its involvement in proliferation of nuclear materials to Iran, which could then be used by Washington to make its case against Tehran.

In short, the US is arming a country with a self-appointed General-President, a country that was involved in the greatest arms proliferation scandal of a generation, exacerbating a perilous nuclear stand-off in the region, and all to isolate, threaten and possibly attack Iran; which doesn’t have nuclear weapons and poses no threat to America.

The daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences.” George W. Bush - November 6, 2003

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Iraq, oil and conspiracy theories

"No, let me just deal with the oil thing because this is one of the ... we may be right or we may be wrong, I mean people have their different views about why we're doing this thing. But the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it."
- Prime Minister Tony Blair, 6 Feb 2003

Of course, at the time Blair said this he was peddling some pretty absurd conspiracy theories himself, so perhaps we should consider him an expert.

When most of us think of conspiracy theories we're thinking of faked moon landings and government cover-ups of encounters with aliens. However, when the political classes use the term they also mean any interpretation of a government's actions that deviates from the narrative they've helpfully set out for us. Here the implied lunacy of the "conspiracy theorist" is to suggest that our leaders might be less than morally pristine; that they're not basically just trying to "do the right thing", whatever mistakes might be made along the way.

Let's briefly recall some of the absurd conspiracy theories and other crackpot notions that our Prime Minister, along with others, has tried to convince us of. One was that Saddam Hussein - the tinpot dictator of a crippled third world country that had been smashed by a decade of war, sanctions and bombing - posed a dangerous threat to the greatest superpower the world had ever seen. The story went that nations with enough weaponry to end life on earth had something serious to fear from one of the weakest and most isolated countries in existence. No plausible explanation was given as to why this one-legged pygmy would dream of launching himself at a herd of elephants, let alone a herd of elephants armed with tactical nuclear weapons. In fact there was serious doubt that the pygmy had so much as a bow and arrow or a vial of anthrax to wave unconvincingly at his trembling victims before he got trampled in the stampede. But sober and sensible commentators, pundits and politicians mulled over this palpable claptrap for months before finally the biggest elephant of all went ahead and impaled the hapless pygmy on its right tusk; just to be safe.

Another half-baked notion that somehow grips the imaginations of opinion-makers is that a deep concern for the plight of the Iraqi people helped to inspire the US and the UK to topple the monstrous Saddam. In fact to describe the idea as 'half-baked' is to inflict a mortal insult on slapdash bakers everywhere. Yet the political classes have doggedly clung to this conviction despite the fact that the US and the UK backed Saddam while he committed all his worst atrocities and maintained a sanctions regime upon Iraq in the 1990s that UN officials described as genocidal, which killed over a million civilians; 4,000 under-fives per month according to UNICEF. Not exactly the behaviour of governments driven by the sheer moral urgency of saving the Iraqis from torment. But then no self-respecting conspiracy theorist is going to let themselves be confused by the facts.

Then there was the theory that Saddam and al-Queda had joined forces, much as The Riddler and The Penguin had joined forces in Batman the Movie (starring Adam West). Again the inconvenient facts - like the mutual enmity of the bad guys, al-Qaeda's wish to overthrow Saddam, Saddam's persecution of radical Muslims - were not enough to shoot down these flights of fancy.

Sadly, to look at the question of oil in relation to Iraq, we must return to a more mundane view of the world, but one that at least has the redeeming feature of being sane.

If one were to say that the shareholders of a major corporation sought to maximise profit and market share, that would not be a conspiracy theory so much as a bald statement of fact. Similarly, if one were to say that great powers throughout history have sought both access to and control over essential resources in order to enhance their power, that would hardly be a controversial statement. So it should have surprised no one when renowned investigative reporter Greg Palast, reporting last week for BBC Newsnight, revealed details of the tactical squabbles going back to 2001 that had taken place within US state and corporate circles over the post-invasion fate of Iraqi oil. No more than it should be a surprise to learn that the US State Department, in 1945, described Middle Eastern oil as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history". Or that British planners in 1947 concurred, describing it as "a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination". Or that in 1956 Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd had noted "We must at all costs maintain control of this oil". Or that in 1999 Dick Cheney, now US Vice-President, told the Institute for Petroleum that "Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality".

The proposition that Iraq was invaded primarily because of its oil can hardly be described as a conspiracy theory since, unlike flimsy notions of a "WMD threat" or "humanitarian intervention", it is based on rational observations concerning matters of fact. But the reason that the Prime Minister and others try to push such talk to the margins of debate has less to do with rationality than with the need to make room for the self-serving chauvinistic slogans that politicians and their apologists must proclaim in order to justify warfare. That a decision which may have caused the deaths of over 100,000 civilians can be discussed with such casual disregard for the most basic facts should give you the true measure of our political culture.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Securing Iraq for Democracy

Two articles appeared over the weekend illustrating the effect the occupation has on the security situation in Iraq. In the Independent on Sunday, Patrick Cockburn revealed that "US intelligence and military police officers in Iraq are routinely freeing dangerous criminals in return for a promise to spy on insurgents.

"The Americans are allowing the breakdown of Iraqi society because they are only interested in fighting the insurgency," said a senior Iraqi police officer. "We are dealing with an epidemic of kidnapping, extortion and violent crime, but even though we know the Americans monitor calls on mobiles and satellite phones, which are often used in ransom negotiations, they will not pass on any criminal intelligence to us. They only want to use the information against insurgents."

An Iraqi government source confirmed that criminal suspects were often released if they agreed to inform on insurgents, despite the dangers to ordinary Iraqis. The Iraqi middle class has been heavily targeted by kidnappers since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many doctors, a favourite target, and businessmen have fled to Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The police admit that they have been unable to do anything to stop the wave of abductions.
"

The article mentions one particular instance where two captured kidnappers, who were giving the police vital intelligence on their accomplices, were then taken by US troops and released to spy on the resistance.

"The Iraqi police were jubilant that they finally had detailed information on how a kidnap gang operated. The two captured men were willing to provide the names and addresses of other gang members, and the success was lauded by Iraqi television and the local press. To the consternation of the police, however, on 30 December a convoy of US military police arrived at al-Khansa police station, where Mohammed Najim and Adnan Ashur were being held. The Iraqi police officer at the station recorded: "They have requested the custody of the two assailants." Iraqi police dropped the case against the rest of the gang."

In the Financial Times, Awadh al-Taee and Steve Negus examined the effective impunity with which the occupiers are able to murder Iraqi civilians.

"The Baghdad neighbourhood of Kerrada alone, according to local police, sees one fatal shooting a week by either private security companies or the military

In such incidents, the victims have little legal recourse. According to the coalition's Order 17, enacted by US administrators shortly after the invasion, military personnel and most private contractors working in Iraq cannot be brought before Iraqi courts.


Instead, "compensation" is given to the victims families, The US military's standard payout is $2,500 - about two days' pay for a western ex-military security man, or two years' wages for a mid-level Iraqi civil servant. Many security companies (although not necessarily John's) use this as a base. "This is the price of an Iraqi citizen," snorted one Kerrada policeman in disgust.

"Two thousand five hundred dollars," said a [victim's] relative derisively. "Twenty-five million would not pay for a hair of his head. I have experience in fighting, and my friends have offered to fight with me. God willing, we will make an example of them."
"

Its often said that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the 2003 invasion, it would be irresponsible for coalition forces to depart now and leave Iraq to descend into chaos. The reality is that the occupation a major cause of Iraq's security problems, not a solution. Whether they're doing the insurgent's recruiting for them by murdering Iraqis and then insulting their bereaved families with derisory "compensation" payments, or freeing violent criminals in order to further some military objective, the occupiers consistently ram the point home (for anyone who cares to pay attention) that the population's welfare is simply not one of their priorities.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

If Britain were Iraq, What would it be Like?

with thanks to Juan Cole*
What would Britain look like if it were in Iraq's current situation? The population of the UK is over twice that of Iraq, so a lot of statistics would have to be multiplied by that number.
Its estimated that 100,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the invasion, war and anarchy between March 2003 and October 2004. That's over 350 per month, the equivalent proportionately of 700 British people. What if 700 people had died in car bombings, grenade and rocket attacks, machine gun spray, and aerial bombardment in Britain last month, and every month for the last two years?
And what if those deaths occurred all over the country, including in London, but mainly in an area roughly forming a triangle between London, South Wales and Lancashire? What if that area gained international notoriety as "the triangle of death"?
What if the Houses of Parliament and the government buildings in Whitehall were constantly taking mortar fire? What if almost nobody in the Foreign Office, Downing Street, or the Ministry of Defence dared venture out of their buildings, and considered it dangerous to go over to the suburbs of north and west London?
What if all the reporters for all the major television and print media were trapped in five-star hotels in London, unable to move more than a few blocks safely, and dependent on stringers to know what was happening in Liverpool and Cardiff? What if the only time they ventured north or west was if they could be embedded with battalions of the occupying foreign army or the British National Guard units the occupiers had set up to police the country?
There are estimated to be some 25,000 guerrillas in Iraq engaged in concerted acts of violence. What if there were private armies totalling 50, 000 men, armed with machine guns, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar launchers, hiding out in dangerous urban areas of cities all over the country? What if they completely controlled Bristol, Liverpool, Cardiff, Birmingham, and Manchester, such that local police and the occupying military could not go into those cities? What if the occupying military then drove the residents of Bristol from their homes and razed the city to the ground?
What if, during the past year, the Foreign Secretary (Aqilah Hashemi), the Prince of Wales (Izzedine Salim), and the Attorney General (Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim) had all been assassinated?
What if all the cities in the UK were wracked by a crime wave, with thousands of murders, kidnappings, burglaries, and carjackings in every major city every year?
What if the occupying military's air force routinely (meaning daily or weekly) bombed the slums of Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and London, as well as other urban areas, attempting to target "safe houses" of "criminal gangs", but inevitably killing a lot of children and little old ladies?
What if, from time to time, the occupying military besieged Canterbury, killing hundreds of armed members of the Christian Resistance Militia? What if entire platoons of the militia holed up in and around Canterbury Cathedral, and were bombarded by warplanes daily, destroying large parts of the graveyard of St Martin's Church and damaging the cathedral? What if the General Synod of the Church of England had to call for a popular march of thousands of believers to converge on the cathedral to stop the occupiers from demolishing it to get at a the militia?
What if there were virtually no commercial air traffic in the country? What if many roads were highly dangerous, especially the M3 from Heathrow to London, and the M40 up to Birmingham? If you got on M40 you would risk being carjacked, kidnapped, or having your car sprayed with machine gun fire. What if no one had electricity for much more than 10 hours a day, and often less? What if it went off at unpredictable times, causing workplaces to grind to a halt? What if major power stations were bombed and disabled at least monthly? What if unemployment hovered around 40%?
What if veterans of groups like the IRA and the UDF were brought in to run the government on the theory that you need a tough guy in these times of crisis?
What if democracy were promised for two years but municipal elections were cancelled and cliques close to the new "president" quietly installed in the town halls as "governors?" What if several of these governors (those of Cardiff and Liverpool for example) were assassinated soon after taking office or resigned when their children were taken hostage by guerrillas?

What if nationwide elections only came finally as a result of mass demonstrations on the streets that forced the hand of the occupier. What if when those elections came turnout was almost non-existent in the war ravaged "triangle of death", leaving the government completely unrepresentative of those parts of the country? What if a serious election campaign had been practically impossible, with candidates subject to death threats and unable to reveal their identity to voters as a result? What if all this had been conducted without any international observation to ensure that the vote was free and fair despite the foreign occupation and ongoing violence?
And what if the leader of the occupying power, say the American President, maintained that the citizens of Britain are, under these conditions, marching with glad hearts toward freedom and democracy?

*This is an adaptation of a post on Juan Cole's website entitled "If America were Iraq, what would it be like?". Professor Cole was not involved with this adaptation of his work, but has agreed to its publication here.

What George Bush thinks about Africa

I'll post more on Friday. For now, some links to good pieces on Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-conservative former US Deputy Defence Secretary who's just been nominated for head of the World Bank (yes, believe it or not it wasn't Bono).

Here's one's from Juan Cole, and another from Noam Chomsky. The Chomsky piece isn't dedicated to Wolfowitz but he gets a substantial mention, which gets right to the real point about the man. Have a read and then consider the idea of this man being a key leader in world economic development.

It wouldn't be in the least bit overstating the case to describe this as a catastrophe for the world's poor. Forget the honeyed words at foreign summits. Along with the recent appointment of John Bolton to UN Ambassador this appointment gives the clearest indication possible of the direction the US will take in the next four years; outright unilateral extremism. You heard from Blair last week. Well, this is what his boss thinks about Africa

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Stop the War demonstration, 19.03.05 – why bother?

The Stop the War Coalition is organising a march and rally in London this Saturday 19th March 2005 to coincide with the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Similar demonstrations will be held in cities all over the world; including New York, Paris and Tokyo. But is there really anything to demonstrate against? And does demonstrating make any difference anyway?

An anti-war march? So which war are we supposed to be marching against exactly? Unless I've missed something the Iraq War ended quite a while ago.

Saddam Hussain's regime was of course defeated in April 2003. However, since then most central and some northern areas of Iraq have seen an escalating guerrilla-style war of resistance being waged against the occupying forces and their proxies. Even the south, which has been relatively free of sustained conflict, has seen two major armed uprisings in the last two years. British troops haven’t been directly involved in most of the major operations, but their presence provides crucial support for the US as it wages its counter-insurgency war. When George Bush famously announced the end of the war in April 2003 around 100 US troops had been killed in Iraq. This month the number reached 1500. Some "post war" period.

Certainly the occupiers are not involved in a traditional state v state conflict, with pitched tank, naval and aircraft battles. They are however fighting a large number of irregular forces, which clearly have a significant degree of support amongst many parts of the population. The US presents this resistance as being simply a mixture of old Saddam supporters and religious extremist Sunnis who are trying to provoke civil war with the Shia majority by unleashing suicide bombings on civilians. But many commentators now believe that such terrorist elements are in the minority, outnumbered by forces who concentrate their (less-reported) attacks mainly on the US military and are united by no more than the desire to see an Iraq free of foreign control.

The response to the rebellion has been brutal. In recent months air strikes have been called in on numerous Iraqi cities, including Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra and Falluja. No one knows how exactly many Iraqis have been killed because, as the US military says, "we don't do body counts". The best estimate so far, published in the British medical journal The Lancet says that probably well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed as a result of the conflict between March 2003 and October 2004.

When Falluja was attacked in November 2004 Lieutenant Colonel Paul Newell, battalion commander with the US forces told the New York Times “This is the first time since World War II that someone has turned an American armoured task force loose in city with no restrictions. Let’s hope we don’t see it again any time soon.” Newell wasn't joking. After softening the city up for days with a sustained artillery barrage US troops attacked on 8 November 2004. Associated Press reported the experiences of its photographer, Bilal Hussein, a Falluja resident:

“Heavy bombing raids and thunderous artillery shelling turned Hussein’s northern Jolan neighbourhood into a zone of rubble and death. “I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come out and help them. There was no medicine, water, no electricity nor food for days. US soldiers began to open fire on the houses…so I decided that it was very dangerous to stay”. Hussein planned to escape across the Euphrates river. “I decided to swim…but I changed my mind after seeing US helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river”. He watched horrified as a family of five was shot dead as they tried to cross."

Lieutenant Colonel Newell said that the residents of other cities should conclude, “this is what happens if you shelter terrorists”. The irony of describing others as “terrorists” when his own forces were using massive and unrestricted violence to teach civilians a lesson was apparently lost on him.

Falluja remains in ruins to this day. Formerly a city of 300,000, it is now reduced to dust and rubble. Try telling its remaining citizens that the war's been over for two years.

Even if there was no weapons of mass destruction, Blair lied and so on, surely Saddam's been deposed, Iraq is becoming a democracy, and these are pretty good outcomes? Isn't Iraq better off now? Why march against that?

For now, lets leave to one side the obvious point that “better than Saddam” is some way beneath the level of splendour that Bush and Blair promised for the Middle East as the fruits of their crusade. The truth is that Iraq is now in an extremely grave condition, nearly two years after a US-led coalition of wealthy and powerful nations invaded the country.

Since the invasion infant mortality has increased, more children are malnourished – now 3 in 10 – and acute malnourishment among children has almost doubled. Over 700 primary schools have been damaged by bombing, with more that 200 burned and over 3,000 looted. The south is littered with large amounts of the depleted uranium, used in US and UK ammunitions and known to cause respitory problems, kidney problems and cancer. Iraq holds the world’s second largest oil reserves yet its economy is a train-wreck, with unemployment sent soaring up to 67% as a result of US “shock-therapy”.

But the number one concern for Iraqis is security. According to Patrick Quinn of AP:

"By day or night, Baghdad has become a cacophony of automatic weapons fire, explosions and sudden death, its citizens living in constant fear of being shot by insurgents or the security forces meant to protect them. Streets are crammed with passenger cars fighting for space with armored vehicles and pickups loaded with hooded and heavily armed Iraqi soldiers. Hundreds of bombs in recent months have made mosques, public squares, sidewalks and even some central streets extremely dangerous places in Baghdad. On Haifa Street, rocket-propelled grenades sometimes fly through traffic. Rashid Street is a favorite for roadside bombers near the Tigris River.”

The state of anarchy makes media reporting from anywhere outside of Baghdad close to impossible.

As for democracy, while much talk has been made of it this was never a matter of urgency for the US. Former governor Paul Bremner had intended to drag out American rule indefinitely, but the Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brought mass demonstrations onto the streets in favour of elections, forcing the hand of the occupier. When the elections came turnout was high and voters jubilant in the largely peaceful Shia-dominated south, but almost nobody voted in the war ravaged, predominantly Sunni centre, leaving a government completely unrepresentative of Iraq’s cultural make-up. A serious election campaign was practically impossible, with candidates subject to death threats and unable to reveal their identity to voters as a result. Unlike in elections in East Timor and Palestine for example, international observation to guarantee a free and fair vote was nowhere to be seen. If any countries other than the US and the UK had presided over these elections they would have been held up to international ridicule.

Now, behind the newly elected government, lurks the might of the US military. It’s something of a stretch to describe a country with tens of thousands of foreign troops on its soil, bombing its towns and cities and killing its people, as free, sovereign and democratic.

However, at this point we should recall that the US and the UK backed Saddam while he committed all his worst atrocities and maintained a sanctions regime upon Iraq in the 1990’s that UN officials described as genocidal, which killed over a million civilians; 4,000 under-fives per month according to UNICEF. The idea that the welfare and freedom of Iraqis can be entrusted to these governments is a contentious one, to put it rather mildly.

If Iraq's in the state you say it’s in wouldn't it be irresponsible to leave now? Wouldn't the country descend into anarchy and civil war, and possibly be taken over by religious extremists? Shouldn't the troops stay to provide the Iraqis with security?

Since the lack of security stems in no small part from the war being waged between the resistance and the occupying forces, its no great leap of logic to suppose that if the country were no longer under occupation a good deal of the violence would cease. The occupation is to an enormous extent the cause of the violence, not the solution. That much seems blindingly obvious. In fact the resistance has been responsible for far fewer “collateral” casualties than the occupiers.

One of the central questions regarding the competence of the US to provide security is that regarding its well documented practice of sexually torturing prisoners. The latest of many chilling stories to emerge is that of resistance figures broken during interrogation by being forced to watch their children undergoing torture. Its doubtful that such methods inspire feelings of security and well being amongst the population.

After a US/UK withdrawal, security provision would of course be required, at least until such time as the nascent Iraqi forces were ready to take on the task. A plan for such a force has existed for some time; made up of Muslim troops under politically neutral command, or under the command of the Iraqi Government, and so more acceptable to the population. In the absence of US/UK forces it might be politically possible to introduce such forces in greater numbers than was originally proposed. This conciliatory measure could go a long way to cooling the temperature in Iraq and securing the country. But the plan was rejected out of hand by the US, which in itself gives an indication of their true priorities.

Even if I accept what you say, why should I spend my Saturday afternoon going on a march about it? What's that going to achieve? The demonstration in London before the war was enormous and it didn't change a thing.

The first and most important reason is that we all share responsibility for what our country does. We live in a relatively free and democratic society. We’re not prevented by the state from speaking out or organising 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. Britain has taken a central role in the invasion of Iraq, is the US Government’s strongest ally on the world stage, and is plainly on the wrong side at this point in history. Since the way Britain conducts itself is literally a matter of life or death, any contribution we can make to influence how our country behaves, however small that contribution may be, is something to be taken very seriously indeed. Iraqis, for example, don’t have the luxury of being apathetic about what our government does.

Beyond Iraq, the US has made it clear that aggressive militarism is its new modus operandi - with action being considered against Syria and Iran - and that international law is something it holds in utter contempt. The question here is whether we’re content for our country to help push the world yet further in this direction, and accept responsibility for the disasters that ensue.

Without direct action the world would be very different. Its victories include the abolition of slavery, the vote, women’s suffrage, Indian independence, and ending apartheid to name but a few. In each case victory was not handed down by the powerful through sheer generosity, nor was it ever won through a single afternoon’s demonstrating, as easily as flicking a switch. It was won by ordinary people organising and acting and repeating their actions, escalating the pressure on those governments by raising the political costs of their crimes. The demonstration this Saturday won’t change things by itself, but it will certainly makes its contribution. We can’t be sure of how much we’ll achieve by joining the march, but we can be absolutely certain of how much we’ll achieve by staying away.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The scar on Blair’s conscience

The UK-led Commission for Africa issued its final report today, with the Prime Minister making an impassioned call for action on poverty in the blighted continent.

I'll post more on Third World Poverty in the coming weeks. For now here's a few things that are worth reading in case you're about to run away with the idea that western governments and economic elites are driven by the moral urge to alleviate world poverty.

Firstly, this from George Monbiot on how adept New Labour is at giving the appearance of fighting poverty while contributing substantially to its causes

Secondly, Christian Aid's response to the Africa Commission which warns that compliance with the recommendations will require some "sweeping changes to current UK government policy". Particularly pertinent in light of the dissonance between public posture and actual policies that Monbiot describes.

Finally, this from Noam Chomsky on how a distorted picture of the "free market" is used by the west as a rhetorical device to advance its own economic interests, often with devastating effects on the rest of the world.

Needless to say, western governments and elites should be held to their promises and have their actions watched very closely. Things like the Commission for Africa only happen because ordinary people have created a momentum that forces the hands of the powerful. Its up to us to make sure it counts.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Fighting Terrorism

The headlines this week have been dominated by the passage through Parliament of the new anti-terror bill. The central debate has been between the government, which wishes to give the Home Office powers to detain suspected terrorists, and its opponents, who wish to see judges involved in the process to a greater extent than is proposed. This has been discussed in the broader context of an ethical question of “life versus liberty”; to what extent should we be prepared to give up our civil liberties to defend ourselves against terrorist attack? But, as is so often the case, the political debate has served as a grand and elaborate distraction from the real issues relating to the fight against terrorism.

The government has tried to create an inextricable link in the public mind between preventing terrorist attack and approving the bill. Frequently ministers avoid defending the actual substance of the bill, instead repeating that a terrorist threat exists. This creates a simple equation in the debate; if you accept that there is a terrorist threat then you must support the government. It then follows that any opponents of the bill must reside in a dangerous liberal fantasyland where civil liberties are more important than civilian lives and the reality of the threat facing us is not properly acknowledged or understood. It’s an elaborate spin the Bush maxim “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” and its cynicism is positively chilling. But, as any good propagandist knows, emotionally potent oversimplifications are very effective tools for keeping the rabble in line.

We are therefore treated to meaningless platitudes like “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures” and, much more seriously, some truly fantastic exaggerations. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke repeatedly warns that terrorists wish to "destroy the fundamental nature of our society ... freedom of expression and democracy, the rule of law, religious tolerance, the rights of women". Plainly the threat of a massive terrorist attack is quite real. But the prospect of Osama bin Laden conquering the UK, with legions of al-Qaeda overwhelming our armed forces, occupying our country and imposing a taliban-style government is, frankly, somewhat less plausible. The terror threat is extremely serious, with the real potential for catastrophe. But, unlike in the Second World War, the life of the nation itself is clearly not endangered. The only threat posed to Britain’s essential nature is that of politicians invoking the spectre of terrorism as a pretext to undermine democracy and the impartial rule of law.

Few would argue that the security services should not be able to detain someone suspected of planning atrocities in order to prevent such crimes from being commited. Its simply that there is no adequate reason why a judge cannot do this instead of the Home Secretary. A decision has to be made in either case. There is no good reason why that decision should not be made by an independent judge applying a properly rigourous process in every case.

This is essential to ensure that the new legal frameworks aren’t open to abuse by government. There is a very good reason for separating powers in a democracy. A tyrannical or over-powerful government is one where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual or a political faction, which may then abuse that power for its own ends. Free and popular government is therefore best defended by dividing powers among separate and relatively independent institutions to make it difficult for one person or faction to gain control of all of them at the same time. Hence we have governments to create laws and a separate and independent judiciary to apply them.

So the supposed choice between life and liberty, between the anti-terror bill and national security, is an entirely false one. In fact there are plenty of much more effective measures the government could take to combat terrorism, if it were serious. One would be to avoid involvement in the colonisation of Arab countries and the slaughter tens of thousands of their civilians. Another might be the cessation of support for hated and tyrannical regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf Emirates, or for Israeli repression and expansionism. These policies have a real cost in human life and as such are the cause of serious grievance for millions upon millions of people. It’s wholly predictable that a small minority of them will be prepared to commit atrocities in revenge. Its also wholly predictable that they will be able to draw grudging but crucial support where none would have existed had our governments not committed these crimes. Of course there will always be psychopaths, but it seems sensible to avoid making life easy for them by validating every syllable of their propaganda.

After the House of Lords rejected the anti-terror bill a government source was reported to have said, "I'm astonished that unelected politicians are gambling with people's lives”. In fact it’s the British government that’s repeatedly gambled with British lives by following George Bush on every step of his bloody crusade; fanning the flames and creating the conditions for extremism to flourish. The consequences are entirely predictable, and it will take a good deal more than control orders to prevent them from occurring.

The best methods for reducing the threat of terrorism are both uncontroversial and well understood, and they have little to do with making judges of politicians. Firstly, international police work to target the terrorists themselves, as has been carried out successfully worldwide. Secondly, the cessation of involvement in violence and repression in the Middle East, be it carried out by ourselves or by local client elites, thereby weakening the terrorist’s ability to mobilise support.

If, as is likely, a terrorist atrocity is carried out on UK soil, the government will proceed to blame all those who obstructed its efforts to combat evil. At that point we would do well to recall the decisive contribution our government made in helping that evil to prosper.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The existence of God

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
October 17, 2004 article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine


Two years ago we might well have viewed the US more as omnipotent than as a mere superpower. Amid the sense of political chaos that gripped the globe after 9/11 the aggressively imperialist American government appeared to be setting the world agenda alone; showing its obsequious allies vague indifference and the disobedient no mercy. But that was before Iraq. Now a picture is emerging of a hyperpower damaged by neo-conservative over-ambition. Perhaps grasping too greedily at the opportunities of the post-Cold War era it has, far from “creating new realities”, begun to discover the cold reality of its own limitations.

The US official quoted by the NYT above was describing not the actions of a state but of a God, or an agent of God. For now I’ll leave a more focussed discussion on the interplay of political realities and religious dogmas to others, confining this post to a quick glance at some of the challenges facing the US Government’s apparent view of itself as an agent of divine providence.

The first is in Iraq, where the US remains frustrated by the ever-growing insurgency. At the indispensable TomDispatch website, Michael Schwartz describes a military superpower failing to understand the nature of its enemy, and failing to win the war as a result. Schwartz says that the US fundamentally misunderstands the resistance as having a top-down power structure, with a Saddamist/Al Qaeda axis at its head, whereas in fact these are lesser elements in a broad and fragmented religious/nationalist uprising with no clearly hierarchical command and control structure. His view is that the US military is not designed to fight such an enemy, is pathologically incapable of adapting itself, and that the result is a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

“The American military simply lacks the tools it needs to fight the guerrillas………In response, military leaders ….continue to develop theories about how to win the war "with the army they have." This backward logic leads inevitably to imagining an enemy that might be far more susceptible to defeat with the tools at hand; that is, an opponent with long supply lines (from Syria, for example) and a command-and-control leadership (Zarqawi and his Saddamist allies, for example) capable of being "decapitated." This portrait of the enemy then justifies a military strategy that seeks, above all, to kill or capture the theorized leaders. Such tactics almost always fail (even when leaders are captured); and in the process of failing, only alienates further the Iraqi population, producing an ever larger, more resourceful enemy.”

(Incidentally, my view was always that the US deliberately misrepresented the nature of its enemy for PR reasons; not that there was any genuine misunderstanding of the rebellion’s true nature. Either way, the US counter-insurgency strategy is plainly a dismal failure)

Moving on from the military aspect, Jonathan Schell, again at Tomdispatch, discusses the economic and diplomatic weaknesses that the rivals of US power are beginning to exploit.

“[The US] military has been stretched to the breaking point by the occupation of a single weak country, Iraq. Its economy is held hostage by Himalayas of external debt, much of it in the hands of a strategic rival, China, holder of nearly $200 billion in Treasury bills. Its domestic debt, caused in part by the war expenditures, also towers to the skies.”

“In history, the rise of imperial pretenders has usually led to military alliances against them. Such was the case, for instance, when a previous imperial republic, Napoleon's France, conquered most of Europe but then was defeated by an oddly assorted alliance of Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Such is not the case today. Europe seems determined to bypass rather than fight the American challenge. And power? The American kind is poor in "future goods." There is rivalry in the air, but it no longer takes a martial form. Instead, Europe seems bent for now on building itself up economically and knitting itself together politically -- readying, it appears, another kind of power, based more on cooperation, both within its own borders and with the world, and less on military force”

Tony Blair recently described attempts to create any alternative centres of power to Washington as “dangerous”, even “pathetic”. But in choosing to side with the hard-right US Government instead of a Social Democrat Europe over the last few years he is increasingly looking like a leader who backed the wrong horse, in geopolitical as well as the more obvious moral terms.

However, signs of chinks appearing in the armour, and the obvious but sadly necessary point that the US government is not God’s agent, do not detract from the reality of how dangerous a force it remains in the international arena. The most clear and current manifestation of this malign influence is in Lebanon and Syria. In Asia Times Online B Raman, a retired senior official of the Indian government, warns that “The ultimate outcome of the ill-advised psychological warfare (psywar) [the US] has mounted against Syria by exploiting the recent assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, is likely to be the revival and the exacerbation of the inter-religious, inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic tensions that kept Lebanon bleeding for more than 15 years and brought into vogue suicide terrorism by jihadi elements and the culture of martyrdom through the car bomb.” He says that the anti-Syrian protest in Beirut is not unambiguously representative of majority Lebanese opinion and “has been only partly spontaneous. Any trained intelligence analyst could see it is partly orchestrated. Whether one likes it or not, there is considerable sympathy for Syria and Iran in the Muslim community of Lebanon. The way the US and other Western countries are trying to exploit the assassination of Hariri is likely to drive once again a wedge between the Islamist and the pro-Western elements, leading to a recrudescence of the suicide-terrorism and car-bomb culture of which Lebanese society has been ridding itself in recent years.

This afternoon Lebanese groups led by Hizb Allah brought massive demonstrations into the streets of Beirut to protest western interference in the country’s politics; dwarfing the previous anti-Syrian demos. Suddenly the rosy image so prevalent in western media of the US encouraging democracy to spontaneously flourish begins to transform into one of a fragile society falling back into sectarianism under the pressure of external forces. At this point one might also take note of the Iranian alliances with both Hizb Allah and Syria and see a Middle East not quite ready to be swept into history at the behest of the neo-cons.

Far from creating a new world order to suit its interests, uninhibited by corporeal constraints, the US is finding that its designs can be frustrated, its remit circumvented, even its armies brought to a standstill. Attempting to impose its divine will it instead encounters reality-based situations that provide depressing reminders of its mere mortality. As a consequence both of these still-relevant realities and of the consequential US failings, significant political space still exists and can be created around the hyperpower; a reality we should study judiciously.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

War Crimes and Ethnic Cleansing

From BBC News :

"London's mayor has reignited his row with some Jewish leaders by accusing the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of being a war criminal.

Israeli ambassador to London Zvi Heifetz said by making these comments Ken Livingstone had "launched a virulent attack against Israel".

The mayor also said Israel was involved in "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians
"

If facts matter at all then what Livingstone has said should not be in the slightest bit controversial. He is not accusing Ariel Sharon of being a war criminal. He is stating the fact that Sharon is a war criminal. The Kahan commission in Israel found Sharon guilty of having shared responsibility for massacres of Palestinian refugees during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hundreds of men, women and children were butchered in the Sabra and Shatilla camps by Lebanese militia, encouraged and incited by Israeli military officers of the highest rank. The commission also deemed Sharon, who was defence minister at the time, unfit to hold so high an office (he is of course now prime minister).

But that’s just what Sharon was held accountable for. It’s far from the whole story. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was pushed for both by Sharon and by a nationalist Chief of the general staff, Refael Eytan. Sharon wanted to occupy the country, install a pro Israeli government, and destroy the PLO. In his book, The Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky describes the war Sharon’s troops waged on the Palestinians in Lebanon. The words speak for themselves. Read this and ask yourself if Livingstone’s criticism of Sharon should be in any way controversial.

Economist Middle East correspondent G. H. Jansen describes Israel's tactics in the first days of the war as follows: to surround cities and towns "so swiftly that civilian inhabitants were trapped inside, and then to pound them from land, sea and air. After a couple of days of this there would be a timid probing attack: if there were resistance the pounding would resume."

“Tom Segev of Ha'aretz toured "Lebanon after the conquest" in mid-June. He saw "refugees wandering amidst swarms of flies, dressed in rags, their faces expressing terror and their eyes, bewilderment..., the women wailing and the children sobbing". Tyre was a "destroyed city"; in the market place there was not a store undamaged. Here and there people were walking, "as in a nightmare." "A terrible smell filled the air"- of decomposing bodies, he learned. Archbishop Georges Haddad told him that many had been killed, though he did not know the numbers, since many were still buried beneath the ruins and he was occupied with caring for the many orphans wandering in the streets, some so young that they did not even know their names.


As Chomsky notes “The treatment of prisoners gives a certain insight into the nature of the conquering army and the political leadership that guides it”. The reports of the treatment many of the prisoners received should come with a health warning.

A lengthy account of the experiences of one prisoner in Israel and in Ansar appears in the German periodical Der Spiegel. This man, a Lebanese Shia Muslim (the largest religious group in Lebanon), was taken prisoner on July 2, when his village was officially "liberated" by the IDF. At 4:30 AM the village was awakened by loudspeakers announcing that all inhabitants from ages 15 to 75 were to gather in the village center at 5 AM. IDF troops with tanks and armored personnel carriers surrounded the village while, to the amazement of the villagers, a network of collaborators within the village, clearly established in advance, appeared with IDF uniforms and weapons, prepared for their task, which was to select the victims. Each person received a notice, ''guilty'' or ''innocent''; this man was "guilty," with a written statement describing his "crime"- in Hebrew, so he never did find out what it was. The guilty were blindfolded and taken to a camp in southern Lebanon. There they were interrogated while being beaten with heavy clubs. Teachers, businessmen, students and journalists received special treatment: more severe beatings. The interrogation-beating sessions lasted from 10 minutes to half a day, depending on the whims of the liberators. Prisoners slept on the ground, without blankets in the cold nights. Many were ill. They were forced to pass before Lebanese informants, and if selected, were sent to Israel.

For no reason that he could discern, this man was one of those selected. Their first stop in Israel was Nahariya, where Israeli women entered their buses, screaming hysterically at the bound prisoners, hitting them and spitting at them while the guards stood by and laughed. They were then driven to an Israeli camp where they were greeted by soldiers who again beat them with clubs. They were given dinner-a piece of bread and a tomato. Then soldiers came with four large shepherd dogs on chains, who were set upon the prisoners, biting them, while those who tried to defend themselves were beaten by soldiers. "Particularly the young boys, aged 15 and 16, began to cry from fear," leading to further beatings.

"Each day brought with it new torture." Many were beaten with iron bars, on the genitals, on the hands, on the soles of the feet. One had four fingers broken. This man was hung by his feet "and they used me as a punching bag." When prisoners begged for water they were given urine, provided by the liberators. One day they were taken to the sports stadium of a nearby village where the inhabitants came to throw bottles and other objects at them. Prisoners were forced to run like cattle, beaten with clubs. Once they were made to sit for a solid week, most of the time with hands on their heads. The worst times were Friday night and Saturday, when the guards celebrated the Sabbath by getting drunk, selecting some prisoners for special punishment "to the accompaniment of laughter, full of hate."

As for ethnic cleansing, the fact that this is can even be disputed is a serious concern in itself. Ilan Pappe, Professor of History at Haifa University, has long argued that an honest discussion on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 that resulted in the establishment of the state of Israel is an absolutely essential component of any just and meaningful peace process. There can be no lasting settlement without an acceptance of the reality of this crime.

Because so many of the people who live in Israel lived through 1948, this is not a distant memory. It is not the genocide of the Native Americans in the United States. People know exactly what they did, and they know what others did. Yet they still succeed in erasing it totally from their own memory while struggling rigorously against anyone trying to present the other, unpleasant, story of 1948, in and outside Israel. If you look at Israeli textbooks, curricula, media, and political discourse you see how this chapter in Jewish history - the chapter of expulsion, colonization, massacres, rape, and the burning of villages - is totally absent. It is not there. It is replaced by a chapter of heroism, glorious campaigns and amazing stories of moral courage and superiority unheard of in any other histories of people's liberation in the 20th century. So whenever I speak of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, we must remember that not just the very terms of "ethnic cleansing" and "expulsion" are totally alien to the community and society from which I come and from where I grew up; the very history of that chapter is either distorted in the recollection of people, or totally absent.

Since the British government is its involved in the Israel/Palestine situation, holding the London conference this week, it is essential that this involvement be guided by a proper public debate. It should therefore be deeply troubling that the simplest facts relating to the history of the conflict cannot be stated without incurring the vitriol of the Israeli embassy. It places an even greater onus on us to seek the facts out for ourselves and to make them known.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Replacing Blair

Good to know that Adam Price MP and Brian Eno are avid readers of the Democrat’s Diary. They’re exploring the chances of fielding a Martin Bell style anti-Blair candidate to unseat the Prime Minister in his Sedgefield constituency at the general election. I suggested this might be a viable strategy, with far more than mere stunt potential, in my first entry here last Saturday. Glad to see they were paying attention (of course they may have dreamt it up themselves, but I doubt that).

This should emphatically not be a stunt. Launching aggressive wars illegally and killing tens of thousands of people in the process whilst lying about your reasons for doing it ought to have, in a decent democratic society, at least some political cost attached. I hope that’s not in the slightest bit controversial to say. This is the best chance of levying those costs on the Prime Minister. A serious attempt ought to be made. The plan carries serious risks. There is much scope for failure. But there is also much scope for success. Question is, who should stand?

This is one of the safest Labour seats in the country, and in the traditional Labour heartlands. There won’t be much mileage in the Tory vote. The candidate will have to appeal to the centre and the left, hopefully to the extent that the Lib Dems, Greens, Respect and others will stand aside. If the campaign doesn’t attract a significant degree of unity on the progressive side, forget it. A potential plus is that there could be enough disenchantment among the Labour rank and file for their campaign to be significantly weakened at the grassroots level. Even with a fearsome national party machine like Labour’s it’ll be hard to compensate for that.

Above all the Labour or natural-Labour voters of Sedgefield will need to be reassured that they are not being made the victims of a stunt got up by outsiders who don’t have their best interests at heart; people who see them and their constituency merely as a stage for a foreign agenda. Having people like Boris Johnson, Frederick Forsyth, Brian Eno, even George Galloway on board will contaminate the campaign. If you’ve voted Labour all your life and Tony Blair’s your MP are any of these characters really going to persuade you to do otherwise? Adam Price seems to me to be the only person connected with this who’d go down well in Sedgefield.

The candidate has to be relatively untainted by party politics, but at the same time someone with obviously centre-left values. They will need the common touch. They will need to be unmanufactured. Natural. In voting for this person the Sedgefield voters will need to know that they’re going to get someone who will honestly, seriously and energetically represent their concerns full time in parliament. Losing a Prime Minister but gaining a proper constituency MP should be a major advantage. The candidate’s credibility will be essential for this point to be capitalised upon.

The candidate will be painted in some quarters as a ranting and raving anti-war obsessive. While the war is plainly the major concern the candidate cannot be single issue. They must be strong on local matters. They will also have to take great pains not to sound shrill. As PM, Blair will find it particularly easy to rise above a high-pitched campaign and seem calm and reasonable. The media will help him. The candidate will have to come over as restrained, polite, good humoured even. Not hysterically anti-Blair. This should not be personal. Not when these votes have gone Blair’s way for over twenty years. This is another reason to keep celebrity Tories away from the campaign. Same goes for Galloway, who can too easily be painted as having a personal grudge.

Finally its worth noting the demographic that gets ignored far too often; the non-voters. These are disproportionately young people and/or people on low incomes; that is to say, naturally progressive voters. The candidate needs to be one that can speak convincingly to these groups. Abstainers constitute more than a third of the electorate and if even a third of those can be added to the coalition of regular voters from the centre and left then a real challenge is on. A high profile contest is going to reinvigorate the election for this seat anyway, and that should be in the candidate’s favour. This gain needs to be maximised.

So who fits this bill? It’s a very tough question. Apparently there are two serious names under discussion. The best suggestion I can think of under the above criteria? I’ve surprised myself a little here but….Billy Bragg. Impeccable traditional left credentials, without scaring the faint of heart as a demagogue or a militant. Credible and knowledgeable politically, but not tainted by party politics or personal agendas. Unmanufactured and easily able to communicate naturally with the voters, and indeed the non-voters. Downright likeable in fact, and, most importantly, someone the people of Sedgefield will recognise as not a person who will abandon them after election day, but as one who will represent their interests energetically.
We’ll see what Price et al come up with.

Between the Idea and the Reality....Falls the Shadow

Following Blair's Middle East summit all sides of the UK press gush with fulsome praise of our government’s noble intentions for that blighted region. Like children at a fireworks display, leader writers gasp with awe and wonder as a "ripple of change" spreads through the Middle East. The Times likens it to the collapse of communism, as autocracies fall like dominoes under the sheer force of the west’s deep longing for the Arab people’s freedom.

The consensus among the political classes is that Britain's international role is fundamentally a benign and positive one. They may disagree, sometimes vociferously, on what policies are best employed, but this view of the UK government's inherent decency is the assumption within which these debates are framed.

Britain's real role is, to put it mildly, somewhat different. Mark Curtis, historian and former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, has written extensively on those parts of UK foreign policy its not polite to mention. His work details the moral triumphs of the post-war era, including the overthrow in 1953 of the parliamentary government in Iran and its replacement with the brutal dictatorship of the Shah, the savage war against Kenyan independence that resulted in 150,000 African deaths, backing for Indonesia’s General Suharto as his troops committed genocide in East Timor and the repeated use of the UK’s UN Security Council veto in support of Apartheid South Africa.

New Labour does not break with this fine tradition. Curtis notes its maintenance of the sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, an estimated half million of them children. “Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday resigned in protest over the sanctions and has since said that "this policy constitutes genocide and Washington and London are responsible”. But this merely stands out in a general pattern. In addition, “key allies of the Blair government with whom arms and trade continue as normal are among the most repressive regimes in the world, such as Turkey - responsible for atrocities against Kurds on far greater scale than even the Saddam regime in recent years; and Saudi Arabia - where human rights organisations are banned, along with any political opposition.”. Then there’s Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who boils his opponents alive, the repressive Gulf states of Oman and Bahrain, and the list goes on.

Yet, with near total uniformity and no small amount of disdain for the facts, Britain is held up by its media as a paragon of virtue whose few mentionable crimes can be dismissed as small diversions from its natural state of magnificence. In fact, contrary to the claims of Blair and his cheerleaders, the fireworks displays the west treats the third world to tend to be more of the "shock and awe" variety.

Such hypocritical talk of our noble mission is of course widespread on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Somewhere off the mainstream media’s radar, Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, exposes the “hyperbole and double standards” in US policy on Syria.

For example, the United States has demanded that Syria eliminate its long-range and medium-range missiles, while not insisting that pro-Western neighbours like Turkey and Israel—with far more numerous and sophisticated missiles on their territory—similarly disarm. The United States has also insisted that Syria unilaterally eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles, while not making similar demands on U.S. allies Israel and Egypt—which have far larger chemical weapons stockpiles—to do the same. The United States has demanded an end to political repression and for free and fair elections in Syria while not making similar demands of even more repressive and autocratic regimes in allied countries like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.”. Zunes finishes by warning that "President Bush appears to have few obstacles in his way should he once again choose to lead the country to war.".

Meanwhile US Representative Sam Johnson (R-Texas) claims to have told Bush "Syria is the problem. Syria is where those weapons of mass destruction are, in my view. You know, I can fly an F-15, put two nukes on 'em and I'll make one pass. We won't have to worry about Syria anymore". On hearing this his audience at Suncreek United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas roared with applause.

Consider what your reaction might have been had you read of an Iranian cleric informing his congregation, to wild applause, that he had recommended nuking the United States or Britain to President Khatami. Or if a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party had reported saying this to President Hu Jintao. Then imagine the press in either country singing the praises of their leaders’ brave mission to free the people of the west. You might ask where putting “nukes on ‘em” fits into this great moral undertaking.

Returning to the western media; in The Guardian, at the left-liberal edge of the British mainstream, Jonathan Freedland warns us that “we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of opposing democracy in the Middle East just because Bush and Blair are calling for it”, failing to mention exactly who is falling into this trap. Having listened closely to the rousing speeches, and having just interviewed Blair for his newspaper, Freedland can quite easily talk of our leaders calling for democracy. At least more easily than a Saudi Arab or an Egyptian dissident being tortured by the security forces of governments the west continues to support with trade and arms.
Are we falling into the trap of opposing democracy in the Middle East just because Bush and Blair are calling for it? Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. His response? "I think it would be a good idea.".

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

New Labour's Crusade for Truth and Justice

In the UK, the government's majority in the commons was slashed from 161 to 14 in a rebellion on the new Terrorism Bill.

"In a significant climbdown to the angry cross-party coalition of MPs who were vociferously refusing to grant ministers powers to detain suspects without judicial approval, [the Home Secretary, Charles] Clarke announced that judges will, after all, decide such cases in his new prevention of terrorism bill - not himself, as the bill currently proposes"

But while the climbdown took the headlines it seems to me that a couple of extremely important details didn't get anything like the coverage they deserved. Firstly, the Prime Minister rather appears to be clinging on to that old habit of exaggerating, or lying, as a scare tactic to ram his policies through Parliament.

"The prime minister [in an interview earlier that day] said the police and intelligence services were saying: "You have got to give us powers in between mere surveillance of these people - there are several hundred of them in this country who we believe are engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts - and being able, being sure enough of the proof, to prosecute them beyond reasonable doubt."

But later on the report says that:

Privately anti-terrorist and intelligence officials have estimated that there is a hardcore of up to 40 potential Islamist terrorists prepared to plant a bomb or cause an explosion."

So is it "several hundred" or "up to 40"? What intelligence have officials passed to the Prime Minister? Is it what they say or what he says? If the Guardian’s sources are the same as those informing the government, and what they say is true, then Blair appears to be telling some very serious lies. Just how serious can be seen by taking this in the context of the other aspect of the story that hasn't had enough airtime, in my view.

"Charles Clarke was attacked from all sides for agreeing to amend the prevention of terrorism bill, but only when it reaches the House of Lords......Politicians were left in the bizarre position of debating and voting on legislation in the full knowledge that, whatever today's outcome, it would not exist in that form anyway................MPs also pointed out they had no way of knowing whether the Lords would accept the amendments............"What we are being asked to do is scandalous," said Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general. "You only need to look at the 260 amendments tabled to realise there is no possibility of doing justice to what must be one of the most important pieces of legislation this house has considered since the second world war.""

So one of the most important laws in 60 years is railroaded past our elected representatives in a few short hours with the Prime Minister apparently spreading fear with inflammatory lies to justify the measure. And this in an attempt to transfer powers from independent judges to politicians.

Comments on New Labour's profound contempt for democracy are hardly required. Again the same old questions arise: is this what people voted for in 1997? What would have been Labour’s reaction if Thatcher or Major tried something like this? The betrayal runs deep. Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart summed it up best:
"There was a vote. Surely we thought, Labour MPs would stir from their obsequious torpor and demand that the house devote more time to the notion that ministers - yes, government ministers - could deprive a citizen of his liberty. Of course not. Are you mad? Where have you been these last eight years? The timetable motion was passed by 278 votes to 185."

Lebanon & Syria: the background

Following yesterday's news of the Lebanese government's collapse Juan Cole puts recent events in context with some extremely useful background on that country's troubled history. His account of French and US interference over the years, particularly US backing for the Fascistic Maronite regime, should be read closely by anyone tempted to shoehorn the current situation into the old template of freedom loving western nations struggling to drag autocratic regimes into the modern era, as should the reminder that the Syrian presence in Lebanon was once entirely desirable, no matter how brutal and repressive, since it served the west's purposes.

Incidentally, when Cole says that Washington will be blamed for events whether or not it has anything to do with them, I think its worth venturing the thought that an overtly aggressive US stance toward Syria has opened up political space in the region, encouraging the enemies of Damascus to make their stands. This is not to say that this is all part of a grand American design. But nor is it to say that the US is an innocent and disinterested bystander. Not that I think Cole is suggesting this.

For more context and informed commentary as events unfold try Syria Comment written by Joshua Landis, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma who, with impeccable timing, is spending 2005 in Damascus and Beirut.