Thursday, October 26, 2006


"What advice would you make to others who might fall victim to fatalism?"

"Noam Chomsky: Since it's a personal question, let me give a personal answer.

I was in Lebanon a few months ago. After one talk in downtown Beirut, there was the usual crowd raising questions, making comments, asking for books to be signed, etc. One young woman came over with a book of mine she wanted me to sign, open to a certain page, and said, simply, "I am Kinda." It was one of the most moving moments I can remember -- and it's a great testimony to Western civilization that almost no one would know why.

The book she had was from 20 years ago, with a chapter that discussed Reagan's terrorist bombing of Libya, the first bombing in history timed precisely for prime-time TV (which commentators pretended not to notice). One outstanding journalist, Charles Glass (who happens to be a close friend), was not content with the usual fare and went to see what had happened to the victims. He found a family in a ruined house. The mother showed him a letter written by her daughter. It said something like:

"Dear Mr. Reagan, I am seven years old. Why did you kill my sister and my best friend and my rag doll? Is it because we are Palestinians and you don't want us to go home? Signed Kinda."

You can find the exact text in my book Pirates and Emperors. Charlie managed to get it published in a right-wing British journal. Alex Cockburn published it in the US, with a comment to Ron and Nancy that since they liked to read children's letters, maybe they could read this one. End of story in the civilized West.

Not long after meeting Kinda and her mother, I heard the State Department's David Welch somberly explaiining in academic tones over CNN that the US had decided, in its magnanimity, that perhaps Libya had atoned sufficiently for its terrible crimes against us, so we might, graciously, allow it back into the civilized world.

It's not the only case by any means. Just a recent and unforgettable one. And beyond personal experiences, it hardly takes any imagination to find innumerable hideous ones. By looking at this morning's newspaper, for example."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Withdrawal or Recalibration?

Bush family consigliere James Baker has been leading an “Iraq Study Group” investigating Washington’s policy options for extricating itself from Iraq’s sinking sands. Until recently. their findings were a very closely guarded secret. For example, this from the Washington Post last month:

“Former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the study group's co-chairmen, called a briefing yesterday to give a "progress report" on their activities. A dozen television cameras and scores of reporters filled the hall -- only to discover that Baker and Hamilton had revived Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" format.

"We're not going to speculate with you today about recommendations," Baker announced at the session, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Can the war in Iraq be won?

"We're not going to make any assessments today about what we think the status of the situation is in Iraq," said Hamilton.

Could they at least explain their definitions of success and failure in Iraq?

"We're not going to get into that today," Baker replied.

After more such probing, Hamilton became categorical. "We've made no judgment of any kind at this point about any aspect of policy with regard to Iraq."

A few minutes later, one of the organizers called out: "We have time for one or two more questions."

"But no time for any answers," one of the reporters muttered.

"This is pitiful," contributed one of the cameramen, as reporters' smiles escalated into audible chuckles

But that was last month. This month, Baker’s tight ship started springing
leaks, with the result that talk of withdrawal is now widespread in the US and in Britain. Baker himself has hardly quelled this speculation, saying, according to Reuters, that “the current Bush administration's insistence on "staying the course" in Iraq was not the only policy alternative”.

So what’s changed between tight-lipped mid-September and slack-jawed mid-October? I don’t think it’d be overly cynical to suggest that at least one significant factor may be that a
sex-scandal battered Republican party is staring down the barrel of serious losses in November’s Congressional elections and needing more than ever to show the public some light at the end of the tunnel of its single worst policy failure.

That the discussion and/or application of a solution to a crisis which is claiming scores of lives everyday is being timed on the basis of the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes, and not on the basis of, say, the
Iraqi people’s welfare, is hardly surprising, though still worth bearing in mind, particularly now. With the ascendancy of Baker’s Bush I era realism replacing the humiliated neo-conservative vision for Iraq; with the military on both sides of the Atlantic now in open revolt ; with a lame-duck Tony Blair (who apparently hasn’t got the Baker memo yet) still talking about staying the course (and then trying to hold both positions simultaneously), appearing, in the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, “intellectually numb, like a forgotten outpost of a crumbling Roman empire” with the British political class “zombie-like” in the face of the new realities, it might be tempting for the anti war movement to think its moment has come. This would be seriously premature.

Because, as
Norman Birmbaum, university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, pointed out in an article for openDemocracy last week, the debate in Washington is not about whether or not to pursue an imperialistic foreign policy but about how best to achieve empire’s goals. Just as the Baker report was cynically excluded from then injected into the public realm - with the fluctuating fortunes of the ever-contemptible Republican Party deemed far more important that the need for democratic debate over the US’s moral obligations towards Iraq - so Western policy in Iraq will recalibrated not according to what is best for Iraqis but according to what is most likely to consolidate or extend US imperial power.

That being the case, it would be sensible for us to pay close attention to coming events and asking searching questions about what is actually happening. When the policy detail comes out, what is ‘withdrawal’ actually going to mean? (What indeed was it ever going to mean, even if Iraq had been peaceful from April 2003 onwards?) Is the US really going to relinquish its handful of massive new
permanent military bases in Iraq? Wasn’t establishing a permanent military presence at the heart of the world’s energy region always the point of the exercise? Is the Baker plan, if the leaked information is accurate, going to recommend a phased but ultimately complete withdrawal of US forces, a complete withdrawal being what the newly liberated Iraqi people actually want? Or is it going to be what’s sometimes called a “drawdown” i.e. a pullout of combat troops, but with the imperial garrisons remaining? Because that wouldn’t be a withdrawal but a recalibration of troops levels; and recent polls have not shown 91.7 percent of Iraqis calling for the US to recalibrate their troop levels. They’ve called for us to get our troops out of their country immediately, a fact that politicians and the media persist in ignoring. Is there any reason to think we’re going to start listening to the voices of the new Iraqi democracy now?

Recall that, in addition to the permanent bases, the US is also building itself
the biggest embassy on earth right in the centre of Baghdad. According to The Times, Iraqis “are not impressed by the architects’ claims that the diplomatic outpost will be visible from space and cover an area that is larger than the Vatican city and big enough to accommodate four Millennium Domes”. And for all the chaos in Iraq’s capital, somehow “the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget”.

The report goes on to say that “the US mission due to open in June next year will have its own power and water plants to cater for a population the size of a small town. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions.”

Spending an estimated half-a-billion dollars on a construction project of this kind doesn’t really sound like the actions of a US government that’s prepared to leave (in the gloriously racist idiom used by George Bush, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and former Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz) just as soon as the Iraqi “
kid” can ride his new democracy “bike” without the “training wheels” and his American daddy “holding on to the back of the seat”. What this, and the construction of permanent military bases, indicate more strongly is that the US plans to stick around indefinitely in some form or another, contrary to wishes of the apparently liberated Iraqis. The Times quotes the International Crisis Group think-tank saying that Iraqis see the super-embassy’s construction “as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country”, which seems a fair observation.

In fact the US could easily, and no doubt always intended to, withdraw its frontline troops and still deny Iraq its independence. With its vast embassy / Proconsul’s residence, its permanent garrisons and with Iraq’s government ministries stuffed with American “
advisers”, Washington has already insinuated itself deeply enough into the new Iraq to feel assured that its influence will endure long after it has left the business of theongoing violence to some proxy force or other.

Last week George Bush apparently accepted a parallel between this month’s US defeat in the “Battle of Baghdad” and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Despite some media excitement, Bush may not have been comparing Iraq to Vietnam in the sense that both are a disaster but in the sense that Vietnam could’ve been won if people had been prepared to stay the course, support the troops (!) and not be cowed by enemy offensives like Tet. It should be recalled that whilst Tet is seen as a the tipping point after which the US public and establishment turned decisively against the war, the US didn’t actually leave Vietnam for another 7 years. What happened in the meantime was
Vietnamization, which means getting the Vietnamese to fight your war for you; eerily reminiscent of the pressure being put on the Iraqi government now to “step up to the plate” and take over “security duties” from the same imperial army whose unremittingly savage treatment of ordinary Iraqis destroyed security in Iraq in the first place.

For the seven years 1968-75, the US strategy in Vietnam and South East Asia was to minimise its own casualties whilst still pursuing a suitable outcome in the imperial interest. So came Vietnamization and an increased reliance on air-power in the form of massive, brutal
bombing campaigns which, in the case of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the conditions that precipitated the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (who themselves received some backing from Washington in their time).

The US has shown over the course of the last century that there are plenty of ways to run an empire, differing from its British and French predecessors in showing a particular willingness to outsource the grubbier responsibilities of colonialism to local elites. The point of imperialism is to secure access to cheap materials, labour and new markets; direct rule over other countries is not an end in itself. Like any good modern corporation, the US would ideally prefer to
contract out its more menial tasks and concentrate on setting strategic direction and defining the brand.

It is, after all, far more efficient to leave local elites to get on with the job of governing in Washington’s interests not least since, if the need arises to pacify restless imperial subjects, they are free to get their hands far dirtier than US security forces could get away with. Recall for example the
terror campaign waged against the disobedient natives of Central America in the 1980s by way of bloodthirsty local security forces backed via the US embassy in Honduras. The Embassy was the second biggest in Latin America at the time, and not because Honduras was a regional superpower. The US ambassador at the time? John Negroponte. US ambassador to Iraq 2004-05? John Negroponte. The gruesome horrors of that earlier imperial campaign do not yet count as history.

The difference between a complete withdrawal and a recalibration of tactics and troop levels is not a trivial one, at least not for imperialism’s victims. But for those of us closer to the centres of power both crimes and victims can be easily missed if we fail to pay attention. Take the US’s extensive use of
air-strikes in Iraq, vastly underreported but happening nonetheless. Take the recent revelation that around 655,000 Iraqis are likely to have been killed as a result of our invasion of their country; a scientifically robust finding nevertheless mostly rubbished or ignored by politicians and our crusading free press. The apparent discomfort our governments are suffering at present offers the anti war movement no cause for even grim satisfaction, only a sign that the rules of engagement may be changing.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The death toll in Iraq: 655,000

The British medical journal The Lancet has published a report which estimates that 655,000 people have been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq.

30% of these (so about 200,000) are thought to have been killed by the US/UK-led “coalition”. But recall what the Nuremburg judgement said about
the crime of aggression:

"to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.

In other words, when you start a war of aggression you're not then just responsible for the killing you do yourself. You share responsibility for all the subsequent killing that takes place, because it takes place within a situation that you created voluntarily.

So these estimated 655,000 deaths are on us. And we can add this to the
million Iraqis, half under the age of five, that UNICEF estimates were killed by our sanctions during the nineties, which one UN official, resigning in disgust, described as "a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide". The total now enters the same ballpark as the toll of the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans and, with a following wind, could catch up with the toll under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia within the next couple of years.

And no, plainly Bush and Blair are not Pol Pot. But I doubt that many dead or bereaved Iraqis would be particularly moved to draw a distinction. The fact is these people are just as dead, and its still our fault.

The report, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, has been examined and validated by four separate independent experts who all urged publication. It uses recognised scientific techniques for estimating excess mortality. I understand that the Bloomberg School of Public Health is the leading and most prestigious public health research school in the world.

By contrast - and as Middle East expert
Juan Cole points out in a commentary on the report that's well worth reading - the other prominent estimates available on the death toll are likely to be serious underestimates. They're based on morgue records and media reports which can't be remotely comprehensive given the hellish situation in Iraq at the moment.

Probably the most widely cited toll is that compiled by
Iraq Body Count, which estimates a "maximum" of 48,693 deaths at time of writing. It bases its figures on media reports. But according to New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins "98 percent of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has now become 'off-limits' for Western journalists." According to Filkins, many situations are even too dangerous for Iraqi reporters employed by the western media. He says that "most of the Iraqis who work for us don't even tell their families that they work for us" for fear that exposure could cost them their lives. Its plain that any death toll based on reports collected under these conditions can only represent a bare minimum of the actual total.

You can read some good critical writing on Iraq Body Count
here, here and here.

Cole warns that attempts will be made to bury this report. This is what happened two years ago, when the same researchers estimated 100,000 killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq by that stage. Then all manner of people (not epidemiologists, but editorial writers, columnists, politicians etc) piped up to challenge the findings. The findings, having been "challenged" by an assortment of amateurs with a political agenda (including the those politicians directly responsible for the deaths), were then deemed to be "controversial" and banished to what George Orwell described in '1984' as the "
memory hole".

Imagine if you will a peer-reviewed report, using accepted scientific techniques, estimating a death toll for the USSR's war in Afghanistan, being dismissed as "controversial" by the Western media on the basis that the findings were challenged by the Kremlin and Pravda. Or the conclusion that smoking causes cancer being dismissed as "controversial" because on the one hand the entire medical community thinks it does but on the other hand Big Tobacco and some of its media lackeys disagree.

The UK pressure group Medialens (who use Chomsky's famous "
Propaganda Model" as their starting point) have produced an excellent and illuminating commentary on how that previous Lancet report was buried by the Western political class. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here. They detail the responses they received when they challenged those who had attacked the report with the scientific merits of the methodology that was used. They also facilitated debate between one of the report's authors and some of those critics. The extent to which the critics are out of their depth is almost embarrassing. Yet, as Medialens show, it was the critics that carried the day and shaped the public perception of the report, not the people with the scientific expertise which would actually qualify them to make a judgement on the matter.

Medialens point out that the same lead author, using the same techniques, had previously reported that 1.7 million people had died as a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which finding had then been cited by Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, none challenging the findings. In fact, the UN Security Council called for all foreign armies to leave the DRC and doubled the country's UN aid budget, using the study as justification. Report author Les Roberts observed that "it is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces."

I also recommend
this article by Stephen Soldz, which gives some excellent informed comment on the methodology used by the researchers.

Those of us who are concerned should note the techniques that were used by the press and politicians last time and work to ensure that this time around the Lancet's findings can not be so easily buried. If editors fail to cover the story we should contact them and complain. If editors fail to cover the story with due prominence we should contact them and complain. If journalists juxtapose the reports' findings with criticisms from people who know nothing of the relevant science we should contact them and complain. And we should repeat this behaviour relentlessly until the Lancet report is acknowledged for what it is: the best estimate available of the death toll in Iraq.

If we fail to do this, hundreds of thousands of innocent people will effectively have been killed twice: once by policies enacted by our freely elected governments, and a second time by our refusal to acknowledge that most of the deaths even occurred.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Jack Straw's comfort zone

Madeleine Bunting's comments on the veiling row (it hardly qualifies as a debate) are well worth reading:

It's been quite extraordinary: one man's emotional response to the niqab - the Muslim veil that covers all but the eyes - has snowballed into a perceived titanic clash of cultures in which commentators pompously pronounce on how Muslims are "rejecting the values of liberal democracy".

Jack Straw feels uncomfortable and within a matter of hours, his discomfort is calibrated on news bulletins and websites in terms of an inquisitorial demand: do Muslims in this country want to integrate?

Comfort is a disastrous new measure for interactions in a diverse society....forget comfort and accept the starting point for any kind of tolerance: that it's not easy, that it requires imagination, that it makes demands of us.

....the niqab is a drastic option and one that many Muslim women reject. It is the response of a minority who feel that they are living in a hostile climate. Straw's comments have unleashed a storm of prejudice that only exacerbates the very tendencies which prompt some Muslims to retreat....They have elevated the situation of a tiny minority of women who are often the most fearful anyway into a national problem - even that they form a barrier to successful integration.

This is dangerous and absurd. There are many far more important barriers to successful integration. Two-thirds of children from families of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are growing up in poverty. More than 20% of all Muslim youths between 16 and 24 are unemployed. In many areas, the desire of second generation Muslims to integrate is being stymied by "white flight" from residential areas and white families using parental choice in education to avoid schools with large numbers of Asian pupils. Outgoing, confident ethnic communities are built where they find understanding, opportunity and engagement. We need to ask ourselves whether that is what we have provided

Read the rest

The current row seems to me to share most of its fundamental characteristics with the other rows we've had in the West recently about Islam; or rather, about some people's bigoted view of Islam. The basic narrative is that we, the freedom-loving West, are under attack from them, the freedom-hating, backward Easterners, who constitute nothing less than a fifth column in our midst - a dangerous, existential (!) threat to our cherished liberal freedoms that must be resisted. Cue a vast array of powerful politicians and highly paid journalists employed by extremely wealthy corporations proclaiming their fearless stand against (their imagined conception of) one of the poorest and most reviled communities in our inner cities. Truly an impressive spectacle.

Since these fundamental characteristics of the debate are the substantive issue here (and not Jack Straw’s comfort zone or what clothes a tiny minority of Muslim women are wearing) I think my article from earlier this year “
Are Muslims from Mars and Europeans from Venus?” is as relevant now as it was then. In the current context, two things in that article strike me as being particularly relevant now. Firstly, Tariq Ramadan’s point that if one is genuinely interested in fostering dialogue (as Straw disingenuously protests) the most important thing is to stress similarity and common ground, and secondly, the political utility of constructing in the public mind a feared and distrusted “other”:

It is no coincidence that those who most enthusiastically peddle the fiction of a “clash of civilisations” also portray the opposing “other” as a force that seriously threatens to destroy “our way of life”, and therefore advocate an aggressive US-led military strategy across the Islamic world. Manichean rhetoric eulogizing the liberal idealism of “our values” and the necessity of defending them against those who “hate our freedoms” has been the very essence of Western pro-war advocacy in recent years. Observing essentially imperial foreign policies being depicted as altruistic endeavours aimed at bringing enlightenment to backward, inferior (if exotic) cultures, or at least at defending us against them, hardly places us in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, subjugation almost invariably goes hand in hand with the deliberate dehumanisation of those who are being subjugated by those responsible for or whose acquiescence is essential to the act of subjugation. And in terms of domestic social relations, the direct contribution made by stereotypical depictions of certain social groups as in some way inferior to the mistreatment of those groups by the majority is again a dynamic that's hardly unfamiliar, not least in Europe.”
It is politically useful for a number of reasons to have a demonised "other" toward whom one can direct collective opprobrium. It distracts from one's own failings, it aggrandises one by comparison with the "other", it prepares the public mind for a range of future policy choices that might otherwise appear somewhat sinister. One need not instigate this dynamic intentionally for it to unfold in the familiar ways and for the familiar people to accrue the familiar benefits. And we ourselves need not bother to delve into the possible workings of Straw's mind to recognise the effects of what he has said or to note that those effects were entirely predictable before he said it. As I say, its a familiar story. Bunting says "this is ugly". She's right.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Gary Younge on "what it means to be British"

Gary Younge is always good, occassionaly brilliant. Here, discussing ethnicity, identity, extremism and purported ‘British values’, he surpasses himself.

On Wednesday September 20 Corporal Donald Payne became the first Briton to admit to a war crime. Payne, 35, is accused of repeatedly banging the head of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old Iraqi hotel worker, against a wall and floor until Mousa died – an accusation he denies.”

“The next day the home secretary, John Reid, went to Leyton, in east London, and told a room full of Muslims how to raise their kids so they won’t grow up hateful. “Look for the telltale signs now and talk to them before their hatred grows and you risk losing them for ever,” he told them.”

““This is Britain,” Reid told the Labour party conference last week. “We will go where we please, we will discuss what we like, and we will never be browbeaten by bullies. That’s what it means to be British.””

“Reid and Payne are two sides of the same coin. The bully of Basra exercises his right to demean and degrade wherever he pleases – the longstanding hallmarks of British colonialism. The hooligan from the Home Office vaunts the fair play, decency and social liberalism that ostensibly underpin core British values – a longstanding feature of Britain’s self-delusion. Payne could have done with some parenting lessons of his own. Instead he was given a uniform and a gun. The arrogance we imbibe and the atrocities we export do not just coexist – they are codependent. That’s also what it means to be British.

Read the rest here. And see also my forthcoming article on history and British identity.