Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unfamiliar terrain, new opportunities: some thoughts on future campaigning

Dear IOF

I’d like to offer some thoughts on the direction of the anti-war movement in the immediate future. In summary, my view is that the current political situation provides unique and fleeting opportunities for the movement to grasp, but that new ways of working, and new ways of thinking about the movement, as mainstream rather than a political insurgency, are required if these opportunities are not to pass us by.

Most of us are familiar with Noam Chomsky's theory of the mass media and the idea that dissenting voices are generally marginalized or excluded from mainstream debate. I think this accounts for the fact that a genuinely anti-war point of view is rarely put across on TV news and in the print media, but only up to a point. Chomsky has also said that in times of crisis or failure the system can open up and new ideas can be put through before it slams shut again. A good example of this sort of opening is the fall of the Soviet empire in Europe.

The USSR didn't simply listen and learn from principled western liberalism, have a think about things, and then decide to surrender. It was forced by the total collapse of its economy, in absolute terms and relative to that of the Western alliance, to consider ideas and policies that would never have seen the light of day a decade previously. Its material inability to compete with globalised capitalism in a new hi tech arms race forced it to give up its challenge to US hegemony and completely re-imagine its place in the international system. Material reality forced a conceptual revolution.

Just as these principles applied in the case of Soviet policy makers in the 80s, so they apply today to the target audience for our ideas: the British public. Western power is currently facing a serious crisis - at a far smaller scale than for the USSR in the 80s, but serious nonetheless. The material reality of the diastrous state of Iraq, the brutal war on Lebanon, and the imperialist nature of government policy is now impossible for the public to miss. This provides an opening for new ideas that would not otherwise have received a hearing. Sadly, this is an opportunity that is more or less completely passing us by.

To expand, Western imperialism and so-called "liberal interventionism" is currently in the process of suffering a major defeat in the public mind. There are serious questions in the air now not just about how to deal with the crisis in Iraq but about how to conduct ourselves as a nation more generally. Recent polls show a widespread animosity towards (and indeed a recognition of the reality of) US imperialism. Opposition to the Iraq war joins revulsion at Israel's war on Lebanon and a popular understanding of the fact that these policies have sharply increased the terrorist threat to this country. The political class normally has answers to such questions but right now not only is its credibility shot in the court of public opinion but it itself has more questions than answers where these issues are concerned. It is floundering and disorientated, which means resistance to our ideas is as weak as its likely to get.

No one in mainstream politics either speaks for the public on these major issues or is able to offer a coherent, credible narrative describing the imperialist reality of UK Middle East policy and proposing moral and practical alternatives for the nation. In these conditions, the near total absence of the greater anti-war movement from prominent political debate can only be described – forgive me for speaking frankly - as a failure. This failure needs to be recognised and dealt with.

In the wider arena of public perception, the anti-war movement is most likely identified with the march of 15 February 2003 and little else. As subsequent marches have become smaller so the perception - perhaps the reality - is most likely to be of a movement that is fizzling out. Again, given the nature of public opinion as described above this is an extraordinary state of affairs.

An enormous amount of hard work is done at the grassroots level of the movement, which is invaluable in terms of building support, coordination, exchanging information and so on. But if the goal of the movement is to influence public opinion and then public policy - to "Stop the War" - then this hard work needs to translate into more than occasional marches and rallies when taken to the national stage. It needs to be translated into a strong, serious and consistent presence at the forefront of the battle of ideas, and that means new methods and new ways of working.

My suggestions are as follows:

1/ Come up with serious, detailed policy proposals. If responsibility for Britain's Iraq policy was handed to us now, what would we do with it? Saying, "get the troops out and Iraq will sort itself out" is not a policy; its a slogan. If our views are worth anything then they can be developed. See my "How to Withdraw From Iraq" for a tentative stab at what a moral, internationalist UK policy on Iraq might look like. People like Mark Curtis or Dan Plesch could be asked to assist in the production of an alternative report to that of the Iraq Study Group. James Baker should not be the person setting the agenda on what our government should be doing next.

2/ Get both this proposal and the views of the movement on individual events and smaller issues in the public eye day-by-day, news cycle by news cycle. There's a major Iraq story practically every week. There should be an IOF press release to go with it, promptly setting out a considered antiwar reaction to events. If possible, it should come out swiftly enough to be quoted in the following day's news coverage. In the morning paper, people reading of the latest car bombing or military fatalities should be able to see, alongside the usual ministerial platitudes, the movement’s views on the incident. At every point, on specific issues and events not just the occupation as a whole, the (anti-war majority of the) public should know the position of the anti-war movement, and see that their views are being articulated.

3/ Do the media know how many serious, articulate people there are in the movement who can put across the anti-war position on the issues of the day in a reasoned and intelligent manner (and who've never made idiots of themselves on Big Brother) e.g. Sami, Haifa, Milan (Mark Curtis, Dan Plesch)? If these people are willing to do interviews then the media should be reminded of this, and very frequently, perhaps via the 'Notes to Editors' section in press releases.

3/ Generally, in terms of the tone of the message, it seems to me that rhetoric should now be dispensed with almost entirely. What I'm trying to get across with all of this is that this movement is not a political insurgency; its the mainstream, and it needs to present itself as such. Maybe that's an unfamiliar position but adapting to it is imperative. The government is currently reduced to vacuous platitudes, absent the latest orders from Washington, and shrill attempts to portray us as apologists for Saddam. The contrast between this and our own serious, practical, moral solutions should be as marked as possible. Again, it needs people like Milan, Sami, Haifa etc to get this message across calmly and clearly . Rhetoric is no longer required.
Perhaps, as someone who's spent the last few years working on producing written material on our government’s policies rather than involving myself in campaigning, its a little impertinent of me to offer robust advice like this on a topic where I've very little experience. I'm aware that enormous amounts of hard work have been put in by a lot of people since 9/11 to organise opposition to Whitehall's involvement in US neo-imperialism. And I'm sure I'm not the first person to whom its occurred that more access to mainstream political debate might help the movement's cause.

Hopefully, what I've been able to do here is offer a useful assessment of the political situation, of the opportunities that situation presents to the movement, and some practical ideas for how those opportunities can be taken. As I say, this is a temporary opening for our ideas. Its a chance to provide answers to questions that much of the public must be asking now; answers that have to do with the nature of Western power, its real role in the world and, crucially, what practical alternatives there are for how to conduct ourselves as a nation. Take these opportunities, and not only will the political cost of war be raised to a decisively prohibitive level for a generation but other neo-imperialist policies will be vulnerable to effective criticism and campaigning. Fail, and Iraq will sooner or later, like Vietnam, be forgotten and then repeated in some other luckless part of the world.

Hope this helps. Best wishes
David Wearing
London, UK


Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Who's Rumsfeld?"

"Hashim al-Menti smiled wanly at the marine sergeant beside him on his couch. The sergeant had appeared in the darkness on Wednesday night, knocking on the door of Mr. Menti's home.

When Mr. Menti answered, a squad of infantrymen swiftly moved in, making him an involuntary host.

Since then marines had been on his roof with rifles, watching roads where insurgents often planted bombs.

Mr. Menti had passed the time watching television. Now he had news. He spoke in broken English. "Rumsfeld is gone," he told the sergeant, Michael A. McKinnon.

"Democracy," he added, and made a thumbs-up sign. "Good."

The marines had been on a continuous foot patrol for several days, hunting for insurgents. They were lost in the hard and isolating rhythms of infantry life.

They knew nothing of the week's news.

Now they were being told by an Iraqi whose house they occupied that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, one of the principal architects of the policies that had them here, had resigned. "Rumsfeld is gone?" the sergeant asked. "Really?"

Mr. Menti nodded. "This is better for Iraq," he said. "Iraqi people say thank you."

The sergeant went upstairs to tell his marines, just as he had informed them the day before that the Republican Party had lost control of the House of Representatives and that Congress was in the midst of sweeping change. Mr. Menti had told them that, too.

"Rumsfeld's out," he said to five marines sprawled with rifles on the cold floor.

Lance Cpl. James L. Davis Jr. looked up from his cigarette. "Who's Rumsfeld?" he asked.
Marines get the news from an Iraqi host: Rumsfeld's out. 'Who's Rumsfeld?'
By C.J. Chivers, New York Times, November 10, 2006

Also, in the Washington Post, James Mann offers "a warning to those who view Wednesday's appointment of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as representing the triumph of Bush the Father's administration over Bush the Son's. Any such analysis is far too simplistic. Gates's nomination unquestionably stands for one proposition: a long-awaited recognition that the administration's war in Iraq has been a disaster. But the broader interpretation of the appointment as representing a victory of Bush 41 over Bush 43 -- or of one school of thought over another -- breaks down when you look at Gates's background and the history of the 1980s and early '90s."


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A good day to bury bad news

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole has a good review of the implications of last night’s US election results. If you want to know my views in detail you can see them in the 4th comment down on that page. In summary, whilst this result is not insignificant, and in fact important in many of the ways that Juan describes, the limits of the differences between Democrats and Republicans are considerable and should not be overlooked. In the US as here in Britain, politics consists of two wings of the Business Party squabbling over power. The differences are largely tactical rather than moral. Today, control over one part of the US state-corporate-imperialist apparatus has simply passed to a less radical set of managers.

But as the election results dominate the headlines, it’s a good day to bury bad news. So this morning, the US-armed “Israeli Defence Force” shelled a row of houses in Beit Hanoun, Gaza,
killing at least 19 and wounding 40 people – including 9 children and 4 women - who were sleeping at the time of the attack. We can of course expect Israeli protestations of how they are obliged to defend themselves against the terrorist threat posed by sleeping children and how they always take extraordinary measures to avoid innocent deaths. The latter is of course a straightforward lie, as demonstrated in my recent review of Britain’s role in the Israeli-Hezbollah war. The IDF, like the Israeli state as a whole, holds innocent Arab life in complete contempt.

This last week’s assault on Beit Hanoun has claimed 260 Palestinian casualties, with 53 dead – “women, children and ambulance drivers among them” as Sami Abdel-Shafi points out. The Guardian's
Rory McCarthy describes the grief of Talal Nasr, searching a crowded cemetery for a space to bury the body of his 13-year-old daughter, shot in the head by an Israeli sniper. Every casualty means unimaginable grief and pain for the bereaved, like Talal Nasr. The grief caused by the casualties of this past week must now be added to that from those killed, maimed and starved by the Israeli assault and strangulation of Gaza, effected with the West’s full backing, in punishment for the Palestinians failure to follow orders and choose our preferred candidates in their recent elections.

Its been an impressive display from our democracy-loving governments, not least since the latest atrocities come a week after we rejected a
10 year truce offered by Hamas. In fact this was an offer not only of a ceasefire but also of a serious effort to help coax the embittered Palestinian population toward acceptance of their ethnic cleansing from their homeland and its usurpation by the Zionist colonists. But instead , Israel and the West have chosen the bullet over the ballot box, rejecting a generous offer and again embracing terror.

Perhaps today’s will be the final outrage that causes Hamas to end its unilaterally observed ceasefire of the past 18 months and return to its own terrorism, putting aside its peace offers, which Israel and its allies have found so embarrassing. Its hard not to draw the conclusion that this is exactly what’s intended.
As it was in Vietnam, the challenge here is, "with considerable armed force but little political power, [to] contain an adversary who has enormous political force but only modest military power." The Hamas offer, much the same as the other offers that have been on the table since the 1970s, is peace on the 1967 boundaries in accordance with the international consensus, which has far more political and moral strength than the US-Israeli counteroffer: a Greater Israel with Palestinians herded into open air prisons. Politics and negotiation therefore are out of the question. Violence must prevail, because it is in the field of violence that we can achieve victory, not in the field of politics rationality and morality, where we are bankrupt. Peace offers are ignored, offers made and conditions stipulated than can and should never be accepted, and provocation after provocation after atrocity meted out, with casualties mounting until finally a serious (Palestinian) terrorist outrage occurs). And then....well, we told you. These people are fantics - pathalogical haters of Jews. All we want is security, but we have no partner for peace.

As the west congratulates itself on the wonders of its democracy today, its worth reminding ourselves of the bloody reality of western power as witnessed this morning on the streets of Beit Hanoun, whilst jubilant Democrats nursed their hangovers. As I've said,
whilst the election result is not insignificant, the limits of the differences between Democrats and Republicans are considerable and should not be overlooked. Today, control over one part of the US state-corporate-imperialist apparatus has simply passed to a less radical set of managers. One constant that will remain - that always remains whether Democrats, Republicans, Labour or Tories are in power - is the status of peoples, unpeoples, like the Palestinians.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Support the troops

The old line about supporting the troops has been wheeled out on both sides of the Atlantic this week. In the UK, the government fought off calls in parliament for an inquiry into the Iraq war, with Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett saying that to hold such an inquiry now would be to send a negative message to British troops in Iraq who deserve “our support”. In the US, after John Kerry warned students that failing to get a good education could get you “stuck in Iraq”, the Republicans fell over themselves to pretend that Kerry - a decorated Vietnam vet - had been saying that US troops are uneducated (perhaps revealing the real Republican view of their nation’s soldiers), when in fact he’d been referring to the President. In both cases the governments that started the Iraq war demand of their opponents: do you support the troops?

Two things to say about this.

Firstly, sending people to their
deaths (or to suffer serious crippling injury) on the basis of falsehoods does not constitute supporting them. Sending people to their deaths in an illegal war of aggression does not constitute supporting them. Sending people to their deaths in a war designed for no greater purpose than to consolidate and extend US power does not constitute supporting them. Using those troops who’ve survived to emotionally blackmail anyone who questions your actions does not constitute supporting them. Blocking discussion of how to deal with the lethal situation that those troops are facing on the basis that it might harm your career does not constitute supporting them. Conducting yourself in this fashion does not reveal a high regard or concern for those uniformed angels you eulogise in mawkish political speeches. It reveals a deeply held contempt for them, their lives and their families.

It need not be pointed out that people generally oppose unnecessary wars on the grounds that they tend to cause a good deal of unnecessary
death. Opposition to war is born of a belief in the value of all human life. Its very root cause, its raison d'etre, is concern for the troops and all the other potential victims. In a rational debate this would not need to be said.

This brings me to the second point. It should be understood that “support the troops” like so much of political discourse, is not an attempt at a logical argument or an appeal to reason. After all, the position does not stand up to a moment’s rational scrutiny, as I’ve demonstrated. Rational debate must therefore be avoided. “Support the troops” is a PR riff akin to McDonald’s “I’m loving it”. It is an appeal to emotion designed to imbue the speaker with a positive glow. On rational, intellectually or factual grounds, it’s the equivalent of ‘me good'.

Actually, its more sophisticated than that. Its the equivalent of ‘me good, you bad’. Because pontificating about your support for the troops is rather like saying you’re against terror, pro family, pro life etc. The vacuousness is shown by considering the opposite: ‘I don’t support the troops’, ‘I’m pro terror’, ‘I’m against families’, ‘I’m anti life’. Yet these contrary opinions are, either implicitly or explicitly, projected by the speaker onto their opponents (‘…if you don’t agree then….’), placing those opponents on the back foot and forcing them to apologise for themselves before they’ve begun to make their own arguments.

The aim is to drown out debate through shrill emotional sloganeering. It's straightforward political cynicism - an art taken to new levels by the US Republicans and our own New Labour. When you consider that lives end or continue as a result of what policies emerge from what essentially a faked ‘debate’, then you have the measure of the people who indulge in games like these.