Monday, January 29, 2007

Exchange with Guardian correspondent re.Hugo Chavez

The following is an email exchange from a couple of weeks ago between myself and The Guardian’s Rory Carroll regarding his coverage of politics in Venezuela.


Hi Rory

I was puzzled by a few aspects of
your piece in today's Guardian about the inaugurations of Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. I'm quite interested in what's happening in that part of the world at the moment and I just wondered if you could clarify a few things, if you've the time?

Firstly, I was surprised to see Chavez described as a communist. I've been reading about Chavez for a few years now and I've not seen the description used before, at least not by anyone other than the usual right-wing headbangers, and certainly not by Chavez himself. One of the distinctive things about Chavez's project has always seemed to be his insistence that Latin America be
original in its approach - neither following the Washington consensus nor anyone else's prescriptions but inventing its own way forward (which view goes right back to Bolivar and Rodriguez, as I'm sure you know). However, your piece suggests that Chavez is sending his country towards nothing more than plain-old communism. I wondered what the basis for your saying this was. I realise the general theme you were trying to portray was of Ortega and Chavez moving in opposite directions - one "forward", one "backwards" - but I assume there's something more substantive backing up your use of the term "communist" than that.

In particular, you said that Chavez spoke of using Trotsky's "principles of permanent revolution". I'm quite prepared to believe it but would you mind quoting me the part of the speech were he said this? You also call him a "self-described" communist, which again, I'm quite prepared to believe, but it'd be nice to see the quote, which didn't appear in your article. If Chavez did indeed 'come out' as a straightforward communist at his inauguration it'd be a pretty surprising, not to say seminal moment in the "Bolivarian Revolution", which has hitherto only presented itself as nationalist, socialist and democratic.

Secondly, you describe Ortega and Chavez as having indulged in "US-bashing". As far as I'm aware, neither Chavez nor Ortega have ever planned, called for, ordered or backed any physical attacks on the US, so presumably the "bashing" referred to is the use of strongly critical language. I just wonder if your choice of terminology is really appropriate.

Let's suppose that a foreign country - say the USSR - backed a dominant, privileged elite in Britain, arming and training some particularly barbaric security forces to keep that Soviet-friendly elite in power against the wishes of the British population, which languished in squalor. Let's suppose that popular forces overthrew that minority order and the new order was endorsed by internationally recognised free and fair elections. Let's suppose that Russia then - as the US did in Venezuela - helped to engineer a coup to topple the elected government and suspend a constitution that had been ratified in a referendum. Or let's suppose that Russia - as the US did in Nicaragua - backed a terrorist campaign, fought out of a neighbouring country, that aimed at "
soft targets" like schools and hospitals, and was condemned by the World Court.

And let's suppose that British leaders retaliated directly against Russia with no more than strongly critical language. If you then called such leaders "Russia bashers" or "Moscow's nemesis" that might of course be literally true. But do you think it would really be appropriate or representative of the situation?

Thirdly, you mention Chavez not renewing the license of an "opposition-aligned TV station". Yours was a fairly long piece, so I wondered why you didn't find space to mention the active role sections of the media, including this TV station, played in the
US backed coup of 2002. Again, suppose a foreign country - for the sake of variety, let's say Nazi Germany (I'm not saying the US is the same as the USSR or the Nazis btw; just illustrating the point) - tried to overthrow the elected British government in a coup, and that certain media organisations - e.g. the Daily Mail - played an active role in supporting that operation, only for it to be foiled. Surely any subsequent moves to shut the Mail down would have to be reported as being related to the coup attempt, rather than simply saying that the Mail "opposes" the government, which sends the reader's understanding of the facts in a very different direction. This would be true whether or one thought the paper had the right to continue publishing in spite of its activities. So may I ask why the relevant background wasn't included?

I'd be interested in your responses

Best wishes


Hi Dave,

Twice in the past week Chavez has publicly described himself - and once included the ex-VP, Rangel - as a communist. I paraphrased the Trotsky permanent revolution reference but there was no ambiguity in the quote from his inaugural address. Fish around and you'll find transcripts.

As for "bashing", well, the rhetoric Chavez uses, and the rhetoric Ortega used in the 80s, are/were very strong verbal attacks. Calling it bashing is a neutral description, not a value judgment on whether it's justified or not.

There are limits to how much background can be included in copy and given that RCTV was not the focus of the story it felt sufficient to term it opposition-aligned.




Hi Rory - thanks for taking the time to respond.

Transcripts apparently aren't available yet for the speech, but I'll have a read when they are. I think you should have provided a quote if only because Chavez has only portrayed himself or acted as a social democrat until now (albeit with much revolutionary rhetoric). To call himself a communist was a shift (though communist can mean anything from Stalin to Gorbachev) so a direct quote would've been useful.

Re."bashing" - I'm not asking you to make a value judgement (though the word "bashing" does seem a trifle emotive to me). Just to mention the relevant background so people have the necessary information to make a balanced judgement for themselves.

The same is true with RCTV. You say word limits are an issue. I quite understand that. They're an issue for anyone who has to produce written work. The trick (which you don't need me to tell you) is to get all the relevant points across - within the word limit - so that the reader can make a balanced judgement. My point was that you presented the RCTV issue,
as you did again today, in a way that distorts the picture. I'm not accusing you of doing that deliberately, but that's certainly the effect, and the word limit doesn't really justify it. The impression you give is of a government silencing people simply for disagreeing with it, as though complicity in a coup (which far goes beyond mere disagreement) were not a factor worthy of the reader's consideration.

Finally, going back to value judgements, there are plenty of implicit and barely implicit value judgements of Chavez and his government in your articles. That's your right as a journalist and I don't have any objection to it. I see no harm in you expressing your opinion, or making it plain, whilst still giving the whole story so other people can come to different views if they choose. My only issue is with the excision of relevant aspects of the story having a distorting effect on the picture that's presented.

Best wishes


Carroll didn’t reply to my second email.

If anyone knows where I can get hold of an English language copy of the Chavez inauguration address from earlier this month please let me know. Of course its quite possible that Chavez did declare himself as a communist, but then its also possible that his remarks are being represented that way because the word “communist” is the equivalent of a swearword for many people. Since Chavez took some time to even declare himself a socialist, and since I’ve not heard him describe himself as a communist before or since Carroll’s article, I’d rather read the speech for myself than take his word for it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of slavery’s abolition …121 years too early

This March, many government-sponsored events will take place around the UK to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery. This feeds in to government attempts, led by Chancellor Gordon Brown, to define in the public mind so-called ‘core British values’ of tolerance, liberalism and so on.

I’ve written more
here about the political utility of engendering specious nationalistic conceits like Brown’s notion of “Britishness”, and how such attempts run exactly counter to what a productive view of the nation’s history might entail. This is exemplified in the gap between the official and the actual history of Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery.

First, take a look at the government’s version of events as set out in
this document, particularly the chronology. It mentions Britain’s banning of the slave trade in 1807, notes that slavery itself did not end in Britain’s empire for another 3 decades, notes the sterling efforts made by Britain to stamp out the trade, and notes that other less civilised countries took far longer to abolish slavery themselves (France in 1848, the US in 1865 and Brazil in 1888).

Now contrast this with the factual record.
Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer in development and conflict resolution at the Open University writing in yesterday’s Guardian, sets out a rather less flattering chronology. In fact, slavery persisted in some British colonies for as long as 121 years after the abolition of the trade in slaves, not of slavery itself, that we are set to commemorate in a few weeks:

The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act …was always intended to only "gradually" end slavery, and the law was initially only applied in the West Indies. Slavery was abolished in the Gold Coast in 1874 and in southern Nigeria in 1916.

In 1924 Britain was forced to admit that slavery was still practised in Sierra Leone, northern Nigeria, Gambia, Aden, Burma and Hong Kong.

When the governor [of Sierra Leone] wanted to abolish slavery there in 1921, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, replied that "the abolition of slavery could not, however, have any immediate beneficial effect on the finances of the colony".

Captain WB Stanley, commissioner of the Northern Province, reported in 1924 that there were 219,275 slaves in Sierra Leone, 15% of the total population. Governor Sir Ransford Slater wrote that year: "My first impression [on arrival] was one of surprise that in Sierra Leone … there should still exist, even in the hinterland, an admitted form of slavery.

Britain in 1926 signed the League of Nations slavery convention. But it was quickly in trouble with the League, following a ruling by Sierra Leone's supreme court on July 1 1927, which declared that the status of slavery "is clearly recognised" and thus "the use of reasonable force [by the slave's owner] in retaking of a runaway slave must also be recognised". Court president Mr Justice Sawrey-Cookson added: "It must be as absurd to deny an owner of a slave his rights to retake a runaway slave as to deny a husband certain rights which follow on a lawfully contracted marriage."

Slavery was finally abolished in Sierra Leone on January 1 1928, nearly a century after the Abolition of Slavery Act. In marking the end of slavery, this is the date which should be used.

I’m sure there’s more to be said about the gap between the official and the actual version of events, but this is the most striking account that I’ve seen so far. British slavery did not end until 1 January 1928, barely a lifetime ago. But since this doesn't fit in with the "core British values" of New Labour fiction, the government instead leaps upon the 1807 Act banning the trade in slaves - the first step on the 121 year-long road to the end of British slavery – and presents it as being, to all intents and purposes, the substantive end of this vile practice as far as our country was concerned. The official abolition in 1833 is thus rendered a mere footnote in the official history, and the date of the actual ending of slavery itself – which his what many people in March will think they are celebrating – is ignored altogether.

There are three things to note about slavery. Firstly, that it was a monstrous crime. Secondly, that the descendents of its victims have had to suffer its legacy as well, even up until the present day. And thirdly that by contrast, many of us have done and continue to do rather well out of its legacy. As Cambridge historian
Richard Drayton points out, the historical debt Britain owes to Africa is “incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story….English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations…African slavery and colonialism are not ancient or foreign history; the world they made is around us in Britain”.

So if not for the sake of historical accuracy then out of respect for the victims of slavery, for their descendents, and out of contrition for our continuing to gain from the crimes of our predecessors, we should at least rise up to the level of not fictionalising the history of British slavery, any more than we would fictionalise the Nazi holocaust.

The role of history for the nation and for humanity should, like the role of experience in one’s personal life, be to inform our future actions and aid our development by drawing lessons from as clear and accurate a view of the past as we can possibly assemble. This is never more true than in the case of episodes such as slavery. To instead do something as ugly as to hi-jack and misrepresent the history of British slavery in order to spin a national myth about our essential goodness as a country would be essentially to admit that we’d barely escaped the moral level one might hope we had left behind in 1928 - and that furthermore, we don’t intend to. It would also be the sort of cynical and tawdry exercise in making
political capital out of other people’s misery that New Labour specialise in.

By all means let’s commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the end of British slavery. But lets leave it until 2228. And lets spend the intervening period learning the facts about British slavery, not to find some source of fuel for our national sense of conceit, but as a serious exercise in learning its lessons.


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Blairite future of Britain's military

Bradford University's security expert Paul Rogers writes a very good regular column for openDemocracy. His latest discusses the future British foreign policy that the Prime Minister is attempting to set in place before he leaves office.

"Blair made it quite clear - again, both in the speech [in Plymouth last week] and in the ensuing discussion - that [the threat of terrorism] must be met primarily by the vigorous "hard" power of military force, with the "soft" power of diplomacy, sanctions and other instruments a long way behind. This set of priorities was needed, Blair argued, because the decline in states willing to exercise such hard power constituted one of the crisis-points facing western nations. There was a great danger that Britain would join this band of weaklings."

Take your pick from the articles on the "
Best of the Diary" page to see how I assess the nature of British foreign policy. No need for me to comment further here on Blair's declared "visions" of Britain's role in the world and their relationship with reality.

What I found interesting was the military balance that the government apparently wants to set in place for Britain going forward. Firstly, Rogers describes "the decision to replace the Trident nuclear force with a new system, setting Britain as a nuclear-armed power for thirty-five years or more". Secondly, there is "the extraordinary plan to build two massive new aircraft-carriers. These, each weighing 65,000 tons and deploying the new and hugely expansive US F-35 joint strike fighter, will be far larger than any other warship ever deployed in the Royal Navy's history - three times the size of the current Invincible-class and much larger even than the battleships of the global 1939-45 war".

As Rogers points out, "the relatively modest size of the British economy, even allowing for Blair's wish to see an increase in defence spending, means that the new carriers will soak up resources to such an extent that all other military roles will be constrained", and the cost of Trident will only accentuate this. Given the recent debates over the lack of financial support given to British soldiery, these future plans seem to indicate an intention to tip the balance away from close-range infantry deployments and towards distance power-projection via air, sea and nuclear power. In other words, it appears that we now intend to bomb or threaten to bomb countries from a great height, rather than get into the messy business of invading them.

This tells us a couple of things. Firstly, it says something fairly straightforward about how human life is valued in government. Bombing from a great height is pretty
indiscriminate in terms of killing civilians. It does however reduce the danger to western troops. This isn't to say that foreign civilians are intrinsically less important to governments than their own troops. There's a straightforward political calulation involved. What's been brought home to the British and American governments is the political costs to their own ambitions that military deaths represent. Without those costs the lives of western troops would I suspect be as cheap as those of Iraqis, whose deaths we can barely be bothered to count. Aside from this, its clear that any concentration of material resources into military power of this kind displays a willingness to kill innocent people indiscriminately and in large numbers in order to achieve your objectives.

Secondly, we learn something about how the state of Britain's military credibility is perceived in Whitehall. As far as Iraq is concerned, the Prime Minister has clearly decided to brazen out the issue. But if a long-term switch of resources away from the ability to commit large numbers of troops and towards aerial bombing and threats of nuclear force is indeed being planned, then the official verdict on Iraq - as a seminal failure - has been delivered in emphatic and unequivocal terms. Such a change in military balance would constitute an admission that fighting on the ground, even against the 'weakest' of enemies, has not only failed, but will continue to fail as far as can be foreseen.

The lessons of Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan (twice), Lebanon and Iraq may now have been fully digested, at least by British planners. Major powers are far less able than once was the case to impose themselves by putting boots on the ground. Occupying militaries, no matter how well equipped, can not match guerrilla forces rooted in the population and deploying asymmetric tactics to grind down the invaders over time. Britain will therefore concentrate on more credible means of killing with which to threaten the world, lest the impression is given that we have been rendered unable to use organised violence to enforce our will.

The message to the disobedient of the world is simple: if we can't beat you face-to-face we will simply rain death upon you from the skies, and we don't mind too much who dies in the process. In its insistence on the legitimacy of projecting British power wherever we see fit, in its disregard for human life, and in its sheer petulance, this makes a fitting epitaph to Blair's foreign policy. The great man's legacy is secure.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shilpa Shetty: When Racism Isn’t Racism

The row in Britain, and now in India, over the racist behaviour directed towards Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty during the celebrity game show "Big Brother" raises several questions, beyond this specific case, about the notion of racism itself. What has been highlighted is a widespread and persistent failure to come to terms with the meaning and nature of racism and what constitutes racist behaviour. The current debate therefore provides an opportunity to discuss an issue that has escaped widespread, serious consideration for far too long.

On the day the Shetty controversy broke into the headlines, the Guardian reported that a crown court judge in Exeter had been forced to clarify his views on race after earlier saying he found it "rather odd" that a charge of racially aggravated intentional harassment was brought against a man who called a police surgeon a " Paki". The Guardian reported that in the case in question the defendant, Matthew Stiddard, had been "complaining of back pains following his arrest for a public order offence at Dawlish in Devon. When Dr [Imraan] Jhetam attended, the 36-year-old said: "F... off you Paki; I want an English doctor, not a Paki."" The case for bringing a charge for racially aggravated intentional harassment would certainly appear, on this basis, to be fairly clear, and certainly more clear than the source of the judge’s confusion.

This week's events also brought to mind the reaction of Australian cricketer Jimmy Maher to the row over his team-mate Darren Lehmann's description of his Sri Lankan opponents as "black c...s". "[Darren] calls a spade a spade," said Maher, "which is not necessarily a bad thing". Other team-mates rallied round, describing Lehmann's outburst as "out of character", made "in the heat of the moment" by someone who is "universally regarded as a nice guy".

It appears that when it comes to acknowledging instances of racism or racist behaviour for what they are, calling "a spade a spade" is something that not everyone finds particularly easy.

On "Big Brother", Shilpa Shetty's race and nationality have been consistently referred to in the most pejorative of ways and generally used as a stick to beat her with. Her fellow contestants have variously told her to "go back to the slums", asked her whether she lives in a house or a shack, failed or refused to pronounce her name properly on the basis that they didn't speak her language, instead referring to her as "the Indian", with this epithet later upgraded to “Shilpa Poppadom”. One contestant said that "she can't even speak English properly" and that "she should f... off home", another that she "wants to be white". Her personal hygiene has been questioned, on the basis of her race, with informed contestants musing thoughtfully that "they eat with their hands in India, don't they? Or is that China?", and that Indians must be thin because they are always ill as a result of undercooking their food.

Having considered the evidence, the show's broadcaster Channel 4 decided that there had been "no overt racial abuse or racist behaviour". A spokesperson for the bullies' ringleader, Jade Goody, said "I would urge anyone who says that Jade is a racist to produce the evidence to support the claim....I have not heard Jade say anything that could be interpreted as a racist remark." Another of the bullies, Jo O'Meara was defended by a friend, who said: "she's not racist". A friend of the third bully, Danielle Lloyd, said that the suggestion Lloyd was racist was "absolutely absurd. I've known Danielle for five years now and not once has she had a racist undertone in her voice ever," as though the problem were merely one of “undertones”.

Though these defensive responses are perhaps to be expected, they can hardly be seen as justified on that basis alone, or even as coherent when set against the facts. What is more worrying is the palpable reluctance on the part of many (though not all) commentators, talk show guests and others venturing an opinion over the last few days to recognise this undoubtedly racist behaviour for what it is. How can this be explained?

Over time, as immigration into the west has continued from the former colonies and elsewhere, racism has gradually become a taboo (a phenomenon that right-wingers, with customary self-pity, have described as the emergence of 'political correctness'). But whilst racism is now known to be a 'bad thing' - something with which polite and decent people do not associate themselves - society has never made a definitive attempt to confront, discuss and agree a common understanding of what racism actually is. The effect has been perverse. It now appears that rather than discouraging racism, its becoming a taboo has simply meant that no matter how racist a person's behaviour, it is considered beyond the pale, even taboo, to describe it as such. Thus racism persists, now not only misunderstood but also with its very identification becoming a line that many people dare not cross. It is particularly surprising that this mode of thinking may even extend to Shetty herself, an Indian raised in India, who later denied that the abuse she had suffered was racially motivated (though this might also be due to her perception of what was the expedient thing to say whilst she was still involved in the game show and vulnerable to continued bullying).

In attempting to (re)establish what racism actually is, it may be useful to distinguish between the sort of 'hard racism' that brings to mind jackboots and burning crosses and the 'soft racism' which affects a far broader range of people at one time or another. The latter may well be more dangerous than the former, being more widespread and insidious in character. Racism is the making of pejorative assumptions about others on the basis of their race, which may include the hardened opinions held by members of far right parties or the softer assumptions that are only revealed or betrayed in certain situations. We can also identify another distinct concept: racist behaviour. This can take all manner of forms, but in the examples discussed here, it has manifested itself as persistent, aggressively pejorative references to a person’s racial or national background. Its cause can be either 'hard' or 'soft racism', but it should also be pointed out that its root cause maybe neither. Racism is often a symptom of fear, ignorance, jealously or personal animosity.

In other words, barring a few ignorant assumptions, a person may not be much of a racist at all yet still be guilty of behaviour as unequivocally racist as that of Goody, O'Meara and Lloyd. The danger is that with the common understanding of racism so narrow, such behaviour will not be identified as such.

Many of the defences and apologias for the racist behaviour of the Big Brother contestants appear to have an implied theme in common: the person in question is asserted not to be a racist, whilst their actual racist behaviour is either left unaddressed or deemed not racist if it doesn't conform to the strictest definition of 'hard racism'. What this appears to exhibit is a prevalent understanding of 'racism' that is restricted purely to the 'hard' sense of the term, specifically the alleged racist character of the person in question, rather than their actions. Therefore, if a person falls somewhere short of being a card-carrying member of the BNP, then their behaviour can not be racist by definition, no matter what they have actually said or done. The effect of the taboo (as opposed to an understanding of the problem) of 'hard racism' has been a widespread refusal to acknowledge the more common forms of 'soft racism' and general racist behaviour. Needless to say that this does not leave us well equipped to deal with the realities of racism as it actually exists.

Racism that falls short of overt Nazism is no small matter. There are large numbers of people who have experienced at first hand, in schools and in workplaces up and down the country, racist bullying identical to that seen on "Big Brother". They will also recognise, with depressing familiarity, the squirming authority figure who refuses to live up to their basic responsibilities and defend the victim or restrain the racists. These people will no doubt recognise what is happening in the “Big Brother” house for what it is, and probably make up a large proportion of the tens of thousands of people who have complained to the communications regulator Ofcom about the treatment of Shetty.

Indeed, this brand of collective bullying, characterised by the ignorant besmirching of the victim’s character and tacitly condoned if not actively exploited by those whose responsibility is to prevent such behaviour from occurring has been exemplified on a grand scale by the now familiar attacks on asylum seekers in the UK. We have seen a hysterical tabloid hate campaign in recent years against refugees and ‘economic migrants’, condoned and even exploited by politicians of both main parties at the highest levels, inevitably accompanied with plaintive whines that “its not racist to talk about immigration”. This has gone together with a rise in physical attacks on immigrants, some of which have been fatal. Recent manufactured controversies over British Muslims also fit into this trend of collective scapegoating, bullying and ignorant hysteria. Racism is certainly not the preserve of skinhead thugs. Those complicit in the phenomenon may come from all walks of life and draw on a variety of motivations, not only heartfelt racial hatred.

Pulling back from the prevailing narrow definition of racism, and engaging with the problem in all its forms, depth and complexity, will reveal many other issues of concern, in addition to racist bullying. We may come to recognise the straightforward racism of the "clash of civilisations" paradigm so beloved of the political class, wherein the west cultivates a conceited image of itself as being essentially liberal and benign, with other cultures caricatured in opposition as backward and in need of correction. We may come to recognise the instrumental effect such prejudice has in formulating foreign policies that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, as it has done throughout the history of imperialism in all its guises.

Racism remains a dangerous, blunt instrument, wielded both by ordinary ignorance and institutional power. In what many believe to be an enlightened western culture an assumption persists that it is no longer a significant problem. On the contrary, not only does the issue of racism persist, it is still not even properly understood, to the point where many seem unwilling or unable to acknowledge its existence when they see it.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Logic of Escalation

As the final two years of the Bush presidency commence in earnest, the emerging foreign policy of the administration is one that is surprising, indeed horrifying, analysts and general observers around the world, even within the US establishment. Far from scaling back its ambitions, consolidating its position and attempting to recover some of the prestige it has lost since September 2001, the White House appears more keen than ever to make yet greater use of force and violence to achieve its maximum objectives in the broader west Asian region, no matter how doomed those ambitions are widely seen to be.

Moreover, this reckless strategy, carrying potentially ruinous consequences, is a product not only of the much discussed neo-conservative agenda of the President, the Vice-President and their various cohorts, but also of the internal logic and mechanics of the imperial structure they currently manage. Only when we understand the administration’s present actions as symptomatic, rather than simply aberrational, can we appreciate the gravity of what currently appears to be an impending crisis with truly global implications.

It now seems almost cruel to quote the Guardian’s
Simon Jenkins, writing after the Democrats’ victory in last November’s US congressional elections:

The gun-toting, pre-Darwinian Bushite, the Tomahawk-wielding, Halliburton-loving, Beltway neo-con has been lain to rest, and by a decision of the American people. Americans should be proud and the world should take note. The White House ran on a "pro-victory" ticket and lost. Retreat becomes the only option. A wretched era of American interventionism has come to an end. A new day has dawned.

In truth, practically the opposite is true. The application of violence to secure US objectives – directly or via proxies - is being accelerated, raising the possibility of far more catastrophic outcomes in the near future than have been seen thus far.


Starting with the obvious example, Washington – with full support from the
ever-servile Britain - has rejected pleas from several quarters that it seek a broad political settlement to end the multifarious war in Iraq, opting instead to intensify its military effort and force yet more bodies into the meat grinder in a futile bid to impose itself. This so-called “surge” of extra US troops will be directed not only against Sunni guerrilla forces but also against the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This raises the prospect of a return to the two-front, counter-insurgency war the US was fighting against Sunni and Shia forces during 2004, before the Mahdi Army withdrew from the fray under duress. It also raises the probability of the collapse of the current Iraqi government, being as it is an uneasy coalition with al-Sadr’s political forces at its centre but with a leadership allied to the White House.

For those who would prefer peace and an end to sectarian mass killing to a victory for any of the belligerents, the salient point is that this latest escalation can only take Iraq deeper into the throes of violence. As
Michael Schwartz argues, the US is a problem, not a solution for Iraq. Iraq needs not more but less of the US, preferably none at all:

More of anything that the U.S. is doing is bound to prove just another effort to win a war of conquest and occupation whose goals are antithetical to just about every Iraqi desire. What more ensures is only more death, more destruction, and more violence.

The intensification of US military activity, like the intensification of activity on the part of any of the other armed groups in Iraq, can only inflame the situation further. The bloodshed in Iraq is therefore set to get worse, with the consequences for
spillover into the wider region still looming in the background. Unfortunately Washington’s ‘urge to surge’ doesn’t end there. Far from it.

Next comes the Palestinian occupied territories, where it has
recently become clear that the violence between Palestinian factions has been the result of a specific policy – under the management of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, but again with British support - to instigate a “hard coup”, toppling the elected Hamas government and replacing it with Fatah forces armed, trained and funded by the US and its allies. Tony Karon sums up the situation:

In the coming weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will cluck regretfully about the violence unfolding in the Palestinian territories as if the chaos in Gaza has as little to do with her as, say, the bizarrely warm winter weather in New York. And much of the U.S. media will concur by covering that violence as if it is part of some inevitable showdown in the preternaturally violent politics of the Palestinians. But any honest assessment will not fail to recognize that the increasingly violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not only a by-product of Secretary Rice’s economic siege of the Palestinians; it is the intended consequence of her savage war on the Palestinian people – a campaign of retribution and
collective punishment for their audacity to elect leaders other than those deemed appropriate to U.S. agendas.

Again, violence is not a regrettable reaction but a positive choice, with options more likely to bring peace, if not victory, specifically rejected; thus revealing the guiding values of western foreign policy. Just last week,
Khaled Meshal, supposedly one of Hamas’ most hardline and intractable leaders, repeated the offer made several times by his party to accept Israel’s annexation of 78% of his people’s historic homeland as part of a peace deal. But the US and its allies are not interested in peace offers from the Palestinians, no matter how generous; only surrender.

Over to
Somalia, where a semblance of peace and order, however unsavoury some of its enforcers, seemed to have arrived after a decade and a half of near-total anarchy. Now, a US-backed Ethiopian invasion, complete with the indiscriminate use of US airpower, raises the likelihood of new insurgency war in that country, with its effects potentially spreading across the borders of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Here too a choice is made. It is plain that this latest “intervention” will spawn far more recruits for anti-US terrorism than may be killed in any military action; as has been the case throughout the “
war on terror”. But the potential prizes for US power are deemed worth the risk. Salim Lone, formerly of the UN’s mission in Iraq, points out that:

As with Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism, but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through the Red Sea”.

In addition to the above conflicts, war still rages in
Afghanistan, 5 years after the US-led “victory” over the Taliban, whilst on the opposite edge of the broader west Asia region, an uneasy stand-off between Israel and Hezbollah continues, with the former extremely unlikely to accept for long its defeat in the war between the two of summer 2006.

But all this pales in the ominous shadow of a US-Israeli conflict with Iran,
long-rumoured and ever-present both in the minds of certain policymakers and in the fears of observers of the region. It is well understood that any such war holds the potential for a catastrophe that would make today’s bloodbath Iraq seems small by comparison. Not only is a US-Israeli attack likely to be anything but ‘surgical’ but Iran is fully capable of retaliating against US assets throughout the region and beyond. A drawn-out conflict could seriously affect the flow of vital oil and gas exports out of the Persian Gulf, with increasingly perilous effects on the world economy depending on how long hostilities persisted.

Furthermore, if it is true that Israel is prepared to use
tactical nuclear weapons in such an action then matters elevate to a new level entirely. In the first instance, massive casualties would be certain; but beyond even this tragedy lie potential implications in terms of precedent for world security which could not be more serious.

Israel retains its nuclear weapons and
refuses to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran has signed the NPT, does not have nuclear weapons, probably could not produce them within the next 10 years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that it is trying to acquire them. We need waste few words on Israel’s declared fears of a nuclear attack from Iran; not least since they are based upon a straightforward mistranslation of the words of a man – President Ahmadinejad – who in any case does not control Iranian foreign policy. Far from threatening to wipe Israel from the map, Iran proposed in 2003 a “grand bargain” wherein all outstanding issues between itself and the US would be resolved, including acceptance of an Israeli state on the 1967 borders in accordance with the Arab peace plan of the previous year. The offer was flatly rejected. Again, war is not forced upon the West. It is a positive choice. What Iran represents to Israel and its Western backers, is not a threat to their security but to their strategic dominance of the region.

In these circumstances the use of battlefield nuclear weapons - in the absence of any credible threat, unprovoked, after peace overtures were ignored, in an overt rejection of the NPT and with the
sign-off of the world’s only superpower - would both lower the threshold for the use of such weapons to a truly alarming extent and send a clear message to the world that any country could suffer a nuclear attack merely at the whim of powerful states. The global non-proliferation regime would be effectively over, with states across the world citing the attack on Iran as precedent and justification both for building (somewhat rationally in terms of self defence) and potentially for using their own nuclear capabilities.

Of course it is possible that the US and its allies aim only to credibly intimidate Iran, and not ultimately to go as far as to initiate military conflict. But the escalations and interventions from Somalia, through Gaza into Anbar and Baghdad do not inspire confidence in Washington’s sense of self-restraint. And even if it were true, belligerent moves short of war – the
movement of equipment and personnel into position, the US assault on the Iranian consulate in Irbil – serve only raise the temperature to an extent where war could be triggered whether by design or otherwise; that is if these moves are not designed specifically as provocation.

Imperial logic

After more than five years of an ironically named “war on terror” that has proved disastrous, counterproductive in terms of its purported aims, and deeply unpopular, why would the US and its allies take exactly the opposite route to that so confidently predicted by Simon Jenkins and many other commentators just a few short weeks ago?

The answer lies in two terms of jargon in international statecraft, which we will first have to translate into English before examining how they apply in this situation. The first of these is “national interest”, which in English means the interest the elite groups that govern the US have in maintaining and extending their power in the world.

At a point in time where extraction of the world’s finite oil reserves is expected to
peak and fall away, just as the economies of two of the world’s most populous nations – India and China – are growing at breakneck speed, thus putting massive new demands on those dwindling resources, control over energy reserves constitutes “critical leverage” over one’s rivals, in the words of former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, or “veto power” in the words of Cold War era US diplomat George Kennan, and is therefore a prize that Washington cannot afford to lose if it is to fulfil its stated aim of maintaining permanent global dominance. This is particularly true when Russia is consolidating and extending its own control over such resources, in an increasingly effective collaboration with China and other states.

Securing a
long-term military presence and a client government in Iraq, which has the world’s second largest oil reserves and lies in the centre of the principal energy producing region, therefore constitutes a critical step towards achieving Washington’s objectives. The principle obstacle is the regime in Tehran, ironically strengthened by the US invasion of Iraq, arguably more influential in Baghdad than the US, and whose weakening or elimination is therefore imperative in terms of the “national interest”.

The second reason is “credibility”, i.e. maintaining the understanding across the world that the US and its allies to can and will successfully deploy military force to discipline, subdue or crush recalcitrant nations and peoples: a concept well understood by Mafia bosses. The serious loss of prestige sustained by defeats and stalemates in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Israel’s war with Hezbollah can not be tolerated by a nation that, not only under Bush but under every President since WW2, has spent staggering sums of public money on building the greatest military machine in all history. The fact that this vast expenditure has also served effectively as a
nanny-state style welfare programme for firms able to make a profit from the duel-use products of military-technological research – e.g. aeronautics, computing – can only increase resistance across US elite opinion to any loss of military stature that could lead to public calls for the subsidy tap to be turned off. In short, for a US establishment where military thinking and solutions dominate, and which tools are rendered useless by the damage to credibility sustained by defeat, the response to military disaster with ever greater military action has its own compelling logic.

When we understand the vital importance – both within and beyond the neo-conservative school - of both the “national interest” in strategic dominance and the “credibility” of US military power, then we can comprehend the rationale behind the apparently irrational willingness of the Bush administration to court yet greater disaster in its “war on terror”. If the US accepts its defeat and diminution of credibility and scales back in Iraq and the Middle East, then openings emerge for its major rivals - Europe, Russia, and China - to contractually carve up the energy heartlands of the planet, building state-to-state relations with west Asian governments that exclude US influence, and potentially
marginalising Washington’s power on the world stage.

Of course this is an unconscionable scenario for the US and its allies. But if they continue, even accelerate, down the course they have set themselves these past 5 years, there is no guarantee of success. Their inability thus far to prevail in various asymmetric conflicts may well persist, thereby only exacerbating the problems described above. From Iraq and Iran outwards, the Middle East could begin to disintegrate, US credibility in terms of its known ability to apply organised violence and protect compliant Arab despots would dissolve, and ultimately the result for US power would be the same as if it had simply retreated.

Far more importantly, military escalation and the opening of new fronts will undoubtedly result in more death, disaster and misery for the region and the wider world. But it seems abundantly clear that such considerations are of no concern to the US. Indeed,
Dr. Michael Vlahos (Senior Staff, National Security Analysis Department, Johns Hopkins University) writes that:

I can attest to many "Defense World" conversations that have ended with: "the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims," or, "history shows that to win over a people you have to kill at least 10% of them, like the Romans"

In the coming weeks and months we will find out just how much influence such figures have in the Pentagon and over US policy, and whether they feel that the moment they speak of has now arrived. Given the expected handover of power in Downing Street we may also get an early, definitive answer to the question of what a post-Blair British foreign policy will look like.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blair: maximum assurance, maximum delusion

""The point about Blair is that he combines maximum assurance with maximum delusion." The comment, made privately by the leader of a Labour council, is the exact and perfect judgment. No other analyst need apply.

To hear Tony Blair calling for continuous war on Friday was instructive. Smooth, ingratiating, as always, and utterly natural, he sounded like a man saying that this was clearly the weather for a scarf and a woolly hat. The words induced one more increment of despair. Of course we must keep up the war on terror, of course we must go on killing and being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, if necessary, London, unlike cowardly not-pulling-their-weight Stockholm or Paris.

There is something unbalanced about the jaunty normality the man imports into approving a course of conduct in its fourth year of calamity. The message is very assured, very delusional. "It would be catastrophic not to continue with the 'war on terror'." Let us re-phrase that very slightly: "It would be catastrophic not to carry on with the catastrophe." It is a pleasant, smiling, glamorous face, and it is our national duty to save it."

"If only he'd studied history" - Edward Pearce

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The fading hopes of Iraqi Nationalism

Middle East scholar Juan Cole provides some interesting discussion on the possibilities for Sunni-Shia co-operation in Iraq. Nationalism often trumps sectarian loyalties for many Iraqi groups and individuals, though that situation, like Iraqi society, appears fluid to say the least.
It seemed clear during 2004, as the Sunni and Shia insurgents co-operated in the way Juan describes, that the US was facing its ultimate nightmare in Iraq; a unified national resistance. Its doubtful that the US could've faced down such a movement even - especially - if peaceful tactics to end the occupation had been adopted. Such a national Iraqi coalition could well have been durable. National liberation movements tend to form a major part of the national mythology that can bind a country together through the years.

At the time, Sistani's role in ending the battle of Najaf seemed decisive in ending the hope of such a movement emerging. Understandably Sistani wanted to end the violence, especially since it was desecrating the holy city. But did he not also want to see the US occupation used as the vehicle to deliver maximum power to the Shia majority? Did he not fear, as many other Shia and Kurdish figures seem to, that if the US left a more favourable accomodation would have to be made with the Sunnis than would otherwise be the case? After all, isn't Sistani, like so many holy men, rather less withdrawn from the temptations of the material world than his office demands?

How much different might things be now if, at the time of the battle of Najaf in 2004, Sistani had made a statement to the effect that the US occupation was causing so much bloodshed as to be no longer tenable, that US troops should leave on a short timetable, and that a national unity government of all groups should be formed pending free elections to be held upon the departure of the last Western soldier? Could al-Qaeda have been sidelined? Would sectarianism have wilted in the face of a national political will?

This is not to wag the finger at irresponsible Iraqis, which would plainly be most hypocritical for any US/UK citizen (e.g as new US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi effectively did in her inaugration speech yesterday). It is to demonstrate the distorting, possibly fatal effect a foreign occupation has had on the politics of the new Iraq. Most countries have ambitious politicians and public figures. But not every country has some of those figures backed by an occupying army, thus hampering the nation's own ability to mediate and settle disputes in the public interest. Most countries have sectarian divisions, but not all have the socio-political-economic conditions to foster conflict instead of compromise. Those conditions in Iraq have been created by the occupation, not the natural tendency of the barbarians to slaughter each other in the absence of Western supervision.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Strangling Palestine

With 2006 dominated by the disintegration of Iraq and the Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received far less attention than might otherwise have been the case. This is particularly unfortunate since the current lull in Fatah-Hamas violence at start of a new year, and the election of Hamas to a position of dominance in the Palestinian Legislative Council this time last year, bookend one of the darkest chapters in the ongoing Palestinian catastrophe. Those who had hoped there might be some lower limit to the depths of the Palestinian's suffering, or to the cynicism of their tormentors, will have been roundly disabused of that notion by the events of 2006. What is unfolding now is a potentially decisive stage in what Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling called the “the politicide of the Palestinian people”; meaning “a gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity.”

In Al-Ahram,
Khaled Amayreh provides a useful narrative of the post-election events; the West's strangulation of the already devastated Palestinian economy (not just through cutting Western aid, but by stealing Palestinian tax revenues and threatening to blacklist banks that attempt to transfer anyone's money to the increasingly desparate occupied territories), Israel’s military aggression, the escalating Fatah-Hamas confrontation and the increasingly overt nature of Fatah's role as the long arm of the West.

On this last point, one might reflect, upon seeing a picture in yesterday’s Guardian of Fatah security officers carrying a picture of the executed Saddam Hussein, that both Saddam and Fatah have been backed by the West as bulwarks against local resistance to US-led imperialism (that Saddam's execution could turn him into a symbol of resistance to the US is quite something). In
earlier editions of Al-Ahram, Joseph Massad has described the insidious role of the West and of regional governments in Palestinian politics generally, and the Fatah-Hamas confrontation specifically; repeatedly comparing the Hamas-led government's current position to that of Allende's in Chile just before the US-backed military coup in 1973.

"Make no mistake about it", says Massad of the division between the class co-opted by the West under the ‘Oslo peace process’ on the one hand, and Hamas and the wider population on the other, "this is what the ongoing battle in the West Bank and Gaza is all about. What lies in the balance is the fate of nine million Palestinians."

It should not be forgotton that Hamas has repeatedly indicated its willingness to negotiate a
long term peace deal on the basis of international law and existing security council resolutions – the same deal supported by the entire world save for Israel and its closest allies, who have been blocking it for three decades, offering increasingly spurious and desperate justifications. It is this threat – of a peace that is just and lasting, but disadvantageous to Western interests – that it is hoped will be extinguished by starvation, bombardment and civil war.

Why is this an issue for us in Britain? Because the UK continues to give unstinting support to Israel - as documented on this site last summer in the case of the
Israeli-Hezbollah war - and to one side in the nascent Palestinian civil war. For example, Massad cites reports in Haaretz that "the United States government ... has been training [Palestinian President, Mahmood] Abbas's Praetorian Guard in Jericho for over a month with American, British, Egyptian, and Jordanian military instructors".

For us, now, the ‘
question of Palestine’ is one of our own complicity in the punishment of an entire population for having the temerity to vote against our preferred candidate in a free and fair election, and for their elected representatives daring to make a genuine “generous offer” for peace. It is with this in mind that we should assess the Prime Minister's efforts to support ”people who want a two-state solution, who are moderate and who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities”. As in the war on Lebanon last summer, the only “solution” Blair and the West are interested in is victory, whatever the human cost.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More site changes

Many of the articles posted here since February 2005 have continued to get a fair few hits on a regular basis, despite the fact that they’ve not been featured prominently on the site for some time. Given that there’s still a demand for them I’ve decided to collect links to the best and/or most popular articles on one page (“Best of the Diary” below) and link to that list in the “info” section in the sidebar on the homepage.

These articles contain links and references to a large amount of source material that should (as well as the articles themselves hopefully, and the arguments set out therein) be an interesting and useful resource for readers of this site. The "Best of.." page should make for easier access and a more user-friendly Democrat's Diary.

Best of the Diary

[updated - 28 / 11 / 2009]

My most significant articles from 2006 onwards appear on my homepage at University College London's School of Public Policy.

This page includes my best blog posts, essays and articles from February 2005, when I started this blog, to late 2007. Have a browse and see if anything grabs your attention.

About The Democrat's Diary (February 2005)
Short Q&A about the site, plus a more detailed explanation of the view of the global political economy that underpins what’s written here.

Africa’s battle with corruption (July 2005)
79% of people in Britain blame corruption for Africa's economic problems. However, not only are much of the West’s (and New Labour’s) own third world policies intrinsically corrupt, but those policies also contribute directly towards corruption in Africa itself. The obstacle to third world development that corruption represents could be dealt with in no small part by correcting our own behaviour.

Are Muslims from Mars and Europeans from Venus? (February 2006)
Some thoughts on the “clash of civilisations”.

Bad Medicine - the bitter taste of the Anglo-Saxon model (May 2007)
Is neo-liberalism the pragmatic, non-ideological choice of "what works best"? The facts suggest otherwise.

The Blair Myth (June 2007)
A challenge to the popular hagiography that saw Tony Blair as a uniquely gifted politician and a crusader for liberal values on the world stage.

Blessed are the poor in spirit (April 2005)
Introducing Pope Benedict XVI.

Britain’s Role in the Israeli-Hezbollah War (September 2006)
As far as I’m aware, this is the most comprehensive, in-depth and researched account available of the role Britain played in backing Israel during its assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Used by US Middle East academics Norman Finkelstein and Juan Cole, and, in shorter form, by Le Monde Diplomatique (subscribers only). Part 3 of a series on Israel (see below).

Britain's Failure in Iraq (November 2007)
An analysis piece for Le Monde Diplomatique, "Britain's failure in Iraq" reviews the British involvement in the invasion and occupation and explores the reasons for London's failure to achieve its strategic goals.

The Credit Crunch and the Free Market (August 2007)
Some observations on the crisis in the global markets that began in summer 2007, and what the events revealed about the nature of the Western 'liberal' economies

Following Orders (January 2006)
On the moral and institutional relationship between government and the armed forces.

Gorgeous George (April 2005)
A profile of George Galloway written with the intention of disucssing the broader issue of the difficulties facing those attempting to put forward alternative political points of view.

The Guardian, Colombia and Venezuela: a paired example (June 2007)
Noting the differences in The Guardian's coverage of politics in Columbia and Venezuela.

If Britain were Iraq, What would it be Like? (March 2005)
A transposition of Iraq’s current situation onto Britain, which puts things into a decidedly unsettling perspective.

Ignoring the Intelligence: How New Labour Helped Bring Terror to London (July 2005)
On the government’s culpability in the London tube bombings of 2005, including a comprehensive review of the warnings it received that the invasion of Iraq would materially increase the risk of terrorist attacks on Britain.

Incitement to racial hatred (March 2005)
Examining the politics of race and immigration in the run up to the UK General Election of 2005. Recall that current Conservative leader David Cameron was instrumental in designing the Tory approach described here (and here).

Iraq and the Western Media: Sleepwalking through slaughter (November 2005)
Gruesome atrocities continue to be committed by the occupying powers in Iraq, passing with little or no mention in the mainstream media on either side of the Atlantic. As such the media are accessories to these crimes, standing as they do between the criminals and accountability.

Iraqi Democracy and the Limits of Western idealism (March 2006)
The fraud of Bush and Blair’s “stand for democracy” in Iraq.

The Iran hostage crisis in context (April 2007)
An analysis of the geo-political context in which the capture of several British servicepeople by Iran took place in spring 2007. I was interviewed on this subject by Nadim Mahjoub for his show "Middle East Panorama" on Resonance FM. You can listen to the interview here.

Israel: Colonialism in the 21st Century (Part 1 and Part 2) - (Summer 2005)
An in-depth study in two parts. Part 1 examines the nature of Israeli colonialism. Part 2 examines the fraud and melodrama of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, comparing it with IDF evictions of Palestinians in Gaza during May 2004. My article of 2006 on the Israel-Hezbollah war (see above) can be taken as the crucial
third part of this series, looking at the reason that these affairs concern us - Britain's unstinting support for Israel and complicity in its actions.

Kosovo and its Implications (May 2007)
An essay arguing that the war on Kosovo was driven by geo-strategic self-interest, not liberal altrusim.

The Liberties of Boris Johnson (July 2007)
An examination of UK Tory politician Boris Johnson and the right-wing 'libertarian' world view he espouses.

The legality of the Iraq war: time to move on (April 2005)
Examining the legal status of the invasion of Iraq.

The Mythical Centre Ground (Summer 2006)
Where does the “centre-ground” of British politics really lie? Not, according to the evidence, where the political class imagines it to be. In two parts, one on domestic and one on foreign policy.

The Politics of Happiness (July 2006)
Discussion of the standard doctrines on economics that prevail in political discourse. Published on the English-language website of Le Monde Diplomatique.

The Poor Are Revolting (April 2005)
On the sanctions against Iraq, and whether opposition to New Labour can “only hurt the poorest”.

Still Strangling Palestine (April 2007)
On the Western response to the Hamas election victory in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of January 2006.

Still Time for War with Iran (July 2007)
George Bush's political weakness in the final days of his Presidency does not rule out the chances of a US military strike on Iran.

Understanding Britain (February 2007)
An examination of the relationship between UK foreign policy and the current debates about “Britishness” and national identity.

Unfamiliar terrain, new opportunities: some thoughts on future campaigning (November 2006)
Paper to a conference of UK anti-war group Iraq Occupation Focus.

United by a Goal (August 2007)

The reaction to Iraq's victory in football's Asia Cup tells us something about the state of Iraqi nationalism, even in a time of civil war (published by the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique here - subscribers only though, I'm afraid).

Why is the WTO facing a Legitimacy Crisis? (May 2007)
An essay reviewing developing-world resistance to Western demands on trade liberalisation.

Withdrawing from Iraq (October 2005)
An attempt to turn the call for US-UK withdrawal from Iraq into a detailed policy proposal to unite around and campaign for; addressing in particular the questionable dichotomy of ‘occupation-or-civil-war’.