Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Britishness" and British Foreign Policy

My latest article, “Understanding Britain”, is available on UK Watch. The article examines the relationship between UK foreign policy and the current debates about “Britishness” and national identity. An excerpt:

If we are to understand the nation’s role to be that of performing certain functions for our benefit and its value as the extent to which it performs those functions, then a utilitarian view demands not reverence but a dispassionate assessment. History can be used to inform both the democratic utilitarian and the mystical views of nationalism: the former, by an objective analysis of the factual record designed to inform the value judgement described above, and the latter by making selective use of that record and subordinating history to the aggrandisement of the national self-image. As we examine how an objective and rounded understanding of history might help us to influence our society and government productively in the present day, the nature of the problems that arise from taking the chauvinistic course will quickly become apparent.

Read the rest
here. A supplementary to the article is a recent post on this site entitled “Celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of slavery’s abolition …121 years too early”.

UK Watch is not only a really excellent site already, though only in its infancy, its also a site that offers lots of hope for the future. As it says in their "
about" section

"In an age dominated by corporate media control, the importance of alternative media – in contesting mainstream interpretations, promoting alternative understandings and supporting the development of a radical popular culture – can hardly be overstated. ukwatch.net is our contribution."

...and in addition...

"We particularly wish to promote constructive visions of a better society and work that discusses the tactical and strategic choices required to achieve them. Toward this end, we seek to encourage organisations, authors, activists and scholars to share their knowledge and experience with others in the UK activist community."

So if you have something you think you can
contribute, be it ideas for the site, tech support or an article, then get in touch with them and let them know. I think UK Watch has the potential to be as multi-faceted, informative, and high-quality a resource as its US sister-site ZNet. If you can contribute to that then don’t be shy.

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Silence on civilian suffering in Iraq

David Edwards' and David Cromwell's latest article at Medialens, reviewing the media and government silence on civilian suffering in Iraq, is a must-read. Here's an excerpt:
Iraq Civilian Suffernig - The Media Silence:
"On January 19, nearly 100 eminent doctors, backed by a group of international lawyers, sent a letter to Tony Blair describing conditions in Iraqi hospitals as a breach of the Geneva conventions requiring Britain and the US, as occupying forces, to protect human life. The signatories include Iraqi doctors, British doctors who have worked in Iraqi hospitals, and leading UK consultants and GPs. The doctors describe desperate shortages causing "hundreds" of children to die in hospitals. Babies are being ventilated using a plastic tube in their noses and dying for lack of an oxygen mask, while other babies are dying because of the lack of a phial of vitamin K or sterile needles, items all costing just 95p. Hospitals are unable to stop fatal infections spreading from baby to baby for want of surgical gloves, which cost 3.5p a pair. The doctors commented in the letter:

"Sick or injured children who could otherwise be treated by simple means are left to die in hundreds because they do not have access to basic medicines or other resources. Children who have lost hands, feet and limbs are left without prostheses. Children with grave psychological distress are left untreated."

They added that the UK, as one of the occupying powers under UN resolution 1483, is obliged to comply with the Geneva and Hague conventions that require the UK and the US to "maintain order and to look after the medical needs of the population". But, the doctors noted: "This they failed to do and the knock-on effect of this failure is affecting Iraqi children's hospitals with increasing ferocity."

A delegation of these doctors asked to meet Hilary Benn, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development. Stop The War reported the results:

“They [the doctors] have been told that Mr Benn cannot spare the time. He has refused their request for the UK to organise an immediate delivery of basic medical supplies for premature babies to just one of these hospitals, the Diwanyah Maternity Hospital located 80 kilometres south of Baghdad.” (Stop The War, press release, February 3, 2007)"
Read the rest here, and take the 'suggested action' at the end of the alert.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Britain retreats from Iraq

I've frequently cited and recommended the US Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, and in his short, sharp summation of Britain's withdrawal of many of its troops from Iraq, announced today, he doesn't disappoint:
"This is a rout, there should be no mistake. The fractious Shiite militias and tribes of Iraq's South have made it impossible for the British to stay. They already left Sadr-controlled Maysan province, as well as sleepy Muthanna. They moved the British consulate to the airport because they couldn't protect it in Basra. They are taking mortar and rocket fire at their bases every night. Raiding militia HQs has not resulted in any permanent change in the situation. Basra is dominated by 4 paramilitaries, who are fighting turf wars with one another and with the Iraqi government over oil smuggling rights.
Blair is not leaving Basra because the British mission has been accomplished. He is leaving because he has concluded that it cannot be, and that if he tries any further it will completely sink the Labor Party, perhaps for decades to come."
I would only add a note of caution to that last point. This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure.
Here in the UK we probably hear as much about the situation regarding US forces as we do our own. I have to admit that I've some guilt on that score myself. The fact is that the occupation is an American operation. We're complicit, but we're not in the driving seat (a "pillion passenger" as the Royal Institute for International Affairs put it), so one tends to home in on the activities, conduct and fate of US forces.
As a result of this, a lot of people in Britain simply won't recognise the picture that Cole describes. We don't see reports like this from the Washington Post on the front pages of our newspapers (nor perhaps even in our blogs) though we undoubtedly should. Here's what Cole's talking about:
"BAGHDAD, Aug. 24 -- British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday ...... a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of U.S.-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center.
Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said the last of 1,200 troops left Camp Abu Naji, just outside Amarah, at noon Thursday, after several days of heavy mortar and rocket fire by a local militia, which local residents identified as the Sadr-controlled Mahdi Army.
The withdrawal sparked wide-scale looting at the base and then intense clashes late Thursday between Iraqi army forces guarding the camp and unknown attackers, a military intelligence official said. The volatile situation worsened when the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade mutinied and attacked a local military outpost, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
Burbridge acknowledged that constant shelling of the base in Amarah by militia forces, including 17 mortar rounds fired in recent days that wounded three people, were part of the reason the camp closed.
"By no longer presenting a static target, we reduce the ability of the militias to strike us," he said. But he rejected Sadr's claim that the British had been defeated and pushed out of Amarah. "It's very difficult to claim a victory without causing significant casualties."

The mood was quite different in Amarah, where jubilant residents flocked to Sadr's office to offer their congratulations. Drivers in the street honked their car horns in celebration. Some prepared to take to the streets to rejoice.
"Today is a holiday in our province," said Abu Mustaffa, an unemployed 45-year-old from the city's al-Hussein district. "Thanks be to God!"

Abu Mustaffa said anger toward the British reached fever pitch in recent days after soldiers entered a mosque and arrested several local men. The provincial government is controlled by Sadr's movement, he said."
As I've pointed out many times, the majority of Iraqis want our armed forces to leave their country. For example, a poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence in 2005, showed a majority - 67 per cent - believing that the occupation has made the security situation worse (less than one per cent believed it had improved matters) and 82 per cent "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops. I rather doubt that those numbers have improved in the last 18 months.
Two things should be noted here before proceeding further: firstly - in terms of what will and will not help security - that Iraqis are rather better placed to judge the situation they are living through themselves than we are from our vantage point several thousand miles away; and secondly, that whatever we think is irrelevant in any case, since its what Iraqis want for Iraq that counts.
Given the dissonance between our proclaimed mission to bring the gift of democracy to Iraq and our explicit rejection of the population's clear wish for us to leave their country, it should come as no surprise that the same MoD poll found that 65 per cent of Iraqi citizens in Maysan province - one of the four provinces under British control at that time - believed that attacks against coalition forces were justified. Hence the expulsion from the base in Amarah, and the jubilant scenes thereafter. Only last Sunday, UK forces clashed with Iraqi militiamen armed with machine guns and RPGs in Basra. And last month, Royal Air Force Tornado jets provided cover for the US Air Force in what is increasingly looking like a massacre of Iraqi tribesmen in Najaf.
What's been announced today has little to do with spreading democracy or improving the general welfare of the people of Iraq (much less the "war on terror" or the long-forgotten weapons of mass destruction). The British government it seems has done what the US Republican senator George Aiken urged Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon to do during the Vietnam war (only to be ignored): declare victory and leave.
One final thought. If the US attacks Iran, as many senior figures in the US establishment fear, Iran responds asymmetrically via regional proxies and allies, as is widely expected, and southern Iraq goes up in flames, what will then happen to Blair's victorious exit? UK forces aren't leaving tomorrow. They will remain there at least til the end of George Bush's term in office.
Update: 22/2/07
Yesterday I said: "This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure."
In fairness, I reckoned without the excellent Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, whose front page story is entitled..
"The retreat from Basra
It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger.

In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day. Food is short in parts of the country. A quarter of the population would starve without government rations. Many Iraqis are ill because their only drinking water comes from the highly polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Nowhere in Mr Blair's statement was any admission of regret for reducing Iraq to a wasteland from which 2 million people have fled and 1.5 million are displaced internally.

Nadia al-Mashadani, a Sunni woman with four children, was forced from her house in the Hurriya district of Baghdad under threat of death by Shia militiamen on 25 December. She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni neighbourhood. She told The Independent: "They promised us freedom and now we find ourselves like slaves: no rights, no homes, no freedom, no democracy, and not enough strength to say a word." Like many Sunni she believed the US had deliberately fomented sectarian hatred in Iraq to keep control of the country."
The LA Times also has some good coverage:
"The British military is approaching "operational failure," former defense staff chief Charles Guthrie warned this week.
"Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain's Iraq deployment."It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.' "
Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," ...
But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region was one of only two "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities
British bases in Basra regularly come under mortar fire. British troops engage in almost daily gunfights with militiamen. In recent months, the British all but evacuated their downtown base and moved to a more secure site on the grounds of the city's airport."
Its also worth noting that even this small reduction in forces has given ammunition to Bush's critics and put the White House on the back foot. It hints at the impact a full repudiation of our role in the war could have in Washington and thereby implies the political strength the White House gained from British support, begging the question: what if we hadn't joined the invasion in 2003? Probably the war would have gone ahead. But would Bush have won that narrow re-election the next year, isolated on the world stage and with the insurgency on the rise?
The New York Times reports that Bush administration officials were forced onto the defensive by yesterday's announcement:
"On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied suggestions that the British withdrawal plans meant the coalition forged to topple Saddam Hussein had crumbled
Democratic leaders in Congress saw it differently.

"By announcing its decision to redeploy troops from Iraq, the British government has acknowledged a reality that President Bush still stubbornly refuses to accept,” said Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader. “There can be no purely military solution in Iraq.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said, “the announcement by the British government confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people about the president’s decision to increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”"
See also:
Juan Cole: "The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops", at Salon.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rumsfeld: The Undertaker's Tally

If you've a couple of hours to spare this weekend, I strongly recommend a visit to the ever-rewarding Tomdispatch, there to print out and read "The Undertaker's Tally"[Part 1 here and Part 2 here], an in-depth look at the political life of one Donald Rumsfeld, by the historian Roger Morris.

Rumsfeld's career, for Morris, serves as a useful peg upon which to hang a broader account of the formative years of the unravelling disaster that is current United States foreign policy. He casts a cold, clear and withering eye over not only the career of the former Pentagon chief, but also the cynical, ruthless rise of his neo-conservative fellow travellers. In doing so, he explains how Washington's power came to be the simultaneously calculating and chaotic force that it is today. Its a compelling, revealing and, in many ways, chilling insight into the inner workings of the systems - and the callous, mediocre people who run them - that dictate the fate of millions across the earth.

And if you've any time left after that, take a look at the new interview with veteran dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky over at the excellent Foreign Policy in Focus.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Audacity of Barack Obama

The mood around the 2008 US Presidential campaign of Barack Obama, though it only begins officially today, has already reached hysteric levels. Just some quick thoughts on this.

At this early stage it seems prudent to point out the inherent irrationality of basing our assessment of a politician’s merits on some vague, warm rhetoric. The relaxed, affable, sax-playing Bill Clinton presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the larger proportion infants, during his term in office, as Western sanctions strangled Iraq’s civilian population (thus strengthening Saddam). When challenged on the fact that half a million dead Iraqi infants was more than had been killed at Hiroshima, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said that the price was “
worth it”. This may not sit well with our image of Clinton the man, but it happened nevertheless.

One could make similar points about Tony Blair, and the lesson, with both Obama and our own David Cameron, is to ignore the froth and look closely at what’s actually happening. Obama and Cameron are apparently afraid of us doing just that, which is why almost nothing of substance in terms of policy proposals is being offered by either of them as yet. However, if you look closely, you can glean an insight into the political character of each. In the case of Obama, this little quote from an NBC interview discussing Iraq, caught my eye:

We’re not going to baby sit a civil war

This statement would sound entirely natural coming from any conservative Republican, both in its callousness and in its casually racist contempt for the Iraqi “babies” that the American adult is being forced - by its own benign if misguided nature - to nursemaid. Indeed, it could have been uttered by just about any imperial policymaker airily dismissing trouble with the natives on the periphery since the dawn of human civilisation.

Indeed, those who see Obama as offering a complete break with the dark days of the hoary old Bush administration should consider who shares his propensity for infantilising the imperial subjects. Here’s another great liberal hope,
Donald Rumsfeld:

Getting Iraq straightened out… was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ‘They're learning, and you're running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you're just barely touching it. You can't know when you're running down the street how many steps you're going to have to take. We can't know that, but we're off to a good start.

And apparently, Rumsfeld’s old boss, who once marketed himself as a unifying, compassionate conservative, likes the analogy as well. This from May 2004:

President Bush sought to rally Republican lawmakers around his Iraq plan Thursday, saying Iraqis are ready to "take the training wheels off" by assuming some political power. "He talked about 'time to take the training wheels off,'" said Rep. Deborah Pryce. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."

The notion that the Iraqis are infantile,
defective material unable or unwilling to make use of western munificence scarcely merits discussion, but for the record: the destruction of Iraqi society has come in no small part through our own actions. It was our sanctions and bombing of infrastructure that sent Iraq back into the third world, and the unprovoked invasion of 2003, the disastrous economic and political administration of the coalition, and the resulting chaos that turned it into a basket case.

All societies have sectarian and/or ethnic divisions, but they only come to blows when the social fabric unravels and the state itself fails. Plainly those individuals committing the sectarian killing in Iraq are responsible for their actions. But responsibility for the calamitous state of the country also falls on those states and statespersons whose backing of Saddam, sanctions, wars and general crimes and failures led to the destruction of the society and set the scene for the current bloodbath. Few societies could have suffered what Iraq has suffered at our hands in the past few decades without descending into bloody chaos.

To crown these achievements by elevating to the US Presidency a man who sees the destruction we have wrought as evidence of Iraqi infantilism, and to all but canonise the man as a liberal secular-saint, would be to dampen one of the few hopes that has arisen from the years since 9/11: namely that more people might have woken up to the real nature of western power. The emerging “Obamania” appears to teach us that many people have, sadly, learnt nothing at all from the events of recent years.
Update - 6 March 2007:
"How Barack Obama learned to love Israel" - Ali Abunimah

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Iraq's silent bombers

Over at Tomdispatch (a site I can’t recommend highly enough), Nick Turse presents one of the most important pieces of writing about the Iraq war I’ve seen in a long while; an in-depth analysis of the ongoing use of coalition air power.

According to a mortality survey conducted by the
Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, 13% of Iraqi deaths with an identifiable cause since the 2003 invasion were due to coalition air-strikes, which according to the survey’s results would equal around 78,000 deaths up to June last year.

Recall that in a counterinsurgency war, the coalition is not fighting an enemy spread out and exposed on an open battlefield and far from any population centres. It is fighting an enemy that resides within and indeed grows out of those population centres. With that in mind, the sheer tonnage of ordinance rained down on Iraqi cities, towns and villages, as described by Turse, is startling. For example, according to figures released by US Central Command, in 2006, 162 500-pound bombs and fifteen 2000-pound bombs were dropped on Iraqi targets.

These attacks are increasing, as snipers and roadside bombs drive the US out of the streets of Iraq and into the skies. In
Asia Times, Pepe Escobar reports that the doomed US-led “surge” offers “the dire prospect … of a devastating air war over Baghdad …. as counterinsurgency fails”. Turse points out that the escalation of the air war may already be underway:

For example, on January 9th, the U.S. unleashed its air power on Baghdad's Haifa Street, a "mostly Sunni Arab enclave of residential buildings and shops." According to the
Washington Post, "F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apache[ helicopter]s fired Hellfire missiles." Elsewhere in Iraq that day, according to Air Force reports, F-16s strafed targets near Bayji with cannon fire, while others dropped GBU-38s on targets near Turki Village; and F-15Es provided "close-air support" to troops near Basrah.”

“That same evening, back in the U.S., a broadcast of Fox News Channel's "Special Report with Brit Hume" offered a brief glimpse of the air war in a story by reporter David Macdougall who was, said Hume, "embedded with the Air Force in a location we cannot identify, where not only fighter jets, but bombers roared into the air headed for other targets in Iraq." Macdougall reported that the B-1B Lancer, the long-range bomber that carries the largest payload of weapons in the Air Force was, for the first time in over a year, again being employed in combat in Iraq.”

"These B-1 bombers were central to the raid. We're told they flew a ten-hour mission, and by the looks of their empty bomb bays, these planes dropped thousands of pounds of munitions. They bombed 25 targets deep inside Iraq,"

For those of us in Britain, focusing on the involvement of our own forces is of yet more importance than focusing on the conduct of our principle ally. So its worth noting that, for example,
Royal Air Force Tornado jets provided cover for the US Air Force in what is increasingly looking like a massacre of Iraqi tribesmen in Najaf last month. Whilst the precise nature of these events remain unclear, what is clear is the large proportion of Iraqi deaths caused by ongoing coalition air strikes, the ongoing use of air power, and its necessarily indiscriminate nature. Of course it should also be noted that all this occurs within the context of, and in defence of, a foreign occupation of Iraq which the population itself explicitly rejects.

And yet, despite both its ongoing use and substantial human cost, you will struggle to find any media reporting specifically on the use of coalition air power. It is, in effect, a story within the Iraq war that has been not so much forgotten as ignored altogether (though admittedly not by Iraqis, who don’t enjoy that luxury). What Turse reports is more or less the sum total of what little is known about the use of US air power, and I’m certainly not aware of any major reporting into the current role of the RAF, though apparently it does have some involvement. To appreciate the gravity of this, its sufficient to imagine any violent offensive carried out by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or al-Qaeda that left an estimated 78,000 people dead over 3 years and yet received effectively no western media coverage.

So I have a suggestion: get in touch with the editor of your newspaper or TV news programme of choice and politely ask them the following questions:

1. Are you aware that, according to research done by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, coalition air strikes have caused 13% of Iraqi casualties since March 2003?

2. Are you aware that the use of coalition air power is both ongoing and appears to be increasing as part of the US-led military “surge”?

3. What reports have you carried recently that focus on the use of coalition air power in Iraq and its effects on civilians?

4. Specifically, what reports have you carried on the involvement of the RAF?

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