Friday, June 29, 2007

The Blair Myth

My latest article, "The Blair Myth", is available at UKWatch.
"In spite of the heavy political weather that cast a shadow over the latter half of the Blair premiership, there exists across the spectrum of mainstream political discourse something approaching a personality cult where the departing British prime minister is concerned. This is based primarily on two widespread views of Blair: firstly, as a uniquely gifted politician, and, secondly, as a crusader for liberal values on the world stage. However, a review of the evidence exposes these views as having, at best, a limited grounding in reality."
Read the whole thing here.


Gordon Brown and Iraq

"There's an odd myth about Gordon Brown. His views on the war in Iraq are said to be unknown. Whether the myth is put out by Brownites to hint that change is imminent or by wishful thinkers on both left and right who desperately hope for a new Downing Street line on the Iraq disaster, it has no substance.It is not just that Brown was a member of the cabinet that decided on war. There is plenty of contemporary evidence that he was a wholehearted supporter, rather than a man who acquiesced in silence.
Two days before the House of Commons voted to attack Iraq, Brown endorsed the government case in measured terms on Breakfast With Frost. In cabinet he was more fervent. "Gordon launched a long and passionate statement of support for Tony's strategy," Robin Cook wrote in his memoirs of the last cabinet he attended.
In a dismal hint of his attitude to Europe - Nicolas Sarkozy, please note - Brown joined in the orgy of anti-French rhetoric that Downing Street orchestrated after Jacques Chirac said he was not yet ready to support a UN resolution for war. The then French president's statement saying he would cast a veto "tonight" was distorted into an alleged threat to block such a resolution at any point in the future. "Brown spoke animatedly about what France was saying - no to everything," Clare Short recalled in her memoir of the days leading up to the invasion."

"Brown must seize the day - and break with Bush now", by Jonathan Steele

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Guardian, Colombia and Venezuela: a paired example

Medialens have produced an excellent article detailing how the media have distorted recent events in Venezuela. The refusal of the Caracas government to renew a TV station’s license was portrayed as an attack on free speech, with the active role that station – RCTV – had played in a 2002 coup attempt against the democratic government either ignored or glossed over. The Medialens article is very useful in drawing together all the key facts to refute the Western media/political consensus on the RCTV affair. Its highly recommended reading.

Moving on from RCTV and looking more broadly at Chavez's Venezuela, the recent coverage from the Guardian has, I think, been worthy of particular scrutiny; both for the nature of the coverage and the fact that its coming from the left-hand edge of the MSM.

The Guardian's correspondent in the region, Rory Carroll, appears to have as much difficulty disguising his contempt for Chavez as
Dr Strangelove did controlling his right arm. A couple of Carroll’s pieces in January were positively dripping with scorn and, though he seems to have toned it down somewhat in more recent articles, a little bile still seems to manage to ooze its way out between the lines. Certainly no one can be in any doubt about Carroll's opinions on Venezuelan politics.

Here's one of Carroll’s less restrained articles from January, about as partisan a piece of reporting as you could hope to find. And here's another, where Carroll's analysis was that Chavez planned to turn Venezuela into a traditional Soviet state, backed with the claim that Chavez had come out publicly as a Communist. As I’ve mentioned here previously, I asked Carroll for a direct quote on this latter point and he suggested I'd find one in a transcript of the Presidential inauguration speech. I found the transcript. No quote. When challenged with this in a subsequent email, Carroll insisted that Chavez had called himself a communist “on television” and that “millions of Venezuelans” heard him. Yet still couldn't summon up a quote. An interesting episode.

A useful way of testing the Guardian's coverage on this subject has been provided to us in the form of Venezuela's next door neighbour, Colombia. Paired examples of this kind don't come up that often, and when they do they provide valuable subjects for research. One of these countries is backed to the hilt by our government and its allies, the other vehemently opposed. That makes events in Colombia of particular moral concern to us in the UK. So how does the Guardian's treatment of the two countries compare?

Amnesty International's recent
world report can be very helpful in making this comparison. Venezuela doesn't come out with a clean bill of health. Not by any means. But the verdict on Colombia is of a completely different order of magnitude. It is damning in the extreme. Yet the Guardian's deep concern for "freedom" and the rise of "authoritarianism" applies rather more strongly to the country that AI has less concerns about. Indeed, the Guardian appears more concerned by the shutting down of a TV station that tries to overthrow a democracy in Venezuela than by the murder of trade union activists by paramilitaries linked to a Colombian military armed by the UK. The Guardian does cover Colombia, and does not pretend that Colombia has no problems. But anyone who only knew what they read about these two countries in the Guardian, and who was then presented with the AI report, would be shocked to learn that it was Colombia, not Venezuela, with the materially worse human rights record. One might well question whether it is moral values and the objective facts that are determining the balance of the Guardian’s coverage, and not the political preference for one countries government over another.

This impression is only reinforced by last week's Guardian pull-out section on Columbia, co-authored by Carroll. In a letter to the paper,
Dr Andy Higginbottom, Senior lecturer in politics and human rights at Kingston University commented that

It is a commonplace but true that there are two Colombias, the Colombia of the establishment and the Colombia of the people. Unfortunately your Inside Colombia supplement (June 8) only entered the former, reproducing their self-serving and roseate view of the situation. They know that impunity works at many levels, and one of them is the massage of international public opinion. Despite occasional qualifying phrases, the supplement gave a remarkably pro-business outlook at a time when the country's own media are at last reporting just how complicit corporations have been in violence.

For the excluded majority, the landscape has barely changed under President Álvaro Uribe, only the degree of hypocrisy. There is supposed to be demobilisation of the rightwing paramilitaries, but last Tuesday the judiciary denied human rights victims any role in investigating the hundreds of crimes committed by the AUC. Freedom of expression is claimed, yet on Friday, teacher Juan Carlos Martinez was attacked by riot police and risks losing his left eye.

If trade unionists can now organise, why is it that last Wednesday armed thugs attacked the home of union leader Ernando Melan Cardona, shooting one son dead and wounding his partner and another son? Melan works for Coltejer, part of the Antioqueño group of businesses, featured in your supplement as some of “Colombia's finest prominent players”.

Colombia may be becoming safe for investors, but not for Colombians. Perhaps you could probe this conundrum? It is important, for have no doubt British corporations are also involved.

Looking at the supplement last week, it was certainly not clear to me whether it was part of the Guardian's news output or an advertisement sponsored or co-produced by some corporate interest or other (its articles do not appear on the Guardian website along with the paper’s news reporting). The involvement of the Guardian's regional correspondent in the authoring of a panglossian tribute to Colombia's successes - a tribute of unclear commercial/news reporting status – provides an noteworthy juxtaposition with the damning (and apparently not always fact-based) coverage of events in the country next door.

As I say, the respective treatments of the two countries by the Guardian would constitute an interesting topic for research.

Personally, I feel that events in Venezuela call for cautious optimism. After several successive election victories, Chavez's government has a huge popular mandate from the poor majority and the
evidence [pdf] suggests that the economic status of those people has been improving as a result of their government's policies. Both the fact of these economic changes and their popular ownership are to be welcomed.

It remains to be seen how Venezuelan politics, and the current government, will develop in the years to come. Obsequious tributes and hero-worship are not helpful in respect of any political figure – be it Chavez or anyone else – not least when history is still in the process of unfolding. But one can only be pleased to see what the people of Venezuela have achieved for themselves in recent years.
That being the case, it is deeply disappointing that the Guardian has chosen to cover of the affairs of Venezuela and the broader region in the way that it has. For a paper that has often shown great concern and compassion on third world poverty, its reaction to the successful implementation of policies combating this very issue has been surprising in its scornfulness and occasional outright slander. One does not ask the Guardian to share ones views. But one does at least hope that its output will be characterised by basic standards of intellectual honesty and moral concern. That it is failing so profoundly in this respect is, as I've said here, quite interesting and a good potential topic for research. But it is also, beyond this, really quite depressing for anyone concerned for the deprived majority in that region - people who have suffered so grievously at the hands of the West over the past five centuries and who deserve somewhat better from us than this.
As Higgenbottom points out, the elites that have tortured the majority in Latin America for so long “know that impunity works at many levels, and one of them is the massage of international public opinion”. Its sad to see that the leading left-liberal daily in the English speaking world has chosen to take on this particularly odious task.

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Conflict in Gaza: US Official says "I like this violence"

Over at War in Context, Paul Woodward homes in on the key quote from the recently leaked report [PDF] from UN Middle East Co-ordinator Alvaro de Soto. Soto reported to the UN Secretary General that
"...the US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fateh and Hamas -- so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much "I like this violence", referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because "it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas"." editor Tony Karon gets it in a nutshell:
"Coming, as he does, from Fox News, [White House spokesman] Tony Snow is obviously a deeply cynical fellow, but this takes some beating: Asked to comment Wednesday on the bloodbath in Gaza, he answered: “Ultimately, the Palestinians are going to have to sort out their politics and figure out which pathway they want to pursue — the pathway toward two states living peaceably side-by-side, or whether this sort of chaos is going to become a problem.”

Everyone following the conflict in Gaza knows full well that the reason for the violence is not that Palestinians have not “sorted out their politics” — they’ve made their political preferences abundantly clear in democratic elections, and later in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the Saudis. The problem is that the U.S. and the corrupt and self-serving warlords of Fatah did not accept either the election result or the unity government, and have conspired actively ever since to reverse both by all available means, including starving the Palestinian economy of funds, refusing to hand over power over the Palestinian Authority to the elected government, and arming and training Fatah loyalists to militarily restore their party’s power. Unfortunately, after three days of some of the most savage fighting ever seen in Gaza, that strategy now lies in tatters. Fatah is, quite simply, no longer a credible fighting force in Gaza, where it has long been in decline as a credible political force.

But Snow’s cynicism is hardly unexpected. Back in January, I wrote:

'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'
Read the rest here.

For background, see my previous article "Still Strangling Palestine" on UK Watch and "Elliot Abrams' Uncivil War" at Conflicts Forum.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

More on the Six Day War

Doubtless there'll be many retrospecitves this week on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War , so I'll post links to some of the better ones here.

Lets begin with the articles by David Remnick in the New Yorker and Sandy Tolan in Salon.
Tolan points out that "from the war of 1948 to the 2007 conflict in Gaza, Israel is often miscast as the vulnerable David in a hostile sea of Arab Goliaths". The reality has frequently, if not mostly, been the very reverse of this picture. As Tolan demonstrates, "the archives for the 1967 war, as with the documentary evidence from other Arab-Israeli wars, ... reveal a history far more complex, and far more interesting, than the inflated portrayal of Arabs poised to crush Israel."

Lots of useful information in these two articles, but perhaps most striking of all is this chilling quote in Renwick's piece, from Israel's iconic military and political figure Moshe Dayan. Speaking to Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, Dayan said of Israel's military expansionism:

"The situation between us is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes. But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother. The initial act will mean nothing to them. You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you."

Save for Dov Weisglass' interview with Ha'retz on the fraudulant Gaza withdrawal of 2005, I can think of few franker expressions of the Israeli colonial project's ugly, racist malevolance than this from Dayan.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Israel, South Africa and Apartheid

Four decades on from the Six Day War, editor Tony Karon writes on the enduring legacy of that seminal episode of the Arab-Israeli conflict - the apartheid occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
As a South African Jew who grew up during Apartheid, Karon is well placed to discuss how a Pretoria regime "rooted in vicious anti-Semitism and explicit admiration for the Nazis [came] to recognize Israel and its local supporters as a fighting ally", and to examine how Israel itself brought its own system of apartheid to bear on the occupied Palestinians.

An excerpt:

"For Jews of my generation who came of age during the anti-apartheid struggle, there was no shaking the nagging sense that what Israel was doing in the West Bank was exactly what the South African regime was doing in the townships. Even as we waged our own intifada against apartheid in South Africa, we saw daily images of young Palestinians facing heavily armed Israeli police in tanks and armored vehicles with nothing more than stones, gasoline bombs and the occasional light weapon; a whole community united behind its children who had decided to cast off the yoke under which their parents suffered. And when Yitzhak Rabin, more famous as a signatory on the Oslo Agreement, ordered the Israeli military to systematically break the arms of young Palestinians in the hope of suppressing an entirely legitimate revolt, thuggery had become a matter of national policy. It was only when some of those same young men began blowing themselves up in Israeli restaurants and buses that many Israel supporters were once again able to construe the Israelis as the victim in the situation; during the intifada of the 1980s they could not question who was David and who was Goliath. Even for those of us who had grown up in the idealism of the left-Zionist youth movements, Israel had become a grotesque parody of everything we stood for."

Read the rest here. Karon has an engaging, personal style that makes him a pleasure to read, and his insights are sharp and well-informed.

See also Amnesty International's scathing condemnation of Israel's occpation in its latest report.

Ha'aretz quotes Amnesty's U.K. director Kate Allen, speaking on the release of the report. Allen says that "Israel's ... legitimate security concerns are no excuse for blatant violations of international law, nor the mistreatment of thousands of Palestinians in a massive program of collective punishment".

"The Palestinian economy has virtually collapsed under the weight of harsh restrictions by Israel ... This has only fuelled despair and poverty among a young and increasingly radicalized Palestinian population".

On Israel's mobile checkpoints, which AI said had directly caused deaths by imposing unnecessary delays on people trying to get to hospital, Allen said that "Contrary to official claims about Israel's overall security needs, the checkpoints and restricted West Bank roads appear to exist mainly for the benefit of Israel's settlements - settlements that are themselves illegal".

While talk of the departing Tony Blair's "legacy" has inevitably focused on Iraq, Britain's support for Israel's repulsive treatment of the Palestinians should by no means be forgotton. I've written more about this here.

Thanks to the tenacious JamieSW for the Ha'aretz and AI links. Check out his blog, The Heathlander, where there's been some good stuff on Israel/Palestine recently.