Saturday, March 29, 2008

L'entente execrable

A couple of quick thoughts about the British media's view of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, wife of the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, during their state visit to the UK this week. The President's wife has been the subject of some deeply obsequious coverage right across the board, wherein such weighty matters as her choice of shoes and general deportment have been discussed with breathless excitement and in minute detail.

One question we might ask ourselves is whether the husband of a female French president, no matter how immaculately turned out, would have received anything like this kind of attention. One suspects not. That the President's wife is widely and freely assessed for her value as an ornament, gives us a pretty chilling measure of the strength of misogyny that remains in Britain today (or at least amongst these several journalists).

Another question is this: if Sarkozy were not such a great Anglophile, who - as I wrote here - is widely welcomed in Britain and the US as the man to improve the backward French and make them more like us, would his wife still be fawned over in quite the same manner? If Sarkozy were a traditional French nationalist, publicly challenging US-UK foreign policy and the wisdom of post-Thatcherite economics, is it not likely that his wife would either have been ignored, or portrayed as snooty, prim, aloof etc. etc.?

"Britain", we are told "has fallen in love with Carla". Actually, I suspect that if you polled Britain to test this assertion, you'd find that most people don't know Carla Bruni Sarkozy is. In these articles, we can take "Britain" to mean 'journalists covering this story'. And I suspect that the real love is a broader political one, for her husband, who has finally done what every jingoistic member of our political class for the last thousand years has dreamt a Frenchman would do, and admitted they were wrong about everything, and we were right. So at a third level, the love here is self-love.

I can't imagine that the simpering court scribes we might have expected to find hovering around some medieval monarchy would have portrayed the consort of a friendly head-of-state in a substantively different way (her hair! her shoes! her exquisite poise!). And I suspect this collective display of journalistic forelock tugging is as much an expression of political/cultural preference for a neo-liberal ally as it is one of latent, thoughtless sexism.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Crusaders for Democracy

Martha Raddatz, ABC News: Let me go back to the Americans. Two-thirds of Americans say [the Iraq war]'s not worth fighting, and they're looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives.

Vice President Dick Cheney: So?

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama on race and foreign policy

Further to my post of yesterday, you can watch Obama's whole speech on the comments of his former pastor here.

The Israel line is almost a throwaway one. The speech focuses on the issue of race domestically in the US. Obama had been called upon to condemn his former pastor, who had said "God Damn America" for the way it had treated, and continues to treat, its black citizens. Obama spent a few minutes doing so, but spent the bulk of the speech putting Rev.Wright's comments in the context of the grave, historic injustices of the African-American experience.And then he went further, identifying the problems that face America's white working class, and noting that the political solutions for all those who are not getting their fair share of America's prosperity - black and white - lie in recognising their common interests and utilising their collective strength.

So on race, and Wright's comments on race, Obama had it both ways. And I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism. While condemning Wright's specific words, Obama made it clear that those words were rooted in a clearly understandable source of anger. Personally, I think words of condemnation for Wright would have stuck in my throat. His anger at the situation of Black Americans was perfectly justified. But perhaps Obama sees this as a battle one can afford to lose, in the interests of winning the wider conceptual war.

However, that was all in respect of Wright's comments on domestic policy. In respect of his comments on foreign policy, which is what yesterday's post was about, Obama's condemnation goes entirely unqualified. If he had given as gentle and as eloquent a contextualisation of what Wright had said about US crimes overseas as he had on the subject of race politics in the US, my criticism here would have been muted. But in a 40 minute speech, Obama offered a swift condemnation, and no explanation whatever, of why Wright would view 9/11 as a consequence (albeit a disgusting and inexcusable one) of decades of US aggression abroad.

One of the deepest roots of the imperialist "war on terror" - whether as a mistake from a US point of view or as a crime from an objectively moral point of view - is the failure, or even the refusal, to understand the malignant role the US has played in the lives of so many people across the world. Hence the idea that "they" could only possibly "hate us" because "they hate our freedoms". Hence the idea that our new set of military adventures abroad could only be a good thing for all concerned, save for "the bad guys". Failure to so much as acknowledge that America has done wrong after catastrophic wrong to others, continuing to indulge in jingoistic conceits about the greatest country on Earth, as Obama does with something approaching a casual abandon, is akin to being an 'enabler' to an alcoholic, when what he needs is not just one more drink for the road, but a long, hard look in the mirror.

There is a danger when liberals draw lines in the sand, demarcating what one can and can not say politically; as Obama did when he declared Wright's comments to be utterly beyond the pale. The danger is that things which urgently need to be said are rendered unsayable, and more importantly, unthinkable, on the grounds of political expediency. Obama's was about the most progressive speech I've heard from a major US politician in my lifetime. So much so that many mainstream commentators have described it as positively daring; courageous in its candour and frankness. If, even in a speech like that, the merest honest reflection on the unambiguously evil things that we know the US has done abroad is absolutely out of the question, then the US is a long, long way from a foreign policy that reaches so much as the lowest threshold of decency. If even Barak Obama can't tell the truth about America's role in the world, in a speech which was quite marvellous in parts, then who will? And if American politicians, even the most progressive of them, can't so much as acknowledge Americas past crimes, then what kind of "hope" do they really offer to the traditional victims, in Palestine, Iraq, Africa and elsewhere?

I'll say this much: if Obama can make a speech on foreign policy as (relatively) enlightened, honest, humane and forward thinking as this one was on race, then we may just be onto something with him. If he can't, or won't, then we should be even more reserved about his candidature than we ought to be already.

[Here's a useful assessment of Obama's evolving position on the Middle East, by Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco]

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama and Wright: Beyond the Pale

Barak Obama yesterday described the "view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam" as "profoundly distorted".

Yet that "profoundly distorted" view is precisely the view of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, as I noted here earlier this month. And as I've noted elsewhere, the view that Islamist terrorism is either exascerbated or caused by Western foreign policy is simply the consensus view of security agencies and experts across the board.

It says something rather frightening about how far to the right US political culture has gone, that views held by people as straightforwardly mainstream and liberal as John Dugard (not only a UN Special Rapporteur, but also a professor of international law who has served as a judge on the International Court of Justice) must be denounced and consigned to the fringes of debate, even by the most progressive Presidential candidate the US has produced in some time. But its a sad fact that, in relation to much of the rest of the world, American political debate simply occurs on another planet altogether.

I'd still prefer Obama to win the nomination, and the Presidency. But I have to say its very much a case of beggers can't be choosers. Perhaps a victory for him will bring us a little closer to the day where simple truths are not decried as obscenities in US political culture. But this latest from him, whether he really believes it or not, is very far from encouraging.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mission Accomplished



"Five years after the outbreak of the war in Iraq, the humanitarian situation in most of the country remains among the most critical in the world. Because of the conflict, millions of Iraqis have insufficient access to clean water, sanitation and health care. The current crisis is exacerbated by the lasting effects of previous armed conflicts and years of economic sanctions.


Despite limited improvements in security in some areas, armed violence is still having a disastrous impact. Civilians continue to be killed in the hostilities. The injured often do not receive adequate medical care. Millions of people have been forced to rely on insufficient supplies of poor-quality water as water and sewage systems suffer from a lack of maintenance and a shortage of engineers.


Many families include people who have been forced by the conflict to flee their homes, leaving those left behind with the daily struggle of trying to make ends meet. A sustained economic crisis marked by high unemployment further aggravates their plight."

Iraq: No Let Up In The Humanitarian Crisis - International Committee of the Red Cross

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Supporting the two-state settlement

The below is an email sent to the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland. I'll post up any substantive reply I get from him.

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Dear Jonathan

Hope you're well. I was a little puzzled by a couple of things you said in your article this morning about the two state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a settlement which I'm very much in favour of, btw).

You appear to characterise Israel and the US as accepting the two-state settlement, and Hamas rejecting it.

But here you can watch Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas hardliner, repeatedly and explicitly favouring a Palestinian state on the 67 borders, and reaffirming Hamas' agreement with the position of Fatah and with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

This is by no means the first time a Hamas figure has said this. Perhaps they're lying about their true intentions. But surely we can't simply ignore them or proceed as though they haven't said what they've said.

By contrast, here, you can see what Israel and the US's vision of the two-state settlement looks like.

Note that the "Security Wall" and major settlement blocks, which Israel has repeatedly said it will keep in any final settlement, sever East Jerusalem from the West Bank, effectively decapitating any Palestinian state and leaving it stillborn. Note also that, unlike the Palestinian position, this is a clear and explicit rejection of international law.

In fact, its effectively a rejection of the two-state settlement. What it is is one-state-plus-bantustans.

I'm familiar with your writing over many years, so I know that you are concerned for the victims of this conflict, that you are keen to see justice prevail, and that, like me, you see international law as the basis for a workable settlement. However, there's a dissonance between the facts and your view of the situation which I don't think helps us to get to our agreed destination.

I'm reminded of Sharon's withdrawal of colonists from Gaza in 2005, and your characterisation of that move at the time as an olive branch that could be the beginnings of a peace deal, even as Sharon's chief adviser explicitly stated that the object of the exercise was to destroy the peace process, "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and ... prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem".

If we're going to proceed to the settlement we both want to see, I think its important to be as clear-sighted as possible about the real positions of the various actors. Especially when these aren't matters of subjective interpretation so much as known and stated facts.

One more thing. In your article, you appeared to advocate Israel making peace with Syria as a way to help cut Hamas out of the equation. Do I have that right? Its just that Hamas is an elected representative of the Palestinians. Isn't there a moral barrier to excluding the Palestinians' elected representatives from decisions about their fate? And in practical terms, wouldn't that increase the chances of the final settlement being further from the 67 borders and international law, and closer to the one-state-plus-bantustans that the US and the Israelis advocate?

I write to you not to confront but to exchange views, so I'd be very interested in any response you might have the time to provide.

Best wishes
David Wearing

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Its the occupation, stupid

Yesterday's sickening massacre of teenage boys at a religious school in Jerusalem is now being claimed by Hamas.*

This is particularly depressing, coming after Hamas' suicide attack on Dimona last month, because it represents a defeat for moderates within the group who were agitating for a shift of accent away from military operations and toward political solutions. These moves have been rejected at every turn by Israel and the West - for example, by starving the people of Gaza as punishment for voting for Hamas in an election, or by plotting a coup against the elected Palestinian government. It now appears that the small opportunity to take a step closer to peace that was offered by possible Hamas moderation is beginning to fade.

Of course, Hamas is far more of a threat to Israeli state power (not the Israeli population) as a political group that refuses to relinquish its people's rights than it is as a group of terrorist killers of innocent people. Hamas' reversion to these attacks, after a several months long unilateral ceasefire which held up reasonably well, is the predictable consequence of Israel and its allies slamming the door shut on Hamas moderation. Blood flows as a consequence.


Over the next few days, weeks and months, we can expect yesterday's massacre to be ruthlessly exploited for every ounce of propaganda value by the Israeli government and its apologists. A huge effort will be made to cast this attack as what Israeli spokesman Mark Regev called "a defining moment", placing it at the centre of the conflict and indeed portraying it, and acts of terrorism like it, as the reason for the conflict.


Terrorism is not the reason for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason is the occupation, of which terrorism is an ugly and entirely predictable symptom.


Let me quote at length from January's report by UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard (the whole report is absolutely required reading for anyone with a serious interest in this issue). Remember, the following is not drawn from a radical Islamist source or from some obscure left-wing publication. It is the considered opinion of a 71 year old South African professor of international law, who has served as a judge on the International Court of Justice and who has written extensively on South African apartheid.


In his capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Dugard reported as follows:


"Terrorism is a scourge, a serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. No attempt is made in the reports [presented to the UN by Dugard] to minimize the pain and suffering it causes to victims, their families and the broader community. Palestinians are guilty of terrorizing innocent Israeli civilians by means of suicide bombs and Qassam rockets. Likewise the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are guilty of terrorizing innocent Palestinian civilians by military incursions, targeted killings and sonic booms that fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians. All these acts must be condemned and have been condemned. Common sense, however, dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation. History is replete with examples of military occupation that have been resisted by violence - acts of terror. The German occupation was resisted by many European countries in the Second World War; the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) resisted South Africa's occupation of Namibia; and Jewish groups resisted British occupation of Palestine - inter alia, by the blowing up of the King David Hotel in 1946 with heavy loss of life, by a group masterminded by Menachim Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in their historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistence as a precondition. Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation."


"A further comment on terrorism is called for. In the present international climate it is easy for a State to justify its repressive measures as a response to terrorism - and to expect a sympathetic hearing. Israel exploits the present international fear of terrorism to the full. But this will not solve the Palestinian problem. Israel must address the occupation and the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law it engenders, and not invoke the justification of terrorism as a distraction, as a pretext for failure to confront the root causes of Palestinian violence - the occupation."


What follows inescapably from this is that anyone with a genuine desire to ensure that atrocities like that committed yesterday never happen again will be redoubling their efforts to campaign for the end of the illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - "the root cause of Palestinian violence". Some, like the Israeli government, will use yesterday's atrocity as "a pretext for failure" to end that occupation. They will hasten their continuing colonisation of stolen land, and blame the consequences of their crimes for their failure to end those crimes - a wonderfully absurd and self-serving piece of propagandist non-logic. We can only conclude from this that the Israeli government has little more respect for Israeli life than it does for Palestinian life. It accepts Israeli deaths from Palestinian terrorism, the "inevitable consequence" of its policies, as a price worth paying in exchange for the prime real estate it is stealing from the Palestinians, in flagrant breach of international law.


Israel-Palestine is not complicated. Its "root cause" is the theft, occupation and systematic crushing of an innocent civilian population by the Israeli state (a catastrophe described in heart-rending detail here by a group of leading aid agencies) in epic and serial breaches of international law and common morality. The solution is well known - the immediate and total end of the occupation, and a Palestinian state with fully equal rights to the Israeli state being established on the whole of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip - i.e. Israel's immediate adherence with international law.


And there is a single and straightforward test of a person's seriousness when they talk about an end to this conflict. Are they focusing their efforts on effecting the solution just described? Or are they finding reasons to shift the focus elsewhere? Judge the verbal and policy responses to yesterdays events, from politicians and commentators, on that basis.

*[update - there's some confusion in the press this afternoon about whether this claim of responsibility was genuine, as it was originally reported].

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gaza: crushing the ants

"The more vulgar apologists for U.S. and Israeli crimes solemnly explain that, while Arabs purposely kill people, the U.S. and Israel, being democratic societies, do not intend to do so. Their killings are just accidental ones, hence not at the level of moral depravity of their adversaries. That was, for example, the stand of Israel's High Court when it recently authorized severe collective punishment of the people of Gaza by depriving them of electricity (hence water, sewage disposal, and other such basics of civilized life).

The same line of defense is common with regard to some of Washington's past peccadilloes, like the destruction in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The attack apparently led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but without intent to kill them, hence not a crime on the order of intentional killing -- so we are instructed by moralists who consistently suppress the response that had already been given to these vulgar efforts at self-justification.

To repeat once again, we can distinguish three categories of crimes: murder with intent, accidental killing, and murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent. Israeli and U.S. atrocities typically fall into the third category. Thus, when Israel destroys Gaza's power supply or sets up barriers to travel in the West Bank, it does not specifically intend to murder the particular people who will die from polluted water or in ambulances that cannot reach hospitals. And when Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of the al-Shifa plant, it was obvious that it would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Human Rights Watch immediately informed him of this, providing details; nevertheless, he and his advisers did not intend to kill specific people among those who would inevitably die when half the pharmaceutical supplies were destroyed in a poor African country that could not replenish them.

Rather, they and their apologists regarded Africans much as we do the ants we crush while walking down a street. We are aware that it is likely to happen (if we bother to think about it), but we do not intend to kill them because they are not worthy of such consideration. Needless to say, comparable attacks by 'Araboushim' in areas inhabited by human beings would be regarded rather differently. "

Noam Chomsky - The Most Wanted List: International Terrorism - 26 February 2008

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