Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Naomi Klein on Barack Obama

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

US: Iraq will be nothing less than a democracy, even if it isn't one

Quote of the week:

"It is undeniable that, compared to the situation prevailing under the Saddam Hussein regime, political participation and debate have increased in Iraq. This is a result of the recognition on the part of many Iraqis that political compromise and tolerance are the only way to hold the country together—and the clear understanding that the US will not accept anything less than a democracy in Iraq (even if this is confined to shallow institutions or even a façade)."

Katerina Dalacoura, ‘US Democracy Promotion in the Arab Middle East Since 11 September 2001: A Critique’, International Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 5 (2005), pp. 963–79.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Iran and Israel: challenging the propaganda

Last Friday, the Guardian published the following letter:

"John Pilger claims that "Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'".

There have been competing translations of his words, but it is important to note that, while a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of "informing" everyone of the "falsity" of the claim, Ahmadinejad himself has been relishing the enhanced status he enjoys in Iran and certain quarters of the Muslim world as a result of the widespread belief that he did, indeed, threaten to wipe Israel off the map. Moreover, within Iran, banners featuring the English translation that Mr Pilger disputes have been photographed draped over government buildings, as well as over Shahab-3 missiles featured in official military parades.

It seems that President Ahmadinejad is successful at satisfying two distinct audiences: those at home who believe they have a leader brave enough to call for the destruction of Israel; and those in the west who have an ideological objection to recognising that Iran has threatened Israel, no matter what the evidence to the contrary."
Adel Darwish
Director, Just Journalism

My response was published in this morning's paper:

"Adel Darwish of the pro-Israeli lobby group Just Journalism says (Letters, August 8) that "a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of 'informing' everyone of the 'falsity' of the claim" that Iran's president threatened to attack and destroy Israel. This is a funny way of saying that people who actually speak Farsi have offered a correct translation of Ahmadinejad's words.

Darwish neglects to mention that as soon as the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad's words began to circulate, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has ultimate authority in Iran) stated unequivocally that "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country". Darwish also refrains from explaining why we should believe that a regime which has done everything to preserve itself over the past three decades should suddenly commit collective suicide by attacking Israel. All in all, it's quite a story."
David Wearing

(I've added some links in the above two letters here, for background).

The Guardian editors amended my letter so that it described Just Journalism as "pro-Israeli", where my own choice of words in the original letter was "pro-Israeli state". The distinction is material. As I've written here in another context, its important not to conflate the government and the people when talking about a given country. So for example, it is no more "pro-Britain" to support the policies of Gordon Brown's government than it is "anti-Britain" to criticise them, as though criticism of the government's actions constituted some sort of racism against the British.

The "pro Israel / anti Israel" dichotomy is essentially a propaganda tool which apologists for the Israeli government use to avoid reasoned discussion of the factual record (unsurprisingly, since the facts hardly support their political positions). As Noam Chomsky has said many times "those who call themselves "supporters of Israel" are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration".

I should have made it clear to the Guardian editors that, whatever other changes they made, I wanted to insist on the correct terminology in this instance. The amendment they've made means that the propaganda terminology has been reinforced in the public discourse, and I certainly didn't want to be responsible for that. I'm pleased that the letter was published, but still, a lesson learnt here.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Background on the South Ossetia conflict

Some good background on the South Ossetia conflict is provided by Tony Karon at Time Magazine, Thomas de Waal at the Observer, and Mark Almond for the Guardian. The broader context of the "new Cold War" between NATO and Russia, is set out in The Nation by Stephen Cohen (whose book "Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia" is an essential component of any meaningful understanding of modern world history).

At the end of the Cold War, US President Bush I pledged to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not take advantage of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact to expand itself eastwards. Historically, the Russians have suffered repeated attacks through Eastern Europe - most recently from the Nazis, losing 20 million lives in its defence - so the pledge was of obvious importance. Nevertheless, the United States broke its promise almost immediately, enacting an effective military encirclement of Russia under Presidents Clinton and Bush II, thus giving the lie to the claim that NATO was always a defensive alliance.

Noam Chomsky noted recently that "[i]f NATO had been developed to defend the West against the USSR, it would have been dissolved when the USSR collapsed. If, on the other hand, the goal was to extend the dominance of the US and its allies and clients, it would not only remain but would expand its membership and range of actions [which is] exactly [what] has happened.".

It is also worth mentioning that under IMF (i.e. US Treasury) tutelage, the Russian economy was destroyed by a wave of reckless privatisations and deregulations, leading into a
depression worse even than that suffered by the US in the 1930s, from which Russia has only begun to recover under Putin. That recovery has been characterised by a general resolve to no longer be history's victim, as one might expect from one of the traditional great powers.

It is in this wider historical context, of a western alliance pushing up hard against Russia and an economically resurgent Moscow pushing back, that current events need to be understood.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been lobbying energetically for entry into NATO, encouraged by the US but in the face of opposition from Germany, amongst others, who are in no mood to jeopardise relations with Russia, not least since they rely on it for imports of gas for their power stations. What we may have seen in recent days is a reckless attempt by Saakashvili to force the issue of NATO membership by dragging the Western alliance into a shooting war.

Though formally a part of Georgia, South Ossetia has had the status of an autonomous region since a civil war in the early 1990s, and is now largely administered
by Russia with which it has very close ties. Ideally, South Ossetians would like to unify themselves with North Ossetia, on the Russian side of the border. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossentian secessionists have been rumbling on for some time, but on Friday Georgia decided to take the latest skirmishes as sufficient provocation to invade the region and reassert its authority there by force.

It seems highly probable that this action was planned well in advance. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was at the Beijing Olympics at the time of the invasion, possibly leading Georgia to believe (however foolishly) that it could catch Russia off-guard. And the fact that Georgian troops assisting in the occupation of Iraq pulled out of that US-led mission almost immediately to join the fray at home surely indicates foreknowledge on Washington's part.

If that's correct, it was a both a cynical gamble and a foolish one. Cynical, because events in Chechnya over the last 15 years, for example, will have made it plain that Russia would react to any challenge to its regional dominance decisively and with extreme brutality. The Georgian government will have banked on this, so that it could then paint itself as the victim of Russian aggression, even though it was Saakashvili who initiated this sharp escalation of the conflict from border skirmishes to open warfare by launching "a massive artillery assault on the town of Tskhinvali, which has no purely military targets and whose residents, the Georgians say, lest we forget, are their own citizens", quoting de Waal. Portraying itself as the innocent victim, the Georgian government could then cry out for international assistance, and plead a stronger case for NATO membership as a necessity to defend itself.

And foolish because unless Washington actually planned for, or Tiblisi genuinely expected, some sort of military intervention from
NATO - a pretty outlandish assumption - it was plain that Russia would crush the Georgian forces swiftly and with ease, thus tightening its grip over South Ossetia and probably Abkhazia (another pro-Russian breakaway region of Georgia) as well.

As a leading member of NATO, and one always ready to team up with the US against the continental European members, Britain immediately took sides in the conflict. Reuters reports:

"At the request of Russia, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in New York but failed to reach consensus early Friday on a Russian-drafted statement. The council concluded it was at a stalemate after the US, Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides "to renounce the use of force," council diplomats said."

From a British point of view, we can expect most media, politicians and commentators to fall into line, with Russia portrayed as the sole aggressor. One Sky News presenter opened his interview with some rent-a-pundit yesterday by demanding "What on earth does Russia think its doing?", which might have been a fair question if it had been followed by a query as to what Georgia thought it was doing picking a fight with the same Russian army that laid waste to Chechnya in the 1990s, and what the US thought it was doing by helping the Georgian government launch itself into this foolish adventure to begin with. But faith in the state religion that war is never "our" fault remains strong, even after Iraq, so these questions will rarely be asked.

The fact is that all sides have shown contempt for human life in pursuit of unworthy objectives. For Washington and its lapdogs, the goal has been strategic advantage in Central Asia; for the Georgian government, the patronage of a wealthy superpower; for
Saakashvili more personally, the chance to reinvent himself after recent domestic troubles as a national hero; and for Russia, the instilling of fear into anyone in its backyard who dares to challenge its supremacy (call it state terrorism, as long as you're prepared to recognise that we're not averse to such behaviour ourselves).

In amongst this geo-strategic manoeuvring, the lives of Georgians, Ossentians and Russians have been mere pawns to be casually disposed of, underlining once again the old maxim of international relations; that the strong do as they please while the weak suffer as they must.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hiroshima: 63 years on

"Even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that ... Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. Quoted by John Pilger, "The lies of Hiroshima live on..."

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Friday, August 01, 2008

George Monbiot on a nuclear Iran

George Monbiot had a good article on the Iran nuclear issue in the Guardian earlier this week, wherein he identified the bottom line: that if Iran does want nuclear weapons, the reasons will most likely have to do with the clear security threats that it faces. Aside from the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons and those of the UNSC P5, who are obliged to disarm under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the same treaty they wave at Iran) but refuse to do so, Monbiot could also have mentioned that Iran has Pakistan and India's weapons in its neighbourhood as well, plus US bases/allies in practically every neighbouring country and US warships in the Persian Gulf. Plus the US has invaded and occupied two of Iran's neighbours, justifying those actions with similar accusations to those now made against Tehran. And Israeli and US politicians continue to implicitly or explicitly threaten to attack Iran militarily (threats of force being illegal under the UN charter).

But I appreciate that newspaper columnists have to work within the constraints of space, and Monbiot’s article was focused on upholding the international mechanisms for non-proliferation and reminding us of Britain's own flaunted obligations in that regard. So the above isn't a criticism, more an addition to the point he was making in the article.

While I wholly agree with the main thrust of the article, I’d respectfully take issue with a couple of points Monbiot makes within his argument. He tries to portray his position as being on a sensible middle ground between Western governments who say Iran definitely does and “some anti-war campaigners” who say it definitely does not have a nuclear weapons program. But in fact he offers no challenge to the position of the former group; only to the latter. He actually seems pretty certain such a program exists, and that's a highly problematic stance.

Personally, I don’t say unequivocally that Iran does not want the bomb. I note for example Israeli historian Martin van Creveld's statement that, given the security threats mentioned above, Iran would be "crazy" not to build a nuclear weapon. But nor do I think we can state unequivocally that Iran does have a nuclear program, or even say (as Monbiot seems to) that we can pretty much assume that it does. Its important (a) to acknowledge that we don't know one way or the other, and (b) to also note the evidence that and reasons why Iran might not have such a program. These remain just as significant as the evidence that and reasons why Iran would have a weapons program. And one can't overstate the importance of looking at this particular topic in as balanced and accurate a way as possible, given what's at stake.

Monbiot accuses some anti-war folk of “clutching” at the recent US National Intelligence Estimate's (the consensus opinion of all US intelligence agencies) conclusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. He points out that the NIE also said that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are such that if it decided to start a weapons program it could do so quite swiftly. Fair enough. But its hardly valid to skip lightly over the difference between having a weapons program and not having one (but being able to start one quickly) as though the difference between the two doesn't exist at all. Moreover, Monbiot is failing to join the dots between this and his overall argument (that Iran wants the bomb as a deterrent). Whether the difference between Iran having a peaceful nuclear program and having a weapons program is a substantial one or not depends on the security environment. To the extent that the West continues to start wars all over the Middle East, fill the region with troops, military bases and aircraft carriers, arms its allies to the teeth and threaten war on anyone who challenges its hegemony, then yes, it becomes increasingly likely that the difference between a peaceful and a non-peaceful Iranian nuclear program will be an academic one. Monbiot could have drawn this into his overall argument if he'd seen what appears to me to be a fairly obvious connection.

Monbiot says that the International Atomic Energy Agency has many questions outstanding in relation to Iran's activities. But he should also have mentioned – because (as I point out above) it is not exactly irrelevant - that the IAEA has also said there is no evidence of a weapons program existing. What we cannot do is, to use Hans Blix's memorable phrase, turn question marks into exclamation marks in respect of this issue. That takes us into the same territory of false logic as the pre-Iraq war US and UK governments and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. People are not convicted on suspicion; there’s a very good reason why the burden of proof is on the party making the accusation and not on the party being accused.

(It is also, I regret to say, a little cheap of Monbiot to declare – with an adjective substituting for a properly functioning argument - that people citing a strong source of evidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program – the NIE - are in some way desperately “clutching” at something flimsy. When the IAEA and the NIE both tell us that Iran is not making nukes, that has a good deal of authority, and for Monbiot to challenge this he needs to offer better arguments than these)

Monbiot says, rightly in my view, that "those of us who oppose an attack on Iran are under no obligation to accept [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad's claims of peaceful intent". However, as Juan Cole has pointed out, "the [Iranian] Supreme Jurisprudent has given a fatwa against having or using nuclear weapons as illicit in Islamic law. You can't acknowledge that Iran is a dictatorial theocracy and then turn around and say that his fatwa is irrelevant."

Recall that it is the Supreme Jurisprudent, not Ahmedinejad, who in ultimate charge of Iranian government policy. Note also that Khamenei's power is not simply material; it also rests on his credibility as an Islamic cleric. To flagrantly breach his own explicit ruling would clearly diminish his clerical and therefore his political standing, and that's something he'd have to take into account if he decided that Iran should have the bomb. That's not to say he would never do it, but its a non-trivial barrier for him to overcome, which may mitigate against it happening. Again, this is not something we can simply ignore.

Monbiot asks "Why would a country with such reserves of natural gas and so great a potential for solar power suffer sanctions and the threat of bombing to make fuel it could buy from other states, if it accepted the UN's terms?" There are three answers to this.

First, it would clearly make far more economic sense for Iran to maximise the amount of oil and gas that it can sell on the international markets rather than hand out at subsidised rates to its own people. That's should be fairly plain. Yes, it could (and should) address this via renewable energy. But Iran's hardly the only nation on the planet that's woefully behind the curve on that issue.

Second, Iran may want to assume the position of "nuclear ambiguity": not having the weapons, but being in the position where its enemies are aware that it could assemble them in short order, and are deterred from attacking it as a result.

But third, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Iranian ruling class are highly ambitious; aspiring to the status of regional power in accordance with their nation's historic role. Iran's willingness to stare down the West and insist on nothing less than its entitlements under the NPT needs to be seen in that context. If you look at the rhetoric, you see a recurring theme of Iran insisting on its "rights". This subtext is key, in my view. What Tehran is really insisting on is its desired status as a serious player on the international stage. Using solar power does not offer Iran the opportunity to make this sort of a stand. The NPT does.

So I would caution against ascribing a very high degree of probability to the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Absent any certain knowledge, and with evidence pointing in both directions, Monbiot’s approach needs to be more circumspect. Those best placed to judge say there is no evidence of such a program, and much of the Iranian behaviour which Monbiot cites as indicating the existence of that program can be plausibly explained in another way. I should neither be surprised nor unsurprised to learn for certain that Iran is trying to build a bomb. The fact is that we don't know, and in my view we can't call this in either direction with any serious level of confidence. Given the dangerous nature of the current stand-off between Iran and the West, a high degree of circumspection is essential to keep the temperature of this issue at a non-threatening level.

I should conclude by saying that I acknowledge Monbiot’s sound intentions to prevent a war with Iran (which would make the bloodbath in Iraq look like a tea party) and to hold our own governments to account for their role in nuclear proliferation. But I feel that his speculation on current Iranian activities leaves a little bit to be desired. He may actually be undermining his own aims by propagating the myth that Iran definitely or almost certainly does have a nuclear weapons program. It is important to fully acknowledge the fact that this accusation is a long way from being proven; not least because many thousands of lives may depend on how that question is answered.

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