Friday, May 22, 2009

Noam Chomsky on Torture and the Myth of American Innocence

As President Obama and former Vice President Cheney debate the Bush administration's record of torture and kidnapping, most notoriously at Guantánamo Bay, Noam Chomksy places the discussion in some important historical context:

"In the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost reaching $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy, who shows that the methods surfaced with little change in Abu Ghraib. There is no hyperbole when Jennifer Harbury entitles her penetrating study of the U.S. torture record Truth, Torture, and the American Way. It is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the sewer lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."

Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did introduce important innovations. Ordinarily, torture is farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their government-established torture chambers. Alain Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out that "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so." Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. Since Vietnam, "the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy -- paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed." Obama's ban "doesn't even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of 'armed conflict,' which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren't in armed conflict ... his is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."

Read the whole article here.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaza, Sri Lanka, and 'whataboutism'

Criticism of the well documented atrocities committed by Israel towards the Palestinians, most recently in Gaza early this year, is often greeted by a chorus of 'whataboutism' from the Israeli state's apologists. "You complain about Gaza, but what about Sri Lanka / what about Burma / what about ...." and so on.

'Whataboutism', as I understand it, was a propaganda tactic pioneered by the Soviet Union. You'd challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he'd pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say..."what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?"

Its instructive that Israel, always keen to portray itself as a vibrant liberal democracy, uses the same propaganda tactics to divert attention from its abuses as one of the great dictatorial meat-grinders of the 20th century: the USSR.

When the alleged inconsistency of people talking less about Sri Lanka than they do about the assault on Gaza is raised, you get the strong sense that a form of consistency these people would be happy to see is us shutting up about both Israel and Sri Lanka, rather than talking about both. The main thing is that we shut up about Israel. The argument that Israel is the beleaguered peace-seeker, beset on all sides by demented brown savages, is one the Zionists are well on the way to losing in the Western world, and this is a huge inconvenience for them which they will try anything to get around. Hence, 'whataboutism'.

But how to answer this charge of inconsistency? Well, to begin with, it ought to be obvious that the main reason we need to focus on Israel-Palestine is because of our own responsibilities. Britain offers strong backing for Israeli atrocities, for example as I described here in the case of the Lebanon war of 2006. We're collectively responsible for what our government does whether we voted for it or not, campaigned against it or not, so by simple extention we bear a share of collective guilt for the plight of the Palestinians. That's the overriding reason for our involvement. We are not spectators. We are involved.

Another reason we need to campaign especially hard where Israel is concerned is that there's a massive amount of propaganda and disinformation to be dismantled around that issue before its even properly understood. Israel is served by a vast and well-funded PR operation in support of its crimes: PR that's both state-organised and freelance. So you can't just let that pass unchallenged.

A third reason Israel demands special focus is that its repression of the Palestinians fits in to a much broader picture. Western backing of Israel is a component part of our general, harmful influence over the Middle East through autocratic client/allied governments in the region. This (1) results in widespread and severe injustice and repression, and (2) consequentially feeds anger and resentment that can boil over into conflict which affects both the people of the region and us in the West. When you factor in things like the invasion of Iraq, the danger of an attack on Iran, and the continued threat of terrorist reactions to our aggression towards the Middle East in general and the plight of the Palestinians in particular, then the importance of Israel as a major part of that broader picture becomes clear. Challenging Israeli crimes should always come as part of a broader critique of the West's bloody, corrupt and extremely dangerous approach to the Middle East as a whole. Bottom line: the importance of Israel-Palestine is not limited to events within former mandate Palestine.

Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan, today points out a fourth element that distinguishes the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of the Tamils:

"[Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu said [after yesterday's meeting with Barack Obama that] he did not want to rule the Palestinians. That is an evasion. If he won't give them a state, then they remain citizens of no state and inevitably Israel "rules" them in the sense of making the important decisions about how they live their lives. The Likud Party doesn't want the Palestinians, just their land and resources. That demand is actually what makes the Palestinian issue different and more horrific than other ethnic-national problems in the world. Sri Lanka, which claims to have just defeated the Tamil Tigers, was fighting to keep the minority Tamils (who speak a Dravidian language and are typically Hindus) as citizens of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists. (The conflict is also in part about the wealthier Tamils wanting more autonomy from the poorer Sinhalese, and about a Marxist guerrilla group ironically representing this minority bourgeois demand; i.e. it isn't just ethno-religious. ) As brutal as the Sri Lankan campaign was, it does not leave the Tamils at the end of the day without basic rights of citizenship in a state, which is the condition of the Palestinians- - who are therefore the most oppressed people in the world."

So there's many good reasons for prioritising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our campaigning.
However, on the basis that we concern ourselves primarily with the things we're responsible for, you could argue that the British left should have engaged a bit more with what's been happening in Sri Lanka recently (I definitely include myself in this). Britain does after all help arm the Sri Lankan government.

This from Mark Curtis' report for Saferworld on UK arms exports:

"The Government has failed to effectively implement its own arms export criteria bypersistently permitting the export of arms when there is the risk that they may be used torepress human rights, for example to Colombia,Nepal,Russia and Sri Lanka"

"In 2006, open licences were granted to a variety of countries with poor human rightsrecords, such as Egypt, Indonesia,Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Open licences toNigeria included armoured vehicles, and components for combat helicopters wereauthorised for export to Sri Lanka."

"In 2005 open licences for components for combat aircraft were issued to India, Pakistan,Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey"

According to a recent article by Matt Foot:

"...between 2006 and 2008, £12 million worth of British arms were sold to Sri Lanka. This included components for military aircraft and machine guns"

Foot also describes Britain's historic role in the conflict, so his article's well worth reading.

The Saferworld report says that "the UK has licensed more than £110m of military equipment to Israel under Labour" (i.e. in the 9 years between 97 and 06 when the report was published). That's an average of £12m a year, twice as much as the yearly average sold to Sri Lanka in 06-08 but still, the amount sold to Sri Lanka is certainly not insignificant.

So while its clearly important for us to prioritise Israel-Palestine in our activism - and to recognise 'whataboutism' for the propaganda tactic that it is - I for my part at least think I could have said and done something more about Sri Lanka. And that's probably true of the broader left as well.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Death of John Smith: 15 years on

"The Second Commandment calls on us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It does not expect human fraility to be capable of loving our neighbours more than ourselves: that would be a task of saintly dimensions. But I do not believe that we can truly follow that great Commandment unless we have a concept of concern for our fellow citizens which is reflected in the organisation of society."

John Smith, Labour Party leader, 1992-94

“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich"

Peter Mandelson

Rupa tagged me on this John Smith thing that's been doing the rounds (the former Labour leader died 15 years ago last week). Here's my answers to the questions.

Where were you when you heard John Smith had died?

It was a school day and I was round a friend’s house at lunchtime when the news came on the TV.

How did you view John Smith when he was leader and how do you view him now?

Smith came across as a strong, credible and articulate politician. Labour were 23% ahead of the Conservatives in the polls at the time of his death, with the width and depth of the government’s unpopularity very much established. The 1992 election had been a dispiriting missed opportunity to remove the Tories from office, but it was now reasonably clear that Smith was capable of winning the next election and repalcing Thatcherism with something if imperfect then at least somewhat better. So from a political point of view, his death created an unwelcome sense of uncertainty about the future - in terms both of Labour's electibility and its political direction - where before there had been decent grounds for optimism.

Do you think he would have made a good Prime Minister?

Its hard to say, but we do know what happened in his absence. Labour moved sharply to the right, essentially embracing Thatcherism albeit with a few softening aspects. The results are well known. An economy consisting of a consumer credit bubble teetering atop a property bubble tottering above a financial bubble, whose collapse led to the worst recession in decades. Inequality worse than at any time since records began. Poverty on the rise. Corporate welfare masquerading as investment in public services under the guise of the PFI. And an illegal war of aggression, launched in collusion with a US government of the hard right, sold on disinformation and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of millions and one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the last ten years. Those, of course, are just the highlights.

My sense is that few, perhaps even none of those things – the very worst of New Labour - would have happened under Smith. New Labour was a significant departure even from his fairly run-of-the-mill brand of social democracy. I’m under no illusions about the shortcomings of the pre-Blair Labour Party as a force for progressive change. Even Clement Atlee’s government, which implemented the most progressive domestic agenda yet seen in Britain’s history, fought a vicious colonial war in Malaya and began the plotting that later led to the overthrow of Iran’s elected government, a coup effected in order to maintain Western control over that countries oil reserves. I’m sure that Smith would have done many things that I disagreed with, even things that would have appalled me, not least in foreign affairs. But I find it unlikely that his administration would have been remotely as cynical and disastrous as those of Blair and Brown.

What do you think is his lasting legacy?

Tragically, Smith’s overriding legacy is probably the disappointment of his premature death in terms of its implications for the country.

Thatcherism was widely discredited and its replacement with a British version of social democracy would have improved the lives of millions (and also raised the possibility of a subsequent move to something more progressive still, perhaps along Scandinavian lines). There was a very reasonable possibility of that happening while Smith was alive and leading the Labour Party.

Instead, by establishing a neo-Thatcherite consensus and reducing politics to managerial questions within those constraints, Smith’s New Labour successors – in the name of pragmatism and, laughably, “what works” – locked Britain into the political-economic model which is now collapsing around us and which both Labour and the Tories appear morally and intellectually incapable of abandoning.

That’s where we are now, and its hard not to wonder how different things might have been had Smith lived and the Labour Party not fallen into the hands of those who succeeded him.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

email to the Foreign Secretary


The British government has in the past taken exception to the Iranian President's alleged threat to wipe Israel off the map. Tomorrow, in your capacity as British Foreign Secretary, you will shake hands with Israel's new Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man who once advocated flooding and destroying the nation of Egypt by bombing the Aswan dam. In other words, a man who advocated genocide.

The British government has also said that the Palestinian group Hamas can not be engaged with until it agrees to honour past peace agreements with Israel, renounce violence and recognise Israel's "right" to exist. (Indeed, your government was prepared to advance this position by backing a blockade of Hamas-run Gaza which in turn caused a crippling humanitarian crisis). Yet while Mr Lieberman holds past peace agreements in undisguised contempt, embraces indiscriminate violence against Arabs whenever possible, and vigorously denies the Palestinians' right to self-determination, you remain content to meet with him. And as far as I'm aware, no Israeli children will be going hungry as a result of a blockade of Israel, backed by Her Majesty's government, in response to Mr Lieberman's coming to office. Only Palestinian children can expect to be punished in this manner for the way their parents vote in free elections.

The three reasons for not meeting with Hamas have previously been described by UK government ministers as "principles". Plainly they were nothing of the sort.

I do not object to your meeting with Mr Lieberman, racist thug though he is. What I object to is your meeting with him as his ally and arms dealer.

If you were to use tomorrow's meeting to tell Mr Lieberman that the UK is prepared do everything it can to facilitate dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians' legitimate representatives in the interests of advancing a lasting peace deal - a deal in strong accordance with international law, especially in respect of Israel's relinquishing illegally occupied territory - and that the UK is prepared to impose punitive sanctions on Israel should it resist such efforts, not limited to a total cessation of all UK-to-Israel arms sales, then I would be positively in favour of your meeting going ahead. This could then - in the interests of fostering dialogue and advancing the prospects for peace - be followed by a meeting with Hamas, whose rejectionism, as you know, is far milder and more qualified than that of both Mr Lieberman and his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Members of your government have appealed to the public to make a stand against the racist extreme right in the upcoming European elections. Perhaps you could lead by example and take a principled stand tomorrow against the racist, extreme right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Lieberman.

Best wishes

David Wearing
MPhil/PhD Student
School of Public Policy
University College London

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