Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen: our Munich

World War II analogies flow far too freely in political debate, but there's an appropriate one that we can use today as we witness an international conference ending in epic sell-out, with a future cost to be paid by millions of innocents. For Copenhagen, read Munich, with the developing world getting every bit as thorough a screwing from Obama's White House as the Czechs got from Neville Chamberlain.


The science says that a 50% cut in emissions will give us a chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures. A temperature rise above 2 degrees will tip the world's eco-system over the edge, leading to disasters of Biblical proportions - famines, floods and resource wars worldwide. Even 2 degrees will result in disaster for many of the poorest countries, hence their insistence at Copenhagen on a deal that limits the rise to 1 degree or 1.5 degrees. That's a target often described as 'ambitious', which is accurate. For millions in the developing world, staying alive does indeed count as 'ambitious', given the balance of power between them and the wealthy.

So, a 50% cut to avert catastrophe. The US offer? 6 per cent.

Yes, six.

In the end, emissions cuts were not specified in the interim deal that came out of Copenhagen. Nor is there a commitment to provide adequate finance to help the poorest countries deal with the effects of climate change, and nor is there any real sign that legal obligations will be placed on countries to cut their emissions.

The major battle in the conference was over Kyoto. The Kyoto accord is the existing global deal on combating climate change. It placed legal obligations on signatory countries to cut their carbon emissions, and crucially it recognised the historic role of the rich nations in causing the problem. This is the key issue. The effects of climate change are being felt overwhelmingly by the poorest countries, but were caused overwhelmingly by the rich ones. This balance of responsibility and costs - the Kyoto principle - needs to be recognised in the new deal. Obama rejects this. He says developing countries should be "getting out of that mindset, and moving towards the position where everybody recognises that we all need to move together". Say what you like about the man, he gives great platitude.

Pressure was put on the most vulnerable countries, who spent the conference insisting they will not "die quietly", to basically do just that. To accept no legal commitment from the nations that caused climate change to carry out even the minimal cuts they have pledged. To accept nothing like the proper financial compensation owed by the West for its vandalism of other people's environments.

Charities and NGOs were not impressed by the final outcome (which Western leaders are now trying to spin as "historic"). Senior climate change advocacy officer at Christian Aid, Nelson Muffuh said: "Already 300,000 people die each year because of the impact of climate change, most of them in the developing world. The lack of ambition shown by rich countries in Copenhagen means that number will grow."

Kate Horner from Friends of the Earth said: "This is the United Nations and the nations here are not united on this secret back-room declaration. The US has lied to the world when they called it a deal and they lied to over a hundred countries when they said would listen to their needs. This toothless declaration, being spun by the US as an historic success, reflects contempt for the multi-lateral process and we expect more from our Nobel prize winning President."

Tim Jones, climate policy officer at the World Development Movement said: "This summit has been in complete disarray from start to finish, culminating in a shameful and monumental failure that has condemned millions of people around the world to untold suffering."

Hope and change? Nope, just climate change, and all the horrors to follow. That's what the Obama White House offered the world at Copenhagen, and as things stand, that's how this President will go down in history.


Now people inclined to make excuses for Obama will tell you that its all very difficult for him domestically. Lots of resistance at home from a sceptical public, so its hard for him to commit to anything more than he was able to offer. And indeed, this excuse is made for leaders worldwide. Well, its a myth. Here are the facts.

* 70 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide see climate change as a serious problem.
* 53 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say "dealing with climate change should be a priority even if it causes slower growth and some loss of jobs".
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide accept that their own countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change.
* 58 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their countries are not doing enough to deal with climate change.
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their country should sign a deal limiting their carbon emissions at Copenhagen
* 73 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say if a deal is not reached their country should cut emissions anyway
* 62 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide would be willing to pay more for energy and other products to deal with climate change
* 54 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide support giving assistance to poor nations to help them deal with climate change

The same is true in Britain. See this article. The Mail leaps on the fact that people are confused about the state of the science, as you'd expect. That's the headline. But then you get down to the inconvenient truths.

* 79 per cent see climate change as a serious concern
* 57 per cent support new air travel taxes to cut carbon emissions
* 68 per cent said much higher taxes should be imposed on gas-guzzling vehicles
* 87 per cent supported new building regulations to require high standards of insulation and use of renewable energy, even if it increases the cost of homes.

A myth is being put about that serious action against climate change is politically impossible. But what 'politically impossible' apparently means is not that the public don't support it. Its that elites don't support it, particularly the vested interests in the coal and oil lobbies who were wandering freely round the conference centre in Copenhagen even as respected environmentalist leaders were being ushered out of the building by security for no apparent reason.

In the farce Copenhagen descended into, much was left unresolved, so at least one further global conference will have to be called to firm up the new deal. We've now seen how bad this can get. The only thing that will change the equation is popular activism on an unprecedented scale. The public opinion I cited above needs to be turned into a political force that governments cannot ignore. I didn't use the Munich analogy lightly. Compare the political agreement to what the science says, and the stakes in terms of human suffering are very much on that scale.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Britain splits with Israel & US on Goldstone report

Its so rare that you see the British government standing up to Washington on any major foreign policy issue that when it happens its worth taking a look.

A UN report into Israel's recent assault on Gaza undertaken by Justice Richard Goldstone (who had served as the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda), condemned both Israel and Hamas for committing war crimes during the conflict, but reserved its strongest criticism for Israel, accusing it of deliberately targeting and terrorising the civilian population of Gaza [Jamie Stern-Wiener provides a good summary of the report here].


Discussions are now ongoing at the United Nations to decide whether the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council should endorse Goldstone's report (it has already been endorsed by leading human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). If those UN bodies endorsed the report, they would also be endorsing its recommendation that should Hamas and Israel fail to conduct proper and thorough investigations into their alleged war crimes, both parties must then appear before the International Criminal Court to answer the charges there.

The administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama leapt into action, pressuring UN members to vote against the report. Even the Palestinian delegation at the UN, led by the notoriously supine Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, was strongarmed by Washington into calling for a delay of any discussion of Goldstone's report. Palestinian society erupted in fury at this betrayal and, shaken by the extent to which his support base was evaporating, Abbas quickly backtracked.

Still the US and Israeli efforts to bury the report continue, and this is where the UK comes in. Britain plans, not to vote against the report alongside its American and Israeli allies, as one might expect, but to abstain, effectively lending tacit support to Goldstone's conclusions. Efforts by hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to reverse this decision are apparently being firmly rebuffed by London.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

"[A] conversation [between Netanyahu and] his British counterpart Gordon Brown, was said by a diplomat to have lasted 30 minutes. According to sources, the exchange was uneasy and full of disagreements. Netanyahu tried to convince Brown that the U.K. change its position from abstaining to opposing its adoption by the Human Rights Council.

Netanyahu also protested the fact that the U.K. supported taking the Goldstone Report seriously, and that Britain intends to abstain at the vote.
[Israeli] Minister of Defense Ehud Barak also spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several times, asking her to act quickly in order to convince more countries to vote against the report's adoption. Clinton also focused her efforts on Britain, whose stance will affect that of other European Union countries.

Clinton asked British Foreign Minister David Miliband to alter his stance and vote against the adoption of the report. However, like Netanyahu, Clinton also failed to convince the British foreign minister.

Miliband explained that unless the report passes, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will suffer a serious political blow."

This last line is telling. We should be clear that Britain is not taking a moral but a pragmatic stance here. Britain has continued to arm and support Israel through all its worst atrocities, but while London's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue has often been grossly immoral, that does not mean it is necessarily misguided within the narrow terms of its own strategic goal (the service of Western power). Brown's government clearly understands that the West's best chance of getting the sort of peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that it collectively favours - one in which the occupied Palestinians make all the substantive concessions and the Israeli occupier makes but a nominal few - is most likely to be delivered if the quisling Abbas remains at the helm. Another high-profile diplomatic defeat for the Palestinians would undermine Abbas further in the eyes of his own people, and perhaps pave the way for his being replaced by someone better able to stand up for Palestinian rights. Washington's zealous, reflexive support for Israel over the Goldstone report misses this broader picture, leaving it to London to spell out the point.

But there is a wider issue here, which explains why this development is still an important one. It is becoming increasingly clear to Western policymakers and opinion formers that siding wholly with an extreme right-wing and rejectionist Israel against the Palestinians is a major strategic error, damaging Western interests in the broader Middle East. The settlement of the Israeli Palestinian conflict by Israel's withdrawal to its legal borders, handing back the illegally occupied Palestinian lands of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (the latter no longer colonised but still under a crippling siege), is widely known to be the only sustainable peace deal possible. I would prefer it if the West endorsed that conclusion from moral grounds, but if it happens as a result of a pure calculation of power-interest then at least the result for the people who matter - the long-suffering Palestinians - would be roughly the same. If a bit of pragmatism (albeit cynical) on the part of London can help that process along, then that would be something. Obama's involvement in the "peace process" (such as it is) has been lamentable so far, but London does at least formally understand that a settlement along Israel's the legal borders is the only game in town. Any sign that the West collectively may be able to wake up to the pragmatic if not the moral case for abandoning its historic rejection of that settlement is to be welcomed.
London would doubtless favour the weakest version of the two-state solution possible and Washington a version that was weaker still. But any realisation that these are the lines along which a settlement must come opens rhetorical and political space for ourselves in civil society to push for a solution that is genuinely fair. We have to be realistic about the limitations to any apparent moderation in Western support for Israel, but that does not mean being blind to the openings such moderation offers us in terms of making the case for a genuinely just settlement to the conflict and for an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

A few words about what's been happening in Iran the past couple of weeks. The two main candidates in the Iranian presidential election - Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - were both essentially establishment figures. Both had been vetted and approved by Iran's 'Guardian Council' before being allowed to stand, as is the normal procedure. Mousavi had been Iran's Prime Minister during the early days of the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war where the US backed Saddam Hussein. As President he may have taken a less belligerent rhetorical stance toward the West than Ahmadinejad, but the substance would have remained: opposition to Israel on the Palestinian issue and an insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Poliferation Treaty. However, though Mousavi's establishment credentials were pretty much impeccable, he did hint at a relaxation of the various restrictions of personal liberties within the Islamic Republic, attracting him some support from Iran's overwhelmingly young population (over 60 per cent are under 30). Exactly how much support in the final instance is, of course, the question.

By now you will be familiar with the fact that the presidential election result is under dispute, with Mousavi and thousands of protesters claiming fraud and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the announced result is legitimate and will stand. Based on the expert analysis I've seen, it seems reasonably clear that fraud is likely to have taken place. Though it should be noted that no hard proof exists of this, the point is that those who have crunched the numbers and those who know Iranian politics and society have examined the purported election results and see them not just as surprising but as wholly implausible. See this report by researchers at St Andrews University, edited by Iran historian Ali Ansari, or these three posts by the University of Michigan's world renowned Middle East historian Juan Cole. Statistician Walter Mebane, also of the University of Michigan, has examined the data and concluded that "the results suggest very strongly that there was widespread fraud in which the vote counts for Ahmadinejad were substantially augmented by artificial means".

So why fake the election result, if that is indeed what happened? As I've pointed out, Mousavi was hardly going to lead a revolution to topple the regime since he is, after all, a long-standing part of it. Indeed, its also worth reminding ourselves that Ahmadinejad is not unpopular, and its possible that he may have run Mousavi close and prompted a run off election if the actual votes had been counted. The Guardian's editorial shortly after the "result" was announced has what to my mind is the best explanation. Mousavi had been attracting mass rallies of energised young people to the point where any victory for him would have looked like a rejection of the regime from the Iranian youth, even if Mousavi hadn't intended it as such. The Supreme Leader could not allow such a serious undermining of the regime's credibility, fearing where it might lead, and so the hopes of those who had voted for Mousavi were, it appears, summarily crushed. Opponents were then arrested, massive demonstrations though largely peaceful were met with violence, and journalists were targeted.

Has it worked? Its hard to say, but one doubts it. If anything, the Iranian establishment now looks split down the middle. Iran's most senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has openly said that "no one in their right mind can believe" the official results. This may reflect growing disquiet amongst Iran's clerical elite, who perhaps never wholly bought into the regime's radical innovation of direct religious rule, adhering instead to the Islamic tradition that the clergy should keep out of politics. Meanwhile, even the hardline conservative Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has said that a 'majority' of Iranians dispute the election results and, though he disagrees with them, they should be respected - not a tone that's entirely aligned with that of the Supreme Leader.

So allow me to speculate briefly about what will happen next. Say the stability of the regime over the past three decades has been based on a mixture of legitimacy (by which I mean a sufficient level of public perception that the regime is a legitimate one) and fear. The two pillars of legitimacy are the electoral system on the one hand and the religious character of the system on the other. The fear element is inspired by the security services and their known history of abuses. People either think the regime is legitimate, or are too afraid of it to challenge its existence, or both. Hence it stays in place.

What we can now see is potentially the two pillars of legitimacy crumbling. On the one hand, as Larijani has said, a majority believe the election result was a fabrication and many of those actively refuse to let this stand.

On the other hand, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's radical innovation of clerical rule may now be coming under renewed scrutiny within the clerical establishment. Khamenei's weak religious qualifications for the post of Supreme Leader don't help to uphold the credibility of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule). This, it appears, is some of the background to Montazeri's strong remarks.

If the pillars upon which the regime's legitimacy rests are crumbling then the fear element is all that's left. That's not nothing. But still, unless the regime is now prepared not only to quell unrest with extreme violence, but to follow this up with a general, lasting (i.e. years long) crackdown on persistent dissent, then its hard to see how major changes can be escaped.

But if the dissidents are an uneasy alliance of privileged elites and disadvantaged citizens, what are the prospects going forward? If Mousavi stitches up a deal with Khamenei to end the whole thing (after all, this is a system that has generally treated him more than fairly) what happens to the demonstrators on the street? We'll learn the answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead.

A final word about Western involvement. Britain and the US have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, leading right up until the present day (I've reviewed the historical record in a bit of detail here). The crucial concern has been to deny or counter Iranian independence and retain it within or return it to the Western sphere of influence, for obvious reasons that include Iran's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. We can therefore assume that London and Washington are not indifferent to what happens next in Iran. This does not mean that hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have somehow been manufactured or brainwashed by the West, as the Supreme Leader is rather pathetically attempting to claim. However, we should be alive to the strong possibility that if some sort of new Iranian revolution does break out, the US and Britain will be using all the considerable tools at their disposal to ensure that the Iran that emerges from that process will be the Iran they would want to see, irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian people themselves. It may be that for now London and Washington have calculated that their best bet is to stay well out of things lest they taint the Iranian protesters with their unwanted attentions. But don't bet on that staying the case. The reason events in Iran deserve our attention is precisely because of our governments' lamentable role in that country's affairs. Our concern should now be that the Iranian public are allowed to choose their own path free both from internal tyranny and foreign interference.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mr Obama goes to Cairo

While British Politics has been consumed with petty intrigue, life in the rest of the world goes on. Last week, US President Barack Obama gave a keynote speech in Cairo addressed to 'the Muslim world'. You can watch the speech here, or read a transcript here. Obama's speech is important to us because, to a rather pathetic extent, US foreign policy is automatically British foreign policy. So we should listen to our master's voice, and hope he's at least a slight improvement on the last guy.

Before the speech was made the Washington Post ran a good article assessing the views of Obama's principle target audience, the people of the Middle East. The report found a chasm between the way American policymakers saw US actions in that region and the lived experience of the people most affected. On his blog, Time editor Tony Karon stressed that given this, it would take concrete actions, more than nice words, for Obama to salvage Washington's reputation in the Middle East.

After the speech, reaction was mixed. The best and most comprehensive analysis comes from
Noam Chomsky, who notes beneath the rhetoric substantive continuities between Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (perhaps the central topic of the speech) and that of previous administrations. Egyptian commentator Ahdaf Soueif also saw the continuation of America's pursuit of its own narrow interests, despite the change in tone. On the other hand (though I don't think this necessarily contradicts Chomsky and Soueif's interpretations) Tony Karon, who before the speech had been clear on the importance of a decisive material change in US actions over any cosmetic rhetorical shift, felt in the end that the language Obama used had itself represented a material difference in approach, which may bode well in terms of more practical measures further down the line. For Karon, Obama had shifted the terms of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; inadequately but still substantively and progressively.

In response to the speech, Hamas repeated its long-standing position of accepting a Palestinian state on the legal 1967 borders and pledging not to stand in the way of any international efforts to effect that solution. On the Israeli side, by contrast, shock and confusion reign at the realisation that when the Obama administration asks Israel to moderate their colonisation of the West Bank in some minor way, they - unlike previous administrations - actually mean it. And the next generation of American-Israeli colonists seem less than impressed with Obama's stance on their adoptive homeland.

That's the gap between the two sides: an end to illegal colonisation or a continuation of it. So is Obama merely going to tell the Israelis not to steal even more Palestinian land, but that they can keep what is already stolen, which is already so much as to render a Palestinian state unworkable? Or is he preparing to tell Israel further down the road to start dismantling a substantive amount of its
illegal settlements in order to effect a settlement that broadly accords with international law and the international consensus? Those are the key questions that will be answered over the next few months - a period which could prove seminal in the history of this conflict.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking Economics (and other good reading material)

Here's some interesting stuff I've been reading over the last few days.

First, the economy. There are two good articles in today's Guardian on how to reassess our economic ideas in the wake of the financial crash and subsequent depression. Robert H Frank makes a few thought provoking observations on how economic policy can be informed by our understanding of how different elements of human nature and behavioural patters can affect market outcomes. In short, it turns out that the neo-Thatcherite/New Labour ethos of letting personal greed run riot can actually have some quite damaging results. Who knew?

Meanwhile, Larry Elliot laments the dearth of serious heavyweight economists alive in the present day to offer the empirical rather than theoretical analysis that the world economy desperately needs.

Also on economic matters, Alex Kroll gives a good breakdown of how the US financial bailout effectively rewards the authors of the banking crisis, at huge cost to the taxpayer, and in a way that sets the scene for repeated disasters further down the line. Barack Obama shares responsibility for these measures, incidentally. So much for putting the needs of Main Street before the needs of Wall Street.

And so much for new beginnings on US foreign policy. Tom Englehardt sets out here the ways in which the Obama White House is transplanting many of the worst crimes and misjudgements of the Bush era onto America's new "Af-Pak" (Afghanistan-Pakistan) war. Extrajudicial executions? Aerial bombing causing massive civilian casualties which in turn breeds further extremism? How many of those who voted for Obama signed up for more of this?

There does appear to be some small movement however on the Israeli-Palestinian question, with the Obama White House making US support for Israeli colonialism less than totally unequivocal as compared to the Bush approach. The changes in policy are actually fairly minor. Instead of mumbling that Israel's expansion of its illegal settlements on colonised Palestinian land is "unhelpful", and then continuing to fund it anyway, Obama and his administration are now saying strongly that expansion must cease. That's something. But note that we've yet to see what action the new White House is prepared to take to enforce this, if it comes to it, and note also that the problem is the extent of existing settlements, not merely the possibility that they might grow further. The existing settlements already preclude the viability of a Palestinian state, taking as they do the best land on the West Bank and cutting off East Jerusalem, the beating heart of Palestinian economic, religious and cultural life, from the other Palestinian population centres. These settlements are in any case 100 per cent illegal and allowing any of them to remain would be to reward aggression and theft on the international stage. Obama therefore has barely begun to deal with this issue properly, and nor can we assume that he will. But even so, these small moves have sent Israeli leaders into paroxysms, like spoilt children who suddenly realise the game is up. This dispite the fact that in reality, Israel is not being asked to concede anything that is more than symbolic, which in itself gives you a sense of the warped relationship of dependency and indulgence that it has with the US. Rami Khouri of Lebanon's Daily Star gives a fair assessment of the situation here. And in recent weeks I've also been enjoying the blog Mondoweiss, which gives a sensitive and intelligent account of the issue from a liberal Jewish-American perspective. That's updated at least once daily, and its a good way of following debates on the US-Israeli relationship.

Closer to home, Gareth Peirce writes in the London Review of Books on New Labour's complicity in torture under the war on terror. This unsettling article lays bare an altogether sinister side to the way our country is governed. If you think ID cards are a sign of creeping authoritarianism, Peirce's article will rather put that in perspective. Her earlier article on the severe pressures facing British Muslims in the current climate is a good companion piece.

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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."
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Read the whole article here.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prospects for peace in the Israeli Palestinian conflict

A few weeks after Israel's brutal assault on the population of Gaza, in which appalling war crimes were committed in defiance of worldwide horror and protest, the formation of a new Israeli government of the hard right now appears close to an inevitability. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that Israeli public opinion is becoming increasingly extreme in respect of the conflict with the Palestinians, being "characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering" (quoting Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz's summary of the study). In these unpromising conditions, where Israel appears to have no interest in world opinion, international law, or commonly accepted standards of human decency in its relations with the Palestinian people, what are the prospects for peace? How do we get from a position of Israeli intransigence, rejectionism and extremism to the destination of a viable and sustainable peace settlement?

The Greek historian Thucydides famously said that "The strong do what they please while the weak suffer what they must." That remains as much a truism of politics and international relations today as it did at the time of the Peloponnesian War, of which Thucydides was writing.

Israel is able to do what it pleases because - as a regional power -
it is backed to a truly extraordinary extent by the greatest power on earth: the United States. Israel has received vast amounts of direct aid and military backing from the US for the better part of 4 decades, it gets an automatic veto against any UNSC resolutions against it, courtesy of Washington, and the "honest broker" in its "peace process" with Israeli-approved Palestinians is none other than its US patron (and, indeed, lawyer)

Because it is underwritten by the greatest military power of all time, Israel has almost no restraint on its actions, Talk of military threats to Israel - to its existence , no less - are palpably ludicrous. It can invade who it likes, kill who it likes, repress the Palestinians to its heart's content,
steal their land, starve their children and massacre them with total impunity. Other states attempting to indulge in such behaviour would soon meet the limits of their power. But because Israel's military, diplomatic and economic power is only limited by that of America, it is able to thumb its nose at the world, and do as it pleases.

The only threat Israel faces as the result of its 60 years of colonial aggression has been terrorist atrocities from Palestinian militants enraged by the theft of their homeland. But since Israel continues to behave in a way that all sane persons understand is guaranteed to create terrorists, we must conclude that it, and its US benefactor, have decided that terrorism is a price worth paying for strategic domination of the Levant, and the broader Middle East.

The answer to the question of 'what is to be done?' is therefore reasonably clear. It is for the US to make its support for Israel conditional on Israel's compliance with international law. For that to happen, a popular, grassroots political campaign will have to take place in the US to pressure Washington to alter its line. Recall that in the 1980s the US and UK were very reluctant to remove their backing from apartheid South Africa, which was playing a similar strategic role on behalf of the US in its own region. To the extent that this support was withdrawn or diluted, and to the extent that this in turn helped to precipitate the end of apartheid, this occured largely as the result of a political campaign got up by ordinary people.

The role of the concerned public in other countries is peripheral, but not insignificant. Britain should certainly end all military sales to Israel immediately, as
Amnesty International has urged, not least since complicity in Israeli war crimes has its own legal implications. Further action, beyond that minimal level will help raise the issue, globally, of how to restrain the rogue state Israel, and thus help those calling for a sane Israel policy in the United States.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at root, not very complicated. It is a conflict between a nation built on ethnic cleansing - Israel - and a people - the Palestinians - who were ethnically cleansed from their homes when that nation was built and who are still denied their right to self determination by their tormentors. The solution is for Israel to hand back the land it illegally occupied in 1967 so that two states for the two peoples can be established, with any adjustments to those 1967 borders being mutual, very minor, and certainly not denying the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, the essential component part of any new Palestinian state.

Last autumn in the UN General Assembly the world's nations voted
164-7 in favour of a settlement based on this formula: i.e. on Israeli compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The Arab states, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have been pushing for a specific peace initiative on this formula for many years. Even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a National Conciliation Document calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years.

The likely basis for peace is therefore almost universally understood, and is available to be explored and built upon. Israeli rejectionism is underwritten and only made possible by US rejectionism. It is for the US public to try and change this, and for the rest of us to do what we can to help them.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Gaza: the word you’re looking for is ‘massacre’

video


Let's clarify five key points about Israel’s attacks on Gaza this weekend.

First, “self-defence” isn’t a catch-all justification for any act of violence one cares to perpetrate. Violence is permitted in self-defence – both in common morality and international law – strictly on the basis of proportionality: i.e. the minimum necessary to repel the attack.

Israel claims its bombardment of the Gaza strip is aimed at defending itself from rocket attacks by Palestinian militant groups. In the past eight years, Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza have killed around 18 people in southern Israel. Between the start of the recent Hamas-Israel truce in June this year until the start of the Israeli bombing campaign on Saturday, no Israelis were killed by Hamas. Since Saturday, Israel has killed more than 300 Palestinians, including scores of civilians, and since those attacks began two Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets.

Overall, since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, around 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and around 5,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, including 1,000 minors. That is to say that in just over the past forty-eight hours, Israel has killed a third as many Palestinians as Palestinians have killed Israelis in eight years. In a single weekend, Israel has increased the number of people it has killed since September 2000 by 6 per cent.

Therefore, since its actions are so grossly disproportionate to the threat they are said to be aimed at, Israel’s justification of self-defence plainly does not stand.

Second, while Israel claims to be targeting Palestinian militants, it is plainly not possible to “target” individuals in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet with the use of bombs and missiles fired from F-16 fighter jets. In fact, attacking Palestinian cities at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, when the streets were full, shows – shall we say – the direct opposite of an effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel claims that, unlike its enemies, it does not deliberately attack civilians. The distinction between targeting civilians and taking action that is absolutely certain to kill civilians, and which is totally disproportionate to the claimed purpose of the action, is not just a fine distinction. It is, in moral terms, no distinction.

Watch the video above; a news report from one of Gaza’s hospitals, already desperately short of medical supplies as a result of Israel’s blockade. Look at the infant child who appears towards the end of the report, clearly suffering from serious head injuries and in what appears to be a state of total shock. It’s an unbearable sight. Well, Israel and its apologists are claiming that those injuries were inflicted on that infant child - by an Israeli piloting a multi-million dollar, US-supplied fighter jet - in “self-defence”.

It doesn’t stand up, does it?

Thirdly, this is in no sense an Israeli “response”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, noted earlier this month:

"the situation [has] worsened [since] the breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel that had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfil its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza. The recent upsurge of violence occurred after an Israeli incursion that killed several alleged Palestinian militants within Gaza."

Israel has maintained a blockade on the Gaza strip since early 2006, when the Palestinians committed the crime of voting the wrong way in an election. In the words of Israeli Government adviser Dov Weisglass, “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet”, so as to encourage them to reconsider their choice of Hamas over the US/Israeli-backed Fatah. The blockade has been tightened in stages since then, most notably when Hamas foiled a US backed coup-attempt by Fatah in the summer of 2007 and seized control of Gaza.

As a result of the blockade, Gaza has been forced into appalling levels of deprivation. Even by September 2006, The Independent was reporting that some Palestinian mothers had been reduced to scouring rubbish dumps for just enough food to feed their children once a day, and the situation has deteriorated sharply since then, especially in recent weeks. The UN Special Rapporteur, along with all leading aid agencies and human rights organisations, has consistently condemned the blockade in the strongest terms, with Falk stating that “[s]uch a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.

Fourthly, a more fundamental point cannot pass without mention. The root cause of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not Palestinian terrorism, however disgusting the attacks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad undoubtedly are. The state of Israel was created in 1948 by the violent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forcing them out into neighbouring states and territories, like Gaza, where they and their descendents continue to live – as stateless refugees – to this day. In the “Six Day War” of 1967, Israel seized further territories - Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank - which it then began to colonise, all in clear violation of international law which forbids both the acquisition of territory by force and the colonisation of such territories.

There is now a clear international consensus on the solution to this conflict: Israel should withdraw to its recognised borders, handing back the illegally occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, who would then build their own state there. Last month the UN General Assembly voted 164-7 in favour of a settlement based on this formula: i.e. on Israeli compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The Arab states, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have been pushing for a specific peace initiative on this formula for many years. And even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a “National Conciliation Document” calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years.

In other words, the conflict continues, to the extent that it does today, because Israel would sooner massacre innocent people in Gaza, if that’s what it takes, than hand back the land it has stolen and allow the Palestinians the right to have their own country and run their own affairs.

The fifth and final point is that Israel is able adopt this position because a few key states are prepared to provide strong backing for its rejectionist stance. As the leading international affairs scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have noted, Israel

“has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance [from the US] since 1976 [receiving] roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. [In addition] Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 [UN] Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It [also] played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords ... consistently support[ing] the Israeli position. One American participant at Camp David in 2000 later said: ‘Far too often, we functioned . . . as Israel’s lawyer.”

No words need be wasted on the stance adopted by the outgoing Bush administration, to the conflict in general or to these latest atrocities in particular. What is more noteworthy is the response from people we might have expected slightly better from. For President-elect Barack Obama, the “fierce urgency of now” appears to have been replaced over the weekend by the fierce urgency of “monitoring the situation”. One suspects that, if Hamas had butchered scores of Israelis in cold blood over the weekend, Obama would not be hiding behind the protocol of “one President at a time”. He would be falling over himself to make a strong moral statement, rightly, and just as he should be doing now.

Or take British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called for “Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately”, but for Israel merely to “do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties”. Why is it so hard for Britain to simply and unambiguously call for both sides to cease all fire immediately? Are we having a re-run of the summer of 2006, when Israel carried out weeks of indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon while Tony Blair’s government worked in the international diplomatic arena to block calls for a ceasefire? Why does Britain continue to sell arms to Israel, including key components for the fighter jets carrying out the current attacks? Is this what New Labour calls an enlightened, ethical foreign policy?

I’ll conclude by saying this. There is no law forcing people to just sit at home and shake their heads while their governments aid and abet Israel’s massacre of innocent civilians. Israel depends on international support or acquiescence for it to continue on this path, and our governments rely on our support or acquiescence to maintain their own wretched positions. You can change this equation. There are protests taking place all over Britain, today and later on this week, including one outside the Israeli embassy this afternoon. If you can attend one of these events, even for a short time, then please do. If not, it is the simplest thing to write a letter to your MP and MEPs. This website helps you to do it, via email, in a few minutes. Ask them what they personally are doing to end the Israeli atrocities. If you get a poor response, write again and demand a better one.

It was the accumulation of thousands of small individual acts like this that helped bring about an end to Apartheid. It was partly the strength of public revulsion at Blair’s role in the Israeli-Hezbollah war that hastened his own departure from office two years ago. When you see those horrific images on the news bulletins today remember, this is not something you have to accept.

****

Update - thanks to Jamie SW for pointing out an error in the overall death toll above, now corrected (its 1,000 rather than 600 Israeli deaths since September 2008). Jamie's blog has some excellent and very well researched coverage of these events, which I recommend you check out.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan

Here's a RealNews interview with Ray McGovern on the situation incoming-President Obama faces with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the dangers of what appears to be Obama's emerging approach. McGovern is a retired CIA officer who worked under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House for many of them.

I did promise a proper in-depth analysis of my own on the new President, but time hasn't allowed it yet. Will definitely try and get something together for the inaugration though.


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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

That's President "That One" to you, Senator



Here's some quick thoughts on the Obama victory. I'll put together something meatier and more formal during the next week, when we've learnt a bit more.
In some ways, Obama's a hard one to pin down. Look at his background and he's left-liberal. I heard an radio interview with him the other day, recorded several years ago when he was teaching law at Chicago uni, where he gave a very thoughtful account of how black people had lost out in the original US constitutional settlement two hundred years ago, and assessed how that might be rectified going forward through the courts or through legislation. With his measured consideration of a serious social justice issue, the guy sounded really impressive. If I'd read a transcript of that without knowing who it was, I'd instantly want to hear more from this smart young academic.
At one level, that's Obama. But then as a politician he's clearly prepared to adopt some pretty right-wing positions, maybe because he feels he has to or maybe because his thinking is genuinely moving in that direction. Take foreign policy. His stance on the Palestinians, for example, is just as cruel as any adopted by Bush or Clinton. And he's surrounded by advisers from the Clinton era, during which time US foreign policy was far from enlightened. For the next 4-8 years the US is still going to be an imperial power with its policy-making dominated by elite interests. Obama would have trouble changing that even if he was a committed revolutionary, and he's definitely not one of those.
But then, nor is he of the McCain/Bush "give war a chance" mold. His approach will be less impetuous, less willfully ignorant, and less agressive. Yes its still imperialism, albeit with different tactics. And yes Arundhati Roy was basically right when she said that debating the pros and cons of imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape, because the coercion that's intrinisc to imperialism is immoral in its essence, not purely on the basis of outcomes. But a reduction in the amount of wars being fought or threatened is obviously a good thing, whatever the reasons for that happening, because more human beings will get to live.
The Republican party of McCain/Palin/Bush/Cheney was borderline demented on foreign affairs, as Tom Engelhardt expertly documents here. The world's a safer place with them gone, and that's not something that should be overlooked no matter how cautious we are about Obama.



Another positive thing is that the right-wing politics of race-baiting, militarism and extreme Reaganite economics have just been trounced at the polls. That's a big message to the political class. The question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Has anyone thought to mention that Obama is black?
In all seriousness, this is no small thing. Plainly we won't see racism eradicated overnight. There's been a black Secretary of State for the past eight years, during which time African-Americans gained precious little (and Katrina happened, of course). But Obama's victory is still an important step. Fifty years ago you could pretty much lynch black people with impunity in the southern states. Now a black man is President.
For the next 4-8 years, its going to be harder for those white Americans who harbour softer racial prejudices (always a bigger problem than the hardline racists) to cognitively maintain that mindset, at least so long as they perceive the Obama administration to be basically competant and decent. This will contribute to an erosion of American racism, and thus an expansion the life-chances of many African American people. There are black kids today who are going to have futures that their parents would have been denied. That this is not a trivial thing is well understood by those at the sharp end. Many of the survivors of the 60s civil rights struggle are visibly moved by last nights events and their feelings should not be belittled. Taking this aspect alone, anyone claiming to be of the left who dismisses Obama's election as meaningless is simply exposing themselves as an unthinking fraud.


Another point on prejudice. There was an attempt by sections of the right to draw on the racism that exists in the US against Arabs and Muslims - a bigotry which sees these people not as a large and disparate group of human beings but as a baying, bloodthirsty mob of neo-Nazis. This attempt was made using various devices to remind people of Obama's links to Islam through his father and through his middle name, Hussein - a part of a general strategy of 'othering' Obama which the increasingly odious McCain did precious little to stop.
Sadly for the GOP, there don't seem to be enough racists in America to make that one stick. And again, those that harbour softer prejudices are going to have 4-8 years to get to know, and possibly like, a man whose middle name is Hussein, whose father was a Muslim, and who spent some of his formative years growing up in a Muslim country, Indonesia. Bigotry depends on your ability not to see the people you're prejudiced against as human beings, which is harder to sustain when you get to know someone. And when soft bigotry against the people of the Middle East erodes, imperial aggression against that region becomes far harder to sustain and justify as well. Another non-trivial aspect to consider.



One could argue that McCain ended up betting everything on the 'othering' strategy. Remember that by the final few weeks he needed to win every safe Republican state, every toss-up state and at least one major safe Democrat state to pass the 270 electoral college vote milestone that gets you into the White House. Running short of cash he bet everything on Pennsylvania, probably on the assumption that blue-collar white Democrats would be fairly easy to scare off the black liberal with the funny name and the "questionable associations". McCain campaigned hard with the 'Joe the Plumbers' of Pennsylvania, and in the end Obama thumped him 54-44. McCain was campaigning in the wrong America - the one in his mind. That's another of many big messages sent to the political class last night. Again, the question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Obviously the power-structures of the United States, which are the real problem, remain firmly in place. As I say, Obama is no radical. Far from it. The endorsements he's received reveal him as very establishment-friendly, as does his stance on many issues. But at the level of the US Presidency, even small differences can make for big outcomes. Both the continuities and the differences, from Bush to Obama, are worthy of our attention.
Change? It'll probably be non-structural and therefore insufficient. But at the same time, it will be far from meaningless. If its turns out to be more than that, it'll be because people didn't go home and go to sleep on November 5th, but kept up the campaigning that began under Bush, as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in this excellent essay. If the public stays mobilised, changes really do become possible.
More soon.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition too.."

The GOP is toast and an African American is President. I say we're allowed to enjoy that. For today at least.


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Critical faculties to be fully re-engaged in due course.

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Election day: nervous?

If John McCain wins today's election it will be nothing short of a miracle. Its a possibility only in the most technical of senses.

Its not just that Obama leads by an average of 7 percentage points across the opinion polls. That can seem close enough for some slight discomfort given, say, individual polls like the latest from CNN which gives Obama a lead of 7 per cent with a margin of error of 3.5. McCain could potentially turn around what is effectively a 3.5 percent lead in the last few hours, if complacent Obama voters stay at home or for whatever other reason. Perhaps. But then, that's not how this works.

The national polls are misleading because the President isn't elected by a simple majority of the total population. The US has a state-based electoral college system under which - put simply - the candidate who wins the most votes in an individual state wins a certain number of points (calculated on the basis of the state's population) and the candidate with the most of those points at the end of the night wins the presidency.
So win the vote in California and you get its 55 points (called electoral college votes), win Texas and you get 34, Indiana and you get 11, and so on. There are a total of 538 electoral college votes up for grabs. Win 270 and you're the President.

What's relevant therefore is not the national poll but the state polls. And if the outcome of the election is as it is currently predicted at state level then Obama wins enough states to take the Presidency by 338 electoral college votes to McCain's 200.


Of course, the polls in some states are closer than in others. California is solid Democrat, with Obama 24 per cent ahead. McCain can count on Texas where he has a 13 per cent lead. But ten states are too close to call, including Florida with its 27 electorial college votes to play for, and North Carolina with 15. In Florida, Obama is a mere 1.8 per cent ahead. In North Carolina, McCain is 0.4 per cent ahead.

But here's the thing. Even if you assume that McCain wins all those toss up states - a big assumption since Obama is narrowly ahead in most of them - Obama would still win enough states to gain 278 electoral college votes and the White House. There aren't enough close-run states to play for. To turn this around, McCain would have to win all the toss-up states and at least one fairly solid Obama state.
In the event, McCain has chosen to bet everything on Pennsylvania, and pour his campaigning resources in there. The rest of the Obama states are either not worth enough electoral college votes or just considered a lost cause by the McCain camp. But Obama has an average 7.3 per cent lead in Pennsylvania. Is McCain really going to turn that around in the next few hours, as well as his smaller deficits in 9 or so other states?

Put it this way. Throughout the last five months of this election race, state opinion polls have translated into a McCain win in the electoral college for a total of 4 days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August. For the other 4 months 3 and a half weeks, Obama has been in the lead. Under what circumstates does that change now?

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Red Peril

"Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist."

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker.

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