Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Government minister says, Blair administration talked "bollocks" on terrorism

I love a good headline, don't you?
Britain's security and counter-terrorism minister, the unenviably named Lord West of Spithead, has broken with New Labour tradition and acknowledged the obvious.
"In an outspoken assessment of the terror risk facing Britain, Gordon Brown's security adviser was scathing about the assertion, made by Tony Blair when prime minister, that foreign policy did not alter the UK's risk of a terror attack.

"We never used to accept that our foreign policy ever had any effect on terrorism," he said. "Well, that was clearly bollocks."

He added: "They [the Blair administration] were very unwilling to have any debate about how our foreign policy impacted on radicalisation.""
As I wrote shortly after the bombings here in London on 7 July 2005, Blair's government government "deliberately and repeatedly ignor[ed] the advice of the UK’s intelligence services, departmental advisers and independent experts" that Britain's foreign policies, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq, were increasing the threat of terrorist attacks being carried out on British soil.
Now when politicians swear blind that black is white, one of the questions that springs to mind is whether they can genuinely believe what they're saying, and if not, how they can consciously peddle what they know to be falsehoods while keeping straight faces. Does the last remark from the minister quoted above - that the Blair administration were unwilling to have any internal debate about how our foreign policy impacted on radicalisation - give us an insight into this? Did Blair and his advisers stick their fingers in their ears and shout "la la la" whenever someone suggested that blowback from their foreign policies was endangering the British public, because they genuinely believed it wasn't true? Or because they didn't want to allow what they knew was a pathetically flimsy position to be tested in serious debate?
At one level it doesn't matter. Britain has continued with substantively the same Middle East policies post-Blair; backing local tyrants, supporting Israeli expansionism and repression of the Palestinians, and playing spear-carrier to the United States' imperial role in the region. All this is music to the ears of AlQaeda's recruiting officers, who can fill their ranks with young Muslims and Arabs driven to violent rage by these injustices and unable to see credible non-violent outlets for that anger. It matters little whether the government acknowledges the fact of this dynamic's existence if it pursues substantively the same policies, since the results will be the same. Better PR by Western governments won't change that. But it's interesting to see how, within power-structures, debates takes place between rational pragmatists and true-believer dogmatists. Both will pursue policies that serve powerful interests to the exclusion of more moral concerns. But each will have differing takes on how best to formulate and present those policies.
Clearly this isn't just a matter of abstract interest. If you can understand the kind of thinking that leads people to start wars like the US-UK invasion of Iraq then you're better placed to challenge that thinking and maybe prevent those wars from taking place.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gaza: another shameful day for Israel

Here’s Norweigan doctor Mads Gilbert, interviewed on the scene in Gaza by the BBC (I posted an earlier interview of his with CBS yesterday). According to Gilbert, Gaza's hospitals are completely overwhelmed with casualties, almost all of whom are civilians.



Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford who served in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s, today delivers possibly the best analysis of Israel's assault on Gaza that I have seen so far, giving the essential factual background and context in which these events should be understood. If you read nothing else about what's been happening over the past two weeks, read this.

A quote:

The brutality of Israel's soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the current war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. The core messages of this directorate to the media are that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements; that Israel's objective is the defence of its population; and that Israel's forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. Israel's spin doctors have been remarkably successful in getting this message across. But, in essence, their propaganda is a pack of lies."

"A wide gap separates the reality of Israel's actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel's objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe."

"The problem with Israel's concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community. The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it involves concessions and compromises.



This morning the Guardian reports that, “Israel's assault on Gaza has exacted the bloodiest toll of civilian lives yet, when the bombing of UN schools being used as refugee centres and of housing killed more than 50 people, including an entire family of seven young children.”

“The UN was particularly incensed over targeting of the schools, because Israeli forces knew they were packed with families as they had ordered them to get out of their homes with leaflet drops and loudspeakers. It said it had identified the schools as refugee centres to the Israeli military and provided GPS coordinates.”

“Explaining its attack on al-Fahora school, the Israeli military claimed that a mortar was fired from the playground, and it responded with a single shell which killed known Hamas fighters; the resulting explosion was compounded because Hamas "booby-trapped the school". Two Hamas militants were among the dead, both part of a rocket-launching cell.

As a former British intelligence analyst notes here, the Israeli military has a long history of lying about these sorts of incidents. But lets - for a moment - give them the entirely unearned benefit of the doubt and say their claims are right. What then? Well we can simply recall that – as Avi Shlaim notes in the article mentioned above (and more of this below) – the current round of violence started when, on 4 November, Israel decisively broke a ceasefire whose terms Hamas had basically adhered to but which Israel had not respected. Even the US media, some of the most dogmatically pro-Israel in the world, are being forced to accept this now.

The upshot? Israel is claiming is that it shelled these civilians in self-defence….in a conflict which it itself initiated. That is the absurd interpretation it is now trying to peddle. A less demented way of looking at it might be to say that the best method of self defence for Israel would have been not break the ceasefire in the first place. After all, there were zero Israeli deaths in the six months before the start of its all-out attack on Gaza on 27 December 2008, which by now has claimed over 600 Palestinian lives. Also, a great way of avoiding shelling civilians would be not to start a war to begin with (or, even then, not shell civilians).

But that’s giving Israel the benefit of the doubt. In fact, John Ging, the director of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, has said "I can tell you categorically that there was no militant activity in that school at the time of that tragedy...We have established beyond any doubt that the school was not being used by any militants...They were innocent people".


Israel today began what it said will be a daily three hour ceasefire to allow Gazans to "get medical attention, get supplies... whatever they need". Wow, these guys are like saints, aren’t they? For every 21 hours of murdering innocent people there’ll now be 3 hours of not murdering innocent people, so the innocent people can get “whatever they need”, before they start getting murdered again.

Don't forget that Israel is defending Western civilisation against the barbarians, will you?


Lets go back to that ceasefire that Israel broke. Nancy Kanwisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presents an important piece of empirical analysis in an article for The Huffington Post, showing that (a), yes, Hamas held the ceasefire and Israel broke it, and (b) that since the second intifada began eight years ago, the side that breaches periods of calm with new attacks has overwhelmingly been Israel. Not only that, but the longer the period of calm, the more likely it is that Israel will break it by launching a new attack, to the point where “it is virtually always Israel that kills first after a lull lasting more than a week”.

“79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian… of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days

Lets be clear about the importance of finding (b). In conflict situations, periods of peace provide something to build on; space for anger to subside, for dialogue to take place, even for levels of mutual trust to emerge. The longer a period of peace continues, the greater the chances of the cycle of violence being broken in a more substantive way. According to Kanwisher’s analysis, the greater the window of opportunity for peace that opens in this conflict, the greater the likelihood that Israel will slam that window shut, while it is hardly ever the Palestinians that do so.


Finally today, a look at the longer term consequences of Israel’s aggression. The Guardian talks to “Gaza's leading child psychiatrist, Dr Abdel Aziz Mousa Thabet, who has studied the effects of violence and trauma on children for 20 years, [and says that] about 65% of young people in the enclave suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

““There are many other traumatic symptoms, like headaches and abdominal pain and vomiting. There's an inability to concentrate, panic, anxiety, irritability," he said. "I've observed much change in the children. They are more anxious, more fearful. Children are panicky because of the explosions. Children want to leave. You hear it. They feel there is no hope, that the world can't do anything for them and they can't do anything for themselves."”

“Thabet says the impact of trauma on older children combines with other experiences to push them to extremes.”

“The perpetual killing has also drawn many children into the cult of the "martyr" and led them to expect an early death.”

“Thabet said the traumatizing of children was having a profound effect on Gaza's future. The children he studied in the early 1990s are now adults.”

“"They become fighters. I warned about this 15 years ago, that in 15 years these traumatized children will be more aggressive, they will want to fight, there will be more violence in the community. You saw it in the factional fighting in Gaza in 2007," he said.”

“"So now we will have another generation of more aggressive behaviour. They will go to more extremes because they have no future. This is a problem. I've been warning people of this but nobody was listening. It's a cycle of aggression.””

“"Children see their parents killed in front of them. What do you expect?"

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan, has a good post on his blog today describing how previous Israeli atrocities have led to vicious terrorist reprisals. He notes that Israeli politicians are well aware that this will be one of the consequences of their actions.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, “predicted that the Israeli invasion of Gaza would see "extremists try to radicalise individuals for their own purposes". Research had shown "no single path" on the way to violent extremism, but foreign policy was certainly one factor, along with economic, social, and personal circumstances.

So if it comes to light that Gordon Brown really has had our diplomats at the UN working in secret to block calls for a ceasefire, then not only will he have been assisting in the slaughter of innocent people in Gaza, he will also be responsible for creating what are known to be the conditions for an increased likelihood of deadly terrorist attacks in the UK. (In this regard, it seems Brown’s odious predecessor has also been busy recently)

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Monday, December 29, 2008

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


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, May 23, 2008

Time for change

With New Labour's latest huge defeat at the hands of David Cameron's Conservatives, it looks like a change is coming in British politics.


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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Britain’s failure in Iraq

My article "Britain’s failure in Iraq" is published this month in the English language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. An excerpt:
"In 2003, Britain promised a post-Saddam Iraq that would be “a stable, united and law-abiding state providing effective representative government to its own people.” That those ambitions have not been realised is now widely acknowledged even within the political establishment. A recent report by Michael Knights and Ed Williams described Iraq’s deep south, the area for which Britain is responsible, as “a kleptocracy” where “well armed political-criminal mafiosi have locked both the central government and the people out of power”. "

"Britain’s official goals have now been significantly downgraded to keeping violence at a manageable level, and leaving local administrators and security services to deal with the situation. Even this is far from being achieved, and Britain faces these problems in near isolation from the international community. British policymakers and analysts will be asking themselves what went wrong for many years to come."
Read the rest here. Alternatively, if you want a hard copy, you can get LMD in English from one of the bigger branches of a major bookstore, e.g. Borders on Oxford Street, London.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

The Blair Myth

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


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kosovo and its Implications

I will argue that the concept of “humanitarian intervention” can serve an important purpose for powerful states, one that is more strategic than moral in nature. The commonly formulated question raised by “humanitarian intervention” is that of “sovereignty versus human rights”. In my view, this paradigm of understanding can be used by powerful states to justify their dispensing with the normative and legal constraints of the international system even when taking military actions that are not of a moral character.

Since the 1999 NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo is seen as a definitive moment with regard to the question under discussion, I will examine this issue with particular reference to that conflict. I will do this in three stages. I will begin by critically examining the apparent presumption in the mainstream scholarly literature of the benign intent of the states carrying out this purported “humanitarian intervention”. I will cite contemporaneous examples of enforced population displacement and human rights abuses – in Turkey and East Timor - where the British and American involvement was markedly different to that seen in the case of Kosovo.

I will then examine the Kosovo action itself, firstly arguing that the war did not qualify as a “humanitarian intervention”; and, secondly, proposing some alternative reasons for why the action was undertaken.

Finally, I will turn to the above-mentioned question of “sovereignty versus human rights”, arguing that if humanitarianism was not the prime motive for the Kosovo intervention then, with this key assumption potentially discredited, the war’s implications for the international system as discussed in the scholarly literature will need to be comprehensively rethought. I will propose that the real issue at hand is not of “sovereignty versus human rights” but “sovereignty versus power”, where the concept of “humanitarianism” can be used by certain states to justify dispensing with elements of the legal and normative international system – e.g. sovereignty - that constrain their ability to project power.

The assumption of benign intent

The founding assumptions of debate

In examining the debate over the concept of “humanitarian intervention” we can learn as much by identifying points of consensus as we can by noting the points of contention. On this topic, there is some debate over whether “humanitarian interventions” are likely to meet with success, but less debate over whether the professed humanitarian impulses of the actors themselves are in fact genuine. Betts for example, whilst expressing strong reservations about the prospect that such endeavours will be successful, still characterises them as flowing from “the best of intentions” and “resonating with respect for the law and international co-operation” (Betts:1994:20-22).

These general scholarly assumptions apply to the case of the Kosovo war. Reviewing the literature on Kosovo and humanitarian intervention, David Chandler says that, “Apart from being seen as the first ‘humanitarian war’…the war over Kosovo has been generally recognised as a crucial point in the gradual evolution of a new set of international norms”. On this normative evolution, Chandler quotes Patrick Thornberry, who claims that “We are witnessing a sea-change in the relations between sovereignty and human rights”. Chandler says that “most commentators agree that, overall, this development is a progressive and desirable one”. (Chandler:2002:111).

It appears that for many commentators – whether they are in favour of “humanitarian intervention” or not – debate over the concept rests on the assumption that the relevant states’ professed concern for humanitarian values is genuine. Plainly this assumption is non-trivial. A “humanitarian intervention” that is not humanitarian is simply an intervention, a distinction that materially alters our conception of its character and legitimacy.

It is essential, then, to challenge this assumption of benign intent with possible countervailing evidence to see if it withstands scrutiny. At the outset of the Kosovo action Tony Blair spoke of “a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated” (quoted in Chomsky:2001:1). Was Blair’s government attempting to lead the world into the new era of the kind he described? There is evidence to suggest otherwise.

Countervailing examples- Turkey and the Kurds

The 1990s saw serious atrocities committed against the Kurdish population of Turkey as the government fought Kurdish nationalist guerrilla forces. Between 1994 and 1998 3,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, at least 1.5 million people were made homeless and/or internally displaced, and many thousands were killed by Turkish security forces. To this day, widespread human rights abuses against the Kurds in Turkey are ongoing. The European Court of Justice accuses Turkey of subjecting the Kurds to house destruction, torture, ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial executions.

Referring to Tony Blair’s statement that, under the “new internationalism” heralded by NATO action over Kosovo, “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”, we might ask why the West has not intervened in this case.

In a sense, the West has intervened, but on the side of Turkey. During the mid-1990s British and American arms exports to Turkey increased sharply, in correlation with the increase in atrocities. British arms sales and training of Turkish security forces continued after the New Labour government came to power in 1997. In the years before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Turkish forces were permitted to conduct operations in the US-UK-enforced ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Iraq. Turkish incursions sometimes lasted months, with villages burnt and atrocities committed (for all facts cited in this sub-section, see Curtis:2003:38-46).

Countervailing examples- Indonesia and East Timor

Also in the late nineties, another example of the brutal repression of an ethnic group, including population displacement and large scale atrocities, was unfolding in East Timor. Again, British and American involvement on the side of the repressor was long-established and remained apparently unaffected by the advent of the “new internationalism”.

Indonesia had invaded East Timor in 1975. In suppressing a popular insurgency and enforcing its rule it proceeded to kill an estimated 200,000 people, nearly one third of the East Timorese population. As in the case of Turkey’s repression of the Kurds during the 1990s, an increase in Western arms exports to Indonesia during the late 1970s correlated with the increase of atrocities carried out in East Timor.

A referendum on East Timorese independence in August 1999 was preceded by renewed abuses carried out by the Indonesian military and its proxies, commencing in November 1998. These were designed to intimidate the population in advance of the vote, and therefore qualify as a straightforward instance of terrorism. An estimated 3-5,000 people were killed (twice the death toll in Kosovo on both sides before the NATO bombing) and eighty-five per cent of the population were driven from their homes.

British and American arms sales to Indonesia continued throughout this period, including joint US-Indonesia military training exercises. Support was finally ended in September 1999 under massive public and international pressure, ten months after the new wave of atrocities had commenced, and also after the referendum that they had been aimed at influencing (though they had notably failed in this regard with the East Timorese voting in favour of independence). When Western support was withdrawn, the atrocities stopped almost instantaneously. Chomsky notes that this demonstrates the decisive nature of that support and strongly indicates that its withdrawal at any point over the previous quarter century could have saved many thousands of lives (for all facts cited in this sub-section, see Chomsky:2001:21-26).

Implications for US-UK humanitarianism

In both of the cases highlighted above the atrocities could have been ended, or at least mitigated, by the cessation of US-UK support for the repressor government. Even if one were to argue that the atrocities would have continued – ignoring the example of East Timor – the humanitarian policy choice would still surely have been to end complicity in “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups”. Such a cessation of support would have carried relatively little cost, as compared to an armed invasion, but the humanitarian option was not taken.
That the US-UK did not adopt humanitarian policies in the above-mentioned cases does not logically preclude the possibility that they might have chosen such policies in the case of Kosovo. But it does enable us to say three things before proceeding further:

1. that intrinsic US-UK humanitarianism does not appear to exist and certainly cannot be casually assumed;
2. that claimed US-UK humanitarianism in the case of Kosovo should therefore be examined very closely; and
3. that if such an examination reveals the humanitarian credentials of the Kosovo action to be suspect, then this, coupled with the non-humanitarian approach taken in similar contemporaneous cases, must disprove the scholarly consensus that the “war over Kosovo [was] a crucial point in the gradual evolution of a new set of international norms” where henceforth “the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”.

It is therefore to Kosovo that we now turn.

Kosovo - a humanitarian intervention?

To assess whether or not the war over Kosovo qualifies as a “humanitarian intervention” we may ask three pertinent questions:

1. was it a war of last resort?
2. did it avert a humanitarian crisis? and
3. was it fought in accordance with humanitarian principles?

The account of the war set out by the historian Mark Curtis provides some revealing answers to these questions. Facts cited in this section are from his account of the conflict (Curtis:2003:134-157).

A war of last resort?

Curtis’ account of diplomatic activity in the run-up to the war strongly suggests that NATO avoided a peaceful settlement. It is hard to envisage any country accepting the demands it made of Serbia at the Rambouillet conference in March 1999; for example that NATO forces be given free right of movement throughout the Former Yugoslavia. Curtis quotes a senior US administration official who told the media at the conference, “we intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing and that’s what they are going to get”.

During the war, German and French attempts to impose a peaceful settlement were also rejected. However, the final peace accord after the war dropped many of the most onerous demands put forward by NATO at Rambouillet, suggesting, as Curtis points out, that scope for a peaceful settlement had existed before military action was taken. Since these options were not explored we cannot say whether they would have been successful, but we can say that military action was not a last resort taken after all possible alternatives had been explored and exhausted.

Did war avert a humanitarian crisis?

Curtis cites authoritative sources indicating that, far from averting a humanitarian crisis, the war in fact precipitated one, and furthermore that this was a predicted consequence of military action being taken. For example, the OSCE’s account of the war noted that a “vast increase in lootings, killings, rape, kidnappings and pillage [took place] once the NATO air war began”. That Serbia would instigate full-scale ethnic cleansing in response to a NATO attack was expected by those prosecuting the war. NATO commander Wesley Clark said that “The military authorities fully anticipated the vicious approach that Milosevic would adopt”. The Guardian reported on 28 April 1999 that “MI6 is understood to have warned that bombing would accelerate ethnic cleansing”. In fact, four weeks after the bombing commenced Clark said the operation

“…was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing. It was not designed as a means of waging war against the Serb forces in Kosovo. Not in any way. There was never any intent to do that. That was not the idea…”.

Was the war fought in accordance with humanitarian principles?

Again, the factual record does not suggest that humanitarian concerns were a priority for the war’s instigators. After the war, with NATO troops on the ground, the Kosovo Liberation Army instigated atrocities and ethnic cleansing against Serbs without serious interference from NATO. Furthermore, the conduct of NATO itself in the course of the war raises questions about its humanitarian credentials. Extensive use was made of cluster bombs during the war; in fact, half of all British bombs dropped during the campaign were of this variety. Cluster bombs are inherently indiscriminate and therefore pose particular dangers to civilians. In addition, direct attacks were carried out on non-military targets such as Serb radio and television.

Human rights groups condemned NATO’s prosecution of the war. Amnesty International said that “NATO forces [had] violated the laws of war leading to cases of unlawful killings of civilians”. Human Rights Watch said: “We are concerned that NATO bombed the civilian infrastructure …because its destruction would squeeze Serb civilians to put pressure on Milosevic to withdraw from Serbia”. This latter interpretation of NATO conduct, if accurate, would amount to a charge of terrorism.

If not humanitarianism, then what?

If military action over Kosovo was(a) not taken as a last resort; (b) taken with the expectation that it would precipitate a humanitarian crisis; and(c) if humanitarian principles were repeatedly violated in the course of it being fought, then the scholarly consensus that this was “the first ‘humanitarian war’” is seriously undermined. It also logically follows that the claimed reasons for fighting the war may not have been the real reasons, and that we should therefore consider this possibility together with any other potential reasons for why military action might have been taken.

Curtis notes that the other reason given by Tony Blair for going to war, aside from humanitarian concerns, was “credibility”. “To walk away now” said Blair on the eve of war, “would …destroy NATO’s credibility” (Curtis:2003:141). What is meant by credibility? Policymakers may describe military “credibility” as simply the establishment in the popular understanding of one’s willingness and capability to defend oneself and one’s allies against aggression. This was no doubt the case that Blair wanted to make. But unless we propose that states in general, and the US and UK in particular, only take military action for defensive reasons, we must recognise that credibility also has an offensive, proactive nature, i.e. the establishment in the popular understanding of one’s willingness and capability to proactively advance one’s own interests via military action, if such action is deemed necessary.

Michael Ledeen – a scholar close to the Bush administration – is reported to have made a statement that, though somewhat stark, effectively describes the essence of this latter meaning of credibility. "Every ten years or so” Ledeen reportedly said, “the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." (Goldberg:2002). The NATO approach to the war set out in Curtis’ account suggests that we must consider the possibility that it was not the former, defensive form of credibility that was in the minds of NATO planners.

Curtis also points out another potential reason for NATO to take military action, namely that “Serbia posed the last real barrier to openly expressed British, EU and US aims in Eastern Europe”, i.e. the implementation of “Washington consensus” economic policies and the extension of NATO up to the borders of Russia. According to John Norris, “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. During the war Norris had been director of communications for Strobe Talbott, a Deputy US Secretary of State closely involved in the campaign. Talbott says that Norris’ account explains “how events looked and felt at the time to those of us that were involved” (Achcar & Chomsky:2006:253).

At this point it may be useful to ask what the NATO policy might have been if, in early 1999, Serbia had been an integrated part of the Western economic and military system. The support given to Turkey and Indonesia in the cases discussed above suggests a possible answer to that question.

If the war was fought for the reasons given by Norris, then this would be consistent with a demonstration of credibility of the kind described by Ledeen. This essentially Realist interpretation – of states acting in accordance with self-interest largely irrespective of ethical concerns – is also consistent with British and American policies toward their Turkish and Indonesian allies. This interpretive consistency contrasts with the difficult questions and inconsistencies raised by the claimed humanitarian motives, as discussed above.

Implications for the scholarly consensus and the international system

These conclusions have serious implications for the scholarly consensus described by Chandler. Thornberry said that Kosovo signalled “a sea-change in the relations between sovereignty and human rights”: a state’s sovereign impunity for events occurring within its borders could now be overridden by other states seeking to prevent human rights abuses being committed within those borders. But if humanitarianism was not an operative factor in US-UK decision making over Kosovo, then whilst we can say that a normative change may have occurred, we cannot say that it is the one described in the scholarly literature.

We are therefore forced to look at an alternative issue: not “sovereignty versus human rights” but “sovereignty versus power”. This is a very different proposition, which for example gives new meaning to Chandler’s observation that “the NATO powers asserted that the restriction on the use of force and presumption of equal rights of sovereignty [under the “Westphalian” system and the UN Charter] were a barrier to effective international regulation” (Chandler:2002:114).

Having failed to get Security Council approval for military action against Serbia, NATO did not attempt to gain UN General Assembly approval, in the expectation that the vote would be lost (Chandler:2002:112). The “new internationalism” described by Blair would therefore be inaugurated without the consent of the international community. Under the normative revolution that was actually taking place, “effective international regulation” was to be the task of certain states – necessarily the powerful ones.

This international opposition shows that the scholarly consensus on the significance of the Kosovo war as described by Chandler is not the universal consensus. In April 2000, the Group of 77 nations – comprising the governments of eighty per cent of the world’s population – stated that “We reject the so called right of ‘humanitarian intervention’”, viewing the new normative order as imperialism in a different guise (quoted in Chomsky:2001:4). The facts reviewed here indicate that this view has merit. We may indeed argue that, in this respect, the widely acknowledged unilateralist tendencies of the current White House administration have a parallel with the policies of its predecessor and its allies. Both administrations – perhaps attempting to take advantage of US global pre-eminence in the post Cold War era – challenged the “barrier to effective international regulation” presented by the international system. Under President Clinton, this was justified on the basis of “humanitarian intervention”, whereas under President Bush the justification is the “war on terror”.


My argument here has not been against humanitarian intervention. In fact I have lamented a lack of humanitarianism in US-UK foreign policy. Noam Chomsky has said of humanitarian intervention that “the proclaimed principle has merit, or would, if it were upheld in a way that honest people could take seriously”. I have shown here that an honest appraisal of US-UK foreign policy in general, the Kosovo war in particular and the implications of such actions for the international system are not encouraging for those concerned with humanitarianism in world affairs. If genuine “humanitarian interventions” are to be possible – as we must hope they are - then a critical appraisal of the credentials of the states proposing such interventions will be essential. This is particularly true when such actions have seminal implications for the international system. Otherwise we risk the concept of “humanitarianism” being put in service of far less enlightened ends than those for which we might hope.


Achcar. G., and Chomsky. N., (2006), “Perilous Power”, (London:Hamish Hamilton)

Betts. R.K., (1994), “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention”, Foreign Affairs 73(6): 20-33

Curtis. M., (2003), “Web of Deceit”, (London:Vintage)

Chomsky. N., (2001), “A New Generation Draws the Line”, (London:Verso)

Chandler. D., (2002), “Kosovo and the Remaking of International Relations”, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 1(4):110-118

Goldberg. J., (23 April 2002), “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two”, National Review Online. Viewed online 7 March 2007

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blair in numbers

Tony Blair has announced that he will step down as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007. Strong stomachs will be required over the next seven weeks as the political classes feed us a steady diet of nostalgia and hagiography. This should reveal, for anyone who doubted it, that something approaching a personality cult exists around Blair, as it did around Thatcher and Reagan before him.

A government memo describing the plans for Blair's departure was leaked last September. Its call for Blair to go "with the crowds wanting more" with the PM as "the star who won't even play that last encore" was the cause of much hilarity from the general commentariat. And yet, pathetically, that's exactly the send off that he is now getting. And more pathetically still, the wails of anguish from the punditocracy as the dear leader departs couldn't be more at odds with the views of the apparently irrelevant public.

So BBC political editor Nick Robinson tells us that "love him or loathe him...Blair will be missed" and will "leave Downing Street after a decade in office without being forced out, and with a smile on his face - a feat which no other modern prime minister has matched". Whilst the BBC's graph tracking Blair's approval rating throughout his time in office, show his support steadily declining from a post-97 election high of around 75 per cent to a current low of less than 25. There are highs and lows, but the trend line heads downwards inexorably. Hard to see what he's smiling about. And if he's not being forced from office, is that his achievement or our democracy's failing?

Then we have the headline on the front page of today's Guardian, which tells us that a "Poll shows [Blair] will leave with voters' respect". The framing of the poll results in question, both in that headline and in the article, are a masterclass in editorial spin. Someone has plainly decided that something positive needed to be said about Blair in this piece. One is almost forced to admire the valiant efforts of hapless writer Julian Glover to make completely contradictory facts support the preordained conclusion.

For instance:

"Despite Iraq and Labour's steep decline in public support, Mr Blair will be remembered as a force for change in Britain - although not necessarily for the better - by 60% of all voters and 70% of Labour ones"

Its hard to see exactly where the word "despite" comes in here, unless one had already decided to say that there were positives in the poll to offset Blair's recent disasters, and then had to find a way to present the facts so as to support this conclusion. As the article admits, being a "force for change" is neither a positive nor a negative, so where's the "on the one hand Iraq, but despite that...." angle here?

I'm sure many Iraqis see Blair as a "force for change".

"Asked to give their impressions of the prime minister, taking into account his entire decade in power, 80 per cent of Labour voters say that he was good for the country. Overall, 44 per cent of voters agree - a rating that stands well ahead of Labour's current position in the polls."

Blair then can at least say that most of the people who vote for his government think he's been good for the country. A mighty achievement. But that still leaves the 56 per cent of the general public who were not able to say the same.

"But despite the police investigation into cash for honours, 44 per cent of all voters and 73 per cent of Labour ones still say that they think Mr Blair was "an honest kind of guy"."

Another curious use of the word "despite". 56 per cent of the public can't say that Blair is honest. More than a quarter of people who actually vote for his government can't say that Blair's honest.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I can't see anything in this poll that says that Blair "will leave with voters' respect".

Let's look at the results of another poll, which appeared in The Observer last month. See if you can find any of these conclusions fairly reflected in the political obituaries of Blair that appear in the coming weeks.

Respondents are asked to rate Blair from 0 to 10, where where 10 means strongly like, and 0 means strongly dislike. 48 per cent rate him 0, 1, 2 or 3. 24 per cent rate him at 0. 19 per cent rate him in the corresponding 4 places at the top of the scale (7, 8, 9 and 10). 3 per cent rate him at 10.

56 per cent of respondents say their view of Blair has deteriorated over 10 years. 5 per cent like him more.

55 per cent believe that Blair is too influenced by the rich.

57 per cent say Blair "has stayed in office too long". 9 per cent think not long enough.

6 per cent think Blair's performance in office has been very good. 20 think good. That leaves 71 per cent. Of these 42 are evenly split between poor and very poor.

Its unsurprising that 58 per cent think Iraq was Blair's biggest failure. But how many times will we see reflected in political coverage the fact that the next on the list was his presiding over an increase in the gap between rich and poor? That polled 10 per cent, well above the fuel tax (3), foxhunting (3) and Europe (1). Plainly the public and the punditocracy have different political priorities (and the claim of the rightwing tabloids to "speak for Britain" might need a review).

Finally, lets look at the big myth on Blair's popularity - Blair the electoral wizard. Geoffrey Wheatcroft nailed this myth in an article last August. As he points out:

"...that first landslide [1997] needs to be deconstructed. There were several factors at play... The Tory vote collapsed by an astonishing 4 million (not least because rightwing Europhobic parties picked up nearly a million votes)."

"Then the British learned the art of tactical voting for the first time since the 1920s, as demonstrated by the fact that the Lib Dems won more than twice as many seats in 1997 as five years earlier with substantially fewer votes, both absolutely and as a percentage. And finally, as Herbert Morrison put it, "When the British people say something they say it in italics," meaning that our electoral system distorts the result in favour of the winning party, in 1997 giving Blair 63% of parliamentary seats with only 44% of the popular vote."

"Since then it has been downhill all the way. When the desperate last-ditch Blairites talk about Tony's electoral flair, remember that in 1997 Blair and New Labour won fewer popular votes than John Major and the Tories in 1992; that in 2001, Blair won fewer popular votes than Neil Kinnock and Labour in 1992; and that in 2005 Labour won fewer popular votes than the Tories had in the 97 disaster."

"Over three elections under Blair, his party's vote has fallen from 13.5 million to 10.7 million to 9.6 million. And that what statisticians call a trend line."

So Between 1997 and 2005, Labour lost nearly 4 million popular votes; the same amount the Tories lost during the living death of the Major years. And this in the face of no meaningful parliamentary opposition. Yet Major was a disaster and Blair is a magician. And this is the view, not just in the Guardian offices but across the political spectrum, even in Tory central office.

Worth keeping a few of these figures in mind when you're watching TV news or reading the papers over the next few weeks and wondering if you've missed something where Blair's alleged popularity and political skills are concerned.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Cheney

Juan Cole right on the money, as is so often the case, describes here two 21st centuries: the actual 21st century and the one in Dick Cheney's mind.
"I caught a clip of Dick Cheney on Sunday saying that "in the 21st century," the US could stay in Iraq and ensure that a stable government was established that could defend itself.

I was struck by his invocation of the 21st century, as though it were automatically on the side of the US, or more especially on the side of American hawks.
The Project for a New American Century was always a project for a new American empire, an empire of the old rickety nineteenth-century sort. Its time passed a long time ago. Peoples of the global south don't have to surrender their independence to European district commissioners anymore. They have enough biopower to forestall that fate. "
read the rest here.
Also today, in the Guardian, Jackie Ashley launches a powerful attack on the rest of the political class for focusing on trivialities like the career of Defence Secretary Des Browne and marginalising discussion of the ongoing carnage in Iraq:
"What matters is the disaster. What matters is the blood dripping into the sand, day after day, week after week. What matters is the obvious thing, the hideous civil war destroying Iraq, and the murders and the bombings, and our complicity in that....We have made this situation, rolled out the pitch on which civil war and terrorism are being played out, and have failed to find any way of binding the wounds we opened. The answers are hard, expensive, and possibly humiliating - they certainly involve dialogue with the Iranians. But that's what the Commons should be debating today, not Des Browne and his stupid inquiry."
I'd make a couple of points on Ashley's article.
Firstly, she praises the elements of the web-based non-mainstream media that have focused on what matters in respect of Iraq and mentions two sites: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count and Iraq Body Count. Of these, she says that the former "confines itself to collating news reports and is therefore, it says itself, undercounting", which is also true of Iraq Body Count, but she neglects to mention that. This is important because she cites the IBC death toll of "between 61,391 and 67,364" whereas the most reliable estimate is probably that published in the Lancet medical journal [pdf] last year which cited a figure of 655,000. The Lancet report, whilst rubbished in public by the government, was privately admitted to have come "close to best practice", using "robust", "tried and tested" methodology which may even have lead to an underestimate according to one adviser.
Secondly, while Ashley characterises the conflict as a civil war, the Lancet report noted that a large proportion of the deaths, in fact most of those whose cause was identifiable, came as a result of coalition air strikes. Plainly the nature of the conflict has changed over the years, but coalition air power is still very much active today, so the meaningful focus that Ashley calls for would have to look at this element as well.
But credit to Ashley for making two compelling and important points that need to be made far more often in mainstream discourse: firstly, that Iraq is first and foremost a tragedy for the Iraqi population (as opposed to a disaster for Western prestige, Tony Blair's legacy or some such triviality) and secondly, for acknowledging that the US-UK share a large part of the responsibility for the sectarian element of the conflict.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Iran hostage crisis in context

Now that the UK-Iran hostage crisis has come to a close, it is possible to draw a few conclusions on the meaning of what has taken place over the last fortnight. However, standing in the way of our efforts to do so, we will find a broad cross-section of the Western news media which, since the crisis began, have reliably undertaken their standard task of caricaturing and infantilising the official enemy. Much effort has been spent ascribing to Iran the fanaticism, aggression and various other pathologies that constitute the designated framework within which we are told its actions must be understood. These depictions, implicitly or explicitly, have begged the question of how Britain, as a mature and reasonable nation state, can best deal with the unruly children in Tehran and their latest unprovoked tantrum.

These cartoon-like portrayals of the situation may make us feel warm and fuzzy about Western power, and instil suitable levels of contempt for the barbarians on the periphery, but they are unlikely to give us a realistic or productive sense of what has been happening over the last two weeks. Let us then step out of the standard conceptualisation and instead consider an alternative Iranian viewpoint: not that of the half-crazed spoiler of Anglo-Saxon missionary work in the Middle East, but instead as another reasonably rational (though undoubtedly unpleasant) state actor in a volatile region, which volatility presents it with a number of substantial issues to deal with. Using this alternative paradigm, we may approach the situation with fresh eyes and ask ourselves a couple of pertinent questions: what might Iran’s reasons for arresting the British service-people have been, and how have the various actors involved benefited or lost from crisis? To answer these questions through an understanding of a rational Iranian point of view requires an appreciation of the context within which these events have taken place. A look at the relevant history is therefore required.

The historical context

In the broader context of a Persian history that spans over two millennia, the involvement of Britain and the West is a relatively recent chapter, beginning in the late 19th century as Russia and Britain fought for control over Central Asia. The discovery of vast oil reserves in Iran, and the British navy’s switch from coal to oil, drew London and Tehran closer, particularly during the Second World War when Iran was divided between Russia and Britain for the duration of the conflict. In the early 20th century, Britain moved swiftly to secure the Iranian oil concession on favourable terms, enjoying vast profits through the Anglo-Persian oil company (which later became BP) while much of the Iranian population languished in squalor, seeing practically nothing of their nation’s riches.

Britain’s maintained a steady and decisive level of interference in Iranian politics throughout the first half of the 20th century, with the aim of maintaining its control over Iranian oil reserves. This manipulation peaked with the coup of 1953, effected with the US in the lead, that overthrew the elected Iranian prime minister - Mohammad Mossadegh - and replaced him with a repressive dictatorship. Mossadegh’s crime had been to nationalise
Iran’s oil industry, inspired by the radical notion that a country’s resources should benefit its own population, not the ruling elite of a distant power. For Britain and the US, such misbehaviour could not go unpunished. As penance, Iran would spend the next quarter century subjected to a reign of state terror under the Shah and his notorious secret police the Savak which Amnesty International described as “beyond belief” and which was backed to the hilt by the US and the UK.

This regime was brought to an end by the revolution of 1979, which ushered in the era of limited democracy compromised by severely authoritarian clerical rule that continues to this day. The West’s antipathy to this new regime is generally put down to the latter being a repressive theocracy that provides backing for international terrorism. To asses this claim, it will suffice to say that such descriptions are
even more true of Saudi Arabia, which continues to enjoy a relationship with London and Washington that is unusually close for any state, let alone one of the most brutal on the face of the planet. It is plain that the objection to Iran’s government is not one of principle. If only Iran were our terrorist-backing tyrannical theocracy, it could be far more repressive and have far closer links to far worse terrorists and suffer no adverse repercussions from the West. The problem for London and Washington since 1979, as in the early 1950s, has been Iran’s independence, not its moral character.

As per imperial traditions that long predate the current era of Western pre-eminence, punishment of independent behaviour must be swift and fierce. The centrepiece of the ensuing attempts to discipline this once-again rebellious nation was the West’s
backing for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. This included Iraq’s large scale use of chemical weapons, which the West had helped Iraq to acquire, and escalated throughout the war to the point where the US was all but fighting alongside Iraq, providing active and extensive logistical back-up. The war had a profound effect on Iran, which lost hundreds of thousands of its people on the front and in Iraqi attacks on its population centres. The international communities failure to censure Iraq’s illegal war of aggression (note the contrast with the case of Kuwait in 1990) did not go unnoticed in Iran. Nor indeed did the fact that it had been isolated and systematically pulverised over eight devastating years with the material connivance of world’s powers.

Threats and responses

Bringing ourselves up to the present day, Iran has been declared a member of an “axis of evil” by a US government that has unilaterally declared its right to launch “pre-emptive” wars at will, without the approval of the international community or the cover of international law. It has seen this new doctrine put into action by the invasion and occupation by US-led coalitions of two of its major neighbours – Iraq and Afghanistan. Its attempt in 2003 to discuss all outstanding issues with the US with a view to reaching a long term settlement (including over relations with Israel, based on the Arab initiative) was ignored. It is currently being pursued through the Security Council by the West over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, despite a fatwa from the Supreme Leader banning the production of nuclear weapons and no evidence that his ruling is being transgressed. It is informed repeatedly that the US takes “no options off the table” in dealing with this much alleged but still unproven threat. It is also accused repeatedly, and again without serious substantiation, of aiding insurgent attacks on US forces in Iraq.

With global demand for oil sharply increasing just as global production comes close to its
projected historical peak, Iran finds itself sitting atop a strategic and material prize – its carbon energy reserves – whose value to the world’s powers has never been greater. Those powers that have most aggressively pursued Iran’s wealth and sought the subjugation of its government are visibly manoeuvring themselves into diplomatic, political and military positions that a rational Tehran could only find threatening in the extreme. Putting the diplomatic and political scenes to one side, on a military level Iran is currently surrounded by US forces and/or allies, in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. And as talk of US air strikes against Iran continues, with the strength of the Fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf increasing incrementally and with that fleet conducting “war games” simulating an assault on Iran, only the most reckless Iranian politician could refuse to see war as at least a realistic prospect.

To appreciate the Iranian perspective, we need only imagine that this history were our history, that this regional and political landscape were our own and that our nati
on were faced with hostile foreign powers whose raw military strength was so out of proportion to that available to us. In such a situation, any government whether liberal or authoritarian would view the fact and nature of the threat in much the same way, and could expect the population to share this view.

How then would a rational state deal with this situation? Its task would be to defend itself, but also to remain conscious of the disparity of forces available to it compared to its antagonists. It could not, unlike either of the superpowers in the Cold War for example, rely on the threat of massive retaliation to preclude any attack. It would therefore need to search for asymmetric methods of deterrence; a way to warn the unwelcome presence on its doorstep that any attempt to forcibly cross the threshold would carry risks sufficient to deter such action. All of the above principles apply both to the military and to the diplomatic scenarios faced by Iran.

In fact, significant asymmetric engagement between Iran and the West has been occurring over several months, perhaps even years. The fact that we have not heard so much of it in the West – let alone the howls of righteous indignation we’ve been treated to the past fortnight – is doubtless because it has been Iran on the receiving end of these efforts and not Britain or the United States. American troops have been
detaining Iranians in Iraq in increasing numbers over recent months, including Iranian diplomats present in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government (demonstrating where true power really lies in the Middle East’s newest democracy). In addition, several credible sources report that the West is constantly violating Iran’s territorial integrity. These have been said to include pilotless drone flights, US pursuit of “suspected insurgents” into Iran, and the backing of ethnic separatist terrorist groups within Iran whose activity the West hopes will destabilise the regime.

Losing at chess

In the context set out above, it appears that Iran’s arrest of the British service-people was aimed at drawing a line in the sand. To take similar action with US personnel would have precipitated a crisis that probably could not have been prevented from escalating into armed conflict. In addition, the disputed border in the Shatt al-Arab waterway offered a safety valve whereby the dispute could have been ended by being put down to a simple misunderstanding. Indeed, it was not clear (and, given the disputed nature of the border, could not have been clear, contrary to both London and Tehran’s claims) whether the British service-people were in Iranian or Iraqi territorial waters at the time of their arrest. But what was clear throughout was both Iran’s desire to see its territorial sovereignty respected and its willingness and ability to enforce that sovereignty.

Beyond this, a more important message was being sent by Iran: that it can apply pr
essure as well as receive it. Britain will now be painfully aware of the vulnerability of its troops should a US-Iran war break out. It will know of Iran’s deep ties with its Shia co-religionists in Iraq, and it will know that any US attack on Iran, even if Britain’s support was only of the diplomatic and political variety, would result in Iranian countermeasures-by-proxy that would see its troops dying or disappearing across Iraq in numbers not seen since 2003. None of this was a secret before, but the point has been well underlined.

But more striking than this for British officials will be manner in which Iran has demonstrated the shallowness of London’s international alliances and the limits of its strength on the world stage vis a vis Iran. This culminated in the rare sight of a visibly chastened Tony Blair putting on palpably uncomfortable performance before the cameras outside Downing Street shortly after Ahmedinejad’s announcement that the British troops would be released. It will not have escaped Blair’s notice that Iran released those troops not because of any decisive application of international pressure marshalled by London, not perhaps in the end even because of some deal that London was able to offer, but at a time and in a manner more or less entirely of Tehran’s choosing, which certainly caught Whitehall 100% off guard.

Recall that after a few days of relatively mild diplomacy in the initial stage
s of the crisis, Tony Blair had grandly announced that matters would enter a “new phase” if the Iranians didn’t come to their senses. There followed a staged presentation of information from Britain’s Ministry of Defence, designed to prove to the world that the troops had indisputably been in Iraqi waters. Instead this probably only served to remind the world (a) that what are Iranian and what are Iraqi waters in the Shatt al-Arab are not decided, and are certainly not to be decided by Britain, and (b) that where the Middle East is concerned, the world has heard rather too much from British and American intelligence already in recent years. Certainly the UN Security Council was not overly impressed. While Iran was chastised for arresting Britain’s troops the Council’s language was milder than that recommended by Whitehall and, crucially, member states did not endorse the view that the troops had been in Iraqi waters. Britain then took its case to the EU, where again, whilst condemnation was forthcoming it did not have the teeth that Whitehall was looking for, with Brussels failing to agree to tough sanctions against Tehran. In short, Blair’s “new phase” had fallen rather flat. Tehran had watched London attempt to internationalise their dispute and come up with very little. From there on in it would be between Britain and Iran, not Iran versus the “international community”; at least not to the significant degree that London had hoped for.

At this point, Britain’s language began to soften. The “new phase” was apparen
tly old news. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett came as close to an apology as Tehran could possibly have expected when she told reporters that “the message I want to send is I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it."”. Then, after a week and a half when the British government apparently had not been able to get in touch with him, Iran’s chief security official Ali Larijani spoke, not to FCO diplomats but to Britain’s Channel Four News, criticising British attempts to internationalise the dispute and explaining that matters could be solved diplomatically between the two countries. Finally, following a brief flurry of speculation in Britain on what such a deal between the two countries might involve, Iran staged a final piece of theatre, releasing the troops as an “Easter gift” to Britain, entirely wrong-footing Whitehall diplomats which had expected bi-lateral discussions to continue for some time yet.

The message was not merely that Iran can reach British troops with relative ease. It was also that on the diplomatic front, Iran does not simply have to react to events as an isolated actor surrounded by a disapproving “international community” reciting condemnations dictated by London and Washington. In this situation, Iran appears to have been more or less in control of the narrative while a relatively isolated Britain has been at the mercy of
events, with this being most especially and dramatically true at the conclusion of the crisis last night. Finally, the events of the last fortnight can be seen as a microcosm of how Iran would like the West to see the broader set of disputes between them. Internationalisation is futile, but direct bilateral engagement on the basis of mutual respect – of the kind offered by Iran in 2003 – can yield positive results.

The photos released by Iran of the British troops playing chess in captivity provides us with a useful image. Iran has played a short game of chess with the UK and won fairly convincingly. But this limited result has greater significance. Iran may not be able to prevail in a straightforward military contest with the West, but it does have significant strategic options available to it. Iran has sent the message that in the wider game of chess with its adversaries it has effective ways and means of striking back and should not be underestimated. Iran may not be able to directly deter the Israeli or US administrations from any military action against it or from increasingly aggressive moves in the diplomatic sphere. But Britain has certainly been warned, and any resulting increase in caution on London’s part will cause problems for US-Israeli hawks. And in addition to showing the limits and risks of the current Western stance, Iran has also demonstrated an alternative and more productive path for its adversaries to take. Audaciously, Tehran has turned the tables to a small extent, and adopted a carrots-and-sticks approach to those it perceives as threatening it.


What are the lessons for those of us in Britain? One is that any US-Iranian war will have severe repercussions for British service-people (along with wider consequences that could be disastrous in the extreme). Another is that Britain’s standing on the international stage is not nearly as strong as policymakers in Whitehall might hope, and that this loss of prestige, influence, goodwill and credibility can not be unconnected with our adventurist foreign policy of recent years. But finally, if we approach what has happened and the context in which it has happened with a degree of honesty, it is a reminder of Britain’s real role in the world. We remain a nation complicit in aggression towards other countries far from our own borders, a clear and present danger to the peace and security of many people in the world. It should not take a demonstration of the costs of such policies to ourselves, a lesson dished out by one of the world’s most odious governments, to illustrate the fundamentally immoral nature of our self-appointed role in Iran’s history, in its present and in the Middle East more generally. Because for all the intricacies of the diplomacy over the last two weeks the question in the minds of many people around the world will have been a simple one: what business did the UK have in or around Iranian waters in the first place? Above all, it is that interference in the affairs of others, that drive to manipulate the outside world to our advantage, that lies at the root of the current crises.


Note - 13/4/07

An anonomous journalist at the Financial Times points out here that the term "hostage" in this context is a politically loaded one. It assumes that the British servicepeople were arrested by Iran in order to extract concessions.

In actual fact, though this article does not assume that the sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters at the time of capture, it does nevertheless argue that they probably were detained for political reasons. But in any event, had I considered the points made by the FT journalist, as I should have done, I might have used more neutral terminology. I'm not minded to correct the piece now, but I insert this note so that the issue's at least highlighted.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Britain retreats from Iraq

I've frequently cited and recommended the US Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, and in his short, sharp summation of Britain's withdrawal of many of its troops from Iraq, announced today, he doesn't disappoint:
"This is a rout, there should be no mistake. The fractious Shiite militias and tribes of Iraq's South have made it impossible for the British to stay. They already left Sadr-controlled Maysan province, as well as sleepy Muthanna. They moved the British consulate to the airport because they couldn't protect it in Basra. They are taking mortar and rocket fire at their bases every night. Raiding militia HQs has not resulted in any permanent change in the situation. Basra is dominated by 4 paramilitaries, who are fighting turf wars with one another and with the Iraqi government over oil smuggling rights.
Blair is not leaving Basra because the British mission has been accomplished. He is leaving because he has concluded that it cannot be, and that if he tries any further it will completely sink the Labor Party, perhaps for decades to come."
I would only add a note of caution to that last point. This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure.
Here in the UK we probably hear as much about the situation regarding US forces as we do our own. I have to admit that I've some guilt on that score myself. The fact is that the occupation is an American operation. We're complicit, but we're not in the driving seat (a "pillion passenger" as the Royal Institute for International Affairs put it), so one tends to home in on the activities, conduct and fate of US forces.
As a result of this, a lot of people in Britain simply won't recognise the picture that Cole describes. We don't see reports like this from the Washington Post on the front pages of our newspapers (nor perhaps even in our blogs) though we undoubtedly should. Here's what Cole's talking about:
"BAGHDAD, Aug. 24 -- British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday ...... a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of U.S.-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center.
Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said the last of 1,200 troops left Camp Abu Naji, just outside Amarah, at noon Thursday, after several days of heavy mortar and rocket fire by a local militia, which local residents identified as the Sadr-controlled Mahdi Army.
The withdrawal sparked wide-scale looting at the base and then intense clashes late Thursday between Iraqi army forces guarding the camp and unknown attackers, a military intelligence official said. The volatile situation worsened when the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade mutinied and attacked a local military outpost, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
Burbridge acknowledged that constant shelling of the base in Amarah by militia forces, including 17 mortar rounds fired in recent days that wounded three people, were part of the reason the camp closed.
"By no longer presenting a static target, we reduce the ability of the militias to strike us," he said. But he rejected Sadr's claim that the British had been defeated and pushed out of Amarah. "It's very difficult to claim a victory without causing significant casualties."

The mood was quite different in Amarah, where jubilant residents flocked to Sadr's office to offer their congratulations. Drivers in the street honked their car horns in celebration. Some prepared to take to the streets to rejoice.
"Today is a holiday in our province," said Abu Mustaffa, an unemployed 45-year-old from the city's al-Hussein district. "Thanks be to God!"

Abu Mustaffa said anger toward the British reached fever pitch in recent days after soldiers entered a mosque and arrested several local men. The provincial government is controlled by Sadr's movement, he said."
As I've pointed out many times, the majority of Iraqis want our armed forces to leave their country. For example, a poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence in 2005, showed a majority - 67 per cent - believing that the occupation has made the security situation worse (less than one per cent believed it had improved matters) and 82 per cent "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops. I rather doubt that those numbers have improved in the last 18 months.
Two things should be noted here before proceeding further: firstly - in terms of what will and will not help security - that Iraqis are rather better placed to judge the situation they are living through themselves than we are from our vantage point several thousand miles away; and secondly, that whatever we think is irrelevant in any case, since its what Iraqis want for Iraq that counts.
Given the dissonance between our proclaimed mission to bring the gift of democracy to Iraq and our explicit rejection of the population's clear wish for us to leave their country, it should come as no surprise that the same MoD poll found that 65 per cent of Iraqi citizens in Maysan province - one of the four provinces under British control at that time - believed that attacks against coalition forces were justified. Hence the expulsion from the base in Amarah, and the jubilant scenes thereafter. Only last Sunday, UK forces clashed with Iraqi militiamen armed with machine guns and RPGs in Basra. And last month, Royal Air Force Tornado jets provided cover for the US Air Force in what is increasingly looking like a massacre of Iraqi tribesmen in Najaf.
What's been announced today has little to do with spreading democracy or improving the general welfare of the people of Iraq (much less the "war on terror" or the long-forgotten weapons of mass destruction). The British government it seems has done what the US Republican senator George Aiken urged Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon to do during the Vietnam war (only to be ignored): declare victory and leave.
One final thought. If the US attacks Iran, as many senior figures in the US establishment fear, Iran responds asymmetrically via regional proxies and allies, as is widely expected, and southern Iraq goes up in flames, what will then happen to Blair's victorious exit? UK forces aren't leaving tomorrow. They will remain there at least til the end of George Bush's term in office.
Update: 22/2/07
Yesterday I said: "This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure."
In fairness, I reckoned without the excellent Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, whose front page story is entitled..
"The retreat from Basra
It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger.

In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day. Food is short in parts of the country. A quarter of the population would starve without government rations. Many Iraqis are ill because their only drinking water comes from the highly polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Nowhere in Mr Blair's statement was any admission of regret for reducing Iraq to a wasteland from which 2 million people have fled and 1.5 million are displaced internally.

Nadia al-Mashadani, a Sunni woman with four children, was forced from her house in the Hurriya district of Baghdad under threat of death by Shia militiamen on 25 December. She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni neighbourhood. She told The Independent: "They promised us freedom and now we find ourselves like slaves: no rights, no homes, no freedom, no democracy, and not enough strength to say a word." Like many Sunni she believed the US had deliberately fomented sectarian hatred in Iraq to keep control of the country."
The LA Times also has some good coverage:
"The British military is approaching "operational failure," former defense staff chief Charles Guthrie warned this week.
"Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain's Iraq deployment."It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.' "
Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," ...
But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region was one of only two "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities
British bases in Basra regularly come under mortar fire. British troops engage in almost daily gunfights with militiamen. In recent months, the British all but evacuated their downtown base and moved to a more secure site on the grounds of the city's airport."
Its also worth noting that even this small reduction in forces has given ammunition to Bush's critics and put the White House on the back foot. It hints at the impact a full repudiation of our role in the war could have in Washington and thereby implies the political strength the White House gained from British support, begging the question: what if we hadn't joined the invasion in 2003? Probably the war would have gone ahead. But would Bush have won that narrow re-election the next year, isolated on the world stage and with the insurgency on the rise?
The New York Times reports that Bush administration officials were forced onto the defensive by yesterday's announcement:
"On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied suggestions that the British withdrawal plans meant the coalition forged to topple Saddam Hussein had crumbled
Democratic leaders in Congress saw it differently.

"By announcing its decision to redeploy troops from Iraq, the British government has acknowledged a reality that President Bush still stubbornly refuses to accept,” said Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader. “There can be no purely military solution in Iraq.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said, “the announcement by the British government confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people about the president’s decision to increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”"
See also:
Juan Cole: "The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops", at Salon.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

The Blairite future of Britain's military

Bradford University's security expert Paul Rogers writes a very good regular column for openDemocracy. His latest discusses the future British foreign policy that the Prime Minister is attempting to set in place before he leaves office.

"Blair made it quite clear - again, both in the speech [in Plymouth last week] and in the ensuing discussion - that [the threat of terrorism] must be met primarily by the vigorous "hard" power of military force, with the "soft" power of diplomacy, sanctions and other instruments a long way behind. This set of priorities was needed, Blair argued, because the decline in states willing to exercise such hard power constituted one of the crisis-points facing western nations. There was a great danger that Britain would join this band of weaklings."

Take your pick from the articles on the "
Best of the Diary" page to see how I assess the nature of British foreign policy. No need for me to comment further here on Blair's declared "visions" of Britain's role in the world and their relationship with reality.

What I found interesting was the military balance that the government apparently wants to set in place for Britain going forward. Firstly, Rogers describes "the decision to replace the Trident nuclear force with a new system, setting Britain as a nuclear-armed power for thirty-five years or more". Secondly, there is "the extraordinary plan to build two massive new aircraft-carriers. These, each weighing 65,000 tons and deploying the new and hugely expansive US F-35 joint strike fighter, will be far larger than any other warship ever deployed in the Royal Navy's history - three times the size of the current Invincible-class and much larger even than the battleships of the global 1939-45 war".

As Rogers points out, "the relatively modest size of the British economy, even allowing for Blair's wish to see an increase in defence spending, means that the new carriers will soak up resources to such an extent that all other military roles will be constrained", and the cost of Trident will only accentuate this. Given the recent debates over the lack of financial support given to British soldiery, these future plans seem to indicate an intention to tip the balance away from close-range infantry deployments and towards distance power-projection via air, sea and nuclear power. In other words, it appears that we now intend to bomb or threaten to bomb countries from a great height, rather than get into the messy business of invading them.

This tells us a couple of things. Firstly, it says something fairly straightforward about how human life is valued in government. Bombing from a great height is pretty
indiscriminate in terms of killing civilians. It does however reduce the danger to western troops. This isn't to say that foreign civilians are intrinsically less important to governments than their own troops. There's a straightforward political calulation involved. What's been brought home to the British and American governments is the political costs to their own ambitions that military deaths represent. Without those costs the lives of western troops would I suspect be as cheap as those of Iraqis, whose deaths we can barely be bothered to count. Aside from this, its clear that any concentration of material resources into military power of this kind displays a willingness to kill innocent people indiscriminately and in large numbers in order to achieve your objectives.

Secondly, we learn something about how the state of Britain's military credibility is perceived in Whitehall. As far as Iraq is concerned, the Prime Minister has clearly decided to brazen out the issue. But if a long-term switch of resources away from the ability to commit large numbers of troops and towards aerial bombing and threats of nuclear force is indeed being planned, then the official verdict on Iraq - as a seminal failure - has been delivered in emphatic and unequivocal terms. Such a change in military balance would constitute an admission that fighting on the ground, even against the 'weakest' of enemies, has not only failed, but will continue to fail as far as can be foreseen.

The lessons of Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan (twice), Lebanon and Iraq may now have been fully digested, at least by British planners. Major powers are far less able than once was the case to impose themselves by putting boots on the ground. Occupying militaries, no matter how well equipped, can not match guerrilla forces rooted in the population and deploying asymmetric tactics to grind down the invaders over time. Britain will therefore concentrate on more credible means of killing with which to threaten the world, lest the impression is given that we have been rendered unable to use organised violence to enforce our will.

The message to the disobedient of the world is simple: if we can't beat you face-to-face we will simply rain death upon you from the skies, and we don't mind too much who dies in the process. In its insistence on the legitimacy of projecting British power wherever we see fit, in its disregard for human life, and in its sheer petulance, this makes a fitting epitaph to Blair's foreign policy. The great man's legacy is secure.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blair: maximum assurance, maximum delusion

""The point about Blair is that he combines maximum assurance with maximum delusion." The comment, made privately by the leader of a Labour council, is the exact and perfect judgment. No other analyst need apply.

To hear Tony Blair calling for continuous war on Friday was instructive. Smooth, ingratiating, as always, and utterly natural, he sounded like a man saying that this was clearly the weather for a scarf and a woolly hat. The words induced one more increment of despair. Of course we must keep up the war on terror, of course we must go on killing and being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, if necessary, London, unlike cowardly not-pulling-their-weight Stockholm or Paris.

There is something unbalanced about the jaunty normality the man imports into approving a course of conduct in its fourth year of calamity. The message is very assured, very delusional. "It would be catastrophic not to continue with the 'war on terror'." Let us re-phrase that very slightly: "It would be catastrophic not to carry on with the catastrophe." It is a pleasant, smiling, glamorous face, and it is our national duty to save it."

"If only he'd studied history" - Edward Pearce

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Strangling Palestine

With 2006 dominated by the disintegration of Iraq and the Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received far less attention than might otherwise have been the case. This is particularly unfortunate since the current lull in Fatah-Hamas violence at start of a new year, and the election of Hamas to a position of dominance in the Palestinian Legislative Council this time last year, bookend one of the darkest chapters in the ongoing Palestinian catastrophe. Those who had hoped there might be some lower limit to the depths of the Palestinian's suffering, or to the cynicism of their tormentors, will have been roundly disabused of that notion by the events of 2006. What is unfolding now is a potentially decisive stage in what Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling called the “the politicide of the Palestinian people”; meaning “a gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity.”

In Al-Ahram,
Khaled Amayreh provides a useful narrative of the post-election events; the West's strangulation of the already devastated Palestinian economy (not just through cutting Western aid, but by stealing Palestinian tax revenues and threatening to blacklist banks that attempt to transfer anyone's money to the increasingly desparate occupied territories), Israel’s military aggression, the escalating Fatah-Hamas confrontation and the increasingly overt nature of Fatah's role as the long arm of the West.

On this last point, one might reflect, upon seeing a picture in yesterday’s Guardian of Fatah security officers carrying a picture of the executed Saddam Hussein, that both Saddam and Fatah have been backed by the West as bulwarks against local resistance to US-led imperialism (that Saddam's execution could turn him into a symbol of resistance to the US is quite something). In
earlier editions of Al-Ahram, Joseph Massad has described the insidious role of the West and of regional governments in Palestinian politics generally, and the Fatah-Hamas confrontation specifically; repeatedly comparing the Hamas-led government's current position to that of Allende's in Chile just before the US-backed military coup in 1973.

"Make no mistake about it", says Massad of the division between the class co-opted by the West under the ‘Oslo peace process’ on the one hand, and Hamas and the wider population on the other, "this is what the ongoing battle in the West Bank and Gaza is all about. What lies in the balance is the fate of nine million Palestinians."

It should not be forgotton that Hamas has repeatedly indicated its willingness to negotiate a
long term peace deal on the basis of international law and existing security council resolutions – the same deal supported by the entire world save for Israel and its closest allies, who have been blocking it for three decades, offering increasingly spurious and desperate justifications. It is this threat – of a peace that is just and lasting, but disadvantageous to Western interests – that it is hoped will be extinguished by starvation, bombardment and civil war.

Why is this an issue for us in Britain? Because the UK continues to give unstinting support to Israel - as documented on this site last summer in the case of the
Israeli-Hezbollah war - and to one side in the nascent Palestinian civil war. For example, Massad cites reports in Haaretz that "the United States government ... has been training [Palestinian President, Mahmood] Abbas's Praetorian Guard in Jericho for over a month with American, British, Egyptian, and Jordanian military instructors".

For us, now, the ‘
question of Palestine’ is one of our own complicity in the punishment of an entire population for having the temerity to vote against our preferred candidate in a free and fair election, and for their elected representatives daring to make a genuine “generous offer” for peace. It is with this in mind that we should assess the Prime Minister's efforts to support ”people who want a two-state solution, who are moderate and who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities”. As in the war on Lebanon last summer, the only “solution” Blair and the West are interested in is victory, whatever the human cost.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Iraq's future

"Children in Iraq are some of the most deprived in the Middle East, according to a report released by the United Nations children's agency (Unicef) on Monday. Using under-five mortality rates as a critical indicator of the wellbeing of children, the report ranked the country 33rd worst in a global survey of 190 countries.

"...child mortality is closely tied to high levels of malnutrition, poor access to health services and mothers' lack of education. The cost of war and conflict, in terms of lost lives, displacement, and setbacks to development, continues to be high, as is particularly evident in Iraq, oPt [the occupied Palestinian territories] and Sudan," said Wolfgang Friedl, Communication Officer for Unicef Middle East and North Africa.

In Iraq, women and children suffer far more than their male counterparts, according to NGOs and rights groups such as the Baghdad Centre for Human Rights Studies.

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, in years since the US-led occupation of the country began in 2003, children have become more vulnerable to diseases as Iraq's infrastructure has deteriorated, the economy has collapsed and supplies are limited.

"Thousands of children are displaced nowadays without medical support. Diarrhoea and dehydration have become common diseases among them and with a lack of medicine, what could be considered acute before is chronic today," Ahmed Waleed, media officer at the Ministry of Health, said. "The numbers presented by UNICEF show the critical condition the health system is in today in Iraq."

Iraqi boy Hudhar Zein, 11, is worried about his future. Since sectarian violence forced his family to flee their home in April 2006, he has lived in increasingly miserable conditions.

"Sometimes we need to divide the only available bread with six members of my family because we don't have money to buy more. I had to leave my school because my father cannot afford notebooks and pencils. And changing house from month to month makes it harder to stay in the same school," Zein said, adding that his father had recently lost his job.

"You cannot imagine what is like to see your six-year-old sister sick and at risk of dying because your family has no money to buy medicine for her. And [even if we had money] the hospital says it ran out of medicine a month ago," Zein added.

Despite the grave situation for children in Iraq, oPt and Yemen, Unicef's Friedl said that other countries in the region have improved conditions remarkably. "Child mortality varies greatly between Arab countries due to political instability and economic development. In fact, no other region in the world records such a vast contrast with respect to child mortality," he said.

Friedl added that the Middle East as a whole has shown an "impressive decline" in infant mortality - from an average of 81 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 56 in 2004. The region also reduced under-five mortality rates over the past decade by two thirds."

IRIN: "Children suffer most in Iraq, says Unicef report"
Also, for the sort of close-up insights into life as an Iraqi that you almost never get from the western media, see "'Today Is Better than Tomorrow', Iraq as a Living Hell", by Dahr Jamail.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Nuclear Britain

Something quickly on the Government announcement that it'll be replacing the UK's "Trident" nuclear weapons system.

NPT obliges us as a nuclear state to work towards total nuclear disarmament. The UK’s justification for renewing Trident, that we need nuclear weapons in an uncertain world, is to say that we will always retain nuclear weapons, whatever the circumstances, because the circumstances may always change.

In other words, by using this justification, the UK has declared its intention to remain a nuclear power in perpetuity. It has therefore declared NPT to be a dead document as far as it is concerned.

This is bad for security.

Firstly, we now have zero credibility when it comes to telling non-nuclear states not to go nuclear. We have declared the NPT a dead document so they have no reason to abide by it.

Secondly, and more importantly the more states there are with nuclear weapons, and the longer nuclear weapons exist, the higher the likelihood that a situation will arise, inadvertently or otherwise, where they are used, with a holocaust resulting. Former
Soviet systems, practically on hair triggers, are apparently in an ever-worsening state of disrepair. One wrong move, one misinterpreted action, could lead to the worst calamity the world has ever seen

The sensible thing to do in the interests of security is therefore to take the NPT seriously and work multilaterally through mutual security guarantees to steadily draw down the world's collective nuclear arsenal.

But this isn't about security. It’s about the geo-political leverage you get from
borrowing some nukes from the US and then pretending you're a big shot on the international scene (which includes being prepared for first use – a genuinely disgusting policy).

All in all, another pathetic display on the world stage from New Labour's Britain, which would be merely laughable if it wasn't so profoundly dangerous.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Support the troops

The old line about supporting the troops has been wheeled out on both sides of the Atlantic this week. In the UK, the government fought off calls in parliament for an inquiry into the Iraq war, with Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett saying that to hold such an inquiry now would be to send a negative message to British troops in Iraq who deserve “our support”. In the US, after John Kerry warned students that failing to get a good education could get you “stuck in Iraq”, the Republicans fell over themselves to pretend that Kerry - a decorated Vietnam vet - had been saying that US troops are uneducated (perhaps revealing the real Republican view of their nation’s soldiers), when in fact he’d been referring to the President. In both cases the governments that started the Iraq war demand of their opponents: do you support the troops?

Two things to say about this.

Firstly, sending people to their
deaths (or to suffer serious crippling injury) on the basis of falsehoods does not constitute supporting them. Sending people to their deaths in an illegal war of aggression does not constitute supporting them. Sending people to their deaths in a war designed for no greater purpose than to consolidate and extend US power does not constitute supporting them. Using those troops who’ve survived to emotionally blackmail anyone who questions your actions does not constitute supporting them. Blocking discussion of how to deal with the lethal situation that those troops are facing on the basis that it might harm your career does not constitute supporting them. Conducting yourself in this fashion does not reveal a high regard or concern for those uniformed angels you eulogise in mawkish political speeches. It reveals a deeply held contempt for them, their lives and their families.

It need not be pointed out that people generally oppose unnecessary wars on the grounds that they tend to cause a good deal of unnecessary
death. Opposition to war is born of a belief in the value of all human life. Its very root cause, its raison d'etre, is concern for the troops and all the other potential victims. In a rational debate this would not need to be said.

This brings me to the second point. It should be understood that “support the troops” like so much of political discourse, is not an attempt at a logical argument or an appeal to reason. After all, the position does not stand up to a moment’s rational scrutiny, as I’ve demonstrated. Rational debate must therefore be avoided. “Support the troops” is a PR riff akin to McDonald’s “I’m loving it”. It is an appeal to emotion designed to imbue the speaker with a positive glow. On rational, intellectually or factual grounds, it’s the equivalent of ‘me good'.

Actually, its more sophisticated than that. Its the equivalent of ‘me good, you bad’. Because pontificating about your support for the troops is rather like saying you’re against terror, pro family, pro life etc. The vacuousness is shown by considering the opposite: ‘I don’t support the troops’, ‘I’m pro terror’, ‘I’m against families’, ‘I’m anti life’. Yet these contrary opinions are, either implicitly or explicitly, projected by the speaker onto their opponents (‘…if you don’t agree then….’), placing those opponents on the back foot and forcing them to apologise for themselves before they’ve begun to make their own arguments.

The aim is to drown out debate through shrill emotional sloganeering. It's straightforward political cynicism - an art taken to new levels by the US Republicans and our own New Labour. When you consider that lives end or continue as a result of what policies emerge from what essentially a faked ‘debate’, then you have the measure of the people who indulge in games like these.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Withdrawal or Recalibration?

Bush family consigliere James Baker has been leading an “Iraq Study Group” investigating Washington’s policy options for extricating itself from Iraq’s sinking sands. Until recently. their findings were a very closely guarded secret. For example, this from the Washington Post last month:

“Former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the study group's co-chairmen, called a briefing yesterday to give a "progress report" on their activities. A dozen television cameras and scores of reporters filled the hall -- only to discover that Baker and Hamilton had revived Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" format.

"We're not going to speculate with you today about recommendations," Baker announced at the session, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Can the war in Iraq be won?

"We're not going to make any assessments today about what we think the status of the situation is in Iraq," said Hamilton.

Could they at least explain their definitions of success and failure in Iraq?

"We're not going to get into that today," Baker replied.

After more such probing, Hamilton became categorical. "We've made no judgment of any kind at this point about any aspect of policy with regard to Iraq."

A few minutes later, one of the organizers called out: "We have time for one or two more questions."

"But no time for any answers," one of the reporters muttered.

"This is pitiful," contributed one of the cameramen, as reporters' smiles escalated into audible chuckles

But that was last month. This month, Baker’s tight ship started springing
leaks, with the result that talk of withdrawal is now widespread in the US and in Britain. Baker himself has hardly quelled this speculation, saying, according to Reuters, that “the current Bush administration's insistence on "staying the course" in Iraq was not the only policy alternative”.

So what’s changed between tight-lipped mid-September and slack-jawed mid-October? I don’t think it’d be overly cynical to suggest that at least one significant factor may be that a
sex-scandal battered Republican party is staring down the barrel of serious losses in November’s Congressional elections and needing more than ever to show the public some light at the end of the tunnel of its single worst policy failure.

That the discussion and/or application of a solution to a crisis which is claiming scores of lives everyday is being timed on the basis of the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes, and not on the basis of, say, the
Iraqi people’s welfare, is hardly surprising, though still worth bearing in mind, particularly now. With the ascendancy of Baker’s Bush I era realism replacing the humiliated neo-conservative vision for Iraq; with the military on both sides of the Atlantic now in open revolt ; with a lame-duck Tony Blair (who apparently hasn’t got the Baker memo yet) still talking about staying the course (and then trying to hold both positions simultaneously), appearing, in the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, “intellectually numb, like a forgotten outpost of a crumbling Roman empire” with the British political class “zombie-like” in the face of the new realities, it might be tempting for the anti war movement to think its moment has come. This would be seriously premature.

Because, as
Norman Birmbaum, university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, pointed out in an article for openDemocracy last week, the debate in Washington is not about whether or not to pursue an imperialistic foreign policy but about how best to achieve empire’s goals. Just as the Baker report was cynically excluded from then injected into the public realm - with the fluctuating fortunes of the ever-contemptible Republican Party deemed far more important that the need for democratic debate over the US’s moral obligations towards Iraq - so Western policy in Iraq will recalibrated not according to what is best for Iraqis but according to what is most likely to consolidate or extend US imperial power.

That being the case, it would be sensible for us to pay close attention to coming events and asking searching questions about what is actually happening. When the policy detail comes out, what is ‘withdrawal’ actually going to mean? (What indeed was it ever going to mean, even if Iraq had been peaceful from April 2003 onwards?) Is the US really going to relinquish its handful of massive new
permanent military bases in Iraq? Wasn’t establishing a permanent military presence at the heart of the world’s energy region always the point of the exercise? Is the Baker plan, if the leaked information is accurate, going to recommend a phased but ultimately complete withdrawal of US forces, a complete withdrawal being what the newly liberated Iraqi people actually want? Or is it going to be what’s sometimes called a “drawdown” i.e. a pullout of combat troops, but with the imperial garrisons remaining? Because that wouldn’t be a withdrawal but a recalibration of troops levels; and recent polls have not shown 91.7 percent of Iraqis calling for the US to recalibrate their troop levels. They’ve called for us to get our troops out of their country immediately, a fact that politicians and the media persist in ignoring. Is there any reason to think we’re going to start listening to the voices of the new Iraqi democracy now?

Recall that, in addition to the permanent bases, the US is also building itself
the biggest embassy on earth right in the centre of Baghdad. According to The Times, Iraqis “are not impressed by the architects’ claims that the diplomatic outpost will be visible from space and cover an area that is larger than the Vatican city and big enough to accommodate four Millennium Domes”. And for all the chaos in Iraq’s capital, somehow “the embassy has the distinction of being the only big US building project in Iraq that is on time and within budget”.

The report goes on to say that “the US mission due to open in June next year will have its own power and water plants to cater for a population the size of a small town. There will be impressive residences for the Ambassador and his deputy, six apartments for senior officials, and two huge office blocks for 8,000 staff to work in. There will be what is rumoured to be the biggest swimming pool in Iraq, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a cinema, restaurants offering delicacies from favourite US food chains, tennis courts and a swish American Club for evening functions.”

Spending an estimated half-a-billion dollars on a construction project of this kind doesn’t really sound like the actions of a US government that’s prepared to leave (in the gloriously racist idiom used by George Bush, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and former Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz) just as soon as the Iraqi “
kid” can ride his new democracy “bike” without the “training wheels” and his American daddy “holding on to the back of the seat”. What this, and the construction of permanent military bases, indicate more strongly is that the US plans to stick around indefinitely in some form or another, contrary to wishes of the apparently liberated Iraqis. The Times quotes the International Crisis Group think-tank saying that Iraqis see the super-embassy’s construction “as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country”, which seems a fair observation.

In fact the US could easily, and no doubt always intended to, withdraw its frontline troops and still deny Iraq its independence. With its vast embassy / Proconsul’s residence, its permanent garrisons and with Iraq’s government ministries stuffed with American “
advisers”, Washington has already insinuated itself deeply enough into the new Iraq to feel assured that its influence will endure long after it has left the business of theongoing violence to some proxy force or other.

Last week George Bush apparently accepted a parallel between this month’s US defeat in the “Battle of Baghdad” and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Despite some media excitement, Bush may not have been comparing Iraq to Vietnam in the sense that both are a disaster but in the sense that Vietnam could’ve been won if people had been prepared to stay the course, support the troops (!) and not be cowed by enemy offensives like Tet. It should be recalled that whilst Tet is seen as a the tipping point after which the US public and establishment turned decisively against the war, the US didn’t actually leave Vietnam for another 7 years. What happened in the meantime was
Vietnamization, which means getting the Vietnamese to fight your war for you; eerily reminiscent of the pressure being put on the Iraqi government now to “step up to the plate” and take over “security duties” from the same imperial army whose unremittingly savage treatment of ordinary Iraqis destroyed security in Iraq in the first place.

For the seven years 1968-75, the US strategy in Vietnam and South East Asia was to minimise its own casualties whilst still pursuing a suitable outcome in the imperial interest. So came Vietnamization and an increased reliance on air-power in the form of massive, brutal
bombing campaigns which, in the case of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the conditions that precipitated the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (who themselves received some backing from Washington in their time).

The US has shown over the course of the last century that there are plenty of ways to run an empire, differing from its British and French predecessors in showing a particular willingness to outsource the grubbier responsibilities of colonialism to local elites. The point of imperialism is to secure access to cheap materials, labour and new markets; direct rule over other countries is not an end in itself. Like any good modern corporation, the US would ideally prefer to
contract out its more menial tasks and concentrate on setting strategic direction and defining the brand.

It is, after all, far more efficient to leave local elites to get on with the job of governing in Washington’s interests not least since, if the need arises to pacify restless imperial subjects, they are free to get their hands far dirtier than US security forces could get away with. Recall for example the
terror campaign waged against the disobedient natives of Central America in the 1980s by way of bloodthirsty local security forces backed via the US embassy in Honduras. The Embassy was the second biggest in Latin America at the time, and not because Honduras was a regional superpower. The US ambassador at the time? John Negroponte. US ambassador to Iraq 2004-05? John Negroponte. The gruesome horrors of that earlier imperial campaign do not yet count as history.

The difference between a complete withdrawal and a recalibration of tactics and troop levels is not a trivial one, at least not for imperialism’s victims. But for those of us closer to the centres of power both crimes and victims can be easily missed if we fail to pay attention. Take the US’s extensive use of
air-strikes in Iraq, vastly underreported but happening nonetheless. Take the recent revelation that around 655,000 Iraqis are likely to have been killed as a result of our invasion of their country; a scientifically robust finding nevertheless mostly rubbished or ignored by politicians and our crusading free press. The apparent discomfort our governments are suffering at present offers the anti war movement no cause for even grim satisfaction, only a sign that the rules of engagement may be changing.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The death toll in Iraq: 655,000

The British medical journal The Lancet has published a report which estimates that 655,000 people have been killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq.

30% of these (so about 200,000) are thought to have been killed by the US/UK-led “coalition”. But recall what the Nuremburg judgement said about
the crime of aggression:

"to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.

In other words, when you start a war of aggression you're not then just responsible for the killing you do yourself. You share responsibility for all the subsequent killing that takes place, because it takes place within a situation that you created voluntarily.

So these estimated 655,000 deaths are on us. And we can add this to the
million Iraqis, half under the age of five, that UNICEF estimates were killed by our sanctions during the nineties, which one UN official, resigning in disgust, described as "a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide". The total now enters the same ballpark as the toll of the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans and, with a following wind, could catch up with the toll under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia within the next couple of years.

And no, plainly Bush and Blair are not Pol Pot. But I doubt that many dead or bereaved Iraqis would be particularly moved to draw a distinction. The fact is these people are just as dead, and its still our fault.

The report, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, has been examined and validated by four separate independent experts who all urged publication. It uses recognised scientific techniques for estimating excess mortality. I understand that the Bloomberg School of Public Health is the leading and most prestigious public health research school in the world.

By contrast - and as Middle East expert
Juan Cole points out in a commentary on the report that's well worth reading - the other prominent estimates available on the death toll are likely to be serious underestimates. They're based on morgue records and media reports which can't be remotely comprehensive given the hellish situation in Iraq at the moment.

Probably the most widely cited toll is that compiled by
Iraq Body Count, which estimates a "maximum" of 48,693 deaths at time of writing. It bases its figures on media reports. But according to New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins "98 percent of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has now become 'off-limits' for Western journalists." According to Filkins, many situations are even too dangerous for Iraqi reporters employed by the western media. He says that "most of the Iraqis who work for us don't even tell their families that they work for us" for fear that exposure could cost them their lives. Its plain that any death toll based on reports collected under these conditions can only represent a bare minimum of the actual total.

You can read some good critical writing on Iraq Body Count
here, here and here.

Cole warns that attempts will be made to bury this report. This is what happened two years ago, when the same researchers estimated 100,000 killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq by that stage. Then all manner of people (not epidemiologists, but editorial writers, columnists, politicians etc) piped up to challenge the findings. The findings, having been "challenged" by an assortment of amateurs with a political agenda (including the those politicians directly responsible for the deaths), were then deemed to be "controversial" and banished to what George Orwell described in '1984' as the "
memory hole".

Imagine if you will a peer-reviewed report, using accepted scientific techniques, estimating a death toll for the USSR's war in Afghanistan, being dismissed as "controversial" by the Western media on the basis that the findings were challenged by the Kremlin and Pravda. Or the conclusion that smoking causes cancer being dismissed as "controversial" because on the one hand the entire medical community thinks it does but on the other hand Big Tobacco and some of its media lackeys disagree.

The UK pressure group Medialens (who use Chomsky's famous "
Propaganda Model" as their starting point) have produced an excellent and illuminating commentary on how that previous Lancet report was buried by the Western political class. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here. They detail the responses they received when they challenged those who had attacked the report with the scientific merits of the methodology that was used. They also facilitated debate between one of the report's authors and some of those critics. The extent to which the critics are out of their depth is almost embarrassing. Yet, as Medialens show, it was the critics that carried the day and shaped the public perception of the report, not the people with the scientific expertise which would actually qualify them to make a judgement on the matter.

Medialens point out that the same lead author, using the same techniques, had previously reported that 1.7 million people had died as a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which finding had then been cited by Tony Blair, Colin Powell, and major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, none challenging the findings. In fact, the UN Security Council called for all foreign armies to leave the DRC and doubled the country's UN aid budget, using the study as justification. Report author Les Roberts observed that "it is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces."

I also recommend
this article by Stephen Soldz, which gives some excellent informed comment on the methodology used by the researchers.

Those of us who are concerned should note the techniques that were used by the press and politicians last time and work to ensure that this time around the Lancet's findings can not be so easily buried. If editors fail to cover the story we should contact them and complain. If editors fail to cover the story with due prominence we should contact them and complain. If journalists juxtapose the reports' findings with criticisms from people who know nothing of the relevant science we should contact them and complain. And we should repeat this behaviour relentlessly until the Lancet report is acknowledged for what it is: the best estimate available of the death toll in Iraq.

If we fail to do this, hundreds of thousands of innocent people will effectively have been killed twice: once by policies enacted by our freely elected governments, and a second time by our refusal to acknowledge that most of the deaths even occurred.


Friday, September 22, 2006

The Limits of 'Hard Power'

In light of the belligerent US stance on Iran you might have thought that any regime which

(a) is as
autocratic as Tehran’s;
(b) has a proven and realised
nuclear weapons program;
(c) stands a fair chance of being involved in an
actual nuclear exchange with one of its neighbours;
(d) has experienced serious problems with
nuclear proliferation; and
(e) has deep and long-standing links to
al-Qaeda and the Taliban

would be public enemy number one in Washington’s eyes. Not so. In fact, just two doors down from Iran, Pakistan has been a valued ally in the “war on terror” for the past five years – at least, until now.

Recall that when the US was facilitating support for extremist Islamic groups fighting the USSR in Afghanistan during the 1980s, much of that support reached those groups via the Pakistani security services. The Taliban grew out of that network, as did al-Qaeda, but after the attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September 2001, Pakistan joined Washington’s fight against the same groups they had both done so much to cultivate in the past.

The Pakistani dictator, General Musharraf now claims that this decision was made with a gun to his head. Musharraf told CBS news that US officials had said that if he did not cooperate then Pakistan should “Be prepared to be bombed.
Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age”.

"One has to think and take actions in the interest of the nation, and that's what I did," says Musharraf. Of course we should be mindful of the fact that his alliance with the US is profoundly unpopular domestically and within parts of the Pakistani security services, so these revelations may be designed or timed to deflect pressure. Nonetheless, it serves as a fresh reminder of the limits of “hard power”. Not only is the US-led coalition apparently losing
Afghanistan, it is apparently now – despite the purported threats mentioned above - losing the principal one of two countries whose support it desperately needs to stabilise Afghanistan (the other is Iran). Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, says that “with a truce between the Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad now in place, the Pakistani government is in effect reverting to its pre-September 11, 2001, position in which it closed its eyes to militant groups allied with al-Qaeda and clearly sided with the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Since September 2001 Islamabad has been torn between the demands of Washington and internal forces pulling it in opposite directions. Musharraf’s remarks of this week and the Taliban-Pakistan truce appear to indicate Islamabad’s belief that the balancing act can be maintained no longer and that a choice has to be made. It says a good deal about the state of US power today that given the choice, Islamabad has chosen to appease a loose collection of insurgent frontiersman over the greatest military power in all history.

Tehran’s defiance of US pressure may well have inspired Islamabad, which may now feel that its links with anti-US forces in Afghanistan give it a much stronger position at the geopolitical bargaining table than mere subservience to Washington – just as
Tehran’s influence in Iraq makes a mockery of the isolation the US has tried to impose on it. In each case, the “soft power” of alliances with local groups in key areas trumps the “hard power” of the threat or use of US military muscle. And all this is played out with the backdrop of Russia and China increasing their power and influence in Central Asia without so much as launching a single war.

There are few good-guy / bad-guy choices in international affairs. Just disparate nations and groupings competing in various ways for power and influence. For those of us concerned by the consequences of this system of effective international anarchy, what is important is not
choosing sides so much as working to promote countervailing forces such as respect for human rights and international law, which might ultimately lead to a global system aligned to democratic principals. As regards ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power, we need not feel particularly favourably towards any of the protagonists mentioned above to nevertheless welcome signs that the world’s nations may be learning a lesson (albeit not a moral one) about the futility of war and the value of non-violent interaction. So far as it goes, its an encouraging development.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Helmand: Britain's Quagmire

The former aide-de-camp to the commander of the British taskforce in southern Afghanistan has described the campaign in Helmand province as "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency".

"Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse," said Captain Leo Docherty, of the Scots Guards, who became so disillusioned that he quit the army last month.

"All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British," he said. "It's a pretty clear equation -- if people are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly would.

"We've been grotesquely clumsy -- we've said we'll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them."
Top soldier quits as blundering campaign turns into 'pointless' war
By Christina Lamb, The Sunday Times

"For more than a year, military planners and observers have envisaged an upsurge in the Afghanistan insurgency in summer 2006. The extensive US deployment of air power and the kinds of deployments the British are planning both make clear that the approaching sixth year of the war in Afghanistan – lasting through next winter and the following summer – may be the most violent and extensive since 2002. The human and political consequences will be large."
Afghanistan’s war season
Paul Rogers, security expert, Bradford University


Monday, September 11, 2006

Blair's Chutzpah

At his 10 September press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked to comment on Israel's "collective punishment" of the Palestinian population in Gaza. Israel's continuing military attacks on the Gaza strip have killed 197 civilians, including 48 minors. Its economic blockade has caused Gaza's children "to face extreme hardship and suffering" in what could soon become "a public health disaster" according to Save the Children.

Blair's response was that "there are two ways you can approach the issue of building peace: you can do grandstanding or you can try and get there. From my perspective the most important thing is not that I start allocating blame, but that I try to do what I can to help."

A few weeks ago Israel escalated a border skirmish with Hezbollah into what Middle East scholar Juan Cole described as “
total war on the Lebanese civilian population”.

Did Blair eschew "grandstanding" and "allocating blame" in the interests of "building peace"? Here's what he said at his
press conference on 3 August 2006 when quizzed on his government's efforts to block calls for an immediate ceasefire:

"the reason why this problem has arisen is that in defiance of previous UN Resolutions, Hezbollah has continued to operate with their militia outside the control of the government of Lebanon down in the south of Lebanon. That is why they then began these rocket attacks and the attacks on Israeli soldiers when they crossed the UN Blue Line and that is when Israel then retaliated"

Clearly it is not always straightforward, even for a moral visonary like the Prime Minister, to float serenely above events, refusing to indulge in the petty politics of the blame game. In some cases - namely the crimes of our enemies - severe condemnation is called for, with moral responsibilities clearly identified. In other cases - namely the more serious crimes of our allies - weasel words and false piety will suffice.
see also:
Palestinians tell Blair: you are not welcome here
The Guardian

Blair plays dubious statesman
Asia Times


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Britain’s Role in the Israeli-Hezbollah War

[a shortened version of this article has been published on the English language website of Le Monde Diplomatique - available to subscribers only]
Whilst Israel’s close relationship with the US is well known, and has long been the focus of debate, no comprehensive discussion of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war should allow the role of the British government to pass without comment. London was accused of “standing back and doing nothing” during the conflict. But on the contrary, it played an active role in supporting Israel’s actions, supplying substantial military, diplomatic and political support. (1)

Military Support

Though the US is Israel’s major military ally, Britain also
helps to arm the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Since the Oslo Accords were signed Britain has sold Israel submarines, combat helicopters, combat aircraft, tanks, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, mines, machine guns, ammunition and electronic equipment according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Between 2004 and 2005, arms exports to Israel approved by the government doubled to £22.5m. In contravention of the government’s own guidelines prohibiting the sale of weapons likely to be used "aggressively against another country" or fuel regional tensions, Britain provided Israel with key components for Apache combat helicopters, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets deployed in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. (2)

Britain also gave active military support to Israel’s attacks on Lebanon, granting permission to refuel at British airports to US flights carrying shipments of arms to the front, after the
Irish government denied Washington such permissions. In late July, as the conflict escalated, sources at one of those airports told The Times that by that stage the number of refuelling stops had become “absolutely unreal”. (3)

The use to which Israel puts these arms is well understood. After Hezbollah’s cross border raid of 12 July 2006 in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, Israel's chief of staff,
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told Israeli television that "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years". Halutz declared that “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that”. Elsewhere, The Washington Post reported that "According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of [Israel’s military] campaign is to “create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters.” The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: “If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land”." (4)

The intention to send a message to the people of Lebanon through the medium of extreme violence was illustrated by the propaganda campaign mounted by Israel against the people whose country it was in the process of destroying. Leaflets dropped from Israeli planes demanded that the population “
remove the sore known as Hezbollah from the heart of Lebanon”. On the last day of the war, with over 1,100 Lebanese killed, 3,600 injured and around a fifth of the population displaced Israeli leaflets dropped on Lebanese cities claimed that Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers had brought destruction on Lebanon, and asked the pointed question "Will you be able to pay this price again?" (5)

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines terrorism as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”; precisely what is described above. We need hardly therefore waste any words on the idea that Israel took proportionate military action simply to defend itself, since its stated intention from the outset was to wage a terrorist war on the entire Lebanese nation. Nor can the British government deny the true nature of its allies actions, with which it was fully complicit.(6)

During a tour of Beirut on 23 July, the UN's emergency relief chief
Jan Egeland described the destruction wrought by the Israeli air force as "horrific" and "a violation of international humanitarian law” with “block after block of houses” destroyed by Israeli air strikes. Patrick McGreevy of the American University in Beirut described in the wrecked southern residential districts of Beirut “a landscape the likes of which no one has seen since Dresden in 1945” as the UK-supplied Israeli air force made good on Halutz’s threat. (7)

Fearsome terrorist targets neutralised by the British arms industry’s valued customer included various factories producing materials such as
glass and milk, farm workers loading vegetables onto refrigerated trucks, and a Greek Orthodox church. At the end of the conflict, Reuters reported that according to the Lebanese government “more than 15,000 houses, 900 businesses and factories, 630 roads, 77 bridges, 25 fuel stations and 31 utility plants” had been destroyed. Middle East scholar Juan Cole described the campaign as “total war on the Lebanese civilian population”. (8)

On 25 July,
The Guardian reported an Israeli missile strike on “two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances”, and on 26 July a strike on a refugee convoy waving white flags which had been fleeing southern Lebanon under Israeli orders. On 28 July, Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon said that anyone who had failed to comply with those orders - which would have required dodging air strikes and circumnavigating bombed-out roads and bridges amongst other obstacles - would henceforth be considered fair game, effectively turning southern Lebanon into a free-fire zone. According to Ramon, "all those now in south Lebanon are terrorists”. (9)

A report from
Agence France Presse described how Israel dealt with those it now defined as terrorists. On 7 August the Israeli air force killed fourteen civilians in a bombing raid on the village of Ghaziyah in southern Lebanon. When the victims' families and friends held a funeral procession the next day, Israel struck again, killing six more innocent people. For those who have observed the methods of Iraqi sectarian terrorists in recent years, follow-up attacks on funeral parties are of course an instantly recognisable phenomenon. (10)

The intended message to the Lebanese was underlined by
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who proudly boasted in an interview with Reuters at the start of August that “All the population which is the power base of the Hezbollah in Lebanon was displaced. They lost their properties, they lost their possessions, they are bitter, they are angry at Hezbollah and the power structure of Lebanon itself has been divided and Hezbollah is now entirely isolated in Lebanon”. (11)

One notable example of Israel’s self-declared “
purity of arms” came with its sustained, deadly attack of 25 July on unarmed UN peacekeepers. As they came under bombardment from the IDF, the UN staff had made several calls to the Israelis begging them to stop. According to the UN, after each call, it was assured that the firing would cease. In fact, the bombing continued until their post – which was clearly marked and had been long established - was destroyed by a precision guided bomb. Later, UN soldiers who came to retrieve the bodies of their comrades also came under fire. The Israeli government, never afraid to lapse into self-parody, described the incident as “unintentional”. (12)

In early August,
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing “serious violations of the laws of war” by the IDF. It found that "in dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians". HRW described “the IDF’s extensive use of indiscriminate force” stating that in none of the cases its report documented was there “evidence to suggest that Hezbollah…were in or near the area”; “the pattern of attacks suggests [that the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians] cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents”; Israel had “repeatedly attacked both individual vehicles and entire convoys of civilians who heeded the Israeli warnings to abandon their villages" as well as "humanitarian convoys and ambulances" that were "clearly marked". After a UN ceasefire was eventually implemented, Amnesty International said that its own findings indicated “an Israeli policy of deliberate destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure, which included war crimes”, and called for an immediate UN inquiry. (13)

The HRW report aimed particular remarks directly towards “the United Kingdom and other countries through which weapons, ammunition, or other military material may pass in transit to Israel”. Noting their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, it called for these states not to “permit the use of national territory for the transit or transshipment to Israel of arms….that have been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law”. It should be noted that at no point did Britain give any indication that Israel’s committing of war crimes would cause it to reassess the military assistance it was providing to that country. Indeed, UK assistance went well beyond simply providing the technological means of destruction for Tel Aviv’s campaign of terror.

Diplomatic Support

As Lebanon was being “
torn to shreds”, “cut to pieces” and subjected to “barbaric destruction”, in the words of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, British diplomats worked to head off any pressure on Israel from the international community. At the UN security council on 14 July, the G8 on July 16 and the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 17 July, British efforts helped to block international calls for an immediate ceasefire. On 21 July, a hospital in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, overwhelmed by the number of casualties, began burying the dead in a temporary mass grave. On 25 July, a coalition of the leading aid agencies urged the Prime minister in an open letter “to rethink your policy as a matter of urgency and do what you can to reduce the horrific toll that this conflict is having on ordinary people across the region.”. The next day, at a crisis summit in Rome, Britain again joined the US in blocking calls for an immediate ceasefire. On 1 August, another meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to call for an immediate ceasefire at Britain’s insistence, ignoring further pleas from Oxfam, who described “levels of destruction of civilian infrastructure” as “catastrophic”. (14)

Leading aid agencies spoke out again on 3 August, with Christian Aid asking the Prime Minister “to have the moral courage to reverse his policy and call, without qualification, for an immediate ceasefire". Oxfam worker Shaista Aziz described the British position as “an absolute disgrace". The consequences of Britain’s ignoring the pleas of aid agencies were illustrated on 4 August when Israel bombed bridges in the Christian areas of northern Beirut, cutting what the UN described as the “umbilical cord” for humanitarian aid to Lebanon. On 7 August the IDF warned UN troops that they would be attacked if any attempt was made to repair bombed out bridges in the south. (15)

In his
3 August press conference, the Prime Minister explained the UK position by saying that he wanted to see a ceasefire “as soon as possible”, but not before a “lasting settlement” had been agreed – saying, in other words, that the violence could continue until that point. Whilst Winston Churchill had famously said that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, Tony Blair apparently did not believe this necessarily to be true. Bradford University security expert Paul Rogers described “the signals from Washington and Downing Street” as “more of an insistence that any end to the fighting had to involve the disarming of Hezbollah, whether or not an international force was involved. In other words, the war had to end with what amounted to a clear victory for Israel”. Israel no doubt also wanted this sort of “ceasefire” as soon as possible. Once victory had come it would of course cease firing, since no one keeps fighting a war after they have won. Blair’s affected concern for the human costs of the war and his professed wish for a ceasefire was therefore simply another dose of his familiar brand of cynical sophistry. (16)

In essence, the British policy was ‘give war a chance’, to slightly paraphrase John Lennon. The UK fought on the diplomatic front, alongside Israel’s military campaign, to secure its ally’s victory settlement, and to ensure that no international body would be able to demand an end to the onslaught until that victory was won.

As it became clear by early August that Israel’s serious underestimation of Hezbollah might result in
failure to achieve its objectives militarily, Britain and the US finally agreed to a draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, but one whose terms would secure through diplomacy what the IDF had so far not achieved through violence. The draft resolution implicitly permitted Israel to occupy southern Lebanon, and gave it the right to take military action in self-defence, which as Tel Aviv would no doubt claim, covered all the acts of violence described above. But whilst Israel was instructed to cease “offensive military operations” by the draft resolution, Hezbollah was instructed to cease “all attacks”. That the eventual UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 11 August was a watered down version of the initial draft was due mainly to the weak position of Israel and its backers by that stage (and that Lebanon was prepared to sign up to a still slanted resolution was due mainly to its being desperate for an end to the crippling Israeli offensive). (17)

Exasperated onlookers might ask how hard it could have been to call, at the earliest possible point after 12 July, for both sides to cease all military activity and comply with international law. That would depend, it would seem, on what principal outcome you were looking for; an end to the killing, or a victory for one of the belligerents.

Political Support

Alongside the military and diplomatic assistance detailed above, Britain also provided political support to the Israelis by contributing its own voice to the propaganda campaign aimed at Western audiences, designed to frame the conflict in terms flattering to Israel and to obscure the reality of what was taking place.

Or, to put it less kindly, we might quote the words of
Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92 and also a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Braithwaite described Blair’s performances as those of “a frayed and waxy zombie…from the Central Intelligence Agency’s box of technical tricks, programmed to spout the language of the White House in an artificial English accent". (18)

Thus, in his press conference on 3 August 2006,
Blair told reporters that “the reason why this problem has arisen is that in defiance of previous UN Resolutions, Hezbollah has continued to operate with their militia outside the control of the government of Lebanon down in the south of Lebanon. That is why they then began these rocket attacks and the attacks on Israeli soldiers when they crossed the UN Blue Line and that is when Israel then retaliated”. (19) Under this description, Israel lies at the mercy of events with no aims or objectives beyond reacting to the security threats it faces (and with the question of how it should act never arising). However, the reality excluded from Blair’s narrative was that this was not a war that Israel was forced into, but a war of choice.

Hezbollah’s incursion on 12 July was not the first violation of the ‘blue line’ between the two countries since the IDF ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. There have been hundreds of violations since then, including those committed by Israeli aircraft “on an almost daily basis” between 2001 and 2003, and “persistently” until 2006, according to the UN. Other hostilities on the border include the IDF shooting at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in October 2000, and Hezbollah’s crossing the line and kidnapping three Israeli soldiers in response. There have been periodic fatal exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and the IDF over the last six years but, as the UN records, “none of the incidents resulted in a military escalation”. Although the border “remained tense and volatile”, it was “generally quiet” until 12 July. (20)

Hezbollah’s aim was to exchange the Israeli soldiers captured on 12 July for fifteen prisoners of war taken by the Israelis during the occupation of Lebanon. Israel had exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah
three times in the past: in July 1996, June 1998 and January 2004. It had also swapped prisoners with the PLO on a number of occasions. (21) Why then, having negotiated prisoner exchanges on numerous occasions and having instigated and reacted to many cross border incidents since 2000, did Israel choose to act differently on this occasion and escalate the level of violence to such a shattering pitch?

On 21 July, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matthew Kalman revealed that Israel had been giving a presentation explaining its war plans for Lebanon to Washington diplomats, journalists and think tanks
as early as last year. Kalman quoted Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, who said that “By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board”. Kalman’s revelations were later backed up by the findings of veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing for the New Yorker, who said that Washington had been closely involved in the war planning process. Despite his efforts to portray Israel’s actions as a spontaneous response to the events of 12 July, it appears that Blair knew full well of these plans, though given the recent relationship between the White House and 10 Downing Street one could hardly have imagined otherwise. (22)

Indeed, one didn’t need an off-the-record briefing to grasp what was happening; the public record more than sufficed. The political context and the way in which the war was conducted strongly indicates that Israel reacted differently to this latest border skirmish and capture of prisoners because it had been waiting for an opportunity to launch an aggressive strategic war against Hezbollah. For Israel, Hezbollah is
a key ally of a Palestinian people facing national obliteration at Tel Aviv’s hands, one of Tehran’s counterattacking options in any future war on Iran (something Israeli officials have been advocating for sometime) and one of the principal opponents of Western regional dominance in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice indicated the strategic nature of the war when she spoke on 21 July of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” (which was not without irony since only a day earlier, the UN had said that nearly a third of the dead or wounded in the conflict were children). Nevertheless, the British government endevoured to sell Israel’s actions to the public as no more than a regrettable necessity in the interests of self-defence. (23)


In summary, Israel pursued a war of choice in the interests of strategic power, not defence. Lebanon was “cut to pieces” by Israel’s war, in a deliberate attempt to terrorise its population, which behaviour was roundly condemned by aid agencies and human rights groups across the board. And though the appalling costs were well known, Israeli terrorism and war crimes continued with substantial military, diplomatic and political support from the British government.

In a famous leaked internal memo, Tony Blair called for “
eye-catching initiatives” with which he “should be personally associated”. The Israel-Hezbollah war no doubt falls squarely into this category. But as Westminster gossip over the diverting subject of the Prime Minister’s retirement continues, no one should assume that any substantial change from the policies highlighted here will be forthcoming after Blair’s departure. As polls revealed strong popular opposition to Britain’s handling of the conflict, media reports informed the public of “unease”, even “serious concerns” amongst members of Blair’s cabinet. Yet at no point during or after the thirty-four day bloodbath did this purported “unease” move a single senior member of the British government to resign their position rather than continue their complicity in war crimes and acts of terrorism. To them, none of the horrors visited by Britain’s ally on innocent Lebanese civilians represented a moral concern of greater magnitude than keeping their own job. (24)

These facts should be noted well by the British public, including this writer, since we by extension, share responsibility for our government’s conduct. Outside of the UK, those who have not already done so must now recognise Britain – not just its current Prime Minister - as nothing less than a fully paid up and active member of the neo-conservative imperial project, and deal with it on that basis.


(1) For example, on the recent debate over the alleged influcence of the ‘Israel Lobby’ on Washington policy makers, see "
The Israel Lobby", John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006, and "The Israel Lobby?", Noam Chomsky, ZNet, 28 March 2006. On criticism of London “standing back and doing nothing” see "Got The Message Yet, Mr Blair?", Bob Roberts and Oonagh Blackman, Daily Mirror, 31 July 2006

(2) “
Arming the Occupation”, Campain Against the Arms Trade, M Turner, 2002, cited in "Israel’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Cause for Concern", Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 13 July 2005; "British arms exports to Israel double in a year", Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, 25 July 2006; "Made in the UK, bringing devastation to Lebanon - the British parts in Israel's deadly attack helicopters", Benjamin Joffe-Walt, The Guardian, 29 July 2006

(3) "
Irish refused bombs sent to Prestwick airport", Eddie Barnes and Murdo MacLeoad, Scotland on Sunday, 30 July 2006; "Britain lets more US arms flights land in Scotland", Philip Webster, The Times, 28 July 2006

(4) "
Israel authorizes 'severe' response to abductions", CNN, 13 July 2006; "Our aim is to win – nothing is safe, Israeli chiefs declare", Stephen Farrell, The Times, 14 July 2006; “Air Power Won't Do It", Philip H. Gordon, The Washington Post, 25 July 2006

(5) "
Israel steps up "psy-ops" in Lebanon", Peter Feuilherade, BBC Monitoring, 26 July 2006; “The Cost of War”, The Guardian (print edition), 16 August 2006; "Ceasefire holds as Olmert admits tactical deficiencies", Julian Borger and Conal Urquhart, 15 August 2006, The Guardian

(6) "Terrorism",
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online

(7) "
Rice finally sets out in search of ceasefire formula", Ewen MacAskill, and Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, 24 July 2006; "The Descent into Hell is Optional", Patrick McGreevy, Informed Comment, 24 July 2006

(8) "
Lebanon: Factories come under fire", IRIN News, 4 Aug 2006; "Israel accused of 'intentional' attack", Agence France Presse, 6 August 2006; "Israel Targets Milk, Medicine Factories. Hizbullah Kills One in Nahariyah", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 19 July 2006; "Lebanon: Reconstruction effort begins", IRIN News, 25 Aug 2006; "Israelis Kill UN Peacekeepers. Halutz Commits to War Crimes. Israeli Airstrikes Kill Nabatiyeh Family. $150 Million Damage to Factories", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 26 July 2006

(9) "
Red Cross ambulances destroyed in Israeli air strike on rescue mission", Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, 25 July 2006; "Blasted by a missile on the road to safety", Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, 24 July 2006; "Diplomats argue as all of south Lebanon is targeted", Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2006

(10) "
Israel in new deadly strike on grieving Lebanon village", Agence France Presse, 9 August 2006

(11) "
Reuters interview with Israeli PM Olmert", Matthew Tostevin, Reuters, 2 Aug 2006

(12) "
Purity of Arms", Wikipedia; "How UN Lebanon post was bombed", BBC News, 27 July 2006; "UN observers begged Israelis to stop shelling their position", Steve Farrell and Nicholas Blanford, The Times, 27 July 2006

(13) "
Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon", Human Rights Watch, August 2006; "Lebanon: Destruction of civilian infrastructure", Amnesty International, August 2006

(14) "
Lebanon 'has been torn to shreds'", BBC News, 20 July 2006; "Mideast talks fail to reach cease-fire agreement", CNN, 26 July 2006; "Diplomatic timeline: Lebanon and Israel, July 2006", David Fickling, Guardian Unlimited, 2 August 2006; "South Lebanon hospital puts war dead in mass grave", Reuters, 21 Jul 2006; "Open Letter to the Prime Minister", various aid agencies, 25 July 2006; "Britain blocks EU's ceasefire call", The Press Association, 1 August 2006; "EU Foreign Ministers must call for an immediate ceasefire in the run up to an expected UN Security Council resolution", Oxfam Press Release, 31 July 2006

(15) "
Aid groups urge Blair to back ceasefire", David Fickling and agencies, 3 August 2006, Guardian Unlimited; "Lebanon bombings cut off umbilical cord for aid: UN", Agence France Presse, 4 August 2006; "Bloody night in Beirut as Israel intensifies aerial bombardment", Clancy Chassay, Conal Urquhart and Jonathan Steele, The Guardian , 8 August 2006

(16) "
PM's monthly press conference", 10 Downing Street, 3 August 2006; "After Qana: a false dawn?", Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, 31 July 2006

(17) "
Israel’s strategic impasse", Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, 1 August 2006; "Lebanese officials reject Security Council resolution", staff writers, The Daily Star, 7 August 2006; "Text: Draft UN Security Council resolution on 'cessation of violence'", via Reuters, 6 August 2006; "Lebanon: The 33-Day War and UNSC Resolution 1701", Gilbert Achcar, ZNet, 16 August 2006

(18) "
Mr Blair should recognise his errors and go", Rodric Braithwaite, Financial Times, 2 August 2006

(19) "
PM's monthly press conference", 10 Downing Street, 3 August 2006

(20) See “
Israel’s Attack Was Premeditated” by George Monbiot, 8 August 2006, and sources cited there

(21) "
Political Prisoners and Arbitrary Arrests: A History of Israeli-Palestinian Prisoner Exchanges", By Samar Assad, Counterpunch, 14-17 July 2006

(22) "
Israel set war plan more than a year ago", Matthew Kalman, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 July 2006; "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s interests in Israel’s war", Seymour M. Hersh, 14 August 2006; "Blood on his hands", John Kampfner, THe New Statesman, 7 August 2006

(23) "
On the US-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon", Noam Chomsky, Al-Adab, 19 August 2006; On Palestinian national obliteration via Israel's "convergence plan", see my "Colonialism in the 21st Century: our ally the state of Israel (part 2)", The Democrat's Diary, 2 September 2005 and sources cited there, see also "Palestine: Hamas besieged", Wendy Kristianasen, Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2006; "Iran: Consequences of a War", Paul Rogers, Oxford Research Group, February 2006; "Israel pushes U.S. on Iran nuke solution", Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, 21 February 2005; "Hizballah: A Primer", Lara Deeb, Middle East Report Online, 31 July 2006; "One Ring to Rule Them All", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 6 August 2006; "Special Briefing on Travel to the Middle East and Europe", Secretary Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, 21 July 2006; "Fighting inside Lebanese border", BBC News, 20 July 2006
(24) "Full text of Blair memo", via BBC News, 17 July, 2000; "Stand up to US, voters tell Blair: 63% say PM has tied Britain too close to White House", Julian Glover and Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian 25 July 2006; "Pressure on Blair to push for ceasefire in Lebanon", George Jones, Malcolm Moore and Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph, 27 July 2006; "Straw comments reflect Cabinet unease", Mark Sanders, BBC News, 30 July 2006; "Straw hits No 10 in Israel revolt", David Cracknell and Uzi Mahnaimi, The Times, 30 July 2006


Friday, August 25, 2006

Iraqi Democracy

A recent poll shows that Iraqis seem to want their country to move almost in the exact opposite direction politically from the one its heading in today. That hardly makes it the 'model Middle Eastern democracy' that the US and UK governments would have us believe it is. More on the poll in a moment.

During the Chomsky/Ricks discussion that I linked to in yesterday's post, Chomsky answered the question of 'what should be done about Iraq now?' by saying that that's up to Iraqis. Occupiers and invaders have exactly no rights at all in the country they've colonised. What we should do is whatever the Iraqis want. That should be the deciding factor, and any ideas we may throw around amongst ourselves belong strictly in the realms of abstraction.

We read and hear a good deal of debate in Britain and the US on what should be done about Iraq going forward, and how wonderful it was of us to turn Iraq into a democracy. These displays of altruism contrast sharply with the near total absence of knowledge about what Iraqis think and what sort of furture they desire for their country.

Occasionally, I've tried to use this site to present Iraqi voices speaking at length on how they see the situation. I've also tried to contrast what we know of Iraqi popular opinion with the outcomes under the fraudulant "democracy" afforded them by the occupiers.

So to continue in that vein, I'll quote here at length from a University of Michigan survey of Iraqi public opinion, published in June this year and presented in comparison with a 2004 poll (quotes in italics). It makes for very interesting, and sometimes surprising reading. I'll also throw in a few of my own comments here and there.

"Over the last two years, Iraqi political values have become more secular and nationalistic, even though attitudes toward Americans have deteriorated.....When asked what they thought were the three main reasons why the United States invaded Iraq, 76 percent gave "to control Iraqi oil" as their first choice. "But at the same time, significantly more Iraqis support democratic values, including the separation of religion and politics. "In 2004, 27 percent of the 2,325 Iraqi adults surveyed strongly agreed that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated. In 2006, 41 percent of 2,701 adults surveyed strongly agreed".

Note that Iraqi opinion on this subject is moving in the exact opposite direction to actual political trends and events in the new 'Western-style democracy'. We've seen a dramatic shift from an overwhelmingly secular Iraq pre-invasion, to today's country, dominated by religious political parties, militias and insurgent groups. Apparently, this has happened exactly contrary to trends in public opinion, wherein desire for secularism is increasing even as actual secularism disappears

"The findings of this second survey show that even though Iraqis have a more negative attitude to foreigners, especially Americans, they are moving closer to American values and are developing a much stronger sense of national identity," said Mansoor Moaddel, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University and at the ISR."

It seems plain that there's no "even though" contradiction here. Iraqis can move toward these values independently of their deepening anger at America because, contrary to the rhetoric, they have been shown precious little of what purport to be "American values" by the occupation. Supposed "American values" and actual American policy are completely unrelated

"In one indication of a possible lessening of sectarian conflict, the proportion of Iraqis who identified themselves as Muslim Arabs rather than as Shi'a or Sunni Arabs increased from 6 percent in 2004 to 14 percent in 2006. "The percentage of those surveyed who agreed with the statement "I am an Iraqi above all" rose from 23 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2006 in the country as a whole, from 23 percent to 33 percent in urban areas, and from 30 percent to 62 percent among Baghdad residents. "Despite increased political violence between the Shi'as and the Sunnis, the researchers found no significant change in the overall level of inter-ethnic trust among Iraqis. While trust between the Shi'as and the Sunnis declined, trust between the Sunnis and the Kurds increased between 2004 and 2006."

This doesn't necessarily indicate "a possible lessening of sectarian conflict", since that's apparently driven by an extremist minority (see below). But its a hopeful sign that despite everything that's happened, sectarianism doesn't appear to have put down deep roots in Iraqi society, and that popular opposition to sectarianism is growing. Although, as the survey says "trust between the Shi'as and the Sunnis declined", and that's the significant concern

"Among Iraqis as a whole, 59 percent of those surveyed in 2006 strongly agreed with the following statement: "In Iraq these days life is unpredictable and dangerous." That compares to 46 percent who strongly agreed in 2004. "This change varied among ethnic groups, with the biggest change among Kurds," Moaddel said. "Only 17 percent strongly agreed that life was unpredictable and dangerous in 2004, but 54 percent strongly agreed in 2006.""

The change in amongst Kurds possibly has to do with concerns like the simmering tensions in Kirkuk, for example.

"Iraqis' increasing attachment to national identity and increasing support for secular discourse may support the formation of a modern and democratic political order," he said. "Moreover, since the support for secular attitudes has gained considerable ground among the Sunnis, al-Qaeda may find it more difficult to recruit among this group in Iraq."

This is heartening, at least to an extent. I've argued in the past that sectarian attacks seemed to be the work of an extremist minority within an insurgency whose mainstream concentrates on military targets (and that bringing peace to Iraq could therefore come largely through political accomodation, rather than a simple fight to the death with the fanatics). The first graph ("insurgent attacks in Iraq") in this BBC article published the earlier in the week seem to bear that out. However, this report from the International Crisis Group argues that any blurred dividing line between these two tendencies has been evaporating and that the insurgency has been consolidating around an extremist Islamist leadership, thus heightening the prospects of protracted conflict and civil war. If sectarianism is actually rolling back amongst Sunni popular opinion then that at least puts limits on the drift to extremism, since the insugency can't survive without a sustainable level of support from the population. The ICG report makes clear that the broad insurgency is aware of the unpopularity of sectarianism, and distances itself from such acts in its propaganda. But that hasn't stopped the attacks from taking place, or the extremist tendency from extending its grip on the resistance as a whole.

The success of attempts to get a sense of popular opinion in Iraq - as with attempts to understand the nature of the broader Sunni insurgency and other actors in the civil conflict - are always going to be severely limited by the chaotic situation on the ground. But these studies can still be very useful in gaining as clear an understanding of the facts as possible; an essential task if we in the west are to engage with the situation effectively, and understand the consequences of our government's policies.

[Additional 27/8/2006 - a new poll shows that 91.7 percent of Iraqis oppose the occupation. And the feelings are intense. 84.5% are "strongly opposed" to the occupation. Among Sunnis, opposition to the US presence went from 94.5% to 97.9% (97.2% "strongly opposed"). Among Shia, opposition to the US presence went from 81.2% to 94.6%, with "strongly opposed" going from 63.5% to 89.7%. Even among the Kurds, opposition went from 19.6% to 63.3% (with 30.6% "strongly opposed").

Of course, Bush and Blair et al would react scornfully to any suggestion that troops should pull out, which tells you exactly what they think about Iraqi democracy.

You may remember an tourist ad for the US in the early nineties which finished with Bush I asking the viewer "so what are you waiting for? An invitation from the President?"

So what's his son waiting for now? Individual signed letters from every inhabitant of Iraq?

Also according to the poll, asked for "the three main reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq", less than 2% chose "to bring democracy to Iraq" as their first choice. The list was topped by "to control Iraqi oil" (76%), followed by "to build military bases" (41%) and "to help Israel" (32%).

Seems the backward "Arab street" has a rather keener grasp on reality than the Western political classes.]


Friday, August 18, 2006

The War on Terror in pictures

(above) A destroyed clothing factory following an Israeli air strike in suburbs of Beirut; August 12; AP

(left) Picture taken 12 August 2006 shows buildings destroyed by Israeli bombardment in the southern suburbs of Beirut; AFP

(right) The middle floors of an apartment building in the suburbs of Beirut after an Israeli air strike Saturday, August 12; AP

(right) No walking street sign is seen next to a destroyed building that used to house the offices and studios of Hezbollah's Al Nour radio station; AP.

"Smile, my son, otherwise we may be accused of anti-Semitism."

Pictures from the indispensable Norman Finkelstein.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

When is a ceasefire not a ceasefire?

The answer of course is, when only one side has to stop firing.
And there's a supplementary answer: when its a formalised military victory for the other side.
After nearly a month Britain and the US have finally agreed to a draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, but one whose terms would secure through diplomacy what the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has so far failed to achieve through violence. The draft resolution implicitly permits Israel to occupy southern Lebanon, and gives it the right to take military action in self-defence, which as Tel Aviv would no doubt claim, covers all the acts of violence undertaken so far (i.e. - bombing of factories producing glass and milk, farm workers loading vegetables onto refrigerated trucks, a Greek Orthodox church, telecom towers, roads, bridges, clinics and hospitals, fuel depots and Beirut’s port and airport in what renowned Middle East scholar Juan Cole described as “total war on the Lebanese civilian population”).
But whilst Israel is instructed to cease “offensive military operations” by the draft resolution, Hizballah has to cease “all attacks”.

Exasperated onlookers might ask how hard it could have been to call, at the earliest possible point after 12 July, for both sides to cease all military activity and comply with international law. But that would depend on what principal outcome you were looking for; and end to the killing, or a victory for one of the belligerents. Tony
Blair’s claim that “I agree the important thing is to get the ceasefire as soon as possible” is meaningless, since the only “ceasefire” he was interested in was one that came as a victory on Israel’s terms. Israel no doubt also wants victory as soon as possible, and if that victory comes it will cease firing, since no one keeps fighting a war after they have won it.
Of course, it should be recalled that the US and the UK weren't remotely interested in any negotiated solution until it became clear that Israel was failing to achieve its objectives against Hizballah by force alone. Only since the ominous resilliance of Hizballah's forces became clear did they step up their diplomatic efforts from simply trying to silence any international censure of Israel to attempting to impose a formal settlement in Tel Aviv's favour, whilst leaving their ally to pursue the military track simultaneously. Winston Churchill said that it is better to jaw-jaw than war war, but Blair and Bush clearly don't believe that this is necessarily true. This afternoon, the proposed draft appears to be failing, but that won't concern Washington and London unduly since stopping the violence - as they have made abundently clear - is not an end in itself. What they want is to attain their strategic objectives. If that can be achieved through diplomacy then fine. But for now the central policy remains as I described in an earlier article: "give war a chance".


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Give War a Chance

The Times of Thursday 27 July reports that “Israel received tacit approval to continue its campaign to crush Hezbollah yesterday….. At an emergency meeting in Rome of foreign ministers from America, Europe and the Arab world, the United States, with British support, beat off concerted international demands for an immediate ceasefire.”

I’m reminded of the self-proclaimed motto of Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “
give war a chance”, a phrase which sums up exactly the line taken by Britain and the US on the Israel-Lebanon war. Try as Bush and Blair have over the years to present themselves as statesmen of grand moral vision, one somehow doubts that future historians will be talking about them in the same breath as Gandhi.

The Washington Post says that "According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of [Israel’s military] campaign is to "create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters." The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: "If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land."

Elsewhere, “Brigadier General Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, emphasised that the offensive . . . was open-ended. ‘
Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that’ he said.” defines terrorism as “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.” So perhaps “give terrorism a chance” would be a more apt summation of British foreign policy – provided of course that the terrorism in question is being carried out by one of our allies, which by definition is not terrorism at all, but “self-defence”.

Also, note the vast difference between Israel’s attacks on Lebanon, where “nothing is safe”, and the proportionate measures taken strictly in self defence against legitimate targets that would be entirely legal and justifiable if Israel chose to pursue them. But Israel’s actions have by now surely reached the point were talk of proportionality, even of a “response” to Hezbollah’s actions, are little more than a bad joke.

For example, during a recent tour of Beirut, the UN's emergency relief chief
Jan Egeland described the destruction wrought by the Israeli air force as "horrific" and "a violation of international humanitarian law…I did not know it was block after block of houses….It's bigger, it's more extensive than I even could imagine". Patrick McGreevy of the American University in Beirut described in the wrecked southern residential districts of Beirut “a landscape the likes of which no one has seen since Dresden in 1945”.

Human Rights Watch has compiled details on the deaths of more than a quarter of the roughly 400 Lebanese killed so far by Israeli air strikes. "They're hitting civilians time and time again," Peter Bouckaert, an HRW investigator, said. "The Israelis seem to make no discrimination between military and civilian targets."

Tuesday’s Guardian reported an Israeli missile strike on “two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances”, after Monday’s edition had reported a strike on a refugee convoy waving white flags. However, these acts of bravery were dwarfed by Tuesday’s attack on unarmed UN peacekeepers. As they came under bombardment from the IDF, the UN staff had made 10 calls to the Israelis begging them to stop. According to the UN, after each call, it was assured the firing would cease. In fact, the bombing continued until their post – which was clearly marked and had been established for 50 years - was destroyed by a precision guided bomb. Later, UN soldiers who came to retrieve the bodies of their comrades also came under fire. Israel described the incident as “unintentional”.

So far, in this war of self-defence, Israel has killed 391 civilians, as opposed to 18 of its civilians killed by Hezbollah, (see Guardian print edition page 3, 27 July) and driven
600,000 Lebanese people from their homes

Whilst it’s encouraging to see that a substantial majority of the British public oppose what Israel is doing, according to
two polls this week, it’s important that people here focus on our own complicity in the crimes described above As indicated at the top of this article, Britain is currently working to prevent a ceasefire. It is also providing political support by parroting the US-Israeli line that all blame lies squarely on Hezbollah and that Israel is doing no more than responding to terrorism. Finally, it should be noted that Britain is providing material support to Israeli terrorism in the shape of arms sales, which between 2004 and 2005 doubled in value to £22.5 million. It is therefore, not just a question of pointing the finger at the protagonists. What’s important is to understand and to campaign against our own significant role in the conflict.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Lebanon latest

I’ll write something myself in the next few days, but for now, here are the better articles I've found on the unfolding Middle East crisis.

Renowned Middle East expert Juan Cole provides a comprehensive summary of events so far at Salon. Also, his blog, Informed Comment, gives you daily analysis on events as they happen, describing the misery Israel is inflicting on innocent Lebanese (and Gazans still), as well as reproducing any correspondence he receives from people in the area. Particularly interesting are these "siege notes" written by a woman living in Beirut.

Paul Woodward's daily selection of news and comment from the world's media at War In Context also rewards regular visits, not least because he punctuates it with his own occasional insights, like this one:

"As each day passes, the Bush administration's role in this frenzy of destruction gets closer to that of Ariel Sharon as he stood by during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. This time around, the Israelis are doing their own dirty work, but American complicity is no less now than was Sharon's, twenty-four years ago".

Similarly, Lebanese academic Gilbert Achcar makes the point that Israel has in effect taken the entire nation of Lebanon hostage by severing its links with the outside world, and is now punishing every Lebanese man, woman and child for the actions of one political/paramilitary group.

Israeli academic
Ilan Pappe places events in their historic context, whilst his compatriot, the peace activist Uri Avnery, analyses Israel’s strategic aims.

The Guardian reports that whilst Israel devastates Lebanon, the US and the UK are in the background working against international efforts to bring about a ceasefire. Washington’s UN ambassador John Bolton says “The notion that you just declare a ceasefire and act as if that's going to solve the problem I think is simplistic”. Thus the further application of indiscriminate violence is the preferred solution in Washington and London.

Aid groups like the excellent
Christian Aid are working to mitigate the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Please donate something if you can.

I'll keep posting links to any of the better articles I read about the situation as I come across them.