Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gordon Brown, the centre-left, and the economy

My latest article, "The antidote to Brown's caution", is published today by The Guardian.

An excerpt:

"The Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently said that the financial crisis of 2008 was to "market fundamentalism" what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism: history's definitive verdict on an ideology that had failed in spectacular fashion.

"[After] the collapse of great banks and financial houses," Stiglitz said, "only the deluded would argue that markets are self-correcting or that we can rely on the self-interested behaviour of market participants to guarantee that everything works honestly and properly".

These discredited assumptions were of course the same ones adopted by New Labour during the 1990s, as it embraced the agenda of expanding and deregulating markets, while becoming "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich".

So the questions uppermost in my mind at Saturday's Fabian Society conference were: to what extent has the Labour party, and its broader intellectual family, learned the lessons described by Stiglitz? What discussions were going on among them, and how would they respond to these seminal events?"

Read the whole thing here.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen: our Munich

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


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

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

Yes, six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

The limits and context of New Labour's left turn

Today's editorial in The Guardian takes up an interesting theme: the long-term changes in the political economy of Britain and how the apparent move towards "industrial activism", made recently by New Labour, may fit into broader economic trends.


The rise of socialist and social democratic politics, driven by the organisation of mass labour rooted in manufacturing and other blue collar industries, probably reached its peak at around the mid-point of the last century, winning in the process some vital gains in terms of the political enfranchisement and economic welfare of the general population. Subsequent years saw the demographic make up of the country change, with manufacturing industry declining sharply as a mass employer, the move of many working class people into white collar work, an increase in home-ownership and the general break-up of the social base that had driven the Labour Party in particular and the political challenge to the vested interests of the economic elites more generally. The end of this historic socialist/social democratic coalition saw the establishment of a new Thatcherite consensus, first by Thatcher herself, then later on by New Labour.

However, recent months have seen something of a change in tone from the Labour government, including a willingness to intervene in support of the industrial sector and to (vocally at least) challenge the banking industry. We have also seen Gordon Brown directly challenge the regressive taxation policies of the Conservative Party and link those to the privileged background of its leading figures. Obviously Labour has to tack left at least slightly in order to rally support ahead of next year's general election. Its traditional base can no longer be relied upon to turn out and vote after 12 years of neo-Thatcherism from Brown and Blair, not to mention Blair's politically disastrous alliance with George W Bush. So trying to shore up that constituency makes sense. But is there also something deeper at work here?

The long-term social changes and trends described above that undermined traditional Labourism, though not entirely within the control of policymakers, were at the same time, not entirely due to forces of nature. The political economy is a system created by human beings and driven by human choices.

Similarly today, with it having become obvious that the British economy is fundamentally unbalanced and over-reliant on the "socially useless" activity of the financial sector, it is right that politicians should make the conscious choice to change this balance away from "financial engineering" towards "real engineering". This is especially true when climate change demands that we radically and swiftly alter the technological base, a situation that offers huge opportunities in research, development and production to the nation states and companies smart enough to take them. More national reliance on capital investment and less on capricious financial flows would also - potentially at least - render the democratic state better able to hold its own against the demands of elite international economic interests.

So it turns out, after 11 years of New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that you don't have to accept post-Thatcherite neo-liberalism as though it were written into the laws of physics. You can, in fact, make choices.

The costs of the centre-left's intellectual and moral timidity in the face of the status quo post-Thatcher can be measured in the damage done to the economy by the collapse of those orthodoxies in the autumn of 2008. Labour appears, very slowly indeed, to be coming round to an understanding (an understanding that is at least partially right) of what this might mean politically. It would be a shame if it lost the opportunity to develop this line of thinking more fully, given the unpleasant alternative facing us at the ballot box next spring.

Labour's current politics, irrespective of the recent mild drift away from Thatcherism, still require a serious overhaul or wholesale replacement. That's a long-term task for Britain's progressive majority, requiring dedication and commitment. In the short term, we should be aware of the changing political weather in the aftermath of the banking crisis and work to ensure that the obvious lessons are learnt about the sustainability of neo-liberal economics. In those circumstances, a Labour victory is plainly preferable to a Tory victory in the election next spring. But given New Labour's dismal record in entrenching Thatcherism during its first 11 years in power, and the extremely limited nature of its political conversion post-credit crunch, an anti-Tory vote next spring should be one very small part of a far greater effort to move the long-term trends of the British economy in a more progressive direction.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Demanding a New British Foreign Policy

My article, "We Must Demand a New Foreign Policy", was published on The Guardian's website earlier this week.
The article set out to do three things:
First, to point out that at the next election the political system will not be offering us any alternative government that presents the clean break in UK foreign policy that the public desires, following the Blair-Bush years.
Second, to try and describe some of the main features of what a progressive transformation in Britain's relations with the rest of the world might look like.
Third, to encourage the public to get involved in activism that challenges current UK policy and aims to change it for the better.
You can read the article here.
Many comments were made by readers (I believe it was one of the top five most commented-upon pieces in the 24 hours it was prominent on the site, and the editors were kind enough to nominate it 'Thread of the Day'). Some of the input was good, some less so, as is always the way in these forums. One comment I thought particularly valuable was this from Paul Lambert in which he cites polling evidence backing up my point about the democratic deficit on foreign policy.
It was good to get the opportunity to publish in the Guardian and get some of these ideas out to a much wider audience than I get here (no offence to either of you, my faithful and valued readers). Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Britain splits with Israel & US on Goldstone report

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

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


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

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

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

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Death of John Smith: 15 years on

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

John Smith, Labour Party leader, 1992-94


“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich"

Peter Mandelson



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

Where were you when you heard John Smith had died?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think is his lasting legacy?

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

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

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

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

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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.

video

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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.
"

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video

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, to...er...just 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".

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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?

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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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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gaza: Israeli PR vs bloody reality

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As I've noted in previous posts, Israel's attack on Gaza is being accompanied by a massive propaganda effort – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence the world’s governments while the assault continues.

But any PR campaign of this sort will run into serious credibility problems when its claims are so palpably contrary to the obvious facts.

So take the big lie, that Hamas broke its ceasefire with Israel and Israel then had to act militarily to defend its population from Hamas rockets. This is a straightforward inversion of reality. Hamas maintained the ceasefire for four months. It was Israel which broke it on the 5 November with an incursion into Gaza that killed 6 militants. Rocket fire, predictably, resumed after this point. But no Israelis were killed - none - during the six months leading up to the start of Israel's current assault, which has now taken over 550 Palestinian lives.

Or take the second big lie, that Israel is targeting Hamas and making every effort to avoid civilian casualties. It has by now been copiously documented by the world's most respected aid agencies, human rights organisations and NGOs (see here for an excellent summary) that Israel's claims in this regard are flat-out false. Amongst the "Hamas targets" and "terrorist infrastructure" struck by the Israeli military - as documented by the NGOs - are hospitals, ambulances and medical workers, mosques, schools, government buildings and civil policemen, news media, general civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves including, of course, the children that make up 56 per cent of Gaza's population. AFP now reports that "More than a quarter of the hundreds of dead from the Gaza conflict are children and aid groups say the survivors will suffer physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives....Aid workers believe just about every Gaza child has been traumatised by the incessant bombardment.."

In the interview with CBS television at the top of this post, a Norweigan doctor on the scene in Gaza, Mads Gilbert, said “anyone who tries to portray this as sort of a clean war against another army are lying. This is an all-out war against the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza”.

So when, in the face of all this, Israel's Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni asserts that there is “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, its not just that people know she’s lying. Its what she’s lying about that is bound to shock the ordinary person. Because where, in the end, are one’s sympathies most likely to fall? With the Palestinian father weeping in anguish over the lifeless bodies of his three infant children – the picture on the front of today’s Guardian – or with the person who approved the military campaign which killed those children and who now jets round the world giving press conferences pretending that the consequences of her actions do not exist? After performances like Livni’s, Israel can almost say what it likes. I suspect many people who watched the CBS interview above will be deaf to Israeli PR campaigns from now on.

Given this chasm between Israel’s PR and the known reality, it is reasonable to predict that the propadanda campaign will not only fail, but backfire disastrously. The offence caused by the sight of the atrocities Israel is committing will only be compounded by the cynicism and apparent inhumanity of those who are clearly prepared to say anything to defend these attacks.

There are, as far as I’m aware, no polls as yet on world public reaction to events in Gaza. But I think we can expect widespread opposition of the kind that met Israel’s war on Lebanon two years ago. There are a couple of hints toward that hypothesis. US public opinion – which to an extent not true of other populations is relentlessly bombarded with pro-Israel propaganda from its news media and pundit class – is still ‘closely divided’ on whether Israel’s recent actions are justified. One would therefore expect countries where the coverage of the situation is less unbalanced to show greater levels of opposition to Israel’s actions, as was indeed the case two years ago.

Then take this editorial in the Financial Times, which comes out strongly against Israel. A Financial Times editorial is a good indicator of the thinking of socio-economic and political elites (consider who those articles are written by and written for). And its also true that such elites tend to be to the right of the public (see, for example, the gaps between the US public and its political class on foreign policy).

So if the US public and the Financial Times editorial writers, where we would perhaps least expect opposition to Israel’s actions, are either split or opposed to the attack on Gaza, then that does not bode well for Israel in terms of how more liberal sectors (e.g. public opinion in the rest of the world or political opinion in Europe) will react.

In a great piece of analysis here, Juan Cole, Professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan and a prominent commentator on US policy towards the region, speculates that Israel’s propaganda effort may fail partly because people are now well used to seeing these sorts of lies, half-truths and distortions from the Bush White House, and so are less likely to fall for it again.

One more thing. When Israel attacked Lebanon two years ago Tony Blair suffered significant political damage for leading his government in supporting Israel’s assault and blocking calls for a ceasefire. Gordon Brown has apparently taken a different stance, calling for an immediate ceasefire. Or has he? According to Craig Murray - former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who lost his job after speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Tashkent regime - the British position on Gaza is not what it appears.

Murray says: “Brown is appeasing domestic horror at the Israeli massacre in Gaza by calling for a ceasefire. Meanwhile British diplomats on the United Nations Security Council are under direct instructions to offer “tacit support” to United States’ efforts to block a ceasefire. I have been told this directly by a former colleague in the UK Mission to the United Nations.” [Here’s the link. I’d warn the faint hearted that some understandably strong language is used by the former ambassador]

We can’t say for 100% certain whether Murray’s information is accurate, but I would view it as being likely to be true given the connections he must have. If it is true, it will count as the darkest and most disgraceful episode in Brown’s premiership to date. One hopes that any pretence on the part of Brown - to be trying to end the killing when in fact he is trying to prolong it - will be exposed in the same way that Israel’s propaganda about the atrocities it is committing are being exposed, daily, to people all over the world.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

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

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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.

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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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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liberated attention-seekers of the world....you have nothing to lose but your shoes

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Why did an Iraqi journalist, Muntazir al-Zaidi, throw his shoes at US President George Bush during a press conference on Sunday? Well, according to Bush, "that's what happens in free societies when people try to draw attention to themselves".

Now lets have a think. What other reasons might there be for an Iraqi to want to throw his shoes (a particularly grave insult in the Arab world) at George W Bush?

Could it be related to the fact that the US invasion and occupation may by now have resulted in the deaths of over a million Iraqis (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) and well over 4 million being driven out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) according to the best estimates available? Those refugees were often driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution, while those left behind fared little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. What are the odds of the anger of this Iraqi journalist towards the US President having to do with any of those things?

What about the systematic sexual abuse and torture carried out by Bush's troops at Abu Ghraib? What about the recent outbreak of cholera, merely the latest example of the train-wreck society Iraq has become?

Or maybe it was because the war - an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying - was, at root, aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power, through control over Iraq's vast oil reserves?

For George Bush, the obvious reason an Iraqi would throw shoes at him is because George liberated the guy and because the guy is an attention seeker. Might any other thoughts have occurred to the President, if he had given himself a little more time to consider it?

I suppose maybe the shoe-thrower could be one of those "anti-Americans" you hear about. Probably he hates freedom and our way of life, or something. Or maybe he's just ungrateful.

McClatchy reports that "al-Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad's Sadr City area earlier this year and had been "emotionally influenced" by the destruction he'd seen". The fact that the US still bombs densely populated civilian areas in Iraq, 5 years after liberation, is one of the major untold stories of the conflict. It is, however, no secret to Iraqis.

This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” al-Zaidi shouted as he threw his second shoe. The New York Times reports that al-Zaidi was then "beaten by members of the prime minister’s security detail, who hauled him out of the room in his white socks. Mr. Zaidi’s cries could be heard from a nearby room as the news conference continued", no doubt another egotisitcal attempt to draw attention to himself. According to al-Zaidi's fellow reporter Mohammed Taher, the guards kicked him and beat him until "he was crying like a woman" while President Bush joked and smirked his way through the remainder of the press conference.

Al-Zaidi is now in the hands of Iraq's criminal justice system where. According to a Human Rights Watch report released Sunday:

"Torture and other forms of abuse in Iraqi detention facilities, frequently to elicit confessions in early stages of detention, are well documented. The reliance on confessions in the court’s proceedings, coupled with the absence of physical or other corroborating evidence, raises the possibility of serious miscarriages of justice. In at least 10 investigative hearings and two trials that Human Rights Watch observed, defendants renounced confessions submitted as evidence. In most of those cases, the defendants said they had been physically abused or threatened by interrogators."

Sami Ramadani, a political exile from the regime of Saddam Hussein and now a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, has a good article in the Guardian today explaining what motivated al-Zaidi, and what his actions meant to many Iraqis.

"Muntadhar [al-Zaidi] is a secular socialist whose hero happens to be Che Guevara. He became a prominent leftwing student leader immediately after the occupation, while at Baghdad University's media college. He reported for al-Baghdadia on the poor and downtrodden victims of the US war. He was first on the scene in Sadr City and wherever people suffered violence or severe deprivation. He not only followed US Apache helicopters' trails of death and destruction, but he was also among the first to report every "sectarian" atrocity and the bombing of popular market places. He let the victims talk first.

It was effective journalism, reporting that the victims of violence themselves accused the US-led occupation of being behind all the carnage. He was a voice that could not be silenced, despite being kidnapped by a gang and arrested by US and regime forces.

His passion for the war's victims and his staunchly anti-occupation message endeared him to al-Baghdadia viewers. And after sending Bush out of Iraq in ignominy he has become a formidable national hero. The orphan who was brought up by his aunt, and whose name means the longed or awaited for, has become a powerful unifying symbol of defiance, and is being adopted by countless Iraqis as "our dearest son"."

If you're in London this Friday 19 December, you can join a protest for al-Zaidi's release at 1pm, the US Embassy, 24 Grosvenor Square. Nearest tube stops are Marble Arch and Bond Street. Stop the War Coalition asks that you bring shoes.

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In other news, Prime Minister Gordon Brown today announced the withdrawal of British combat forces from Iraq, to be effected by 31 May 2009. You can read my Le Monde Diplomatique article on Britain's ignominious role in the occupation of Iraq here.

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