Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In confession, Blair admits launching an illegal war

There’s been some controversy these past few days over remarks made by Tony Blair to the effect that he would still have taken Britain to war even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass descruction (WMDs) in 2003. Put aside Blair’s continued pretence that there was any clear evidence that Iraq had WMD. Put aside the fiction that the existence of WMD would by itself have constituted a case for war (there was no chance that Saddam would have provoked the US by using them aggressively). A detailed look at what Blair said about the justification for starting the Iraq war reveals more about the nature of the decision that was taken than even many of Blair critics have fully realised. Because Blair has now effectively admitted that the war was, at least in part, an act of political violence taken, not as a last resort, but as a policy choice to advance a strategic agenda.

The remarks were made in an interview with the BBC that focsed largely on Blair’s religious faith and the role it has played in his public and personal life. Unable to find a transcript of the interview, I’ve just subjected myself this morning to watching fully one hour of Blair’s sanctimonious, middle-brow twaddle on the BBC website so I could copy down word-for-word the relevant parts of the interview.

No need to thank me.

Here’s what Blair said on Iraq, in full, followed by my analysis of the implications.

Asked if it was WMD that persuaded him to join the invasion of Iraq, Blair says:

It was the notion of him as a threat to the region, of which the development of WMD was obviously one. You'd had 12 years of United Nations to-and-fro on this subject, he'd used chemical weapons on his own people. So this was obviously the thing that was uppermost in my mind, the threat to the region. Also the fact of how that region was going to change and how in the end it was going to evolve as a region and whilst he was there I thought and actually still think it would have been very difficult to have changed it in the right way.

The interviewer then asks: “If you had known then that there were no WMDs would you still have gone on?”

I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat ... but I find it quite hard because I've spent so much time out there now and you know they're about to have an election which will probably be the single most significant thing that's happened in that region for many years because they've managed at long last to break out of actually the religious divide. So you've got groupings for the first time standing there in elections who are going to be broad-based. Now, we hope that it works. But I'm out there a lot of the time now in the work I do in Israel and Palestine. I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons still in charge, but its incredibly difficult and I totally understand that's why I sympathise with the people who were against it for perfectly good reasons and are against it now but for me in the end you know I had to take the decision.

Later on, talking about the decision to invade from a personal point of view, Blair takes the subject back to the broader justifications for the war:

And you also understand I think with these types of decisions that the judgement about them is a very long run thing I mean you ...it all depends what view you take I mean I happen to think that there is a major major struggle going on all over the world really which is about Islam and what is happening within Islam and I think its got a long way to go. So I think its probably only significantly later that you will look back and work out in a context was this helpful to achieving change or was it not helpful, and that's difficult to judge right now.

[Source: Fern Britton Meets...Tony Blair, BBC One, 10:00am Sunday 13th December 2009]

So Blair advances two justifications for the war:

1. The security threat to the region and to Iraqis posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; and
2. The obstacle Saddam posed to “change” in the region.

He then says that minus WMD he would still have thought it right to go to war. He would just “have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat”. So what he describes in one breath as “the thing that was uppermost in my mind” turns out a moment later to be a detail, and not fundamental to the decision at all. Therefore we can discount justification 1.

This leaves us with justification 2. Saddam was an obstacle to “change” in the Middle East “and how in the end it was going to evolve as a region” which needed to be “changed in the right way”. Blair was explicitly told by his Attorney General that a war for regime change would be illegal. But put aside the legal question for a moment. One does not unleash a force of nature as catastrophically destructive as war simply because one wishes to effect a form of political change. Violence is only justifiable to avert an ongoing or imminent attack, only as a last resort and only to the extent that is strictly proportionate to the threat. Blair sees it differently. To him, violence can be used as a policy tool if Western political leaders feel that, in their judgement, a certain part of the world needs to “evolve”.

Blair talks about democratic elections in Iraq as proving the worth of his decision, but Blair's was not some principled war for democracy. We know for a fact that Blair has no interest in democracy in the Middle East. When the Palestinians voted for candidates that the West disapproved of in their elections of January 2006 Blair’s government colluded in a US-Israeli led boycott of the occupied Palestinian territories – one of the poorest places in the world - that effectively punished the Palestinian people indiscriminately for how they had chosen to vote. If any election deserves to be described as the “single most significant thing that's happened in that region for many years” it was the Palestinian elections of 2006, because of the overt contempt both for democracy and for the lives of the people of the Middle East that the Western reaction to it demonstrated. This – even more than the ongoing backing for various authoritarian Arab regimes - exposed the narrative of democratisation that Bush and Blair were peddling at the time to justify their approach to the Middle East for the fiction that it always was.

Blair says “in the end you know I had to take the decision”; but this is just the point. He was not in the position of a Winston Churchill, forced by an aggressor into making tough choices. His was not a decision of last resort. His choice to go to war was freely taken, because he thought it might help advance the West’s strategic agenda in the Middle East. There is no such thing as a just war that is freely chosen by the party that instigates it. A war of choice is by definition a war of aggression. Blair, by his own admission, is a war criminal.

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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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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The perfect Muslim

"Somewhere out there is the Muslim that the British government seeks. Like all religious people he (the government is more likely to talk about Muslim women than to them) supports gay rights, racial equality, women's rights, tolerance and parliamentary democracy. He abhors the murder of innocent civilians without qualification - unless they are in Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq. He wants to be treated as a regular British citizen - but not by the police, immigration or airport security. He wants the best for his children and if that means unemployment, racism and bad schools, then so be it.

He raises his daughters to be assertive: they can wear whatever they want so long as it's not a headscarf. He believes in free speech and the right to cause offence but understands that he has neither the right to be offended nor to speak out. Whatever an extremist is, on any given day, he is not it.

He regards himself as British - first, foremost and for ever. But whenever a bomb goes off he will happily answer for Islam. Even as he defends Britain's right to bomb and invade he will explain that Islam is a peaceful religion. Always prepared to condemn other Muslims and supportive of the government, he has credibility in his community not because he represents its interests to the government, but because he represents the government's interests to Muslims. He uses that credibility to preach restraint and good behaviour. Whatever a moderate is, on any given day, he is it."

Gary Younge - Where will we find the perfect Muslim for monocultural Britain? - Guardian, 30 March 2009

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Britain in the early 20th Century

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.

As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


“Although, until the Liberals came to power in 1905, the majority of cabinet members were still drawn from the landed classes, their near monopoly of government was on its way out, shaken not so much by the advance of egalitarian democracy as by a long, steep agricultural depression. To all intents and purposes, between 1870 and 1910 Britain ceased to be a serious agricultural producer. Since it was unable to compete with colonial and American imports, 3 million acres were taken out of cultivation. By 1911 just 8 per cent of the 45 million people of Great Britain were earning their living from the land. Agricultural incomes in Britain over the same period fell by a full 25 per cent.....Almost a quarter of the privately owned land of Britain...went on the market between the 1870s and the 1830s. Many of the estates...were bought by the relatively recent rich whose fortunes had been made in industry, shipping mining, insurance or publishing: often...in the Dominions. There were Australian and Canadian accents now at the point-to-points and grouse shoots, and the relics of the old nobility tried not to flinch. Churchill’s cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough...lamented that ‘the old order is doomed’” p308

“Those who did survive the shake-out of the estates belonged to an even more exclusive elite: by 1914, half the acreage of England and Wales belonged to just 4500 proprietors” p310

Poverty was still rife in the late Victorian era, with 10 per cent of the total urban working population living in festering slum conditions, families crowded into a single room or two at best. However, this was also the era where the recognisably modern home came into being for many ordinary people, including flushing lavatories and tap water. Public hygiene and diets improved. But the nation’s essential socio-economic character was largely unchanged. “On the eve of the First World War...10 per cent of Britain’s population owned 92 per cent of its wealth. As many as 90 per cent of the deceased, on the other hand, left no documented assets or property whatsoever” p313. Moreover, increased competition for Britain’s labour intensive, export-driven industries from rising economies like that of the USA made even the situation of the relatively well-off increasingly (albeit relatively) precarious.

The answer of the industrialists was rationalization, investment in labour-saving machinery, wage cuts and longer hours. They came up against a newly organised, unionised, assertive and mobilised workforce, leading to a string of hard-fought industrial disputes. The Labour Party was born as the political wing of that movement; a coalition of revolutionary Marxists, non-revolutionary Fabians, and the trade unionists themselves. Elements across the party, in their own way, cited the likes of Lilburne and Paine in their moral and ideological heritage.

“Fabianism committed itself to eschewing the half-baked, half-thought revolution in favour of a long campaign of re-educating both the political elite and the working class – the first to a new sense of their social responsibilities, the latter to a new sense of their legitimate social rights. Between them they were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age” p316

The Fabian re-education programme included dinner-parties for the great and the good, attended by Liberals like Herbert Asquith, and even Tories like Arthur Balfour.

For the Fabians, it was economics that caused poverty, not the immorality of the poor. The Fabian argument for social justice was very similar to the nineteenth century Liberal/Whig argument for franchise extension. While not downplaying the genuine decency and compassion of the Fabians, it would be wrong, perhaps, to entirely rule out the role of pragmatic class interest in the thinking of these polite reformers. Indeed, the Fabians cited the health of empire – hardly a progressive institution – as requiring and resting on the domestic social reform that they advocated.

But who was going to pay? Not just for the social reforms, but for the maintenance of British Naval superiority and for the debts incurred during the Boer War? Not – at least not willingly – the mobilised and agitated working class, especially not during an economic slump. So the usual regressive taxes on commodities were eschewed as revenue raisers, in favour of progressive taxation on land, inheritance and incomes, in Lloyd George’s budget of 1909.

The “People’s Budget” had an unlikely champion: Winston Churchill, now President of the Board of Trade, who campaigned up and down the country against the obstructions of the House of Lords. “At the Victoria Opera House in Burnley in December, Churchill had a lot of fun with Curzon’s claim in nearby Oldham the that ‘superior class’ by blood and tradition had inherited the right to ‘rule over our children’. What did the noble lord say? That ‘ “all great civilisation has been the work of aristocracies”. They liked that in Oldham (laughter). ... Why, it would be much more true to say the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations” (loud cheers and cries of “say it again”)’ p322.

Asquith forced an election, as a referendum on the Lords’ resistance to the budget. The Liberals’ overall majority was lost, but with Irish Home Rulers and Labour MPs support the Parliament Bill was passed and the upper house’s powers sharply curbed.

But if the reforms were conceived as the minimum necessary to forestall revolution, many of those it was intended to pacify were less than impressed. Riots and confrontations with the police began to occur, first with the miners, then with the increasingly militant suffragettes, some of whom had taken to direct physical action as a form of protest.


With Germany bolstering its military strength, and Britain keen to retain its naval advantage, Churchill took an active post in his new role as First Lord of the Admiralty. “Heavy guns were to be mounted on fast ships; and, most momentous of all, those ships would now be fuelled more cost effectively by oil, not coal. In retrospect this one decision, a commitment to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – so apparently innocent, or at least so purely logistical (and so lightly glossed over in most Churchill biographies) – was to have more profound effects on the fate of the British Empire, not to mention the history of the world, than almost anything else Churchill did until the May days of 1940. It made the survival of the British Empire conditional on a Middle East presence, a halfway link between India and Egypt. That in turn would make Churchill, as colonial secretary in 1921, a strong supporter of a British mandate in Palestine and a protective role in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia) and Jordan. That would beget Suez. And Suez begat Islamic fundamentalism. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in which Churchill made sure to acquire a 51 per cent holding for the British government in 1914, would beget joint Anglo-American oil interests in Iran, which would beget the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq democracy and the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which would beget the Ayatollah Khomenei. And all the while the coal mines of Britain were relegated to terminal redundancy. But on the eve of the First World War, the battle fleet was well tanked and ready for action” p327-8.

Churchill’s failed plan, during WWI, to attack the German alliance at its weakest point – the Ottoman Empire – was in part aimed at securing the oil fields of Persia and Mesopotamia.


“At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out” p334.

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells saw the war’s terrible cost as an unanswerable case for the end of empire, to be replaced with enlightened global governance. The treaty of Versailles – pinning all the blame for and most of the cost of the war on Germany – and the League of Nations – diminished by its limited authority and its repudiation by the US Congress – were not what they had in mind.

The domestic political change that came in the war’s aftermath was more substantial: votes for all men aged over 21 and women over 30, 200,000 government built homes, the raising of the school leaving age to 14, nationwide standardization of wages and salaries, doubling of old-age pensions and near-universal unemployment insurance p333.

But the ‘war socialism’ of nationalised industries and state-controlled wages was quickly dismantled, despite pleas from the labour movement p336. And in addition, the overwhelming majority held by the Tory-Liberal coalition headed by Lloyd George meant that the government (and the Prime Minister) were free to rule almost as they pleased. “It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected” p337.

Lloyd George did not preside over an empire of contented subjects. The failure of moves for Home Rule opened the way for the rise of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the former bringing the Easter Rising of 1916, the latter sweeping aside the Home Rulers in the 1918 elections. In Scotland, poverty, unemployment exacerbated by post-war demobilisation, and the disproportionate loss of Scottish life in the war (26 per cent of Scots to 12 per cent of the rest of the British troops had died) led to union demands for the retention of wage and rent controls, and a shorter working week. Refusal resulted in strikes, clashes with the police, and eventually the occupation of Red Glasgow by 12,000 troops and 6 tanks p338.

Further abroad, the war had tested the loyalty and acquiescence to empire of many colonial subjects. The Anglo-Saxon colonials believed their sacrifices earned them another step towards equal nation status with the UK. Non-Anglo-Saxon subjects simply became firmer in their demands for independence with the British now having to put down nationalist uprisings in Egypt and install puppet monarchs there and in Iraq.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

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


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.


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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Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan

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

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


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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Juan Cole dissects Bush's record in the Middle East

Juan Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. During the course of George Bush's "War on Terror", Cole has maintained a blog - Informed Comment - which provides a daily commentary on events in the Middle East and the effects of US policy there, as well as occasional pieces on the religious, political and cultural history of the region.

I started reading Informed Comment shortly after the US invasion of Iraq and have long regarded it as the best political blog on the internet. Cole knows the region, knows the history and knows the languages, so while directing you to the most important bits of news from the English language media he can also draw on local sources to give you the full picture, and placing these events into their proper overall context.

This morning, Cole responds to Bush's speech of yesterday on US Middle East policy of the last 8 years. He notes the pressures that have been exerted on him personally and professionally since 2001 by the US Republican-Zionist hard-right to shut up and stop challenging their simplistic, confrontational, Manichean view of the world. And then he goes through the speech more or less line by line, exposing the contradictions, the omissions and the falsehoods that make up Bush's account of what he has done to the Middle East during his disastrous reign. While its an informal blog post, its still as good a review of this episode of modern history as you're likely to find anywhere.

Here's Cole's response to Bush on Iraqi democracy:

"Bush boasts [that],
' When Saddam’s regime fell, we refused to take the easy option and install a friendly strongman in his place. Even though it required enormous sacrifice, we stood by the Iraqi people as they elected their own leaders and built a young democracy.'

Oh, give me a break. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith were, too, going to install a strongman, i.e. Ahmad Chalabi. They didn't only because they couldn't (an Iraqi insurgency started up and the religious Shiite parties flexed their muscles). Then Paul "Jerry" Bremer was going to hold phony 'caucus-based elections' that would restrict the electorate to pro-Bush elements on unelected provincial councils. That fell through because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani shot it down and there were massive demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in January, 2004, against it. Then Bush put in Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist strong man, as appointed prime minister in the lead-up to the elections, and tried to give him the advantages of incumbency in hopes of throwing the election to him. Bush and his cronies tried as hard as he could for a secular strong man, but they were just defeated by Sistani and the religious parties that had been in exile in Tehran.
Bush lauds the surge and the Status of Forces Agreement without seeming to realize that they are contradictory policies. The troop escalation was intended to allow the US to maintain bases in the long term in Iraq. But the SOFA expels US troops by 2011. So, again, Bush was defeated by Iraqi popular political forces."

After covering democratization, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq and more, Cole's final summing up gets it right on the money:

"Bush turned the United States into an aggressor nation. He kicked off an orgy of violence in Iraq that has probably left a million dead. He destroyed entire cities. He left millions of widows and orphans, and millions more displaced. He lied, he destroyed habeas corpus at home and abroad, he tortured. It is too soon to know if American democracy will ever really recover from [his] lawless regime."

While Cole is aiming at the right-wing in his own country, what was particularly galling here in the UK was the Bush administration's ability to find de facto allies not just on our own right wing, but in the centre and even amongst some who claimed to be on the centre-left. Put aside the "liberal interventionists" who adopted without serious question the assumption that US power - US military power - was some uncomplicated force for good in the world which could be entrusted with the liberation and welfare of the Iraqi people. Put the intellectual cheerleaders aside and just take the Labour government. The history of Labour is a series of successes and betrayals, and you expect both. But the winter and spring of 2002-2003 was New Labour's single darkest hour; a chilling encapsulation of its self-serving moral drift. I recall at the time being reminded of Neil Kinnock's excoriating speech at the 1985 party conference denouncing what he saw as the betrayals of the Militant tendency. A paraphrasing of that speech emerged in my mind which seemed to sum up what had happened under Blair and what had brought us to that fateful juncture. Try this:

"You start with an abandonment of any principles that present a barrier to your career, and this is then dressed up in the virtuous finery of "what works", never minding who your policies work for: the privileged, you, or the people who rely on you. And you climb up the ladder sticking to that, attacking lone mothers, asylum seekers, all those you were supposed to defend. And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour government, a Labour government, supporting a hard-right US administration as it resurrects old-style imperialism, and joining an illegal, aggressive war that goes on to claim hundreds of thousands of lives".

To prevent further betrayals in the future, and thereby perhaps prevent more imperial killing abroad, Britain needs a few more of its own Juan Coles in the academy (which is not to say that we don't already have some very fine examples) . With his blog, his column in Salon magazine, and his regular media appearances, Cole has probably done as much as any single US academic to provide an enlightened, intelligent and humanitarian challenge to the callous aggression of the Bush White House. He has dedicated himself to speaking truth to and about power, and as such has fulfilled the proper societal role of an academic, an intellectual and a liberal (if that last word is to retain its true meaning). One hopes that Cole's efforts continue long into the Obama presidency, since real scrutiny and popular pressure will likely be needed stop the new administration drifting into the realms of Clintonism.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Michael Schwartz on the US-Iraq security pact

Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University. He's written a series of wonderfully illuminating articles on the US occupation of Iraq for the Tomdispatch website, and now a book entitled "War Without End: The Iraq War in Context"
Here Schwartz and Pepe Escobar discuss the new "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) between the Iraqi and US governments, which sets out the terms under which the US military will retain its presence in Iraq and the deadline for that presence to end. To what extent has Iraq exerted a modicum of independence through the negotiation process, and to what extent will the US continue to be able to promote its imperial ambitions?
Other good Michael Schwartz articles on Iraq include:
  • this, exploding the myth of recent US success in Iraq
  • this on the almost biblical tragedy of Iraq's massive refugee crisis
  • this on how the US occupation has been the primary destructive force in Iraq since 2003; and
  • this analysis of the role US-imposed "free-market" economic shock-therapy played in creating the conditions for the huge upsurge in violence post-invasion.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Iraq War comes to Santa Monica

Here's the group Iraq Veterans Against the War recreating their experiences in Iraq for the people of Santa Monica.
The group's campaigning offers an intelligent and powerful corrective to the pro-war mythology. And unlike some opponents of the war who only talk about how it has hurt America, IVAW aren't shy of talking about the terrible costs borne by the Iraqi people.
Check out their website.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Goodbye John McCain? Why the White House is now Obama's to lose

There’s just a few weeks to go until the US Presidential election, and Barack Obama is moving into a clear lead in the polls. And yet ….. some of you are still nervous, aren’t you? Don’t deny it, I can tell. You think it’s all somehow going to go wrong at the last minute; that the world’s going to be lumbered with another White House stuffed with half-wits and dogmatists who never saw a war they didn’t like.

Well you need to pull yourselves together. Snap out of it. Its not 2000 and its not 2004. Its 2008, things are different, and as it happens, I may just have some good news for you.

Obviously no one can rule out a McCain/Palin victory. A lot can happen in a month. But its becoming increasingly clear that this election is now Obama’s to lose. In fact there is now a serious possibility, if not a probability, that he could win by a big margin.

Not convinced? Then let me explain what I’m basing that on.

About a month ago, when Obama and John McCain were neck and neck and many were beginning to seriously panic about a Republican victory, I said that (a) Obama was still better placed to win, and (b) we should not discount the possibility, however small, of his winning by a landslide. Amongst other reasons I gave for saying this, I noted:

  • First, that McCain would have problems mobilising his lukewarm Republican support to come out and vote for him in numbers, and the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate may not make much difference to that; and
  • Second, that McCain's perceived strength, Iraq, will do him little good as Americans made their mind up about that issue a long time ago. Now they're more worried about the economy, which favours Obama.

Recent polls appear to bear out and even reinforce what I was saying a month ago. Obama has now broken clear of McCain, with his lead outside the margin of statistical error. But what's more important is that when we drill down into the detail we see much going well for Obama and next to nothing going right for McCain. Obama is building on his strengths while McCain's are shrinking or being nullified. In other words, there are many reasons to think that Obama's lead still has room to grow and few reasons to think that McCain could make a comeback.

There are a million polls flying about at the moment. I’ve concentrated on two from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I go through the poll findings in detail in a separate post. Read that to see just how bad things are for McCain. Here, I’ll cover the most important points.

Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried either to talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters’ confidence in Obama. That puts Obama on far stronger ground than McCain, according to these figures.

Voters are much, much more concerned by the economy than they are by Iraq and national security, and Obama is strong on the economy, whereas McCain has a serious image problem on this topic.

61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.

So, on the absolute number one election issue Obama is seen positively and McCain is seen negatively. On polling day, this could well be the bottom line.

McCain’s strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy. Indeed, he polls better than his rival in terms of who understands these issues and who is more ready to be commander in chief of the US military. But voters also have confidence in Obama in this area, albeit less than for McCain. Obama does not score negative here, as McCain does on the economy. He scores positive.

Moreover, voters are (quite rightly) not convinced by McCain’s big foreign policy line that the “surge” of additional US troops into Iraq is bringing “victory”. Nor do they share McCain’s hawkish views on diplomacy, Iran, and the “war on terror”. And they view McCain as having lost the first presidential debate – whose topic was foreign policy – to Obama. McCain actually lost supporters over that. If this is McCain’s strong area, then he doesn’t have a great deal to go on.

Then there’s George Bush. The sheer depth of Bush’s unpopularity is historic, and the financial crisis has made this even worse. The Democrats can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds by saying that McCain has voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time, and Biden and Obama have been hammering away at this theme. This could be electoral poison for McCain, who effectively has no answer to the charge.

How does all this translate into the voters’ view of the candidates? The latest CBS poll gives Obama a 9 point advantage, but to get the true picture we have to look at the nature and strength as well as the level of support.

Obama's supporters are far more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means that on the day they're more likely to make the effort to go out and vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain. His supporters are stuck in a state of ambivalence, while Obama’s are getting more and more enthusiastic.

Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 per cent of voters said yes and 28 per cent said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good for the Republican in a national economic crisis.

Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's a couple of weeks ago; by last Friday it was 19 per cent better. McCain, whose rating is minus 3, is not in a good position to personally attack Obama, whose rating is plus 16. Yet this is the tactic the Republicans are now starting to accentuate, apparently in desperation.

The choice of Sarah Palin was a gamble on McCain’s part, an attempt at pulling a dramatic game-changer. It hasn’t paid off. Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two and a half weeks ago. By the time of the vice-Presidential debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval dipped over the same period, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two and a half weeks ago, and by Friday just gone it was plus 15.

What about the vice-Presidential debate? As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that was the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden by a distance. Its fair to say that Palin hasn’t recovered that early excitement around her, and probably isn’t going to.

Now of course, polls can never be exact. But nor are they a licked finger in the breeze; not if they are done properly. These polls look pretty professional, and in serious polling, a lot of careful work is done to get the numbers right.

But will the issues even matter? Won’t they be shunted aside in favour of trivialities (which of the candidates you’d prefer to have a beer with; whether one of the candidates “looks French”) thus favouring the Republicans? That’s the view of Noam Chomsky, the political commentator I have most respect for, but here I personally think he’s wrong. Yes the Republicans are desperate to avoid the issues, for reasons that are obvious. But there are limits to how successful that tactic can be. Can you convince Americans who are losing their homes and jobs that they should care instead about the personalities and trivia? Michael Tomasky argues very persuasively here that this election is just too big for people to be distracted. I think he's right, and the polling figures seem to support him, at least for now.

Another important note of caution would be that there is still a month to go before polling day and a lot can happen in that time. Obama could make a mistake or gaffe, or have something he says convincingly portrayed as such in the media. There could be a major terrorist attack, which might shift the debate onto McCain’s marginally stronger suit.

But McCain doesn’t want to be left hoping for a bolt from the blue at this stage. He needs a tangible chance of getting back in the game, and its hard to see where that comes from based on these numbers. The fact that McCain has abandoned campaigning in Michigan, a key swing state, speaks volumes, as does the fact that Obama is now competitive even in North Carolina and Virginia. There has been a seismic shift over the last two weeks, due in part to the collapse of the investment banking industry and McCain’s gimmicky and erratic response to the crisis. That was a test of Presidential character which he failed and Obama passed. He probably won’t get another chance like it.

I’ve criticised Obama in the past – strongly - and I’ll certainly do so again. But it cannot be claimed that there is no difference between these two candidates. Its right to hope for an Obama victory and now legitimate to believe, albeit still with caution, that that’s what we’re about to witness.

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US Presidential Election: Analysis of Polling Data

Unless otherwise indicated, the following analysis is based on two opinion polls from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I talk about the main points and the implications for next month’s election in a separate post. Here, I’ll talk about the poll findings in detail, bringing out the points that I think are relevant.


Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried to either talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters confidence in Obama. As we will see, Obama's strategy has a lot of mileage in it while McCain's has not a lot.

Voters were asked which will be the most important issue to them in choosing the next President.
52 per cent said the economy, 41 per cent clear of the next most important issue.

After the economy, you have 5 issues clustered round the 10 per cent mark. Terrorism and national security on 11, gas prices and energy policy on 10, and healthcare and Iraq tied on 9. Voters care much more about Obama's chosen specialist subject than McCain.

So if Obama wins on his turf and McCain wins
on his, it is not a draw: Obama comes out better.

The Economy

Voters are very concerned about the state of the economy, making it the number one issue by a huge margin.

At the time of the credit crunch, 7 per cent of voters thought the US economy was doing very well, 45 thought fairly well, 32 thought fairly bad and 14 tho
ught very bad: a net positive rating of plus 6. Now the net rating is minus 64.

46 per cent think the economy is doing very badly, 34 think fairly badly, 17 think fairly well. There is a dash, rather than a number, in the "very well" column for only the second time since 1992 (the last time was in April 08).

Voters are also worried by the direction of the economy. 70 per cent think it is getting worse against 2 per cent (statistical zero) who think it is improving.

Moreover, voters do not see these problems in abstract. They are acutely aware of what the financial crisis means to them. 45 per cent say they have been affected by the decline in property values, 58 per cent are concerned that their home will lose value over the next year, 48 per cent are concerned about their ability to pay their mortgage. One in five say they don't make enough to make the bills, with another 44 per cent on top of that saying they can only just make ends meet.

Which o
f the candidates addresses these concerns? 61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.

Can I get an award for understatement by saying that McCain does not want to be seen like this at this particular point in history?

This is a big lead for Obama, and a massive weakness for McCain, on what will probably be the defining issue of the election (barring a second 9/11).

Specifically on the financial crisis, 44 per cent approve and 32 disapprove of Obama's handling of the situation - a net approval of plus 12. McCain's net approval is minus 11, with 46 per cent disapproving of his approach. On a major test of Presidential ability and a key issue for voters, Obama passes and McCain fails.

A major aspect of this question for the candidates is "whose side are you on?", and McCain has problems here because voters associate him with those factors they blame for the crisis: big business and deregulation.

Asked to what they attributed the problems in the banking industry, 46 per cent said bad business management and 27 say a lack of government oversight. On business regulation, 21 per cent say there is too much, while 45 per cent say too little. Obama and Biden have portrayed themselves as the champions of regulation, while drawing attention to McCain's record of advocating deregulation on behalf of wealthy elites. This will resonate. Asked whom each candidate ca
res more about protecting - ordinary people or large corporations - 73 per cent said Obama cared more about ordinary people (up 3 in a week) and 13 (down 3) said he cared more about the corporations. 31 per cent said McCain cared more about ordinary people (down 1) and 57 (up 5) said he cared more about the corporations.

Bottom line: this election is overwhelmingly about economic issues, and McCain has a very serious public image problem in that regard.


McCain's strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy, especially the mythical success of the recent
"surge" of extra US troops, which he and Palin claim are bringing "victory" in Iraq. But McCain's strength here is pretty marginal.

As I said last month, the US public has made up its mind about Iraq. The war has not enjoyed clear support since late 2004. Those saying it was the right thing to do have amounted to mid-forties or less as a percentage since summer 2006, with those saying the invasion should not have occurred numbering around half of voters since late 2004. Currently, 55 per cent think the invasion was wrong against 39 who say it was right, and by now that's very much the established picture. Opposing the war from the start has worked very well for Obama, and supporting it from the start is a big weakness for McCain.

But what about the surge? McCain and Palin have been relentless in demanding that Obama acknowledge the "success" of the surge and the "coming victory" in Iraq. There is no clear reason to think that this will ring true with voters. 7 per cent think the war is going well and 39 somewhat well. 51 per cent think it is going very or somewhat badly. 44 per cent think the surge has made things better but the same number think it has made things worse or had no impact (11 and 33 respectively).

Going at Obama aggressively and sarcastically on his failure to back the surge is effectively to go hard and aggressive on half the electorate. A bad move.

31 per cent of voters are very confident in McCain's decision making on Iraq, while Obama's figure is 25. But if you add those that are "very" and "somewhat confident" in the candidate's decision making its 54 for McCain and 53 for Obama, while 45 are not confident in McCain and 46 are not confident in Obama. Statistically, that's no difference at all.

Bottom line: Iraq is at best a marginal strength for McCain. In many respects, the candidates are tied.

Actually both have lost a little voter confidence on this issue in the past fortnight, but McCain has lost more.

National security

There seems to be an assumption amongst many people that US voters are in tune with right wing neo-conservativism on foreign policy, and neither know nor care what the rest of the world
thinks about their nation's actions abroad. This is factually incorrect, and if its what McCain's banking on, he's misguided.

57 per cent of voters say it is very important that the US improves its image in the world. 53 per cent think Obama will improve their national image, with 12 per cent saying it will get worse and 29 that it will have no effect. Only 23 per cent think McCain will improve America's image after the Bush years. 26 per cent think he'll make things worse and 43 think he'll have no effect.

So 69 per cent think McCain will fail on a foreign policy goal that they consider to be very important.

In respect of terrorism, will the US be safer if it confronts certain groups and countries in the Middle East or if it stays out of the Middle East's affairs? 38 per cent say the US should intervene. 51 per cent say it would be safer to stay out.

Do these American voters realise how anti-American they are?

10 per cent think Iran is a threat to the US, while 20 per cent think it is not. 61 per cent think it is a containable threat. Banging on about Ahmedinejad is not necessarily a crowd pleaser.

When asked whether they were more concerned by having tough security laws than by any erosion of civil liberties, 51 per cent of voters said they were most concerned by the loss of civil liberties against 31 who preferred tough security measures. A false choice in my view, but still, so much for the baying right-wing mob. So much for the death of liberal America.

When asked if the US should try to "democratise" other countries, or whether it should stay out of their affairs (for now lets put aside the fact that US democracy promotion is a mirage) 15 per cent said the US should intervene against 65 who said it should stay out. 65 per cent of Americans reject the central principle of neo-conservativism, yet the neo-cons call themselves patriots and their opponents anti-American.

Will McCain make the better "Commander in Chief" of the nation's military? 73 per cent (down 8 in a week) say he is very or somewhat likely to be effective in the role against 61 (down 1) that say Obama will be effective. 37 per cent (up 1) say Obama is not likely to be effective against 25 (up 6) for McCain.

So while McCain has a solid lead here, both candidates have the confidence of the majority. McCain's standing is slipping while Obama's remains unchanged. This is an issue that McCain has been pushing hard. But again, he doesn't have much of an advantage because Obama is still rated positive, not negative as McCain is rated on the economy.

The Republicans have attacked Obama for his willingness to meet with the leaders of design
ated enemy countries. This will not resonate with the electorate, 73 per cent of whom think it is a good idea to do so, while 20 per cent agree with McCain and Palin that it is not. When they paint Obama and stupid and naive for taking this stance, they only insult the public. No one likes being insulted.

In the first Presidential debate, McCain said several times "Obama doesn't understand" this or that foreign policy issue. He had clearly decided to repeat this theme over and over. But what McCain doesn't understand is that 73 per cent of voters think Obama is very or somewhat knowledgeable about foreign affairs against 22 per cent who say he is not. McCain has much more of the voters' confidence on this (87-10), but Obama is by no means disapproved of. Any weakness for Obama here is relative rather than absolute, and McCain may be overplaying his hand. His jibes are unlikely to ring true.

Here’s the strange thing. Voters rank both candidates positively but McCain more positively on foreign affairs. Yet when you ask them about the issues, they’re strongly on the side of Obama.

Bottom line: McCain's has been campaigning on the basis that Obama has a weakness on foreign policy and national security. He doesn't. McCain sometimes polls better on these issues, but Obama is not distrusted. McCain's advantage is far from clear, and this is a secondary issue for voters anyway - they care much more about the economy. Also, as we shall see below, McCain lost the presidential debate on foreign policy in the eyes of the voters.

George W Bush

Oh dear, oh dear

Lets not forget the current President. Obama and Biden certainly haven't. They've relentlessly hammered away at McCain's closeness with Bush, saying that he's voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time and saying that voting for McCain would be like voting for another 4 years like the last 8. This is a very, very strong suit for the Democrats because Bush is stupendously unpopular and you have to look at the numbers to realise how damaging this could be for McCain.

Just after 9/11 Bush's approval ratings were stratospheric. 89 per cent approved of the job he was doing and 7 per cent disapproved; a net rating of plus 82. But Bush hasn't scored net positive for nearly 3 years. In January 2005 he dropped from plus 7 to minus 3, and in the next 10 months he dropped to minus 20. By the time of the Congressional elections two years ago he was at minus 24,
and from this time last year until now he's veered between minus 31 and minus 40, with only 26 per cent of voters approving of his performance.

Bush's approval rating on foreign policy has been net negative since he beat John Kerry four years ago and now stands at minus 38. His rating on the economy is something else entirely. Since July
2003 there have only been two polls where less than half of Americans disapproved of Bush's economic performance. There was a fortnight in December that year when the figure was 43 and a fortnight in October 2004 when it was 49. Apart from that first fortnight its been net negative since April 2003 - over 5 years. It was minus 16 at the last Congressional elections in 2006, minus 21 when the credit crunch started in summer 07, and is now.....wait for it....minus sixty per cent.


If Obama were running against Bush, Bush would have handed him the keys months ago. And getting the public to memorise the slogan "McCain voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time" is an immensely powerful weapon. Why vote for more of what you clearly despise?

Bottom line: George W Bush is incredibly unpopular, and Obama can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds. This could be electoral poison for the GOP candidate.

Strength/ nature of support

So that's the state of play on the main issues. What are the implications for the standing of the two candidates? We know Obama's now ahead by 9 points (in the latest of these two CBS polls). What else do we know about how the public see him and McCain?

Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means when it comes to the crunch, they're more likely to get up off their sofas and go out to vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations.

So on enthusiasm, Obama's net rating is plus 32 per cent and improving markedly, while McCain's is stuck on minus 11. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain.

What difference did the first presidential debate make? Most pundits called it a draw, but voters saw it differently.

Of those who watched it 51 per cent thought Obama won, while 26 thought McCain won. Two thirds of voters said the debate had made no difference to how they'd vote, but 28 per cent were left with a better impression of Obama and 6 per cent with a worse impression of him. Against that net change of plus 22 per cent for Obama, McCain scores minus 4. While 13 per cent were left with a better impression of the Republican candidate, 17 per cent were left with a worse impression of him.

Remember that this was the foreign policy debate, supposedly McCain's strongest suit. Even here he lost more votes than he won.

Which of the two candidates is more ready to be President? This question is another supposed Obama weakness that the Republicans have been focusing on. 60 per cent say McCain is ready (down 2 in a week) against 34 who say he is not (up 4). 52 say Obama is ready (up 6) against 43 who say he is not (down 2). So McCain has a lead here, but both candidates are seen as ready for the job, and Obama is improving on this measure while McCain is slipping.

Whether or not the voters think a candidate has their interests at heart is a key question, as we could see from Sarah Palin's cringe-inducing attempts to play the ordinary gal in the vice-Presidential debate. Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 said yes and 28 said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good at all for the Republican, given the state of the economy.

How are the candidates seen overall? 48 per cent have a favourable view of Obama and 32 per cent have an unfavourable view; a net rating of plus 16. It was plus 13 a week previously and plus 10 a week before that.

McCain's rating is minus 3.

It was plus 3 a week previously and plus 7 a week before that.

Put another way, Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's two weeks ago (which statistically is identical); now its 19 per cent better.

Bottom line: Obama's overall support amongst voters is strong while McCain's is weak. That is to say that Obama supporters are far less likely than McCain supporters to ditch their candidate. Obama is 9 points ahead now, but he may have further to rise, while McCain may have further, perhaps much further, to fall.

Biden / Palin

Sarah Palin was supposed to be the big game changer for John McCain, and she may yet be, albeit not in the way he'd hoped.

Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two weeks ago. By the time of the VP debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval has dipped, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two weeks ago, and by last Friday it was plus 15.

As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that's the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden. Snap polls are less reliable than others, but remember that they called the Obama/McCain debate correctly.

Bottom line: choosing Palin was a reckless throw of the dice from McCain. It had to pay off in a big way. It hasn't. At best she will make no difference, but at worse she will seriously damage him. Biden, by contrast, is an asset to Obama in the public mind.

See here for more analysis on what this means for the Presidential race.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Victory in Iraq? Not so much

“They create a desolation and call it ‘peace’” - Tacitus

US Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin last week accused Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama of failing to recognise the "coming victory in Iraq". What's the nature of this "victory" that Palin's talking about? Has the US finally won the Iraq War?

Not so much.

For the last few months its been taken as read by many in the political mainstream that the "surge" of extra US troops into Iraq "worked" in quelling the violence that had been reaching cataclysmic levels by late 2006. In fact, this is a vast over-simplification, if not a self-serving lie put about by the war's supporters. A number of other factors have contributed to bringing down the levels of daily killings (which still remain extraordinarily high). The “surge” is merely one of these, at best is possibly the least of them, and at worst has in some respects been a countervailing force.

The principal factors behind the decline in violence are:

1/ the unilateral ceasefire of Moqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation Shia militia;
2/ the decision made by nationalist Sunni insurgents, before the “surge” was conceived of, to concentrate their fire on the extremist "al-Qaeda" elements amongst them that had been responsible for the major attacks on Shia civilians; and
3/ the fact that the civil war in Baghdad has essentially played itself out, with Sunnis and Shia respectively expelled from mixed communities, the two groups divided, and no more 'sectarian cleansing' to be done (the outcome being a net win for the Shia forces).

Lets look at each of these in turn.

The Mahdi Army ceasefire may have been called with one eye on the coming influx of US troops, but it was still a unilateral decision. The fact is that Moqtada al Sadr continues to defy the US, five years after the occupiers set out to "kill or capture" him; as we saw in March when attempts to go after his Mahdi Army met with humiliating defeat. The US always wanted al-Sadr out of the way. By now, he's more powerful than ever. No US "victory" here.

Then there's the decision of Sunni nationalist insurgents to turn on al Qaeda, i.e. the foreign religious extremists who had come to Iraq to wage jihad both on the US and the Shia population. This has been hugely significant, and one cannot discount the effect of the US decision to stop fighting these nationalists guerrillas (who were always the bulk of the insurgency) and to pay them to concentrate on fighting and killing off al Qaeda. But the Sunni backlash against the religious extremists was not a US invention. It began as far back as 2005, and US backing for the movement was as much a pragmatic recognition that (a) it could not defeat the nationalist insurgency and (b) only those nationalists could defeat al Qaeda. Paying people to stop shooting at you and to instead fight some other people that you can't beat either is not in anyone's definition of "victory" as far as I'm aware.

And as for the third and possibly most important factor - the final Shia victory in the sectarian "Battle of Baghdad" which saw mixed neighbourhoods purged and thousands driven out of their homes - this is not merely a question of the US not being able to take credit for the relative peace that came after the civil war burnt itself out. No small amount of blame attaches to the US military itself for these gruesome events. As Michael Schwartz has argued in this indispensible analysis of the "surge" in Baghdad, US tactics may actually have facilitated the sectarian cleansing and effective Shia takeover. Either way, violence appears to have petered out in large part because one group of armed thugs achieved victory over the other, at massive cost to the civilian population, and not because the US stepped in as peacekeeper to enforce an early end to the fighting.

So the US mostly isn't fighting the Shia nationalists anymore because the Shia nationalists stood down of their own accord. It
mostly isn't fighting the Sunni nationalists any more because (a) its paying them to fight Al Qaeda instead (which they were already doing) and (b) it couldn't beat them anyway, so its had to learn to live with them. It isn't fighting Al Qaeda anymore because its paying the Sunni nationalists to do that for it, since it couldn't beat Al Qaeda itself. And the Sunni and Shia aren't fighting each other anymore (or are doing so a lot less) because that battle's (mostly) over (at least in Baghdad) and the Shia won. The case for saying that US "surge" has "worked" and that Washington can soon declare "victory" is, therefore, a little on the thin side.

What's also misguided is the related insinuation that the Iraq has become in some way peaceful. Iraq is still one of the most violent places in the world, with levels of daily killing equivalent to those of the Lebanese civil war. Last month at least 360 civilians were killed and more than 470 wounded in violence. Adjust that for the size of the total population and you’re talking about the equivalent of 800 plus British deaths and over a thousand injuries in political/military violence over 31 days. Imagine that occurring in a Soviet-occupied United Kingdom, while Kremlin leaders prattle on about "victory" and “success”. And remember that these are just the deaths that journalists and officials know about and are able to verify.

Yes, things aren't as bad in Iraq as they were in 2006. But the fact that the blood now washes up to your waist, as opposed to your neck, doesn't make Iraq something other than a bloodbath. Demanding that people accept some of the worst levels of violence on earth as some sort of good news story displays a pretty low regard for human life on Palin's part.

The people best placed to judge the success of US military strategy are those who have to live with it on a daily basis: the Iraqi public. They don't get interviewed at length by the major news networks, or write op-eds for the Washington Post, but their opinions are relevant nonetheless. By March 2008, when this poll was taken, it was already close to being conventional wisdom in the West that the "surge had worked". Clearly a lot of Iraqis hadn't received the memo.

The poll asks whether the “surge” has helped in the five areas where beneficial effects were promised: security where troop levels have increased, security in other areas, conditions for political dialogue, the ability of the Iraqi government to operate, and the pace of economic development. On each of those areas, the proportion of Iraqis saying the “surge” had been beneficial ranged between 21 and 36 per cent. Between 42 and 53 per cent said it has made things worse. The balance was made up by those saying it had made no difference. So in each area, between 63 and 79 per cent of Iraqis say the “surge” had made things worse or made no difference. That's between 63 and 70 per cent in the case of security and 79 per cent in the case of political reconciliation (the latter of which we're given to understand was the overall purpose of the “surge”).

Of course, the real aim of the “surge” was for the US to get Iraq properly under its control, not to perform an act of altruism or humanitarian relief work from which it has nothing to gain for itself, though that is exactly how the “surge” has been described, practically without exception, in our media and amongst our politicians. The question of whether it is for one country to forcibly place another country under its control, for its own purposes and against the wishes of majority of people in the latter country, is hardly one that should be ignored - though it has been. In any event, the “surge” appears to have failed in this respect. With the Iraqi government apparently now moving to reject the US demand for a permanent military presence and privileged access to oil reserves, the real reason for the 2003 invasion. What was supposed to be an US-client government in Baghdad now thumbs its nose at Washington and sidles up to, of all people, the Iranians. Do Palin and McCain really call that success, even on their own warped terms? Apparently dishonesty and greed now battle it out with rank stupidity for control of the United States government.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq devastated the country, driving well over 4 million Iraqis out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) and killing perhaps a million (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) according to the best estimates available. The refugees included many of Iraq's former professional classes, driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution. Those left behind fare little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. Nothing can erase the suffering that has taken place over the last five years, or return the hundreds of thousands of dead to their loved ones. This tsunami of grief was delivered to Iraq by an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying, that was aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power. To talk of "victory" in Iraq is obscene, as indeed is any reaction from anyone in Britain and America other than outright cringing shame.

Yet not only is it a commonly accepted truth, here and in the US, that the "surge has worked", but early backers of the “surge” are now lauded as wise sages of military and foreign policy. A little over a year ago John McCain's bid for the White House was seen as little more than the quixotic last gasp of a failed militarist, his approval rating for the Republican candidate languishing in the single digits. McCain's subsequent political resurrection rested almost entirely on the notion that "the surge worked", as he had doggedly insisted it would, and it is in many ways to this misapprehension that we can attribute the now present danger of a McCain-Palin Presidency from January 2009, with all the chilling prospects that raises for the United States and the world.

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