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: 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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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gaza fallout: threats of a Middle East revolt

Two things have come to light that could have serious implications for the situation in the Middle East.
The US tends to reflexively veto any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. So why did it only abstain from the UNSC's call for a ceasefire towards the end of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, and seemingly thereby withdraw its backing for Israel's actions? Apparently, reports Robert Dreyfuss, because it feared its embassies in the region would be overrun by angry mobs outraged by the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.
And in addition, Dreyfuss goes on to say, the US was not alone in its concern about a popular uprising in the Middle East. Its pet tyrants are also getting the jitters. So much so that a senior Saudi minister has threatened to sever or seriously downgrade his countries relationship with the US, and even respond favorably to a request from President Ahmadinejad to ally Sunni Saudi Arabia with Shia Iran against Israel if there is not a substantive change in US-Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians. So much for the Sunni-Shia regional schism.
The question then arises: at what point does Washington become so fearful of its regional allies either turning against it or being toppled in domestic uprisings that it feels compelled to rein in the Israeli expansionism and military aggression that fuels popular discontent in the region? If this pressure from the Arab world continues and increases, the implications for the Middle East should not be underestimated.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, at a severe and entirely disproportional cost to the Palestinians, largely because the US has consistently backed Israeli colonialism and blocked a peaceful settlement to the conflict. But how useful is the Israeli alliance going to be to Washington if it loses the rest of the region altogether? The point of Israel, as far as Washington is concerned, is that as the regional military superpower it wields the club over the Middle Eastern oil-producing nations and keeps them in line. But if Israel's thuggish behaviour creates so much anger in the region that the oil-producing states begin terminating their own alliances with Washington then the equation changes drastically. Israel becomes a liability rather than an asset. And what then? Will the US clamp down on Israel, call a halt to its theft of Palestinian land, and allow the creation of a Palestinian state so as to keep its allies in the region on side? That would potentially be wonderful news for the Palestinians, whose current condition of impoverished and brutalised statelessness is akin to a form of slavery, as Juan Cole argues here.
So news of Washington losing its grip on the Arab world is potentially a very, very serious development. Remarkable in fact that the media has largely failed to pick up on it, as far as I'm aware. Clearly these are developments that need to be watched closely, and understood by us as activists.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liberated attention-seekers of the 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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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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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Red Peril

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

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker.

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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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Monday, July 07, 2008

Chavez and the FARC: "you have been lied to"

Great article by Johann Hari in the Independent:

"Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the night-time of news.

As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?

Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions."

Read the whole thing here.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Chomsky on AlJazeera

I'm out of the country for a week, so in the meantime, enjoy this great interview with Noam Chomksy on AlJazeera's "Inside USA". Chomsky talks about the US election, Barak Obama, the current state of Iraq, and the legacy of the Bush administration.



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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

2nd worst President ever?

A recent poll of 109 US historians showed 61 per cent viewing George Bush as the worst President ever, and a practically unanimous 98 per cent describing his administration as a failure.

Said one:

"No individual president can compare to the second Bush. Glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self, he has bankrupted the country with his disastrous war and his tax breaks for the rich, trampled on the Bill of Rights, appointed foxes in every henhouse, compounded the terrorist threat, turned a blind eye to torture and corruption and a looming ecological disaster, and squandered the rest of the world’s goodwill. In short, no other president’s faults have had so deleterious an effect on not only the country but the world at large"

Its tempting in light of this to view the post-Bush era as offering the prospect of some form of redemption for the United States government, least implausibly under the Presidency of Barack Obama. But as Clive Crook implies, this is not a good election to win, precisely because of this expectation that the end of Bush will be the end of the problems he created. In fact, the end of Bush will be the start of a hard process of paying the costs of his presidency; both for imperialists and for the victims of imperialism.

For example, it is highly unlikely that any Democratic President will raise taxes on America's wealthy to anything like the extent required to offset (a) the estimated trillions lost on the Iraq war and (b) the credit binge of the last 8 years. Probably much of the fiscal belt-tightening will be borne by the middle and lower classes, who will also be suffering from the US mortgage crisis and from the recession more generally. The next President will either have to continue Bush's fiscal recklessness or - and this is far more probable - be the person who makes the US public pay the consequences of that recklessness. Having to choose between being an idiot and being the bad guy is not a good position to be in.

The other main reason this is not a good election to win is Iraq. The "surge" of extra US troops into Iraq was supposed to reap political benefits for the US project. Without those having materialised, the escalation has served only to press the pause button on (the very worst of) a conflict which, as we've seen in Basra and Baghdad recently and as we will probably see in Kirkuk sooner rather than later, is a long way from being over. Much bloodletting will take place on the next President's watch, and their ability to blame it on Bush will diminish rapidly as time passes.

More broadly, Bush is passing to his successor a strategic catch-22 where failure appears to be the only option for the American Empire. I am assuming that, whoever wins the election, the central assumption that the US has the divinly-ordained right to run the world (provide "leadership" as its called) will continue to define US policy, albeit with some tactical modification. In that case, the bind the next President will be in is this: leave Iraq and you abandon a key square on the oil and gas chessboard to (at least) one of your bitterest rivals (Iran definitely, plus Russia and China in all likelihood); stay, and you continue to lose an unwinnable war, and continue to pay the fiscal consequences of doing so in a time of economic calamity.

In short, there is real scope for the next Presidency to end up being one that is seen as a very serious failure, and not entirely through fault of its own. A variety of disastrous consequences from the administration of Bush the Worst will be reaped by (in descending order of tragedy from high to zero) the people of Iraq, the people of the United States and the imperial project of the US governing class. Bottom line: this will not all be over come January 2007.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Did the US aim to make Iraq a democracy?

The following is an email to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, and "Newsnight" diplomatic editor Mark Urban. It discusses Urban's saying on "Newsnight" that the US invasion was in part about spreading democracy in the Middle East, for which Urban has drawn criticism from some in the anti-war movement. The point I wanted to make below was that, yes, Washington planners probably did, in their own minds, take the view that they were "democratising" Iraq, but the reality of US policies meant that in practise they were doing the opposite. Bottom line: the Iraqis were being made subjects to a new master, not being liberated to act as free agents.

Dear Helen and Mark
I've followed with interest your recent correspondence with viewers regarding the question of whether or not the US aimed to export democracy to Iraq. In my view its a shame that the debate has been reduced to a question of either/or since that tends to obscure the important issues at stake here. I think the real point is that one needs to acknowledge the problematic nature of the US claims, and some of the nuances involved, rather than saying the claims were either utterly true or utterly false.
You're right to acknowledge that the US planned to leave in place an Iraqi government that was legitimised by some form of electoral system. But the bottom line was that this government should be friendly to US strategic interests. The US therefore set about engineering a "democracy" that would lead to this outcome. Of course you don't need me to point out that there's a dissonance between this and the idea of democracy that you and I have; i.e. where the population governs its affairs according to its own wishes, without the manipulations of a foreign power.
Mark in particular will be aware that, shortly after the 2003 invasion, forms of local government, often democratic, began springing up all over Iraq, and that these were systematically stamped out by the CPA, which was alarmed to see Iraqi self-rule evolving under indigenous control in a way that might not suit US interests. Michael Knights and Ed Williams touched on this briefly in their report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled "The Calm Before The Storm"[pdf].(see pg 12).
Many gains for genuine democracy and popular sovereignty were actually prised from Washington's hands by the Iraqis themselves. For example, it was Sistani - backed by huge demonstrations in January 2004 - who insisted that any permanent Iraqi constitution should be written by people elected to do so, and that all future Iraqi governments should be elected on the basis of one-person one-vote. The US had been planning all sorts of stage-managed wheezes - like caucuses hand-picked by the CPA - to ensure that the process of "democracy-building" could be as US-managed as possible. Bush was apparently furious about having to give in to Sistani's demands, but faced with popular anger in Iraq he was left with no choice.
Consider also that under US plans, Iraq's principle source of revenue would be tied up in production-sharing agreements with Western oil firms, and that its army would be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US military, which would retain massive permanent bases around the country. Then there's the fact that the US is building the largest embassy in the world - nearly as big as Vatican City - in the heart of Baghdad. You have to ask whether Iraq can be truly sovereign under these circumstances, how much less sovereign it would have been if Washington had kept its grip on the political process, and whether a country that - at the behest of a foreign power - is only allowed the formal trappings of sovereignty can be called "democratic" in any meaningful sense of the term.
I have no doubt that Washington planners sincerely believed that what they had planned for Iraq could accurately be described as "democracy". But clearly that judgement - that conception of democracy - was a highly questionable and unfamiliar one. It seems that no one in Washington contemplated an Iraq that was 100 per cent owned by the Iraqi population and completely free to make its own choices irrespective of how these may impact upon US interests. Washington's plans were to make the new Iraq a subject nation; not a free one. That much is plain.
Of course, its hard to express this in a sentence, as you must when filing your reports. All I ask is that you don't simply say that the US aimed to make Iraq democratic, since obviously that gives the viewer the sense that the US intended to make Iraq a free country, and that is a good deal less than true. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the reality of the US role; of its aim to assume de facto sovereignty over Iraq in pursuit of its geo-strategic interests. That's the essence of the whole Iraq story, as far as the US aims are concerned. And I think its certainly true that the BBC has not reflected this well in its coverage, sad to say.
Thanks to you both for taking the time to read this. I do hope it influences how you approach this story in the future.
Very best wishes


For more on this topic, see my "Iraqi Democracy and the Limits of Western Idealism" from March 2006.

Postscript - 22 January 2008.
Just received a belated response from Helen Boaden. Simply reads "Thank you for this thoughtful email", which is nice. Remains to be seen whether my thoughts will influence future coverage, but one lives in hope.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

US u-turn on Iranian nuclear weapons

A couple of points about this week's US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a report from all the US government spy agencies - which said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

Firstly, note that this simply echoes what the International Atomic Energy Agency has been saying for some time, only to be ignored by Western policymakers, commentators and the media. That there was a "threat" from an Iranian nuclear weapons programme remained the conventional wisdon across the political spectrum until the US government said otherwise. This tells us a great deal about the discipline and respect of authority that runs right through mainstream politics.
You would think that the US government was a neutral assessor of the truth, whose judgements were in no way coloured by its own interests. You would think that the IAEA inspectors were peripheral, ignorant, hopelessly biased or irrelevant. You would think that the Iraq WMD fiasco never happened; an instance where Western governments and spy agencies colluded to distort and lie about the information available while the international bodies stuck by the truth and were vindicated in their judgement. Government's should take heart from this. Iraq changed nothing. If you want to nominate an official enemy as a "security threat" simply say the word and the echo chamber will do the rest, until you say otherwise.

The second point concerns the state of play in Washington at the moment. As I say, the NIE is not a neutral assessment. Its a political assessment made by an actor with its own interests. The question then is, why is it now decided in such a high-profile, high-level fashion that saying Iran has a nuclear weapons programme no longer suits US interests? Remember that two years ago the NIE said with equal "high confidence" that Iran did have such a programme, which the spys now say was actually abandoned in 2003. So why the U-turn?

The answers to those questions mostly come down to who's in the driving seat in Washington at the moment. What we seem to be seeing now is the neo-cons around Cheney being eclipsed by the "Realists" around Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In 2002 those pushing for war on Iraq (the neo-cons) were in the ascendency. They could ensure that an NIE emerged which suited their purposes in respect of its assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities. Things are very different now. Cheney and Bush may want war but Gates and Rice do not, and it seems the the intelligence and defence bureaucracies are aligned with the latter camp. Neo-cons Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle etc are all gone, so the Realists' hand is strengthened. Gates' apparently played a big part in getting this NIE published, and he will have been helped by an intelligence bureaucracy that contains many who actively loathe Cheney and his neo-con "crazies" (as the Realists call privately refer to them). For them, this will be revenge for the way the neo-cons bullied them to come up with the "right answers" over Iraq.

The NIE doesn't give the definitive assessment on the available evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That's given by the IAEA. What the NIE gives is an indication of what Washington wants at the moment. Those able to define what Washington wants are by definition those in the political ascendency. An NIE that says Iran has no nuclear programme is an indication that the neo-cons are routed and the Realists are in command. The Realists understand that an attack on Iran would elicit a response that would make Iraq look like a tea-party. So they have removed Cheney's major casus belli.

Make no mistake, this is an almighty kick in the nuts for the Vice President. And indeed for Bush whose statements after the NIE have been humiliatingly incoherent even by his standards. Its possible that neither man will recover from what has effectively been a miniature bureaucratic coup.

Time precludes me from writing more about this, but the best place to go for more info and comment on this will certainly be Paul Woodward's indispensible site War in Context. For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my article "The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Britain’s failure in Iraq

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

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

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Shared Values

"[Gordon Brown] also underlined the importance of the relationship between America and the UK, saying that it was "a partnership that is founded on more than common values and common history, it is a partnership that is founded and driven forward by our shared values"."
31 July 2007

"[Gordon Brown] told the Fabian Society that some groups were "playing fast and loose" with the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He said the UK was a country "built on shared values" which served as a "model for the rest of the world"."
13 January 2007

"One reason is that Britain has a unique history - and what has emerged from the long tidal flows of British history - from the 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships; from the uniquely rich, open and outward looking culture - is I believe a distinctive set of British values which influence British institutions."

"Indeed a multinational state, with England, Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland we are a country united not so much by race or ethnicity but by shared values that have shaped shared institutions."
Gordon Brown - 27 February 2007
"I believe ... that we the British people must be far more explicit about the common ground on which we stand, the shared values which bring us together, the habits of citizenship around which we can and must unite. Expect all who are in our country to play by our rules."
Gordon Brown - 25 September 2006
"On Monday, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells called for Britain and Saudi Arabia to work more closely together, despite their differences. He said the two states could unite around their "shared values"."
30 October 2007
"Overall human rights conditions remain poor in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy. "

"Saudi law does not protect many basic rights and the government places strict limits on freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Arbitrary detention, mistreatment and torture of detainees, restrictions on freedom of movement, and lack of official accountability remain serious concerns. Saudi women continue to face serious obstacles to their participation in society. Many foreign workers, especially women, face exploitative working conditions."

"A former prisoner in Mecca General Prison alleged to Human Rights Watch that prison guards regularly beat him, burned his back on a hot metal block, and kept him in solitary confinement for six months. He said such abuse was routine during his time as an inmate between 2002 and 2006. Thirty-six inmates of al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh in late 2005 issued a “Cry for Help to Global Rights Organizations” detailing their “despondence” due to beatings in prison and public lashings."
"Saudi judges routinely issue sentences of thousands of lashes as punishment, often carried out in public. The beatings lead to severe mental trauma and physical pain, and the victims do not receive medical treatment."

"Women in Saudi Arabia continue to suffer from severe discrimination in the workplace, home, and the courts, and from restrictions on their freedom of movement and their choice of partners. The religious police enforce strict gender segregation and a women’s public dress code of head-to-toe covering. Women are excluded from the weekly majlis (council), where senior members of the royal family listen to the complaints and proposals of citizens."
"Women need permission from their male guardian to work, study, or travel. In February 2006 the Transport Committee of the Shura Council declined a motion to discuss the possibility of allowing women to drive."

"Many of the estimated 8.8 million foreign workers face exploitative working conditions, including 16-hour workdays, no breaks or food and drink, and being locked in dormitories during their time off."
Human Rights Watch World Report 2007

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The End of the World is Nigh

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek:

"At a meeting with reporters last week, President Bush said that "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." These were not the barbs of some neoconservative crank or sidelined politician looking for publicity. This was the president of the United States, invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon."

"The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence."

"Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"

Read the rest here. If you're yet to be persuaded that the purpose of this increasingly hysterical rhetoric is to prepare the ground for a possible war, you may be interested in this interview in Esquire:
"Two former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush Administration say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise. It'll be Iraq all over again."

"In the years after 9/11, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice. They each played crucial roles in formulating policy for the region leading up to the war in Iraq. But when they left the White House, they left with a growing sense of alarm -- not only was the Bush administration headed straight for war with Iran, it had been set on this course for years. That was what people didn't realize. It was just like Iraq, when the White House was so eager for war it couldn't wait for the UN inspectors to leave. The steps have been many and steady and all in the same direction. And now things are getting much worse. We are getting closer and closer to the tripline, they say."
Read the rest here. And see my earlier posts giving background on the Iran situation here, here, and my radio interview on the subject with Nadim Mahjoub here.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Still Time For War With Iran

Monday’s Guardian cites Washington sources who believe that military action against Iran is still being given serious consideration by the White House. It had been thought that administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates had persuaded President Bush to put less emphasis on the military option. Today’s report suggests that the pro-war camp, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, is now winning the internal argument.

It would appear that reports of the
death of the Bush/Cheney Presidency have been greatly exaggerated. The world has eighteen months of this administration left to endure and little reason to assume that the incumbents intend to go quietly.


This latest report comes after news last week that a third US aircraft-carrier battle group – led by the USS Enterprise - is now on its way to the Persian Gulf

As the
Guardian reported, "The Fifth fleet battle group will join what is already the US Navy's biggest show of force in the Gulf since the Iraq war began in 2003."

If this looks like sabre-rattling, that's because it is. The US Navy says that ""[The carrier] Enterprise provides navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour of some countries".

"Some countries", meaning Iran?

""These operations are not specifically aimed at Iran ... we consider this time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability in the region," Denise Garcia, a navy spokeswoman, said, citing Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan."

Well since Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan all have US backed regimes in place, I think we can safely assume that the US doesn't see any of them as countries that need aircraft carrier battle groups on their doorstep to curb their "assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour". In fact, we might almost take Washington’s bothering with no more than a derisory, half-assed denial as tantamount to confirmation that this show of force is indeed aimed at Iran. One thing we know about this administration is that when it really wants to
lie about something, its prepared to make a considerable effort.

The Pentagon says that the Enterprise is being sent as a replacement for one of the carriers currently stationed in the Gulf, and that there will be no overlap where there are three carriers off the coast of Iran simultaneously. But of course, the fact that the Enterprise is now heading to the Gulf means that precisely such an overlap will become an option for the US in the very near future.

There had also been talk of a third carrier battle group arriving in the Gulf earlier in the year but, according to historian and analyst
Gareth Porter, the idea was stamped on by Admiral William Fallon, then Bush's nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM) region which includes the Middle East. According to Porter's sources Fallon "vowed privately [that] there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM".

Porter continued: "Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".

Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box.""

The problem is that "the crazies" include
Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice-president in US history, probably more powerful than Bush, certainly more powerful than Fallon, and a law completely unto himself. The recent sight of Cheney standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier 150 miles from the Iranian coast, bellowing threats at Tehran, need not be seen as a display of over-compensation for strategic impotence, as Iran takes advantage of Western blunders to extend its power across the region. Don't imagine for a moment that Cheney will tolerate the Iranian advance, or that he won't be prepared to consider extreme measures (even, according to Seymour Hersh, the nuclear option) to either put Tehran back in its box or even to topple the government there altogether. Regime change in Tehran is a long-standing mission of Cheney's cabal, and the urgency of that task from their point of view has increased massively in recent years, in direct proportion to Iran’s regional empowerment.

Imperial credibility

Recall that the neo-conservative plan was to forge a new Middle East settlement on the anvil of US military power. Iraq was to be a demonstration act (in that sense, a classic case of terrorism) with those who failed to collapse at the masters feet, quivering with "shock and awe", to be dealt with in subsequent exertions of industrial-scale violence. The result was to be a region transformed into one populated entirely by client states and dotted with US military bases. China, India and other global powers would be left having to accept access to desperately needed energy reserves on Washington's terms, and global dominance would be secured for a “
New American Century”.

Instead, the invasion of Iraq has been a demonstration, not of America's power but of its impotence, with the greatest military machine in all history humiliated by a few thousand tribesmen and ex-Iraqi Army personnel, augmented by a small but lethal cadre of foreign fanatics and armed only with improvised explosives and relatively light arms. To suffer defeat in such circumstances is no small matter for a global hegemon. Power after all depends on "credibility", that is to say, others believing in your readiness and ability to subject them to your will, brutally if necessary.
Michael Ledeen – a scholar close to the Bush administration – is reported to have put it this way: "Every ten years or so the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business". After Iraq, Cheney et al must be more conscious than ever of the need to send such a message to the world.

Washington's thinking in the wake of 9/11 provides an illuminating precedent.
Mark Danner notes that "Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the President, when asked by Bush's speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq war, responded: "Because Afghanistan was not enough." The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them."

In other words, the presiding image of the war on terror — the burning towers collapsing on the television screen — had to be supplanted by another, the image of American tanks rumbling proudly through a vanquished Arab capital."

So what of the current image: of countless US soldiers "
burning in their tanks" to borrow the sinister phrase of the long forgotton Ba'ath propagandist "Comical Ali"? What of the image of an imperial hyperpower so unable to effectively subjugate a crippled third world country than it now finds itself trying - and failing - to re-conquer the capital city, over four years after President Bush declared “major combat operations” to be at an end? What new image, in the minds of statesmen like Kissinger and Cheney, will be needed to replace these in the interests of maintaining imperial prestige and “credibility”? “Shock and awe” in Tehran?

They wouldn’t, would they?

In arguing that such a move is unlikely, three principle arguments tend to be made. The first is that the US is tied down in Iraq with barely enough troops to lose that war, let alone start another. But from what is known or reasonably suspected of the
Iran plans, there is no suggestion of a major troop deployment, much less a boots-on-the-ground occupation. The US Army may be tied down in Iraq, but the Navy and Air Force are not, and it is they – it is said – that will lead the assault, in the hope that the ensueing chaos will prompt US-friendly elements within Iran to rise up and remove the leadership. Recall that it was mainly US air power and Special Forces, allied to local elements, that overthrew the Taliban in the autumn of 2001.

Secondly, it is argued that with Iraq forcing Bush’s poll ratings to historically low levels the White House could not possibly sanction another war. But Bush and Cheney are not up for re-election, so unpopularity can do little more than hurt their feelings. Furthermore, when the Republicans got a thumping in the congressional elections of November last year – which was widely understood as a message from the voters to draw down or end altogether the US involvement in Iraq – the White House responded by increasing troop numbers. This is an administration quite happy to do as it pleases. US casualties in any air war on Iran are likely to be low. And
leading Democrats may well support air strikes. So the political fallout is likely to be minimal.

Thirdly and finally, it is noted that a naval build-up in the Gulf does not in itself constitute the commencement of war. The intention may simply be to make a show of force that will incentivise Iran to “
change its behaviour” (a threat of violence which, as well as being a form of terrorism, is also illegal under international law). This is true, but there is also no guarentee that the US – especially the current White House administration - is capable of both escalating and controlling these tensions. The level of instability in the Middle East now is comparable to that in Europe in 1914. Now, as then, one unforseen incident could ignite a chain-reaction through various inter-linked crises and conflicts that leads to a generalised disaster. The US naval build up increses not only the temperature in the region but the liklihood of such a scenario occuring, whether intentionally or not.

Of course, none of this proves that war will occur. But it does show, as I argued
two years ago, that a US attack on Iran remains a distinct possibility; one not to be idly dismissed. That being the case, the sensible thing would be to start looking at possible consequences and asking ourselves, ‘what if the worst came to the worst?’

Consequences of a war

An authoritative
joint report produced last year by 15 organisations - including think tanks, aid agencies, religious groups and trade unions – warned that the consequences of a war would not be constrained by Iran’s borders. As well as resulting in large civilian casualties within Iran itself, Iranian allies in places like Iraq and Lebanon could retaliate against various targets, thus escalating various existing crises and raising the spectre of a regional war. The situation in Iraq in particular could markedly deteriorate even from its current state.

Iran has said that it could launch missile strikes on
600 Israeli targets in the event of Israeli involvement in any attack. The irony is that an Iranian-instigated offensive war on Israel, for all the Western propaganda, remains inconceivable while Israel retains its formiddable nuclear arsenal. But subjected to an aggressive war, Iran could hit Israel with devastating consequences. So much for the purported neo-conservative claims to want to defend the Jewish state.

Within Iran, Tehran hardliners would be strengthened rather than weakened as Iranian nationalism surged. After all, why should the White House believe that what worked for them post-9/11 – when political dissent in the US was practically suspended as the country rallied round the flag - wouldn’t work for Iranian President Ahmedinejad in the event of a US assault? This would only set back the chances of serious democratic reform in Iran. In fact, crackdowns are
already occuring, as the hardliners seize the gift handed to them by Washington.

It is unlikely that the consequences of a war would be restricted even to the Middle East. Disruption to the flow of the
twenty per cent of global oil supply that comes out of the Gulf via the straights of Hormuz (once described by the former Iranian Shah as “the West’s jugular vein”) could send inflationary shockwaves right through the world economy, with unpredictable and possibly severe consequences playing out on a global scale. And this is before we consider the substantial boost to international radical islamist terrorism that a new US imperial war in the Middle East would represent.

It is fair to say that, factoring in its regional and global implications, an attack on Iran could make the disaster of Iraq look like a relatively tame affair by comparison. There’s no way of knowing whether that’s the road we’re heading down, but there are many reasons to believe that it remains a realistic possibility.

The spear-carrier's role

For those of us in Britain, its worth noting that for all the talk of a fresh start on foreign policy under Gordon Brown’s premiership, UK involvement in any attack is far from unthinkable. Two years ago the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that military action against Iran was “inconceivable” (whether he meant it or not is another matter). The
Financial Times reports that Brown’s new Foreign Secretary David Miliband “repeatedly refused to repeat this statement” in an interview with the paper last week.

Though it is perhaps unlikely that British armed forces would be involved in the front line of any action, the UK can be expected to play the important political, diplomatic and military support role that it performed during Israel’s savage pounding of
Lebanon last summer. Britain’s involvement in that war was strongly opposed by the public. In the eventuality of a new war against Iran, that opposition will have to be turned into effective political action if vast new horrors are to be averted.

[For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my recent article "
The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".]

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Iraq: "the oil conspiracy theory"

"...the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it."
Tony Blair, 6 Feb 2003

"The Australian defence minister today triggered a political storm when he suggested that protecting Iraq's huge oil reserves was a reason for the continuing deployment of foreign troops in the war-torn country.

Brendan Nelson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Iraq was "an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world, and Australians ... need to think what would happen if there were a premature withdrawal from Iraq".
Oil a factor in Iraq conflict, says Australian defence minister, Guardian Unlimited Website, 5 July 2005


To be honest, today's embarrassing remarks from the Australian Defence Minister could be safely filed in the "no s**t" category (together with news of the Bear's lavatorial rituals and the chosen religion of Joseph Ratzinger) if the likes of Tony Blair hadn't been repeatedly insulting our intelligence with their shrill denials that Iraq's having probably the second or third largest oil reserves on the planet had anything to do with to "bring democracy" to Iraq. Methinks the laddie doth protest too much. But given that he, and so many others, insist on maintaining this charade, the bleeding obvious will have to be stated and re-stated. So, let me repeat what I said last year:

"At a point in history where extraction of the world’s finite oil reserves may soon peak and fall away, just as the economies of two of the world’s most populous nations – India and China – are growing at breakneck speed, thus putting massive new demands on those dwindling resources, control over energy reserves constitutes “critical leverage” over one’s rivals, in the words of former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, or “veto power” in the words of Cold War era US diplomat George Kennan, and is therefore a prize that Washington cannot afford to lose if it is to fulfil its aim of maintaining permanent global dominance, as set out in its 2002 National Security Strategy. Securing a long-term military presence in Iraq, which has the world’s second largest oil reserves and lies in the centre of the principal energy producing region, constitutes a decisive step towards achieving that goal."

Noam Chomsky points out, we have no problem recognising these calculations when examining the behaviour of other countries. US Vice President Dick Cheney for example, recently warned that Russia's oil and gas reserves could be used as "tools of intimidation and blackmail". Of course, the very idea of using the energy reserves under US control "as tools of intimidation and blackmail" wouldn't begin to contemplate the merest possibility of crossing Dick Cheney's mind. Cheney's only wish for the Middle East is to see democracy and human rights blossom througho......well, why go on? You know the script.

As Chomsky observes, "it is unacceptable to attribute rational strategic-economic thinking to one’s own state, which must be guided by benign ideals of freedom, justice, peace, and other wonderful things. That leads back again to a very severe crisis in Western intellectual culture, not of course unique in history, but with dangerous portent."

Only in an intellectual culture where fantasies like "democracy-promotion" are taken for reality, and realities like the standard behaviour patters of nation states are derided as conspiracy theories, could the remarks of the Australian defence minister possibly be described as news. But here we are.

For more on this, see my March 2005 piece, "
Iraq, Oil and Conspiracy Theories"

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Venezuela: myth and reality

With a little more time on my hands, and with events in the Middle East in a less ominous state, I would certainly devote more space here to a subject I'm very interested in and haven't written nearly enough about: Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular.
Venezuela has been undergoing some very interesting changes over the past ten years, with a popular government using the nation's oil wealth to combat the grinding levels of poverty that affect most of the population[pdf]. Venezuela has also been a prominent critic of the United States, whose foreign and economic policies devastated Latin America during the twentieth century [pdf]. Indeed, Venezuela has particular reason for taking exception to a Bush Administration that backed a failed coup attempt against the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Getting hold of useful information about Latin America and Venezuela is not straightforward. Mainstream news reporting passes through the standard ideological filters[pdf], with the corporate media unable to forgive Chavez for contradicting the Western script on good governance. This has resulted in some pretty unreliable coverage on the success of Venezuela's economic policies and the state of its democracy. Most bizarre amongst these criticisms are the increasingly desperate attempts to portray President Chavez as a quasi-dictator; though he has regularly contested and won elections that have been certified as free and fair by the most respected of international observers. These inconvenient facts have reduced Chavez's opponents to using dictator-substitute words such as "autocrat" and "strongman", even as the autocrat devolves democratic power to the local level, enlists public participation in writing a new democratic constitution, and removes power from the corrupt political-economic elite that, like their counterparts across Latin America, had ruled the country like a private plantation since the dawn of the Columbian era.
A good example of this sort of media coverage was a piece written by Rory Carroll for the Guardian in January this year. Carroll reported that Chavez had declared himself to be a Communist, which will have surprised many people since Chavez has never described himself in such terms before. The report contained no direct quote where Chavez said "I am a Communist" or words to that effect. I spoke to Carroll by email and, though he insisted that Chavez had indeed called himself a Communist, he wouldn't provide me with a direct quote despite my repeated requests.
Julia Buxton, a British academic expert on Venezuelan affairs, casts further doubt on Carroll's paraphrasing. Buxton told me that:
"Chavez has, as far as [I] know, absolutely never, ever said he was a communist. He has always been explicit in this - only ever a socialist and only ever a Venezuelan model of socialism. There can be Bolivarian socialism and Socialism of the C21st - but each socialism has to refect the historical and social experince of each country."

"Chavez has said he is a christian, a socialist, a democrat etc but always distant from communism - and what he calls the 'failed Marxist experiments of the C20th'" [her emphasis]
But as ever, one does not need to rely on the corporate media. More accurate information can be found on Venezeula if one knows where to look. Academic and former Guardian foreign correspondent Richard Gott is probably the UK's best known expert on the Chavez era. His book on the "Bolivarian Revolution" provides a solid introduction to the socio-economic conditions that gave rise to the current changes. Venezuelanalysis is a good one-stop shop for independent news and comment on Venezuelan affairs. And the Washington based Centre for Economic Policy Research produces detailed analysis of the Venezuelan economy on a fairly regular basis.
I would also highly recommend the work of the above-mentioned British academic Julia Buxton, who is particularly good at challenging mass media misreporting of the situation in Venezuela. Her most recent article "The deepening of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution: why most people don’t get it" sheds light on the most recent developments in Venezuela and debunks some of the official Western mythology on the subject.

Few occurences in politics are unambiguously good or bad, but recent events in Venezuela may be viewed with cautious optimisim. If Venezuela can demonstrate that it is possible to defy the dominance of international political-economic power, and chart its own independent path whilst retaining, even deepening its democracy and effectively attending to the needs of its most deprived citizens then it will stand as a source of enormous encouragement to countries across the developing world. Perhaps it is this prospect, the threat of a good example and a functioning challenge to Western power, that so offends Washington and its ideological allies.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Iran hostage crisis in context

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

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

The historical context

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

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

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

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

Threats and responses

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

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

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

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

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

Losing at chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Note - 13/4/07

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

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

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Iraq's new oil law

Pepe Esobar writes in Asia Times Online on Iraq's new oil law:

"On Monday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet in Baghdad approved the draft of the new Iraqi oil law. The government regards it as "a major national project". The key point of the law is that Iraq's immense oil wealth (115 billion barrels of proven reserves, third in the world after Saudi Arabia and Iran) will be under the iron rule of a fuzzy "Federal Oil and Gas Council" boasting "a panel of oil experts from inside and outside Iraq". That is, nothing less than predominantly US Big Oil executives.

The law represents no less than institutionalized raping and pillaging of Iraq's oil wealth. It represents the death knell of nationalized (from 1972 to 1975) Iraqi resources, now replaced by production sharing agreements (PSAs) - which translate into savage privatization and monster profit rates of up to 75% for (basically US) Big Oil. Sixty-five of Iraq's roughly 80 oilfields already known will be offered for Big Oil to exploit. As if this were not enough, the law reduces in practice the role of Baghdad to a minimum. The law was in essence drafted, behind locked doors, by a US consulting firm hired by the Bush administration and then carefully retouched by Big Oil, the International Monetary Fund, former US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz' World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development. It's virtually a US law (its original language is English, not Arabic).

In the end, in practice, the pro-US Kurds will have all the power to sign oil contracts with whatever companies they want. Sunnis will be more dependent on the Oil Ministry in Baghdad. And Shi'ites will be more or less midway between total independence in the south and Baghdad's dictum (which they control anyway). But the crucial point remains: nobody will sign anything unless the "advisers" at the US-manipulated Federal Oil and Gas Council say so.

Nobody wants to colonial-style PSAs forced down their throat anymore. According to the International Energy Agency, PSAs apply to only 12% of global oil reserves, in cases where costs are very high and nobody knows what will be found (certainly not the Iraqi case). No big Middle Eastern oil producer works with PSAs. Russia and Venezuela are renegotiating all of them. Bolivia nationalized its gas. Algeria and Indonesia have new rules for future contracts. But Iraq, of course, is not a sovereign country."

Read the rest here.

Readers from the UK who want to do something about this should check out the new campaign "Hands off Iraqi Oil".

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Logic of Escalation

As the final two years of the Bush presidency commence in earnest, the emerging foreign policy of the administration is one that is surprising, indeed horrifying, analysts and general observers around the world, even within the US establishment. Far from scaling back its ambitions, consolidating its position and attempting to recover some of the prestige it has lost since September 2001, the White House appears more keen than ever to make yet greater use of force and violence to achieve its maximum objectives in the broader west Asian region, no matter how doomed those ambitions are widely seen to be.

Moreover, this reckless strategy, carrying potentially ruinous consequences, is a product not only of the much discussed neo-conservative agenda of the President, the Vice-President and their various cohorts, but also of the internal logic and mechanics of the imperial structure they currently manage. Only when we understand the administration’s present actions as symptomatic, rather than simply aberrational, can we appreciate the gravity of what currently appears to be an impending crisis with truly global implications.

It now seems almost cruel to quote the Guardian’s
Simon Jenkins, writing after the Democrats’ victory in last November’s US congressional elections:

The gun-toting, pre-Darwinian Bushite, the Tomahawk-wielding, Halliburton-loving, Beltway neo-con has been lain to rest, and by a decision of the American people. Americans should be proud and the world should take note. The White House ran on a "pro-victory" ticket and lost. Retreat becomes the only option. A wretched era of American interventionism has come to an end. A new day has dawned.

In truth, practically the opposite is true. The application of violence to secure US objectives – directly or via proxies - is being accelerated, raising the possibility of far more catastrophic outcomes in the near future than have been seen thus far.


Starting with the obvious example, Washington – with full support from the
ever-servile Britain - has rejected pleas from several quarters that it seek a broad political settlement to end the multifarious war in Iraq, opting instead to intensify its military effort and force yet more bodies into the meat grinder in a futile bid to impose itself. This so-called “surge” of extra US troops will be directed not only against Sunni guerrilla forces but also against the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This raises the prospect of a return to the two-front, counter-insurgency war the US was fighting against Sunni and Shia forces during 2004, before the Mahdi Army withdrew from the fray under duress. It also raises the probability of the collapse of the current Iraqi government, being as it is an uneasy coalition with al-Sadr’s political forces at its centre but with a leadership allied to the White House.

For those who would prefer peace and an end to sectarian mass killing to a victory for any of the belligerents, the salient point is that this latest escalation can only take Iraq deeper into the throes of violence. As
Michael Schwartz argues, the US is a problem, not a solution for Iraq. Iraq needs not more but less of the US, preferably none at all:

More of anything that the U.S. is doing is bound to prove just another effort to win a war of conquest and occupation whose goals are antithetical to just about every Iraqi desire. What more ensures is only more death, more destruction, and more violence.

The intensification of US military activity, like the intensification of activity on the part of any of the other armed groups in Iraq, can only inflame the situation further. The bloodshed in Iraq is therefore set to get worse, with the consequences for
spillover into the wider region still looming in the background. Unfortunately Washington’s ‘urge to surge’ doesn’t end there. Far from it.

Next comes the Palestinian occupied territories, where it has
recently become clear that the violence between Palestinian factions has been the result of a specific policy – under the management of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, but again with British support - to instigate a “hard coup”, toppling the elected Hamas government and replacing it with Fatah forces armed, trained and funded by the US and its allies. Tony Karon sums up the situation:

In the coming weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will cluck regretfully about the violence unfolding in the Palestinian territories as if the chaos in Gaza has as little to do with her as, say, the bizarrely warm winter weather in New York. And much of the U.S. media will concur by covering that violence as if it is part of some inevitable showdown in the preternaturally violent politics of the Palestinians. But any honest assessment will not fail to recognize that the increasingly violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not only a by-product of Secretary Rice’s economic siege of the Palestinians; it is the intended consequence of her savage war on the Palestinian people – a campaign of retribution and
collective punishment for their audacity to elect leaders other than those deemed appropriate to U.S. agendas.

Again, violence is not a regrettable reaction but a positive choice, with options more likely to bring peace, if not victory, specifically rejected; thus revealing the guiding values of western foreign policy. Just last week,
Khaled Meshal, supposedly one of Hamas’ most hardline and intractable leaders, repeated the offer made several times by his party to accept Israel’s annexation of 78% of his people’s historic homeland as part of a peace deal. But the US and its allies are not interested in peace offers from the Palestinians, no matter how generous; only surrender.

Over to
Somalia, where a semblance of peace and order, however unsavoury some of its enforcers, seemed to have arrived after a decade and a half of near-total anarchy. Now, a US-backed Ethiopian invasion, complete with the indiscriminate use of US airpower, raises the likelihood of new insurgency war in that country, with its effects potentially spreading across the borders of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Here too a choice is made. It is plain that this latest “intervention” will spawn far more recruits for anti-US terrorism than may be killed in any military action; as has been the case throughout the “
war on terror”. But the potential prizes for US power are deemed worth the risk. Salim Lone, formerly of the UN’s mission in Iraq, points out that:

As with Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism, but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through the Red Sea”.

In addition to the above conflicts, war still rages in
Afghanistan, 5 years after the US-led “victory” over the Taliban, whilst on the opposite edge of the broader west Asia region, an uneasy stand-off between Israel and Hezbollah continues, with the former extremely unlikely to accept for long its defeat in the war between the two of summer 2006.

But all this pales in the ominous shadow of a US-Israeli conflict with Iran,
long-rumoured and ever-present both in the minds of certain policymakers and in the fears of observers of the region. It is well understood that any such war holds the potential for a catastrophe that would make today’s bloodbath Iraq seems small by comparison. Not only is a US-Israeli attack likely to be anything but ‘surgical’ but Iran is fully capable of retaliating against US assets throughout the region and beyond. A drawn-out conflict could seriously affect the flow of vital oil and gas exports out of the Persian Gulf, with increasingly perilous effects on the world economy depending on how long hostilities persisted.

Furthermore, if it is true that Israel is prepared to use
tactical nuclear weapons in such an action then matters elevate to a new level entirely. In the first instance, massive casualties would be certain; but beyond even this tragedy lie potential implications in terms of precedent for world security which could not be more serious.

Israel retains its nuclear weapons and
refuses to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran has signed the NPT, does not have nuclear weapons, probably could not produce them within the next 10 years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that it is trying to acquire them. We need waste few words on Israel’s declared fears of a nuclear attack from Iran; not least since they are based upon a straightforward mistranslation of the words of a man – President Ahmadinejad – who in any case does not control Iranian foreign policy. Far from threatening to wipe Israel from the map, Iran proposed in 2003 a “grand bargain” wherein all outstanding issues between itself and the US would be resolved, including acceptance of an Israeli state on the 1967 borders in accordance with the Arab peace plan of the previous year. The offer was flatly rejected. Again, war is not forced upon the West. It is a positive choice. What Iran represents to Israel and its Western backers, is not a threat to their security but to their strategic dominance of the region.

In these circumstances the use of battlefield nuclear weapons - in the absence of any credible threat, unprovoked, after peace overtures were ignored, in an overt rejection of the NPT and with the
sign-off of the world’s only superpower - would both lower the threshold for the use of such weapons to a truly alarming extent and send a clear message to the world that any country could suffer a nuclear attack merely at the whim of powerful states. The global non-proliferation regime would be effectively over, with states across the world citing the attack on Iran as precedent and justification both for building (somewhat rationally in terms of self defence) and potentially for using their own nuclear capabilities.

Of course it is possible that the US and its allies aim only to credibly intimidate Iran, and not ultimately to go as far as to initiate military conflict. But the escalations and interventions from Somalia, through Gaza into Anbar and Baghdad do not inspire confidence in Washington’s sense of self-restraint. And even if it were true, belligerent moves short of war – the
movement of equipment and personnel into position, the US assault on the Iranian consulate in Irbil – serve only raise the temperature to an extent where war could be triggered whether by design or otherwise; that is if these moves are not designed specifically as provocation.

Imperial logic

After more than five years of an ironically named “war on terror” that has proved disastrous, counterproductive in terms of its purported aims, and deeply unpopular, why would the US and its allies take exactly the opposite route to that so confidently predicted by Simon Jenkins and many other commentators just a few short weeks ago?

The answer lies in two terms of jargon in international statecraft, which we will first have to translate into English before examining how they apply in this situation. The first of these is “national interest”, which in English means the interest the elite groups that govern the US have in maintaining and extending their power in the world.

At a point in time where extraction of the world’s finite oil reserves is expected to
peak and fall away, just as the economies of two of the world’s most populous nations – India and China – are growing at breakneck speed, thus putting massive new demands on those dwindling resources, control over energy reserves constitutes “critical leverage” over one’s rivals, in the words of former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, or “veto power” in the words of Cold War era US diplomat George Kennan, and is therefore a prize that Washington cannot afford to lose if it is to fulfil its stated aim of maintaining permanent global dominance. This is particularly true when Russia is consolidating and extending its own control over such resources, in an increasingly effective collaboration with China and other states.

Securing a
long-term military presence and a client government in Iraq, which has the world’s second largest oil reserves and lies in the centre of the principal energy producing region, therefore constitutes a critical step towards achieving Washington’s objectives. The principle obstacle is the regime in Tehran, ironically strengthened by the US invasion of Iraq, arguably more influential in Baghdad than the US, and whose weakening or elimination is therefore imperative in terms of the “national interest”.

The second reason is “credibility”, i.e. maintaining the understanding across the world that the US and its allies to can and will successfully deploy military force to discipline, subdue or crush recalcitrant nations and peoples: a concept well understood by Mafia bosses. The serious loss of prestige sustained by defeats and stalemates in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Israel’s war with Hezbollah can not be tolerated by a nation that, not only under Bush but under every President since WW2, has spent staggering sums of public money on building the greatest military machine in all history. The fact that this vast expenditure has also served effectively as a
nanny-state style welfare programme for firms able to make a profit from the duel-use products of military-technological research – e.g. aeronautics, computing – can only increase resistance across US elite opinion to any loss of military stature that could lead to public calls for the subsidy tap to be turned off. In short, for a US establishment where military thinking and solutions dominate, and which tools are rendered useless by the damage to credibility sustained by defeat, the response to military disaster with ever greater military action has its own compelling logic.

When we understand the vital importance – both within and beyond the neo-conservative school - of both the “national interest” in strategic dominance and the “credibility” of US military power, then we can comprehend the rationale behind the apparently irrational willingness of the Bush administration to court yet greater disaster in its “war on terror”. If the US accepts its defeat and diminution of credibility and scales back in Iraq and the Middle East, then openings emerge for its major rivals - Europe, Russia, and China - to contractually carve up the energy heartlands of the planet, building state-to-state relations with west Asian governments that exclude US influence, and potentially
marginalising Washington’s power on the world stage.

Of course this is an unconscionable scenario for the US and its allies. But if they continue, even accelerate, down the course they have set themselves these past 5 years, there is no guarantee of success. Their inability thus far to prevail in various asymmetric conflicts may well persist, thereby only exacerbating the problems described above. From Iraq and Iran outwards, the Middle East could begin to disintegrate, US credibility in terms of its known ability to apply organised violence and protect compliant Arab despots would dissolve, and ultimately the result for US power would be the same as if it had simply retreated.

Far more importantly, military escalation and the opening of new fronts will undoubtedly result in more death, disaster and misery for the region and the wider world. But it seems abundantly clear that such considerations are of no concern to the US. Indeed,
Dr. Michael Vlahos (Senior Staff, National Security Analysis Department, Johns Hopkins University) writes that:

I can attest to many "Defense World" conversations that have ended with: "the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims," or, "history shows that to win over a people you have to kill at least 10% of them, like the Romans"

In the coming weeks and months we will find out just how much influence such figures have in the Pentagon and over US policy, and whether they feel that the moment they speak of has now arrived. Given the expected handover of power in Downing Street we may also get an early, definitive answer to the question of what a post-Blair British foreign policy will look like.

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