Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking Economics (and other good reading material)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Rethinking Afghanistan

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is producing a new documentary on the Afghanistan War and releasing it on-line. Here's the website where you can view the film, and access a wealth of information on the war - a fantastic resource.

Meanwhile over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt reminds us that there's a bigger question to ask about the Afghanistan War than the tactical one of "can we win or not?" - i.e. the moral question of whether, in the interests of our security, its legitimate to destroy the security of others. The equivalent of several 9/11s-worth of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed since the invasion of 2001; the UN tallies 828 as killed by Western forces last year alone, in what is likely to be a serious underestimate. The US-NATO habit of applying massive firepower from the air is bound to cause extensive civilian casualties, and also as a result drive more enraged Afghans into the arms of the insurgency, and perhaps al-Qaeda itself.

In The Nation, Nick Turse reminds us that such scenarios are not new in imperial wars of pacification, with his award-winning exposé on Vietnam's "Operation Speedy Express"; an offensive which saw grotesque levels of civilian slaughter at the hands of the US military. Methods may have changed over the past 40 years, but the basic dynamics of powerful nations imposing their will on smaller ones through the application of mechanised violence remain essentially intact. We'd do well to remember that next time we're tempted to think of Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, as "The Good War".

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gaza: the aftermath

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Israel revealed

“The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, 2002



Below is a report from the UK’s Channel 4 news last week on just one of the many atrocities perpetrated by Israel’s armed forces in Gaza.

Metres from an Israeli military position, four starving children too weak to stand, sat in the ruins of a house amongst at least twelve decomposing corpses, some of them the children’s mothers. For four days the Israelis prevented Red Cross ambulances from rescuing the children. Eventually, ambulances were allowed into the neighbourhood, but the Israelis would not clear a path so that they could access the scene itself. Red Cross medics then had to resort to removing the children by donkey cart, whilst the Israeli soldiers looked on.

In what looks like an effort to provide a dictionary definition of chutzpah, Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev tells Channel 4’s reporter Alex Thompson, when questioned about this, that Israel “wants to work closely” with the Red Cross who, he generously concedes, play “an important role”.

Watch this video, in particular, for Regev’s smirking defence of Israel’s actions. Thompson is clearly stunned by what the Red Cross has told him, and demands of Regev “in the name of humanity, what is Israel doing?”. It is moments like this when the mask slips, and the reality of Israel’s contempt for Palestinian life is laid bare. Remember Regev’s performance here next time you see an Israeli military spokesperson on the TV news, or read an newspaper op-ed by one of Israel’s many apologists in the Western political class. These people will say anything. No atrocity is too gruesome for them to defend.



Since I’ve not posted for a week, lets just quickly remind ourselves of the basic facts regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza. Regular readers will excuse a bit of repetition from previous posts.

Israel claims that it is acting in self-defence, responding to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. This is a flat-out lie.

There was a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas starting in mid June which Hamas maintained and Israel breached at the start of November, sparking the current round of violence. As Gareth Porter notes here, Hamas made moves to reinstate the ceasefire in mid-December, which were rejected by Israel.

“The interest of Hamas in a ceasefire agreement that would actually open the border crossings was acknowledged at a Dec. 21 Israeli cabinet meeting -- five days before the beginning of the Israeli military offensive -- by Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet. "Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce," Diskin was quoted by Y-net News agency as saying.”

Porter also describes how Israel entered into the original ceasefire in bad faith, never intending to honour its conditions in respect of easing the siege of Gaza even though it knew that this would probably lead to further violence. Hamas, by contrast, worked hard to keep the ceasefire in effect, until Israel finally sabotaged it with the attacks of 4 November.

No Israelis were killed in the months leading up to the beginning of its all-out assault on Gaza, on 27 December 2008. In “response” to no deaths and a ceasefire, Israel launched a war of aggression in which it has, as of this morning, slaughtered (I use the word deliberately) 1038 Palestinians and wounded 4850. Of the dead, over 300 are children and 76 are women. Of the injured, 1,600 are children and 678 women. Many of the rest are ordinary police and municipal workers, not militants belonging to the armed wing of Hamas or any other group.

As a number of legal experts point out in this letter to The Sunday Times, and as George Bisharat, professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes here, Israel is not acting in a way that can be justified or legitimately described as self-defence. Israel is committing aggression, the gravest of all international crimes


As I noted in earlier posts on the assault on Gaza, Israel has mounted a huge propaganda effort – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence of the world’s governments while it carries out its attacks. But this is now unravelling, as it was bound to. The dissonance between the pious ‘what-would-you-do?’ refrains of Israel’s apologists and the bloody reality of its actions is simply too wide to bridge.

Today, the Israel military attacked the compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with white phosphorus shells. White phosphorus is a particularly nasty chemical weapon that burns the flesh down to the bone, and which Israel had already been dropping on the crowded refugee camps of Gaza. UN officials expressed outrage at the attack, and poured scorn on Israel’s defence of its actions. In my view, it is near-impossible to portray this as an Israeli mistake, given that the compound is a well-known location in Gaza clearly marked with blue UN flags. John Ging, the head of UN operations in Gaza, told al-Jazeera television: "This is going to burn down the entire warehouse … thousands and thousands of tonnes of food, medical supplies and other emergency assistance is there." Elsewhere, reports emerge of the Israeli military shooting at fleeing civilians, including those waving white flags.

The word you’re looking for is ‘sadistic’.

Serious moves may now be made the United Nations to bring Israel before the international legal system. There is talk of referring its recent actions to the International Court of Justice, or even for ad-hoc tribunals to be set up, similar to those that dealt with the large-scale crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The Lancet, one of the world's best-known and most respected medical journals, has published an editorial strongly condemning Israeli for committing "large and indiscriminate human atrocities".

The European Union, is backing off from moves to strengthen its ties with Israel, with the patience and ingulgence of the European political class being tested to the limit by Israel’s barbarity. Even Israel's closest friends in Europe are horrified by its actions. This from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“A few days ago, I met a European ambassador stationed in Israel. The man, a great friend of Israel, launched an emotional monologue and spoke from the bottom of his heart.

"Make no mistake," he said. "I understand why you embarked on the operation in Gaza, and many of my colleagues also understand and even support it, but a few days ago you started to cross red lines."

The ambassador continued, reiterating his support and his love for Israel. "We too would like to damage Hamas, we too would not sit by quietly if they were firing rockets at us," he said. "It was clear to us that innocent people would be hurt in any operation in Gaza, and we were prepared to accept that up to certain limit, but in the past few days it seems that your action is getting out of control, and the harm to civilians is tremendous."

The straw that broke the camel's back for that ambassador was the Red Cross report from Gaza that small children had been found wounded, near the corpses of their mothers, under the ruins of their homes, and other reports of civilians on the verge of dying in places ambulances could not reach because of the fighting.

"The international organizations in Gaza are talking about 200 dead children," he said. "I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government," added the ambassador. "Your action is brutal and you don't realize how much damage this is causing you in the world. This is not only short term. It's damage for years. Is this the Israel you want to be?"

A similar message also came across in a conversation that President Shimon Peres had with the delegation of European foreign ministers who came to Jerusalem a week ago. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union Commissioner responsible for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said to Peres: "You have the right to self-defense, but what is happening in Gaza is beyond all proportion. I am telling you, Mr. President, Israel's image in the world has been destroyed."” [my emphasis]

A degree of anger was even expressed in a parliamentary debate here in London. Britain is one of Israel’s strongest supporters (and its role in this conflict is something I intend to write more about presently). Israel is also alienating Turkey, possibly its closest ally in the region. And even the US media, famous for its incredible bias in favour of Israel, is discovering an at times strongly critical voice.

Note that these are friends of the Israeli government, not its enemies or even its critics. Presumably the aim of Israel’s PR campaign over Gaza was to extend or at least consolidate support. In the event, not only is opposition ignited worldwide but pre-existing support is evaporating, for the simple reason that its very hard to spin your way out of responsibility for mass murder.

The fact is that for a great many people, the bloodshed of the past three weeks will have gone a considerable distance towards clarifying matters where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. It is now plain, were it not already, that the problem is not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, represhensible though those groups are. The problem is Israel: its government, its military, its political class, and its transnational supporting cast of propagandists. It is Israel that is responsible for the vast majority of death and destruction in the conflict. Israel that is the aggressor. Israel whose limitlessly cruel and flagrantly illegal occupation of Palestinian land creates the conditions in which terrorism is bound to flourish. The case for Israel, of a peaceful state that goes to war only in self-defence, is now shot to bits. It has no credibility, and neither do those who peddle it, not least since these people have spent the past three weeks treating us to the ugly sight and sound of their apologias for the slaughter of innocent people (large numbers of children included).

Condemnations of Hamas and attempts to divert the blame for the conflict onto the Palestinians will ring increasingly hollow as the public mind recalls the sight of dying children on the TV news, of attacks on aid facilities, of the indiscriminate bombardment of a million and a half people trapped in an open air prison. To those remaining few who could not see it, Israel has now revealed itself. The callous, racist mindset that conceives of these atrocities is the mindset that the Palestinians have been up against for over 60 years; something that may now be a little better understood. I suspect that the Israeli government has made a profound impression on world opinion since 27 December 2008, but perhaps not the one it was aiming for.


For more analysis, I could make no better recommendation than Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; by far the most informed and insightful analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past several decades. Follow this link to hear him speaking about the current situation.


I’ll finish by reiterating a point I've made several times previously (so again, apologies to regular readers). You’re not obliged to simply watch these events unfold. There are practical, small things you can do which, when combined with the individual efforts of many others, add up to something significant. The first of those is donating money to the relief effort. This is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, and its entirely man-made. The world’s top aid agencies are trying to get food and medical supplies to the victims of Israel’s bombing, and you can rely on them to make best use of whatever amount you can afford to give. You can donate to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer. Those NGOs are also good sources of information on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The other thing you can do is protest. Israel is making every effort to win the PR war, and public protest can undermine that, thus increasing pressure on Israel to bring its murderous actions to an end.
Demonstrations large and small continue throughout the UK - there may well be one near you - and, if you’re not resident in Britain, I’m sure the anti-war groups in your country have their own campaigns in action.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

"You're shooting at kids, don't you understand that?"

War is the enabler of humanity's darkest instincts; a force of nature that cruelly exposes the depths to which we're capable of sinking. But occasionally, it allows us a glimpse of the best of humanity as well; its challenges met by the bravery of at least some of us.


The footage above, from Korean television, shows Palestinians on the West Bank demonstrating against the assault on Gaza clashing with Israeli troops. The heroic young woman who stands between the Israeli guns and the Palestinians - imploring "you're shooting at kids, don't you understand that?" - is Huweida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. Her actions are reminiscent of those of the unknown Chinese man who placed himself in front of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, 1989.

For every Israeli soldier, Hamas miliant, armchair apologist for Israeli massacres or international statesperson working to block a ceasefire until Israel has achieved its military objectives, there's an aid worker, an ISM volunteer, a person documenting abuses for a human rights organisation, an Israeli who refused to fight with the IDF on moral grounds, and activist, a protester, and so on and so on. Even war offers no excuse for cynicism, provided we're prepared to look squarely at the whole picture. The correct response to the bloodletting of the past fortnight is not cynicism about our fellow human beings but a question, "what am I doing to help?"


Amnesty International now says explicitly that the Israeli military is targeting civilians:

"..civilians – particularly the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza – continue to both be targeted and suffer disproportionately in this conflict".

Remember that generous daily three-hour ceasefire that Israel is introducing, so that the Palestinians can get "whatever they need"? Save the Children says its "completely inadequate". Such ingratitude. I mean, what's Israel got to do? Stop killing innocent people for the other 21 hours in the day as well?


Wednesday evening, the Telegraph reported:

"Growing evidence emerged today of the bloodiest single incident of the Gaza conflict when around 70 corpses were found by a Palestinian paramedic near a bombed-out house. Concerns had been growing that Zeitoun had witnessed massive civilian casualties after surviving members of the Samouni clan reached Gaza City three days ago."

"They said that after the Israeli army first took the town on Saturday night soldiers had ordered about 100 members of the clan to gather in a single house owned by Wael Samouni around dawn on Sunday. "

"At 6.35am on Monday the house was repeatedly shelled with appalling loss of civilian life."

"Convoys of ambulances twice headed to the area to look for wounded but they were driven back by Israeli shooting."

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has more on this.

A press release from the International Committee of the Red Cross begins:

"On the afternoon of 7 January, four Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) ambulances and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to obtain access for the first time to several houses in the Zaytun neighbourhood of Gaza City that had been affected by Israeli shelling."

"The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access this neighbourhood since 3 January but it only received permission to do so from the Israel Defense Forces during the afternoon of 7 January. "

"The ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. "

"They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses. "

"In another house, the ICRC/PRCS rescue team found 15 other survivors of this attack including several wounded. In yet another house, they found an additional three corpses. Israeli soldiers posted at a military position some 80 meters away from this house ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do. There were several other positions of the Israel Defense Forces nearby as well as two tanks. "

""This is a shocking incident," said Pierre Wettach, the ICRC's head of delegation for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. "The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded.""

The US ambassador to the UN told the media this week that absolutely no "equivalence" could be drawn between the Israeli military and Hamas. I agree. Whether Hamas wanted to or not, it simply does not have the means to cause anything remotely like the bloodbath we have seen over the past fortnight in the Gaza strip. Israelis have never suffered at the hands of Palestinian groups anything resembling the horrors we are witnessing now. Overall, in the eight years since the second intifada began, 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. Israel has killed more than three quarters that number of Palestinians in just under two weeks. 5,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel between September 2000 and November 2008 - that number has been swelled by 15 per cent less than a fortnight. In fact, given that Israel is preventing both medics and journalists from properly accessing Gaza, the currently cited death toll of 770 may be a serious underestimate.

So yes, there is no "equivalence".


The above three stories come via Jamie Stern-Weiner's blog The Heathlander, which has been very impressive over the last two weeks in compiling information and analysis on the attack on Gaza. Bookmark it and visit often. Another good source is Middle East historian, Juan Cole.


At TheRealNews, Phyllis Bennis, a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC., gives a good, clear assessment of a number of important factors: the background to current events, the US role, the legal status of Israel's actions and the problems faced by the United Nations in bringing the crisis to an end.



More from me soon

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gaza: Israeli PR vs bloody reality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Gaza: roundup of analysis

Perhaps the hardest thing about watching these news reports showing families in Gaza trembling under Israeli bombardment is the thought that some of the mothers, fathers and children we see in these pictures may not survive the next few days and weeks. What we see here could be their last moments; indeed, by the time these reports reach us they may already have been killed, or be lying in the makeshift emergency ward of a broken-down and overwhelmed Gazan hospital. The fact is, we’ll probably never know.


With its air force having softened Gaza up with a week of bombing that has killed almost 500 people and injured over two thousand (Gaza has no anti-aircraft defences of course), Israel has now launched its ground invasion, sending tanks into the small coastal strip that is home to 1.5 million Palestinian people (many of them refugees driven from their former homes in the very parts of Israel from which those tanks now come). The United States has blocked a UN Security Council statement that would have called for an immediate ceasefire.

Today I’d like to recommend a few comment and analysis articles I’ve read on the past week’s events.

Chris McGreal is one of the Guardian/Observer’s finest correspondents, and his piece in this morning’s Observer is an excellent work of analytical journalism. McGreal describes the huge propaganda effort that Israel is undertaking – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence the world’s governments while it carries out its attacks. He then examines the content of Israel’s PR effort and the justifications it is offering for its actions, finding – surprise surprise – that the Israeli case is essentially bogus. So I place this article at the top of my list and recommend it highly.

Another good examination and deconstruction of Israel’s case for attacking Gaza is provided by Tony Karon, a senior editor at and - especially in his personal capacity as a blogger - a very smart and perceptive analyst of the politics of Middle East.

Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, provides this timely and thoughtful article on how repression and violence rely on the suspension of empathy and the denial of the humanity of one’s victims. Gideon Levy, one of Israel’s best journalists, writes powerfully on that same theme in this article.

Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper note that many of those on the pro-Israeli government side who attacked the proposed boycott of Israeli universities on grounds of academic freedom were strangely quiet when Israel bombed a university in Gaza last week. Apparently, while boycotting Israeli universities is bad, bombing Palestinian universities is nothing to get steamed up about.

(To note: the argument in favour of an academic boycott has been that Israeli universities are often complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, at least at some level, and that boycotts and divestment can be an important means of pressuring a government to change unjust policies, as was the case with Apartheid South Africa. I don’t agree with the idea myself (and nor did many others who are concerned for the plight of the Palestinians). I think an arms boycott (for one thing) would be a better targeted action. But I absolutely do not stand with the critics of the proposed boycott from the pro-Israeli government side; people who seem to care remarkably little for the Palestinians and who certainly need to get their facts and their arguments straight)

On the liberal US political website The Huffington Post, Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi provides his own refutation of the key myths of the Israeli propaganda effort. Barghouthi is a secular liberal who advocates non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and his account of the past week’s events is rooted in the factual record. Yet still the Huffington Post, as is typical of the moral cowardice that afflicts many US liberals where Israel is concerned, sees fit to handle his opinions with rubber gloves, inserting the weasel words that his “views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Huffington Post”, a disclaimer that apparently no other Post contributor requires. Well, at least they published it.

If you want some deeper background, I can recommend, for one thing, Khaled Hroub's "Hamas: A Beginner's Guide". It’s a good, solid introduction to the subject. Highly informed, readable, and benefitting from some thoughtful and balanced analysis, its probably the best of the books available on Hamas. More good information on the group can be found at Conflicts Forum.

I’ll finish by reiterating a point I made earlier in the week. You’re not obliged to simply watch these events unfold. There are practical, small things you can do which, when combined with the small individual efforts of many others, add up to something significant. The first of those is donating money to the relief effort. The world’s top aid agencies are trying to get humanitarian supplies to the victims of Israel’s bombing, and you can rely on them to make best use of whatever amount you can afford to give. You can donate to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer.

The other thing you can do is protest. Israel is making every effort to win the PR war, and public protest can undermine that, thus increasing pressure on Israel to bring its murderous actions to an end. There are demonstrations planned in the UK throughout this week and, if you’re not resident in Britain, I’m sure the anti-war groups in your country have their own campaigns in action.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza: 700,000 children with nowhere to run

Israel's destruction of Gaza continues. Civilians, including children, continue to die in large numbers.


While Israel blocks shipments of humanitarian aid.


The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with 1.5 million people living in an area of 360 square kilometers; roughly equivalent to the size of Sheffield in the UK or Atlanta, Georgia in the US (both of whose populations are around a third that of Gaza).

About 700,000 of Gaza's population are children under the age of 14. The median age in Gaza is 17.

Israel has been relentlessly pouring high-explosives into this area, from the sky, for three and a half days now, and preventing aid from reaching those affected. The pretence that these attacks were aimed only at military targets, and that they were a response to Palestinian aggression, has long since fallen away. Israel's is a war of choice, and it is being waged indiscriminately.

Amnesty International has issued two clear, concise and strong statements (here and here) criticising both sides for their conduct in the conflict, but reserving the large majority of its criticism, quite correctly, for Israel.

Although Israel has just rejected a truce to allow the provision of aid, it remains vital that as much aid as possible is available, in the event that some can be got through to the people who need it, if not soon then at least when the bombing finally stops. Please donate something, whatever you can afford, to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t stand up, does it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hiroshima: 63 years on

"Even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that ... Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. Quoted by John Pilger, "The lies of Hiroshima live on..."

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gaza: crushing the ants

"The more vulgar apologists for U.S. and Israeli crimes solemnly explain that, while Arabs purposely kill people, the U.S. and Israel, being democratic societies, do not intend to do so. Their killings are just accidental ones, hence not at the level of moral depravity of their adversaries. That was, for example, the stand of Israel's High Court when it recently authorized severe collective punishment of the people of Gaza by depriving them of electricity (hence water, sewage disposal, and other such basics of civilized life).

The same line of defense is common with regard to some of Washington's past peccadilloes, like the destruction in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The attack apparently led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but without intent to kill them, hence not a crime on the order of intentional killing -- so we are instructed by moralists who consistently suppress the response that had already been given to these vulgar efforts at self-justification.

To repeat once again, we can distinguish three categories of crimes: murder with intent, accidental killing, and murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent. Israeli and U.S. atrocities typically fall into the third category. Thus, when Israel destroys Gaza's power supply or sets up barriers to travel in the West Bank, it does not specifically intend to murder the particular people who will die from polluted water or in ambulances that cannot reach hospitals. And when Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of the al-Shifa plant, it was obvious that it would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Human Rights Watch immediately informed him of this, providing details; nevertheless, he and his advisers did not intend to kill specific people among those who would inevitably die when half the pharmaceutical supplies were destroyed in a poor African country that could not replenish them.

Rather, they and their apologists regarded Africans much as we do the ants we crush while walking down a street. We are aware that it is likely to happen (if we bother to think about it), but we do not intend to kill them because they are not worthy of such consideration. Needless to say, comparable attacks by 'Araboushim' in areas inhabited by human beings would be regarded rather differently. "

Noam Chomsky - The Most Wanted List: International Terrorism - 26 February 2008

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Iran threat - exchange with George Monbiot

My email to George Monbiot:

George - thank you for an excellent piece in today's Guardian drawing attention to the great unmentionable in respect of WMD in the Middle East: Israel's nuclear weapons.

Given how important it is for this subject to be raised prominently in a mainstream newspaper, I'm reluctant to find fault with what you've written. However, there are a couple of aspects of your piece which I think will counteract what I suspect is your aim, i.e. to help the campaign against a war on Iran. I refer to instances where you reinforce some of the erroneous assumptions upon which the drive to war is based.

First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone – especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?

The limits of our empirical knowledge of Iran's nuclear program are set by the findings of the IAEA. The agency has, after several surprise and intrusive inspections consistent with the NPT (it is the Additional Protocol, not the treaty, that Iran has withdrawn co-operation from) stated in its latest report (as it has many times previously) that it has no evidence of the "diversion" of enrichment activities towards a weapons programme.

I refer you to this informative commentary from Farideh Farhi on the dissonace between what the IAEA report said and how the media have been reporting it.

Second, it should be noted (though it never is) that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious ruling banning the construction and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

Now of course, Khamenei, like any other powerful person, is perfectly capable of telling untruths. But when a person whose authority flows from his religious piety issues a ruling that impacts on his own behaviour he stakes not only his credibility but his power on his adherence to that ruling. Few people have ever accused members of the Tehran regime of being indifferent to personal power. So one has to admit that the existence of this explicit fatwa at the very least reduces by a significant degree the likelihood of Khamenei subsequently authorising an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

This highlights a further point, scrupulously ignored by those who favour war: that it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is in ultimate charge in Iran. It is he who has the last word on foreign and security policy. Indeed, one might well argue, with reference to Iran's complex political hierarchy, that Ahmadinejad is not even second in command.

Yet in your article, you say: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state". It is by no means true that Iran is "under" Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad does not have the power to start wars, for example.

You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel." Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - odious Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts.

Two more things should be mentioned on this point. First, even if we dismiss the available evidence and believe in the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, do we really suppose that Iran would consider for a moment the idea of initiating a war against an Israel armed with x amount of warheads and therefore also against the US with its many thousands of warheads? By what rationale do we argue that the Iranian regime wishes to commit suicide?

Secondly, noting that it is Khamenei that runs Iranian foreign policy, not Ahmadinejad, should we not acknowledge that Khamenei was "
directly involved" in formulating and proposing a comprehensive peace deal to the US and Israel, including acceptance of a two-state solution?

You see, then, why I believe these turns of phrase in your article to be problematic. Iran has no proven nuclear weapons programme, and is governed ultimately by a man who has forbidden the construction of nuclear weapons and who has offered to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Yet your article gives the impression that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme and is run by a man who may wish to use the weapons he is constructing to destroy Israel.

Any hawk would be delighted that even The Guardian's George Monbiot is prepared to give this impression to his readers - and that’s a big shame given the excellent points you make in your article regarding Israel's nuclear weapons.

As you know, it is when someone at your end of the spectrum accepts the claims of power that those claims pass from points of view or allegations into accepted and unquestionable truths. Its a sad irony that I should be making this point in respect of this article, since your aim was plainly to challenge some of the received wisdom on this issue. However, unfortunately, you have reinforced many other aspects of the received wisdom in doing so. I wonder - is there any chance of your offering a corrective in a future piece?

I hope you accept these criticisms in the constructive and fraternal spirit in which they were intended. Because the issues raised deserve airing beyond private correspondence I am publishing this email on my website. I look forward to any reply from you and would be happy to post that on my site as well, with your permission.

Best wishes

David Wearing

Reply from George Monbiot:

Hi David, thanks for your message. No time for long reply, but v briefly:

[dw - George quotes my original email]

"First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone - especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?"

Well, what do you think is going on? Why the insistence on enriching uranium? Why the long drawn-out dance with the IAEA? What do you think this is about (from latest IAEA report):

"Contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP and FEP. Iran has also continued the construction of the IR-40 and operation of the Heavy Water Production Plant."

Given the huge diplomatic and economic costs of Iran's nuclear programme, it looks to me as if it intends to derive a major benefit from it. Generating electricity does not seem to me to be sufficient, given that it has other readily available means (some of the world's largest natural gas reserves). I can't prove that it's seeking to develop a bomb, but I believe it is.

[dw - again, Geroge quotes my original email]

"You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - wretched Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts."

I'm well aware that "wiped off the map" was a mistranslation. But if we are to use Juan Cole as our source, look at his translation of the same passage:

"The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."

Does that not suggest that Ahmadinejad is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel? What other regime did he have in mind? Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it.

See these too, which I am sorry to say come from Wikipedia:

"A synopsis of Mr Ahmadinejad's speech on the Iranian Presidential website states:

He further expressed his firm belief that the new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world would in no time wipe Israel away.[23]

The same idiom in his speech on December 13, 2006 was translated as "wiped out" by Reuters:

Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out.[24]"


"In a speech given on 14 December 2005 in the city of Zahedan, and carried live on Iranian television, Ahmadinejad made the following comments:Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions. [...] The same European countries have imposed the illegally-established Zionist regime on the oppressed nation of Palestine. If you have committed the crimes so give a piece of your land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to them to set up their own state there. Then the Iranian nation will have no objections, will stage no rallies on the Qods Day and will support your decision.[64]"

I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel.

We are both against an attack on Iran. But I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government.

With best wishes, George


My response:

Hi George. I'm grateful for your response. Thank you.

Let me address your last paragraph first, where you say

"I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government"

I'm tempted to now write a long paragraph in flowery language listing and denouncing the many crimes of the Iranian government in order to prove my moral decency. But there is no need for this because the question of my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government" does not arise, and there is no basis - none - for your suggesting that it does. What I have done is simply to insist on the facts. The factual record by itself condemns the Tehran regime to hell and back several times over. There's no need for anything else.

You've noticed that my position on this issue is informed greatly by Juan Cole. When discussing the "wiped off the map" issue, Cole said: "I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies."

Despite these personal circumstances, Cole still absolutely insists on the facts regarding Iran, however those individual facts happen to reflect on the Iranian government. I think that sets a fine example to the rest of us.

It would be nice if you could retract your statement about my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government".

Does Iran have a nuclear weapons programme? There are good reasons for believing it may do. Iran lives in the neighbourhood of a nuclear Israel, Pakistan and India. A nuclear armed United States is committed to regime change in Tehran. The US has occupied Iran's neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also US forces and allies surrounding Iran in the Gulf, the Emirates, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan. The last time the current ideological trend was in the White House they backed Saddam in war that nearly destroyed Iran. If Iran wants nuclear weapons in those circumstances, then we hardly need fantasies about Iran wishing to commit collective suicide by launching a pointless attack on Israel (and therefore de facto the US) to explain the reasons why. Iran has very compelling reasons indeed for starting a weapons programme.

However, there are also compelling reasons for believing it may not have such a programme. Like the fact that the Supreme Leader has effectively staked his religious credibility and therefore the essence of his power on their not building nuclear weapons. Like the fact that the empirical evidence points to there not being a weapons programme.

Why insist on enriching uranium when you're rich in gas and oil? Well why squander that wealth in domestic consumption when oil prices are astronomically high? Sensible economics would surely dictate that you maximise the amount of oil and gas for sale on the world market, no?

Why insist on enrichment in defiance of the UNSC? Well why wouldn't any small country insist on their rights under the NPT if it felt it could (Tehran seems to be banking, perhaps overconfidently, on Moscow and Beijing's eternal backing)? Why instead accept being walked over by the permanent nuclear states? Maybe this is just a state seeking to maximise its utility in the normal course of things.

Why the "long-drawn out dance with the IAEA"? Well ask North Korea. After a lot of bluster, Washington was finally forced to do a deal with Pyongyang. Iran tried to do a deal with the US in 2003. A generous deal from the Iranian point of view. The US responded by chastising the Swiss diplomat who brought them the letter from Tehran. Well now Tehran has a lot more bargaining chips, and its not giving them up lightly. That's a possible interpretation. You don't need actual nuclear weapons to be taken seriously on the world stage - just the threat that you might get them soon unless people play nice with you.

So there are many strong reasons to suppose that there is and that there isn't an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. My point is simply that it is not remotely adequate to skip lightly over all this complexity and just say you "believe" the programme exists. What's more, given the real threat of war, doing so is highly irresponsible - especially from someone in your position. Why not just acknowledge the fact that we don't know whether Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons? That's not "whitewashing". Just a fair reflection of reality.

On Israel, you say:

"Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it."

This is precisely my point. Ahmadinejad's cretinous utterences on the Israel-Palestine issue are irrelevant to the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. You referred to his position specifically as constituting a threat to Israel. This is silly. Ahmadinejad has not threatened to destroy Israel. He and the Iranian government government have repeatedly said that they do not intend to attack Israel. Iran has offered to accept the Arab plan for a two state solution. Ahmadinejad does not even run Iranian foreign policy. And even if none of those things were true, by what rationale are we to suppose that Iran wishes to commit suicide by pointlessly attacking Israel (which would mean de facto attacking the US)?

You say:

"I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel."

I argued nothing of the kind. And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security. This is doing the war-party's job for it. I know that was the opposite of your intention with yesterday's article, which is why I thought it worth mentioning it to you.

Again, I'm very grateful for your response and would more than welcome any further reply. Since you didn't say otherwise when I asked, I'm assuming you have no objections to my making this exchange public on my website.

Best wishes



Reply from George Monbiot:

Dear David,

"And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security."

Where and when?



My response:

Hi George

You said:

"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Is the second sentence not intended to support the statement that Iran "under Ahmadinejad" (which it isn't - its "under" Khamenei, if anyone) is "dangerous"?

If not, I think it this part of the article could have been better expressed.

Best wishes


p.s. it really would be nice if you could retract your statement that I am "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government", unless you can point to where and when I've done this of course.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

"Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel"

Yes, you did read that right

Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel

By Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski, Haaretz, October 25, 2007

"Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday."

"Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears."

Of course, we don't need Livni to tell us that the idea of Iran being able to wipe Israel off the map is a ridiculous fantasy. In the article linked to in my last post on this blog, Fareed Zakaria illustrates the essential ludicrousness of that idea.

But if true, these revelations show the depths the Israeli state is prepared to sink to for its own end. For has not the spectre of Israel's nuclear annihilation been linked implicitly and explicitly to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust? And if those who raise such fears know themselves that they are unfounded, is this not the most cynical exploitation of one of the greatest tragedies in all history? Does this not expose the idea that the Israeli state is the sole defender of world Jewry as an obscene sham? Can one imagine a more eloquent expression of sheer contempt for Hitler's victims, a more brazen assault on their memory, than to make political use of their corpses?

As to the implications for political debate in the west, Paul Woodward of the excellent "War in Context" site comments:

"While George Bush warns the world that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to World War III, Israel’s foreign minister says, behind closed doors — in other words in a situation where she means what she says — that Iranian nuclear weapons would not pose an existential threat to Israel."

"This should be banner headline news. The Washington press corp should be hounding administration officials, demanding an explanation for this utterly glaring clash of perspectives. Instead, what do we get? Silence."

"This is what things have come down to: We live in a state where the dissemination of information is controlled much more efficiently than it was in the Soviet Union. At least the Russians understood they were being lied to. Most Americans, on the other hand, are completely ignorant of the incestuous relationship between the press and the government. In this system shaped by unspoken agreements, there is no need for some clumsy Ministry of Information. All the managing editors of the major outlets can be relied upon to shape their products (within an acceptable latitude) in alignment with political and commercial power — even when that means that they knowingly makes themselves instruments of an altogether avoidable disaster. They will plead that they are merely messengers, yet they are no less culpable than the lunatics in political office. They choose what to report and what to ignore."

And so, with the truth in clear view for anyone that wants to see it (or report it), we inch closer to the only catastrophe that was ever really on the cards: a US war on Iran.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


I'm going to be abroad until the last week of September, so its very unlikely that I'll post anything til then. If you want to contact me it might be better to wait until I get back. The Diary's email address gets a lot of spam and genuine emails seem to get mixed in amongst all that in the Bulk folder. I might not have time to fish your message out of there before its lost forever, so if it can wait please get in touch after 24th.

As ever, I highly recommend, Juan Cole's Informed Comment for a daily briefing and expert analysis on all things Middle East, Paul Woodward's War In Context for a daily round-up of global news stories relating to the "war on terror", and Tony Karon and Tom Englehardt for some of the best written and most thoughtful analysis around. For UK-specific stuff, it doesn't get any better than UKWatch, and a sharp and informed blog by the tenacious young Jamie Stern-Weiner is definitely one to watch.

One more thing, it appears that US Vice President Dick Cheney has issued "instructions" to friendly media, think tanks and general opinion formers to commence in earnest the propaganda campaign for massive airstrikes on Iran, as of this month. This will mirror the now-legendary campaign of deception - which also commenced at the start of the political season, September 2002 - that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Our task is not just to counter this propaganda campaign but also to ensure that the propagandists are not allowed to frame the debate as they were last time. Last time the equation placed in people's minds was "Iraqi WMD equals war", irrespective of the plain fact that a crippled, impoverished Saddam posed no threat to international security with or without WMD. This time it'll be "Iranian nuclear power equals nuclear holocaust" and "Iranian involvement in Iraq equals casus belli for massive air strikes". Simple points need to be remembered when countering this:
  • Iran will never launch an aggressive war to "wipe Israel off the map" when Israel has 200plus nuclear weapons, its sugar daddy the US has enough to obliterate the planet, and Iran has nothing, or next to nothing. Iran is not going to commit suicide. In any case, Ahmadinejad, never threatened to "wipe Israel off the map". He never said it. Its a bit of hysteria that's been got up out of thin air. Thousands of Iranians should not be slaughtered over a translation error - one which has already been corrected for the benefit of anyone interested in the truth.
  • There is no prospect of Iran "dominating" the Middle East. Iran is not a security threat. It is (a) militarily weak and (b) has to live in that region and so needs it stable. The biggest security threat in the region is the US and Israel, the two sides with both WMD and the worst recent history of aggression.

For more on this see my recent, "Still Time for War With Iran" which cautions that the prospect of a war should not be written off lightly, "The Iranian Hostage Crisis in Context" which describes the strategic issues from the Iranian perspective, and my interview on Resonance FM's Middle East Panorama, where I talked about that a little more.

That's all. Back in a few weeks, when you'll see a review of Britain's occupation of southern Iraq.

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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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Monday, April 16, 2007

Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Cheney

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

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

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Iran hostage crisis in context

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

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

The historical context

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

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

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

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

Threats and responses

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

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

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

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

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

Losing at chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Note - 13/4/07

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

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

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Iraq, the War on Terror and Just War Theory

Is the “war on terror” a “just war”? Discuss with reference to both jus ad bellum and jus in bello.


I will answer this question by focusing on the Iraq war, as it relates to the “war on terror”, arguing that it is by no means clear that it has been a just war. I will make this case by examining whether the actual conduct of the US-led coalition – in terms of both the initial invasion and the subsequent counter-insurgency conflict - measures up to the standards defined by Just War theory.

The US “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism” defines the goals of “war on terror” as “defeating terrorist organizations of global reach through the direct or indirect use of diplomatic, economic, information, law enforcement, military, financial, intelligence, and other instruments of power” (White House: February 2003). Given the breadth of this description, the issue of whether all of these various activities can be classed as warfare, and constraints of space, I will restrict my focus to the largest conventional war fought as part of the “war on terror”: the Iraq war.

The US-led war in Iraq has been explicitly claimed as part of the war on terror. US President Bush’s national radio address on 8 March 2003 (White House: March 2003), on the eve of the invasion, describe the alleged threat posed by Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” (“WMD”) specifically as a front in the war on terror. He said

Saddam Hussein has a long history of reckless aggression and terrible crimes. He possesses weapons of terror. He provides funding and training and safe haven to terrorists who would willingly deliver weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries.”

The US-led coalition also argued that Iraq posed a conventional military threat and that war was justified for this reason (Walt & Mearsheimer:2003). In addition, others have argued that in fact, the US invaded Iraq to secure strategic control over its natural resources (Chomsky:2003:125). For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate my review specifically on those aspects of the war relating or purportedly relating to the “war on terror”.

Finally, it is necessary to define what is meant by a just war. To focus on the question at hand I will forgo any debate on this issue and simply defer to an accepted version of Just War theory: that cited by Nicholas J. Wheeler (Wheeler:2002:207). According to Wheeler, Just War theory

determines that a war is just if it satisfies the conditions of the jus ad bellum: just cause, last resort, right intention, reasonable prospect of success leading to a just peace and right authority. However, states that go to war whether for just or unjust reasons must also meet the requirement of the jus in bello. This establishes the absolute and overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent.”

Accepting these as the defining criteria of Just War theory, I will measure the conduct of the coalition prosecuting the Iraq war against these standards.

Jus Ad Bellum

The invasion of Iraq

The controversial circumstances under which the Iraq war was launched are well known, and it is difficult to say with certainty that its stated objectives were the actual objectives. For example, a minute of a meeting in July 2002 between the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and other senior figures stated that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (Sunday Times: May 2005).

This assessment has been corroborated by former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, who said that the coalition gave the WMD case “a spin that was not acceptable. They put exclamation marks where there had been question marks and I think that is hyping, a spin, that leads the public to the wrong conclusions.” (BBC:2004)

In addition to the question marks over the existence of Iraqi WMD stockpiles (which in the event were never discovered) there were also doubts concerning whether Iraq would have been likely to transfer any such WMD to terrorists. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer noted that

there is no credible evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or more generally that Iraq is collaborating with al Qaeda against the United States. Hawks inside and outside the Bush administration have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past months to find a link, but they have come up empty-handed” (Walt & Mearsheimer:2003).

Walt and Mearsheimer also pointed out the essential and established enmity between the religious extremist Osama bin Laden and the secular Ba’ath regime, and that it would be very unlikely that any co-operation could emerge since it would likely be traced back to Iraq, eliciting a devastating response from the US.

At this point we may address the “Jus Ad Bellum” sub-criteria of “last resort”. Plainly the US was not under attack from Iraq in March 2003. Nor did the coalition claim that offensive military action instigated by Iraq was imminent. The US and its allies certainly argued that the “war on terror” was ongoing, that the US had been attacked on September 11, 2001, and that this provided the justification for any necessary defensive measures. But since no plausible links existed between Baghdad and the 9/11 attacks or al Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq could not be credibly portrayed as a “last resort” measure against an ongoing attack. Indeed, it may even be argued that the question marks over those links and over the existence of WMD render any argument of “last resort” superfluous. Since there was no proven threat, no attack nor any known prospect of attack, the US was not obliged to “resort” to invasion, whether in the first or last instance.

For Walt and Mearsheimer, the only conceivable scenario in which an ad hoc al Qaeda-Ba’ath axis could form would be where Saddam judged that he had nothing to lose, i.e. where there was an attempt to overthrow him. Here the “Jus Ad Bellum” consideration of “reasonable prospect of success” intertwines with that of “just cause, right intention”. Not only, as we have seen, was both the existence of Iraqi WMD and any links with between Saddam and bin Laden highly questionable, but a stronger argument could be made that invading Iraq would actually increase the threat from terrorism. In other words, there was a serious prospect of the exact opposite of success.

There was an additional reason to suspect the invasion would have been counter productive in counter-terror terms. The invasion could prove a recruiting sergeant for jihadist groups, a factor which may well have been understood by policymakers at the time. Five weeks before the invasion The British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee warned the government in strong terms that military action would increase the risk of terrorist attacks against Britain by groups such as al Qaeda. In the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee’s description: “The JIC assessed that al-Qa'eda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq” (Daily Telegraph:2003).

At the point of the invasion of Iraq, focusing specifically on the relationship between that action and the “war on terror”, it was by no means clear that the war met the Just War theory standard of “just cause, last resort, right intention, reasonable prospect of success”. To look at the last of these criteria in full - “reasonable prospect of success leading to a just peace and right authority” – it is necessary to look at the US-led attempts post-invasion to impose authority on Iraq, and the counter-insurgency war fought to that end.

From invasion to counter-insurgency

There is strong evidence to suggest that a large number of Iraqis support armed attacks on coalition forces. A poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence in 2005 found that across Iraq as a whole, 45 per cent of people felt such attacks are justified (Daily Telegraph:2005). A poll published in early 2006 found that 47 per cent of all Iraqis, including 41 per cent of Shia and 88 per cent of Sunni Iraqis, approved of attacks on US-led forces (PIPA:2006:7). Michael Walzer argues that if the insurgents have the support of a substantive amount of the population then (a) the war has no “reasonable prospect of success” since the insurgents can never be isolated, and (b) in circumstances such as these, the war against the insurgents will necessarily also be against the people. It will be an “anti-social war” which can not, by definition, lead to a “just peace” or a “right authority” (Walzer:1977:187). I shall return to this point, which links the principles of “Jus ad Bellum” and “Jus in Bello”, at the end of this essay.

Finally, in terms of “Jus ad Bellum”, we should revisit the argument that the counter-insurgency war has links to the wider “war on terror”. Bush has said that “if we lose [in Iraq], if this young democracy fails, the enemy will be emboldened. They will have resources in which to launch attacks. They have declared their desire to have a caliphate throughout the Middle East, and one of their targets is to topple modern governments” (ABC News:2006).

The analysis conducted by Robert Pape into suicide bombing over the past twenty years contradicts this assessment. Pape’s study strongly suggests that a coalition withdrawal from Iraq would have the opposite effect from that described by Bush (Pape:2003). Pape’s study of 188 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2001 reveals that, rather than being motivated by religious fanaticism, this form of terrorism is driven by clear secular goals, namely the expulsion of an occupying force from a national territory. The dominant pattern of behaviour identified by Pape in his extensive study reveals not fanaticism or irrationality but cold strategic calculation focused on the limited goal of ending occupation, and nothing more ambitious beyond this.

In respect of the threat of terrorist attacks on western soil, it has been argued that the continued presence of the coalition in Iraq increases the threat of terrorism. A joint Home Office and Foreign Office dossier, ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004 described the Iraq conflict as a "recruiting sergeant" for extremism amongst young Britons (Sunday Times: July 2005). The following year the Guardian reported that “the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre - which includes officials from MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police” had warned the British government that “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK” (Guardian:July 2005).

It is therefore unclear that Bush was correct to describe the counter-insurgency war in Iraq as presenting a reasonable prospect of a wider success in the “war on terror”. In fact, the global terror threat may well increase as long as Iraq is occupied by the coalition.

Jus in Bello

As large parts of Iraq have been a war zone since March 2003, it is hard to establish the precise nature of events on the ground with any real certainty. However, even in the absence of thorough and impartial investigations or war crimes trials, it is possible, by collecting information from a variety of credible sources, to put together a reasonably reliable picture of the conduct of coalition forces in Iraq. I will not argue that the coalition forces have certainly failed to meet the criteria of “Jus in Bello”. But I will argue that there is good reason to believe that they have not met those criteria.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Amnesty International reported that it was “deeply concerned” about the “reported use of cluster bombs by US forces in heavily populated areas” (Amnesty:2003:1). Cluster bombs scatter scores of small bomblets over a large area, many of which do not explode, effectively becoming land mines. Amnesty noted that that the “devastating consequences of using cluster bombs in civilian areas are utterly predictable”, that the coalition had acknowledged using these weapons, and that the unexploded bomblets “invariably pose a continuing threat to civilians, especially children” (my emphasis) (Amnesty:2003:3).

In his description of the “Jus in Bello” criteria (the “overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent”) Wheeler defines “innocent” as not having the “capacity to harm others”, which may justify some civilian deaths as some civilians do have the “capacity to harm others”. However, this would certainly not cover the children apparently put at risk according to Amnesty International (Wheeler:2002:207). Wheeler quotes Walzer who says that “the relevant distinction is … between those who make what soldiers need to fight and those who make what they need to live”. So, for example, civilians working in munitions factories may legitimately be killed, but not civilians providing essential utilities. Crucial to the “Jus in Bello” criteria is the concept of proportionality. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, for example, Article 52(2) which allows states only to attack “objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action” (Wheeler:2002:209).

This definition leaves much to interpretation. So it is unclear, for example, that coalition strikes on power plants in Basra, reported by Amnesty International, could legitimately be described as proportionate without far more factual data available. Whatever their military utility, these power plants were also required to pump clean water through the city. According to Amnesty “by 31 March [2003], half the 1.2 million people in the beleaguered city lacked water” and that some “were reduced to drinking ‘garden water’ normally used for irrigation, which is not safe to wash in, let alone drink”. This suggests that, whatever claims might be made about proportionality, the “overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent” had been breached in this instance (Amnesty:2003:5).

Counter-insurgency and Jus in Bello: the case of al-Fallujah

In terms of the conflict that followed the initial invasion, an examination of coalition conduct in respect of the “Jus in Bello” principle can be made by focussing on the case of al-Fallujah, a city in western Iraq that became synonymous with the US-led counter-insurgency war.

According to Human Rights Watch, US troops entered al-Fallujah after the Ba’ath regime had fallen, to find that the city’s people had successfully established order in the city, avoiding the chaos and looting that devastated places like Baghdad (Human Rights Watch:2003:4). Local people resented the presence of US troops, alleging rough and inappropriate behaviour. The troops set up base in a primary school, prompting popular demonstrations which were fired upon by US troops in disputed circumstances, with many killed and injured (Human Rights Watch:2003:1). Human Rights Watch stated that, though a “full, independent and impartial investigation” of the incidents was required, its own findings pointed to “excessive force used by US troops”. (Human Rights Watch:2003:2).

These incidents sparked a slowly escalating cycle of violence between local groups and the coalition. In April 2004, US Marines responded to the killing of four US security guards with a major operation that, according to sources cited by Amnesty International, killed at least 600 people, at least half of whom were civilians, including children. The US failed to impose its will on the city to its satisfaction, and as insurgent attacks on its forces increased, sporadic air-strikes on “insurgent ‘safe houses’” in the city followed in subsequent months, reportedly killing many more civilians. (Amnesty:2004)

Finally, in November 2004 a major assault was launched to re-take the city. According to sources cited in Noam Chomsky’s account of the attack, civilians were driven out of the city by preliminary bombing, though “men ages fifteen to forty-five who attempted to flee were turned back”. A ground attack followed, whose first target was the city hospital, shut down because its reports of civilian casualties served as a “propaganda” weapon for the insurgents according to a New York Times report quoted by Chomsky. During subsequent US-led operations, the Iraqi Red Crescent was denied access to the city (Chomsky:2006:46-50).

According to Jonathan Steele and Dahr Jamail, writing for the Guardian, coalition forces had by this stage declared the city a “free-fire zone”. Allegations of atrocities followed. The city was reduced to rubble in many parts, and thereafter run under maximum security. For Steele and Jamail, al-Fallujah would become “this decade’s unforgettable monument to brutality and overkill” to rank alongside Grozny in the 1990s and Guernica in the 1930s (Guardian: April 2005). Al-Fallujah sits in the centre of the Sunni dominated area of Iraq where, according to the poll previously cited, 88 per cent of the population were in favour of attacks on US forces by late 2005.

Many credible reports point to frequent contraventions of the “Jus in Bello” principle by coalition forces since the invasion of Iraq. Before concluding on this point, however, it is possible to use the case of al-Fallujah to make an observation regarding the interaction of counter-insurgency war and the two criteria Just War theory.

Counter-insurgency and the merging of Jus Ad Bellum and Jus in Bello

The story of al-Fallujah carries echoes of US counter-insurgency tactics in Vietnam, where the US also faced an insurgency rooted in and supported by the population According to Walzer, “the goal [of US forces] was to force the separation of combatants and non-combatants, and the means was terror” (Walzer:1977:189). As Richard Betts points out, “The contest between insurgents and counterinsurgents is ‘tripartite’, polarizing political alignments and gaining the support of attentistes or those in the middle” (Betts:2002:28). Walzer says “that is what is meant when it is said that the battle is for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people”. However, and this is the significance of al-Fallujah, “one cannot triumph in such a battle by treating the people as so many enemies to be attacked and killed along with the guerrillas who live among them” (Walzer:1977:187).

For Walzer, this has implications for Just War theory as a whole, in terms of its application to counter-insurgency.

In the theory of war….considerations of jus ad bellum and jus in bello are logically independent, and the judgements we make in terms of one and the other are not necessarily the same. But here they come together. The war cannot be won, and it should not be won. It cannot be won, because the only available strategy involves a war against civilians; and it should not be won, because the degree of civilian support that rules out alternative strategies also makes the guerrillas the legitimate rulers of their country. The struggle against them is an unjust struggle as well as one that can only be carried on unjustly. Fought by foreigners, it is a war of aggression; if by a local regime alone, it is an act of tyranny. The position of the anti-guerrilla forces has become doubly untenable” (Walzer:1977:195-6).

In other words, an “anti-social war” can not be fought according to “Jus ad Bellum” or “Jus in Bello” principles. Its cause will be unjust and its prosecution will necessarily target the innocent.


This review suggests that it is unclear that the Iraq war, specifically in terms of its relationship to the war on terror, has been a just war. In conception, its intentions were unclear, and its cause unproven. It could not be argued that it was undertaken as a “last resort” since the purported threat itself was unproven. Not only were its prospects of success in terms of curbing the terrorist threat highly questionable, but it was arguable that the threat could actually increase as a result of military action. The prospects of success leading to a just peace and authority in terms of the counter-insurgency war are also decidedly slim, given that the insurgency has strong to near-unanimous support in many parts of the country, so its defeat would necessarily be to impose an unwanted and alien authority on the people.

In respect of how the war itself has been fought, it appears that many actions and atrocities that contravene the principle of “Jus In Bello” may have been committed by the coalition. This raises a final important point: a war fought against a popular insurgency will, by its very nature be neither “Jus ad Bellum” nor “Jus in Bello”.


ABC News, (7 September 2006), “Butler Report”.

Betts. R.K., (2002), “The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy: Tactical Advantages of Terror”, Political Science Quarterly 117 (1): 19-36.

Chomsky. N., (2003), “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”, (London: Penguin).

Chomsky. N., (2006), “Failed States: the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy”, (London:Hamish Hamilton)

Daily Telegraph, (12 September 2003), “Blair rejected terror warnings”.

Daily Telegraph, (22 October 2005), “Secret MoD poll: Iraqis support attacks on British troops”.

Guardian, (19 July 2005), “Intelligence 'warned of Iraq terror link'”.

Human Rights Watch, (June 2003), “Violent Response: the US Army in al-Fallujah”, (New York).

Pape. R.A., (2003), “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97 (3): 343-361.

Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), (31 January 2006), “What the Iraqi Public Wants”.

Sunday Times, (1 May 2005), “Leaked No 10 dossier reveals Al-Qaeda’s British recruits”.

Walt. S.M. and Mearsheimer. J.J., (2003), “An Unnecessary War”, Foreign Policy, January/February 2003.

Walzer. M., (1977), “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations” (New York: Basic Books).

Wheeler. N.J., (2002), “Dying for Enduring Freedom: Accepting Responsibility for Civilian Casualties in the War Against Terrorism”, International Relations, 16(2), pp.205-225.

The White House, (February 2003), “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism”, (Washington).

The White House, (March 2003), “War on Terror: President’s radio address” , (Washington).

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Iraq's silent bombers

Over at Tomdispatch (a site I can’t recommend highly enough), Nick Turse presents one of the most important pieces of writing about the Iraq war I’ve seen in a long while; an in-depth analysis of the ongoing use of coalition air power.

According to a mortality survey conducted by the
Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, 13% of Iraqi deaths with an identifiable cause since the 2003 invasion were due to coalition air-strikes, which according to the survey’s results would equal around 78,000 deaths up to June last year.

Recall that in a counterinsurgency war, the coalition is not fighting an enemy spread out and exposed on an open battlefield and far from any population centres. It is fighting an enemy that resides within and indeed grows out of those population centres. With that in mind, the sheer tonnage of ordinance rained down on Iraqi cities, towns and villages, as described by Turse, is startling. For example, according to figures released by US Central Command, in 2006, 162 500-pound bombs and fifteen 2000-pound bombs were dropped on Iraqi targets.

These attacks are increasing, as snipers and roadside bombs drive the US out of the streets of Iraq and into the skies. In
Asia Times, Pepe Escobar reports that the doomed US-led “surge” offers “the dire prospect … of a devastating air war over Baghdad …. as counterinsurgency fails”. Turse points out that the escalation of the air war may already be underway:

For example, on January 9th, the U.S. unleashed its air power on Baghdad's Haifa Street, a "mostly Sunni Arab enclave of residential buildings and shops." According to the
Washington Post, "F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apache[ helicopter]s fired Hellfire missiles." Elsewhere in Iraq that day, according to Air Force reports, F-16s strafed targets near Bayji with cannon fire, while others dropped GBU-38s on targets near Turki Village; and F-15Es provided "close-air support" to troops near Basrah.”

“That same evening, back in the U.S., a broadcast of Fox News Channel's "Special Report with Brit Hume" offered a brief glimpse of the air war in a story by reporter David Macdougall who was, said Hume, "embedded with the Air Force in a location we cannot identify, where not only fighter jets, but bombers roared into the air headed for other targets in Iraq." Macdougall reported that the B-1B Lancer, the long-range bomber that carries the largest payload of weapons in the Air Force was, for the first time in over a year, again being employed in combat in Iraq.”

"These B-1 bombers were central to the raid. We're told they flew a ten-hour mission, and by the looks of their empty bomb bays, these planes dropped thousands of pounds of munitions. They bombed 25 targets deep inside Iraq,"

For those of us in Britain, focusing on the involvement of our own forces is of yet more importance than focusing on the conduct of our principle ally. So its worth noting that, for example,
Royal Air Force Tornado jets provided cover for the US Air Force in what is increasingly looking like a massacre of Iraqi tribesmen in Najaf last month. Whilst the precise nature of these events remain unclear, what is clear is the large proportion of Iraqi deaths caused by ongoing coalition air strikes, the ongoing use of air power, and its necessarily indiscriminate nature. Of course it should also be noted that all this occurs within the context of, and in defence of, a foreign occupation of Iraq which the population itself explicitly rejects.

And yet, despite both its ongoing use and substantial human cost, you will struggle to find any media reporting specifically on the use of coalition air power. It is, in effect, a story within the Iraq war that has been not so much forgotten as ignored altogether (though admittedly not by Iraqis, who don’t enjoy that luxury). What Turse reports is more or less the sum total of what little is known about the use of US air power, and I’m certainly not aware of any major reporting into the current role of the RAF, though apparently it does have some involvement. To appreciate the gravity of this, its sufficient to imagine any violent offensive carried out by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or al-Qaeda that left an estimated 78,000 people dead over 3 years and yet received effectively no western media coverage.

So I have a suggestion: get in touch with the editor of your newspaper or TV news programme of choice and politely ask them the following questions:

1. Are you aware that, according to research done by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, coalition air strikes have caused 13% of Iraqi casualties since March 2003?

2. Are you aware that the use of coalition air power is both ongoing and appears to be increasing as part of the US-led military “surge”?

3. What reports have you carried recently that focus on the use of coalition air power in Iraq and its effects on civilians?

4. Specifically, what reports have you carried on the involvement of the RAF?

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