“But there’s no danger. It’s a professional career” – Humanitarian intervention in Libya

March 22, 2011

“Doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time.” – General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth.

The debates over whether we should intervene in Libya have been another opportunity for those supporters of the Iraq war such as Christopher Hitchens, Norman Geras and David Aaronovitch, not mentioning any names, to don their tinfoil hats and argue for military intervention in Libya.

I, and most people I speak to, seem to be of the opinion that the Rebels are Good, Gaddafi is Bad, and that Something Must Be Done. The problem is that by saying that we are falling into what Sir Humphrey called “Politician’s Logic”:

We must do something
This is something
Therefore we must do this.

In contrast, the two questions that need to be asked, and are conspicuous by their absence in being answered by those arguing for military action, are:

1) What are we going into Libya to achieve?
2) What do we do once we’ve achieved that?

Take the seemingly basic, first question of “Is the aim to remove Gadaffi?”. Here’s Alex Massie in the Spectator:

For instance, here’s Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisting, again, that the operation is strictly limited“The goals are limited. It’s not about seeing him go.” And here’s National Journal’s Marc Ambinder, quoting an administration official who says “We have multiple scenarios but none of them end with Gaddafi in power.”

However, based on information from here and here, Liam Fox and William Hague have been repeatedly saying that  targeting Gaddafi could “potentially be a possibility”. The Press Association quoted a “a senior No 10 source [saying] that under the UN mandate it was ‘legal to target those killing civilians’.”

In contrast, Obama and Cameron have said that the aim is to protect the Libyan people, not necessarily to get rid of Gadaffi. In Parliament’s debate yesterday, David Cameron said that the UN resolution was “limited in scope”. Furthermore, both American and British generals have said that Gadaffi is not a target. Head of the US Africa Command Gen Carter F Ham said attacking the dictator was not his aim, as did the head of the British armed forces General Sir David Richards.

This was tweeted on BBC Breaking News some minutes ago:

If #Libya‘s Colonel #Gaddafi implemented ceasefire and met demands, including those made by UN, ‘our job would be over': US Admiral Locklear

To quote a different Spectator blog:

The collective response to the idea that Gaddafi might remain after the bombs have fallen appears to be: a-wha?

Surely Gaddafi’s position is now untenable, once military intervention has started? One of the best arguments for intervening in Libya is on Hagley Road to Ladywood, who wrote:

Gaddafi is winning. What is currently looking like a massacre will turn into genocide the moment the entire Libyan territory returns under his complete control. That is possibly the only thing we can be sure of. The man is a sanguinary madman and he’s already promised “a bloodbath“.

In that circumstance, are we really going to believe Gaddafi when he says that he’ll impose a ceasefire and everything can go back to being hunky-dory? After all, the justification for the UN Resolution is that Gaddafi has reneged on his promise of imposing a cease-fire.

I repeat again: what exactly are we aiming to do? Does anyone know?

To come to our second question, of what happens when the military intervention has achieved its aim (whatever that is). The nearest we have to an explanation from Cameron is what he said in the House of Commons yesterday:

Cameron says it is for the Libyan people to decide their future. But his view is clear; there will be no decent future for Libya with Gaddafi in charge.

So do you want to get rid of Gaddafi or not then, David? Oh, never mind.

Letting the Libyan people decide their future sounds very sensible. I wonder if those agitating for an intervention are aware of the different tribal makeups present in Libya. Robert Fisk, as you’d expect, is against a military intervention. What he has to say is very interesting:

We talk now about the need to protect “the Libyan people”, no longer registering the Senoussi, the most powerful group of tribal families in Benghazi, whose men have been doing much of the fighting. King Idris, overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969, was a Senoussi… Now let’s suppose they get to Tripoli (the point of the whole exercise, is it not?), are they going to be welcomed there? Yes, there were protests in the capital. But many of those brave demonstrators themselves originally came from Benghazi. What will Gaddafi’s supporters do? “Melt away”? Suddenly find that they hated Gaddafi after all and join the revolution? Or continue the civil war?

And what if the “rebels” enter Tripoli and decide Gaddafi and his crazed son Saif al-Islam should meet their just rewards, along with their henchmen? Are we going to close our eyes to revenge killings, public hangings, the kind of treatment Gaddafi’s criminals have meted out for many a long year? I wonder.

I don’t know the answer to the questions Fisk poses, or the sensible ones asked by arabist. I don’t expect you do as well. What really concerns me is that I’m not sure Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy have thought through the answers to those questions either.

It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. It was eight years ago this month that another ill-planned military intervention began. 1 million people died because of a lack of post-war planning. British troops are still fighting, and being killed, in Afghanistan because of “mission creep” and the lack of a clearly defined exit strategy.

You would have thought that, next time we thought about intervening in a foreign country, we would have been clearer about what exactly the aims were, and what happens when they are achieved. This is why I began this post with that quote from General Melchett.

That attitude is encapsulated in the fact that British troops were sent into action on Sunday, whilst MPs debated whether they should be deployed on Monday.

Dear House of Commons: Stable Door. Horse. Bolted. Yours etc.

It is impossible for me to be in favour of this military intervention in Libya, because I am not sure exactly what it is I would be supporting. Are we aiming to remove a murderous dictator? Possibly, but possibly not. If we talk about wanting to reclaim “Libya for the Libyans”, what sort of Libya are we talking about, and which Libyans? I have no idea. Nobody does. And that’s the problem.

The Libya fiasco: Continuity New Labour?

March 11, 2011

David Cameron is obviously a fan of Tony Blair. That’s been clear ever since he branded himself the “heir to Blair” months into his stint as Tory leader. The admiration also appears to be reciprocal – Blair said he supported the coalition’s spending cuts in his memoirs.

Cameron is also a keen student of Blair’s administration. This coalition is trying to enact change on many different fronts simultaneously – public spending cuts, health and education reforms, etc. One of the reasons why it’s doing so is because a great failure of New Labour – and Blair has admitted this himself – is that they did not attempt to do much in their first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.

The fact that the coalition might have bitten off more than they can chew by enacting these reforms is a debate to have another day. What I want to write about now is the subject of foreign intervention.

Now, if you have studied New Labour in detail, you might think twice about carrying out a badly-planned, ill-thought out military intervention in a countries ruled by a dictator.

Apparently not.

A British diplomatic effort to reach out to Libyan rebels has ended in humiliation as a team of British special forces and intelligence agents left Benghazi after being briefly detained.

The six SAS troops and two MI6 officers were seized by Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country after arriving by helicopter four days ago.

It’s still difficult to work out how such a daft plan actually came into being. In situations like this I usually try and think of a glib, amusing analogy that makes my point well. Thankfully Douglas Alexander has already done that for me:

Alexander started by reading out the Mustafa Gheriani question from the Times: “If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done.” Then Alexander said this:

The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the foreign secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.

I’ve been quite taken aback by how ill-thought out this operation obviously has been, and it’s taken me to work out exactly why.

I think it’s because this whole cock-up feels like something from the dying days of New Labour, rather than from a new administration that’s been in power less than a year. After all, this was a dysfunctional, ill-planned disaster. It’s got all the hallmarks of something that would have happened during Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister.

Instead, Hague and Cameron looked like a group of shambolic amateurs playing toy soldiers. One of the Libyan rebels referred to it as “James Bond tactics”, and that’s not too far off the mark.

This whole episode feels like “Continuity New Labour” on a few levels, that I’ll sketch out briefly below.

The first, that I’ve touched on, is the desire for foreign intervention. Cameron, like Blair, does seem to have been influenced by some neo-conservatives. Prominent among them in Cameron’s case is Michael Gove.

Just as an aside, it seems that Gove is quite influential in Cameron’s thinking. His fingerprints are all over Cameron’s multiculturalism speech, and his desire to take action in Libya.

Secondly, like New Labour the coalition is trying to run a wartime army on a peacetime budget. I’ve written before about the issue of defence spending, and it still applies now. I never thought I’d quote David Starkey favourably, but he was absolutely right on Question Time: You simply cannot have gunboat diplomacy without gunboats. Similarly, you cannot enforce a no-fly zone if you have no aeroplanes.

All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the members of this government, most of whom had never seen the inside of a ministerial box before taking office this year, just aren’t very good at the nuts and bolts of actually governing.

Just like New Labour.

Thoughts from Cairo (via Istanbul)

February 5, 2011

Below is an e-mail exchange that I had with Tom Trewinnard, who’s a fellow member of the Saddleworth Mafia and Greenhead College Massive. Tom blogs here and works in Cairo for Meedhan, an organisation that aims to encourage discussion between English and Arabic speakers by, for instance, translating news articles from Arabic into English, and vice-versa. He’s currently in temporary exile in an Istanbul hotel.

First off, how are you? Were you able to get out of Egypt OK? Was there any trouble for you in doing that?

I got out of Egypt without any logistical problems, to my total surprise, although it was a real wrench to leave.

Did you see any of the protests?

I was in the protests in Meedan Tahrir over several days (starting from Tuesday, Jan 25) and also witnessed the violent clashes on Friday, Jan 28, from my flat. Because we live(d) right next to the Ministry of the Interior, we were in many ways “behind enemy lines”.

Our building was surrounded by the central security protesters who were firing rubber bullets, tear gas and in some cases live rounds on protesters. We left the flat on Saturday morning after an intense gun fight took place on the corner of our street lasting into the early hours of Saturday morning.

No plug intended, but a full account of those 24 hours (when internet was completely cut in Egypt) can be found on my blog http://experimenthol.com (People really should read this blog, it’s got some excellent stuff on it – Cory).

For those who haven’t really been keeping up with the news, what exactly has been happening in Egypt?

Inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, anti-government protesters have been demonstrating in streets across Egypt, calling for the ousting of president/dictator Hosni Mubarak. They’ve gained huge momentum, with Al Jazeera (Arabic and English) reporting a turnout of 2 million in central Cairo alone on Tuesday (I was there, 2 million seems high, but 1 million is certainly possible).

As in Tunisia, there is a huge disenfranchised youth population that is extremely pissed off with the lack of opportunities afforded them under the Mubarak regime – until now, though, people have generally been too afraid to speak out. With Tunisia, that fear has evaporated, and the people are finally speaking out about grievances they’ve had for years and years.

Who were the pro-Mubarak protestors who’ve been engaging in violence? There’s talk that some are police officers. Is there anything to support this?

Very tough question, and one that is very difficult to get an honest answer from anybody.

For certain, Mubarak has a track record of using hired hands for intimidation purposes in elections, for example. Some videos have emerged with people “confessing” to having been paid to rough up anti-government protesters, although I’d think they are dubious.

One thing is certain – if anyone is pro-Mubarak, it is the wealthy minority who have thrived over the last 30 years, and who are certainly not the people you see out on the streets throwing rocks and riding camels through Tahrir square.

What happens now? And what should happen? Should Mubarak leave now, or in September?

I don’t believe that the protests will stop until Mubarak leaves.

For the protesters, Mubarak’s word that he will leave is not enough, and nor is his promise that parliament will review various constitutional clauses.

Basically, all those in power right now, including most of parliament after the latest “elections”, are Mubarak cronies. The protesters want wholesale change, and I doubt they will stop until they get it.

What should happen in the event of Mubarak leaving is the hot topic of the hour: I’m for a transitional government led by Amr Moussa or Mohamed ElBaradei (unpopular in Egypt). They are two people who have no real designs on the presidency and who aren’t linked to the NDP. They’re also unpopular amongst protesters though, as they’re seen as opportunists who are trying to grab power.

Are the messages that have been coming from America and Britain suitable, or should they be striking a different tone?

Inside Egypt, people feel the US in particular has been too quiet and reluctant to support its pro-democracy mantra by failing to call for Mubarak to step down.

Personally, I feel like the US is in something of a Catch-22: if it calls for Mubarak to step down, then Mubarak is given an easy win by calling the protests evidence of “foreign meddling” and will also be able to play on a general anti-American sentiment. US support for a Middle East revolution could be the kiss of death.

As it stands, the US is criticised for not backing up its calls for democracy. I actually think they’ve been politically smart here, and there is evidence that they’ve made progress behind the scenes, although it won’t gain them any popularity points.

To be honest, neither I nor anybody else in Egypt has been monitoring the official UK response – I’m sure it’s little different from the US.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Egypt’s future?

Still too early to say, but the spirit and courage shown by the people is incredibly inspiring. If the future of Egypt is given over to that youth, then there is certainly hope.

“You can’t handle the truth!” – A look at Wikileaks

December 5, 2010

 These abuses had been going on perfectly well for years. What people hated was being told about it. (Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Compassionate Society).

I had a half-formed piece about Wikileaks from August, around the time they released thousands of documents about Afghanistan. The recent leaking of 250,000 state department cables seemed a good time to dust this piece off and finish writing it.

First of all, it seems deeply hypocritical for any government to get santimonious about leaks. Governments leak all the time: everything from unattributable briefings to lobby journalists, all the way to “dark arts” such as disinformation.

It used to be the case that the details of the budget were kept secret before being announced by the Chancellor in the House of Commons. Now the main details are usually briefed to some political correspondents beforehand, so the markets know the salient details and no announcement is too much of a shock.

As Jim Hacker put it in Yes, Minister, a show with lots of intelligent things to say about leaking, “The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”.

It also seems hypocritical of governments to say that these were private conversations and should not be printed. As we’ve seen with the spate of memoirs and diaries published by senior New Labour figures, politicians have no problem reporting a private conversation if it furthers their own purposes.

Any leak of information by a civil servant is justified if this information is in the public interest. I cannot think of any leaks that have been more in the public interest in my lifetime then Wikileaks’ leakings of the Iraq and Afganistan war logs, not to mention the recent State Department papers.

A full list of the main things we know about because of the Afghan war logs can be found here. Of most concern are the 144 logs of attacks on civilians. These inlude a Polish attack on a wedding party that killed five and wounded several, including a heavily-pregnant woman, and an attack by coalition troops on Afghan security forces, killing an Afghan police officer, after British soliders mistakenly thought they were Taliban fighters.

The Iraq war logs revealed that 15,000 – yes, that’s fifteen thousand – civilians had died in previously unknown incidents. US authorities also failed to follow up hundreds of allegations of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi policemen and soliders. Indeed, they seem to have tolerated these abuses.

It’s true that much of the information in the State Department leaks is pretty common knowledge. No jaws will drop when people read that Nicholas Sarkozy is actually thin-skinned and authoritarian, for instance. But to dismiss all these leaks as trivial gossip misses the point entirely.

Richard Adams has an excellent summary of seven things we didn’t know about previously, including the fact that Sylvio Berlusconi profited from secret deals with Vladimir Putin. The most disturbing is this one:

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.

There’s also the revelation that America charges a 15% fee to handle aid that was going to Afghanistan, the world’s second-poorest country.

All of this is valuable information that we have a right to know about. Apologies for this lengthy quotation from this excellent Economist piece, but I cannot put it any better than this:

To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.

As Scott Shane, the New York Times‘ national security reporter, puts it: “American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations”. Mr Shane goes on to suggest that

Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, it’s surprising to see a sizable proportion of the reaction to all these leaks is expressing its disgust at Wikileaks, rather than the abuses that it is uncovering. This seems a classic case of shooting the messenger.

The first reaction was to say that these leaks would cost lives. This has turned out to be nothing more than mere bluster. These cables only have information from before February, so existing missions could not be jeapodised. The State Department was told about these leaks far in advance so they could help redact particularly sensitive information and alert staff in more serious locations.

It almost feels as if the US has a standard press release whenever Wikileaks leaks more information, and says that “Lives will be lost” regardless of the context. For all of the talk of the Afghan leaks giving away names of Taliban informers, nobody has died as a result of the leaks. In contrast, although no official records actually exists, between 11,000-14,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of the war.

As Flying Rodent magnificently put it:

US general says that Wikileaks could endanger lives, whilst sitting on top of a huge pile of skulls.

A secondary reaction is to say that Wikileaks has an anti-US agenda, which again is complete nonsense. Wikileaks only releases information because US citizens leak it to them. As Julian Assange says in this Forbes interview,

We’re totally source dependent. We get what we get. As our profile rises in a certain area, we get more in a particular area. People say, why don’t you release more leaks from the Taliban. So I say hey, help us, tell more Taliban dissidents about us.

I can’t get onto Wikileaks’ website at the time of writing, but a brief look at Wikipedia shows they have released information about scores of countries other than America, including:

a) A Somali document authorising the assassination of Somali government officials.
b) Alleged corruption by the family of former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi.
c) Possible illegal practices at the Cayman Island branch of the Swiss bank Julius Baer.
d) Phone conversations relating to the Peru oil scandal of 2008.

Lastly, there is some criticism relating to Wikileaks as an organisation, and in particular its head, Julian Assange. The focus should perhaps not be too much on Assange: there are many others involved with the organisation. I have no idea if the allegations against him are true, and would like to see them tested in a court of law, to prove one way or the other. It is, however, perfectly understandable that he and Wikileaks should want to keep their details secret when US journalists are openly calling for Assange to be assassinated, and senior Republicans are saying that whoever leaked the State Department papers should be executed for treason.

Perhaps this anger is directed at Wikileaks, and not at the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, because we’re unable to get angry at Afghanistan anymore. I began taking a serious interest in politics and current affairs in my second year at college – around 2004. By then, we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for two years. The announcement of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan has become routine. It is like the background hum; a fixture on our news bulletins along with the weather and the state of the financial markets.

Despite all that, you’d still like to think that people would be able to spot a leak in the public interest when they see it.

My interview with Norman Finkelstein

November 24, 2010

Norman Finkelstein is speaking at the University of Birmingham again tonight. So I thought that I would dig this interview I conducted with him for Redbrick out of the archives. I interviewed him in November 2008, and it didn’t get published until January 2009. It’s quite ironic reading the passages about Barack Obama’s Presidency now.

I enjoyed the interview, and think it’s one of the best ones I’ve conducted. My main problem with Finkelstein is the same issue of contention I have with journalists like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky: everything is a bit too black-and-white with them. I think that comes through in the article. Still, it’s an interesting piece and I hope you like it:

Norman Finkelstein was at the University of Birmingham giving a talk called “Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace”, arranged by the University’s “Friends of Palestine” society.

He is one of the most controversial academic writers on Middle Eastern politics. Finkelstein’s most famous works, and one of his most controversial, is The Holocaust Industry. Published in 2000, its central thesis is that Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust to cover up its own human rights crimes.

He no longer holds an academic position of his own. For six years he taught at DePaul University before being denied tenure there in 2007. Although never out the news, what we discussed in the interview seems more relevant than ever, after hostilities broke out once more in the Gaza strip.

How does Finkelstein think we can create “roots for peace”? “The UN General Council proposed a two-state settlement based on the June 1967 borders. All world votes and the same group abstain: Israel, America, Marshall Islands and Australia. There is no debate on how to solve it – it’s the least controversial international dispute.”

Why does this not happen? “For the same reason the British didn’t leave India until after World War Two. For the same reason France didn’t leave Algeria. Power doesn’t concede without a demand. The Israelis have to be forced out.” Can it be done peacefully? “No.”

This seems a little extreme. Both Israelis and Palestinians are limited in their ability to compromise by their extremist elements. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a member of a far-right Orthodox Jewish group in 1995 for merely proposing that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. Similarly, Hamas, who won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006, do not even recognise Israel has a right to exist.

We talk about Barack Obama’s victory in the US Elections, which at the time of the interview was only four days old. Finkelstein sees the election as a significant moment. “It is a genuine credit to the American people. The early part of my life [Finkelstein was born in 1953] was not much past the era of black lynchings. Now they have elected an African-American as President. You would be blind to deny something fundamental has changed for the better. I am hardly a flag-waving patriot, but you have to look in honour and respect of what happened.”

Finkelstein, however, continues by saying: “Obama is a typical centre-right Democrat. I have no expectations. His Presidency will be similar to the Clinton era but without the economic prosperity, in a general and literal sense.” He gives the example of appointing Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, a former member of the Clinton administration. Finkelstein then goes one step further. “Barack Obama is a typical wretched opportunist conman”. He must have noticed my eyebrows raise at this comment, because he continues: “He is! I don’t see why we should be politically correct about these things.”

Finkelstein does not think Obama’s election will see a great change in America’s Middle-East policy. “It will probably get worse, because he has to prove to the world he is not a Muslim”. So what does he think of the comments of “Joe the Plumber”, who said that Obama’s election would lead to the death of Israel? “In America the political system is detached from reality. Some of the labels they were giving Obama – calling him a socialist and a communist – I wish they were true!”

On Finkelstein’s personal website is a link to a piece entitled “In Defence of Hezbollah”. In 2006 he met one of their top officials in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the British government. Why does Finkelstein think they should be defended?

“Because of the same reason the Communist parties helped end the occupation of Axis forces during World War Two. Whatever you might say about Nasrallah, is he really more brutal than Stalin?” That would admittedly take some doing, but Nasrallah did say that it’s alright for all the world’s Jews to live in Israel, “because it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”, which doesn’t sound like the talk of a reasonable man.

In any case, is comparing ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the occupation of Europe by the Nazis a little unfair? “You can use any you like. It is still an occupation. The resistance in Afghanistan versus the Soviets were the same who would turn into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nobody minded when gave we them weapons to fight the Red Army.” I am not convinced that comparing Israel to Al-Qaeda is an altogether more flattering comparison.

Norman Finkelstein paints a picture of a world where the only wrongdoers are the United States and Israel. The reality is not that one-sided. The rockets that Hamas are firing into Israel do constitute war crimes. Israel is surrounded by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and countries like Iran, who wish it wiped off the map.

Hamas is a vile group of Islamists who are suppressing dissent in Gaza and lead an increasingly authoritarian rule. But the international community’s shunning of Hamas since their election win in 2006 has only made the situation worse. To use a cricketing analogy, you can only bowl to whoever the opposition send in to bat. The only way to make peace is to somehow negotiate with Hamas.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire has been declared in Gaza. Over 1000 Palestinians have been killed, including 350 children. Israel and its supporters maintain that the firing of rockets into Gaza is justified, after Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and that most of those killed are Hamas operatives. But you cannot fire rockets into an area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.5 million and then be surprised that the your killing of innocent civilians is condemned worldwide.

Peace in the Middle East is increasingly elusive, and I am sure that many will think I am a fruitcake for even thinking you can negotiate with Hamas. One thing is for certain: rockets are not the answer.

The Rules of War

November 10, 2010

Two significant stories have emerged over the past week relating to the western military presence in Afghanistan. The first is the publication of nearly 90, 000 American military files detailing incidents that occurred in Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2009, by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. The second is the trial, for “war crimes,” of Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.

The release of the Afghanistan files was widely reported in the British Media, with particularly in depth coverage from The Guardian. The Khadr trial, on the other hand, has received little attention outside of North America. This is unfortunate, as the case provides a shocking insight into the behaviour of the US since 9/11.

Firstly, some background. Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen, and the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, an Egyptian with close ties to Osama Bin Laden. The elder Khadr’s family describes him as a “charity worker”. This charity work may or may not have served as a front for financing Al Qaeda. In 2002, the Khadr family was living in Pakistan close to the Afghan border. At some point Omar, who was then only 15, was entrusted to a band of militants to act as translator.

On July 27 that year, American forces attempted to search the building that the group was staying in, resulting in a firefight. After the soldiers had retreated, air support was called in bombing the compound, leaving only Khadr, and one other, man alive. Medics arrived and US forces continued to through grenades at the compound. At this point Khadr emerged throwing a grenade killing US soldier, Christopher Speer. Khadr himself was severely wounded.

Since then he has been detained by the US, spending the past eight years at Guantanamo Bay, for much of that time, without access to the outside world or normal legal protections. He alleges (warning: disturbing images in link) that he was tortured. Last Sunday he was sentenced to a symbolic 40 years imprisonment by military tribunal having pled guilty to 5 charges including the murder of Speer and the attempted murder of other soldiers. In reality he will serve eight years, with one more year in Guantanamo and a further seven in Canada (this all presumes that his conviction is not struck out by the Canadian courts when he returns to the country).

Khadr’s conviction rests on the US’s designation of him as an “unlawful combatant”. This designation strips him of the protections of recognised combatants under the Geneva Convention and exemption from prosecution for murder for any killings during combat. This is a highly contrived designation, largely created for convenience by the Bush administrations and, as senior lawyer for Human Rights First, Daphne Eviatar, and Loyola Law School Professor, David Glazier point out, completely lacking in legal legitimacy.

Under international law if Khadr was a recognised combatant as described by Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, then he is protected from criminal prosecution under civilian homicide laws for any killings he carries out in combat. If he carried out those killings in breach of the laws of war, for example by posing as a civilian or by falsely surrendering, then he is subject to prosecution for war crimes. If he does not have this protection, then he is outside of military justice and is instead subject to the criminal law of whichever jurisdiction he was in at the time-in this case Afghanistan.

The Americans try to have it both ways by going one step further and saying that, not only does he not have privilege under Article 4, his fighting as a combatant despite not being recognised as one, represents a war crime under the Geneva convention – thus placing him under the jurisdiction of the military tribunal without the corresponding protections as a prisoner of war. It is this claim- that he is outside the protection of both ordinary criminal law and protocols on the treatment of prisoners of law- that has been used to justify effectively disappearing him for so many years, taking no account of his age and subjecting him to treatment that would not be countenanced under any advanced legal system.

It gets even worse, as the Military Commissions Acts that grant the tribunal its jurisdiction and create the status of unlawful combatants (and bear in mind, this status is the sole basis of Khadr’s prosecution, there are no grounds for charging him with his actions during the firefight other than because of his allegedly unprivileged status – the Americans knew they were facing potentially hostile forces, and indeed attacked first) date from 2006 and 2009, his prosecution is in breach of international laws preventing ex post facto (for crimes created after they were committed) prosecutions.

Add to that the trial was held in front of a military judge and jury, the conviction was based on a confession given under extremely coercive circumstances and the psychiatric reports were based on the work of a Danish scholar who believes that the Muslim gene pool has been irreparably damaged by inbreeding, the Koran encourages criminality, and Muslims should not be allowed migrate to Europe, this trial makes a mockery of the idea of due process.

This stands in stark contrast to the response to the incidents described in the Afghanistan war logs. The reports detail just some of the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by allied forces. These include one incident where six Afghanis were killed including a young girl. In addition, a boy and two teenage girls were injured. In another, a fourteen year old girl was killed at a checkpoint and a two year old seriously injured.

There is rarely any serious come back for the military personnel responsible, and there is a strong resistance to the idea of Soldiers being held accountable for actions taken whilst under the pressure of combat. To the extent that allied soldiers are prosecuted for their actions, they are tried in their own countries or by the courts of their own militaries with full legal protections. It is hard to imagine either politicians, the military or the public countenancing a situation where British or American soldiers faced the threat of prosecution in international jurisdictions, let alone that they could be captured and held by a foreign power for years without any recourse.

It is one of the characteristics of those groups with power that they wish to see others stripped of their ability to cause harm while shrinking from their accountability for their own misjudgments. As Slavoj Zizek writes in the Guardian, outsiders must have their autonomy restrained, to be “de-othered” in order to neutralise any potential threat they pose us. War may be engaged in but “our side” must be shielded from its horrors.

Sgt Speer’s widow and children were star witnesses in the Khadr trial. Now, he was undoubtedly a wonderful and much loved man, but the death on both sides is an unavoidable consequence of sending troops into action. Khadr is the useful scapegoat to divert culpability away from the architects of the conflict. David Glazier notes that the fundamental basis of Omar Khadr’s prosecution was that he was on the “wrong side,” when the Laws of War are predicated on the fundamental equality of combatants on each side, no matter how repugnant the leadership they fight under.

The Bush administration tried to enshrine its own Manichean perception of its own fundamental, unshakable, righteousness (or at least so it would have everyone believe) into universal law. Now the Obama Government cannot or will not remedy this for fear of reactionary domestic voices and any potential risk to US citizens from any detainee.

To quote Prof. Glazier:

The U.S. approach has the practical effect of converting this armed conflict into a human hunting season; the government asserts U.S. combatants had the right to shoot Khadr on sight (he was shot twice in the back based on his being a hostile rather than because he posed any particular threat at the time) yet criminally prosecute him for fighting back.

Much media coverage has focused on Khadr’s potential for rehabilitation versus his hostility towards the west. In both narratives his past actions are viewed as fundamentally pathological. Far more radical and threatening is the idea that events since demonstrate the possibility that he may not have been entirely irrational.

Guest Post: The Guardian’s Tea Party blogger

October 27, 2010

I asked Danielle Blake to write something on Lloyd Marcus blogging for the Guardian ahead of the November mid-term elections. The fact that it’s been so late in being put up here is because of my uselessness, not hers. Danielle blogs at Neither Here Nor There, and tweets at @DCPlod. Enjoy!

As part of its US midterm election coverage, The Guardian now has a Tea Partier blogging for it. That itself is hardly worth mentioning. What is worth mentioning is that Lloyd Marcus is black. The vast majority of African-Americans vote Democratic for a couple of reasons: since the Civil War it’s the Democrats who’ve done the most to guarantee black people equal treatment, and secondly, the Republicans have, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, used what has become known as the “Southern Strategy”; wherein they pandered to the disgruntled white racists in the South which solidified virtually the entire region as a reliable GOP voting bloc. So for an African-American to be a conservative is highly unusual.

Anyone who’s seen photographs from the several Tea Party rallies that have taken place around America will know that they are so monochromatically white that the only colour is to be found on their signs. Signs which frequently have subtle or blatantly racist overtones. 

Then we had the actual leader of one group (the Tea Party is a patchwork quilt of factions rather than one organisation), Mark Williams, calling the NAACP a racist organisation for advancing black people’s rights,  saying he won’t ask racists to leave protests and writing an incredibly racist open letter from ‘the coloreds’ to Abe Lincoln asking him to revoke their emancipation because they’re dependent on white people (you have to read it to believe it), amongst many, many other things.

All in all, not the most welcoming or attractive group for black people. So why is Lloyd Marcus a conservative Tea Partier? Using the same blinkered reasoning behind the principle of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’, he saw that his family made it without help, so he believes everyone can or should be able to. He was fortunate enough to have a solid family and father who had a good job, and fails to realise that not everyone is as lucky as he was. 

Sympathy and empathy are not Marcus’ strong points, as is made clear here:

So, my early experience living in the government project taught me that some folks simply have a ghetto mindset. I also witnessed the trap of government welfare. And why were so many around me angry and violent – despite getting free housing, food and healthcare?




Marcus says later in his post that in ‘the late 50s’, after they saw their rent rise to $72 when his father gained a new job as a firefighter, he and his family left the projects. From that we can infer that these ‘angry and violent’ black people witnessed the following: the Civil Rights Movement only began properly in 1955 with Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in refusing to move to the back of a bus; the necessity of the Missisippi National Guard, the US Army, and Border Patrol personnel to ensure one black student, James Meredith, enrolled in the state university in 1961; in 1963 four black children were blown up and peaceful protesters and bystanders were brutally attacked with fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama; the South maintained the Jim Crow laws of 1876 which enforced segregation and reduced blacks to second-class citizen status, and some were still in force as late as 1965 (it took the Voting Rights Act of that year to finally end discrimination at the polling booth); the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination was finally passed in 1964, however segregation in schools continued (and indeed continues) to be a serious problem in America. You’ll notice of course, that it was the much-demonised government, together with immense pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, that secured these measures.

And yet Lloyd Marcus actually has to ask why so many blacks were angry, some to the point of violence during the 1950’s, when blacks were still years from achieving full equality? For a black man to be that ignorant of the history of both his nation and his race is, if I’m honest, shameful. It goes without saying that during that period many blacks would have been ‘trapped in welfare’ due to still widespread racism. Unemployed whites would have been preferred to unemployed blacks. Marcus continues:

So, when I hear politicians, such as Barack Obama, pandering to the so-called poor of America, it turns my stomach. I’ve witnessed the deterioration of the human spirit, wasted lives and suffering that happens when government becomes “daddy”.

“So-called poor”? Marcus would’ve undoubtedly said ‘welfare queen’ there if that term didn’t have obvious racial connotations. Even a black guy who’s been spitting on his own race throughout his blog post has his limits, I guess. There’s a reason people are on welfare, and it isn’t because they’ve forgotten the details of their Swiss bank account. And Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill of 1996 changed the landscape entirely – since then, welfare has no longer been an entitlement. People who are able-bodied now have to work for their payments. 

In short: Lloyd Marcus is, despite his race, indistinguishable from any other Tea Partier – he uses welfare recipients as convenient punching bags, and hates government though he and his have personally benefited from it. And he even shares their attitude towards blacks.

An exploration through the turd-strewn swamp that is the “Ground Zero Mosque” Debate

August 26, 2010

There have been two stories floating around the news agenda recently that I have wanted to write about. It’s taken this long because I only got round to watching Richard Dawkins’s documentary on Tuesday. The two incidents are useful to illustrate the boundaries that religion ought, and is entitled, to have in a liberal society. On the one hand, we have the ongoing saga of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Balancing that, we have the increasing presence in Britain of Faith Schools, criticised by Dawkins in the documentary. Both these illustrate the need for the state not to interfere in religious matters. To approach the issues correctly, you need to appreciate the fact that Church and State must be separated.

Why is this separation so fundamental? It is because religious persecution stems from the desire to correct error. This, in turn, arises from a desire to save souls. It’s hard for different religious groups to shrug and sigh “Live and let live”, when the consequences of being wrong are potentially disastrous – you could end up in hell. All this makes it harder for a religious group to tolerate another group setting up next door and proclaiming that they are the true path, not the other lot.

If there is an official state religion, this institutionalises one particular religion, or one particular branch of a religion, as the officially-sanctioned “chosen path”. This could give the state a legitimate right to convert, even forcibly, people who do not follow this official faith. Remember Weber’s definition of a state: that it has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”. See, for instance, the horrendous treatment of the Jews and also of heretics in Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Blurring the boundary between church and state does not inevitably lead to pogroms, but does make it easier to discriminate on religious grounds. It’s no accident that the most repressive type of state is a theocracy.

The state must ensure that there is freedom for people to practise whatever religious faith they wish to. Most of the time this can be done by doing nothing. A great case in point is that the government should not intervene to stop the building of what everyone should not be calling the Ground Zero Mosque. The fact that it’s being called the Ground Zero Mosque at all shows that the media narrative of the right is winning. There are two key reasons why the “Ground Zero Mosque” should not be described as such:

1) It’s not actually a Mosque. It’s an Islamic community centre, and will be open to the public. This centre will also have a basketball court. And yes, it will have a mosque, but before any idiot says, “See – it’s got a MOSQUE inside it”, just consider this. The Guild of Students at Birmingham University has an Islamic prayer room, and a Chaplaincy. Airports and hospitals also have spaces to pray. This does not make them religious buildings. I hope you understand this stonkingly simple argument.

2) It’s not actually at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away. In a building that used to be a coat factory. Hardly “hallowed ground”.

Henceforth, I will refer to the Ground Zero Mosque as the “Lower Manhattan Community Centre”.

The debate about whether the Lower Manhattan Community Centre should be built seems so stupid, even by the standards of political debate in America. Let me direct you to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The text is all constitution; the italics are all mine:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg have both made eloquent speeches defending the right of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre to be built. Both emphasised the fact that neither could intervene, even if they wanted to, to stop this centre being built. The courts would immediately overturn such a block as unconstitutional.

The right are, therefore, trying to make this not a matter of religious freedom (which is obviously is) but instead are trying to paint the approval of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre as a victory for Islamism; just one more step towards a global caliphate. See, for instance, these two tweets by Newt Gingrich:

And this one:

The fact is, an establishment of a Manhattan Community Centre; open to all, with spaces to commemorate the victims of September 11th, would actually be a triumph for moderate Islam. It would be a sign that Islam is compatible with “The West”, as Fareed Zakaria argues. Above all, it would send a message that not all Muslims are crazy Jihadists who fantasise about blowing up McDonald’s.

Also, Gingrich is wrong to play down the fact that the outcry is not about freedom of religion, specifically the freedom of Muslims. These protests against the Manhattan Community Centre should be put into the context of other protests against the establishment of Mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee and California. There is a vocal section in American against the building of other mosques, fuelled by the same sentiments that drive on the English Defence League here: hatred of Muslims and Islam. The Lower Manhattan Community centre must be built. We must  ensure that all religions can practise freely and fairly, without discrimination. We cannot give in to the racists on this point.

Thankfully the controversy over faith schools is conducted in a more sedate fashion. This was reflected by Dawkins in “Faith Schools Menace”, which is an excellent documentary. There was none of his shrill polemic that tends to put many people, including a great deal of atheists, off his work. He talked to almost everyone connected with faith schools; from teachers, pupils and parents to Charles Clarke and the British Humanist Association.

I had no idea, until Dawkins mentioned it in his programme, that one-third of all state schools were actually faith schools. This expansion is thanks to New Labour. It was Charles Clarke as Education Secretary, who wrote against faith schools in a 1978 pamphlet, who authorised the creation of 42 academies run by Christian groups, as well as one hundred schools run by other faith organisations (such as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism). Previously, in return for some special powers over their curriculum, religious groups could fund and run schools. Labour gave these schools millions of pounds, but the schools retained their exclusive controls.

Government money should not be going to schools run by religious institutions. It’s as simple as that. Faith schools ghettoise children at a very early age, when they should be mixing with kids from all backgrounds.

Also, despite the now cliched stories of parents faking a religious conviction and attending church to get their child into a faith school – and Dawkins finds a lot of evidence of that – there’s no real evidence that faith schools are better at teaching than other comprehensives. Steve Gibbons of the LSE, who Dawkins interviewed, compared the results of thousands of pupils. When comparing pupils with the same postcode, when one child had attended a faith school and one had not, Gibbons found that their academic record was very similar, regardless of the school they went to. What really matters, in his view, is the child’s social background and motivation of their parents.

Furthermore, as Johann Hari has written:

On average, [faith schools] get higher grades. But look again. A number of studies, including by the conservative think thank Civitas, have blown a hole in this claim. They have proven that faith schools systematically screen out children who will be harder to teach: children from poor families, and less bright children. Once you look at how much a school improves the pupils it actually admits, the only real measure of a school’s success, it turns out faith schools do less well than other schools – which isn’t surprising given they waste so much time teaching them crazy nonsense like Virgin births and Noah’s Ark. 

Perhaps the worst aspect about faith schools is that their RE curriculum is not monitored at all by the independent OFSTED, but is instead by religious authorities. This fact seems to be abused by certain faith schools: in “Faith Schools Menace” the British Humanist Association  provided examples of a Jewish school that had eight hours of timetabled RE lessons a week, compared to six for science. Some Catholic schools taught their sex education lessons in RE, so that what was being said could not be monitored by government regulators. Combined with what can euphemistically be described as a “lacklustre” teaching of evolution in the faith schools that Dawkins finds, it’s worrying that these schools continue to by funded by the taxpayer.

The argument over faith schools hinges of the issue of parental choice. You need to balance the right of a parent to choose how to educate their child with the right of the child not to be brainwashed. It feels that at the moment the balance is tilted too far in favour of the parent. If the parent wants to instil their child with religious values, there are other ways of going about it – Sunday Schools for instance – without it being funded by the taxpayer.

Britain and America are supposed to be secular, liberal democracies. This means that we can have mosques should be built without an outpouring of bile from the usual suspects, and the state shouldn’t fund faith schools.

Guest Post – Iraq: The End?

August 20, 2010

Hannah might be on holiday at the moment, but her dedication to Paperback Rioter remains. Here’s her take on the American withdrawal from Iraq:

I’m on holiday in Paris at the moment.  So far we`ve managed to visit most of the main sights associated with a trip to Paris: the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Seine.  One of the other stalwarts of any foreign holiday is the reassuring presence of the BBC World Service on the hotel cable TV.  It was from this source, this morning, that I learnt that the last US combat troops are leaving Iraq

So ends the seven-and-a-half-year long occupation, and the formative geopolitical event of the new millenium.  It was also one of my formative political moments.  I was 14 when the “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq in the March of 2003.  I woke up, got up as I would any other morning, made my breakfast as usual and turned on the television to see the Americans’ “Shock and Awe” raining down on Baghdad, lighting up the night skyline.  At school assembly, our Head of Year lead prayers for Iraq; she may have lit a candle – my memory isn’t clear – but it was a sombre moment; but in truth, not entirely unexpected.  While the moment the war began came as a surprise, it had been foreshadowed by a long and fractious political process.   Several members of my school year had attempted to organise a walkout in protest, and not those you would have imagined as tuned in to politics.  In the end the teachers got wind of it and put a stop to the idea, although they bought us with for the opportunity to write letters to the Government in school time.  I enthusiastically joined in, as did a great many others in this country.  Around 1 million people demonstrated in London, out of a normally politically sluggish population.  It did nothing.

So what has this year’s long conflict achieved?  The other thing about BBC World is that, released from the watchful eye of the government and querulous and organised conservatives, it is free to drop the pretense that, to the extent that there is objective truth, it always lies equidistant between opposing positons, on any given topic.  I’ve therefore been able to watch the BBC’s finest telling it like it is, on Iraq.  The report opened with an American soldier speeding out of Iraq in convoy crying, “Wooh!  It’s over! We won! America, I love you!  We’ve brought democracy to Iraq!”

The report then cut to BBC correspondent, Hugh Sykes, who called this “triumphalism” and told us that 100, 000 Iraqi civilians had been killed; that Iraq now had a chapter of al Qaeda, which it had never done previously; security was low due to the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army in the wake of the invasion; even those Iraqis who do not want Western troops to leave didn’t want them to come in the first place; finally and most, damningly, Iraq, far from being a successful democracy, is now completely without a permanent government

What he did not say is that, however much its apologists resist their classification as such, this conflict has brought civilian casualties on the other side as well, with 191 people being killed in Madrid, in 2004, and 52 in London, in 2005.   

 Jeremy Bowen was even more blunt, on the main 10 o’clock evening bulletin.  It was “impossible”, he said, “to call this a victory.”  4,500 American troops had been killed and 30,000 injured; “huge mistakes” had been made in the execution of the occupation. “We don’t want them” said a representative Iraqi.  It was, the report summed up, “one of the most damaging military adventures in (US) history.” 

They are right.  Judged by any of its publically stated aims, the occupation has been an utter failure: the WMDs Iraq was, ostensibly, invaded to contain never existed and to say that its citizens are better off now is to conjure up this absurd image.   

This news comes the same week that fresh suspicions emerged over the death of WMD inspector and whistleblower, David Kelly.  Truly, this whole period was a shabby, shameful episode of British history. 

Sadly, some mistakes cannot be fixed.  Western forces may be able to extricate themselves from Iraq, but the hundreds of thousands of dead will remain dead and democratic Iraq is unlikely to survive its internal struggles.  To quote Hugh Sykes: “It’s over? We won? No and No.”

Funny Friday (4) We’ve got to stop the Mosque at Ground Zero

August 20, 2010

Usually, I’d use Funny Friday to show sketches or clips from sitcoms that I like, but an important part of humour is unintentional humour. Finding humour in crass and bigoted statements is part of my defence against reality. I think this song is a wonderful example of my point:

On the face of it, this is terrible. It’s a bad song with an awful message: Phil Spector meets Glenn Beck. But it’s awesomely, wonderfully funny. From the first chord onwards, it’s flat-out hilarious. South Park couldn’t make a better parody.

I hope to write something on the Ground Zero Mosque next week, coupled with Richard Dawkins’ bit on Faith Schools. For now, enjoy the song.


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