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Blair was no “Poodle”

Click here for article in Shout Out UK

This week the Mail On Sunday released a ‘smoking gun’ memo claiming to have the dirt on Tony Blair’s back-room ‘deal in blood’ with then President Bush over support for the Iraq War. The memo was written ahead of Blair’s Crawford summit at Bush’s ranch in Texas in 2002, and although it contains nothing incriminating or anything that Blair had not already said publicly, it has still managed to bring out old jibes that Blair was Bush’s “poodle” and a “cheerleader” for the Iraq War.

Whatever history writes of Blair’s action in Iraq, one thing he cannot be found guilty of is pandering to the US. The memo, for one, only echoes the same sentiments of a July 2002 Cabinet briefing paper on the Crawford summit that said British support would be forthcoming “provided that certain conditions were met”. Second, the iteration that Blair will “stand by you” does not imply he would follow the US line on Iraq. Blair had, in fact, been building the case for regime change in Iraq some two and a half years before 9/11 while George Bush was still an isolationist Governor in Texas.

When Blair gave a speech in Chicago in 1999 welcoming the defeat and overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic after the intervention in Kosovo, he firstly drew attention to an inescapable confrontation with Saddam Hussein and then invited the international community to measure up to its humanitarian responsibilities, even when the UN could not:

Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Both have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity on their own peoples. Instead of enjoying its oil wealth, Iraq has been reduced to poverty, with political life stultified through fear…

…Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily….But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy.

As Blair uttered these words, Saddam Hussein was busy building up his legacy of genocide and aggression by flouting UN resolutions, starving the Iraqi people, and prosecuting a racist war of extermination on the Kurds against coalition No-fly Zones.

But while Blair had been signalling the benefits of a world without Saddam Hussein, the realist school of International Relations, so influential in the US State department throughout the 1990s, had been insisting on his survival. The US decision to reinstate Kuwaiti sovereignty after the Gulf War but leave Iraq’s fate to a defeated Saddam Hussein was straight out of the Colin Powell playbook. The Powell Doctrine, as it was otherwise called (backed up by Kissinger) argued only to reduce Hussein’s military threat without weakening him to a point where Iraq became a target for covetous neighbours hostile to the US. The result was, predictably, Iraqi suffering. The Iraq-Shia and Kurdish insurgents that elder Bush had incited to arms against Saddam Hussein, were abandoned to die, and vital supplies of food and medicine promised to the Iraqi people in the UN-established oil-for-food programme, instead found their way into Hussein’s personal collection of golden palaces.

In fact, US policy throughout the 1990s in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo (before “poodle” Blair had persuaded Clinton to change course on Milosevic) had continued very much under this narrowly-defined conception of national interest. It tended to shy away from its internationalist commitments and avoid ‘idealistic expectations‘ like ‘regime change’ in favour of contained coexistence with supposedly stable dictatorships.

Blair, however, had been arguing in favour of ‘idealistic expectations’ for some time already. His broad and ambitious grand strategy – the ‘Doctrine of International Community’ – had made a virtue of ‘values’ in foreign policy, marking one of the most open defences of humanitarian intervention by a world leader to date:

Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end, values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer.

This was the foundation for a “foreign policy with an ethical dimension,” as Blair’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, had put it. And it could be seen most clearly through the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone where there was no strategic or commercial interest in sight. In Kosovo, Blair’s campaign for NATO strikes had repelled the ethnic cleansing of Albanians and led to the trial of the most brutal European dictator since WW2. In Sierra Leone, Blair’s hostage rescue mission had defeated Liberia’s invading warlords and boosted flagging UN operations in Freetown.

In both cases Blair had campaigned either alone or with extreme US reluctance. His rhetoric of universal values and humanitarian intervention had passed straight through the US State Department at the time. And it was not until 9/11 that a US President would begin talk as Blair had been for years.

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Jeremy Corbyn: A ‘radical’ international policy?

Click here for article in Shout Out UK

One day into the Corbyn era and the Conservatives had their line of attack. Security, security, security – a single word designed to warn and appeal to the public that Corbyn is a novice leader with a dangerous cause. Priti Patel, Employment Secretary, used the word 11 times in a four minute interview on Corbyn; Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, 9 times in a single minute, reciting Cameron’s party-line denouncement of Corbyn word-for-word – “the Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.

A hero of the new populist Left he may be, but on the question of national security, the Tories are right. Corbyn’s self-styled “radically different” international policy is an ill-conceived project to turn the clock back on the West and leave its allies, particularly in the Middle East, at the mercy of everything the Left should stand against. It is a policy of self-destructive ‘pacifism’ – and it is not even “radical.”

You might not expect this from a man who has so often found himself on the right side of history: Corbyn actively resisted Thatcher’s collusion with Apartheid and Pinochet, earning the badge that every aspiring revolutionary child of the 60s hoped for – getting arrested for protesting fascism. He spoke out in support of Salman Rushdie after the fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini; he was the first MP to protest Saddam Hussein’s gas bombardment of Kurds in Halabja; and as recently as this year’s Labour leadership campaign, he visited a Kurdish community centre in solidarity with their struggle for peace and self-determination.

Despite these welcome overtures, Corbyn has time and again abandoned his ‘comrades’ exactly when they needed him most. His opposition to the coalition bombing campaign against IS, for example, is utterly at odds with his supposed support for the Kurds. Together with the Turkmen, Christians and Yizidis of Northern Iraq, the Kurds have said repeatedly that further strikes could save many more – and that areas such as the Kurdish-majority city Kobane would now be in ruins under IS rule were it not for the support of US air-strikes. Yet Corbyn has opposed all Western intervention at every turn.

It is not inconsequential to note, here, that Corbyn was until recently Chair of Stop The War Coalition campaign. Throughout his career, he has voted against 13 critical pieces of anti-terrorism legislation and has blankly opposed every motion in favour of UK military support overseas, including Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. With this steadfast ‘pacifism,’ Corbyn proposes to implement a foreign policy that “understands our role in causing the conflicts of today” – that is to say, a policy that accepts we have in many ways brought present crises on ourselves. His plans to retire Trident, abandon NATO, renounce militarism, eschew intervention, apologise for the Iraq War and abandon the Kurds, in his own way, very much belong to his narrative of retreat and ‘conciliation’.

It makes total sense, then – at least logically – why Corbyn would refuse to declare war on fascists who have already declared war on him and his allies – he thinks there is actually something justifiable to their cause. His comments during a parliamentary debate on counter-terrorism for British nationals returning from overseas bear a little scrutiny here:

“I have encountered young people who have been attracted to what ISIS is doing..[who] say that what the West did in Iraq and Afghanistan was appalling…We are living with the consequences of the war on terror of 2001, and if we continue to try to create legal obstacles and make value judgments about people without considering the overall policy we are following, we will return to legislation such as this again and again, year after year.”

This view – so popular on the Left nowadays – is utterly facile. It brands the likes of IS as a response to the West’s colonial bluster, saying, in effect, that Islamist video-butcherers and suicide-murderers represent a “resistance” with a liberation ideology.

This view is neatly summarised by Guardian columnist and contributor to Corbyn’s former Stop The War Coalition website, Seamus Milne, who, in response to the Charlie Hebdo murders, wrote – “let Paris be a warning: they are here because we are there.” Indeed, Stop the War Coalition publishes numerous articles of this kind. One of them, argues that Islamist terrorists who want to impose Sharia and kill cartoonists for drawing the exalted prophet of Islam while shouting “allahu Akbar” have nothing, in fact, to do with Islam. Another, claims moral equivalence between those that expressly target civilians – IS and the Charlie Hebdo killers – and the US, whose civilian victims are incidental to its attempt to repel the advance of terror groups.

Over-reaching considerably in attempts to confront the conscience of the imperial West, advocates of this view make the grave mistake of thinking fascists with brown-skin might just stop being fascists if only we were a little nicer to them.

As Nick Cohen argues in ‘What’s Left,’ this amounts to a surrender of once cherished the values of the Left in favour of a stubborn attachment to multiculturalism and a misguided kindness to anything non/anti-Western – no matter how savage. It gives too much ground, not only to IS, but to powers such as Russia and Iran whose intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts are invariably an affront to all the Left used to defend – emancipated women, scientific inquiry, freedom of speech and separation of religion from the state.

Now the Left appears willing to do anything at all costs to avoid being seen to support the US. They choose to bury their heads in the ground, fooling themselves into thinking they are “anti-war” when they are not at all. They are shadily taking the other side in a conflict where the moral and civilisational stakes are extremely high.

Corbyn’s “radically different” international policy bears all the hallmarks of this long lost Left. From his misdiagnosis of the Islamist threat to his broad retreat from old alliances, Corbyn ultimately condemns those he claims to support.

During the Labour hustings, he  easily managed to win applause with loose talk of global justice, oppressed peoples and the Iraq War. But now as leader, he should face the appropriate scrutiny – why does his solidarity with the refugees of wars extend only to those that have made it to Europe? Why is he content to treat these symptoms while denying the root cause of IS? Does he believe IS is a rational actor that we can negotiate peace with? Why would he even tolerate co-existence with such a regime? Why does he flatly deny the need to resist, militarily, fascists who mean to destroy everything he claims to love and wants to defend? And is he sure he still wants to call this a “radical” policy?

These are very important questions for a potential leader of a major world power (yes, that’s right, a world power), and until Corbyn has a convincing argument, the Left should be careful what it wishes for.

A Prophetic Portrait of Egypt

Review of “Taxi” by Khaled Alkhamissi

The accreditation on the front cover that this is ‘the novel that predicted the [Arab] uprising’ is an accurate one. Alkhamissi depicts an Egyptian society, disparate, but more or less unified in its frustration for Hosni Mubarak’s 25-year-long state monopoly before his downfall in 2011. It is a recording from the backseats of Cairo’s taxis of the whispers of a nascent revolution – the moment that Egypt’s cynicism began to turn much more visceral.

But the novel is prescient not only for revealing signs of the imminent democratic uprising (the ‘Arab Spring’) but also of the ‘Islamist Winter’ that would follow.

A number of the 58 fictitious monologues that comprise Alkhamissi’s novel suggest varyingly a resonant public sympathy in Egypt towards a greater role for Islam in governance, bolstered with Islamic/ Islamist prescriptions from a cross-section of Cairo’s Muslim cab drivers to a variety of problems.

“There would be no bribery or corruption” says one, “if everyone in the country sat and looked at the surface of the Nile and read the word of God.” “We’ve tried everything else” says another  – monarchy, socialism, military dictatorship, capitalism, and “it’s still no good”. “Why don’t we try the Brotherhood and maybe they will work out, who knows?”

Although Alkhamissi does not explicitly state his own position on these prescriptions, the picture he paints of Egypt – a richly diverse society with wide ranging identities, ideologies and interests – is such to suggest it would be much ill-disposed to the establishment of the Salafi-sympathasing Islamist theocracy that eventuated after the uprising. It is unlikely that many of the eventual harbingers of this theocracy, the Muslim Brotherhood, had read Alkhamissi’s rich ethnography before assuming office, but it is fair to suppose that even without doing so they would have had an understanding of Egypt’s complex socio-religious makeup – before ultimately deciding to trample on it.

Liberal secularist, Baha’ais and Coptic Christians feature in Alkhamissi’s tribute to Egypt’s people but were all absent in the making of Egypt’s future. Morsi and the Brotherhood decided instead to pack the committee charged with drafting the constitution with the ultra-conservative Salafis and patsy Islamist legislators.

Though Morsi and the Brotherhood – having won presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively –  had democratic (electoral) sanction, what they had done, ultimately, was turn Egypt’s popular revolution into a tyranny of the majority, invoking thinly veiled democratic justifications to impede real democratic consolidation – smothering a civil society that had only just found its voice from the dark days of Mubarak..

Unfortunately for Egypt, and the future of civilisation, the picture is much bleaker today. If Alkhamissi was to write a second edition of ‘Taxi’, he would now find his Cairo host to many new troubled faces – including an increasingly large population of Syrian and Iraqis heading in to flee the same jihadist battle cry that many young and disillusioned Egyptians now clamour to go and join.