Repeating Falsehood and Making Stuff Up to Divert Attention from Social Woes

The Citizen

President Barack Obama’s recent commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey has raised some uncomfortable truths about public life.

In a wide-ranging critique of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama warned against a culture of chauvinism and falsehood. He pointed out the dangers of wilful ignorance of leaders and commentators who insist on the supremacy of the past, and dismiss science and facts as elitist. He singled out the issue of inequality, and rebuked leaders for “repeating falsehood and just making stuff up” to divert attention from real social woes.

It is easy to say that Obama is a lame duck president, but this description ignores significant achievements in his second term. He has defied the powerful Israel lobby, and started reconciliation with Iran. He has overcome the lobby of Cuban exiles in the United States, and normalised relations with Havana. His visit to Vietnam and lifting of the American arms embargo has been hailed as opening a new chapter between the two countries. At home, Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court position vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A battle with his Republican opponents is expected in the Senate in the coming months.

Obama’s address at Rutgers University was primarily a commentary on the current state of affairs in America, but it could equally apply to Britain, India, indeed many other countries. Therefore, the theme of his address – in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue – is worth reflecting upon. For counter-factual and anti-intellectual tendencies anchored in cultural and religious chauvinism permeate many societies today.

Obama had Donald Trump in mind – the man with enough delegates to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for the November 2016 election, and who has made disparaging remarks about women, Hispanics, Muslims, almost every other minority, and foreigners.

If elected, Trump says he would build a wall at the US-Mexico border to stop immigrants, and force Mexico to pay for it. He would ban Muslims to stop terrorism. What would he do with the 55 million Hispanics and 3.5 million Muslims, the third largest religious community already in the United States? Obama’s comment was: “A wall won’t stop that.”

Donald Trump has become the most prominent icon for Americans who feel angry and bitter because of globalization resulting in a massive number of jobs moving abroad, and the presence of immigrants at home. But he is not the only one to harness the widespread discontent of mainly white working-class Americans for his political ends.

Ex-governor of Alaska and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, another icon of America’s ultraconservatives, is known for making bizarre statements. She has endorsed Donald Trump, and in a jibe against Spanish-speaking people in the United States, she insisted that all “immigrants” will have to be legal, and will have to speak “American 24/7 – the way it’s been for thousands of years”.

For those who care about facts, colonisation of America by English settlers began in 1585, when Walter Raleigh sailed with about a hundred men to the east coast of the continent, and named the settlement Virginia. Before the English arrived, Spanish influence had been prevalent from the Chesapeake Bay to the tip of South America, including countries now known as Mexico, Peru and Cuba.

On the European side of the Atlantic, a fierce debate on immigration is taking place in Britain and across the continent. The debate presents disturbing aspects of raw human instincts – sectarianism, xenophobia, economic and class rivalries. Hyperbole and falsehood dominate the European debate. In a bitterly fought presidential election in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, came within 0.3 per cent (31000 votes) of winning. Hofer’s manifesto was overtly anti-immigrant. Austria, once a Social Democratic bastion, is split down the middle, and the main parties fear that the far-right could win power in the 2019 general election.

Britain is in the midst of an acrimonious campaign before the upcoming referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Union, or leave. The issue has caused deep splits in the governing Conservative Party, and in the wider society. Supporters of remaining in the EU emphasise the balance of benefits, including the free movement of goods, services and people for British citizens, and many of the same rights they can enjoy throughout the 27 other countries of the European Union.

Those campaigning to leave have consistently been throwing up a figure of £350 million which they claim Britain pays every week for EU membership. In truth, Britain’s net contribution to the EU is less than half that. As the campaign has progressed, the focus of Leavers has shifted from the assertion of the British parliament’s absolute sovereignty to make all laws governing the country to immigration and firmer border controls.

The UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, first warned the Leavers against using the £350 million figure in their campaign literature, but the Leavers refused to heed the warning. So the official watchdog has advised the electorate not to trust the figure.

On the other hand, a parliamentary committee has accused both sides of misleading voters by exaggerating, embellishing, or inventing facts. The committee’s report says that a few grains of truth are buried under mountains of false claims which not only mislead the people, but impoverish the public debate.

Leading politicians on both sides appear overtly keen to demonstrate their mastery of history to support their argument. Some have not hesitated to invoke references to Hitler to claim, for example, that the EU’s agenda is to dominate Europe like Hitler. Others have asserted that if Britain leaves the association, the EU will be weakened and there will be another major war in Europe.

The tendency among leaders and commentators to insist on the supremacy of the past over science and facts is not only an American or European phenomenon. The drive in India, with official approval, to revert to religious scriptures thousands of years old to determine how people should live, and what children should be taught, is a case in point.

The inclusion of myths in science, and the rewriting of history, in pursuit of ideological goals is a slippery slope. When politicians at the highest level employ rhetorical questions like what did India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru achieve, or assertions such as the current government, having come to power just two years ago, has done more than its predecessors in sixty years since independence, the result is infectious, because many others follow.

Remember the Bhakra Nangal Dam Project (1948–1963); the Green Revolution (1960s); the India-Pakistan war that established India’s pre-eminence in South Asia (1971); and India’s first atomic test in the Rajasthan desert (1974)? Did those events mean nothing? Or they were important events which explain much about today’s India.

There are three main limitations of the postmodern world in the new century: crisis of leadership, fondness for instant answers, and supremacy of opinions over scientific methods and facts.

We should be careful, for when opinions are numerous, and the regard for facts scant, we live in an era of extremes.

[END]

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What the Fall of Ramadi and Palmyra Means: ISIS On The Rampage

CounterPunch

The capture of Ramadi in central Iraq on 18 May by the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist group Islamic State, and only three days later the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of Syria, have shocked Arab and Western governments alike. Taking control of Ramadi and Palmyra, cities more than 400 miles apart, and in different countries, so quickly is no mean feat.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Syrian government’s last border crossing between Iraq and Syria had also fallen to Islamic State forces, giving them control of the entire border between the two countries. This frightening new reality means that the frontier is now open to Islamic State, who can move from one country to the other at will.

The radical Islamic militia continues its murderous campaign elsewhere, too. It claimed that one of its suicide bombers blew up a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern town of Qadeeh, killing and wounding scores of people.

Events like these belie claims of success in recent military operations by the United States and allies against the Islamic State’s command structure and fighters on the ground. America’s strategy, often repeated, has been to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, just as Washington’s aim was to deal with al-Qaida. That strategy continues to be in a state of failure, because Washington is unable to prevent the phenomenon of one extremist organisation morphing into several splinter groups which are far more dangerous.

The causes of Islamic State’s growth are multifaceted. So is the significance of its dramatic advances in the battlefield. Ramadi in Anbar province, barely 70 miles from the capital Baghdad, was where the American-sponsored “Sons of Iraq” (Sahwa) militia started in order to counter al-Qaida nearly a decade ago. Born out of expediency, that alliance was forged between the US occupation forces and members of the overthrown Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain and Sunni tribes.

Now that Iraq is under Shia rule, the alienation among Sunnis is strong for two main reasons. The sense of loss of identity, depersonalisation and lack of opportunities, and the perception of abandonment by the United States, add fuel to the fires burning in the region. Both in Iraq and Syria, government authority is absent in vast areas, leaving a dangerous vacuum. The void is filled by fanatics who have sectarian zeal, appetite to settle matters by violence and weapons in abundance.

A strategy whose objectives are mixed up, and which is based on sheer opportunism, lacks consistency and is likely to fail. In Iraq, Saddam Hussain, leading a Sunni minority and secular dictatorship, was deposed. Saddam’s overthrow released soldiers of his Ba’athist army and alienated Iraq’s Sunni tribes. But then, many of the same were enticed by the United States with money and weapons to fight al-Qaida. With that phase over and a Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad, the Sunnis were out of favour again. They turned from allies to enemies.

The nature of war between government forces and Islamic State in Iraq is full of irony. The Iraqi military is heavily equipped with American weapons and is supposedly well trained, but clearly lacks the will to fight. IS forces, too, have plenty of weapons, originally supplied by Washington to the “Sons of Iraq” militia to fight al-Qaida, or captured from the Iraqi military.

The US strategy in Syria has been to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an old rejectionist challenge to American–Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. Again, expediency drove the United States and anti-Assad forces closer. Western arms supplied to anti-Assad groups that are described as “moderate” have often been seized by more fanatical and trigger-happy groups like Islamic State.

Events in recent years have demonstrated again and again that alliances with extremist groups to destabilise countries tend to produce a boomerang effect. From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the effects have been devastating. The region is destabilised. Human misery is indescribable. External powers are eager to intervene when it is least helpful and display withdrawal symptoms when the going gets tough or it does not suit them.

Accounts of the fall of Palmyra, site of two-thousand-year-old Roman-era ruins and artefacts, speak of large-scale evacuation of nearby communities by Syrian troops as they withdrew. There was no intervention by US aircraft which have been deployed in recent months to target Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Residents left behind face atrocities from IS militants.

North of Palmyra lie oil and gas fields under Syrian government control. Does the US goal to depose President Assad in Syria explain why American air power did not intervene in the battle for Palmyra, and may not do so in the battle for the oil fields nearby? After all, the loss of those oil fields would be a big setback against the Syrian regime whereas a US intervention against Islamic State in that battle would help the Assad regime.

So, in Iraq as well as Syria, contradictions in American policy abound. Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Iraqi government which Washington does not want to collapse. In Syria, on the other end, the American agenda is the exact opposite – to engineer the end of the Assad regime. Just as the United States helped raise a Sunni tribal militia called “Sons of Iraq” to counter the threat of al-Qaida some years ago, opportunism now requires Washington to sustain a Shia regime in Baghdad. To protect that regime, the US is now supporting a predominantly Shia militia, described as the “Popular Mobilisation Units”. In Iraq, America and Iran are in tacit alliance with each other. In Syria they support opposite sides.

With such contradictory motives in Iraq and Syria, America’s strategy against Islamic State cannot succeed.

[END]

Remembering 2014 (Badly)

Richard Falk reflects on the year 2014

Considering the year that is about to end is a time to pause long enough to take stock of what went wrong. In the United States not much went right aside from Barack Obama’s surprising initiative to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 60 years of hostile and punitive interaction. Although the sleazy logic of domestic politics kept this remnant of the worst features of Cold War diplomacy in being for a couple of extra decades, it is still worth celebrating Obama’s move, which when compared to the rest of his record, seems bold and courageous. As well, Obama exhibited a strong commitment to doing more than previously on climate change, using his executive authority to circumvent Congressional unwillingness to act responsibly. Obama’s immigration reform proposals also seem on balance to be positive, although whether they will be implemented remains an open question.

Drifting Toward Cold War II: Remembering World War I

There are several signs of a worsening global setting that seemed to gain an ominous momentum during 2014. Perhaps, worst of all, is a steady drumbeat of anti-Russian rhetoric backed up by Western sanctions, that seems almost designed to produce Cold War II. No less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate an event observing the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, warned of a renewed Cold War, and wonder aloud as to whether it had already started. There is little reason to praise Vladimir Putin, but there is far less reason to transform the tensions generated by the confusing and contradictory happenings in the Ukraine into a renewal of high profile geopolitical rivalry, replete with crises and confrontations that pose world-shattering threats that could be actualized by accident, miscalculations, or the over-reactions of extremists bureaucrats and leaders.

In this year when the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is being observed in many countries it is helpful to remember that this ‘Great War’ was started rather frivolously and proclaimed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it is better remembered as the war that helped produced political extremism in Europe, unleashed forces that led to an even more devastating Second World War, and created the conditions that brought the nuclear age to the world. Perversely, as well, the origins of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East today can be traced back to the world war one diplomacy that produced both the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the region by establishing artificial states to satisfy the greedy appetites of British and French colonial ambitions and the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish homeland in the heart of historic Palestine without ever bothering to consult the indigenous population. Although some of the mistakes associated with the punitive aspects of the peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty were corrected after World War II, these colonialist moves converted the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into an ongoing regional catastrophe that shows no signs of abating in the near future. We cannot rewind the reel of Middle Eastern history to learn if things would have turned out better if things had been handled more in accord with Woodrow Wilson’s premature advocacy of a self-determination ethos as the foundation of legitimate political communities deserving of membership in international society as sovereign states. These developments of a century ago are to an extent lost in the mists of time, but we should at least be alert about the roots of the present ordeal of chaos, strife, and oppression.

Torture Revelations

On December 9th after months of delay and controversy, the 500 page Executive summary of the 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture was released. It contained some grizzly additional information and interpretations to what had been known previously, adding such practices as ‘rectal re-hydration’ to the repertoire of state terrorists, and indicating that there were at least 26 individuals tortured by the CIA who were improperly treated as suspects.

Perhaps, the most disturbing feature of this phase of the controversy about the treatment of terrorist suspects is the absence of remorse on the part of those associated with the policies relied upon during the Bush presidency in the period of hysteria following the 9/11 attack. Dick Cheney was particularly out front about his readiness to do it all over again, and refused even to lament the abuse of those detained by mistake.

The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, has attempted to insulate the CIA from blame by suggesting the reasonableness of CIA’s reliance on the ‘torture memos’ prepared by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that encouraged the CIA to think that their forms of coercive interrogation were ‘legal,’ and argued the reasonableness of the post-9/11 inclination to take exceptional measures to gain information given the fears that abounded at the time within the U.S. Government of further attacks, including according to him, of a credible threat of al-Qaida’s access to a nuclear weapon within national borders. George W. Bush, never one bothered by nuance, assures us that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ who were engaged in doing the good work of protecting the security of the country. Bush seems to be saying that patriotism wipes clean the slate of individual criminal accountability.

Morrell, and his colleagues, conveniently ignore the fact that the Nuremberg Judgment concluded that even ‘superior orders’ are no defense for someone charged with violating fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. If we stop for the briefest of moments, and consider how we would view the interrogation practices of the CIA if roles were reversed, and white American males were seen as the victims rather than dark Muslim men from the Middle East, it would seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that the label ‘torture’ would fit, and the description ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (further euphemized as EITs) is a malicious evasion of reality.

Even liberal centers of opinion, including the ever cautious New York Times, have reacted to the Senate Report with calls for criminal investigations leading to probable indictments of those responsible for implementing torture, with the ladder of responsibility leading up at least as high as Cheney as Vice President, and conceivably to George W. Bush. [See editorial, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 22, 2014] The even more cautious American president, Barack Obama, has disconcertedly combined his repudiation of EIT culture and practices with a steadfast refusal to besmirch the reputation of the CIA or to look backward in time. Obama’s strange view, which is entirely destructive of any notion of governmental accountability ever, is that with respect to torture allegations the effort should be to prevent such behavior in the future, but not to investigate or impose any accountability for what was done in the past. I am led to wonder why he does not apply a similar logic to the leaks associated with such well-intentioned whistleblowers as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and above all, Edward Snowden! Perhaps somewhere in the dark recesses of Obama’s mind he distinguishes between crimes of government (deserving impunity) and crimes against government (deserving severe punishment).

It is not that Obama is necessarily wrong in his disposition to overlook the past when it comes to torture revelations, although he supplied the citizenry with no appropriate justification for this de facto conferral of impunity. It is not at all certain that the United States political system could manage such self-scrutiny without experiencing such a deep polarization as to put domestic and world peace at risk. It is evident that the country is split down the middle, and the risks of strife and a surge of support for the extreme right in the event of arrests and prosecutions are far from being paranoid excuses of the timid. We need to face the reality, with all of its shortcomings in relation to law and justice, that we live in a world of pervasive double standards when it

comes to the official treatment of criminal accountability for international state crime, whether perpetrated within the American domestic legal structure or at black sites around the world. It is plausible to hold defeated dictators like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi, accountable, but quite another matter to indict Bush, Cheney, and Tony Blair, although both groupings have been responsible for heinous crimes.

Part of the liberal concept of legality is to overlook what it is not feasible to do and focus on what can be done. From this perspective it was good to prosecute surviving German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo because those charged were associated with vicious behavior and it was important to discourage and deter in the future. The fact that the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the victorious democracies, and the unleashing of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would also by any criminal court be deemed as crimes is true but irrelevant. It is better not to go there, and leave it to dissident anti-imperialist scholars to whine about ‘victors’ justice’ and ‘double standards.’ “We liberals do what we can to make the world better, and to fight against the nihilistic nationalism of the extreme right.” Such is the liberal credo.

What liberalism ignores is the relevance of structure and the organic connectedness of equality with the rendering of justice. If we are unwilling to prosecute the most dangerous perpetrators of state crime, is it not hypocritical to go after only those whose behavior appalls or angers the reigning hegemon? Does it not make the rule of law susceptible to dismissal as a cynical exercise in the demonization of ‘the other,’ whether belonging to an adversary religion, ethnicity, a marginalized class, or defeated nation? The experience of the International Criminal Court during its first thirteen years of operation is illustrative of this two-tier discriminatory approach to individual accountability. This parallels the more overtly discriminatory approach to nuclear weaponry adopted via the profound shift away from the initial concern about apocalyptic dangers posed by the weaponry to anxiety about its spread to certain unwanted others.

Although these questions about criminal accountability are rhetorical, the prudential issue posed is genuinely challenging. I am not convinced that it would on balance be constructive in the present national atmosphere to attempt the punishment of political leaders in the United States who in the past authorized the practice of torture. The potential costs and risks seem too high compared to the benefits. The related question is whether or not to create some kind of equivalence at lower levels of expectations. If ‘well-intentioned’ torturers are given a free pass why not do the same for ‘idealistic and responsible whistleblowers’? It would seem almost beyond debate that the whistleblowers should not be prosecuted if the torturers are beneficiaries of such a pragmatic form of impunity. I would make the case that Assange, Manning, and Snowden deserve an honorific form of pardon, namely, the application of a doctrine of ‘principled impunity” as distinct from the notion of ‘pragmatic impunity.’ Here I think the social system in the United States would benefit despite producing some severe political strains that would almost certainly follow. I would argue that the highest pragmatic virtue of prudence would mandate taking such steps, namely, protecting one of the few safety valves available to citizens living in a modern national security state, which when added to the principled recognition of selfless and virtuous citizenship makes an overwhelming case for decriminalization. If we cannot have accountability for certain categories of abhorrent state crime, at least we should encourage transparency, making whistleblowing integral to the preservation of political democracy.

It would be a mistake not to connect the torture revelations to related issues of police brutality associated with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Garner in Staten Island New York. Beyond this, the militarization of American political culture has been reaffirmed at the level of the citizenry by polls confirming the highest level of support for gun rights in the history of the country.

Multiple Atrocities

More than in previous years, 2014 seemed to be a time of multiple atrocities, events that went beyond the ordeals of warfare and massive poverty, to shock the conscience by their violent aggression against the purest forms of innocence—deliberate brutality directed at young children, exhibiting depraved political imaginaries. By calling attention I have no intention of downplaying the widespread suffering associated with such continuing struggles at those taking place in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Kashmir, and many other places on our tormented planet.

ISIS or Daesh: This extremist movement, claiming an Islamic identity, emerged suddenly in the early part of the year as an occupying force in Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new caliphate under its authority, and representing a sociopathic response to the failed American occupation of Iraq. Initially welcomed by many Sunni Iraqis living in the northeastern parts of the country as liberation from Shiite abusive domination that resulted from American policies of debathification following the 2003 regime change in Baghdad, ISIS outraged the world by its televised beheadings of Western journalists, by its uprooting and slaughter of males belonging to the mainly Kurdish-speaking minority Yezidi community, and its alleged practice of turning Yezidi girls and women into sex slaves. Yezidis are considered an old religious sect that adheres to a pre-Muslim syncretist beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, and drawing on other later religions as well. It would seem that the American-led response to ISIS is proceeding by way of yet another military intervention mainly in the form of air strikes. Although the political impact are yet to be clear, this does not a constructive path to restore peace and order.

Boko Harem: Another manifestation of sociopathetic extremist politics gained world attention in April by the kidnapping in Nigeria of some 200 schoolgirls who were later abused in various ways, including being sold into slavery. Boko Harem has controlled parts of northern Nigeria since 2009, and has continued to engaged in behavior that constitutes crimes against humanity, and a total disregard of the innocence of Nigerian children, repeatedly engaging in kidnappings and wholesale destruction of villages. As recently as December 18th, Boko Harem forces kidnapped at least 185 young men, women, and children from a village in northern Nigeria. Its political goals, to the extent evident, are to protect Muslims in the country and establish a strict version of sharia law for areas under their control.

Pakistani Taliban: The mid-December attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Pakistani Taliban produced the massacre of an estimated 134 children and 14 others. The writer, Pervez Hoodbhoy, says that the Taliban, in ways that he believes parallel the ambitions of the Afghani Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS, are “fighting for a dream-to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state.” The implication is a radical transformation from some kind of religious normalcy into a fearsome embodiment religious fanaticism.

Israel’s Military Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Against Gaza: For the third time in less than six years Israel launched a vicious attack against Gaza that continued for 51 days, with the resulting humanitarian crisis caused accentuated by imposing a punitive ceasefire that has hampered recovery. The entire viability of Gaza is at severe risk. The attacks, known by the IDF code name of Operation Protective Edge, produced heavy civilian casualties (over 2,100 Palestinians killed including 519 childen, about 11,000 wounded, and as many as 520, 000 displaced, many homeless; on the Israeli side 70 were killed, 65 of whom were IDF, and one child) including among children, and traumatized the entire population locked into Gaza, with no exit available even for women, children, and disabled seeking sanctuary from the attack.

Identified above are just a few highlights from this year’s catalogue of atrocities. It is also evident that there exists a pattern of numbed response around the world that amounts to a collective condition of ‘atrocity fatigue.’ Beyond this these incidents and developments illustrate the inability of many governments in Africa and the Middle East to exert effective sovereign control over their own territory, as well as the inability of the United Nations to protect peoples faced with threats underscoring their acute vulnerability. Account must also be taken of geopolitical priorities that accords attention to ISIS and Pakistan’s Taliban but much less to Boko Haram and none at all to Israel’s IDF. If there is any hope for effective responses it is a result of national and transnational activations of civil society that do their best to fill these normative black holes.

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

Without dwelling on these familiar issues threatening the future of the entire human species, it is worth noticing that little of a constructive nature took place during the year. A notable exception, which may make a difference, was the U.S./China agreement in November to regulate emissions and to cooperate in an effort to prevent the global buildup of greenhouse gasses. These two dominant states are responsible for almost 50% of this buildup, and suggest that geopolitical cooperation may produce more positive results than the dilatory movements of unwieldy UN mechanisms that involve the more than 190 states that make up its membership. On its surface the agreement was not impressive with the U.S. agreeing to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 and China agreeing to peak its emissions in 2030, and by meet its energy needs by relying for 20% on zero emissions sources, but the very fact of such an agreement was looked upon as ‘a game changer’ by some. I would be more skeptical, especially of the American side of the commitment, given the possibility that a Republican could become president in 2016, and might well ignore such an agreed target, especially if it is perceived as slowing economic growth. The UN Conference in Peru a month later ended up doing little more than issuing the Lima Call for Climate Action was one more disappointment. The bickering among states pursuing their distinct national interests was manifest and a resulting race to the bottom. It does not generate any confidence that the hope for a 2015 breakthrough in Paris will actually address climate change in a manner that heeds the warnings of climate scientists. Relying on voluntary guidelines so as to circumvent domestic debate, especially in the United States, is not an encourage feature of what is expected.

As for nuclear weapons, the less said the better. Obama’s Prague visionary statement in 2009 has been swept aside by the nuclear weapons establishment, not only in the United States, but in all the nuclear weapons states. And even the possibility of bringing a measure of stability to the Middle East by eliminating nuclear weapons from the region has been taboo because of Israeli sensitivities. Instead the United States is embarked upon an expensive program on its own to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weaponry. There is no serious initiative evident within international society to move toward the one solution that has long been obvious and yet unattainable—phased and verified nuclear disarmament as a prelude to a wider demilitarization of the global security system.

What is at stake, above all, is whether the species as a species can manifest a collective will to survive in strong enough forms to meet these mounting unprecedented challenges of global scope. The species will to survive has never been seriously challenged previously, with all past survival collapses being of civilizational or sub-species scope. Humanity has been facing something new since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but has responded managerially rather than either with moral clarity or prudential wisdom.

Conclusion

Despite all, we can look to 2015 with some measure of hope, almost exclusively because there seems to be a slow awakening of civil society, at least in the domains of the BDS Campaign relating to Palestinian rights and in the form of the separate emergence of a transnational movement that takes global warming as seriously as the realities suggest. As for the future, we see, if at all, through a glass darkly, and thus have no excuse for refraining from a dedication to the struggle for global justice in its many shapes and forms. A posture of cynical hopelessness or despair worsens prospects for positive future developments, however empirically based such a negative assessment seems. All of us should recall that those who struggle for what seems ‘impossible’ today often turn out to be the heroes of tomorrow.

[END]

Britain’s Shameless Conservative-led Government: Squeezing the Poor to Help the Rich

CounterPunch

Britain’s governing Conservative Party looks increasingly clueless and is taking the country in a direction not seen since the 1990s. The populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is on the march with an agenda that is vehemently anti-Europe, anti-immigration and isolationist. It has stirred strong passions among British voters, angry at the decline in their living standards and estranged from mainstream politics. Not knowing what to do, Prime Minister David Cameron’s party has adopted UKIP’s strident rhetoric and is preaching policies normally associated with extremist groups.

Haunted by the prospect of defeat at the next general election, the prime minister and his associates are trying to outdo UKIP. Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party, can only protest or maintain embarrassing silence, but cannot shake off accusations of enabling a Conservative minority to stay in power.

In an attempt to hold the party together, Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union after the next general election. His frontline is busy attacking Europe’s institutions, whether part of the EU or the European Court of Human Rights that predates the European Union and is quite separate.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced at the recent party conference that the United Kingdom would defy the European Court’s rulings and apply laws passed in the British Parliament. The European Court of Human Rights was initially established in 1959. The Human Rights Convention itself was signed in 1950. Britain played a leading role in the creation of both. The United Kingdom joined the European Common Market, the EU’s predecessor, under a Conservative government in 1973. A two-thirds majority approved Britain’s continued membership in a referendum two years later.

The Conservative leadership today prefers to avoid any mention of these historic facts. Party grandees like ex-cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve are critical of the leadership’s approach, but have been side-lined. Their criticisms are not likely to make much difference. They do, however, strengthen the context in which the Conservative Party operates. UKIP’s firebrand leader Nigel Farage mocks Cameron’s government for adopting copycat policies. It underscores the government’s weakness.

Writing in the Observer, a senior commentator William Keegan described the Conservative Party as remarkably shameless. Keegan was particularly scathing about Prime Minister Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne, who suggested that they would cut the benefits of the unemployed and the working poor to enable the government to reduce taxes for the better off.

After Prime Minister Cameron, George Osborne is the most powerful member of the cabinet. He controls spending across all government departments. Osborne is sometimes mentioned as a future leader of the Conservative Party. As well as trade unions, the old enemy, Osborne has now declared war on charities trying to fill the gap created by the government’s welfare cuts. He recently told a gathering of business leaders that they must defend the economy from “an anti-free market movement led by trade unions and charities”.

Conservatives were indignant when the British charity Oxfam issued a poster in June suggesting that a combination of “zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts and unemployment” had created a critical situation in the country. There is a feeling in the party that charities have become too political and too left-wing. When the Conservatives last ruled Britain from 1979 to 1997, the trade unions were their enemy number one. The neo-Thatcherite generation in the present government has added charities to the list of enemies.

To those who remember the state of British politics in the 1980s and 1990s, it looks like a repeat performance by the militant right-wing under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In her early years as leader, Thatcher encouraged her militant admirers, who ultimately contributed to her isolation and downfall in 1990. They also caused trouble for her successor John Major and ensured that the party was defeated in 1997. The party had to wait until 2010 for another victory.

After John Major’s resignation as leader when the Conservatives were defeated at the 1997 general election, the party’s behaviour grew even more bizarre. Moderates lost out; the party was soon in the grip of militants, with Thatcher openly encouraging them to go for an extreme agenda against the European Union, immigrants and public services. During the leadership of Major’s successor William Hague, they used absurd tactics to keep their core support and scared centrist voters in the process.

Wrapped up in the British flag, volunteers could be seen telling people that there were “only so many days left to save the Queen’s head on the pound coin” and they must “vote Conservative to save Britain from German and French domination. Labour won another resounding victory and William Hague resigned as Conservative leader. He is now in the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Britain is again at a crossroads. Vital public services, including the national health system, are in crisis. Talk of economic recovery is folly, based on claims that credible experts, sometimes government advisors, contradict. Poor and middle classes, under continuing squeeze, are angry and frustrated. The country is isolated in Europe and has chosen to be on America’s coattail even more noticeably.

The ruling Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are moving more and more to the right. Moderates are out, being replaced by an aggressive generation of Conservative politicians who bank on shrill rhetoric and unholy alliances. With the next general election just over six months away, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

[END]

No end to the revolution?

AL JAZEERA

History has the answer to the turbulent Middle East today. 

The approaching centenary of the outbreak of World War I is a suitable time to consider violent conflicts between nations and ideologies, and their consequences, which have transformed the international system, particularly in the Middle East.

The most decisive of these conflicts were part of three critical periods of the 20th century: World War I, 1914-1918, and the 1917 communist revolution in Russia; World War II ending in 1945 with the division of Europe and the Cold War thereafter; and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. These fateful chapters of history left a lasting impact on the global map, and transformed the Middle East into the turbulent region which it is today.

Despite the central powers’ defeat in World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary lived to fight another war two decades later. But the most consequential events of the World War I period were the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of communists to power in Russia.

Creation of mandates 

The demise of the Ottoman Empire meant the release of its provinces in the Middle East. The region was divided into British and French spheres of influence, using the instrument of “mandate” and readily approved by the League of Nations. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the birth of the Soviet Union five years after. Communism became an ideological reality that promised liberation forces in colonies as an alternative to imperial subjugation.

The age of empires was not over, but there was a new worldview in action, embracing the idea of class struggle and becoming a serious rival of Western imperialism. The events in Russia in 1917, emboldened revolutionary forces across Asia, Africa and South America. Communists seized power after long, savage wars in China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959. Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara became heroes for left-wing armed revolutionaries in their own countries and elsewhere.

The Soviet Union’s emergence as a superpower rival of the United States in the wake of World War II, gave it a formidable status, and the means to support revolutionary movements across the world. However, there was an obvious paradox in the manner of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and how the Kremlin controlled its satellite-states with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The Soviet Union had enlarged its empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe while proclaiming to be the liberator of oppressed peoples from Western imperialism. The Soviets were also involved with the US in a global race for influence called the Cold War, in which the energy-rich Middle East was the main battleground. Even as the colonial system collapsed, the Cold War intensified. It was a race between two empires in all but name.

The Dictionary of Human Geography defines imperialism as “an unequal human and territorial relationship”. The association takes the form of an empire, based on “ideas of superiority and practices of dominance”. Imperialism involves the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another. While capitalism has solely commercial motives, an imperial relationship also requires a political centre and ideological allegiance which ties the periphery to the centre.

Legacy of Cold War 

Rival ideologies pulled Middle Eastern countries towards Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, and fuelled conflicts that had remained unsettled. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was to have been the end of history, with the US the final victor standing, to dominate the vast energy resources, and much more. However, that triumphant vision failed to realise that Islam, together with nationalism, was going to be the next formidable opposition, replacing Soviet communism. A lot of blood has been spilled at the extremes of that conflict, while even moderates are critical or ambivalent about Western policy.

Much of the Middle East is in a state of agitation and turmoil. The legacy of old unresolved feuds has been revived. Two of the main causes are the imperial powers’ arbitrary partition of the region into smaller, vulnerable entities, thereby dividing their peoples; and the Palestinians’ loss of land and livelihood under Israeli occupation. The people’s desire to liberate themselves from dictatorship has been rekindled, but the scope for opportunistic machinations from outside remains.

Islamic, secular and democratic, all forces fight, sometimes together, at other times separately, in this chaotic struggle. Their vision of the future may differ, but their spirit is revolutionary in that they seek radical change. Still, fundamental questions about what type of change, and the way to bring it, remain. Hope, fear, and uncertainty, coalesce together.

The risk of tyranny of some over many is always great in a region of diverse religious and ethnic groups, with a history of conflict. From Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Libya, violence against vulnerable citizens, minorities in particular, heightens fears in those countries and outside.

The peoples of the Middle East have lived through autocratic nationalist rule, and dictatorship acting as proxy of one external power or another. Their painful experiences have made the Middle East of today. Where are events heading? Well, as French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”

[END]

Obama’s Middle East Gamble

Al-Ahram Weekly 

imagesUS President Barack Obama is on a diplomatic offensive on several fronts in the Middle East. The six-month interim agreement between the major world powers, five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union, and Iran to restrain its nuclear program is being described as the most important development in their relations since the Iranian Revolution. The agreement has set off a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, raising hopes that much more is to follow.

The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has suggested that the European Union may lift some sanctions on Iran as early as December. A new round of peace talks on Syria has been announced for next January. President Bashar al-Assad says his government will attend, but the participation of several opposition groups is in doubt.

In Afghanistan, a tribal grand assembly has recommended that President Karzai sign a security pact with the United States, before the end of the year, as the Obama administration wants. However, Karzai insists on a firm American commitment to stop night raids on Afghan homes, a “correct and dignified” presidential election and stability, without which he will not sign the security pact. He says that he wants to leave the signing to his successor after the April 2014 election. Then there are the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, slow and protracted as they have been for decades. Obama’s diplomacy on so many fronts is a sign of incredible ambition, and requires great energy and deftness.

These matters, with their ramifications for the region, deserve careful assessment. President Obama has embarked on a far-reaching enterprise hoping for great rewards, but there are high risks, too. Why should he want such a radical change of course? His game plan is worth examining.

Years of cold war and economic sanctions have had dire consequences for the Iranian economy, but it would be wrong to claim that Washington has emerged unhurt. The United States lost access to Iran, a major energy source and a large market for American corporations. Anarchy rules Libya, and terror overflows to other countries of the region, after the West’s miscalculation in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime. Libya’s oil production has been disrupted. Iran has become more important as a source of energy.

The loss of influence in Tehran had made the United States overly dependent on Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both benefited greatly by consistently playing the Iran card in their dealings with successive US administrations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. America’s capacity to shape events diminished in Syria and Lebanon, where Iran’s influence is considerable. Following the 2003 US invasion and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Iraq moved close to Iran, and there is a pro-Tehran government in Baghdad. The Shia uprising in Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, has to be controlled by the emirate’s rulers from the Sunni minority with an iron fist.

Iran’s help to the Americans in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime’s removal, and Hamid Karzai’s installation in power, had promised an era of hope for relations between Washington and Tehran. That hopeful era proved short-lived when President George W. Bush’s administration changed its tune. In particular, the Iranians felt betrayed by Bush’s description in January 2002 of their country being one of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. Despite Iran paying a very high price since the 1979 revolution, there has been a price paid by successive American administrations, too, including in terms of credibility lost. When the political environment is polarized sharply, the room for maneuver is limited severely.

Is President Obama out to craft a new US grand design in the Middle East in the remainder of his second term? It requires a radical realignment of American policy. Washington would have to build a new road to Tehran, linking Iran to Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The road to Israel and Saudi Arabia would take second place. It is this prospect which makes both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the Israeli government’s supporters in the US Congress, nervous.

Has Obama got what it takes to overcome the hurdles? Obama’s opponents can thwart his Middle East plan, individually or collectively. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the biggest obstacle. While all eyes were focused on Syria, and on talks in Geneva with Iran, the Americans and the Iranians were holding secret negotiations without Netanyahu knowing about the clandestine US-Iranian dealings. This is a remarkable happening, which has infuriated Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister looks isolated on the international stage, but his support in the American Congress could still wreck the deal with Iran, whose cooperation is going to be vital for stability in Afghanistan during and after most NATO troops are withdrawn by the end of 2014. There are two main reasons why Tehran’s cooperation is necessary. First of all, it is going to fall upon Afghan government forces to deal with the Pashtun Taliban’s resurgent activity in the south and east; so the north and west close to the border with Iran must be kept at peace. Furthermore, non-Pashtun minorities with close links with Iran are overrepresented in the Afghan armed forces. With only a few thousand American troops left in the country, it will be essential that the Afghan military remains together.

The next six months are going to be most decisive. At the end, we will know whether Iran’s agreement with the major world powers has a long-term future. We will also find out how far pro-Israel jingoists and war hawks such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer succeed in turning their threat of sabotaging Obama’s Middle East plan into reality. Speaking at a children’s charity fundraiser, Schumer spoke of working in Congress to impose more crippling sanctions against Iran and ‘defeat’ the Arab world and Palestinians.

The next few months will also tell whether President Rouhani of Iran, backed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, can prevail over conservative opponents in his own country. And how events unfold in Afghanistan affecting Obama’s dispute with President Karzai over the US-Afghan security pact. Above everything else, the most important question is whether Obama will drive his project hard enough for it to have a long life. Or it is destined to be another ‘big idea’ which gets buried in the sands of the Middle East.

[END]

Obama, Karzai and the Afghan labyrinth

AL JAZEERA

With deep mutual distrust, Obama and Karzai consider their legacies.

The Afghan Loya Jirga’s endorsement of a security pact with the United States, to be signed by December 31, has brought to an end the uncertainty over the status of foreign troops, and Afghanistan’s relations with its donors, after most NATO forces are withdrawn from the country next year. However, it happened not before the whole labyrinth of Afghanistan was under the spotlight, and some lively exchanges were made between all sides.

First, the New York Times reported that President Hamid Karzai had given up his opposition to Washington’s demands that US soldiers be immune from Afghan prosecution, and US special forces continue to have freedom to conduct “antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes”. But soon after, the proceedings at the Loya Jirga had a moderating effect on that optimism.

Distrustful relationship

President Karzai’s remarks about there being no trust between him and the US, and yet his call on the assembly to support the security pact, spoke volumes about Afghanistan’s need for economic assistance and stability on one hand, and the war and deep divisions which continue to traumatise the country on the other. Several members of parliament and the entire opposition had announced a boycott in advance.

A female delegate at the Loya Jirga shouted from the floor: “US troops had spilt too much Afghan blood, and should be stopped.” And Shia religious leader Ayatollah Salehi said: “Judicial immunity is against our independence, national sovereignty, against the will of the Afghan people and explicitly in contravention of Islam.” In a society with deeply embedded religious and tribal customs, many people are enraged by US troops’ night raids on their homes, and their acts of violence against Afghan civilians.

Divided society

The Taliban, still fighting after they were removed from power following the  US invasion in 2001, described the Loya Jirga as a “council of traitors“, saying that “internal mercenaries” wanted to ensure the foreign forces’ prolonged stay in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s uncompromising attitude, and the thousands of US troops staying under the security pact once it is signed, suggest that Afghanistan will remain a country in conflict.

The scenario helps explain Karzai’s announcement at the opening ceremony that any agreement on the status of US forces should wait until after the presidential election in April 2014, and should be signed by his successor. The Obama administration, caught by surprise and showing urgency, insisted that the Afghans needed to approve and sign the agreement by the end of 2013. It would give Kabul little more than a month.

For the US, it was neither “practical nor possible” to delay the signing. There was an implied threat that a failure would lead to the withdrawal of all troops, and no US aid to Afghanistan.

Roots of discord

The truth is that the US did not want a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the brinkmanship between Kabul and Washington raised intriguing questions. Why did President Karzai want to delay the signing until his successor had assumed office after the April 2014 election? And why should the US have viewed a four-month delay so calamitous for the agreement? After all, the US is a country known for drawn-out legislative processes.

Karzai was the US’ preferred choice to lead Afghanistan after the Taliban regime’s overthrow in 2001, but their relations have deteriorated steadily, especially under the Obama presidency. Accusations of corruption, incompetence and nepotism against the Karzai administration abound, though these ills afflict all sides in a clearly troubled partnership.

Alongside the US narrative of problems with the Afghan president and his close circle, there is an important narrative about President Obama and his administration’s conduct that has been perceived in Kabul as having caused deliberate and repeated humiliations of Afghanistan and President Karzai. The Afghan narrative should not be ignored in any serious attempt to understand the problems.

A great power demands compliance from minor entities. Karzai has often been defiant, and critical of US-led military operations resulting in civilian casualties and disrupted life for the Afghans. In this respect, Karzai is not like the other US dictator allies: A few names that come to mind are Marcos of the Philippines, Thieu of South Vietnam, Somoza of Nicaragua many a year ago, and Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak more recently.

Karzai was part of the anti-Communist Afghan opposition in the 1980s. He is well aware of the failed Soviet attempts to use loyal rulers to lead Communist regimes in Kabul. It was a somewhat risky move for the White House to publicly set a deadline barely a month away, at a time when the Loya Jirga was meeting. A swift response was issued from Kabul, that it “will not be rushed”, and that “President Karzai’s desire to sign the agreement after next year’s presidential election was the only deadline recognised by Afghanistan”.

The Afghanistan Times had earlier quoted Karzai as saying that the security pact could only be signed “when our elections are conducted, correctly and with dignity”. His spokesman underlined the need to secure the Loya Jirga’s approval. Afghan constitutions have come and gone with the country’s upheavals. The customary role of tribal assemblies in approving a constitution, resolving disputes and considering issues of national importance has remained constant. The process may not be perfect, but in the absence of the tribal jirga, legitimacy, in the eyes of many Afghans, is difficult to achieve.

Divergent imperatives

As Obama and Karzai both approach the end of their final term as president, they are under competing political pressures. Obama, who is due to leave the White House in January 2017, is a man in a hurry, at a time when success is by no means certain in the latest Israeli-Palestinian talks, and rapprochement with Iran has just started after more than three decades of cold war, and tedious negotiations in recent months finally resulting in a historic, but fragile, agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Karzai, whose presidential term will end after the April 2014 election, has personal as well as long-term considerations. In a distrustful relationship, Karzai’s interest is in securing maximum cover for himself in the eyes of his people; true national sovereignty; and freedom for the next Afghan president to act. In essence, a legacy which, Karzai can argue, was delivered at a time of extreme national emergency.

[END]