Monthly Archives: October 2014

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”: British and NATO forces ‘turning a corner’ in Afghanistan in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007 etc

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”: British and NATO forces ‘turning a corner’ in Afghanistan in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007 etc
by Ian Sinclair
Znet blog
16 May 2011

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” – Milan Kundera

2011– ‘In his office on the first floor of Isaf’s heavily fortified headquarters in Kabul, [General James] Bucknall [a British Coldstream Guards officer who is second in command of the International Security and Assistance Force], a veteran of Iraq, Northern Ireland and the Balkans, concedes that this is “the most complex and demanding theatre I have ever worked in. But he sets out why he thinks a corner has now been turned, nodding to the surge in American troop numbers that has made it possible. We have halted the insurgents’ momentum. And in some areas where we have really applied resources we have regained the initiative. We have successfully removed a number of safe havens in Afghanistan, some of which the insurgents have held for a long time, particularly around Kandahar. We have also removed substantial munitions, far greater than we ever have before.’ (Nick Hopkins, ‘Afghanistan: Advances made, but country stands at perilous crossroads’, Guardian, 11 May 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/10/afghanistan-crossroads-taliban-military).

2010– ‘Nick Clegg said Nato’s military campaign in Afghanistan was “turning the corner” today as he made a surprise visit to the troubled country.’ (‘Afghan campaign turning the corner, says Nick Clegg, as Oxfam withdraws from remote area’, Guardian, 31 August 2010, http://m.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/31/afghan-campaign-corner-nick-clegg?cat=world&type=article)

2009– ‘There is this absurd notion that you can’t win a counter-insurgency. I have studied the last 12 British counter-insurgencies, since 1900, and we did manage to achieve a peace of some sort in every one of them, most recently Northern Ireland. We’ve always had this awful period of getting things very badly wrong before we seem to turn the corner, and I think that’s what is happening now. It would be crazy to give up now.’ – Colonel David Benest, retired Parachute Regiment officer, who served as a British counter-insurgency adviser in Kabul (‘Britain’s future role in Afghanistan: Six experts give their view’, 16 November 2009, Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/16/afghanistan-uk-policy-view-experts)

2007– ‘Yet despite the presence of thousands of Taliban fighters, and some tough fighting still ahead, British military commanders in Afghanistan say they believe they have turned a significant corner. In recent months they have succeeded in pushing the Taliban back and keeping them out of a few strategic areas. At the same time, they say, popular support for the insurgents is eroding’ (Carlotta Gall, ‘British forces beat back Taliban’, New York Times, 5 August 2007, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2007-08-05/news/0708040185_1_helmand-taliban-nato-forces)

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Myth vs. Reality: British Troops “did not die in vain” in Sangin, Afghanistan

Myth vs. Reality: British Troops “did not die in vain” in Sangin, Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
ZNet blog
18 May 2011

As British forces handed over control of Sangin, Afghanistan to US forces in September 2010, the British Prime Minister David Cameron noted that:

“Our troops have performed magnificently in Sangin and I pay tribute to the thousands who have served, to the over 100 who’ve given their lives and to the many who have been wounded. They did not die in vain, they made Afghanistan a safer place and they have made Britain a safer place and they will never be forgotten.” (‘UK troops in Sangin did not die in vain, says Cameron’, 20 September 2010, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11376603)

The problem for Cameron and all those British forces who served and died in Sangin, is that a recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development of around 1400 military aged males in Afghanistan strongly suggests they did indeed die in vain.

Here are the results of those polled in Sangin:

– 99% of interviewees think NATO military operations are bad for the Afghan people.
– 
46% of interviewees oppose military operations in Sangin.
– 
99% of interviewees think working with the foreigners is wrong.
– 
51% of interviewees believe foreign forces do not protect the local population.
– 
72% of interviewees are more negative about the foreign forces than the year before.
– 
99% of interviewees think foreigners disrespect the religion and traditions.

(‘Afghanistan Transition: The Death of Bin Laden and Local Dynamics’, International Council on Security and Development, May 2011, http://www.icosgroup.net/static/reports/bin-laden-local-dynamics.pdf)

Selling anxiety

Selling Anxiety
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
January 2009

Last summer, while sitting in the dark waiting for the new Indiana Jones movie to begin, I was subjected to the new Kellogg’s Special K ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial. Soundtracked by Ken Parker’s sunny sing-a-long ‘I Can’t Hide’, the 25-second advert shows a young woman looking at her holiday snaps. The camera zooms in to the photographs themselves, and we see the woman wearing a red swimsuit. Uncomfortable with her weight she tries to cover herself up by moving behind objects around her, by jumping in the pool etc. It’s all very clever and very closely resembles the video for Fit But You Know It by The Streets.

As I happily guzzled the chocolate milk I had smuggled in to the cinema it suddenly dawned on me the very attractive woman in the advert – 5’10″ American model Juliana Fine I have subsequently found out – wasn’t actually overweight. In fact she had the kind of figure that makes other women green with envy and red-blooded heterosexual men do that unattractive leering face where their tongues loll out of their mouths.   On top of this there seemed to be no difference in Fine’s weight ‘before’ and ‘after’ she had taken the Special K summer challenge – that is two bowls a day for two weeks to see if you can get “slimmer for summer”.

This not only seemed to be a blatant con trick, but by preying on women’s all too often low self-esteem the advert has real social ramifications. For example, a 2004 Bliss magazine survey found the 2,000 teenage girls questioned had a shocking level of dissatisfaction with their own bodies, with 67 percent of respondents thinking they were overweight, while 19 percent of respondents actually were overweight. This disgust with their own bodies is no doubt the main reason two out of three girls under 13 questioned said they had already been on a diet and a quarter of 14-year olds said they had considered plastic surgery. The survey also gave a brief insight in to the relationship older women have with their bodies, with 90 percent of girls answering that their own mother had “an insecure body image”.

So what did Kellogg’s have to say for themselves?

After telling me they employ “a dedicated team of Dieticians and Nutritionists to ensure that all studies, formulations, marketing and advertising” of their products aligns with the “concrete principles” embedded within their corporate nutrition policy, Kellogg’s explained Fine had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 25.1. So yes, with a person labelled ‘overweight’ if they have a BMI of 25 or above, Fine is technically overweight – by 0.1. But before you start chanting “who ate all the pies?” please bear in mind that Brad Pitt is also deemed overweight when measured by his BMI.

Kellogg‘s email waffled on: “Dramatic weight loss within the 2 week challenge period is neither expected nor advocated”. This is why “the model shown in the ‘after’ challenge shot may not appear significantly different.” This seemed a little vague to me, so I asked Kellogg’s to tell me 1) Fine’s BMI in the ‘after’ shots and 2) the dates when the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots were actually filmed.

After nearly two weeks of waiting for a reply, I received a curt email explaining Kellogg’s “are unable to release any information on shooting times or the models BMI alteration in the aftershot”. What exactly are Kellogg’s hiding? Who’s willing to bet me that for reasons of time and money the filming took place at the same time, and therefore unless Fine has the metabolism of a particularly active hummingbird it seems highly unlikely she lost any weight between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots?

Special K’s ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial is a perfect example of a corporation attempting to impose wildly unrealistic standards on women in an attempt to boost profits. If Fine needs to watch her figure, then so does virtually every women in the western world, and hey why don’t you try some Special K with your insecurity, Ms? This faux-fatness seems to be an increasingly common phenomena, much like the portrayal of so-called ‘unattractive’ women on TV – America Ferrera’s Ugly Betty who isn’t ugly at all, Julia Roberts playing the ugly duckling in the 2001 romedy American Sweethearts and ‘ugly’ sister Toni Collette in the Hollywood drama In Her Shoes, who, I for one, find far more attractive than Cameron Diaz.

By filming a professional model using a product she doesn’t actually need, Special K joins a huge beauty-based sub-section of the advertising industry. Think of the Clearasil commercials with the clear-skinned, confident teenagers narcissistically checking themselves out in the mirror, supermodel Claudia Schaffer fronting L’Oreal’s Wrinkle De-Crease advertising campaign and Davina-bloody-McCall talking to her ‘Mum’ on the phone about how great her bloody hair is. Along with Special K, these adverts often use pseudo-scientific jargon and (corporate sponsored?) ‘experts’ to hawk a product whose use leads to results that are either very difficult to quantify or completely non-existent. Does anymore really think Garnier Nutrisse being “enriched with fruit oils” make one bit of sodding difference to McCall’s hair? If so, surely Garnier Nutrisse could clearly explain what it is, without relying on the razzle-dazzle of pseudo-scientific and meaningless language?

In contrast, Dove’s ongoing ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is often held up as a model of socially-conscious, women friendly advertising. According to the Communist…. sorry Dove Campaign Manifesto “real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages” and therefore Dove, a subsidiary of the radical feminists at Unilever, aims to promote “a view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday.” In case you have been on Mars for the last few years, rather than using professional models, Dove’s campaign features ‘real’ women of colour, women over 40 and women of varying weight – all happily frolicking in white bras and underwear, proud of their “real curves”.

So far, so right on. But before you get excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, consider the main product Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is selling: the Dove Firming range. “By combining the products in this range”, the Dove website says, “your skin becomes noticeably firmer while the intensive firming gel-cream is even proven to reduce the appearance of cellulite.” That’s right folks, real women might have curves but flabby, unsightly cellulite – that’s got to go. So while Dove’s campaign has gone some way to broadening the definition of beauty, the basic message remains the same: Beauty is central to a woman’s identity. And more importantly, women are not naturally beautiful, but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products.

Arguably, despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Just think of the popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, Cosmetic Surgery Live and The Swan. Indeed, it is important to remember certain industries have a vested interest in increasing women’s anxiety about their bodies and aggravating their low self-esteem. The list is long – the beauty industry, the diet industry, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, advertising and women’s magazines. This is not some kind of grand conspiracy against women, simply an attempt to maximise profits. In the year of its launch in 2004, the BBC reported the Campaign for Real Beauty ad campaign had boosted Dove’s sales by a whopping 700 per cent.

This pursuit of the bottom dollar produces the tragically bizarre situation of products like Special K, and yes Dove too, being targeted primarily at women, professing to support women, but which are, in actual fact, running advertising campaigns that contribute to a culture that ultimately damages women’s mental and physical health.

“We are supporting a democratic state”: Propaganda and the new Iraq War

“We are supporting a democratic state”: Propaganda and the new Iraq War
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2014

We are in the middle of a propaganda war and you are the target.

To gain public support for bombing Iraq the Government has deployed a range of persuasive strategies, stretching from the extremely crude to the dangerously subtle. First the obvious ones. On Thursday 25 September – the day before the parliamentary vote to authorise the bombing campaign – police carried out a number of so-called anti-terrorist raids arresting nine people, including the well-known preacher Anjem Choudary. On the same day, news broke that the Iraqi Government had ‘credible’ intelligence Islamic State militants planned to launch attacks on the subway systems in Paris and New York City. Both scares, of course, have now been forgotten, though one can’t help think they served their purpose.

Like the ‘Heathrow terrorist plot’ in the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, the recent headline-grabbing announcements likely elicited deep scepticism in many people. However, the Government is also employing far more insidious and successful propaganda, much of which has seeped into and framed the media-driven narrative of the war. One such propaganda meme is the argument we are acting at the request of a “sovereign state” (David Cameron) and/or “democratic state” (Ed Miliband). This has been repeated ad nauseam by those backing the bombing with very little push back.

While this sound bite-sized justification may technically be true and therefore provides cover under international law, it’s worth considering what it misses out.

First, it conceals the deeply authoritarian and undemocratic nature of the present Iraqi Government and the West’s role in helping to create it. Writing in The Guardian in June, Professor Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the London School of Economics, noted Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “first came to power in April 2006 in a deal brokered by the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.” This, according to Dodge, “was an Anglo-American attempt to create a facade of democracy in the midst of a vicious post-invasion civil war.” Dodge went onto explain that though Maliki lost the 2010 election the US “backed the continuation of Maliki’s rule… in the name of predictability and order.” Echoing the sub-title of Dodge’s 2013 book on Iraq – ‘From war to a new authoritarianism’ – David Wearing, a researcher on the Middle East at SOAS, notes “Maliki set about concentrating power – particularly power over armed forces, internal security forces and Shia militias – in his hands, and governing on a narrow sectarian basis, eliciting some frustration from Washington but still, ultimately, enjoying its support”. In 2013 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index ranked Iraq 171st out of 177 countries. The whole Iraqi system, argues award-winning Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, is “rotten to the core. Every single soldier is appointed after paying a bribe. Every military officer is appointed after paying a bribe.”

And before we go further, let’s not forget the double standards of the UK government. “It is hypocritical for Mr Cameron to pretend that US and UK intervention are in support of democratic, accountable and inclusive governments when he is in a coalition with the last theocratic absolute monarchies on earth”, argues the veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn about the UK allying itself with the Gulf states.

Cameron and Miliband’s justification also ignores the recent aggressive and criminal military actions of the Iraqi Government – armed throughout by the United States.

In May 2014 Human Rights Watch reported the Iraqi Government was dropping “barrel bombs on residential neighbourhoods of Fallujah and surrounding areas” and had “repeatedly struck Fallujah General Hospital with mortar shells and other munitions”. According to the report “the recurring strikes on the main hospital, including with direct fire weapons, strongly suggest that Iraqi forces have targeted it, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war”. In June 2014 HRW noted the Iraqi Government had carried out indiscriminate air strikes in other cities too – Beiji, Mosul, Tikrit and al-Sherqat – killing at least 75 civilians. Speaking about the Iraqi Government in 2013, Dodge noted “torture is endemic.”

Of course, Maliki was forced out of office in September 2014 but many Iraq observers hold little hope in his successor. Cockburn: “It is doubtful if much has changed since Mr Maliki was replaced by the more personable Haider al-Abadi, whose government is still dominated by Shia religious parties.” David Cameron’s “stated belief that he is supporting the creation of a government that is inclusive of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians” is “a pipe dream”, Cockburn argues.

For example, though Al-Abadi publicly called a halt to the bombing of civilian areas, HRW’s Iraq Researcher Erin Evers told me the bombing has continued. More broadly, the Financial Times recently explained Shia militias have grown “stronger, bolder and more politically influential” since al-Abadi became Prime Minister. Maliki himself is now Iraq’s Vice-President. Evers recently reported that Shia militias under the control of the former Iraqi Prime Minister are currently laying siege to Latifiyya, a town just south of Baghdad. The militias have carried out summary executions and bulldozed Sunni areas causing “a broader humanitarian crisis” with many women and children unable to access food or desalinated water. Wearing is one of the few UK analysts to take seriously the threat from the Shia militias: “If Shia troops wade into Sunni towns and cities with the USAF and the RAF effectively providing cover, or at least having softened up their targets beforehand, the West won’t be preventing another Rwanda, it will be enabling one.”

Unsurprisingly then, though Sunnis living in Mosul and Raqqa do not like Islamic State, Cockburn explains “they are even more frightened of resurgent Iraqi or Syrian armies accompanied by murderous pro-government militias subduing their areas with the assistance of allied air strikes.”

All this leads to another criticism of the simplistic ‘we are acting to support a democratic government’ propaganda meme – that by refusing to engage with the reality of the present Iraqi state, it ignores a key reason for the rise of Islamic State and the responsibility of the West.

Writing in the latest edition of Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Dodge argues the Islamic State’s advance across northern Iraq “was the direct result of the contemporary flaws with the political system set up after the regime change of 2003.” Or as Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN special envoy to Syria, recently noted, the Islamic State was “originally and still is mainly an Iraqi phenomenon. And that is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003”.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He Tweets @IanJSinclair

The Daily Show: Speaking truth to power or setting the boundaries of acceptable debate?

The Daily Show: Speaking truth to power or setting the boundaries of acceptable debate?
by Ian Sinclair
Znet

31 October 2008

As November 4 approaches, The Daily Show is likely to have a disproportionately large effect on the political debate surrounding the US Presidential Elections.

Studies consistently show that a large proportion of young Americans choose to get their news from this satirical half-hour “fake news” programme aired on Comedy Central four nights a week, rather than watch the mainstream news broadcasts on CNN, NBC or CBS. With an audience of 1.6 million, The Daily Show not only skewers the gaffes and doublespeak of the incumbent Bush Administration, but also mocks the often Alice in Wonderland world of the mainstream media.

Despite the show’s popularity, Jon Stewart – the show’s sharp-witted host and liberal poster boy – has always denied The Daily Show is serious journalism, arguing that its primary purpose is to make people laugh, quipping “the show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

However, when you consider the high regard in which many young people hold the show, Stewart’s defence begins to ring a little hollow.   It is common knowledge that when he took over hosting The Daily Show in 1999, Stewart pushed for a more issues and news driven approach, ditching the previous character-based, celebrity format. This change in style has led to a string of recent high profile political interviews including Barack Obama, John McCain, Bill Clinton, Evo Morales and even Pakistan‘s President Pervez Musharraf.

This focus on serious issues was confirmed by a 2006 Indiana University study which found The Daily Show had news coverage on a par with traditional broadcast network newscasts (although, interestingly, the study found that both had a relatively low level of substantive coverage). Furthermore, incredibly a Pew Research poll last year found that the ‘fake news anchor’ Stewart was the fourth most admired journalist in the US – tied with real news anchors including Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS.

The show has also been a huge success with the critics, receiving two Peabody Awards – one step down from the Pulitzer awards apparently – for its coverage of the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections, along with eleven Emmy Awards. More importantly, the liberal elite has taken the show to its heart, with PBS journalist Bill Moyers arguing “you simply can’t understand American politics in the new millennium without The Daily Show”. Michiko Kakutani goes even further in his recent story about the programme in the New York Times, praising Stewart for “speaking truth to power”.

The problem is that while Stewart – earning a reported $14 million a year – certainly does criticise the present Administration he also holds a slew of naïve views and assumptions about the workings of American power that would make his high school socialist hero Eugene Debs turn in his grave. For example, Stewart’s criticisms of US foreign policy are frustratingly limited to talking about ‘strategic errors’ rather than a radical analysis that highlights how, since 1945, the US has, in the words of British historian Mark Curtis, “been systematically opposed” to “peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World”.

Witness Stewart’s seven-minute teary-eyed monologue at the start of the first show aired after 9/11. Like many other liberals at the time Stewart seems to have been politically paralysed by the atrocity, happily swallowing the US Government’s simplistic, self-serving explanation of the attack. According to Stewart “what the whole situation is about” is “the difference between closed and open. The difference between free and burdened… it’s democracy…. They can’t shut it down.” That’s right Jon, it’s nothing to do with US foreign policy in the Muslim world, or the more than one million Iraqis who died because of US/UK sanctions or the continuing US support of Israel. No, it’s about the very healthy democracy in the your country where approximately half the electorate usually don’t bother to vote.

With his apartment overlooking the World Trade Center, maybe Stewart can be forgiven for losing the plot in the emotionally charged times after the attack. But what are we to make of his jocular, back-slapping interview with Senator John McCain in 2007 (who is apparently a personal friend of Stewart’s)? Discussing the occupation of Iraq with the Republican Presidential candidate, The Daily Show host asserted: “They [the Iraqis] are fighting each other. We are there keeping them from killing each other.” Stewart seems to be unaware of the US Government’s own figures that show the overwhelming majority of attacks by the insurgents are against the US-led coalition forces rather than against each other. Ditto the 2006 Lancet survey which highlighted how, rather than “keeping Iraqis from killing each other”, the US forces were infact a major source of killing in Iraq.

The last straw for me was Stewart’s ‘softball’ interview last month with Tony Blair – a man widely seen as a compulsive liar by many in the UK, and as a potential prisoner in The Hague by those who took a close interest in the lead up to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Flipping uncomfortably between strained jokiness and grave seriousness, Blair spouts (largely unchallenged) nonsense about how no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other (the US vs. Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973 and Nicaragua in the 1980s?) Clearly unaware of Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that “in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions, but to disguise them”, Stewart came out with this incredible nugget about George Bush: “He is a big freedom guy. He believes if everyone was a democracy there would be no more fighting.” That’s right folks. The problem is that the US is trying too darn hard to spread democracy around the world. This explains why Bush is so close to the Saudi Arabian royal family, and why the US invaded oil-rich Iraq, bombed Afghanistan back to the stone age and supported the 2002 coup against the democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Although it sounds like an oxymoron, comedy can be both serious and radical. “There is one political party in America, and that is – THE BUSINESS PARTY”, wrote the legendary Texan comic Bill Hicks in 1992, while British comedian Robert Newman explains in his stand-up routine that “the central political battle of our time is between corporate power and democracy.” In contrast, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show is largely confined to the playground politics that dominate the degraded political discourse in the US today – liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, Tweedle Dee vs. Tweedle Dum.

Stewart is surely right to state the mainstream news media in the US is “hurting America”, as he did during a heated exchange on CNN’s now-defunct Crossfire in 2004.   However, as a programme that is adversarial but always within very strict ideological boundaries, surely it is also true The Daily Show has its own role to play in what US dissident Noam Chomsky calls ‘the manufacture of consent’: “Thus far and no further”.

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Winnipeg Free Press
25 February 2012

Dear Bruce Springsteen, REM (RIP), Wilco and Arcade Fire,

First a few admissions in the interests of transparency. Bruce, I consider you to be the most important and vital singer-songwriter working today. My deep respect for you led me to write my 15,000-word dissertation on your music for my masters of American studies. I would include Murmur in my top 20 albums of all time. I remember Automatic For The People playing in the background as I fell in love at university. I think Pitchfork Media was spot on when they awarded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot their 10 rating. I love, absolutely love, Anodyne. In short, you have all played a huge role in soundtracking and enriching my life.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. Arcade Fire. I like your music but have never completely fallen in love with you like everyone else. But you are very much the band of the moment and everyone I know thinks you are touched by the hand of God, so I thought it was important to include you.

I am writing to you all because in 2008 you enthusiastically endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, playing numerous benefit concerts in support of his campaign.

Speaking to the BBC Culture Show, Bruce described Obama as “a knight” who had come to save the United States from “the disastrous administration of the past eight years.” During his public appearances at Obama’s election rallies, Bruce emphasized Obama’s qualities of “temperateness,” “compassion,” and “understanding.” In November 2011, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of disbanded R.E.M. appeared on BBC Newsnight and stated they were “huge fans” of President Obama and would be voting for him again come November. Speaking backstage at a concert where he introduced the then Illinois senator as “the next President of the United States,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco explained that Obama “melted our hearts” when the band first met him in 2005.

Guys, with your support – and the votes of nearly 70 million of your fellow Americans – Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in January 2009. However, while many of you were openly critical of the Bush Administration, as far as I can tell none of you has made any public criticisms of the Obama administration. Of course this could be because Obama’s actions in the White House do not warrant criticism. But can this be true if former CIA director Michael Hayden is correct when he says “there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th” presidents?

The former head of Britain’s MI6 is in general agreement with his American counterpart, noting foreign policy under Obama has remained “very aggressive and hardline.” On Afghanistan, Obama has actually escalated Bush’s war, sending an additional 30,000 American servicemen and women into danger. Predictably this has led to an escalation in violence, with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office recently noting that the number of insurgent attacks grew by 14 per cent in 2011 to 13,983 attacks a year. Similarly, civilian deaths are at an all-time high. How did you feel when U.S. warplanes bombed the Afghan village of Granai in May 2009 killing perhaps 140 people, around 90 of them children? The killing continues. Earlier this month, NATO killed eight Afghan children in a bombing raid. Does Obama’s policy of propping up an Afghan government that runs medieval-like torture systems, including a stretching rack, make you queasy?

Across the border in Pakistan, did you know Obama is just as unpopular as Bush was, with a 2011 Pew Research poll finding 69 per cent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy? Turns out Pakistanis aren’t that keen on American drone strikes. Would you be happy if another country was conducting drone attacks on New Jersey, Athens, Chicago or Montreal? The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently reported drone strikes in Pakistan “have been stepped up enormously under Obama,” averaging one every four days and killing between 282 and 535 civilians.

Did you know the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who joked about using drones on the Jonas Brothers, has now authorized drone attacks in six nations across the world – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya? This reflects Obama’s preference for targeted killings – sometimes of American citizens – rather than capturing suspected terrorists, the latter the preferred policy of the Bush administration.

What do you think of the Obama administration’s treatment of Bradley Manning, described by 250 legal scholars in the United States as “degrading and inhumane”? And what to make of Obama’s deliberate attempts to scuttle any serious attempt to get a global deal on climate change?

Back at home, it is widely accepted Obama is running a “Wall Street government.” The signs certainly weren’t good when he hired Timothy Geithner, a key player in the deregulation of finance in the 1990s, as his treasury secretary, were they? “At every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class,” Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs noted last year. “It’s not hard to understand why. Obama and the Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions.” Were you aware Obama was raising far more money from Wall Street than John McCain when you publicly endorsed him? And does the October 2011 Washington Post article explaining “Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all the GOP candidates combined” concern you at all?

All of this is not to say you were not right to support Obama over McCain in 2008, and wouldn’t be right to back Obama over the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. There are clearly real differences between having a Democratic and Republican president, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. But does this mean you should stay silent when Obama carries out the same or similar policies as his predecessor?

“Obama’s greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the U.S.,” argues journalist John Pilger. Your silence during the death and destruction of Obama’s first term is living proof of the political con-trick he performed to win Ad Age’s marketer of the year award in 2008. But do you think the Pakistani mother whose child is killed by an American drone cares whether the attack occurred under a Democratic or Republican president?

Isn’t a key role for artists in any society to ask awkward questions? To hold power to account? To think outside the box? Songs like Born in the USA, Welcome to the Occupation and The Flowers of Guatemala were some of the most powerful critiques of the Reagan administration’s domestic and foreign policies. But this is 2012, not the 1980s. If the narrator of Born in the USA was “born down in a dead man’s town” a generation later, he would have “a brother in Helmand/Fighting off the Taliban.” The Flowers of Guatemala would be renamed The Flowers of Pakistan.

Rather than continuing to support the most powerful politician in the world – what Matt Taibbi calls the “imperial administrator” – isn’t it time you, as popular artists with huge audiences and all the influence this suggests, began to give a voice to the victims of the Obama administration?

Yours,

Ian Sinclair
London, UK

Interview with Gene Sharp

Interview with Gene Sharp
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
March 2012

Arguably the best-known advocate of nonviolence working today, through books such as 1993’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ Gene Sharp has influenced popular revolutions and revolts across the globe. He was interviewed by Ian Sinclair for PN.

Peace News: When and why did you first get interested in the serious study of nonviolent struggle?

Gene Sharp: Well, the world was in a bit of a mess [after the Second World War], and I began to learn that there was a phenomenon of nonviolence that had been in existence for a long time; that some means of conflict are necessary and people were still trying to use it [nonviolence] in various parts of the world. So this could prove to be very, very important, so I started studying and reading over quite a number of years. It goes way back.

PN: How would you describe your own politics?

GS: I have a chapter on that in the [1980] book Social Power and Political Freedom. And the chapter is ‘Rethinking Politics’. You have to rethink politics, not choose from what’s on the present menu. I cooperate with people with various political perspectives. There’s no one that I find so adequate to simply accept it and embrace it.

PN: You wouldn’t call yourself a pacifist?

GS: Not anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m for violence but, maybe unjustly, or maybe not, pacifists are known for their refusal to use violence. And doing a number of other good things, perhaps.

It goes back to the old PPU [Peace Pledge Union] slogan: “War will cease when men refuse to fight.” But I don’t think you get rid of war that way. I think you have to have a substitute. You have to, unless you just want to make a moral gesture.

I’ve done that [Sharp spent nine months in prison for protesting against conscription during the Korean War]. But moral gestures, to be crude, don’t achieve much, sometimes nothing. Sometimes a little bit.

PN: Underpinning your ideas and arguments is a specific understanding of how power works in society. Could you summarise this for people who may not be familiar with your work?

GS: I will do that but it’s expressed at length in the first volume of the paperback edition of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. I think it’s the first chapter on the nature of political power… Power has sources. It’s not something in a package. And where those sources are there and available to the regime, there can be great power.

I think I identify six or seven sources: a moral authority – they have the right to rule or the right to be our government, for whatever reason; the control of the economy; the control of the civil service; the control of the police; the control of the military; and certain more fuzzy factors, more psychological factors.

If those are available then there’s power. But those sources, people in government positions, they weren’t born with those; they come from somebody else. Those can be traced and they all come from the obedience and cooperation of individuals, or more commonly, institutions and groups of people. They make them available, and in some rare situations their sources are not made available readily, or they’re withdrawn. Massive non-cooperation movements are an example. Then their power is taken away.

That’s why some governments fall apart, like the Soviet Union and Eastern European governments fell apart, because they weren’t able to mobilise those sources.

PN: What are the problems of using violence to overthrow a dictatorship?

GS: It’s foolish. Stupid. If your enemy has massive capacity for violence – and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence – why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.

PN: Are there any instances where you have supported violent resistance to occupation or invasion?

GS: I’m often happy that people opposing a regime have won. Libya’s used as an example now, which the Libyans did not do themselves – the French air force, US military capacity and so forth. It wasn’t a struggle by the Libyans, and now it’s not their victory. I was told the number of Libyan casualties and the physical destruction are absolutely horrendous – far, far worse than what’s been going on in Syria, as horrible as that is. You have greater casualties with violence.

It’s a very good chance you’re going to lose and if you get outside help then part of the control afterwards is in the hands of the foreigners for whatever motives. That doesn’t sound very good to me.

PN: What have been the most successful examples of nonviolent revolution in recent history?

GS: There are a whole variety of them. You could look at Poland, for example. It took ten years but they did it. They withstood their own authoritarian regime back in the ’30s. They withstood the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation and opposed the Communist government. Eastern Europe – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, where we [the Albert Einstein Institution] did consult.

Those countries were already part of the Soviet Union and they got out using these means. We directly consulted with those governments in person. They got out with very few casualties. I think in Lithuania it may have been 14 dead, in Latvia eight and in Estonia nobody was killed. To me the [resistance to the 1991] hard-line coup in the Soviet Union is another example.

PN: As you will know, with the Arab spring there have been numerous reports of your influence on the various revolutions and revolts.

GS: I don’t know. I get these reports all the time. We had known that there was interest in my writing in Egypt for a few years. We even heard that there was a special headquarters that had been set up in an apartment in Cairo and occasionally we have Egyptians visit us in Boston, Massachusetts. But none of that proves anything in terms of real documentation – how you transfer all the knowledge gained just by reading, talking or listening, to people’s actions.

PN: In How To Start A Revolution you say you are primarily trying to “understand the nature and potential of nonviolent forces of struggle to undermine dictatorships.” Are your arguments and ideas transferable to making radical transformations in industrial democracies like the US and UK?

GS: From Dictatorship to Democracy is only a small piece of my writings. A very small piece. The nature of nonviolent struggle is broader. My 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action was never published in the UK. I’m hoping to do it in a large edition to be published here in a couple years. It’s on the nature of the technique: what are its methods, how does it work? That then can be adjusted for application for a variety of broadly democratic purposes – economic objectives, political objectives, anti-colonial movements, extensions of the franchise and so forth.

So you wouldn’t take the model From Dictatorship to Democracy and apply it to social revolution because that’s a different objective. You’d have to have a different analysis. But a nonviolent struggle can be extremely important in the new model for a social revolution.

PN: The most important and influential social movement in the US at the minute seems to be the Occupy protests. What is your assessment of these?

GS: It’s been succeeding and accomplishing what? It’s an expression of people who are very frustrated and quite angry. And for damn good reasons. They think politically they’re not having the impact they had wanted. They see the extreme non-distribution of wealth in the country is getting worse. It’s coming out even in the Republican debates with the candidates there.

So people who’ve been in the middle class their whole lives are now becoming quite poor. And I don’t know what political consequences there are going to be over this but all that is happening.

The Occupy movement expresses some of that frustration. It has spread not only within the United States but also in other countries. Because people think there’s something they can do. But they think that by expressing themselves, they think that’s going to change things. And to be honest it won’t. It’s too little. Not enough. It is only symbolism.

You don’t get great economic and political changes by symbolism only, which any radical would agree with. Now whether they will do other thinking, they are going beyond this – there are some signs that some of them are. Whether it’s going to be adequate, I have my doubts. If they do this thinking they are going to win, and they don’t, they may collapse and think: “We’re as helpless as we thought we were and so won’t do anything.” Or they’ll go over to violence which will bring down greater repression, predictably. It won’t change the situation.

PN: You have been involved in activism and academic writing and work for a long time. What keeps you going? Do you have moments of doubt?

GS: Not really, no. Maybe I’m kind of a stubborn person. That always helps. To see on the one hand the great need for the application of nonviolent struggle, to see the great impact when it is applied wisely, which is not always the case.

Sometimes you get contact and letters from people you had never heard of, about what this has meant for them, sometimes individuals see the movement developing. And sometimes you see the regime has come down. The victors have won. That’s encouraging.

But we can still learn to do this more skillfully, more effectively. Sometimes we know a lot, but people are unaware of what we do know. Sometimes we may not know what we need to know. My ignorance is vast.

People come and ask me what they should do, and I say: “I’m not going to tell you! I don’t do that. Here’s what you need to learn and understand in order to do this yourselves.” That’s why our guide is called Self-Liberation.

You may have seen this, it’s on our website. It’s kind of deceptive but not on purpose. People would come to us and finally we figured out what they need to plan a strategy, they need three things. They have to know their own situation in depth, far better than we would know it – they need to know it better.

They need to know nonviolent struggle in depth. Not the superficial impressions that people claim they know – they don’t. So there’s a condensed version of what they need to read, it’s only 900 pages. And that’s condensed.

And then they need to learn how to think strategically; how to act facing opposition so you can actually accomplish something. Strategy being probably more important in nonviolent struggle than it is in military conflict. If they learn all that, then there’s a chance they can plan their own struggle.

PN: But surely most people in Egypt and other places where they have used your ideas and arguments have not read all your writings?

GS: No, but the masses of people didn’t formulate the strategy. That is for getting people competent enough to plan a strategy. Then there are many people who can be very important and very effective in conducting a struggle – they don’t have to read all that. But somebody needs to – as many as possible – need to have that know-how. This is people learning how to do this. This is new. They don’t need a Gandhi.

What if this existed in 1930, all this knowledge and know-how? Before Hitler came to power? If people who struggled against Hitler had greater knowledge of how to conduct struggle effectively to prevent him ever succeeding in becoming chancellor in the first place?

When Hitler came into the government the Nazis were very frightened of a general strike. A nonviolent method. They were very frightened of that. If only the opposition really knew how to conduct this kind of struggle effectively, the world would have been very different. But it didn’t happen.

You ask me: “Why don’t I call myself a pacifist?” I don’t favour violence but I think the old assumption “you’re either for war or you’re a pacifist” is wrong.

There’s a third position, which I think was Gandhi’s position. I’m working to develop nonviolent struggle as a viable alternative. Only if you have a viable alternative can you have a chance of getting it used and being effective. And that is not a case of refusing to use violence, that’s a case of using nonviolent struggle competently. That needs a new name. I’m not sure what that name would be.