Tag Archives: David Aaronovitch

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 January 2018

From Iraq circa 2002-3, to Libya in 2011 and Syria today, influential liberal commentators including David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Paul Mason, Jonathan Freedland and many politicians have repeatedly pushed for Western military intervention. “Something must be done!” they shout from their newspaper columns. “We must act now before it is too late”, they warn in the House of Commons. One of the things that characterises these emotive and often simplistic calls for action are their narrow, laser-like focus on human rights abuses Western governments are publicly concerned about. Those who advise caution, critical thinking and a wider lens of analysis are often labelled naïve, or worse – apologists for the authoritarian leader in the West’s sights.

However, recent history shows this unwillingness to consider possible wider, long-term impacts of Western wars of choice has had grave consequences for the UK and the rest of the world.

Take NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, sold by Tony Blair’s government to the British public as a humanitarian intervention urgently needed to stop ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian government forces.

“The liberal press – notably the Guardian and the Independent – backed the war to the hilt (while questioning the tactics used to wage it) and lent critical weight to the government’s arguments”, British historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role In The World. In addition, “the anti-war movement failed to mobilise beyond the political margins”, explained international relations specialist Dr Aidan Hehir in a 2009 Irish Times op-ed. David Aaronovitch, then at the Independent, proclaimed he would fight if asked by the government, while Andrew Marr writing in the Observer put forward “the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further” and “put in ground troops.”

With Tony Blair basking in the liberal media’s adoration after playing a leading role in the military campaign that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, it is worth considering some of the longer term ramifications of NATO’s intervention.

It is clear the war’s perceived success (rejected by Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky) emboldened Blair, likely increasing his messianic tendencies, which many believed played a crucial role in the invasion of Iraq four years later. “It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone”, Colonel Tim Collins, a senior figure in the army in 2003, commented when the Chilcot Inquiry published its findings. “He genuinely believed he could do no wrong.” Iain Duncan Smith came to a similar conclusion when he recounted a September 2002 meeting he had with Blair to Andrew Rawnsley for his 2010 book The End Of The Party. “He’d decided this was a successful formula. He’d done Kosovo. He’d done Afghanistan. It was what he believed in”, said the Tory Party leader at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2007, Quentin Peel makes the obvious connection: “Kosovo was… a crucial moment in the development of the international vision… that eventually led to [Blair’s] backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq.” An invasion, let’s not forget, that was not authorised by the United Nations – just as the Kosovo intervention was also not backed by the UN. As the title of Dr Hehir’s Irish Times piece argued: NATO’s ‘Good War’ In Kosovo Degraded International Law.

There are other important links to the race to war in 2003. “It was during the [Kosovo] war… that Blair and Campbell hones their PR machine and Blair’s image as a humanitarian leader”, asserted former International Development Secretary Clare Short in her 2004 book An Honourable Deception? Noting how the Foreign Office had been sidelined in 1999, writing in International Affairs journal Dr Oliver Daddow argued Kosovo was the point when Blair confirmed “that he did not need to rely on Whitehall’s decision-making machinery for ideas or strategy”.

The 2011 NATO war in Libya has also had a number of influential effects on subsequent conflicts.

Backed by around 97 percent of British MPs and much of the liberal commentariat, the UK intervention was given legal cover by the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

Though the resolution did not refer to regime change – illegal under international law – the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s examination of the intervention in 2016 concluded the “limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means”.

Soon after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was forced out of Tripoli, David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a triumphalist, political capital-boosting visit to the country in September 2011 (or so they thought). Russia, on the other hand, took an entirely different lesson from the war.

Quoting a senior Obama Administration official as saying President Putin is “obsessed” by the NATO-enabled overthrow and death of Gaddafi, Julia Ioffe recently argued in The Atlantic magazine that “regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” Ioffe goes on to quote former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff as characterising Putin’s approach to Syria as “Not one more.”

A 2011 BBC article titled Why China And Russia Rebuffed The West On Syria confirms this thesis. “Libya is perhaps the prime reason” behind Russia’s vetoes at the UN on Syria, Jonathan Marcus notes. “Both the Chinese and Russian governments seem to think that the West took advantage of [UN] resolution [1973] to intervene militarily in a Libyan civil war” and carry out regime change, he notes. “They are determined not to allow any similar resolution to go forward [on Syria]”.

NATO’s intervention in Libya also had an important influence on the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government. Writing about the UN’s mediation efforts in the Syrian crisis, the academics Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman refer to “the opposition’s unrealistic expectations” of the peace process in 2012: “During a visit to a Free Syrian Army unit, one UN official found that the Libyan precedent and anti-Assad Western rhetoric had convinced opposition fighters that NATO was going to intervene on their behalf”. According to the UN official, this was “not conducive to… serious engagement.” In his 2017 book The Battle For Syria: International Rivalry In The New Middle East, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips highlights a similar dynamic with the opposition’s regional supporters in 2012: “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were convinced both that Assad was close to falling and that eventually the US would intervene as it had in Libya, and so saw no need to compromise.”

The Libyan intervention, then, was one of the reasons behind Russia’s large, obstructive role in Syria, and the decision by some opposition groups to shun negotiations aiming to end the war – two of the many reasons why the horrific conflict continues today.

So it goes. The ongoing North Korean crisis is inexorably linked with these events in the Middle East. “North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having. Libya taught a similar lesson”, Professor John Delury, a North Korean expert at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told the BBC in 2016. According to a 2017 Guardian report, North Korean “state media frequently refers to their [Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein] demise as proof that the US wolves are now at North Korea’s door.”

What these three examples show is that beyond the immediate crisis, Western military interventions have – often predictable – serious and widespread knock-on impacts that have been disastrous for the British public and the wider world. Not to say anything about how the interventions often undermine the UK government’s own interests and policy goals – Russia’s response to the Libyan intervention worked against UK policy goals in Syria, for example.

We desperately need more critical and long-term thinking when the government tries, as it inevitably will, to gain public support for its next foreign war. Rebuilding and maintaining a popular and powerful anti-war movement is an essential first step to achieving this.

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The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 January 2018

Last month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy.

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook.

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion.

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media.

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.”

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor.

“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen.

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises.

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths.

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.”

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets).

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times.

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017.

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen.

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017.

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported.

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.”

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.”

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments.

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
25 November 2013

‘No Platform’ – the decision not to give a platform to those whose views are deemed to be abhorrent – is a popular policy of the Left in the UK. Organisations can ‘No platform’ by refusing to invite certain speakers to events they organise or protesting their appearance at other events; individuals can use the tactic in a different way refusing to appear on a platform with a given individual. This tactic isolates the targeted individual, putting down a public marker showing that they are not part of normal political debate. I would argue that to be an effective and respected tactic that will be supported and understood by the general public ‘No Platform’ needs to be applied in a broadly consistent manner.

With all this in mind, it is worth giving some attention to the recent decisions of Owen Jones about who to appear with on a platform. As one of the most influential figures on the contemporary British Left, his actions inevitably serve to represent the left to some extent and are likely to shape the choices that other Leftists make about who to appear on a platform with, and who not to.  Unfortunately, his decisions seem confused and hypocritical. He appears to ‘No Platform’ relatively powerless people, while being happy to speak alongside far more objectionable members of the ruling elite.

Before I continue, however, I want to make it clear I think Owen Jones is a brilliant voice for the Left in the UK. He has successfully taken apart establishment figures such as historian David Starkey, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Guido Fawkes, has strongly criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza on BBC Question Time and destroyed the pro-war argument at the Huffington Post debate on the 2003 Iraq War. I often Tweet in support when Jones appears on television. Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.

Jones is set to speak at the 30 November 2013 Stop the War Coalition conference. On finding out Mother Agnes Mariam wad also scheduled to speak at the conference, Jones told the conference organisers he would not appear alongside her. With US journalist Jeremy Scahill also refusing to speaking alongside Mother Agnes, she has pulled out of the conference.

Mother Agnes is a Catholic nun who lived in Syria until recently. She has received a lot of media attention for arguing the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria was a provocation by Syrian rebels. Critics say she is an apologist for the Assad Government.

Jones, of course, has every right to not share a platform with someone whose views he finds objectionable. However, the problem is in February 2012 Jones appeared on BBC Question Time alongside none other than John Prescott – the Labour Deputy Prime Minister during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War has led to approximately 500,000 Iraqi deaths according to a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine.

Prescott confirms his own responsibility for being a leading participant in initiating the invasion in his autobiography:

‘The massive [15 February 2003] anti-war march in London had been very worrying, but I felt we were all in this so the cabinet should stick together.’ (John Prescott with Hunter Davies, Prezza. My Story, 2008, Headline Review, London, p. 284).

So, to put it simply, Jones is happy to appear alongside Prescott, a British politician intimately involved in initiating the illegal, aggressive invasion of another country that led to the deaths of over 500,000 people, but he refuses to speak on a platform alongside Mother Agnes who is, at worst, a propagandist for a Ba’athist dictatorship. Bashar Assad’s Government have been a leading participant in the Syrian Civil War that had killed over 100,000 people by July 2013, according to the United Nations.

Jones addressed this criticism of him in his defence of his decision not to appear at the conference alongside Mother Agnes:

‘The… argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq – including former members of the Blair government – on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where – despite differences or nuances in views – everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.’

This explanation is contradicted by Jones’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in July 2012, which I described in a previous article:

‘Finding out that Kelvin McKenzie was also on the panel, Jones pontificated on Twitter about whether he should withdraw in protest because of the former Sun Editor’s lies about the Hillsborough football victims. Unsure about the ethics of appearing with McKenzie, incredibly Jones sought the advice [through Twitter] of Iraq War supporter and Blair apologist David Aaronovitch. Jones eventually decided to appear on Any Questions, noting he would donate his appearance fee to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.’

This isn’t just about Jones – it has wider ramifications because his confusing morality is indicative of a wider cultural problem. Polls show 28 percent of respondents to a 2010 BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll said former Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes. A 2010 ComRes/Independent poll found even more support for this, with 37 per cent of people saying Blair should be put on trial. Unsurprisingly, this large section of public opinion is not reflected in the mainstream media. The Morning Star is the only national newspaper that has publicly called for Blair to face a war crimes trial, as far as I am aware.

But it’s not just silence – key participants in the initiation of the Iraq War are regularly invited onto our screens and to write for national newspapers. Prescott has hosted and appeared on the BBC’s satire programme Have I Got News For You, Alastair Campbell was invited to guest edit the New Statesman and Tony Blair regularly appears in the Guardian’s comment pages to shower us with his wisdom on peace in the Middle East.

While the opinion polls quoted above shows a significant percentage of the British public supports Blair appearing in the dock, it’s clear a further, momentous shift in public opinion would be necessary before the Blair Government is held to account for the invasion of Iraq. However, this shift is going to be all but impossible to achieve while Have I Got News For You, the New Statesman, the Guardian and, yes, Owen Jones, continue to treat the guilty men and women as though they were part of the political mainstream. In short, although Jones is a strong anti-war voice, his decisions on who to ‘No Platform’ effectively normalises the murderous actions of Prescott and his cabinet colleagues.

The west, the Middle East and oil: a conspiracy theory?

The west, the Middle East and oil: a conspiracy theory?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2015

Speaking in the House of Commons in January 2003, just two months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated “The very reason why we are taking the action that we are taking is nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward.”

Blair’s analysis was amplified by newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch who, ironically, would go on to write a book dismissing popular conspiracy theories. Addressing the more than one million people who marched through London in opposition to the impending war on 15 February 2003, Aaronovitch asked “Do you really believe that this parroted ‘war about oil’ stuff is true? If so, what were the interventions in oil-less Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan about?”

In contrast, in 2011 Zogby International polled 3,000 people in the Arab world, asking what they thought were the most important factors driving American policy in the Middle East. The top answer, given by 53% of respondents, was “controlling oil”. Suggesting that the hackneyed phrase “people are the same the world over” is actually pretty accurate, a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”.

So, who’s right? Blair and his highly-educated supporters in the media like Aaronovitch or ordinary people across the world? Let’s look at the evidence.

“We’re not there for figs”

As early as December 2001 the Chief of MI6’s private secretary wrote to Sir David Manning, Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser, explaining that the “removal of Saddam remains a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies.” Oil also seemed to be on Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s mind when he addressed 150 ambassadors in January 2003, telling them “bolster[ing] the security of British and global energy supplies” was one of the UK’s top foreign policy objectives.

Top US policymakers had made similar calculations. Asked at the May 2003 Asia Security Conference  why the US invaded Iraq and not nuclear-armed North Korea, US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said “Look, the primarily difference – to put it a little too simply – between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.” Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who became the US Secretary of Defense in 2013, was also at the conference. In 2007 he confirmed Wolfowitz’s comments, stating “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.”

Recently released previously confidential emails to then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton suggest similar concerns about energy resources were behind the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The US-based online newspaper Al Monitor reported that the emails show French spies secretly organised and funded the Libyan rebels who overthrew Gaddafi. According to one of the memos from March 2011 the French intelligence service “indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favour French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.”

Similarly, in September 2011, with Libyan Government forces in disarray, the US Ambassador reopened the US Embassy in the country, telling reporters “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources”. For the New York Times the Ambassador’s remarks “were a rare nod to the tacit economic stakes in the Libyan conflict for the United States and other Western countries.”

Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), is far blunter is his assessment of NATO motivations for intervening. “It’s absolutely obvious that oil is a key factor”, he told Democracy Now! in August 2011. “And had Libya not been an oil country, they wouldn’t have intervened.”

Achcar’s conclusion may seem simplistic but it’s backed up by a recent study conducted by academics from the universities of Portsmouth, Warwick and Essex and published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Analysing 69 civil wars between 1945 and 1999, the study found foreign intervention is far more likely when the afflicted country has high oil reserves than if it has none.

“The biggest prize in the world”

These examples from recent Western wars in the Middle East fit perfectly with the broader historical record. Even the language stays the same. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, 1943: “The oil of Saudi Arabia constitutes one of the world’s greatest prizes.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1957: Middle East oil is “the biggest prize in the world”. David Wearing, who lectures on the Middle East at SOAS, confirmed the West’s long-term interests in the region in a recent tweet: “Just reviewed 40 academic accounts of history of UK-US involvement in Gulf& MidEast. Not one thinks oil isn’t strategic priority.”

With the US largely energy self-sufficient, it’s important to understand Western intervention in the Arab world isn’t about access to Middle Eastern energy supplies but about control. Speaking about the 2011 NATO war in Libya Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained: “It’s not about access to the oil itself. That will be on a global market. It will be part of it. It’s about control. It’s about controlling the terms of those contracts. It’s about controlling amounts that are being pumped at different times. It’s about controlling prices. It’s about controlling that crucial resource.” Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski provided a Machiavellian take on Bennis’s argument in 2003. “America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region’s vast energy supplies”, he noted. “America’s security role in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region.”

And it’s also important to realize that what the West wants – control of Middle Eastern energy supplies – the West doesn’t necessarily get. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, “Stuff happens”. For example, Libya is mired in chaos and violence (in no small part because of the Western intervention in 2011), so is unable to maximise its oil exports. And, in Iraq, a number of very lucrative oil contracts have been awarded to Russia and China – both of whom opposed the invasion in 2003.

However, all of this doesn’t change the central, inconvenient (at least for Western leaders) fact: far from being a “conspiracy theory”, arguing that oil is the key factor behind Western actions in the Middle East is one of the most evidence-based statements that one can make.

Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics

Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 June 2015

“I don’t bother writing about Fox News. It is too easy”, American dissident Noam Chomsky explained in 2010. “What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that.”

The recent column about the Labour leadership contest from the Guardian’s highly influential Labour-supporting commentator Polly Toynbee provides a perfect example of Chomsky’s truism.

According to Toynbee, of the four hopefuls the Labour left candidate Jeremy Corbyn “is the free spirit, the outsider not playing by the usual political rules.” And that, apparently, is precisely the problem with the Member of Parliament for Islington North: “Unfettered by what a majority of voters beyond Islington might support in a real election, he’s a romantic, saying what no doubt many Labour members believe”. Smearing by association, Toynbee dismisses Corbyn as “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. Voting for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, according to Toynbee.

Having finished her demolition, Toynbee then literally erases Corbyn from the race, arrogantly debating the prospects of “the three main contenders” before settling on the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper as the most promising candidate.

Toynbee’s argument echoes the feelings of a large section of the so-called progressive, liberal intelligentsia. “I could probably live with any of the other candidates”, noted Labour MP and BBC commentator Alan Johnson about Corbyn, likening his politics to electoral “suicide”. Ditto the Guardian’s Martin Kettle (“Corbyn offers a programme of prelapsarian socialist purity”), the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, (Corbyn is proof “crazy Labour is alive and well”) and Blairite foot soldier David Aaronovitch.

As Chomsky said: do not go “one millimetre beyond” the limits of acceptable debate.

But how valid is Toynbee’s central criticism – that Corbyn is out of touch with public opinion? Let’s look at the polling data on some of Corbyn’s key political stances:

  • He supports a publicly run NHS, a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a November 2013 YouGov poll.
  • He supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according to the same poll.
  • He supports the nationalisation of the energy companies, a position supported by 68 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according to the same poll.
  • He believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, according to the same poll.
  • He supports rent controls, a position supported by 60% of the public, including 42% of Conservatives, according to an April 2015 YouGov poll.
  • He opposes the retention of Trident nuclear weapons, a position John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, notes is supported by a “smallist plurality” in “the majority of polls”.
  • He strongly opposed the 2003 Iraq War, which was also opposed by the more than one million people who marched through London on 15 February 2003.
  • He has long pushed for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, a position favoured by 82 per cent of the public, according to a May 2014 YouGov poll.

So, contrary to Toynbee’s assertions, Corbyn’s key political positions are in actual fact supported by a majority of the British public. (And arguably the issues that Corbyn is out of step with public opinion on, such as immigration and welfare, are those that have been engulfed in huge amounts of media-driven ignorance).

In short, if anyone is out of touch with public opinion, it is not Corbyn but Toynbee, most of the liberal intelligentsia and the three other Labour leadership contenders.

Countering David Aaronovitch’s ‘humanitarianism’ on Iraq

Countering David Aaronovitch’s ‘humanitarianism’ on Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2013

Along with fellow journalists Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens, ten years ago David Aaronovitch was an important liberal advocate for war on Iraq.

Writing for the Independent and then the Guardian, curiously Aaronovitch’s changing reasons for supporting the invasion closely followed the Government’s own shifting justifications. So when Tony Blair started pushing the humanitarian argument in early 2003, Aaronovitch was right behind him. “I was never in favour of this war mainly because of the threats of terrorism of WMDs. Getting rid of Saddam (and therefore the myriad afflictions of the Iraqi people) was enough”, he wrote in April 2003.

When, you might wonder, did Aaronovitch have his damascene conversion to ridding the world of Hussein by foreign invasion? Certainly not on 8 August 2002 when he said of removing Saddam, “But we can’t… Wars are very particular things and civilised nations can’t just have them when they feel like it or when they feel they have run out of options”. Later the same month Aaronovitch seemed to cry out for some evidence that would justify the invasion: “But war? Show me the evidence first. Don’t just tell me you have it, tell me what it is.” The title of this article? I’m All For War On Iraq – But Only If I See The Evidence That Saddam Is A Threat. Strange words and title, I’m sure you agree, for a man solely interested in toppling the Iraqi dictator.

It was this magpie-like moral positioning that led to the famous April 2003 letter in the Guardian asking “When is your walking mid-life crisis of a columnist David Aaronovitch and all the other liberal solipsists, going to realise that this war is not about them or their delicate consciences?”

Ten years and around one million Iraqi dead later and you might think Aaronovitch would be a little sheepish about his enabling role in the slaughter. If so, you’d be mistaken. His performance at last month’s Huffington Post debate on Iraq was a master class in the kind of denial of reality that he ridicules conspiracy theorists for in his book Voodoo Histories.

“What you’ve got to try and remember when you deal with Saddam Hussein, is that you are not dealing with sodding Mubarak”, he explained to the audience at Goldsmiths. “Mubarak was a bad and authoritarian man but there are scales and scales of authoritarianism and Saddam Hussein was right down the Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin end of the scale.” Because of his “terrible blend of external aggression and internal repression”, foreign invasion was the only way to get rid of Hussein, Aaronovitch maintained in his subsequent Times column.

Of course, equating Hussein with the leader of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union at the height of its power would likely lead to a very poor mark in a GCSE history exam. And as veteran journalist Philip Knightly pointed out in the Guardian in 2001, demonising the enemy’s leader is a key stage of Western media disinformation campaigns to prepare a nation for conflict. However, if you can wade through Aaronovitch’s slurry of propaganda, there is an important and popular argument to refute here – that a foreign invasion was the only way to topple Hussein.

So what were the facts of the ground in 2003 when Tony Blair and Aaronovitch were attempting to persuade the British public to support the invasion of Iraq? First, let’s look at Hussein’s external aggression. As late as February 2001 US Secretary of State Colin Powell was saying Hussein “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.” US dissident Noam Chomsky agreed with Powell in 2003, noting it “is well known” that “Iraq is militarily and economically the weakest country in the region.”

How about his internal repression within Iraq? By 2002 Amnesty International was counting the number of prisoners of conscience and executions in “scores”. “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention”, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch noted. “By the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein’s killing had ebbed”.

As these examples illustrate, what is missing from Aaronovitch’s disingenuous humanitarian argument is any specificity about time. Yes, Hussein was a serious threat to his neighbours and population in the 1980s – when the US and UK were backing him to the hilt – but by 2003 his power had been significantly reduced by 12 years of sanctions and no-fly zones. Speaking in August 2002 Sharif Ali Bin AlHussein, an exiled opposition leader with the Iraqi National Congress, confirmed this analysis. Hussein “is very weak” and the Iraqi military is “ready to rise up”, CNN reported AlHussein as saying.

These basic facts are important but they are something of a side issue. As the historian of nonviolent revolution Gene Sharp told me when I asked him about the humanitarian argument for invading Iraq, “It has been shown repeatedly that there are alternative ways of overthrowing dictators.” To support his assertion Sharp pointed to the people power of the Arab Spring. Certainly the removal of the western-backed dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak by their own populations proved to many the fallacy of deposing Hussein by foreign invasion. But as Aaronovitch feels Mubarak isn’t fit to shine Hussein’s shoes when it comes to repressive rule, how about the example of Chileans ousting US-backed Augusto Pinochet in 1989? Still not enough “internal repression” for you, David? How about Iranians toppling the Shah in 1979, a regime with the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976? In East Timor, Amnesty International reported that Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1989. 200,000 people was about one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

All these examples appear in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, a landmark study published last year that analyses 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900-2006. Rather than external military invasions, authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objective. More importantly in terms of countering Aaronovitch’s focus on the “scale of authoritarianism”, the book notes “Nonviolent campaigns succeed against democracies and non-democracies, weak and powerful opponents, conciliatory and repressive regimes.”

“It’s not the nature of the opponent that determines the effectiveness of the [rebellion’s] strategy”, Stephan explains in an interview. “It’s much more some of these internal, intrinsic characteristics of the movement.”

Of course, we can not be certain that Iraqis would have been able to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But, as Chomsky argued just before the 2003 invasion, if the murderous sanctions regime had been lifted “there’s every reason to believe that they’ll get rid of him the way that others have.”

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 April 2013

The Twitter equivalent of a bickering married couple, during one of their regular Twitter spats Times newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch and Huffington Post Political Editor Mehdi Hasan recently alighted on a point of agreement. The US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan was “UN [United Nations] sanctioned”, they both said. But are they right? With British forces formally handing over the military command of Helmand to US forces, it seems a good point to look at the legal status of the bombing and invasion in October 2001.

Written in 2010, the official House of Commons Library briefing paper on the subject provides interesting reading: “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN, but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” The paper goes on to explain that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The accepted exceptions to this are where the Security Council authorises military action, or where it is in self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter.

As the paper alludes to, the United Nations Security Council did not authorise the military attack on Afghanistan. Furthermore, there is reason to believe the US and UK’s citing of Article 51 is suspect too.

Writing a month into the invasion, Marjorie Cohn, a Professor of Law at California’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, described the US and UK attack as “a patently illegal use of armed force.” The bombing was not a legitimate form of self-defence under Article 51 for two reasons, according to Cohn. First, “the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another state.” Indeed, as Frank Ledwidge argues in his new book Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, “the Taliban certainly were not aware of the 9/11 plot, and equally certainly would not have approved even if they had been.” Cohn’s second criticism is “there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the US after September 11, or the US would not have waited three weeks before initiating its bombing campaign.” Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, is in agreement on the latter point, arguing “the right of unilateral self-defence does not include the right to retaliate once an attack has stopped.”

Even if one were to agree the West’s attack was legitimate under Article 51, the House of Commons Library paper notes proportionality is central to the use of force in self-defence. “It may not be considered proportionate to produce the same amount of damage” as the initial attack, the paper notes. Writing in November 2001, Brian Foley, Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, maintained “these attacks on Afghanistan most likely do not stand up as proportional to the threat of terrorism on US soil.” Having undertaken a systematic study of press reports and eyewitness accounts, Professor Marc Herold from the University of Hampshire found more civilians were killed during ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ than died on 9/11.

Moreover, the House of Commons Library briefing paper inadvertently highlights the crux of the issue: “The USA might conceivably have gained specific legal support from the Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, but in the end did not seek such a Resolution.” With much of the world standing in sympathy alongside the US, why didn’t the US try to get UN Security Council authorisation for their attack on Afghanistan? “An immediate need after 9/11 was to recover imperial prestige swiftly and decisively”, argue Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls in their book Bleeding Afghanistan. Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Speaking just after the bombing had started the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq concurred with this reason for the attack: “The US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world.” The last thing a nation attempting to “recover imperial prestige” would want to be seen doing is asking the United Nations for permission to act – a sure sign of weakness to the watching world.

The likely illegality of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan remains one of the biggest secrets of the so-called ‘war on terror’. No overt censorship is needed – just an intellectual culture and corporate-dominated journalism that has (often heated) discussion within a narrow set of factual and ideological boundaries. But while it is perhaps right to be forgiving of those who lost their critical faculties during those days of high emotion immediately after 9/11, how should we judge the ignorance of two award-winning journalists repeating the official deception 13 years later?