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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.”


8 facts everyone should know about the Iraq crisis

8 facts everyone should know about the Iraq crisis
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
8 September 2014

Just over ten years since it failed the public so completely over the 2003 Iraq War, the mainstream media’s coverage of the current Iraq crisis has been predictably awful.

“Stop droning on Mr Cameron… SEND IN THE DRONES” was The Sun’s considered front page on 4 September 2014. At the opposite end of the British press spectrum The Independent’s front page read “Your move, Mr President”. Egging the US and UK on, The Independent noted “The leader of the free world has begun to look alarmingly impotent.” The other liberal outpost of the British media, The Guardian, supports the US air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS or Islamic State).

As always, the BBC has been working hard to amplify the British elite’s concerns. On 4 September 2014 the BBC Today Programme invited on Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary who played a central role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, to speak in the prime interview slot about why he supports the bombing of ISIS. Interviewing former Chief of the Defence Staff David Richards the next morning, Today Programme presenter John Humphrys made the following biased statement: “We have this bunch of mad men rampaging across the Middle East and they have to be stopped. They have to be not only contained but – I don’t know whether you’ll agree with this – but destroyed.”

Then there was the 30 August 2014 BBC Newsnight special on the fallout from the August 2013 parliamentary vote against UK military action in Syria. The diverse range of studio guests invited to discuss the topic were former Defence Secretary Liam Fox MP, Paddy Ashdown, former First Sea Lord Lord West, former Head of the British Army Lord Dannatt, Neo-Conservative Francis Fukuyama and Professor Mary Kaldor (Kaldor was able to squeeze in a couple of sentences pushing for a more measured response to ISIS before she was cut off).

Reading, watching and listening to this “babbling brook of bullshit”, like many people I’m sure, I’ve become increasingly angry at the narrowness of the debate and just how closely the media’s framing of the issue follows that of the US and UK governments. Therefore, I’ve decided to pull together some of the pertinent facts and arguments that the media refuses to mention and discuss.

Fact 1: Many experts argue Western airstrikes are counterproductive and will likely energise ISIS

Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis told the New York Times on 7 August 2014: “It should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”

Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, argued on 7 June 2014: “Far from hurting the terrorists, re-engaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put us back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape,” He concludes: “US military involvement can only hurt, not help.”

Writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, on 8 August 2014 Steven Simon, senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011-12, argued US air strikes “will almost certainly unite Sunnis against other sects and boost support for Isis while fuelling disdain for the United States.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! on 29 August 2014, Jonathan Steele, the Guardian’s former Chief Foreign Policy correspondent and author of ‘Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq’, argued “Military strikes by the West are not likely to be effective in the long term, and again as we’ve seen in many places – Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan – they tend to be counterproductive and only create more recruits for the enemy you are trying to deal with.”

Fact 2: The US and UK’s 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq played an important role in the rise of ISIS

Despite Tony Blair’s comically desperate attempts to duck responsibility, there is broad agreement among Iraq observers like Professor George Joffe, a Middle East expert at the University of Cambridge, that the US-UK invasion and occupation played an important role in the rise of ISIS – both in the chaos and sectarianism the US-UK occupation (often deliberately) caused, and the violence US and UK forces visited on the local population. For example, the New York Times recently reported the following about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’s involvement in Iraq.” The article goes on to note Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison “where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised”. [my emphasis added].

Fact 3: The US and UK enabled the growth of ISIS by supporting the rebels in Syria

The media quickly leapt on and amplified Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that it was President Obama’s inaction in Syria that created space for ISIS to grow. However, what the media failed to mention was the far more important connection between the West, Syria and ISIS – that the West’s ongoing intervention in Syria is a key reason behind ISIS’s growth.

The US, often with the help of the UK and France, has been supporting the rebels in Syria since at least early 2012. The CIA has played a key role, coordinating large arm shipments to the insurgents, training rebels in Jordan and providing significant amounts of non-lethal and financial support.

This support has likely escalated and prolonged the fighting, and created the conditions in which ISIS flourish. As Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent and author of ‘The jihadis return: ISIS and the failures of the Global War on Terror’, explained: the “U.S. government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.”

This is not the benefit of hindsight. Writing in June 2013, two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned about the consequences of Western military engagement in Syria, such as directly arming the rebels:

“Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country.” [emphasis added]

Fact 4: US-supplied arms to Syrian rebels have ended up in the hands of ISIS

It is well known that ISIS captured large amounts of US-supplied arms when the Iraqi Army fled in the face of the initial ISIS advance in June 2014. What has not been reported widely is the fact ISIS have been seen using weapons the CIA helped send to rebels in Syria.

In April 2013 the New York Times reported the “CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters”. Starting in early 2012 this had “grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights”. The report went on to explain “American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia”. A year later Brown Moses, a blogger who tracks weapons use in Syria, discovered ISIS were deploying Croatian arms against US-made Armoured Personnel Carriers used by government forces in Iraq. A new investigation by Conflict Armament Research confirms that ISIS has stocks of Yugoslav anti-tank weapons originally sent to rebels in Syria.

More broadly, almost certainly ISIS have received US supplied-weapons as members of the US-supported Free Syrian Army have switched allegiances and joined ISIS. “In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer. All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State”, a high level security commander of Islamic State told the Washington Post.

This transfer of arms into the hands of extremists such as ISIS has been repeatedly predicted by many establishment experts including the Royal United Service Institute’s Shashank Joshi and Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy from the European Council on Foreign Relations. The latter noted “it is unrealistic to expect that weapons can be guaranteed to end up in the hands of pro-Western actors. The US and its allies were unable to achieve the micromanagement of weapons control in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a massive physical presence there, so it is unlikely that they will fare better doing this with a light footprint.” Indeed as early as October 2012 US officials said they were concerned that arms being supplied to rebels with the help of the CIA were going to “hard-line Islamic jihiadists”.

The US continues to arm Syrian rebels.

Fact 5: Turkey, a NATO member, has supported ISIS

On 5 September 2014 President Obama hailed the creation of a “core coalition” that would focus on destroying ISIS. The coalition is made up of ten countries, including Turkey.

According to the Washington Post, NATO member Turkey “rolled out the red carpet” to Islamic State and other jihadists fighting the Syrian Government. Wounded jihadists from Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front were treated at Turkish hospitals while Turkish border towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms into Syria. Islamic State “were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member – Turkey – as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war”, the Washington Post notes.

Turkey continues to be a major recipient of US arms.

Fact 6: Western allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia have played an important role in the rise of ISIS

Quoting US and Arab officials, in June 2012 Wall Street Journal reported “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. The New York Times noted “relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.” In May 2013 The Financial Times estimated Qatari support for Syrian rebels at $3 billion.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia deny they have funded ISIS and other jihadis. However, many disagree. Patrick Cockburn argued “the foster parents of Isis and the other Sunni jihadi movements in Iraq and Syria are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey… Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington and head of Saudi intelligence from 2012 to February 2014, was doing everything he could to back the jihadi opposition [in Syria] until his dismissal.” The Atlantic notes ISIS’s success in Iraq “is in part due to the support they have received from two Persian Gulf countries: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.” Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, believes that the rise of ISIS was the consequence of “sustained funding” from Saudi Arabia.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this support is from the Qatari and Saudi governments or from private individuals from these countries. However, Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University and the author of ‘After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies’, argues the claim private individuals in the Gulf are the source of the trouble “is problematic at best, and bogus at worst.” This is because nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are not really ‘states’ that conform to international definitions, as powerful, wealthy figures (whether princes, sheikhs, or members of the merchant elite) usually wear multiple hats, often slipping in and out of governmental positions”.

The New York Times reported the US knew as early as spring 2011 that Qatari support for rebels in Libya meant, in part, sending arms to jihadis. The article explained that “the weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilising force since the fall of the Qaddafi government”.

So, to be clear, the US, aware that that Qatar armed jihadists in Libya, chose to continue using Qatar as a proxy to arm the rebels in Syria.

Fact 7: Supported and armed by the US, the Iraqi Government perpetrates serious human rights abuses – which likely increases support for ISIS

In May 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the Iraqi Government has been dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods in Fallujah. HRW also noted the Iraqi Government has “repeatedly struck Fallujah General Hospital with mortar shells and other munitions”. These indiscriminate attacks “have caused civilian casualties and forced thousands of residents to flee”, according to the report. Summarising findings by the United Nations Human Rights Council the Telegraph noted Iraqi Government soldiers “have indiscriminately shelled and carried out airstrikes on civilian districts of Kirkuk, Falluja, and Salahuddin, killing and injuring many dozens of residents”.

Unsurprisingly, this targeting of civilians has increased support for ISIS. Speaking to Democracy Now! about ISIS recruitment, Mohammed al Dulaimy, an Iraqi journalist with McClatchy Newspapers, said there was “a long list of reasons and a buildup of years… But I can tell you one thing that I know for sure, that the indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians by the Iraqi government is the number one.”

The US plans to strengthen the Iraqi Army.

Fact 8: The US and UK are not interested in democracy and human rights in the Middle East

In his 2003 book ‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World’ the historian Mark Curtis argued “The ideological system promotes one key concept… the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence… criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.”

Just how accurate Curtis’s rule continues to be is frankly frightening. Thus Guardian columnist (and former Editor of The Times) Simon Jenkins recently argued “10 years ago the west went to war for the sake of a better Iraq… to replace authority with democracy”. Ditto the Guardian leader column, which similarly noted in passing “western nations… had once aspired to democratically reshape the region [the Middle East]”. Writing in the Eastern Daily Press, the biggest selling regional daily newspaper in England, columnist Mark Nicholls lamented “the ultimate sacrifice of the 179 UK soldiers, and the thousands of US personnel, who gave their lives in trying to restore peace and democracy to Iraq”.

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of Western actions in the Middle East understands there is something else going on. The US and UK directed coup that overthrew of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, the West’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the US’s arming of Turkey in its war against the Kurds in the 1990s, on-going Western support for the Gulf autocracies – all strongly suggest the US and UK have little interest in democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

As Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, argued in the recent Radio 4 documentary ‘Sandhurst and the Sheikhs’: “I don’t think that the UK has a desire to see democracy in the Gulf. I think that they would probably like better functioning parliaments, higher turnouts in elections and things like this but there is certainly no desire to see the ruling families be replaced by opposition movements. I think the British Government interest is trying to make the rule of the existing monarchs more sustainable and more palatable.”

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.

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again
By Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 August 2014

We are, it would seem, being misled about Iraq once again.

On 12 August 2014 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said the UK was only providing humanitarian support and would not join the US in launching military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Within six days the Government’s position had changed, with the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, stating on 18 August 2014 that the UK’s involvement in Iraq was expanding beyond the initial humanitarian mission.

So far the UK has helped transport weapons to the Kurdish armed forces, and has said it is open to arming the Kurds directly. However, as of today the Government has not ordered British forces into battle (there are, apparently, UK special forces in Iraq but politicians refuse to give any information about this and journalists seem happy to not pry further).

With events changing rapidly – both in Iraq and Western capitals – and the UK seemingly sliding into war once again in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement, and anyone interested in keeping the US and UK out of Iraq, to apply pressure and make their arguments as forcefully as possible.

It is this critical window of opportunity that leads me to James Bloodworth’s latest blast of pro-war hot air – ‘Today ISIS is attacking the Middle East. Tomorrow it’ll be the West’. Having previously critiqued Bloodworth’s warmongering on Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’m not particularly keen to get down in the dirt again. However, his positions as Editor of the popular Left Foot Forward website and as an Independent columnist means he has a relatively wide audience, and therefore I think it’s important his simplistic, illogical and fact-free assertions are exposed for what they are.

Like much of the media and political commentary on the Iraq crisis, Bloodworth seems to have an aversion to expert testimony, instead preferring to base his argument on his own unsubstantiated claims. With this in mind, I’m going to do something really revolutionary for a journalist – cite people who have spent their professional lives visiting, researching and writing about Iraq, the Middle East and conflict more generally. Crazy, I know, but bear with me.

Bloodworth starts by arguing ‘now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS. Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists’. Sceptics among you may wonder if it’s really such a good idea for the US and UK, whose 2003 invasion cost the lives of around 500,000 Iraqis and led to 4 million refugees, to start bombing Iraq again. Indeed, if you did have these kind of outlandish reservations, you’d be in agreement with such ignorant asses as the Deputy Head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, the Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University Paul Rogers and Obama’s own Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs from 2011-12.

Bloodworth goes onto to say ‘It bears repeating: the existence of ISIS (as opposed to the group’s growth) is in no sense “our” fault.’ Now, we can get in to the semantics of what constitutes ‘fault’ but there seems to be broad agreement among Iraq observers like Professor George Joffe that the US-UK invasion of 2003 and occupation had something to do with the rise of ISIS – both in the deadly chaos and sectarianism the US-UK occupation (often deliberately) engendered, along with the repression US and UK forces directly meted out. For example, the New York Times recently reported the following about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’s involvement in Iraq.’ The article goes on to note Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison ‘where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised’ (my emphasis added). Call me old-fashioned but this suggests the US and UK bear some responsibility for the current crisis.

Echoing Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s supposed lack of action in Syria, Bloodworth further argues ‘Isis have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power’. Unfortunately for Bloodworth and the neo-con Clinton, Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, has comprehensively debunked this argument. As has the Independent’s own veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn. As did two former NATO Secretary-Generals in June 2013.

Forget Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar, a student of rhetoric would have a field day analysing Bloodworth’s work. He ends here by presenting a false binary opposition, with the pro-war pundits like himself on one side calling for action, and on the other side ‘those that are inclined to bury their heads in the sand’. In the real world, those opposed to, or at least sceptical of, US military strikes in Iraq – including Middle East scholar David Wearing, Diane Abbott MP, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6 and Guardian columnist Seamus Milne – have suggested a number of actions that could be taken that may reduce the threat from ISIS.

A few quick Google searches would have uncovered all this inconvenient expert testimony. But why complicate matters when your argument is as dangerously uninformed as Bloodworth’s is?