Friday, 30 August 2013

We should have been traumatised into action by this war in 2011. But now?

Iran is ever more deeply involved in protecting the Syrian government. Thus a victory for Bashar is a victory for Iran. And Iranian victories cannot be tolerated by the West

By Robert Fisk                                   Independent/UK                                                      29 August 2013

Before the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world begins – I am, of course, referring to the attack on Syria that we all yet have to swallow – it might be as well to say that the cruise missiles which we confidently expect to sweep onto one of mankind’s oldest cities have absolutely nothing to do with Syria. They are intended to harm Iran. They are intended to strike at the Islamic republic now that it has a new and vibrant president – as opposed to the crackpot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and when it just might be a little more stable. Iran is Israel’s enemy. Iran is therefore, naturally, America’s enemy. So fire the missiles at Iran’s only Arab ally.

There is nothing pleasant about the regime in Damascus. Nor do these comments let the regime off the hook when it comes to mass gassing. But I am old enough to remember when Iraq – then America’s ally – used gas. I also remember that the CIA put it about in 1988 that Iran was responsible for the Hallabjah gassings, a palpable lie that focused on America’s enemy whom Saddam was then fighting on our behalf. And thousands – not hundreds – died in Hallabjah. But there you go. Different days, different standards.

And I suppose it’s worth noting that when Israel killed up to 17,000 men, women and children in Lebanon in 1982, in an invasion supposedly provoked by the attempted PLO murder of the Israeli ambassador in London – it was Saddam’s mate Abu Nidal who arranged the killing, not the PLO, but that doesn’t matter now – America merely called for both sides to exercise “restraint”. And when, a few months before that invasion, Hafez al-Assad – father of Bashar – sent his brother up to Hama to wipe out thousands of Muslim Brotherhood rebels, nobody muttered a word of condemnation. “Anyway, there’s a different Brotherhood around these days – and Obama couldn’t even bring himself to say “boo” when their elected president got deposed.

But hold on. Didn’t Iraq – when it was “our” ally against Iran – also use gas on the Iranian army? It did. I saw the Ypres-like wounded of this foul attack by Saddam – US officers, I should add, toured the battlefield later and reported back to Washington – and we didn’t care a tinker’s curse about it. Thousands of Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war were poisoned to death by this vile weapon. I travelled back to Tehran overnight on a train of military wounded and actually smelled the stuff, opening the windows in the corridors to release the stench of the gas.

So what in heaven’s name are we doing? After countless thousands have died in Syria’s awesome tragedy, suddenly – now, after months and years of prevarication – we are getting upset about a few hundred deaths. Terrible. Unconscionable. Yes, that is true. But we should have been traumatised into action by this war in 2011. And 2012. But why now?

I suspect I know the reason. I think that Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless army might just be winning against the rebels whom we secretly arm. A victory for Bashar is a victory for Iran. And Iranian victories cannot be tolerated by the West. And while we’re on the subject of war, what happened to those magnificent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that John Kerry was boasting about? While we express our anguish at the hideous gassings in Syria, the land of Palestine continues to be gobbled up. Israel’s Likudist policy – to negotiate for peace until there is no Palestine left – continues apace, which is why King Abdullah of Jordan’s nightmare grows larger: that “Palestine” will be in Jordan, not in Palestine.

But if we are to believe the nonsense coming out of Washington, London, Paris and the rest of the “civilised” world, it’s only a matter of time before our swift and avenging sword smiteth the Damascenes. To observe the leadership of the rest of the Arab world applauding this destruction is perhaps the most painful historical experience for the region to endure. And the most shameful. Save for the fact that we will be attacking Shia Muslims and their allies to the handclapping of Sunni Muslims.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Does Obama Know He’s Fighting on al-Qa’ida’s Side?

by Robert Fisk                                      Independent/UK                                              August 28, 2013

If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Quite an alliance! Was it not the Three Musketeers who shouted “All for one and one for all” each time they sought combat? This really should be the new battle cry if – or when – the statesmen of the Western world go to war against Bashar al-Assad. The men who destroyed so many thousands on 9/11 will then be fighting alongside the very nation whose innocents they so cruelly murdered almost exactly 12 years ago. Quite an achievement for Obama, Cameron, Hollande and the rest of the miniature warlords.

This, of course, will not be trumpeted by the Pentagon or the White House – nor, I suppose, byal-Qa’ida – though they are both trying to destroy Bashar. So are the Nusra front, one of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates. But it does raise some interesting possibilities. Maybe the Americans should ask al-Qa’ida for intelligence help – after all, this is the group with “boots on the ground”, something the Americans have no interest in doing. And maybe al-Qa’ida could offer some target information facilities to the country which usually claims that the supporters of al-Qa’ida, rather than the Syrians, are the most wanted men in the world.

There will be some ironies, of course. While the Americans drone al-Qa’ida to death in Yemen and Pakistan – along, of course, with the usual flock of civilians – they will be giving them, with the help of Messrs Cameron, Hollande and the other Little General-politicians, material assistance in Syria by hitting al-Qa’ida’s enemies. Indeed, you can bet that the one target the Americans will not strike in Syria will be al-Qa’ida or the Nusra front. And our own Prime Minister will applaud whatever the Americans do, thus allying himself with al-Qa’ida.

In Iraq, we went to war on the basis of lies originally uttered by fakers and conmen. Now it’s war by YouTube. This doesn’t mean that the terrible images of the gassed and dying Syrian civilians are false. It does mean that any evidence to the contrary is going to have to be suppressed. For example, no-one is going to be interested in persistent reports in Beirut that three Hezbollah members – fighting alongside government troops in Damascus – were apparently struck down by the same gas on the same day, supposedly in tunnels. So if Syrian government forces used gas, how come Hezbollah men might have been stricken too? Blowback?

And while we’re talking about institutional memory, hands up which of our jolly statesmen know what happened last time the Americans took on the Syrian government army? I bet they can’t remember. Well it happened in Lebanon when the US Air Force decided to bomb Syrian missiles in the Bekaa Valley on 4 December 1983. I recall this very well because I was here in Lebanon. An American A-6 fighter bomber was hit by a Syrian Strela missile – Russian made, naturally – and crash-landed in the Bekaa; its pilot, Mark Lange, was killed, its co-pilot, Robert Goodman, taken prisoner and freighted off to jail in Damascus. Jesse Jackson had to travel to Syria to get him back after almost a month amid many clichés about “ending the cycle of violence”.

Sure, we are told that it will be a short strike on Syria, in and out, a couple of days. That’s what Obama likes to think. But think Iran. Think Hezbollah. I rather suspect – if Obama does go ahead – that this one will run and run.

© 2013 The Independent [Abbrev.]

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

An attack on Syria will only spread the war and killing

Instead of removing the chemical weapon threat, another western assault on the Arab world risks escalation and backlash.

Seumas Milne                                    Guardian/UK                                           27 August 2013

All the signs are they're going to do it again. The attack on Syria now being planned by the US and its allies will be the ninth direct western military intervention in an Arab or Muslim country in 15 years. Depending how you cut the cake, the looming bombardment follows onslaughts on Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as a string of murderous drone assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The trigger for the buildup to a new intervention – what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – certainly has the hallmarks of a horrific atrocity. Hundreds, mostly civilians, are reported killed and many more wounded. But so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it's hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a "red line" for escalation.

Whatever evidence is produced this week, it's highly unlikely to be definitive. But that won't hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria's grisly struggle for power. A comparison of their response to the Ghouta killings with this month's massacres of anti-coup protesters in Egypt gives a measure of how far humanitarianism rules the day. The Syrian atrocity, where the death toll has been reported by opposition-linked sources at 322 but is likely to rise, was damned as a "moral obscenity" by US secretary of state John Kerry. The killings in Egypt, the vast majority of them of civilians, have been estimated at 1,295 over two days. But Obama said the US wasn't "taking sides", while Kerry claimed the army was "restoring democracy".

In reality, western and Gulf regime intervention in Syria has been growing since the early days of what began as a popular uprising against an autocratic regime but has long since morphed into a sectarian and regional proxy war, estimated to have killed over 100,000, balkanised the country and turned a million people into refugees.

Until now, the western camp has been prepared to bleed Syria while Obama has resisted pressure for what he last week called more "difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment". Now the risk to US red line credibility seems to have tipped him over to back a direct military attack.

But even if it turns out that regime forces were responsible for Ghouta, that's unlikely to hold them to account or remove the risk from chemical weapons. More effective would be an extension of the weapons inspectors' mandate to secure chemical dumps, backed by a united security council, rather than moral grandstanding by governments that have dumped depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Agent Orange around the region and beyond.

In any case, chemical weapons are far from being the greatest threat to Syria's people. That is the war itself and the death and destruction that has engulfed the country. If the US, British and French governments were genuinely interested in bringing it to an end – instead of exploiting it to weaken Iran – they would be using their leverage with the rebels and their sponsors to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement.

Instead, they seem intent on escalating the war to save Obama's face and tighten their regional grip. It's a dangerous gamble, which British MPs have a responsibility to oppose on Thursday. Even if the attacks are limited, they will certainly increase the death toll and escalate the war. The risk is that they will invite retaliation by Syria or its allies – including against Israel – draw the US in deeper and spread the conflict. The west can use this crisis to help bring Syria's suffering to an end – or pour yet more petrol on the flames.

Twitter: @SeumasMilne

The heroism of Antoinette Tuff

The way she talked down a gunman at her school, armed only with her faith, shows we needn't assume the worst in others.

Gary Younge                                      Guardian/UK 25                                                 August, 2013

In January, when Barack Obama called for the US nation to put pressure on politicians to pass gun control legislation, he warned: "Every day we wait [the number of Americans who die at the end of a gun] will keep growing." Last Tuesday was set to be one of those days. While legislation lay orphaned in Congress, 20-year-old Michael Hill walked into Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and "nothing to live for".

With 870 children inside aged between five and 11 years and Hill confessing that he had not been taking his psychiatric medication, the nation was, in all likelihood, staring down the barrel of yet another horrific school shooting.

Luckily for everybody, Hill took as his hostage the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. What followed was an amazing illustration of calm and brinkmanship by Tuff – all recorded on her call to emergency services – during which she managed to successfully negotiate between Hill and the police. "We're not going to hate you," she said, referring to him first as "sir" and later as "sweetie" and "baby". "My pastor, he just started this teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord," recalled Tuff, who said she was terrified. "I just sat there and started praying."

And so in between updates with the 911 dispatcher she shared her own travails with Hill, telling him about her divorce and disabled son, all the while reassuring him. "I love you. I'm proud of you. We all go through something in life. You're gonna be OK. Sweetheart. I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me." Eventually, while keeping police at a distance, she persuaded him to give up his weapons, lie on the floor and give himself up.

After the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children and six adults dead, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, insisted the incident was not evidence of the need for more gun control but more guns. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,'' he said. Tuff's action shows neither guns nor guys are necessarily compulsory. A woman armed with emotional intelligence, immense poise and copious amounts of empathy can do the job and leave everybody alive.

This incident raises a number of policy issues beyond its own drama: the availability of guns, healthcare (Hill was off his medication because his Medicaid had expired) and mental health services (inadequate provision in the US makes prisons and jails the main facilities, effectively criminalising mental illness). But it also raises two broader cultural points.

First, politicians cannot legislate to ensure the existence of people such as Tuff. And even if they could it would be unreasonable to expect such heroism from anyone. They can, nonetheless, learn a great deal from her. For her generosity of spirit, capacity to humanise the potential shooter and ability to identify with him through her own vulnerabilities do tell us a great deal about what is lacking in our politics.

Our politics, particularly in an age of terror, austerity and growing inequality, is predicated on the basis that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy. The poor are assumed not to be looking for work but cheating on welfare; foreigners are assumed to be taking something from a culture rather than contributing something to it; public sector workers, like Tuff, are assumed not to be devoted to public service but a drain on our taxes. The disabled are assumed to be well. When we look at others, the default position in much of western political culture is not to see ourselves in them but to see a threat.

So Tuff's courage stands as the most dramatic illustration of the degree to which we are, and can be, so much more impressive than our politics suggests. Few can do what Tuff did in that moment. And yet many are driven by a similar spirit to help and serve and all have the wherewithal to identify with others.

Examples abound. Like the small working-class Appalachian town of Vicco, Kentucky (population 355), which voted for lesbian and gay equality in January; or Natasha Knotts, who met Hill at her husband's church and set about trying to be a maternal figure for him. "I don't have the papers, but I have the heart," she said.

Which brings us to the second point: religion. For it was in and through her faith that Tuff drew the strength to deal with the situation. That is what religion does for many people. It grounds them. It's the means by which they make sense of the world around them, their place in it and their relationship to others. For many it is the bedrock of their community and identity.

I'm not religious: I'm a lapsed agnostic. I used to not know and then just stopped caring. But I'm a liberal secularist. I believe religion has no role in the state and nobody, including the state, has the right to dictate to women what they should wear.

However, it has become fashionable, particularly among those who think themselves progressive in Europe, to disparage not just faith but the faithful (with particular disdain reserved for Islam). All too often mistaking incivility for satire, those who set themselves up as the arbiters of reason present religion as the source of the world's problems and the religious as its unquestioning dupes.

Emerging from a decade that pitted George Bush against Osama bin Laden to deadly effect, we should not be too surprised. People have done terrible things in the name of religion. From Pol Pot to the reign of terror following the French revolution, they have also done terrible things in the name of reason.

Leaving aside for a moment where ridiculing the religious leaves the contributions of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Trevor Huddleston, Bruce Kent, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Gandhi and Malcolm X: where does it leave Tuff? A sucker or a saviour?

We can't all be that heroic. But we all deserve a political culture that assumes the best of us rather than pandering to the worst, and the space to find our best selves free from contempt, so long as we don't harm anyone else on the way.

The last word I will give to Tuff. As she hung up on the dispatcher and the police took Hill, she uttered through her tears: "Woo, Jesus."

Twitter: @garyyounge

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Heroes and villains – a modern definition

Whistleblowers are vilified or intimidated while the wrongs and the wrongdoers that they expose go uninvestigated

Paul  Vallely                          Independent/UK                             25 August,  2013

It takes a lot to overshadow the news that the biggest leaker of military secrets in American history has just been jailed for 35 years – a sentence some regard as outrageous and others as so lenient it constitutes a tacit rebuke to the US government for prosecuting Private Bradley Manning, the soldier responsible for the leaks, instead of lauding the whistleblower for exposing human rights abuses by the American military.
But the world went to bed on Thursday calling the defendant Bradley, and on Friday morning learned that Manning gender dysphoria and from now on wanted to be considered a woman named Chelsea. (The Independent on Sunday uses Manning's preferred feminine pronouns.)

The self-righteousness and self-delusion about much of the comment was an apt metaphor for a more profound muddle. How, in all the current preoccupation with secrets and leaks, does society achieve a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the obligation of the government to ensure national security?
Hero or zero computations do not work in these cases. Much of what Manning did was a global public service, drawing attention to morally questionable US behaviour in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thanks to her, we have evidence of American troops killing women and children, and then calling in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. We know the US military failed to investigate reports of torture and murder by Iraqi police – and of the "black unit" which carried out 373 extrajudicial assassinations of Taliban sympathisers in Afghanistan. We know the US pressured Spain to scale back its investigations into torture at Guantanamo Bay. And we know that British officials let the US take cluster bombs through the UK and hid this from Parliament.
But she also passed to WikiLeaks a mind-boggling 760,000 classified documents that included the names of US informants in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we know al-Qa'ida then scrutinised. That was why US prosecutors sought to have Manning convicted of "aiding the enemy" – which carries the death penalty. Such was the vindictiveness in the treatment of Manning, who was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, that the judge reduced her sentence. But even if the US authorities got the balance wrong, there was certainly a judgement to make.
The same is true of Edward Snowden, the IT contractor with the US National Security Agency who leaked thousands of US secrets to The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden blew the whistle on the fact that US secret agents have for years logged the details of nearly every American telephone call and email – and that the NSA's British GCHQ intercepts those emails that American spooks are forbidden by US law from inspecting.
That has instituted a highly desirable debate about the penetration of the modern surveillance state in ordinary lives. But there is a downside to Snowden.  Snowden fled first to China, where he revealed that US intelligence had hacked into Beijing's computers, and then to Russia, where he has sought political asylum, and bizarrely called the Putin regime a defender of human rights. The man who started out claiming he was trying to protect US citizens now appears to be intent on the opposite.
Miranda claimed not to know what he was carrying – a declaration that would have prevented his boarding any tourist flight. It seems clear that the police held him under the wrong legislation. But again, to detain and question someone the police suspect to be carrying data that could compromise British national security is not unreasonable. Greenwald's retaliatory threat that he will publish more documents on England's spies to make them "sorry for what they did", reinforces rather than diminishes the police case.
Manning was a soldier who did her military duty until she felt the call of a higher moral duty to protest against abuses by the army of which she was a part.  Snowden's motives look altogether murkier, and journalists exploiting them have a duty to take additional care in handling the material he is leaking.  As to the US authorities, they need to ask why a whistleblower was given 35 years when the offenders whose wrongs she disclosed are still unprosecuted, and even feted as hero war veterans.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics and media at the University of Chester        [Abridged]

On the Anti-Democratic 'Trans-Pacific Partnership'

by Wenonah Hauter              Pub. by  Other Words                    August 22, 2013

The United States is negotiating a NAFTA-style trade deal that should be alarming to consumers.   This deserves more news coverage. It threatens to undermine our own laws and increase the opportunity for corporate takeovers of public resources in the US and abroad. The worst part? These negotiations are taking place behind closed doors.

This controversial agreement is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It’s comprised of the United States plus 11 other nations that border the Pacific Ocean. The TPP would boost liquefied natural gas exports and food imports. This increases the real dangers posed by reckless fracking for natural gas and the growth of imported food from several countries whose safety standards fall far short of our own.
The TPP could become the biggest corporate power grab in U.S. history. This deal would establish a regime under which corporations would acquire an equal status to countries, allowing them to take legal action against governments both at the national and local levels.  With this power, multinational corporations — especially energy companies — could overturn laws enacted to protect the public and the environment if they were to deem that those protections violated the profit-based terms of this trade agreement.
The United States currently has enough challenges plaguing our food system, with many of our would-be TPP partners shipping unsafe food even without these so-called free-trade agreements. Seafood imports alone have been particularly troubling. Much of the seafood we import is farm-raised using antibiotics and hormones that are illegal in our own country, and a mere 2 percent of those imports are actually inspected by the FDA.
The TPP would encourage increasing the amount of seafood we take in without requiring the trading partners to ban the use of illegal chemicals.  This could also hurt the American consumers through the expansion of the oil and gas industry, as it tries to increase its land use at home to frack more gas for export to our new TPP partners.
This pact could quickly undermine local, state, and even federal laws that protect public health and the environment. Many localities have recently passed laws to ban fracking. Unfortunately, a lot of the companies that are pursuing hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. are either foreign-owned or have foreign investors.
The TPP would potentially give companies the power to sue local governments, granting them their own permission to exploit natural resources and undermine local laws.
Treaties like the TPP undermine important efforts by grassroots movements and governments to protect people and the environment against the dangers of infecting our food system with increased use of antibiotics and hormones or the risks associated with fracking for natural gas.
Protests against this trade accord have already gotten started in other countries, including Japan and Malaysia, as concerns grow over its expected negative effects. The bottom line is that TPP will bring little, if any, benefit to small-scale growers and producers.
As negotiations near completion, it’s critical that we let our members of Congress know that we don’t support this kind of corporate power grab. President Barack Obama is asking Congress to grant “fast-track” authority, allowing him to negotiate the TPP and other trade deals without otherwise requisite congressional oversight. We must stop that from happening.
Undermining laws that U.S. citizens voted to put in place isn’t the American way.
Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Cairo massacre: What Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?

Robert Fisk                                 Independent/UK                           14 August 2013
The Egyptian crucible has broken. The “unity” of Egypt – that all-embracing, patriotic, essential glue that has bound the nation together since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the rule of Nasser – has melted amid the massacres, gun battles and fury of yesterday’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. A hundred dead – 200, 300 “martyrs” – makes no difference: for millions of Egyptians, the path of democracy has been torn up amid live fire and brutality. What Muslim seeking a state based on his or her religion will ever trust the ballot box again?
 This is not Brotherhood vs army, though that is how our Western statesmen will try to portray this tragedy. Today’s violence has created a cruel division within Egyptian society that will take years to heal; between leftists and secularists and Christian Copts and Sunni Muslim villagers, between people and police, between Brotherhood and army. The burning of churches was an inevitable corollary of this terrible business.

In Algeria in 1992, in Cairo in 2013 – and who knows what happens in Tunisia in the coming weeks and months? – Muslims who won power, fairly and democratically through the common vote, have been hurled from power. And who can forget our vicious siege of Gaza when Palestinians voted – again democratically – for Hamas? No matter how many mistakes the Brotherhood made in Egypt – no matter how promiscuous or fatuous their rule – the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army. It was a coup.

The Brotherhood, of course, should long ago have curbed its amour propre and tried to keep within the shell of the pseudo-democracy that the army permitted in Egypt – not because it was fair or acceptable or just, but because the alternative was bound to be a return to clandestinity, to midnight arrests and torture and martyrdom. This has been the historical role of the Brotherhood – with periods of shameful collaboration with British occupiers and Egyptian military dictators – and a return to the darkness suggests only two outcomes: that the Brotherhood will be extinguished in violence, or will succeed at some far distant date – heaven spare Egypt such a fate – in creating an Islamist autocracy.
The pundits went about their poisonous work today before the first corpse was in its grave. Can Egypt avoid a civil war? Will the “terrorist” Brotherhood be wiped out by the loyal army? What about those who demonstrated before Morsi’s overthrow? Every violent incident in Sinai, every gun in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood will now be used to persuade the world that the organisation  was the right arm of al-Qa’ida. Al-Sisi will come under much scrutiny in the coming days.. And many of the middle-class intellectuals who have thrown their support behind the army will have to squeeze their consciences into a bottle to accommodate future events.

What expired today was the idea that Egypt regarded all her people as her children. For the Brotherhood victims today – along with the police and pro-government supporters – were also children of Egypt. And no one said so. They had become the “terrorists”, the enemy of the people. That is Egypt’s new heritage.      [Abridged]

Devilish compromises of fighting ‘evil’ played out on stage

Robert Fisk                   Independent/UK               11 August,  2013                                   Shaw's 1907 play about a weapons manufacturer is now more relevant than ever

And so to Major Barbara at the Abbey. Every Western arms salesman I have met – usually at arms “fairs” in the Gulf – knows Andrew Undershaft, the grotesque, brilliant, intellectual weapons manufacturer in George BernardShaw’s 1907 play who abides by the faith of the armourer: “To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrat and republican, to nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man and yellow man, to… all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes.”

Shaw had an ambiguous relationship with post-independence Ireland – he did not believe in the Celtic ideal or the neo-Gaelic movement – and incredibly this is the Dublin Abbey Theatre’s first performance of Shaw’s most socialist of plays. As director Annabelle Comyn remarked, Major Barbara’s themes – of poverty, welfare, the labour market advocating for better conditions – are relevant today in Ireland as well as Britain. But it still contains a painful message to the Middle East, and not just because it is set during the Balkan wars; the character of Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek soon to inherit Undershaft’s magnificent, oh-so-clean, labour-intensive, pseudo-socialist Middlesex weapons plant, admits that he gave a revolver to a student to fight for Greece. “The blood of every Turk he shot … is on my head as well as Undershaft’s.” That’s all the Muslims get in Major Barbara.

But in the past in the Middle East, it was very easy to sympathise with Major Barbara herself, the Salvation Army daughter of Undershaft – and fiancée of Cusins – who saves souls in the East End of London. “There are neither good men nor scoundrels,” she pompously informs her father. “There are just children of one Father … I know them. I’ve had scores of them through my hands: scoundrels, criminals, infidels, philanthropists, missionaries, county councillors … They’re all just the same sort of sinner; and there’s the same salvation ready for them all.” 
The play’s contrived but still relevant hinge creaks when the Salvation Army is forced to accept money from both Undershaft and a whiskey magnate – the destroyers of people, if not souls – in order to remain active.
But this devilish compromise is now more relevant than ever; not becauseTony Blair abandoned a criminal inquiry into bribery by a British arms manufacturer in Saudi Arabia to protect “the national interest”, nor because the late Robin Cook’s mission statement on weapons sales – only to sell to the good guys – fell to pieces, but because Major Barbara herself, along with her ruthless father, have today become one.

Barbara’s self-denial, her craving after salvation and God, have been echoed to the letter by George W Bush and Blair and now by Barack Obama. True, they all believe(d) in good and bad – or “evil” – but they all held God close to their heart. They all preached, especially Blair and Obama, with salvationist obsession. Barbara is undoubtedly “faith-based”, like our Tony. Obama likes making speeches – like Barbara, but also like Undershaft. You can listen to Barbara admit to a dockland bully that her father was “a Secularist”, just as Obama told his audience in Cairo that he came from a family which included “generations of Muslims”. And when Barbara asks her father to define his faith – and he replies: “Well, my dear, I am a millionaire. That is my religion” – you can almost hear Blair breathing.
There’s a wonderful moment at the arms foundry when Undershaft arrives with a telegram to tell his family of “good news from Manchuria”. Another Japanese victory, he is asked? “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies. “Which side wins does not concern us here. No: the good news is that the aerial battleship is a tremendous success. At the first trial it has wiped out a fort with three hundred soldiers in it.” These are not dummy soldiers blown to bits, he assures his family. It’s “the real thing”.
Undershaft’s “aerial battleship” – elsewhere an “aerial torpedo” – is, of course, our drone.  Just as this weekend we were asked to celebrate the killing of six al-Qa’ida members in Yemen and five insurgents in the Sinai, northern Egypt – most assuredly “the real thing” by “aerial battleships” belonging to Messrs Obama and Netanyahu – so Undershaft produces these wonder-weapons in a squeaky-clean armaments factory whose workers worship at brand new churches and live in comfortable houses in the safety of Middlesex.  The drone commanders of today, like Undershaft’s men, work from equally squeaky-clean computer consoles. 
Put bluntly, our leaders speak in the language of Major Barbara – of salvation and human rights – while producing the weapons to obliterate fellow men. At least Undershaft implies that the innocent also die under his guns. Barbara speaks of “the power to burn women’s houses down and … tear their husbands to pieces” – Shaw would have made endless play of “collateral damage” – but Syria is providing countless opportunities for Russian and Western arms-makers; giving to Alawite and Sunni, to “all causes and all crimes”.
At the end of the play, Cusins agrees to inherit Undershaft’s factory so that he can “make war on war”. How that would appeal to Bush, Blair and Obama. Finally, Cusins announces that he wants “a power simple enough for common men to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good.” No Labour election manifesto should be without this line.
Buzzwords flourish in brave new world of the Gulf   
Arab autocrats cling to their thrones with the complicity of secret policemen, but the Gulf states are fighting off the revolutionary winds with cliches.  In a recent energy conference in Doha, delegates exchanged cynical glances when a Qatari official repeatedly spoke about his country’s “strategic vision”.  Not just a vision, mark you, but a ‘strategic’ vision.  As the Algerian journalist Akram Belkaid points out, Anglo-Saxon advisers have sold the ‘vision’ idea to rival monarchs whose skyscrapers (Qatar/Kuwait), new cities (Saudi Arabia) , ports (Oman), economic diversification (Dubai/Abu Dhabi), airlines (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways), metros and museums are now an Arab Hadrian’s Wall against insurgent barbarism.
All talk is now of “projects” – worth billions rather than millions – which are “world class” in standard, sprouting amid “emerging markets” which constitute new “hubs” in the region.  Belkaid inevitably identifies the language of these “global” hubs – whose local royal flunkies dub themselves “global press officer” on their visiting cards – as English (the language of higher education and journalism in the Gulf);  thus international finance will understand how well the Gulf States nurture a “strong economy” with “sustainable development” and “human capital”.
Women in the region are to be “empowered” – though not to the point of emancipation in a patriarchal society – while “labour nationalisation” will put an end to foreign workers (who may be subject to “deportation”, a less pleasant and thus less useful word).  “Leisure” is, by the same token, a happier word than “luxury” – ‘leisure’ can be “enjoyed” – and “cultural heritage” must replace “modernity”.  It’s all about “nation building”.  This may be hard to accept amid the blood of Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans – even Algerians – but who believes now that the Gulf is really part of the Middle East? 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The US View of Yemen as Al-Qaida Hotbed

is a Travesty of the Truth    Yemen is a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy. Their cause is harmed by the US

 Brian Whitaker                      Guardian/UK                         August 8, 2013

Citizens of Yemen's capital are not accustomed to drones – strikes usually happen in more remote parts of the country – but the white object circling overhead, harmlessly as it turned out, gave them a small taste of what it's like to be on the receiving end.  "If this is how much fear, terror, and anger what just sounds to be a drone makes in Yemen's capital, imagine what it does in areas it actually bombs," activist Farea al-Muslimi tweeted.
In fact, it wasn't a drone on this occasion. Whether or not the plane gleaned any useful intelligence, there is little doubt that the buzzing of the capital, together with the closure of embassies, the sudden evacuation of foreigners and the latest reported drone attack in Shabwa, are as much about psychological warfare as they are about conventional anti-terrorism operations.  Some of the psychology is obvious. The message to al-Qaida's militants is that their plans have been rumbled and they are being watched. If that makes them lie low for a while, the US will claim that its ploy has worked.   

But two other messages from this spectacle are more troubling. One is what it says to Yemenis, and the other is what it says to Americans.  The desire to protect embassies and their staff is understandable. Domestically, he has little to lose by over-reacting to the current threat. The trouble, though, is that this also reinforces American perceptions that Yemen is about al-Qaida and very little else. Viewed from Washington, Yemen is not a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy so much as a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's backyard.
Among ordinary Yemenis, meanwhile, the latest al-Qaida drama has been greeted with scepticism and even some derision. Al-Qaida is often viewed as an American obsession while millions of Yemenis have more basic things to worry about – like obtaining their next meal. They also point out that more people die on Yemen's treacherous mountain roads, or in fights over scarce water resources, than at the hands of al-Qaida.

There is now widespread recognition that drone strikes in Yemen have been counter-productive. Whatever benefits they brought in terms of killing militants who posed a serious threat have been cancelled out by the killing of others who posed no threat at all, and the anger this has aroused among the population at large.
Some of that resentment is now being directed against President Hadi, who was installed by the Gulf states (with western blessing) as Saleh's successor. Hadi had no real power base in Yemen and without strong international backing – especially from the US – he would be unlikely to survive for long. That leaves him in no position to resist American demands and at the same time it further damages his support at home. In effect, the US is propping him up with one hand and dragging him down with the other.                 [Abridged]
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Brian Whitaker is a former Middle East editor of the Guardian.

Seeking asylum from Australian pollies

The ongoing backlash against asylum seekers is about votes, votes and more votes. Meanwhile, where do the rest of us go to seek asylum from our politicians?

George Negus                             Guardian/UK                  29 July 2013

As the last federal election loomed in 2010, you might have just been able to get a cigarette paper between a muddled Julia Gillard and “turn-back” Tony Abbott on the nation’s embarrassing asylum seeker carry-on.
Name a solution, any solution – Nauru, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Pacific, poor old Christmas Island, whatever out-of-sight, out-of mind local location you could think of – and now, of course, the inhumane and unprecedented Manus Island PNG wing-and-a-prayer, buck-passing solution. Whether or not any of them make sense, they all meet the ultimate cop-out: the “not-in-my-bloody backyard solution.”
You don’t have to be a political genius to work out that this current bout of fear and loathing has precious little to do with individuals from some remote foreign starting point prepared to risk everything – including death – to get to our cherished continent. 
It’s about votes, votes and more votes. And for the rest of us out here in voter-land, it’s an invidious choice between the lesser of evils.
At least we know Rudd and Abbott agree on one thing. Neither of them has an honourably workable clue how to get the nation out of the quagmire it’s been in for decades on this sorry issue. Motivated by domestic politics, they are battering each other to convince us that once elected, they will stop those nasty people smugglers and their leaky boats. As a result, fewer would-be refugees, will die and our borders will be more secure.
In other words, an over-night miracle achieved, that will be touted as Australia’s contribution to tackling the worsening humanitarian calamity of 45 million displaced men, women and children around the globe – as distinct from the measly half of one percent of them causing us political apoplexy here in Australia.
Meanwhile, the dragged out, politically amoral duck-shoving on the issue must surely have damaged this country’s reputation as a “good global citizen.” Or maybe that doesn’t bother us?
Don’t ask foreign minister, Bob Carr. Amazingly, Carr has decided to write off most asylum seekers as unacceptable economic refugees. As for Scott Morrison, Abbott’s shadow immigration spruiker, he spends his waking hours befuddling us with double-speak about pushing, towing or turning the boats back to somewhere – anywhere, so long as it’s not Australia!
Respected experts counsel that this country’s bi-partisan failure to implement widely-accepted international human rights standards on asylum seekers is at odds with its moral and legal obligations under theUN convention on the status of refugees, the very raison d’être for having a UN high commissioner for refugees, the law of the sea, let alone our own migration act.
James Hathaway, an expert on international refugee law and professorial fellow at Melbourne University, points out that Rudd’s PNG deal is without international precedent. “This plan is without question the most bizarre overreaction I have seen in more than 30 years of working on refugee law,” he recently told Radio National Breakfast:
It makes no sense. The only mandatory deportation to PNG is going to be so-called boat arrivals. Does the prime minister think that every refugee should arrive with a Qantas first class ticket in order to be real?
Hathaway says the UN convention decrees that a country cannot penalise refugees “for arriving without authorisation.” This, and the Rudd plan to dump them on PNG are both an illegal and discriminatory penalty.
Hathaway goes even further, asserting that Australia’s refugee crisis “doesn't really exist compared to other developed countries,” pointing out that our annual in-take of around 30,000 refugees is “a totally average, absolutely manageable number.” 
What Hathaway found “striking” was that unlike any developed nation he had experienced, Australia has been attracting genuine refugees as boat arrivals almost exclusively. Yet it was these so-called “boat people” who have attracted Rudd and Abbott’s mutual ire. “It’s the most extraordinarily bizarre singling out of the very group that ought to be the one we should care about the most.” 
Given Australia’s politically expedient bi-partisan obsession with so-called “boat people,” in the run-up to the 2010 Federal Election, the author interviewed Sydney University professor Mary Crock, an international migration law expert. Her take amounted to an intriguing “psycho-political” explanation.
“I think Australians have a deep historical fear of invasion by the sea,” she told me. “We’re not unique in that respect. Many countries around the world overreact when people come by boat to seek asylum.” I asked whether she was suggesting that because until quite recently countries were invaded by boats, Australians are more worried by refugees trying to get here by boat? “There are certainly historic precedents for that,” she said.
The salient fact is that most potential refugees come to Australia by plane, rather than by boat, claim refugee status, and more often than not, get it. “Yes, we don’t get concerned by that,” Crock told me. “People who come by plane are at least processed. They present their passports at the airport to get into the country, whereas people who come by boat often come without any documentation of any kind – no health or character checking at all.”
Hence, the government retains its tendency to view “boat people” as purely illegal immigrants who’ve jumped the queue. Nevertheless, as has been pointed out ad nauseum in an inconclusive debate, it is not illegal to seek asylum.
As I write, Rudd’s latest off-shore solution, Manus Island, has been condemned as a “hell-hole” and a “gulag” and Abbott’s spanking new Colonel Blimp plan is to turn the waters off the West Australian coast into a virtual war zone by sending in the troops.

Meanwhile, where do the rest of us go to seek asylum from Australian politicians? 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

America's Legacy of Nuclear Terrorism

A statement of peace, or an epitaph

Robert Scheer                       Pub. by                        August 6, 2013

August 6 marks 68 years since the United States committed what is arguably the single gravest act of terrorism that the world has ever known. Terrorism means the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and targeted they were,
“That fateful summer, 8:15,” the mayor of Hiroshima recalled at a memorial service in 2007, “the roar of a B-29 breaks the morning calm. A parachute opens in the blue sky.  Then suddenly, a flash, an enormous blast—silence—hell on earth. The eyes of young girls watching the parachute were melted. Their faces became giant charred blisters. Others died when their eyeballs and internal organs burst from their bodies. Hiroshima was a hell where those who somehow survived envied the dead. Within the year, 140,000 had died.”
It was followed three days later by the “Fat Man” bomb leveling Nagasaki, with a comparable disastrous impact on a largely civilian population that had no effective control over the decisions of the emperor who initiated the war. Nagasaki was a last- minute substitute for Kyoto, which Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson ordered spared because he had fond memories of his honeymoon in that two decades earlier. The devastation of those two cities was so gruesome that our government banned the showing of film footage depicting the carnage we had caused.
We have never been very good at challenging our nation’s own reprehensible behavior, but if we don’t take proper measure of the immense extermination wrought by two small and primitive nuclear weapons as compared with today’s arsenals, we lose the point as to why they must be banned. We are the country that designed and exploded these weapons that are inherently implements of terrorism in that, as the nuking of Japan amply demonstrated, they cannot distinguish between civilian and combatant. 
For those who believe that honorable ends absolve a nation of evil means, there is the argument that the bombings shortened the war, although the preponderance of more recent evidence would hold that the Soviet entrance into the war against Japan two days after Hiroshima was a more decisive factor.  But the basic assumption of universal opposition to terrorism is a rejection of the notion that even noble means justify ignoble ends, and a consistent opposition to the proliferation, let alone use of nuclear weapons, must insist that they are inherently anti-civilian and therefore immoral.
Why, then, on this anniversary, do we not acknowledge our responsibility as the nation that first created these weapons, has been the only country to use them, and is still in possession of the biggest repository of such weapons of mass destruction on earth? Is it not unwise, as well as wrong, for Aug. 6 to pass, as it generally does, without any widespread discussion of our culpability for the vast death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 
Indeed, in Santa Monica, Calif., home of one of the rare reminders of the catastrophe we unleashed, a sculpture of a mushroom cloud, designed by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Conrad, is slated for destruction.  That sculpture, called “Chain Reaction,” was given to the city in 1991 thanks to the beneficence of Joan Kroc, the widow of the founder of McDonald’s, who used her fortune to advance the cause of public enlightenment. It is a grim warning that the best educated can commit the most heinous of crimes.  Conrad, world famous as the editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post and Los Angeles Times for four decades, was himself a veteran of the war in the Pacific, one of those whose life the bomb was ostensibly designed to save. Conrad joined the Army in 1942 and participated in the invasions of Guam and Okinawa, where he was stationed at the time of the Hiroshima bombing. 
His sentiment about that horrific event is inscribed on his powerful sculpture: “This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph.”  Conrad’s critically important sculpture might soon be gone. As a nation, we excel at obliterating reminders of our own failings.      [Abbrev.]
© 2013