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When an army shoots its own… Burma, sovereignty and the left… October 1, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Burma, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, The Left.
5 comments

From the Lebanon last year, Darfur, this year and last, and now Burma there appears to be little one can actually do to shift, even minimally, the course that the present is taking.

Why no International Brigades? Why no assistance? Why too much rhetorical hand wringing from the left?

I’m being unfair, and I know it. The situation in Burma is difficult. Everyone concedes this. Timothy Garton-Ash, who I have a soft spot for, despite his being an almost implausibly centrist liberal, agrees that there is little to be done. Burma is far away. The economic and political levers available don’t stretch that far.

And let’s not be shy about it. Chinese and Indian expansionism play their part too. Burma, or rather the junta (why credit it with the term government?), is a client of the former, or perhaps close associate might be a better term. There is oil in Burma, but its tied up in concessions to the last great transcontinental nominally Marxist state. Well done everyone. A great step forward for the Burmese people.

This site, amongst many, called the silence on the part of the US and UK over the Israeli incursions in the Lebanon last year disgraceful. Pointed to their complete abrogation of responsibility in influence. They had the power to at least rein in an Israeli offensive that on any terms at all was stupidly counter-productive. So, let’s do a little more finger pointing. Fine words from the White House are insufficient. Realpolitik will prevail.

I hate to drag everything back to Iraq, but one thing that worries me is that the necessary criticism of the US and UK over that has led to a criticism and energy fatigue on the left. So much energy has been expended in decrying the appalling shambles of the invasion and aftermath that there is little enough left to deal with other issues. I’m not positing this in the old, ‘why won’t you march about Darfur?’ way that is used a stick to beat people, but simply to observe that both tactically and strategically it makes good sense to keep some by.

I also think a serious debate has to open up about how the Left deals with issues of state sovereignty, how it tackles oppression within states and how it can best assist those who need assistance. The concentration on national sovereignty strikes me as understandable, as a response to globalisation, as an offshoot of Leninist thinking and in the hope that promising left experiments are protected from neo-liberalism and the winds of the global economy, but it is also something that require considerable nuance. It’s not enough to see sovereignty as the final word on any issue. That consigns peoples to regimes of ineradicable awfulness. We become in effect spectators at arbitrary borders (and all borders are arbitrary) looking in and on. However, nor is it enough to argue that military action is the only way forward. In fact bar a limited number of examples we can be fairly certain that it is indeed generally the worst possible way forward.

Splintered Sunrise pointed to a very very sensible blog on this topic , and this interestingly echoes what was said on KCRW’s To The Point the other day which provides a revealing insight into thinking on foreign affairs inside the US. A couple of points struck me very forcibly. James Lilley, former US ambassador to South Korea and China, was, perhaps predictably rather optimistic about the moral authority of the US on this issue. His perception that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib paled into insignificance besides the organised killings by Sunni and Shia. Perhaps he is right. Yet, I can’t help feeling that that is too realpolitik a reading of the situation for the US. The point isn’t that the US is equivalent in its actions, but that it should always be better if one is to take its own rhetoric at face value. The host, Warren Olmy, asked what else could be done by the US (and let’s be honest Europe as well) beyond sanctions and denunciations.

Dan Slater, Asst. Professor at the Dept. of Political Science at the University of Chicago said the US and by extension Europe can’t be in the lead (although we’ll return to the latter in a moment) and the sanctions will not have very much effect. He had noted that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was surprisingly critical statement of Burma and the expression of revulsion by authoritarian states such as Singapore and Vietnam indicated just how ‘far beyond the pale’ the Burmese regime was. He also noted that the regime ‘ had not had a restrained reaction as some say but terrible levels of force were being used’.

He disagreed entirely with Lily’s viewpoint, and thought it was sad that Lilley had to make an argument contrasting the US with Sunni or Al-Queda death squads.

Interestingly Simon Long, Asia Editor of the Economist, agreed with Slater that attention will swing towards ASEAN. The US had played itself out of the game, it has no economic or other leverage over the regime and its neighbours and Europe and Japan have, to some degree, filled the gap.

Slater also there is no clear analogy to any other regime in the world. In a poignant note he suggested that:

Military regimes give up power all over the world and we shouldn’t be despairing. The use of force shouldn’t lead to a belief it can’t split. We should acknowledge the bravery and courage of the demonstrators putting their lives on the line for what cultural relativists seem to think is only a western idea…

The last statement of his is interesting because he was deeply deeply critical of US policy in Iraq.

But then, what is to be done? I’ve mentioned before that the United Nations is in the process of considering these issues in the context of the ‘Larger Freedoms’ report although considering the urgency of these matters it is taking an unconscionable time about it. The UN itself is a far from perfect agency (in every sense of the word). It is contradictory. But it’s what we’ve got. And Larger Freedoms moves towards issues of ‘protection’, generally in a preemptive sense. But what about here where preemption is impossible because the rolling experience of the Burmese is one of continuing repression?

And before we think Europe is an innocent bystander in this it is worth noting a controversy that has blown up around the activities of at least one Paris based multinational corporation and their links with the country. Total S.A. is in joint development with the junta of an off-shore oil field. Worth contemplating how those sort of linkages can directly and indirectly aid and sustain those who would beat their people off the streets.

So, while there is work to do in lobbying the Chinese, let’s not forget that there are folk much closer to home whose influence might also shape the future of Burma.

Authority: Personal and Political, or just where is the tipping point with George Bush and Tony Blair? February 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine, United States, US Media, US Politics.
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Listening to To The Point on KCRW about Condoleezza Rice’s latest foray into the Middle East, and in particular her attempt to act as an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israeli’s, I was struck by how fragile authority can be.

Here we have the Secretary of State of the United States, still the global hegemon, clearly unable to bend the regional powers to her will. Indeed it’s telling how Saudi Arabia has moved strongly into the frame on this issue, no doubt eager not to allow the Syrians or Iranians further increase their influence after what they no doubt regard as the largely successful Israel/Hezbollah conflict of last Summer. The US hasn’t changed. It’s highly unlikely that US policy in the Middle East will change radically whoever finally arrives in the Oval Office. Yet somehow Rice is simply unable to project the necessary power and authority into the public space.

That piece was followed by another considering the Presidents Day public holiday in the US. Presidents Day is held on the third Monday in February and was originally brought in in the late 19th century to celebrate the birthday of George Washington. Since then it has expanded somewhat in scope with some states linking it explicitly to another President born in February, Abraham Lincoln. Yet, according to KCRW the holiday has now become something of a festival of shopping Here too we see the authority of the ‘myth’ (in the broad Barthesian sense of it being a cultural narrative or concept) being drained away from what was once a reasonably significant memorial.

And I was thinking that in some respects that over the past decade we’ve seen how Presidential authority in the US and elsewhere is draining away before our eyes and in two very specific ways. Indeed this can be drawn more widely to incorporate most political authority wherever it may be, but the US Presidency offers a more focused example.

Consider how the authority of Bill Clinton seemed to recede as the wash of scandal broke across him in his second term in office. This loosely could be considered personal authority, and in a way relates more to character, or perceived character. By contrast in the case of George Bush, also a two term President, we’ve seen how his authority has vanished in the wake of the Iraq debacle (if ever two words were made for each other surely it’s those two at this point in time). This is of course more clearly rooted in political and ideological authority.

And, as ever, Tony Blair, riding in the wake of Bush (his own personal and political tragedy to my mind) can be judged to be an interesting combination of both forms of authority deficit, with political and personal authority diminished both by Iraq without and scandal (albeit fairly low-level stuff, whatever the papers may say) within.

Now none of these thoughts are particularly original, political and personal authority has always leeched away in the wake of what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘Events, dear boy’. Nixon in the 1970s can be seen as being the victim of his own personal and political misdeeds and his authority flat-lined rapidly. But what really interests me is not so much that this happens as to the point at which it happens. If I were to take a guess at it I’d suggest that Bush’s authority diminished in the lead up to the Mid-Term Elections late last year, not after those elections (his relatively unguarded response to them as a ‘thumping defeat’ was accurate, more worrying was his admission ‘I didn’t see them coming’ which whether in jest or not tells me rather more than I need to know about his political acumen).

And I’d make the case for that authority receding then because sometime between early last year and the Mid-Term vote the voting population shifted against Bush and the Republicans. The vote was the symptom, not the cause as it were, and it’s entertaining to see how the supertankers of the US media fought to turn from their courses and deal with a political landscape that had changed without their registering it. Some, needless to say, still have to make that turn.

Can we expect a similar process here? If one is charitable one could propose that Bertie Ahern (whose alleged misdeeds are venial in the scale of the events already noted here) has had a remarkable capacity to retain authority even in the most trying of circumstances. And that’s irritated some people no end. But whether there is a tipping point ahead, a rake hidden in the long political grass that has in some sense already been trodden on but hasn’t come into view yet, remains to be seen. I doubt it to be honest. I think that the political situation here is too confused for such clear cut outcomes. But, I’m prepared to be proven wrong.

And as for Blair. Well, despite his own authority slipping away somehow in some part he still retains sufficient to be able to continue in power. He’s been an exceptionally fortunate politician over the years both in his friends and his enemies. Winning the last British General Election, even with a much diminished majority gave him the political traction to continue in a way that Bush, prey to the minor key disruption of the mid-terms simply couldn’t emulate. Yet Blair has been damaged, damaged to the point where he had to concede that this year would be his last in office. Perhaps there were no mid-terms in the UK, but in some respect he too has passed the tipping point both with the British public and his own party.

They must wonder too if they loved (well, okay, tolerated) too well a man whose protracted demise has led them to a new low in the opinion polls according to the Guardian yesterday. And perhaps gaze nervously at the chosen successor and contemplate just what degree of authority he will have.

And lucky us, we too can look at Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, consider their authority and contemplate our own possible future.

Blaming the Iraqi’s, or how to explain away something worse than a civil war… December 4, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, United States, US Media.
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The latest statement from Kofi Annan (as found in the Irish Times) is – to my mind at least – the most accurate description of the present situation. Whatever way one cuts it the sectarian strife in Iraq is vastly worse than a typical civil war. It pains me to say this, but I also think he’s correct that the situation under Saddam was better. I don’t say that lightly, nor in the wish that Saddam was still in power, but it does point up the incredible vacuity and lack of responsibility of the US led coalition in exercising even the most basic of it’s duties as regards maintaining the integrity of Iraq following the invasion and occupation. I’ve said it before, I supported the invasion. I thought it was a good thing. Unfortunately I was wrong – although even still the majority of Iraqi’s are glad to see the back of Saddam. But the occupation was, as I’ve also noted previously, beyond abysmal in it’s implementation.

In part it’s due to this not being a ‘civil war’ of the usual model that the violence is so appalling. There is an excellent, if depressing, article in this months Prospect magazine by John Keegan and Bartle Bull which argues that since the various groups involved in the violence in Iraq do not have coherent aims as regards attaining state power – these groups being the Sunni insurgency, the Shia militias and extra-judicial elements allied with the state, with infiltration of the state forces by the previous three – therefore it is impossible to characterise it as a civil war. And it’s notable that within each of those groups are sub units. Sunni’s are split between Wahhabists, Salafists and Baath secularist. As the subhead on the article put’s it ‘Lessons from history suggest that Iraq, though in chaos, has not yet reached civil war’. That’s correct in one sense, but most observers would argue – I suspect – that it has in fact moved beyond a civil war. Keegan and Bull note that a curious feature of the Iraqi violence is that it’s ‘decidedly unmilitary’, and this much is true. There are no set pieces, no real attempts to stake or hold territory. And in that respect this is much worse than a civil war. If one thinks of Al-Zaqawi one can see how effectively amateurish his goals and means were. Yet amateurish means do not lessen the ability to massacre.

I said it was worse than a civil war, and I mean that in the sense that the violence, since it has no clear state power aims, is both reactive and entirely uncontrolled. The most appalling acts are carried out by all sections involved with no clear restraint. These acts fit into no particular strategy, indeed run completely counter to the purported aims and interests of those involved in carrying them out. The bombing of the Samarra mosque is indicative of this. Some see this as the final trigger for the involvement of the Shia militias in significant resistance, and altered the complexion of the conflict from one largely between the Sunni insurgents and the state into a broader more inclusive conflagration. But while conflagration is easy to achieve, an end point is more difficult. The complex nature of Iraqi society means that domination of it by Wahhabists is impossible. Yet neither can Shia dominate if the Sunni refuse to engage. In a way this reminds me to some degree of the situation in the North in the very early 1970s where competing groups vied as much to be heard as to make any strategic progress. But, the difference is of course that in Northern Ireland there were clear political programmes pursued by all involved (with the possible exception of Loyalists) and as time progressed it was possible to discern and engage with those programmes.

Frankly the most disgusting thing I’ve heard recently on this matter has been the chorus of voices from some on the US right effectively blaming the Iraqi’s for not being able to ‘do democracy’. Such a charge is specious in the extreme. Firstly it’s clear that Iraqi’s do do democracy as the successful election last year indicated. What they don’t ‘do’ at this point in time is coherent state building since the aftermath of the US invasion saw the willful attrition of the minimally required infrastructure of the Iraqi state and its replacement by – at first – an equally minimal security entirely inadequate for a country as large as Iraq. Secondly the very nature of the invasion and occupation robbed any serious legitimacy from the US – even if one accepts, and I tend to, that this wasn’t a ‘resource war’ fought for oil. No effort was made by the US administration to dispel that impression in a context where such an impression could only serve to weaken it’s bona fides. Indeed the administrations approach was one which actually exacerbated that impression by refusing to seriously engage with the UN, or make any effort to step aside from being the prime mover in the immediate aftermath. Thirdly, the actual make up of Iraq as an enormously intricate society divided along different religious, ethnic, political and other lines was such that it required the most delicate and nuanced of efforts to arrive at a reasonable solution. No such delicacy or nuance was forthcoming.

And now the situation is one where Keegan and Bull suggest that the ultimate shape of the conflict may be similar to that played out in the Lebanon. Fifteen years of civil war passed before a negotiated settlement. Fifteen years. And it’s worth considering for a moment how that settlement in Beirut is this very week under threat, in part due to Hizbollah’s drive to exercise greater power, in part due to another unintended consequence of US policy in the region, a foolish and short-sighted support for foolish and short-sighted Israeli military actions.

I still take a view that it was necessary to remove Saddam. But necessity is one thing, means employed another. It’s very clear that a non-military option was being explored just prior to the war. It wasn’t explored fully, a profound mistake. And this is a world which is crying out for a different approach to international relations, one which isn’t limited by 19th century concepts of state sovereignty, or by entirely sincere but effectively passive anti-war thinking. War happens, dictators dictate, people are imprisoned by the very concept of state sovereignty sometimes. A beefed up UN approach to totalitarianism is a good thing. But as Iraq demonstrates it won’t be feasible as a strategy simply by pretending that regime change through military force is the only, or even the preferred, option.

Neutral against who? The Lebanese conflict and the concept of Irish neutrality… October 29, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon.
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Interesting that the Irish Anti War Movement is holding a meeting in the Royal Dublin Hotel on Saturday 4th October.

Speakers will be George Galloway MP of Respect and STWC, Ibrahim Mousawi of Al Manar the Lebanon TV Station and Ben Hayse, an international law expert. On posters around town the third speaker is indicated to be a member of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and the event is free for members of PANA.

All good, and no doubt an interesting debate will ensue, however one has to ask what questions Mr. Galloway will be putting to Mr. Mousawi about Hezbollah’s vision for Israel. I’m not a fan of Mr. Galloway, but he gave an excellent account of himself on Sky TV where he made a passionate and evidently sincere plea for a credible two-state Palestine Israel with a joint capital in Jerusalem (a vision I entirely share – although I’d go further and look for an internationalised Jerusalem under UN auspices). I’m wondering if this will satisfy Mr. Mousawi in view of Hezbollahs contradictory objectives in relation to Israel which tilt between it’s elimination as a political entity and acceptance that it is to some degree up to Palestinians to decide. However, in either instance it is clear that Hezbollah is a participant in the conflict.

I’m also hoping that either PANA or Mr. Hayse will put a few questions forward about this report in the Guardian which notes that Human Rights Watch (an organisation not usually noted for being an Israeli partisan) has accused Hezbollah of firing cluster bombs into civilian areas in northern Israel.

The use of such weapons by either side is reprehensible. But it makes me wonder what PANA is doing on a platform with a representative of one of the combatants and particularly number 2 of it’s objectives: Ireland should pursue a positive neutrality and independent foreign policy and not join or form an association with any military alliance, such as the WEU or NATO.

I’m wondering how this sort of engagement with a partisan in the conflict falls under the heading of ‘positive’ neutrality?

By the by the non-appearance of this as an election issue is striking but not unexpected, despite the clear and understandable public sympathy expressed for the plight of Lebanon over the Summer. As has been seen many times in the past issues external to the state tend to have little traction on the public imagination and this appears to be yet another…

Eddie Holt had an interesting piece in the Irish Times yesterday (subscription required) about the treatment of a number of pro-Palestinian activists who entered Israel and the differing response to their treatment by our own Department of Foreign Affairs which was rather less interested in accounts of harrasment of Irish nationals when they were framed as occuring in Israel than when they were framed as occuring in Cuba. That might simply reflect an acceptance that it is easier – perhaps – to embarress the Castro regime than Israel, or it might not. But it is telling nonetheless. Having said that, any who have any experience of travelling by air to Israel will know that El Al takes exhaustive and understandable security measures to ensure the safety of their aircraft…

Martin and the Monsters: Amis on Islamism September 13, 2006

Posted by smiffy in 9/11, Books, Iraq, Islam, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Middle East, Palestine, Terrorism.
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‘He who fights monsters should look into it that he does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you’. – Friedrich Nietzsche

It suppose it was inevitable that, sooner or later, Martin Amis would address the subject of militant Islam and the ‘war on terror’, as he did with the essay ‘The Age of Horrorism‘ in last Sunday’s Observer, and the previous week’s short story about Mohammed Atta. It’s precisely the kind of subject which delights literary intellectuals with pretensions towards political engagement – sweeping, epic themes about culture, belief and civilization, a chance to take a moral stand against a clear evil and defend a set of values with the feeling that you’re contributing to something that touches on the lives of everyone on the planet.

It’s a shame, then, that Amis’ piece contains virtually everything that’s bad, even dangerous, about much of the current debate. It’s less an insightful or original contribution than a hodge-podge of overused and misleading factoids that you’ll find on hundreds of different websites. The only real difference (apart from the length) between Amis’ essay and those is that Islamwatch or Jihadwatch or whichever David Horowitz off-shoot you’re popping on to doesn’t tend to include the stunning self-indulgence found in the former. Just as Koba the Dread was less about Stalinism than about Martin Amis thinking about Stalinism, this is not so much about Islamism than about the clash between Islamism and the Amis ego (no prizes for guessing which of these titans comes out on top!).

Amis’ basic thesis, from what I can tell, is that Islamism/jihadism/militant Islam (call it what you will) represents a growing a powerful threat to the values of ‘the West’. It’s, to be crude, a BAD THING and it’s imperative that we wake up to the threat and start fighting back (how we’re supposed to do this, he’s a little sketchy about, but I imagine producing long think-pieces for Sunday papers is probably quite high on the list).

While he goes into quite some detail on how the issue is tossed around in his own head (large chunks are taken up with a summary of a short story he tried to write about an Islamist terrorist loosely based around Sayeed Quutb, but later abandoned, not to mention the now obligatory stuff about his own family) he gives little in the way of fact or evidence which might support the assertions he makes or which he’s cribbed together from some other, very obvious, sources. The result is something begging more questions than it answers (and not in a good way).

Take, for example, what’s clearly intended to be one of the most provocative passages in the piece, which sets out the Amis stall quite unambiguously.

Until recently it was being said that what we are confronted with, here, is a ‘civil war’ within Islam. That’s what all his was supposed to be: not a clash of civilizations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam. Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. The loser, moderate Islam, is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere, it is supine and inaudible. We are not hearing from moderate Islam. Whereas Islamism, as a mover and shaper of world events, is pretty well all there is.

In what sense, exactly, has Islamism ‘won it’? What is he basing this on? What criteria is he even using? Perhaps he means that Muslims across the globe are flocking to the most militant Islamic sects in their droves, all card-carrying Quutbists, armalites in one hand and copies of Milestones in the others. Some are, to be sure, but how many will it take for Islamism to have ‘won’? 10% of all Muslims? 20%? More? Indeed, the actual views of real, living Muslims are noticeable in the essay only by their absence, a failing I’ll return to later.

Even what is stated in the piece above seems confused; if ‘moderate Islam’ is well-represented in op-ed pages and public debate (even if ‘deceptively’) then how can it be that, at the same time, ‘We are not hearing from (it)’. Perhaps Amis is confusing ‘not hearing from’ with ‘not interested enough to listen to’ and ‘we’ with just ‘Amis’.

The metaphors of conflict, like the ‘civil war’ and ‘clash of civilisations’ used above occur again and again in the piece. Amis seems to take them at face value, forgetting that they’re shorthand and often not very useful in capturing the complexities of a wide-ranging issues. He then builds his argument around the metaphor, as opposed to what it’s trying to represent, leading himself into all sorts of difficulties. While an actual civil war can have a winner and a loser, the ‘civil war’ he’s referring to cannot: there can’t be a winner in a contest between beliefs in that way, until there’s no one left on the losing side. Still, why let something like that stand in the way of a catchy phrase.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview is similarly flawed. It relies on being able to distinguish between one ‘civilisation’ from another, and understanding them as self-contained entities, almost like states at war. The truth, of course, is that the world doesn’t work like that. While it’s possible to talk about specific ideas, or even ideologies, getting bogged down in talk of ‘civilisations’ invariably oversimplifies the views of the people who actually live in them. Indeed, as Amartya Sen discussed in his remarkable Identity and Violence (an essential rebuttal of the Samuel Huntingdon view of the world) different societies have, throughout history, tended to develop as much (at least) through interaction with their neighbours and an ever-changing set of cultural influences than through adherence to any kind of core, guiding principles.

It’s unclear which specific value systems Amis sees as being in collision. Although he trots out the usual pities about Islam itself (‘the donor of countless benefits to mankind and the possessor of a thrilling history’) as opposed to Islamism, the fact that he seems to believe that the latter is the only game in town and his utter indifference to the views of non-Islamist Muslims suggest he’s essentially no different from those ideologues who see the world through the lens of Islamism vs. the West (and never the twain shall meet).

Such views are not only held by right-wing kooks and armed Mullahs living in caves near Peshawar. This Manichean view of the world is also common currency among a certain current of the left which styles itself as ‘anti-imperialist’ but aligns itself with the most reactionary elements of militant Islam, as Fred Halliday points out in his article on the subject. They, the Galloways, SWPers and protestors carrying protestors stating that ‘We are all Hezbollah’ (perhaps a good title for a post 9/11 McCarthy song), hold a worldview, it would seem, no less reductionist and simplistic as any Free Republic crackpot.

Amis’ tendency to reduce complex positions to handily straightforward propositions doesn’t confine itself to Islam: he makes equally unsustainable and unsupported assertions about ‘the West’ (undefined, of course). He argues that ‘Far from wanting or trying to exterminate it, the West had no views whatever about Islam per se before 11 September 2001’. True, as far as it goes, but not in the way Amis intends. The West had no views about Islam then, and has no views about Islam now. Or, rather, it had and has a mulitiplicity of different, contradictory views none more ‘Western’ than any other. The ‘West’ does not exist as a distinct entity (geographical, political or cultural) in the way that Amis seems to conceive of it. Even those values which often get defined as ‘Western’ have, as Sen shows, existed in every different society to a greater or lesser degree and continue to do so. Maybe Amis would like to claim ownership but the facts would suggest that some things are genuinely universal (including, it should be added, stupidity).

More perniciously, his ‘West’ also contains that most tired of straw-man opponents – ‘multicultural relativism’. In a passage where he imagine John Walker Lindh advising Bin Laden on possible Western responses to an attack he writes:

… the West is enfeebled, not just by sex and alcohol, but also by 30 years of multicultural relativism. They’ll think suicide bombing is just an exotic foible, like shame-and-honor killings or female circumcision.

Is there anything more overused, at this stage, that the tropes laid out above (if not the old ‘I Googled X and Y and got 12,000 hits, therefore …’ which Amis also uses with about as much shame as the lowest Sunday Independent hack)? Who are these multiculturalists who defend honour killings in the name of cultural diversity? I’ve never heard anyone try to justify Female Genital Mutilation on those grounds (except for Germaine Greer) but again and again this point is made. From Richard Littlejohn or Kevin Myers it might be par for the course, but from Martin Amis (author of ‘The War Against Cliché’, no less. It seems that, like Islamism, Cliché has won!) I would have hoped for something a little less lazy and predictable. Perhaps his next piece in the paper will treat us to some satirical comments about female black lesbian one-legged save-the-whale dwarfs.

Amis clearly bases much of his argument on the work of Paul Berman, among others. He even quotes chunks of Terror and Liberalism when writing about Palestine, although he chides mildly Berman for being too soft on Quutb. Unfortunately, the problems with Berman’s argument are magnified tenfold in Amis’ reproduction of them. Rather than simply trying to look at militant Islam in it sown terms, influenced by European political thinking, to be sure, but also arising from a particular set of socio-political and regional circumstances, both apparently need to ground their opposition in terms of the grand narrative of Us vs. Them (one big Them encompassing all the evil in the world).

This is something I considered the weakest part of Terror and Liberalism, Berman’s essential point being that all totalitarian ideologies are really just the same, that they’re all fundamentally irrational cults which celebrate death and are the antithesis of Enlightenment values. In this he links Nazism, Stalinism and Islamism arguing that if you scratch the surface you’ll find the underlying motivation being his vague, nihilistic death-worship (a theme also explored, to an extent, in Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism). As Amis puts it:

And one needs hardly labour the similarities between Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualistic, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled. The main distinction is that the paradise which the Nazis (pagan) and the Bolsheviks (atheist) sought to bring about was an earthly one, raised from the mulch of millions of corpses.

It’s a cute idea, and probably an attractive one in some obvious quarters but unfortunately it doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny. One could argue equally convincingly that Bolshevism was the logical continuation of the political implementation of Enlightenment values, but was simply corrupted by those unable the resist the temptation of absolute power the Revolution was able to offer. One could even suggest, as some in the Frankfurt School did, that Nazism itself was the inevitable outcome of Enlightenment rationality pursued to its limits. Neither are particularly persuasive but they’re no less plausible than the Berman/Amis thesis. One might be closer to the truth by paraphrasing Tolstoy and suggesting that while secular, liberal democracies are all alike, every repressive, nihilistic ideology is repulsive in its own way. Grasping at imagined connections between different positions and making the connection the defining feature of each serves only to blur our understanding of how they arise and, consequently, how they might best be combatted.

For someone so keen to draw link between certain political movements of the past and contemporary ‘Islamofascism’ Amis is remarkably ahistorical in other respects. On completing the essay a reader might be forgiven for thinking that terrorism begins and ends with Islamism, or that an act of terrorism carried out by one Muslim is essentially no different from any other in terms of motivation or context.

He writes about terrorism as if it’s a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, with no reference to any other groups, causes or atrocities. We Irish, more than many, should understand how blinkered such a position is. For some reason, he appears fixated with suicide terrorism, as if it’s in some way worse than others forms of terrorism, falling into a category he defines as ‘horrorism’ (isn’t most terrorism actually horrorism?).

Of course, suicide bombing of civilians is always an abomination and can never be justified. But surely the most troubling aspect of the mindset of the suicide bomber is the willingness to kill, rather than the willingness to die. Is the willingness to die for a cause really ‘astonishingly alien’ to the ‘Western mind’ as Amis seems to suggest? It certainly wouldn’t be to Irish Republicanism, which remains devoted to its martyrs, from the 1916 leaders (and previously) to the Hunger Strikes (and beyond). And even if we were to concede that there’s something especially loathsome about suicide-bombing itself, this tactic is certainly not unique to Islamism. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam had employed it for years and, until very recently, were the primary exponent of it on the planet. Whatever else you can claim about them, it’s hard to describe the Tamil Tigers as an Islamist sect. Unfortunately, though, like moderate Muslims or basic historical accuracy, considering their example doesn’t tie in with what Amis wants to say, and so they must be ignored.

By refusing to look at what such wider comparisons might imply for his thesis, not only are suicide bombings seen as essentially Islamist in nature, but so too are all such attacks viewed through the prism of the Us Vs. Them lens, rather than considering the specific circumstances of each. It would be nice to think that such reluctance on Amis’ part was based simply on an ignorance of the issues involved, but disturbingly Amis speaks of a deliberate refusal to even contemplate the possibility that the bombers could be motivated by anything other than the broad views Amis ascribes them.

Suicide mass-murder is astonishingly alien to us, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven’t managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion. (…) Contemplating intense violence you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? And compassionately frowning newscasters are still asking that same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.

A more honest approach might have been to say ‘Islamic suicide mass-murder is astonishingly alien to us’, as that’s all he’s interested in. Non-Islamic terrorism, perhaps, is just part of the normal fabric of the Amis world. Intellectual honesty, however, is a rare commodity in this piece. At one very telling point, he writes:

And this, on 25 July, was the considered response of the Mayor of London to the events of 7 July:

‘Given that they don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only use their bodies to use as weapons. In an unfair balance, that’s what people use’.

On first glance, that seems a little over-the-top, even by Ken Livingstone’s standards. Could he really be suggesting that there could be some reasonable justification for the 7/7 bombings? Except, of course, than he didn’t actually say Amis claims he did, nor was it in response to the London attacks. What he did say on 25 July, on Sky News, was:

Given that the Palestinians don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only use their bodies to use as weapons.

which is something completely different. The replacement of ‘Palestinians’ with ‘they’ speaks volumes. ‘They’ are all the same, whether they’re in Ramallah or Grimsby. ‘They’ want to destroy us’. There’s no difference between the murderers of the 9/11 attacks or the Madrid or London bombings and a suicide bomber from Palestine or Chechnya. And because ‘they’ are all the same, there can be no rational explanation for anything any one of ‘them’ does.

Even if applied to Al Qaeda, such a thesis is misguided, but when applied to the situation in Palestine it becomes decidedly ludicrous. Amis buys the Berman line lock, stock and barrel. Palestinian terrorism clearly has nothing to do with Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. It’s all down to irrational Islamism. This has the added bonus of placing the burden of responsibility for the conflict on the shoulders of those Palestinians who rejected the Camp David provisions, while ‘we’ don’t even have to look at the implications of those provisions for the prospective Palestinian state as to do so might be tantamount to looking for reasons where none exist, remember?

One has to feel a little sorry for Amis and the timing of the piece. If the following, including quotes from Berman, had been published two months ago, it might have been a little thought-provoking:

Once the redoubled suppression had taken hold, the human bombings decreased; and world opinion quietened down. The Palestinians were now worse off than every, their societal gains of the Nineties ‘flattened by Israeli tanks’. But the protests ‘rose and fell in tandem with the suicide bomb attacks and not in tandem with the suffering of the Palestinian people.’

Following the actions of the IDF in Gaza and Lebanon, though, and the mass protests that followed, this surely is a point which needs some radical rethinking.

It appears, in conclusion, that Amis has had a Yossarian moment. At some point over the last 5 years, perhaps 9/11, perhaps 7/7, perhaps in a bar with Christopher Hitchens, he’s had the sudden realization, like the hero of Heller’s novel, that ‘they are trying to kill me!’.

What this has done, it seems, has been to shut down his critical faculties. He’s no longer interested in thinking or learning, considering ambiguity or grappling with contradiction or nuance; rather, he has a ready-made framework through which he can understand the world and, by God, he’s going to cram everything in there. Like the person in the Nietzsche quote cited at the start, he’s gazed too long at Islamism and now it’s gazing back at him, tainting his view of everything else. All terrorism must be seen as connected with Islamism. The great ideological battles of the past must also be part of the current clash of civilizations. Everything becomes reduced to a black-and-white, ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world (which, of course, degrades the humanity of both camps).

Most worrying of all, actual Muslims are understood only in terms of the Islamist vs. the rest of the world mindset. If someone is neither a murderer or a ‘moderate’ contributor to an op-ed page, they simply don’t appear on the Amis horizon. For Amis, Summer 2005 contained only Shehzad Tanweer rather than both the London bomber and waspish, Muslim cross-dresser Kemal Shahin from Big Brother (now, apparently, a Buddhist, perhaps epitomizing Sen’s contention that cultural identity is determined by choice, rather than destiny).

It’s this lack of interest in the real lives and the variety of real lives of actual Muslims, the reluctance look behind the received wisdom and grand narratives of the Bermans, Lewises and Huntingtons and get his hands dirty with the mundanity of the everyday and unremarkable that defines Amis’ failure in this piece. He might have been better looking to someone like Jason Burke who, if he wants to write about the views of Muslims, takes the novel approach of actually going out and talking to some, as he does in this most recent book On the Road to Kandahar.

Burke’s piece in the same edition of the Observer as Amis’ massive tract gives a far more interesting, original and optimistic perspective the variety of opinion among Muslims worldwide, and on the real state of play in Amis’ ‘civil war’. He points, for example, to the fact that in a recent poll a majority of Egyptians answered that the country they most hated was America but that America was also the country in which they most wanted to live. Amis’ approach seems to be to focus on what the ideologue says, and ignore what the followers do. Burke shows that the latter is far more important in gaining as complete a picture of the world as possible.

Can there be any greater failure for a fiction writer than the failure of imagination Amis displays here, an unwillingness to explore perspectives other than ones own? If this piece is a critical failure (and to my mind it is) then it’s apt to so much of it is taken up with an artistic one – the abandoned story ‘The Unknown Known’. Amis tells us that he couldn’t complete it because the nihilistic blankness of Islamism leaves it unamenable to satire. I would suspect something different. My guess is that, as in the Mohammed Atta story the previous week, he was using a central character as the vehicle for an ideology he not only doesn’t understand but does not believe can ever be understood. Even if one accepts his view of Islamism itself, he still refuses to see that there is more to every individual, even a suicide bomber, than one aspect of their beliefs. The cry ‘they are all the same’ is more proper to the propagandist than the artist and in refusing to acknowledge any depth, or humanity in the characters involved, Amis is refusing to see the depth of the world around him.

Ironically, he ends the piece with the following quote from Conrad:

The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is – marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; and outrage on our dignity.

Isn’t this, precisely, the opposite of Amis’ approach? He’s so enamoured with the theory, the theology, the Berman way of explaining everything that he can’t see the full range of ‘marvels and mysteries’ in the ‘world of the living’ everywhere else.

And like a character in a sub-standard Amis story (or a Will Self one at the very least) he becomes as intellectually impoverished and myopic as the fanatics he attests to despise.

Galloway – Sensible points shocker! August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Marxism, Middle East, Uncategorized.
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Okay, I must admit to sitting up and taking note of Galloway on Sky a month or so back. Yes, he delivered the usual rhetorical jibes against the presenter (perhaps I’m overly sensitive to such things but he struck me as a tad misogynistic in his treatment of her). Yet, what he said once one wiped away the rhetoric and the bombast was in fact – er…very sensible two-state solution stuff.

And what’s this, why an article in today’s Guardian which while using the usual language of ‘with the victory of Hizbullah, a terrible beauty is born’ and ‘If there is no settlement there can only be war, war and more war, until one day it is Tel Aviv which is on fire and the Israeli leaders’ intransigence brings the whole state down on their heads’, reiterates that, and with slightly less bombast.

Or as he says:

A comprehensive settlement now would of course look much like it has for decades: Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in 1967; respect for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees to return; the emergence of a real Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital – a contiguous state with an Arab border, with no Zionist settlements and military roads, and with internationally guaranteed Palestinian control over its land, air, sea and water. In exchange there would be Arab recognition, normalisation and, in time, acceptance of Israel into the Middle East as something other than a settler garrison of the imperial west.

I’d agree with almost every word – bar my own preference (do you hear me Tel Aviv and Ramallah?) for Jerusalem to become an international city with the rights of all upheld by the international community.

Could it be that underneath all the rhetoric George Galloway is actually almost sensible? That what he projects is bluster that obscures a more moderate heart. That the marxist George, buried for so long beneath the persona of George of Baghdad, is reasserting itself with a good strong dose of pragmatism?

The world wobbles on it’s axis. Yet one wonders how all this will play within certain factions of Respect. The comrades of the SWP are perhaps a little more trenchant in their anatagonism to Israel, to say nothing of the other factions within the party.

Now if only he could detach himself from his ludicrous identification with the so-called resistance in Iraq “If the fierce thicket of the Iraqi resistance stopped the Bush war spreading to Syria then the extraordinary Hizbullah victory has surely made the world think again about an attack on Iran” and then a lot of leftists would find him a vastly more congenial character. But that I fear is a step too far.

Irish involvement in the Lebanon – Left and further Left. August 28, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Marxism, Middle East, The Left, Uncategorized.
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An article in today’s IT by Deagláde Bréadún (subscription required) points up some of the current fault lines on the left and further left over the outcome of the Israeli/Hizbullah conflict and the response of the Irish government to the request to send troops to the participate in the upcoming UN mission.
Both the Labour Party and Sinn Féin (no liberal hand wringing down at the IT as to where on the political spectrum SF lies) are broadly in favour of some level of participation. Joe Costello is quoted as saying that he does not believe ‘we should turn our back on a request for support from either the Lebanese government or the United Nations’. Aengus Ó Snodaigh is in favour of such a mission although would want the UN forces to patrol both sides of the border. John Gormley takes a more cautious position arguing that ‘the rule of engagement for any UN force need to be studied carefully and debated fully in the Dáil…the situation…is still extremely volatile and serious doubts have been expressed about the durability of the ceasefire’. Reading between the lines it appears to me, at least, that that indicates the Greens would probably sign up to a certain level of intervention.
However on the further left there is less agreement. The Irish Anti-War Movement through it’s chairman Richard Boyd Barrett is entirely against any western involvement because of ‘fundamental flaws in the resolution 1701’ which he sees as ‘ambiguous and biased in favour of Israel…it also repeats what I think is a lie, that Hizbullah started the conflict. There is very substantial evidence now that the Israeli assault on Lebanon had nothing to do with hostages, but was planned months in advance with the connivance of the US and was part of the preparations for a future US assault on Iran and maybe Syria’.
This position is shared by the Anti-War Network and by Roger Cole of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. He said, that the ‘key purpose of the troops being sent to Lebanon is to go to war with the resistance in Lebanon; in effect to take up where the Israeli army left off’. He continues that ‘Ireland is now not only not neutral, it is an integral part of the Bush Blair war machine’.
By contrast the NGO Peace Alliance was initially in favour of troops participating as long as they were peace keepers, not peace-enforcers, but that statement was withdrawn prior to a ‘full meeting of [their] executive’.
There are aspects which must naturally be clarified. The safety of the UN mission is a priority. But in some respects it’s not the absolute priority. That has to be the safety and integrity of the Lebanese civilian population and the Lebanese state. The presence of a significant UN mission, with sufficient mandate and personnel is largely it’s own guarantee of safety from the depradations of the IDF or Hizbullah.
So what to make of this? Well a number of points strike me immediately. First is the overt identification by Roger Cole with what he describe as the ‘resistance’ in South Lebanon. There are obvious reasons why such a movement developed in Southern Lebanon. The legitimacy of that movement is a different issue. But such a clear alignment with a ‘side’ seems to me to be the antithesis of neutrality or peace, particularly in the context of the Lebanon, a sectarian state with a delicate balance of power between competing minorities where there is a legitimate government supported by a reasonably (and in the context of the region an admirably) democratic mandate. A government, incidentally, which does indeed have Hizbullah elements within it. It is surprising that IAWM and Roger Cole are not more supportive of a government which has largely (along with the Lebanese people) borne the brunt of the hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah rather than to one or other of the combatants.
Secondly is the stark division between the two strands of the ‘left’. One is willing to accept the bona fides of the United Nations in this process, the other dismisses the resolutions as ‘flawed’. Perhaps the resolution is flawed. It’s hard to conceive of it not being in the current situation once one factors in the environment, those supporting the various sides and so on. But if it is the best there is, if it actually an instrument to achieve a cessation of conflict – which has happened albeit imperfectly – it appears to me to be in part a way forward. But wait a second, if the resolution, which is masterful in it’s ambiguity can be said to achieve one huge success it is in the even-handedness of it’s proscriptions. There is no mention of disarming Hizbullah – although the internal logic of the resolution is that that will happen. Israel is not allowed to carry out offensive actions, but although it can theoretically carry out ‘defensive’ actions the deployment of UN peacekeepers in addition to the 15,000 Lebanese troops will soften it’s cough in that regard. There are no clear winners. Peace is maintained and in the absence of a regional agreement, which – let’s be honest – at this point appears a Utopian hope, perhaps a breathing space can develop.
Third is the way in which both strands appear to have different interpretations of what is happening on the ground. Labour and Sinn Féin appear to be focussed on the specific issue. The further left appears wedded to the notion that everything slots into a single seamless tapestry of US intervention in the region. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Even if one were to accept the arguable contention that the conflict was no more than a proxy between the US and Iran (a view which underplays the very real antagonisms between the two major participants in that recent conflict – Hizbullah and Israel) the outcome has surely been one not to the liking of the US. Hizbullah has emerged broken but unbowed, the Israeli military and political apparatus is considerably shaken, to the point where the Olmert government is under threat from a resurgent Likud. And however bad Olmert has been the thought of a Likud administration should give even the most intransigent armchair non-warriors pause for thought. But more centrally if one has suspicions of just how this conflict played out in terms of the relationship between the US and Israel, then surely the relationship between Hizbullah and Syria and Lebanon is equally open to question. To cede support to Hizbullah appears to my mind to be highly suspect. Even more importantly, to throw up the charge that this is a proxy war is to entirely miss the point. Geo-political conspiracy theories, whether accurate or not, are beside the point when it comes to safeguarding the people of the Lebanon. Possible future conflicts in Iran are largely irrelevant in the context of an actual humanitarian crisis in the Lebanon. To argue otherwise is to replicate in part the errors that neo-conservatism made in Iraq.
Fourthly there appears to be an aversion to putting Irish feet on the ground on the part of the further left, perhaps as a point of principle, again perhaps not. In a way this is the most inexplicable aspect to me. As a left internationalist it seems to me that countries such as this one have a duty (one that we haven’t been shy of fulfilling in the past) to participate in international projects such as these. What is it all about otherwise? Rhetoric, hot air? The illusion of solidarity while Israeli aircraft bomb South Lebanon into ruins while Hizbullah rockets fall across the north of Israel? I genuinely find it difficult to understand why Boyd Barrett and Cole appear so antagonistic to such actions. They cloak their aversion in the language of the ‘Bush/Blair war machine’ but that is hyperbole. The Bush administration has been humbled by the events in Lebanon over the past two months. They have seen a pressure of world opinion bear upon them to force a resolution to the conflict. Those of us who are sharply critical of the duplicity of their previous support for the Lebanese government and then abandonment of it in order to give Israel time to prosecute their own strategic aims can at least take some heart in the damping down of the conflict and the internationalisation of security in that area through the auspices of the UN and the stark demonstration of the limits of ‘hard’ power in the contemporary world.
Whether any of this has any purchase on the public and political imagination beyond the coteries involved is debatable. There is fairly broad public support for the UN as an institution, whatever the continuing hatchet jobs from left and right (Magill magazine has had an interesting if flawed series of articles on the UN which are bleakly dismissive of it as an institution). There is also, I would suspect, strong sympathy in this country for the Lebanese and I hope that the UN mission will be widely supported. It’s difficult to see the government allowing troops onto the ground without the situation being largely pacified. That in itself is neither dishonest nor dishonourable. But it largely predicates against this becoming an election issue over the next eight or nine months. In the context of ‘triple locks’ the nature of UN support is effectively a mandate in itself. We have heard, and continue to hear, of the ‘illegality’ of conflicts such as Kosovo and Iraq. This ‘illegality’ is presumed to derive from a lack of a mandate under international law, but particularly the UN. I’m not entirely convinced of the necessity for the latter in every circumstance, but I’m pretty certain that where forthcoming it is necessary to move forward. The response of Cole and Boyd Barrett is such that one wonders just how much more legitimation is necessary before they would accept the necessity to despatch peace-keeping forces.
However, the unfortunate but intrinsic logic of their position is one that would prolong the conflict and the suffering of the Lebanese people. No UN forces on the ground and fighting will almost inevitably (and at the behest of one or other of the parties) break out again. Indeed former ambassador Noel Dorr makes much this point in a thoughtful article in today’s Irish Times (again subscription required) where he notes “The UN force will certainly face difficulties. Yet without it, the present “cessation” is unlikely to last”. The calls for something to happen to improve the situation were heartfelt and sincere from almost all sides. The reality was that that ‘something’ could only occur through the UN. Now something is happening it’s apparently not good enough.

Yet another example of the better being driven out by the best?

Whataboutery, Part 1 August 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine.
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Did you see the article by Alan Shatter and Rory Miller in the Irish Times earlier this week? I hope so.  Apparently it was the best opinion piece to appear in an Irish newspaper all year. Who but a fool would have missed it?

Of course, I’m lying.  It’s not the best opinion piece to appear all year (that’s just the view of Richard Waghorne, the increasingly cartoon-like Anthony Blanche of Irish blogs).  It’s not even the best opinion piece to appear in the Irish Times that day?  What it is, in fact, is an entirely predictable example of one the laziest arguments put forward not just by those who defend the actions of Israel, but by an array of conservative wannabe pundits – the old ‘ah, but what about them?’ appeal.

Shatter and Miller’s ‘argument’ (to be generous) is that those who, like the Lord Mayor of Dublin or the organizers of the Festival of World Cultures, criticise Israel during its recent military action in Lebanon, are guilty of hypocrisy, as they don’t apply the same scrutiny to other regimes which breach human rights, such as Saudi Arabia in its treatment of Palestinian refugees or Russia in its actions in Chechnya.  It’s not a particularly original point (and it’s hard to see what it was that made Waghorne so giddy).  Indeed, it’s the same criticism that was leveled at those who participated in the mass anti-war marches in 2003: why are they only protesting against the war in Iraq?  Why aren’t the marching against the genocide in Darfur?

On the face of it, there may be some substance to the allegations.  Certainly there are those whose attitude towards Israel borders on the obsessive and whose criticisms of that state are so over-the-top they can be readily dismissed (such as Nobel laureate José Saramago’s opinion that the attack on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah by the IDF was ‘a crime comparable to Auschwitz’).

On the other hand, there may be good reason for marching in protest against certain violations of human rights, when other, more heinous, ones are occurring elsewhere.  Champions of Israel are fond of lauding its democratic credentials.  Surely, then, the Israeli government would be more sensitive to world opinion than, say, the Taliban, making protests against Israel more likely to achieve a positive result than those against other regimes.  Similarly, while the likes of the SWP might disproportionately criticise Israel, that state also receives far more support from Western governments, particularly the United States, than the other regimes mentioned.  It’s difficult to imagine any other state taking military action against another state and violating international law and receiving the same backing that Israel recently did, from both governments and commentators (unless, of course, it was the United States itself).  Apart from a minority of die-hard Stalinists, I don’t recall many people making the argument that the Serbian government had ‘the right to defend itself’ by committing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, even among those who opposed to NATO intervention.  Contrast that with the ‘Israel right or wrong’ attitude adopted by many in the past month and a half.

Those who, like Shatter and Miller, seem to feel that pointing to hypocrisy on the part of others, and the fact that some conflicts receive more coverage than others, is an argument in and of itself fail to grasp that the same criticism can be made of them.  Alan Shatter thinks that the Lord Mayor hasn’t been vocal enough about the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia? Fine, perhaps he can point us to the protest he himself has organised about it, or the outcry he has raised about Chechnya or the Congo.  The same applies to the criticism of the 2003 anti-war marches; how many of those who complained that those marching against the US should have been concentrating on Sudan actually marched against Sudan themselves?  It seems that, for many on the right, violations of human rights which the ‘Stoppers’ aren’t particularly concerned with are only important as a stick which they can beat critics of the US with.  Is anyone adopting such a position really entitled to take the moral high ground?

Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the crucial weakness of Shatter and Miller’s apparent attempt to defend Israel is that it doesn’t work as a defence at all.  It falls into a rather obvious trap of the ad hominem fallacy.  Even if one was to accept that everyone who has criticized the recent actions of the Israel military is a complete hypocrite, and possibly anti-Semitic to boot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the criticisms themselves are invalid (as any fule no!).  By ignoring the substance of the charges, Shatter and Miller are implicitly conceding them.  Sure, Israel might be guilty of war crimes, but what about the crimes of A, B or C? Is this really the kind of point they want to make?  And, if so, where it does leave them in attempting to answer those who genuinely do criticise human rights violations wherever they occur?

Funnily enough, what this article serves to show is that Shatter and Miller, as well as many other defenders of Israel, are simply a mirror image of the likes of George Galloway, clown prince of the anti-war movement.  For Galloway, any criticism of Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi resistance can simply be answered (well, ignored but responded to, to be more accurate) by pointing to the crimes of what he describes as the ‘little Hitler state on the Mediterranean’.  Similarly, Shatter and Miller respond to charges against Israel by ignoring them and pointing to the actions of others.  ‘Whataboutery’, it seems, is not confined to any one side.

It’s all over… bar the shooting… August 18, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized.
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So emerging from the wreckage what’s the lay of the landscape?

Borzu Daragahi of The Los Angeles Times mentions on KCRW’s To the Point (15th August) [here] the feeling of betrayal from Lebanese who believe the international community had betrayed them and the Cedar Revolution and their dreams of being the first proper democracy in the region other than Israel. This is a crushing indictment of the US and Britain, and more generally the ‘West’ such as it is. Not to support a secular, democratic leaning state has been an appalling derogation of responsibility. (Incidentally Daragahi also noted that compared to USAF actions during the Iraq war where he had previously reported, the damage from the Israeli aerial bombing campaign was ‘unbelievable’ with ‘whole apartment blocs flattened’ and in no sense pinpointed).

It’s not difficult to identify some crucial problems that arose during the course of the conflict.

Key problem #1: an unwillingness to learn from history. Israel had already taken on Hizbullah in 1993 and 1996 in incursions almost identical to those of the last month or so. They didn’t work then and Warren Christopher had to negotiate a ceasefire with Hizbullah.

Key problem #2: an adventurist administration in Washington willing to allow the Israeli government to act with near impunity during the first two weeks of the conflict.

Key problem #3: an Israeli government desperate to prove it’s military credentials and therefore simultaneously willing to go too far and also unsure and vaccillating in the face of the military pressure to go further.

Key problem #4: an IDF which had burnished it’s reputation decades ago (and reduced more recently to the effective policing of Gaza and the West Bank against opponents unable to mount a serious military threat) facing a motivated and largely professional guerilla force capable of inflicting serious casualties.

Key problem #5: an Israel unable, or unwilling, to understand international public opinion on this issue and making egregious errors of tactics and strategy which only served to undercut what little support it already had. An example, the 48 hour ceasefire granted in order to allow civilians and medical supplies access and egress from the area. At the very least, were Israel thinking rationally such a move would have been made much earlier in the conflict, perhaps at the start. Not because it was necessarily the smartest military move in the short term, but because it was morally right and because it would then allow them to act more decisively later.

Finally, and I keep hearing this, the imbalance between what some perceive as an existential conflict for Israel and yet what in reality was not. Therefore the acres of rhetoric about how the Hizbullah rockets presented a threat (which they did on a real basis to individual Israeli’s but not to the state of Israel) that justified the extreme actions undertaken in Lebanon were simply wrong or self-serving. A million people in shelters is a dismal prospect. But – it’s not as if the adversary was unwilling to cut a deal as demonstrated over the past 48 hours. Nor was, at any point, Israel in a position to degrade Hizbullah to the extent that would render it ineffective. That’s not to say Hizbullah hasn’t been degraded. Clearly it has in some respects, and it will be interesting to see how it’s reputation weathers the next year or so on the ground.

Why do I talk of Israel mainly? Because it is Israel that must carry the bulk of weight of responsibility of the last four weeks, because Israel had different choices at every point and did not take them.

A couple of further points. There is a distressing tendency to paint this in Manichean terms, that Hizbullah (and often Hamas is included in this analysis) is an adversary that cannot be dealt with other than by annihilation. I think this is a serious misjudgement of the situation. Yes Hizbullah is anti-thetical to the State of Israel. That is a given, however the very fact it can be negotiated with to this point demonstrates that it is subject to pressure, opinion and force. Hizbullah is – and I don’t mean to legitimate it in any respect – a response to historical pressures which can be countered. Hizbullah is not entirely detached from the public within which it moves and operates. In other words this is not Al-Quida – beyond any possibility of discourse. In the final analysis Israel must start to engage with those around it who seek it’s destruction, must seek to to alter the perception of it. An interesting point was made in the recent issue of Prospect magazine where it was noted that during the height of the Oslo agreements Israeli and Jewish popularity within the Muslim world reached record levels. Those who make this point appear to believe that hatreds are fixed and unchanging, but that simply ain’t so. Sixty years ago on this continent Franco-German hostility was so deep rooted the prospect of any accommodation, much less the contemporary alliance between the two was unthinkable. Enmities can be overcome. Hatred can be diffused. But it requires work, and let’s be honest to turn around the phrase utilised by the Israeli’s ‘a partner for peace’.
Of course for some (perhaps an individual with the initials OBL skulking in caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border) such an outcome was disastrous because they too buy into a Manichean worldview, and any agreement would be subject to attack, but it appears to me that a cautious, step by step engagement by Israel would reap rewards.

How could that start? Perhaps by some sort of assistance to Lebanon. Is that likely? Perhaps not, but how could it hurt? Secondly by serious engagement on the Palestinian issue. The last five years demonstrated the futility of undermining all aspects of Palestinian authority, by degrading even the nascent institutions of a functioning state – as if such a strategy could lead to ‘peace’. The result, as in the Lebanon, keep hitting hard and eventually an adversary will arise that will hit hard back. israel isn’t going anywhere, and that’s fine, but the opposite is also true. Lebanon, Syria, Iran and most importantly the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either. And if I was in Tel Aviv, and had any thoughts of expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank as some of the most revanchist (and admittedly marginalised) elements of the Israeli political spectrum do, I’d think again. Lebanon showed that the world won’t wear it.

Otherwise what’s the alternative? Fortress Israel, surrounded by those who would seek to destroy it, permanently on a war footing, watching impotently as the last vestiges of world support ebb away from it. That would be a tragedy.

Even listening to the discussions on the same edition of KCRW’s To the Point some Israeli commentators appeared to completely misunderstand the dynamic of what is going on.

Yossi Klein Halevi who writes for the new Republic is sharply critical of Israel and Olmert for not prosecuting the land war with more vigour. He considers Olmert made two key errors in that he had ‘an almost unprecedented support from Washington’ and a unified public opinion in Israel and the opportunity to send the ‘message that Israel is unpredictable and Israel is strong and resolute…’. But that’s the problem. In the end Israel didn’t have unlimited support from Washington. Quite the opposite, Washington has it’s own concerns in the region now and despite it’s wish to bloody the Iranian nose (by proxy) general regional stability and the pressure of public opinion was going to tell. So an unconstrained land war was never a real option, and Halevi, a sharp and thoughtful commentator, is deluding himself if he thinks so. [As an aside he went on to describe how he lived in Jerusalem close to the West Bank and how he had been ‘subjected’ to his Palestinian neighbours holding fireworks displays for the last thirty days in celebration at ‘Hizbullah’s victory’. Perhaps the real question is just why they would do that and how can the situation be turned around so that an attack on Israel is seen as the last resort of the nihilistic].

By contrast Akiva Eldar of Haaretz noted that Israel had indirectly ‘upgraded Hamas from a political party to a government’ and the same would occur with Hizbullah. And that’s the point. Every action Israel takes is limiting it’s scope for action because by redefining this in existential terms it errs on the side of utilising too great a force against adversaries who could be dealt with more appropriately and alienates support.

My belief is that this is an important point in Israeli/Arab relations because defeat, or more correctly a military stalemate, is something Israel has not experienced before. Stalemate brings it’s own lessons. I genuinely hope they will be assimilated, and not lead to a Likud government closed to the reality of a world which is increasingly turning it’s back on Israel.

But there’s blowback on other issues too. In the US support for the war in Iraq has nose dived and with that there has been a parallel reduction in support for the Republican party, particularly as the party of strong domestic security. This has serious implications for the future as well. Perhaps a future US administration will be just that bit more cautious about handing a blank cheque to Israel, perhaps they will act more along the lines of the US during Suez where it effectively shut down the French, British and Israeli actions.

Perhaps not.

Viewing the other… Israeli Propaganda and the Lebanon August 13, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Uncategorized.
2 comments

A remarkable podcast on KCRW’s To the Point [available here]. Hanady Salman of As-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper, made some telling points about the propaganda war.

Apparently the Israeli’s are resorting to leaflet drops in areas and the jamming of radio stations. But Salman had some telling criticism’s of the form of the material. The leaflets had crude and ‘grotesque’ cartoons which she described as being worse than that which her young child could draw. According to her the Communist party radio station had risible anti-Hizbullah propaganda messages superimposed by the Isreali’s instead.

She said that ‘I feel insulted because they’re not spending too much money to convince us’. And that sentiment, while perhaps somewhat strange in the overall situation, reaches a central truth of this conflict.

We’ve seen that Israeli’s did not appear to credit their adversaries with any degree of sophistication, as demonstrated by their apparent surprise at the level of technological advancement by Hizbullah, and their ability to sustain resistance over a protracted period of time.

But what comes through loud and clear here is a sense that the Israeli’s have a bizarrely distorted version of what Lebanon in general and the Lebanese are like. It is rather as if they presuppose that the population is entirely uneducated and lacking in the ability to decode visual or text based imagery.

Indeed, in the current issue of Prospect magazine [here] Tamara Chalabi, writing from Beirut quotes a Lebanese Christian who initially was antagonistic to Hizbullah more recently saying: Israel is being disproportionate. They want to destroy us. They hate us. They can’t stand the fact that we are a cosmopolitan society with different communities, who are as sophisticated as they are, and living together.”

Simply put the Israeli’s, and I’m not ascribing racialism but instead a form of willful ignorance, appear unable to see the Lebanese as anything other than puppets, dancing to the tune of Hizbullah, or responding to their own demands. They are not credited with the ability to think, decide or determine for themselves. Only the most introverted of political analyses could believe that one can bomb a people out of a belief system, or that such actions could have anything other than a unifying effect upon the general Lebanese population which is less sympathetic to Hizbullah, yet this appears to be the motive force behind the current Israeli action, because one presumes the IDF (a clever and very capable force) understands that in military terms Hizbullah will survive, but more importantly in ideological terms it is going to thrive.

Even in the broader context of the war, and the appalling actions that we’ve witnessed over the past three weeks, I think that tells us something very significant about the gulf of incomprehension on the Israeli side as to the situation they find themselves in.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t deny for a moment that at a higher level of activity, internationally and so on, both Israel and Hizbullah are putting out more sophisticated messages.

However, Lebanon is a sophisticated country with a sophisticated society. How could it be otherwise when it has had to hammer out a means of transcending the conflicts of the past by means of a careful system of checks and balances between the different ethno-religious groups?

I loath the use of the term ‘imperialism’ in these discussions. I think it’s glib, and it’s an issue I hope to return to at a later stage, but there is the whiff of ‘talking down’ to the inhabitants in such actions which leaves a sour taste. The world has changed. The Arab world is changing. While there is much to deplore in the overall socio-political situation, and much which can be laid directly at the feet of the regimes there (noted in the UN report…..), there is also great potential for democracy, prosperity and pluralism. Already contemporary communications are having a significant effect on the area.

That the Israeli’s can misjudge the nature of Lebanon, and presumably misjudge the nature of all those in the area around them, that it can with relative impunity attack the infrastructure, both physical and political of one of it’s neighbours, and more importantly one of the brightest spots in the region with a clear potential to ultimately be a friend and ally of Israel, leaves little hope for the future.

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