Friday, September 19, 2003

Fellow serial suspicious squinter and chronic distruster of besuited power everywhere, Xymphora, reckons Washington has squandered a lot of brownie points of late, and I'm riffing off that here. Methinks the neocons have waaay underestimated the importance of what Joseph Nye calls 'soft power'. Methinks also that the people most likely to make such miscalculations are those blessed with overwhelming 'hard power'. Democratic debate and republican compromise can nip such nonsense in the bud when it's allowed to, but you'd need fair elections, a questioning media and an assertive opposition if you're to avoid an autonomous executive informed by cloistered group-think and boyish fantasies ...

Anyway, *Slate* helps set the scene for us:

France's Le Monde, which on Sept. 12, 2001, famously proclaimed, "We Are All Americans," now declared, "Two years later, the standing of the United States is at an all-time low. Compassion has given way to fear that ill-thought actions will only aggravate the problems and that the struggle against terrorism is nothing but a pretext for the extension of American hegemony."


Madrid's El Mundo said that after 9/11, "President Bush had a blank check in his hands," but two years later, "Bush threatens to heave the world into the abyss of a new world order, under the pretext of the war on terrorism."


The Guardian agreed: "Mr Bush has broken alliances with the same abandon that he has broken lives, causing permanent damage. … [T]he 'war on terror' transmutes into a loose, catch-all justification for all the US does or does not want to do."

We could start with Washington's recent attitude to international agreements. They don't like 'em. Here's a small part of Richard du Boff's list of international agreements, treaties, protocols and conventions Washington has recently refused to ratify, withdrawn from or simply scuttled:

1. Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty
2. Antiballistic Missile Treaty
3. Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
4. UN Agreement to Curb the International Flow of Illicit Small Arms,
5. International Criminal Court (ICC) Treaty
6. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
7. Land Mine Treaty
8. Kyoto Protocol
9. International Plan for Cleaner Energy
10. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
11. Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
12. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Oh, and then there was the time Washington single-handedly undid an agreement among all other 143 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to relax patent laws to help poor nations buy medicines to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases.

You can see how some might take that as serial disagreeability. Unilateralism maybe. Exceptionalism even. Some might even argue Washington seemed to be disagreeing with stuff it'd be hard imagining the world's self-appointed moral guardian disagreeing with …

Which brings us to terrorism. On this criterion it seems Washington is the one to embrace 'moral clarity' in a world full of hypocrisy and obfuscation. But which are the morals it's being clear about?

Well none concerning harbouring those suspected of terrorism per se. Else, as Stephen Zunes reckons, they'd come clean about a 1985 Beirut bombing, " organized by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Ronald Reagan, to assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent anti-American Lebanese cleric. More than 80 civilians were killed and over 200 wounded, though Ayatollah Fadlallah escaped serious injury."

Then there's Washington's refusal to extradite four "right-wing Cuban exiles trained by the CIA - convicted over twenty years ago in Venezuela for blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976," or its refusal to extradite "John Hull, an American CIA operative indicted in Costa Rica for the 1984 bombing of a press conference in a Nicaraguan border town which killed five journalists," or its refusal to extradite "Emmanuel Constant for trial in Haiti. The former military officer, who had worked closely with the CIA, is believed to be responsible for the murder of upwards to 5000 people under the Haitian dictatorship in the early 1990s". And the Contras weren't very nice, either.

That stuff's gonna matter if others remember it but your own media would have you forget it.

And now there's this 'you gotta help us finish what we started in Iraq' ploy. As Joseph Stiglitz argues: Handing billions to rich Americans through tax cuts, the Bush administration is passing the hat around, asking for contributions from other countries to help to pay for the Iraq war. Even setting aside other dubious aspects of Bush's Iraq policy, the conjunction of misguided giveaways to America's richest people with an international US begging bowl is hardly likely to evoke an outpouring of sympathy.

Perhaps a clever diplomatic campaign might yet have prevailed. But we'll never know, coz, as James Rubin argues, Washington's diplomacy just wasn't very clever: "First, the fact that Washington's justification for war seemed to shift as occasion demanded led many outside observers to question the Bush administration's motives and to doubt it would ever accept Iraq's peaceful disarmament. Second, the United States failed to synchronize its military and diplomatic tracks. The deployment of American forces in the Middle East seemed to determine American policy, not the other way around, and diplomatic imperatives were given short shrift. Third, the failure to anticipate Saddam's decision to comply partially with UN demands proved disastrous to Washington's strategy. Fourth, the belated effort to achieve a second Security Council resolution could still have succeeded, had the United States been willing to compromise by extending the deadline by just a few weeks. But such a compromise was not forthcoming, which leads to the last lesson: the Bush administration's rhetoric and style alienated rather than persuaded key officials and foreign constituencies, especially in light of Washington's two-year history of scorn for international institutions and agreements. "

Which sums it up nicely, really.

The grab I remember from GW1 was delivered by a British flying officer as he climbed down from his Tornado's cockpit.. Asked how well his mission had gone, he mingled relief at his survival with impatience at the question with a curt "we're back, aren't we?"

The grab I shall remember from GW2 comes from Sergeant Moja Vera, whose last day in Iraq prompts a rambling reverie worth bottling. In it there's this bit:

"i know that the world is hard...i know that iraq is worse then it was 6 months terms of just about everything...but i have to believe that it will turn around...someday...i have to believe it in my heart...that i was a part of something matter its perceived matter what...i have to believe that i have worked to do the right thing in this country so far from my home...because how could i live with myself any other way..."
Monday, September 15, 2003

By Glenn Condell

Terrorism and neoconservatism are the twin perils of our age; yet despite their opposition, they really are twins; a double-headed hydra from the Middle East. They are the inverse and obverse of the same coin and their currency is a fight to the death, a deadly dance that now involves us all, wherever we are. They're certainly not identical twins, but they have at least as much in common as at variance with each other and both feel a long way from the more pacific traditions of this country.

The first modern terrorists were proto-Israelis who drove thousands of Palestinians from their homes and blew up the King David Hotel when the British got in their way. These people are heroes in modern Israel, while their true descendants, today’s ‘Islamic terrorists’, are reviled as beasts for practicing the same methods for the same reasons on Israelis, with a far more justifiable sense of grievance; one directly attributable to those first Israeli terrorists. What goes around comes around. The neoconservatives likewise cannot be understood without Israel; the movement would still be a force shorn of its gentile fellow-travellers, but it wouldn’t exist without Jews.

The MidEast issue isn’t of course the only pie either side has a finger in, but it is the key. It is impossible to imagine either phenomenon in their current form without it. Of course there are neocon Arabs and for many, Israel's assassinations and harrassments are terrorism of the state-sponsored variety, so the boundaries are porous to a degree, but it's safe to say that the majority of groups practising insurgent terrorism are Muslims and the majority of neocons are Jews. The last and perhaps most important rider is that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists and the vast majority of Jews aren't neocons, but again, safe to say both extremes have significant support in their communities and have gone a long way to defining (for better or worse) in Western minds what each group is about.

Both sides issue from the same womb really; their origins share a geographic location and a genetic stock. Hailing from the ancient Bedouins, Arabs and Jews are Semitic peoples who separated less than ten thousand years ago, an eye-blink in human history. They share aspects of language and culture with no other grouping and are genetically almost indistinguishable. A photo of Thomas Friedman in the Herald the other day looked remarkably like the Lebanese shopkeeper down the road. Like the Irish and the Serbo-Croats they prove there’s no rivalry like sibling rivalry.

It was instructive to see in an Israeli documentary last year the same shoulder shrugging ‘what do you expect from these people’ type dismissals of either side by the other. Another documentary (also from Israel) on a Bedouin family vendetta was even more depressing; an utterly trivial incident many years before had carved a grand canyon of mistrust and hate between brothers, one of whom swam in the family fortune, such as it was, while the other eked out his days in resentment and despair. One rationalized his power (and his luck) with a rehearsed litany of specious rationales, mainly to do with the hopelessness of his bro'; the other veered between suicidal and homicidal tendencies when he wasn’t just broken. It's tempting to see this as a micro of the macro; they may be family, but they define dysfunctional.

The problem for us is that we are increasingly being drawn into this endlessly lethal imbroglio. It might always have been important to us I suppose, and we have always to some extent been involved, but in these days of asymmetrical threats and growing division, this one conflict has become crucial for all of us, a fulcrum on which the possibility of a decent future hangs. One result of this is that more people are searching for truths obscured for years, and finding in them reasons to question or even reject the prevailing orthodoxies and attitudes. This has led to a redoubling of efforts on both sides to make their case for our hearts and minds.

The ethically sound and practically sensible response to these contending claims on our empathy would be an emotionally neutral position, drained of the issues’ heat, from which the selfishness and insensibility of both sides would be more apparent, leaving room for a principled rejection of both, on the way hopefully to at least the possibility of a solution in which both sides must give ground.

But we are (and have been for many years) denied this space in our major national and international media, the vast bulk of which in the West is either pro-Israeli or too scared to touch the issue with a barge pole. The suffering of Palestinians is invisible in the one place its presence might make a difference and any examples that do make it through are pounced upon and pilloried as anti-Semitic. The Jewish appropriation of a term that ought properly to apply to both peoples is unfortunately resonant with their appropriation of territory that should also belong to both.

Just as terrorism is a response to dispossession and despair, neoconservatism is a rationale for actions that lead to such dispossession, and a philosophical excuse for the greed and hubris they engender. (That its genesis lies in the Jews' own massacre and dispossession I find understandable, but awful nonetheless) Each side acts according to it's circumstance and interests; neoconservatism is a religion for the haves every bit as much as terrorism is for the have nots. Just as farmers are more likely to vote National or metalworkers the ALP, so do the predator and the prey in this dance of death cut their present political cloth from their relative share of the spoils, along with the identities forged by a terrible past and visions of a dominant future.

You might think that the dispossessed underdog would claim the lion’s share of our sympathy, but a couple of factors have been at work in the last sixty-odd years which have swung the pendulum decisively in favour of the Israelis and by extension, the neoconservative movement. The first is the Holocaust, which guaranteed such an enormous well of empathy that, despite the best efforts of pigheaded Israeli government actions over the years, remains significant, particularly in the US. There is also unspoken guilt about the fact that we were not sufficiently shocked and sympathetic to offer these displaced Jews haven in our countries, thanks very much, and in fact tried manfully to put them in Uganda or under some other edge of the carpet. All this allied to the historical facts of anti-semitism add up to an emotionally powerful rationale for not opposing Israeli intransigence and it’s neoconservative offspring.

There is also the ‘Israel is a democracy in a sea of tyranny’ trope, now more popular than ever, but democracy is in itself no inoculation against tyranny; just ask the victims of Milosevic. This tactic has the invaluable benefit of obscuring the fact that the IDF has killed three times as many Palestinians (including a much higher percentage of children), most of whom were armed with no more than stones, if they were involved at all. To any truly independent observer, the IDF too are terrorists; terrorists in uniform with all the appurtenances of a legitimate soldiery. Israel may in a fairly remote sense qualify as a democracy, especially if you are lucky enough to be Jewish, but the inescapable fact remains; they are illegal occupiers.

But the principal reason for the imbalance of sympathy lies in the huge disparity of influence between Muslims and Jews in the West. This is slowly being whittled away by the (thankfully still) uncontrolled ubiquity of the internet, which has I think forced the major media to rein their bias in to less obvious levels, but the overwhelming advantage still lies with the pro-Israeli side of the equation. You're still far more likely to see the deaths of women and children emphasised after a Palestinian suicide bomb than you are after an Israeli incursion. We are invited, almost coerced into viewing one people as not quite human, while our sympathies are tweaked shamelessly for the other. People like Daniel Pipes feign sorrow at the innate incapacity of Palestinians to be civilised, while running a website dedicated to preventing pro-Palestinian voices from being heard in American universities.

The power of Jewish lobbies when allied to media and business interests explains why politicians of all stripes hop to when they have a beef; Simon Crean's hurry to kowtow to AIJAC mirrors the behaviour of his US counterparts when AIPAC cracks the whip. I haven't read the speeches by Plibersek and co that led to Crean's smoothing over (only saw highlights) but I would be very surprised if anything remotely ugly was said - if it had been, we'd know about it.

I get rather heated in the collar region when this sort of moral blackmail occurs... I just don't want the sort of unhealthy, undemocratic situation that obtains in the US (where it is the issue that dare not speak it's name) to happen here. In this country, we call a spade a bloody shovel and unless unlawful abuse is involved, we will defend to the death anyone's right to say any damn thing they want, whether we agree or not. Sunshine is the best disinfectant; better out than in etc. If I was writing this for the Sydney Morning Herald I'd get accusations of anti-semitism and perhaps the odd death threat - the editor of letters admitted last year that contributors to both sides of the debate had received them. Robert Fisk has received lots, including John Malkovich wishing out loud about it. I'm sure if I weighed in with a predominantly anti-Arab rant, their cockroaches would scurry out and call me names too. But that wouldn't or shouldn't stop me or anyone else putting in their two bobs worth here in our own country. Not doing so because you fear how others might react is, to borrow a favourite Prime Ministerial term, un-Australian.

The zero sum nature of the way this game is played on both sides seems to have leaked into other areas of public policy, particularly in Bush's America, where on domestic issues as in foreign policy, you're either with them or against them. Environment, IR, health, taxation, judicial appointments, media policy, trade negotiations... the list is as long as the number of issues. The collapse of the WTO talks in Cancun seemed to me an extension of this peremptory approach; you poor nations don't like the Washington consensus? Fine, we're off then. Reverend Al Sharpton recently commented on the Republican inability to accept the umpire's decision in elections all over the States at every level, Florida being the most noteworthy and California just the latest example... 'let's keep playing until I win' he said.

It would unfair and inaccurate to characterise the shift to an inflexible, nuance-free paradigm of government in the US (and increasingly here as well) as the pernicious and insidious influence of the neocons, although some of it surely is. Rather, their selfish and strongly partisan approach just happens to chime with independent trends in that direction (Wall St, the religious right, US trade negotiators etc) aided and abetted of course by the fear generated by 911. They're in their element, but for how much longer? Iraq looks to be a huge fly in the ointment, but to listen to the loopier neocons like Michael Ledeen, you'd think the dream is still very much alive - Iraq yesterday, Iran today and tomorrow the world!

I've dwelled on neoconservatism at the expense of terrorism, I know... but I can't think of anything useful to say about terrorism that hasn't already been said. Only intel johnnies can really tell you much, the Rohan Gunaratnas of the world and to be honest, I have my doubts about them too. Doubt comes with the territory nowadays. Whereas by their very nature it's hard to get a handle on individual terrorists or groups, there is a wealth of information about the neocons (a lot of which I've had a look at for another piece, of which more later). I also feel a link to them, however tenuous, by virtue of the fact that I'm a voter in a nation that has helped do their dirty work and so theoretically have some say in whether our next government would do the same. If enough people in enough countries feel the same, it will have an effect on neoconservative influence in the US, but the most promising developments are occurring in the belly of the beast, where the potential Iraqi disaster has concentrated hitherto absent minds wonderfully.

The 'war on terrorism', most sensible people agree, has increased the threats we face alarmingly. Rather than bringing it on, we ought to be turning it off, lowering the heat and re-calibrating the rhetoric. Should Dean, Clark or Kerry win next year, we can expect to see a decline in the influence of the neocons, if not a total repudiation of it. Either way, it's likely to lower the temperature between the heads of our hydra and that can only be a good thing.
political economic and cultural observations in the register of dismal dilettantism

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