Wednesday, March 13, 2013 Monday, September 10, 2012

Defending Blair from Tutu’s “J’Accuse…!”

Desmond Tutu is the possessor of a moral authority comparable only to Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama, one which transcends political and religious boundaries. His stature is derivative not only of his clerical authority (or, in spite of it) but because of his activism against apartheid and in favour of universal human rights, including religious freedom, gay rights, and access to contraception in Africa.

Thus when he speaks, the world listens, which in the case of his recent comments regarding Tony Blair and the liberation of Iraq is a privilege he ought to have taken heed of. First, Tutu elected to violate one of the essential principles of Enlightenment thinking by refusing to share a stage with Blair at a leadership summit in Johannesburg. As John Stuart Mill noted in his essay On Liberty, as important as the right to speech is the duty of everybody else to listen:

There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood. …Every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only find advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to.

Judging by the tenor and substance of his remarks in a subsequent article in The Observer concerning this decision, it would appear that listening to the former Prime Minister and receipt of a short course of revision on war, history, and international relations might have been of some use to him. Tutu makes a succession of very nasty accusations and insinuations that deserve to be repudiated and met head on, premier among them the hoary argument that Blair and Bush lead the world to war under a false pretence.

What Tutu actually said was this, that the liberation of Iraq was “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction”. But as Blair himself stating in his memoir A Journey, there was no lie, no diabolic scheme. Rather, “the stated purpose of the conflict was to enforce UN resolutions on Saddam’s WMD”, based upon intelligence collected by the CIA and MI6. In the end, coalition forces “found no WMD after taking control of the country”, but as the Duelfer Report concluded, Saddam Hussein aspired to have sanctions against Iraq lifted in order to recreate their weapons capacity, a conclusion corroborated by the Butler Report.

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Friday, July 27, 2012 Monday, April 23, 2012 Friday, January 20, 2012

Every Day a Little Death

My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security. …Israel also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine. Permanent occupation threatens Israel’s identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state.

George W. Bush, June 25, 2002

The members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.

Republican National Committee resolution, January 19, 2012

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Hitch

I was jolted out of my half-sleep this morning, by the awful news that many of us who love him ought to have been preparing for for some time. At the age of 62, Christopher Hitchens has succumbed to the oesophageal cancer he was diagnosed with in June 2010.

Not too long after word of his malady spread, I felt an obligation to note my feelings about the man who – more than any other – influenced and determined the course I wish my life to take (in spite of the fact I now realise I shall never have the gift of word or speech Hitch was granted). In a post called, “Why Hitchens Matters,” I concluded:

Hitchens, then, for aspirational contrarians, free-spirits and independent minds will forever remain the gin in the Campari. In a political world which is becoming ever more diluted by pragmatists and opportunists, his radical and unwavering stances on matters from The Satanic Verses to the fate of Iraq are auroras borealis piercing leaden, darkening skies. May his words be an undying beacon in the darkness, when all other lights are out.

The liberation of Iraq, as an issue more divisive than any other in the past decade, was the culmination of all his efforts in this respect. Having in my younger days been a Michael Moore liberal, who considered (and still to an extent consider) George W. Bush to be the most incompetent and ineffective president in modern history, Hitch’s defence of the war as a righteous, moral endeavour – centred on fostering the universal values of democracy, liberty, and human rights in a land which had experienced them not – totally transformed my outlook on the campaign. This, from The Weekly Standard, is a perfect and succinct summation of it all:

Coexistence with aggressive regimes or expansionist, theocratic, and totalitarian ideologies is not in fact possible. …It is not desirable, either. If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated, I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat.

Again, shortly after the proclamation that Hitch was not long for this world, I felt the pressing need to write to him to explain not only this, but also just how elemental he was to my decision to explore the possibility at least of replicating his career as best I could.

Whilst, I noted, I have a tremendously weak constitution when it comes to imbibing liquor, and taking into account my disagreements with him on issues from Israel to the worthiness of socialism as a cause, I told Hitch in a letter that it was his prose, and his force of argument, which inspired me to write in turn, and try carve out an existence where words and speech are not just work, but indeed are one’s life.

Hitch remarked in Letters to a Young Contrarian – perhaps rather flippantly now, in retrospect – that, “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence”. His legacy, however, will be this spirit, and those who embody it. It will be those who continue to “beware the irrational, however seductive”, and “shun the ‘transcendent’”, by continuing to speak out and challenge the forces of subordination and subjugation – clerical or otherwise – in spite of whatever opposition or hostility they encounter.

In spite of the year of knowing what was to come, those who have adored Hitch have been engaged in a kind of magical thinking (or at least I have, at any rate). Although his death was an inevitably, as he himself said, I put no thought to what I might say, or how I might react, when the solemn, black day finally arrived.

Now it is here, I feel ever-so-slightly paralysed, having been hit with the news that all I had admired and idolised in the literary and journalistic worlds has gone in body and mind, and that from his point forward, those who adhere to the anti-totalitarian line have no-one to turn to for immediate advice in our hours of need.

Perhaps, then – amidst a moment where all other words fail me or seem insignificant – it might just be best leave it with:

To Hitch!

Monday, September 5, 2011

9/11: Ten Years On, Fear Has Conquered Freedom

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Illustration by Jesse LenzAt a flower-strewn vigil in Oslo, following the massacre of 77 Norwegians by a lone assailant, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pledged that his nation’s response to Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity would be “more openness, more democracy, resolve and strength”. “We will not allow fear to break us,” Stoltenberg rallied. “And we will not allow the fear of fear to silence us”.

By contrast, the ten years following September 11, 2001 will come to be remembered as an era when America both sharpened its focus, and look leave of its senses. And, the moment between the first plane making contact with the World Trade Centre, and the structure hastily tumbling towards terra firma, will be seen as the hour when the country was shed of its post-Cold War innocence.

The sheer scale and horror of simultaneous attacks on America’s economic, military and – had it not been for the brave citizens on Flight 93 who attempted to retake the United plane – political muscles was bound to cause a reflexive tightening of security procedures. It would have been foolish not to, in light of the ease by which the terrorists both obtained flight training, and then boarded and overtook those planes, having been on the terrorist watchlist.

Since 9/11, however, Americans seeking to fly in the land of the free (and in fact citizens all around the world) have been subject to a most stringent, invasive and unnecessary raft of security measures, all of which were highly reactionary. Richard Reid attempted to execute an attack using explosive trainers, so we must all remove our shoes. The failed 2006 transatlantic plot led to a carpet ban on liquids over 100ml in our hand luggage: an edict which remains in place.

Worst of all, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried using an bomb hidden in his undercarriage, so the TSA mandated that Americans must either be subject to either an X-rated X-ray, or an all-over body search which borders on sexual molestation.

Airport restrictions are but one facet of an all-over erosion of the liberty of the individual, perpetuated by the Bush and Obama administrations in the name of homeland security. The timely release of Dick Cheney’s memoir In My Time has helped bring back into focus some of the awful and inhumane policies he initiated: the USA PATRIOT Act, which permitted the wiretapping of innocent American’s phones; extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to the most barbaric dictatorships including Egypt and Libya; the suspension of habeas corpus in Guantanamo Bay; and the use of torture including waterboarding to extract information from captured terrorists.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who admitted to organising the September 11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA. Alleged al-Qaida senior commander Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. “You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2005, taking a swipe at the Bush administration line. “This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning”.

The gradual loss of liberty which has occurred since September 11, 2001 is made all the more worse because, to an extent, the American people allowed it to happen. Torture has become part of the Republican Party platform, as politicians have spoken openly about the need to apply what they call “enhanced interrogation techniques”. President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, in writing, yet over two years it remains open, with little sign of it shuttering in the foreseeable. As if this weren’t enough, some Americans seem to want “Israeli style security measures” in US airports. As someone who has been party to profiling at the Israeli border, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

“Remember how you felt the day after 9/11?”, Glenn Beck appealed to his audience, as a means to promoting his 9/12 Project. Perhaps there was a feeling of togetherness, as he asserted at the time. Yet it would be more truthful and accurate to say that as bodies were being pulled from the carnage, the American people were scared, confused, and mad as hell. The manifestations of this at once rational and irrational fear has directly resulted in a less free society, obsessed with security measures, uncritical of its government, with a tendency to lapse into lazy racial and religious stereotypes.

Rather, surely it would be better if America were to recall the nation it was on 9/10? On the one hand, it would be awful if the country were to return to a time when legitimate terror threats were brashly ignored, and the citizenry not aware of the new ideologically dichotomy the world has fallen into, with the United States on one side of it.

But post-9/11 hysteria, for lack of a less sensitive term, as it enveloped the Republic, caused the United States to lose piece by piece its most precious and priceless asset: its freedom. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”, Henry James asked of delegates at the Virginia Convention in 1775. “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”


Sunday, January 30, 2011 Tuesday, November 16, 2010

President Bush was right

When Media decides to go slumming, never let it be said that it doesn’t devour every last slice of the pig. On November 10, President Bush’s memoir Decision Points was unleashed. Journalists at every newspaper and magazine were nothing short of craven, ravenously tearing the beast limb from limb, licking their grubby fingers clean after gorging themselves on even the more acquired cuts of the hog.

Much has been made of the functional quality of the President’s prose, for a start. “The narrative flow dries up completely when he gets to the biggest economic events of our time,” Rafael Behr wrote in The Observer, “The dialogue reads like a lazy TV script.” The Washington Post called it “competent, readable and flat.” So much copy needn’t have been wasted writing this simple sentiment in a myriad of ways: this should have been expected of a man who was perhaps the least read figure to occupy the Oval Office.

The passages everybody wanted to see, and the ones reviewers have poured over, were on the subject of Iraq. He admits a number of misgivings on the matter. The President regrets that “we did not respond more quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s regime fell,” that “cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of execution in the war,” and that he has “a sickening feeling every time” he thinks about the failure to find the weapons.

Nevertheless, President Bush resolutely defends the argument for the war, concluding that “the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone,” adding “for all the difficulties that followed, America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD and supporting terror at the heart of the Middle East.”

Make no mistake: George W. Bush was the worst President of the United States since Herbert Hoover. A fog of incompetency and corruption enveloped the White House in a manner not seen since Iran-Contra and President Reagan’s slip in senility. His penchant for misspeak was a cause of tremendous embarrassment to a nation as great as the United States of America, and his reckless diplomatic agenda did almost irreparable damage to the country’s international standing.

On Iraq however, he is right. As I have written prior, at its core the decision to liberate Iraq was just. Iraqis are freer now than they have been since the state’s creation in the aftermath of First World War. After governance by sultan, king and dictator, the Iraqi people now possess the right to vote and to free expression and assembly. They have access to free markets and a free press. They have a right to a normal existence.

Just examine the fervent debate that has arisen internally since Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Hussein deputy and Western face, was sentenced to death for playing his part in a totalitarian regime. Christopher Hitchens describes a scene where “citizens’ groups are approaching the courts; radio and TV networks are disputing the issues and the outcome; and millions of Iraqis are joining the argument by way of mobile phones and the Internet.” Such a prospect would have been unthinkable, in the days when Saddam was the way, the truth and the life for every Iraqi.

American forces are currently involved in the training of the Iraqi national army, but their money is purchasing both guns and butter. For instance, a pot of gold from the U.S. Army Commander’s Emergency Relief Fund is being used to renovate (or rather, given its condition, recreate) the municipal library in the northern city of Kirkuk. The oil town rests in a region with a 70pc rate of illiteracy, yet on account of American generosity there are women in the city picking up a book for the first time, as lessons begin for those who were forced out of education when the country was ruled by the al-Tikriti clan.

Perhaps the greatest success story however is the Kurdish Autonomous Region. In the late 1980s, the Kurdish people were subjected to a systemised campaign of genocide, al-Anfal, in which up to 100,000 civilians were slaughtered, via mass executions and concentrations camps. Moreover, some 4,000 villages were strafed with chemical and biological weapons in a campaign of Arabisation.

After the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan was placed under the security umbrella of coalition forces, and the region began its recovery. Now, since the liberation of Iraq, a lotus flower grows in the mud. Economically, per capita income is 25pc higher in Kurdistan than in the rest of the country, and as a result 20,000 workers have moved there since 2003. The Regional Government has remained stable, and has reconstructed 65pc of the villages destroyed during al-Anfal. Furthermore, they have invested in infrastructure projects such as air transportation, as tourism begins to develop in this relative safe haven where no foreign visitor has been kidnapped since the liberation.

Indeed there were failures, and when the official narrative of the liberation comes to be written they will prove inescapable. Moreover, democracy in Iraq is far from secure outside of Kurdistan; once coalition forces leave it may not survive. But above it all, it stands to reason and evidence that the liberation of Iraq was the right thing to do, for the people of Iraq and for the world.

You can tell about a person’s moral compass from their position on the war: those who continue to argue against it, and particularly those who state that in fact life under Saddam was satisfactory and preferable to how Iraqis live now, clearly have something of the night about them, and must be treated with a great deal of suspicion.

So, on this matter, and this matter alone, those in the press still rolling about the gutter, faces smeared with bacon grease, are duty-bound to give President Bush his dues for making such a brave and righteous decision. He sacrificed his administration, his reputation and his place in history, all for the greater and enduring cause of freedom.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In Cold Blood

D.D. Guttenplan’s description of the decline and fall of Christopher Hitchens is by no means original, insightful or truthful. Rather, such a take is typical and ordinary, based on the smattering of discerning reviews that have emerged, both of Hitch-22 and the man himself, ever since the liberation of Iraq.

It is evident that the conclusions Guttenplan elects to draw are neither objective nor fair—Hitchens’s writings are as lucid and erudite as ever. His article is in reality the verbal equivalent of a drive-by shooting: a blind-sided slaughtering of his political evolution, grounded in dogma, as is shown by his staunch defence of Edward Said and Gore Vidal, and snide jabs at members of the Bush administration who supported the war.

His article suffers all the more for it.

Published online by The Nation, August 1 2010, available here. In reply to “Changing Places” by D.D. Guttenplan, available here.