Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Greater Surbiton first birthday post


‘Left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.’ – Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love

Greater Surbiton became one year old on 7 November. Some weeks before that, it passed the figure of 100,000 page-views. Many thanks to all my readers. Well, at least to some of them. As it has been a very busy academic term, I have not had the time until now to write a suitably self-indulgent birthday post. I apologise in advance for the rambling that follows.

I had two principal aims in mind when launching this blog: to discuss what progressive politics might mean in the twenty-first century, and to provide commentary on South East European affairs. The second of these has tended to predominate, partly because it has been such an eventful year in South East Europe, with the international recognition of Kosova, the failed nationalist assault on the liberal order in Serbia, the escalation of the conflicts between Greece and Macedonia and between Turkey and the PKK, the failed judicial putsch against the AKP government in Turkey, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and so on. Although the recognition of Kosova and the defeat of anti-democratic initiatives in Serbia and Turkey gives us reason for optimism about the region, all the indications are that events there will not cease to be ‘interesting’ in the forseeable future. Key struggles are either being decided now, or are simmering: for the international recognition of Kosova and its successful functioning as a state; for the defence of Macedonia’s name and nationhood; for the democratisation of Turkey; for the resolution of the Cyprus conflict; for the defence of Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity; and for the reintegration of Bosnia.

While I remain cautiously optimistic about at least some of these, reason for concern is provided by the direction in which EU policy is tending. This includes support for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s disgraceful six-point plan for Kosova, which will reinforce the country’s ‘partition lite’. It includes also support for a new partnership with Russia, in violation of the ceasefire agreement over Georgia (from which Russian forces have refused fully to withdraw) and at the expense of the military defence of the states of Eastern Europe. All this indicates a new appetite for appeasement, for which France, Germany, Italy and Spain are principally responsible. The big unknown, at the time of writing, is precisely what the Obama Administration’s policy toward the region will be. I am somewhat Obamaskeptic and have voiced my concern about this already, but we really won’t know what Obama will do until he assumes office. In the meantime, I am happy to note that our own, British ruling classes show no indication of going back down the road shamefully trodden by John Major’s government in the 1990s: David Miliband’s performance as Foreign Secretary with regard to South East Europe has on the whole been commendable, while David Cameron’s response to Russian aggression in Georgia was magnificent. Whichever party wins the next British general election, the UK is likely to act as a brake on some of the more ignoble impulses of our West European allies.

It is fortunate, indeed, that the only political parties likely to win the next general election are Labour and the Conservatives, both of them respectable parties of government, rather than some irrelevant fringe group. Such as the Liberal Democrats. I have written to my various MPs several times in the course of my life, and on a couple of occasions to other elected politicians. The only one who never wrote back was my current MP Ed Davey, the MP for Kingston and Surbiton, to whom I wrote to ask to support the campaign to provide asylum in the UK to Iraqi employees of the British armed forces. No doubt, as Mr Davey has assumed the immensely important job of Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, he will have even less time to waste on trivial matters such as writing to his constituents, and no doubt democracy would anyway potter along so much better if we all stopped pestering our MPs. And the fruits of Mr Davey’s labour are there for all to see – such as this empty, incoherent, waffling attack on ‘neo-Cons, from Dick Cheney to David Cameron’, for being too ‘macho’ over Georgia. One can always rely on a certain type of wishy-washy liberal to be infinitely more offended by resolute calls for action against aggression than they are by the aggression itself. The line isn’t to oppose aggression, comrades; the line is to oppose people who oppose aggression. The electoral contest here in Kingston and Surbiton is a straight fight between the Conservatives and the LibDems; readers may rest assured I won’t be voting for the LibDems.

Indeed, as a point of principle, progressives can no longer automatically back the left-wing candidate against the right-wing candidate; we need to think hard before deciding whether to back Merkel or Schroeder; Sarkozy or Royal; Livingstone or Johnson; Obama or McCain; Cameron or Brown. Politicians and parties of the left or of the right may be a force for positive change, while both the parliamentary left and the right must move toward the centre if they want to win elections. Thus, the US presidential election was fought between two centrist candidates, lost by the one who waged the more divisive and partisan campaign, and won by the one who reconciled a message of change with a message of healing and reconciliation. About a billion commentators have pointed out the signficance of a black man being elected president of the US, yet it was the reviled George W. Bush who appointed the US’s first black Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in 2001, and first black woman Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in 2005, something to which even the Guardian’s Gary Younge pays tribute.

Only joking. In his article at the start of this month on how inspiring the possibility of a black president is for young black people in the US, Younge actually complained that Obama hadn’t been all good, because he had voted to confirm Rice as Secretary of State. A couple of years ago, Younge said: ‘Of course, on one level it’s important that black people have the right to fuck up and to be bad, but we have to separate progress of symbols and progress of substance. At a symbolic level, Condoleezza Rice does represent some kind of progress, but if that’s where we are going with this thing I’m getting off the train now.’ Has everyone got that ? The election or appointment of black politicians to senior posts in the US should only be celebrated as symbolic of positive change if they’re politically sympathetic in the eyes of Guardian journalists.

If there’s one blogging decision I took that I was initially unsure about, but now definitely do not regret, it was the decision not to have comments. I realise that this makes me a social outcast in the blogosphere – something equivalent to a leper during the Middle Ages. But do you know what, dear readers ? I really don’t care. Just as I don’t like dog turds, half-eaten kebabs and squashed bubble gum littering the parks and pavements where I walk, let alone on my doorstep, so I don’t want my nice clean blog littered with comments from the assorted riff-raff of the internet: Chetniks; Ustashas; national chauvinists; genocide-deniers; Stalinists; Nazis; ‘anti-imperialists’; ‘anti-Zionists’; Islamophobes; Islamofascists; BNP supporters; SWP supporters; Red-Brown elements; ultra-left sectarians; toilet-mouthed troglodytes; Jeremy Kyle fodder; ‘Comment is Free’ types; and others like them. And I particularly don’t want flippant, inane comments that take ten seconds to think up and write, by Benjis who don’t bother to read the post properly in the first place. Thank you very much.

Let’s face it, members of the above-listed categories generally comprise about half of all the people who comment on blogs dealing with my fields.

Of course, all credit to those bloggers who do succeed in managing comments in a way that keeps the debate lively and the trolls and trogs to a minimum.  But I see no reason why every article has to be followed by comments. While I applaud the democratisation of the means of communication that the blogging revolution represents, this democratisation has come at a price. The ubiquitous nature of online discussion and the generally inadequate level of comments moderation has resulted in a vulgarisation of public discourse. Where once the letters editor of a paper could be relied on to reject automatically semi-literate, abusive or otherwise bottom-quality letters for publication, now many, if not most, online discussions are filled with outright filth and rubbish. Well, I’m doing my bit for the online environment.

Related to this is the unfortunate fashion for blogging and commenting anonymously, which inevitably results in a ruder, nastier online atmosphere. I’m not going to judge any individual who chooses to remain anonymous – you may have a valid personal reason. But really, comrades, is all this anonymity necessary ? So long as you live in a democracy, and the secret police aren’t going to come round to visit you just because you express your opinion, then the default position should be to write under your real name.

Greater Surbiton has received plenty of intelligent criticism in the one year of its existence, and not a small amount of really stupid criticism. So, to round off this too-long post, I’m going to announce an award for Most Ill-Informed Attack on Something I Have Written. In this inaugural year, the award goes jointly to Hak Mao of the Drink-Soaked Troglodytes and to Daniel Davies of Aaronovitch Watch (unless you really have nothing better to do, you may want to stop reading at this point – it’s my time off and I’m having a bit of pointless fun with my sectarian chums).

Hak Mao, in response to my Normblog profile:

‘There you are, minding your own business and then you read this steaming pile of bollocks: The most important change of opinion I’ve ever had … was realizing that ‘anti-imperialism’ … was something highly negative and reactionary, rather than positive and progressive. Can’t spell Vietnam, Laos, Amritsar, Bay of Pigs or Salvador eh? You are welcome to compose your own list of atrocities committed in the name of the ‘West’. And one of those whose historical contribution to human emancipation I most appreciate [is] … Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The emancipation of Armenians was particularly heartwarming.’

This criticism is being made by someone who is a born-again Leninist and Trotskyist religious believer, whose favourite book is still Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’, who views Trotsky’s martyrdom the way Christians view the crucifixion, but who nevertheless writes for a pro-war, Christopher-Hitchens-worshipping website.

The Bolshevik regime of Lenin and Trotsky armed and funded Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists. It signed a treaty ceding to Turkey territory that had been inhabited and claimed by the Armenians; the US president Woodrow Wilson had wanted the Armenians to receive much more territory than the Bolshevik-Turkish treaty gave them. The Turkish slaughter of Armenian civilians in Smyrna in 1922 was made possible by Bolshevik military and financial support for the Kemalists. The Bolshevik regime was therefore utterly complicit in Turkish-nationalist crimes against the Armenians.

Someone like Hak Mao, properly equipped with a Scientific Theory of Class Struggle, who is faithful to the Principles of Revolutionary Socialism and well versed in Marxist-Leninist Scripture, can simultaneously 1) revere Lenin and Trotsky, 2) ignore their support for Mustafa Kemal and their complicity in his crimes against the Armenians; 3) denounce bourgeois reactionaries like myself who write favourably about Mustafa Kemal; and 4) justify all this in ‘scientific’ Marxist terms. And of course, everyone knows that, were Lenin and Trotsky alive today, they would undoubtedly, as good anti-imperialists, have joined with Christopher Hitchens in endorsing George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, in welcoming the Bush dynasty to the campaign against Islamic terror, and in supporting Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And naturally they would still have denounced apostates and traitors to the cause of anti-imperialism, such as myself, in the strongest possible terms.

Anyone with a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism can only reach this conclusion. If you do not reach this conclusion, it is because you do not have a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism. And anyone without a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism is an ignorant pleb whose views don’t count, and who should defer to a vanguard comprised of professional revolutionaries with a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism.

Here’s a joke for the comrades:

Q. What do you call a racist, anti-Semitic, Great German nationalist supporter of capitalism, the free market, globalisation, Western imperialism and colonialism ?

A. Karl Marx

(NB I’m also pro-war over Iraq and Afghanistan, and I agree with Christopher Hitchens more often than not. But I don’t pretend to be an ‘anti-imperialist’.)

Daniel Davies, in response to my post ‘Weighing Obama versus McCain’:

I wrote:

‘Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban.’

Davies (‘Bruschettaboy’) replied:

‘call me a bad blogger, but I would shed very few tears and protest only halfheartedly at our terrible UK libel laws if it turned out that there were some sort of consequences for saying something like that.’

This is what Ahmed Rashid, one of the most eminent journalists of Afghanistan and the Taliban, writes in Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia:

‘Between 1994 and 1996 the USA supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-Western. The USA conveniently ignored the Taliban’s own Islamic fundamentalist agenda, its suppression of women and the consternation they created in Central Asia largely because Washington was not interested in the larger picture.’

Hopefully, Rashid will agree to be my defence witness in the event that Clinton follows Daniel’s advice and takes me to court.

As for Milosevic, Davies clearly has not heard of the Dayton Accord, but I assume everyone else who reads this blog has (certainly everyone who reads it as assiduously as Daniel does), so I’ll confine myself to posting this picture of Clinton’s man Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, carrying out Western imperialist aggression against the anti-imperialist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic:


You see, comrades from the ‘Indecent Left’ like Daniel see their mission as defending the leaders of Western imperialism and their record over crises like Afghanistan or Bosnia, from condemnation coming from the ranks of the ‘Decent Left’, and they do so in the most strident and aggressive manner – even when the condemnation is totally justified. And there I was, thinking we were all part of the same left-wing extended family.

Honestly, what a bunch of splitters.

Update: Davies isn’t now trying to defend his previous claim that Clinton never collaborated with Milosevic or the Taliban, and that I deserve to be sued for saying so, but is taking refuge in the defence that he didn’t understand what I was saying, because I wasn’t expressing myself clearly.

What do you think, readers, is the sentence ‘Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban’ at all difficult to understand ? Is the grammar or vocabulary at all complicated ? Perhaps I’m using opaque academic jargon that a non-specialist might find difficult ?

Or could it be that Daniel simply isn’t the sharpest tool in the box ?

Friday, 28 November 2008 Posted by | Afghanistan, Anti-Semitism, Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Croatia, Cyprus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, France, Genocide, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Jews, Kosovo, Kurds, Macedonia, Middle East, NATO, Neoconservatism, Political correctness, Racism, Red-Brown Alliance, Russia, Serbia, SWP, The Left, Turkey | 1 Comment

Weighing Obama versus McCain

It may be that I have spent too much time living in Serbia and studying it, and that some of that fabled Serbian inat, or bloodymindedness, has rubbed off on me (readers may be surprised to learn that, as an adult, I was christened in the Serbian Orthodox Church, something that occurred not because of religious belief – of which I have none – but because I was once married to a Serbian woman). Or it may be just that I don’t like jumping on bandwagons. Be this as it may, I’m not prepared to follow the herd and endorse Obama for US president. That said, there are some powerful arguments to be made in favour of Obama, which I have been hearing from Obama supporters – such as my own girlfriend, as well as my mother – for some time now. The strong reasons for supporting McCain, however, which I have outlined in previous posts, remain. Each of the candidates offers a very different set of advantages and disadvantages, and a US citizen deciding whom to vote for should weigh them up very carefully before deciding.

One of the paradoxes of this election is that Obama is perceived by much of the liberal intelligentsia in the West as being the progressive, anti-establishment candidate, even though his likely election victory will owe much to the fact that his campaign has enjoyed much greater financial resources than McCain’s. The richer candidate is spending his way to victory; even if a large part of this funding has consisted of small donations, the hated representatives of American capitalism have hardly been falling over themselves to fund his Republican opponent. Yet Obama’s greater popularity among the liberal intelligentsia, and indeed among international opinion generally, is undeniably because he is more widely – and unfairly – seen as less quintissentially American than McCain. Obama may be just another liberal Democrat in the tradition of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but for various reasons – in part because he would represent a dramatic break with the politics of George Bush, in part because he is black, and in part because he is undeniably charismatic – he has been invested with much greater belief on the part of the outside world as a force for change than he probably warrants.

But perception matters. And here is the strongest reason for voting for Obama. A President Obama would restore the world’s goodwill toward the US. The outside world will give him the benefit of the doubt, and the US a second chance to enjoy the degree of international popularity it enjoyed before 9/11. Conversely, a victory for McCain – particularly after such a strong and sustained poll lead enjoyed by Obama for so long – would produce another great outpouring of anti-American bile across the world, and above all from the ranks of the European chattering classes. The Republicans would, once again, be viewed as having unfairly stolen the election; their regime would enjoy little international credibility or goodwill. McCain will be painted as a continuation of Bush, and continue to be punished for the sins, real or perceived, of his predecessor. Obama would, therefore, be better able than McCain to restore the US’s network of alliances and connections, rejuvenating the US’s world leadership, or what is termed on the left as ‘American imperialism’.

Yet the reason why Obama would enjoy such international goodwill, and be able to restore the US’s world image and standing, is also the reason why one should think twice before supporting him: the world prefers soft US presidents, and Obama will undoubtedly be a much softer president than McCain. George Bush Snr betrayed the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 and acted to keep Saddam Hussein in power; Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban, and strove hard to keep the US from having to intervene to stop genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia; yet neither has earned the kind of opprobrium incurred by the current US president for the crime of overthrowing Saddam. Obama has shown himself to be less committed than McCain to the defence of democratic Iraq and of independent Georgia; his restoration of US popularity globally may come at a high price.

Obama’s choice of the tough and experienced Joe Biden as his running mate does something to allay one’s concern at the foreign-policy implications of his presidency. Biden deserves credit for his opposition to aggression and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But his instincts have not always been so good: he has supported the partition of Iraq. Biden is, like Obama, pro-Greek and anti-Turkish; they would be taking over leadership of the US at a time when, given the threats posed by the hostile regimes in Moscow and Tehran, we need to maintain the Turkish alliance, and at a time when Greece’s merciless bullying of the fragile Republic of Macedonia potentially threatens disaster in the Balkans.

So the choice between Obama and McCain revolves around the question of whether it is better to have a US president who can restore the US’s global popularity and standing but is likely to be less resolute in resisting the enemies of the democratic world, or a president who will be globally unpopular but more determined in resisting our enemies.

Some readers may feel that US domestic policy should count for more in this weighing up. All well and good; I prefer Obama to McCain on domestic issues, but there are 6.7 billion people in the world, and only 300 million of them are Americans. The United States is a sophisticated system of decentralised democracy and constitutional checks and balances, and the battle between conservatism and liberalism will continue to be fought out at multiple levels throughout the country, regardless of which candidate wins. But it is foreign policy where the president’s voice counts for most. I would discount on principle the idea that one should vote on the basis of the candidate’s age or skin-colour; Winston Churchill was presiding over the Normandy Landings when he was only a year or two younger than McCain is today, and was several years older when he became prime minister for the second time, while the social changes that have made it possible for the US presidency to be within reach of a black candidate have occurred, and will continue to occur, regardless of who wins. The fact that Obama supposedly is friends with various dangerous radicals is a big red herring; most of us probably have been, one way or another. But it is no more a red herring than the big Sarah Palin bogey; Palin was brought in by McCain to mobilise the Republican base; she will not determine US policy. McCain might die in office and leave the inexperienced and very right-wing Palin as acting president. But probably not. Finally, I have faith that US capitalism will rejuvenate itself, regardless of who is managing the economy.

So for me, it boils down to a choice between the man who will capture the world’s hearts and the man who will fight the world’s enemies. While there are strong arguments to be made for each, I would always support the candidate who, when the chips were down, defended a small nation against a brutal aggressor, against the candidate who has supported an aggressor against a fragile small nation.

Others may draw the line in a different place.

Monday, 3 November 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kurds, Macedonia, Middle East, Russia, Serbia, Turkey | 4 Comments

A Russian war against Israel ?

Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has reportedly gloated over the Russian crushing of Georgia as a defeat for Israel. ‘[Israeli brigadier-general] Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia and they too lost because of him’, said Nasrallah; ‘Relying on Israeli experts and weapons, Georgia learned why the Israeli generals failed… what happened in Georgia is a message to all those the Americans are seeking to entangle in dangerous adventures.’ This opinion is endorsed by Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, who writes in the Tehran Times : ‘The collapse of the Georgian offensive represents not only a disaster for that country and its U.S.-backed leaders, but another blow to the myth of Israel’s military prestige and prowess.’

Nasrallah is not the only sworn enemy of Israel and the US to feel heartened by the Russian victory. According to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: ‘It is not possible for the United States, which even failed to protect its ally Georgia, to attack Iran. The US could not even protect its own ally. US clout in world politics is decreasing. Moreover, it is in a major economic depression.’ He went on: ‘We will see that the US empire will crack and eventually collapse. There is nothing that the US can do against Iran.’

Meanwhile, Moscow is reportedly planning to establish large-scale military, naval and air-bases in Syria, including nuclear-capable Iskander missiles, and to supply previously withheld advanced weapons systems to Iran.

Until the outbreak of the current conflict in the Caucasus, Israel and Georgia had enjoyed close, friendly relations. Israel armed and trained Georgia’s armed forces, apparently supplying Georgia with some $200 million worth of equipment since 2000. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, for his part, has been a staunch ally of Israel. As Brenda Shaffer, an expert on the Caucasus at Haifa University, writes in Haaretz : ‘One of the first telephone calls I received from overseas in the summer of 2006, while missiles were showering on Haifa and the north, was from a senior adviser in Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s bureau. He said the president had instructed him to call me and say he was willing to fly over immediately to display solidarity with Israel in its hour of need.’

Now, however, Russia appears to have scared Israel away from continued support for Georgia, by the threat of increased military support for Iran and Syria. The Israeli foreign ministry has recommended suspending further military cooperation with Georgia, reportedly on the grounds that ‘The Russians are selling many arms to Iran and Syria and there is no need to offer them an excuse to sell even more advanced weapons’, in the words of an Israeli official. This, indeed, was the Russian intention. According to Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, ‘with immense strategic implications, Russia is also trying to send Israel a clear message that Tel Aviv’s military support for Tbilisi in organizing, training and equipping Georgia’s army will no longer be tolerated… Further, Israel’s interest in Caspian oil and gas pipelines is growing and Russia seeks to stop this activity at this time.’

The failure of the West to respond effectively to the Russian assault on Georgia, and Israel’s retreat before Russia’s threats, are nevertheless likely only to strengthen the confidence of other enemies of the US and Israel, including the regime in Tehran. As Shaffer writes: ‘Tehran is learning from the crisis in the Caucasus. If the U.S. fails to help its ally in Tbilisi, Tehran’s power will increase. On the other hand, serious American activity in Moscow’s back yard would teach Tehran a completely different lesson.’

Quite. Russia has opted to fight a new Cold War against the West, so there is no point in labouring under the delusion that it will join with us to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, while our failure to resist Russia in Georgia is emboldening Iran. To sacrifice Georgia – a loyal ally of Britain, the US and Israel, and the third-largest contributor of allied troops to Iraq – in the naive belief that a sufficient amount of grovelling will dissuade one sworn enemy from joining with another, can only strengthen and encourage both enemies.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Anti-Semitism, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jews, Middle East, Red-Brown Alliance, Russia, South Ossetia | 1 Comment

Czechoslovakia 1938 – Georgia 2008 ?

This autumn will mark the seventieth anniversary of the Munich Agreement, when the democratic powers of Western Europe, Britain and France, weakened as they were by the self-hating, ‘anti-war’ defeatism of wide sections of the Western chattering classes – on the left as well as of the right – allowed a fascist, expansionist imperial power to carve up a much smaller and weaker multinational state, using the excuse that it wanted to protect the rights of its co-nationals. Of course, Hitler analogies are very tired, and ‘anti-war’ activists are fond of complaining that all our enemies are ‘Hitler’ – from Nasser through Galtieri to Saddam and Milosevic. But in the case of Vladimir Putin of Russia, their best legitimate counter-argument no longer applies: that however brutal these despots may have been, the states that they ruled were not nearly as powerful as Nazi Germany.

Now, for the first time since World War II, the democratic West is faced by a brutal, neo-fascist, expansionist regime in command of an imperial state whose military might is comparable to that of Hitler’s Third Reich. Putin is an aggressive despot who came to power determined to reverse the defeat and perceived humiliation of Russia in the Cold War, much as Hitler aimed to reverse Germany’s humiliation in World War I (Putin even employed a stunt to cement his power that was highly reminiscent of the 1933 Reichstag fire – the stage-managed ‘terrorist’ bombing of Russian cities by his security services, that could be conveniently blamed on the Chechens). He then used weapons of mass destruction against his own Chechen civilians, destroying the European city of Grozny. He has waged campaigns of persecution against Jewish magnates (‘oligarchs’) and Caucasian ethnic minorities. He has established a fascist-style youth movement (‘Nashi‘). He has suppressed the free Russian media, murdered independent journalists and effectively abolished Russian democracy. He has threatened and bullied his neighbours – even NATO-member Estonia. His state assassins are the likely culprits in the murder of his critic, the British citizen Alexander Litvinenko. And now he has invaded a sovereign state in an attempt both to overthrow its democratically elected government and to annex part of its territory. His own supporters view this act of military aggression as a strike against the US; The Independent‘s Matt Siegel quotes one Russian volunteer: ‘This war is absolutely a war between Russia and America. The biggest mistake was in underestimating us. Now you’ll see what happens.’

At this moment of danger, democratic Europe is paralysed by the same kind of political, intellectual and moral malaise that brought our continent to ruin in the 1930s. Today, fashionable left-liberal hatred of the liberal-democratic order expresses itself not merely in opposition to military intervention abroad and to our own governments, but frequently in a readiness to solidarise with anyone with whom our governments come into conflict – be they Iraqi and Afghan Islamist rebels, Sudanese genocidal murderers, Iranian and Venezuelan demagogues, Chinese Communist apparatchiks, Serb nationalists, Lebanese Shia fundamentalists, and so on. All this is filtered through a self-indulgent anti-Americanism of unparalelled virulence – naturally, the concerns about invading a sovereign state without UN Security Council authorisation that have so fired our left-liberal intelligentsia over Iraq are not being manifested quite so strongly over Russia and Georgia. Meanwhile, our armies are stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and our publics are war-weary.

This already toxic brew contains another dangerous ingredient – the most likely candidate for a twenty-first century Neville Chamberlain in the form of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. With France holding the EU presidency, Sarkozy travelled to Moscow to reassure the Russians: ‘It’s perfectly normal that Russia would want to defend the interests both of Russians in Russia and Russophones outside Russia.’ No doubt the French president would have been equally tactful if Putin had invaded France to protect ‘Russophones’ in Marseilles or Nice, but this kind of language highlights the EU’s unreadiness to oppose Russian aggression. This is particularly so given Sarkozy’s disgraceful record of pursuing narrow French national interests at South East Europe’s expense, which involved, among other things, denying Georgia a NATO Membership Action Plan in order to appease Moscow. Sarkozy has joined with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to impose a six-point plan on Georgia, that requires Tbilisi to ‘agree to the start of international talks on the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’, as the Moscow Times puts it, but which makes no reference to Georgian territorial integrity. With Medvedev openly advocating the dismemberment of Georgia, Sarkozy may be preparing the ground for a new Munich Agreement.

Some may ask whether we have any choice but to acquiesce in Russia’s geostrategic coup, given our existing military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our concerns with Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, etc. Some may ask why we should care about distant Georgia and its territorial integrity. The best way to respond is to turn this question around, and ask whether we can afford not to care, and not to respond to Russian aggression. If we cannot afford to defend Georgia because of our existing military commitments, we presumably cannot afford to defend Ukraine, or NATO-member Estonia, should Putin decide to build upon his success by moving against one of these countries – something which, given his past record, is not unlikely. At what point do we decide that, however costly it may be, we cannot afford to stand idly by as Russia rampages across Eurasia ?

As was the case in the late 1930s, the longer democratic Europe waits before responding to the aggressor, the more difficult and costly the eventual confrontation will be. Putin has successfully crushed and humiliated a staunch Western ally that contributed two thousand troops to Iraq. We cannot legitimately expect our allies to stand by us in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, if we do not stand by them when they are under attack. The states of Eastern and South Eastern Europe – both those inside NATO, and those wanting to join it – are closely watching the Russian operation against Georgia. They may decide that a NATO unable or unwilling to protect a country whose desired future membership it has itself loudly declared is a NATO it cannot rely on, and which is not worth joining or upholding. The Balkans are finally drifting toward stability, as the dominant elements of the Serbian political classes appear finally to have turned away from destructive nationalism – a turn spectacularly demonstrated by the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. Some of them may now feel, as they witness the West’s weak response to the crushing of Georgia, that their turn has been premature, and that they can afford to be a bit more aggressive than they had thought until a week ago. In which case, we may be faced with another front opening up against us in the Balkans.

I write these words, not with any confidence that democratic Europe is likely to take an appropriately firm stance against Russian aggression in the immediate future, but with full confidence that the attack on Georgia is only the beginning, and that we will see further acts of Russian aggression in the months and years to come. Putin is an unreconstructed product of the Soviet intelligence services; a sworn enemy of the liberal-democratic order at home and abroad; an autocrat whose mission it is to reverse Moscow’s defeat in the Cold War.

Let there be no mistake: we are in for the long haul. It is time to prepare a long-term strategy of resistance to the new Russian imperialism so that, if we were caught unprepared this time, we will not be unable to respond next time. Britain must join with the US in sending troops to Georgia, even if these troops at the present time have a purely symbolic deterrent value. We must massively increase our financial and military assistance to our beleaguered ally, and reassure it that it is not being abandoned. Georgia’s accession to NATO and the EU must be accelerated – as, indeed, must the EU accession of Turkey, which will be a crucial ally in the coming confrontation; one that we cannot afford not to have on our side. We must insist that the precondition for any negotiations over the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is an acceptance by Moscow of Georgia’s territorial integrity. But this conflict is not just about Georgia, and it will not just be played out over Georgia.

Cold War II has begun. Western leaders must begin to prepare their publics for this reality, which means countering the defeatist and anti-Western currents of thought that are popular among wide sections of the chattering classes, and preparing the publics for the consequences of economic warfare with an enemy that supplies a large part of our energy. Full-scale sanctions against Russia may soon be necessary, and though this will hurt Moscow more than it will hurt us, it will hurt us too. Western leaders must state very loudly and clearly that any further military attack by Moscow against any other state in Eastern or South Eastern Europe will invite a military response from us.

There are several ways in which Moscow’s aggression can be immediately punished. We should expel Russia from the G8 group of industrialised nations, veto its accession to the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, suspend the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia, abandon all negotiations for a new EU-Russia agreement, suspend the NATO-Russia Council and announce a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. Given Moscow’s shameless promotion of the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, it is time to raise openly the question of Chechnya which, in terms of size, national homogeneity and viability as an entity, has a much stronger case for independence than either of Georgia’s enclaves. Since Moscow is demanding ‘self-determination’ for South Ossetia, let us openly challenge it to recognise the same right for the much larger Ossetian population in North Ossetia. Finally, our strategy vis-a-vis Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other trouble-spots must be modified to take account of the new geopolitical front-line; this does not mean we should surrender the battle on any of these fronts, but we cannot continue to fight them as if the Russian threat did not exist.

Dangerous ? The real danger will come from burying our heads in the sand and hoping Putin will go away and leave us alone. It is better to adopt a tough but non-violent stance against Moscow now, than to encourage further Russian expansionism that will compel us to adopt more drastic measures in the future, measures that we may not be able to limit to the non-violent. Toughness in 1938 might have stopped Hitler without war; appeasement in 1938 led to war in 1939.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

See also John McCain’s excellent article, We are all Georgians

Thursday, 14 August 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Balkans, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, France, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Jews, Kosovo, Middle East, NATO, Red-Brown Alliance, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Turkey | 3 Comments

With its nose bloodied, democratic Turkey needs our support

Yesterday, Turkish democracy received a bloody nose, but not a knock-out blow. Turkey’s constitutional court voted six to five in favour of banning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – to which Turkish President Abdullah Gul also belongs – and banning its leading figures from politics. The court vote fell short of the seven-vote majority needed for a ban. Nevertheless, the court voted to cut the AKP’s state funding. Hasim Kilic, the court chairman and chief justice, described the ruling as a ‘serious warning’ to the AKP: ‘I hope the party in question will evaluate this outcome very well and get the message it should get,’ he said; ‘The verdict on cutting treasury aid has been given because of members who decided that the party was the hub of anti-secular activities’, although ‘not seriously enough’ to ban the party.

This attempt to bully democracy is taking place in an EU candidate country with the seventh-largest economy in the Council of Europe and the fifteenth-largest in the world, and which has pursued a for-the-most-part highly progressive foreign policy in recent years. Under the AKP, Turkey has been attempting to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. The Turkish government has attempted to restrain the hawkish voices favouring an onslaught against the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Kosova, and was alone among the larger NATO countries in staunchly supporting a Membership Action Plan for Macedonia at the April NATO summit in Bucharest. It has sincerely worked for a resolution of the Cyprus dispute and for rapprochement with Armenia.

The AKP government has also pursued a reformist policy at home, improving Turkey’s democratic and human rights credentials to the point where the EU, despite strong opposition from some of its members, was compelled to start accession negotiations. And it has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the Turkish economy. All the more poignant, therefore, that the court’s move to ban the democratically elected party of government appears to have been triggered by the latter’s attempt to push through a democratic freedom for Muslims that is already enjoyed across Christian Europe: the right of women students to wear headscarves while attending university. The readiness of the Turkish Kemalist establishment to wreck its country’s democracy and economy and to plunge it into constitutional chaos, and possibly civil war, simply in order to maintain its exclusive grip on state power at the expense of the new Muslim middle class represented by the AKP, indicates the difficulties Turkey faces in its journey toward full democracy.

Turkish democracy is not under attack only by the secular establishment, but by fascist terrorist elements – both from the ranks of the secular ultra-nationalists and from the ranks of the Islamists. Earlier this month, Turkish police foiled preparations for a violent coup d’etat by members of the Ergenekon clandestine organisation; those arrested included three retired Turkish Army generals. This was followed by an Islamist terrorist attack on the US consulate in Istanbul, and then days ago by a terrorist bomb attack on a civilian target in Istanbul that the government and police have blamed on Kurdish PKK separatists but which some observers suggest was more likely to have been the work of Ergenekon. There have been credible suggestions that the apparently antithetical Kemalist and Islamist extremists have, in fact, been coming together on the basis of the values they share: opposition to the West, the US, ‘Zionism’, democracy and liberalisation. As Mustafa Akyol writes in the Turkish Daily News: ‘I can’t say anything about whether there are indeed criminal links between these groups, but the ideology they share is all too similar. Their aim is simply to keep Turkey as a closed society cut off from the world and ruled by an authoritarian state. What they fear and abhor is democratization and liberalization.’

With the constitutional court’s verdict, Turkish democracy has been shaken but not toppled, but the dangers facing the country remain, as do the dangers facing the Western alliance in relation to Turkey. Turkey’s political classes have been increasingly disillusioned in recent years, both with the EU and with the US. The slowness of Turkey’s EU accession process, coupled with the apparent outright refusal of some EU countries such as France and Germany ever to allow Turkey to join, have reduced the EU’s appeal among Turks. Meanwhile, Turkish relations with the US have been strained by the apparently ‘distabilising’ policy being pursued by Washington in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union: the war with Iraq; the possibility of an attack on Iran; support for regional democratisation and ‘colour revolutions’; and above all the US’s alliance with the Iraqi Kurds. Conversely and consequently, Turkish relations with both Russia and Iran have been improving. Indeed, the Kurdish issue has strained Turkey’s relations not only with the US, but also with Israel, which is also unhappy with Turkey’s broadening cooperation with Iran in the field of energy.

In the current Turkish political constellation, it is the AKP that is the EU’s and US’s best friend. Indeed, Turkey’s Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, responding to Western criticisms of his attempt to close down the AKP, denounced the EU and US as ‘imperialists’ seeking to erode Turkey’s national sovereignty by using ‘collaborators’ such as the ‘fundamentalist’ AKP and Turkish liberals who ‘claimed to be intellectuals’. While we may wish to retain good relations with Ankara irrespective of which regime holds power there, our inability to remain silent in the face of assaults on democratic freedoms, coupled with the inevitably anti-Western outlook and rhetoric of those launching such assaults, will ensure that a potential future replacement of the AKP regime with a more authoritarian Kemalist one will inevitably damage Turkey’s relationship with the Western alliance. Conversely, a more authoritarian Turkey will find authoritarian Russia, Iran and even China as increasingly congenial partners.

The lingering threat to Turkish democracy is a threat to the West’s relationship with a crucial member of its alliance; indeed to positive stability in the Middle East, Balkans and Black Sea region in general. The failure of the constitutional court to ban the AKP has averted a still worse danger – that the suppression of the democratic, moderate Islamic political option would have driven disillusioned AKP supporters into the arms of the Islamists, laying the basis for an Algerian-style civil war in Turkey. But so long as the secularist establishment remains determined to curb the AKP, this is a danger that has been kept at bay, not ended permanently.

Turkey resembles Serbia, in that it is a Balkan country undergoing a long-drawn-out transition to full democracy, in which there can be no quick or easy success. But Turkey’s size, strength, geographic location and geostrategic importance make it much less amenable to pressure than Serbia. Indeed, with Turkey at the height of its power as a country, but with its internal divisions stretching it to breaking point, the Turkish Kemalist establishment may increasingly feel rather like the Serbian Communist establishment under Milosevic in the late 1980s and early 1990s: ready to gamble on an extreme solution, on the assumption – probably correct – that the West would lack the will to resist it. In this context, although Brussels was correct to indicate that Turkey’s EU accession process would be halted in the event of the ruling party being banned, nevertheless the carrot may prove more effective than the stick in advancing the cause of Turkey’s democratisation. This, however, cannot mean unprincipled concessions over the Kurdish or Cyprus questions that would damage the West’s moral standing.

Keeping Turkish democracy alive requires keeping Turkey’s EU accession process alive, for it is EU membership that has provided the crucial motor to Turkey’s democratisation. But at present, it is Turcophobic EU leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy who are dominating public discourse in Europe over the Turkish issue. If Turkey is to be saved for democracy and for the West, the UK has to fight back in the arena of public opinion – both at home and in Europe. The UK has traditionally supported Turkey’s EU accession; quite apart from the geostrategic arguments in favour preserving Turkey’s pro-Western alignment, an EU containing Turkey would be less dominated by the Franco-German axis and more resistant to centralisation, therefore more congenial to the inclinations of both Britain’s political and its popular classes – and indeed to the inclinations of some other EU members – than an EU without Turkey.

The British government must fight a sustained public campaign in favour of Turkey’s EU membership, to persuade the Turkish people that they have a European future, to bolster the fortunes of our friends in the AKP, and to convince the British and European publics of the crucial importance of the Turkish connection. Sarkozy is pursuing a thoroughly unprincipled and damaging policy toward South East Europe, but to his credit, he is not afraid to be outspoken and assertive in pursuit of what he perceives to be France’s national interests in this region. We must not be afraid to be similarly outspoken and assertive. If the present trends in EU politics continue, we shall lose the battle for Turkey. And with it, we shall suffer a major defeat in the battle for both the Balkans and the Middle East.

This article was published yesterday on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Friday, 1 August 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, France, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Middle East, NATO, Russia, Serbia, Turkey | Leave a comment

The Armenian Genocide should be recognised by historians, not by states

Five days ago on 12 June, the Swedish parliament overwhelmingly rejected a motion to recognise the 1915 Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. However counter-intuitive it may seem, the result of this vote should not be mourned by anyone who believes in the need to educate the world public on genocide and its history.

The Armenian Genocide happened. As Donald Bloxham argues in his book The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, London, 2005) – which I recommend as an intelligent and balanced introduction to the debates surrounding the topic – there is no reason whatsoever why the genocide-deniers should be allowed to set the agenda, and force us to justify the use of the term ‘genocide’ when we discuss the fate of the Armenians. Let us be clear about this: genocide deniers are not simply those who prefer to use a term other than ‘genocide’ – such as ‘systematic mass-murder’ or ‘extermination’ – when describing what happened to the Armenians, or to the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, or to the Srebrenica Muslims in 1995. Rather, a true genocide-denier is one who, in the course of denying that a genocide occurred, seeks to whitewash the crime, minimise its magnitude and the tragedy of the victims, and usually also to shift the blame away from the perpetrators and on to the victims themselves. In other words, genocide deniers have an ideological agenda, and a very obnoxious one at that.

The Armenian case is perhaps alone, at least among the cases of genocide with which I am at all familiar, in that some historians who are in other respects actually very serious and competent are ranked among the deniers. There is always a temptation among foreign historians, who depend upon the hospitality and collaboration of the academic community and archivists of the countries they are studying, to become spokespeople for the nationalist or regime agendas of the countries in question. This is something that reflects badly on all those who fall into this trap. It is one thing for historians to be discreet or diplomatic when touching upon such issues, or to to use euphemisms like ‘extermination’ or ‘destruction’ instead of genocide, if that is the only way to keep the archives open. But if you start agitating on a denialist platform to ingratiate yourself with your hosts, you have crossed a line. As a historian, I am proud to say that I have always referred openly to the Armenian genocide; to the genocide of the native Americans; to the Soviet genocide of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and others; to the Ustasha and Chetnik genocides in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II; and to the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s – both when writing about these topics and when teaching my students. If that ever means that some doors are closed to me that might otherwise be open, so be it. Some of us, at least, value our integrity more than our careers or our connections.

This is important, because it is ultimately historians and other scholars and teachers upon whom the task falls of educating the public about past acts of genocide. There are very sound reasons why the recognition of historic genocides in foreign countries should not be undertaken by national parliaments. In the case of the Armenian genocide – which, I repeat, should not be denied by respectable scholars – there are two crucial reasons why national parliaments should not actually vote to recognise it. The first reason concerns the context of the Armenian genocide itself, while the second reason concerns the concept of ‘genocide’ more generally.

The Armenian genocide was one of the last, and probably the largest-scale, of the series of acts of mass murder and expulsion that accompanied first the contraction, then the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement by several nation-states in the Balkans and Anatolia. The emergence from the Ottoman Empire of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria as autonomous or independent nation-states during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved the extermination or expulsion of much of the Ottoman Muslim population that had inhabited the territories of these countries under the Ottomans. A related phenomenon was the southward expansion of Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across the northern coast of the Black Sea and into the Caucasus and the Balkans, often in collusion with local Christian peoples and similarly involving the killing or expulsion of vast numbers of Muslims – indeed, of entire Muslim peoples such as the Crimean Nogai and the Caucasian Ubykhs.

These acts of killing and explusion culminated in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro finally destroyed the Ottoman Empire in Europe. According to Justin McCarthy (Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 164), the Balkan Wars resulted in the death of 27% of the Muslim population of the Ottoman territories conquered by the Christian Balkan states – 632,408 people. This is a figure comparable to death-toll of the Armenian genocide from 1915, which Bloxham estimates as claiming the lives of one million Armenians or 50% of the pre-war Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, with another half million Armenians deported but surviving (Bloxham, p. 1).

These massacres and expulsions of Ottoman Muslims, and particularly the Balkan Wars, were both precursors and catalysts for the Armenian genocide, which was launched only a couple of years after the Balkan Wars ended. This was because a) Muslim Turkish nationalists copied the model of European-style nationalism already adopted by the Balkan Christian nationalists, involving the same principle of ethno-religious homogeneity; b) the decades of explusions of Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims to Anatolia, culminating in the Muslim exodus from the Balkans during and after the Balkan Wars, provided a constituency of embittered refugees and their descendants whom the Turkish nationalists could mobilise in the 1910s to attack Anatolian Christians; c) the settlement of these Muslim refugees in Anatolia began the process of Muslim colonisation of historically Armenian-inhabited lands that paved the way for the genocide; and d) the Turkish nationalists who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1915 viewed the extermination of the Armenians as the necessary alternative to what they feared would be the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia under Russian protection, on the model of the Balkan Christian states and involving the same acts of killing and expulsion of Ottoman Muslims that the establishment of the latter had involved (NB to point this out is not to justify the genocide; any more than pointing out Hitler’s undoubtedly sincere belief in a ‘Jewish threat’ to the Aryan race justifies the Holocaust).

The question is, therefore, why national parliaments in Europe or elsewhere should recognise the Armenian genocide while according no recognition whatsoever to the series of Christian crimes against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims that both led up to and catalysed it. Historians can debate how decisive this catalyst was, or whether and to what extent the earlier crimes against Muslims should rightfully be labelled ‘genocide’. But this requires a degree of nuance and sensitivity to history of which blunt, clumsy parliamentary resolutions framed by historically ignorant parliamentarians are simply not capable. At the very least, the similarity of these crimes to the Armenian genocide should not be denied; nor should they be deemed less worthy of recognition. In singling out the Armenian genocide for recognition while ignoring the destruction of the European Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims, a parliament would be saying that the victims of the one are more worthy of recognition than the victims of the other. And this is something that the Turkish public cannot legitimately be expected to swallow – given that it is itself partially descended from the survivors of the Christian crimes in question, therefore much more aware of the double standard than are most Europeans.

This brings us to the second reason why parliaments should not recognise the Armenian genocide, or indeed any other historic genocide carried out by a foreign regime in a foreign country: the danger that a genocide will only be considered a ‘real’ genocide if recognised by a national parliament. All those who would like to turn a blind eye to genocidal crimes – whether in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or elsewhere – tend to do so by arguing that they are not ‘really’ genocide. They like to present genocide as something that almost never happens. Hence, they apply the term ‘genocide’ to only a very few historic cases – generally, to only the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the Rwandan genocide – or not even to all of those. Conversely, those who actually wish to see greater international efforts to prevent genocide, as well as most scholars writing about the phenomenon of genocide today, usually prefer to apply the term to a much larger number of historic crimes of mass murder. The point is not that these latter crimes are necessarily less worthy of the ‘genocide’ label than the destruction of the Armenians or Tutsis, but that they are less well known internationally.

In principle, therefore, recognition of the Armenian genocide should be followed by the recognition of other genocides: of the Herero people of German South West Africa in the early twentieth century; of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other Soviet peoples in the 1940s; of the Mayan population of Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s; and so forth, amounting to dozens or hundreds of cases. But we are unlikely ever to have international teams of scholarly experts deciding which of these cases warrant recognition as ‘genocide’ – more likely, genocide will only be recognised under the pressure of powerful and determined lobbies, as has been the case with the Armenians in several European countries. This would be bad for any genuine understanding of what genocide is and bad for the memory of the innumerable victims of what will be consigned to the category of ‘unrecognised genocides’. But it will be good for all those apologists for murderous regimes who will be only too happy to claim that it is only the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide that are recognised as genocide, and that we should all turn a blind eye to ‘lesser’ crimes.

No, parliamentary recognition of historic genocides is not the way forward. Rather than alienating Turkey by singling out its historic crimes for unique recognition, we should do better to encourage its further democratisation, to the point where its intellectuals can publicly acknowledge and discuss the Armenian genocide without fear of persecution or arrest. This, ultimately, is the only way to ensure that the memory of the Armenian victims is kept alive among those who most need to remember them.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Darfur, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Kurds, Middle East, Russia, Scandinavia, Serbia, Sudan, Sweden, Turkey | Leave a comment

John McCain would be best for South East Europe

mccainThe democratic choice is an easier one for progressives to make in the UK than it is in the US. Over here, the ruling Labour Party is more progressive than the Conservative opposition on both foreign and domestic issues. But in the US, things are not so simple. Were I an American citizen, I would be inclined to vote Democrat over domestic issues – abortion, taxation, etc. But I have no doubt that the interests of South East Europe would be better served by John McCain as president than by either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton bears a very large share of responsibility for the problems faced by the Balkans and Caucasus today. These are, in particular, a dismembered, non-functioning Bosnia; an anti-Western, disruptive Serbia; and a dismembered Georgia. The problem was not that Clinton was a particularly reactionary president in world affairs, but that he simply was not very interested in them, something that resulted in a failure of leadership. The mess in Bosnia is above all the fault of the former British Conservative government of John Major and the former French Socialist regime of the late Francois Mitterand; they were the champions of appeasement and the architects, along with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, of Bosnia’s dismemberment. Clinton could and should have insisted upon a change in Western policy vis-a-vis Bosnia upon becoming president. Instead, he chose to defer to his pro-Belgrade European allies, Britain and France, not wishing to fall out with them over something trivial like genocide in the heart of Europe. This was not only a moral failing, but a betrayal of US interests; the disastrous Anglo-French policy and Clinton’s vacillating support for it greatly damaged both transatlantic relations and the Balkans. There are times when Europe needs American leadership; Bosnia was one of them.

After the initialling of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995, Clinton continued to neglect Bosnia, allowing the indicted war-criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to escape arrest – primarily because he did not want to risk American casualties in arrest operations. Nor does Clinton deserve particular credit over Kosova; it is highly questionable whether the US would have acted to prevent the genocide there in 1999 had not Major and Mitterand been replaced in the meantime by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. NATO’s liberation of Kosova should have been followed up by the prompt recognition of its independence, while the Russians were in no position to cause such trouble for us as they are today. We could have ‘punished’ the Serbia of Milosevic with Kosova’s independence, instead of the Serbia of today, led as it is by the relatively pro-Western President Boris Tadic. But that problem, too, was allowed to fester; its resolution today is proving much more difficult than it need have been.

Over Russia and the Caucasus, too, Clinton, like George Bush Snr before him, showed a disastrous failure of leadership. With Russian politics in a state of flux, with the pro-Western Boris Yeltsin in power in Moscow and financially dependent on the West, a golden opportunity existed to push Russian policy in the Caucasus in a less imperialistic direction. The Western powers should have acted decisively to halt the dismemberment of Georgia in the early 1990s and prevent the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from falling under Russia’s exclusive control. We should have recognised the independence of Chechnya, preempting Yeltsin’s violent assault on the country in 1994. But as is so often the case, the dovish policy is the one most likely to lead to confrontation in the long-run – think of Neville Chamberlain and Munich. Our failure to engage in the Caucasus, and Blair’s shameful support for Vladimir Putin over Chechnya in 1999, have been richly rewarded: Georgia, an aspiring NATO member, faces perpetual dismemberment, while an aggressive, ungrateful Putin has reentered the Balkans with a vengeance with the deliberate aim of derailing the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Chechnya proved to be the poison of Russian democracy and Russian-Western friendship; a Russian president willing and able to use weapons of mass destruction against his Chechen citizens is unlikely to respect democratic freedoms in Russia proper, and an undemocratic, authoritarian Russian regime is more likely to be hostile to the West.

In fairness, Russia is not solely responsible for the mess in the Caucasus; Georgia’s brutally chauvinistic former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was one of the architects of his country’s dismemberment, as was the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who supported the Abkhazians. The people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had legitimate grievances against Gamsakhurdia’s regime and its successors in Tbilisi. These are all issues that a more forward-looking US policy could have helped to resolve, but did not. 

I fear, therefore, the consequences for South East Europe of a US president who is dovish, uninterested in or unserious about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has always worked hand-in-glove with Bill in the political sphere, and should share responsibility with him for his disastrous Bosnia policy. Indeed, the story is that her influence made it worse; that she read Robert Kaplan’s truly dreadful book ‘Balkan Ghosts’ and passed it on to her husband; this book, filled as it was with crude stereotypes about the Balkans (along the lines of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’), encouraged the perception of the Bosnian war as an expression of intractable ethnic conflict in which no moral issues were at stake, militating against any intention Bill might have had to resist Serbian aggression. Be that as it may, Hillary was more frank in welcoming Kosovo’s independence than Obama, who appears to see Balkan politics largely through the prism of his need to win the goodwill of the Serbian and Greek lobbies in the US. Hence his letter to the Serbian Unity Congress, in which he stated: ‘I support and shall help in every possible way development of the dialog between all sides in Kosova because I believe that peace and stability can be reached only by solutions acceptable for all sides’ – not far from an endorsement of the Serbo-Russian position on Kosova, which insists on a Serbian veto on any settlement. Hence also Obama’s endorsement of the Greek-nationalist position on Macedonia. These acts may be motivated by simple electoral opportunism, but they do not bode well for a principled and forward-looking US policy toward the Balkans should Obama become president. In flirting with the US’s Serbian and Greek lobbies, Obama is flirting with groups that encompass ultra-right-wing, Christian-fundamentalist, Muslim-hating bigots.

There are several reasons to believe that McCain would follow a more serious and principled policy toward South East Europe than either Clinton or Obama. He is aware of the importance of what he calls a ‘progressive Turkey’ as a strategic partner of the US and a beacon of Muslim democracy, and of the mutual inter-relatedness of democracy and stability in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey is both the most important Balkan country in world affairs and a state that borders on Iraq; the Balkans and the Middle East are adjacent, interlocking regions; McCain’s commitment to staying the course in Iraq is therefore most likely to promote stability in the Balkans.

McCain was correct to oppose Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide (here I break ranks with Norman Geras). The Ottoman Empire in 1915 was undoubtedly guilty of genocide against the Armenians, and Turkey should recognise this genocide. But it is not for an outside power like the US to single out this historic crime as uniquely totemic and worthy of recognition, particularly given that the US Congress has taken no parallel steps to recognise the genocidal crimes carried out by Russia and the Balkan Christian states against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why should the US recognise the Ottoman genocide of one million Armenians, but not the Balkan Christian genocide of over six-hundred thousand Ottoman Muslims in 1912-13, when the latter crime was an immediate catalyst of the former ? The Turks would be entirely justified in taking offence at such double standards, and McCain is entirely correct that the US should be developing its relationship with Ankara, not creating new barriers to it – though he is also far from uncritical in his support for Turkey.

McCain was an early supporter of Kosova’s independence. He stood by the oppressed Kosova Albanians before it became fashionable in Washington to do so, and continued to do so despite the support given by many right-wing Republicans – largely for anti-Clinton and anti-Islamic reasons – to the anti-Albanian policies of Milosevic and subsequent Serb-nationalist politicians. A Republican president who is ready to put a combination of US strategic interests and morality above petty sectarian domestic feuds and religious hatred is more likely to act in South East Europe’s best interests.

Finally, McCain led a delegation of US senators to Tbilisi in August 2006, to express unconditional support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and to challenge the presence of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, suggesting they be replaced by a UN or OSCE force. Although Moscow likes to draw a false parallel between Kosova and South Ossetia, in reality, secessionist South Ossetia is more like the Serb-controlled enclave in northern Kosova – an expression of the imperialism of a larger neighbour that seeks to punish a former colony for seeking independence by dismembering it. Georgia is not Russia’s backyard, and any policy that treats it as being so will only bolster the anti-Western Russian neo-empire that has arisen under Putin to become a dangerous enemy of the West. McCain is entirely correct in his belief that in defending Georgia, the West will be defending itself. His suggestion that Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia be replaced by a UN force should be welcomed by all multilateralist opponents of unilateral intervention by great powers in the internal affairs of other countries. But don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, 20 March 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Kosovo, Macedonia, Middle East, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Turkey | 3 Comments

Untangling the Turkey – Iraqi Kurdistan – PKK triangle

Turkey has launched a large-scale military assault against Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) guerrilla bases in northern Iraq – the biggest Turkish attack on the region since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This presents the democratic world with a dilemma.

In principle, every state has the right to defend itself from military attacks by neighbouring states, and this includes attacks by guerrillas based in neighbouring states. If a government allows its territory to be used by guerrillas to attack a neighbour, it becomes in practice an aggressor in relation to that neighbour, which then has the right to retaliate. Formally speaking, Turkey is acting within its rights when it carries out attacks on PKK bases in northern Iraq. In this case, however, there are three complicating factors.

The first is that this security problem is of Turkey’s own making. Having subjected the Turkish Kurds to decades of national oppression and forced assimilation, while at the same time outlawing any peaceful and democratic expression of Kurdish national politics in Turkey, Ankara has generated the problem it now faces: the PKK insurgency is its Frankenstein’s monster. There is ultimately no military solution to this problem, which will go away only when Ankara permits its Kurds the option of peacefully agitating for their national rights within the democratic system.

The second complicating factor is that Turkey’s interest in Iraqi Kurdistan is far from purely defensive. Ankara wishes to prevent a powerful, effectively sovereign Kurdistani entity from coming into being in northern Iraq, one that it fears might further catalyse the nationalism of its own Kurdish population. For this reason, Turkey is opposed to the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Furthermore, Ankara is attempting to use the Turkoman minority in Iraqi Kurdistan as a catspaw with which to destabilise the region; its proxy political force, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, campaigns against the federalisation of Iraq and the incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Region. Turkey has long expressed an interest in the territory and, in particular, the oil of northern Iraq, following claims that go back to the 1920s and the foundation of the Turkish Republic. In other words Turkey, which has not been a very good ally to the US and UK over Iraq, is pursuing an entirely selfish and destructive policy at the expense of the Iraqi Kurds, our best friends in the country.

The third complicating factor is that the impetus to attack the PKK in northern Iraq comes less from Turkey’s democratically elected leaders, President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), who are more enlightened with regard to the Kurdish question, but from the Turkish military, which is itself hostile to the AKP regime and which is putting pressure on the latter to be more hardline. A Turkish victory in northern Iraq, in the unlikely event that one were to occur, would strengthen the most undemocratic and retrograde elements in the Turkish state.

In these circumstances, it is not in our interest to support Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy; nor are we under any obligation to do so. By collaborating with Turkey’s war against the PKK and policy of destabilisation of Iraqi Kurdistan, we become collaborators in Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish people; participants in a nationalist conflict on the side of the party that is, quite frankly, more in the wrong. Yet we cannot ignore Turkey’s legitimate concern at PKK attacks, nor can we afford to turn our backs on this potentially disastrous conflict that pits our allies against one another and threatens our vital interests in all-too-fragile Iraq. We need to address the legitimate fears of the Turkoman and other non-Kurdish minorities in Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Region, and to put pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that all ethnic groups under its jurisdiction are properly protected and represented. But a solution to the Turkish-Kurdish question has to span both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border.

Britain and the US must engage with the PKK in an effort to bring its insurgency peacefully to an end, on the basis of a negotiated compromise, similar to that which has been successfully reached in Northern Ireland. Turkey’s conflict with the PKK is scarcely more intractable than was our own conflict with the Irish Republican Army; the coexistence of ethnic Turks and Kurds at the grass-roots level is rather better than that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. There is absolutely no reason, therefore, why Ankara cannot pursue a similar negotiated settlement with the PKK, as we pursued it with the IRA. However comical the image of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as partners at the helm of the new Northern Ireland might be, it is at the same time symbolic of how even the bitterest enemies can come to collaborate when given the right inducements. It might prove difficult to persuade the PKK to lay down its weapons, but our interests are sufficiently at stake for it to be worth the effort.

The concession that Ankara would have to give in exchange for a cession of PKK violence would be the lifting of all restrictions on the peaceful expression of Kurdish nationalist politics in Turkey. Kurdish parties in Turkey should be free to organise and to campaign for Kurdish national rights – for language and cultural rights, autonomy and even secession and independence, just as in the UK we permit Sinn Fein, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru to campaign for a united Ireland, independent Scotland and independent Wales respectively. Ankara has to realise that the territorial integrity of a democratic nation-state ultimately rests upon the consent of its citizenry, for which repression and coercion cannot substitute.

Turkey should, however, be reassured in the belief that ending the repression of its Kurdish population and permitting it full political freedom would be highly unlikely to lead to the emergence of an independent Turkish Kurdish state, for the simple reason that such a state would not be in the interests of the Kurdish people of Anatolia. Ethnic Kurds and Turks in Anatolia are too intermingled to make a bloodless drawing of a border between them feasible, even if the Turkish state were incomparably more enlightened and well intentioned than it is – more likely would be something similar to the intercommunal massacres that beset fledgling India and Pakistan in the 1940s. A particularly high price would be paid by the Kurds who would remain behind in a rump Turkey; they would be transformed at a stroke from ‘Turks’ into foreigners. Independence would cut the Turkish Kurds off from the prosperous cities of western Anatolia, the natural destination of their economic migration, and confine them to an impoverished and landlocked state wedged between unstable Iraq and hostile Turkey. As citizens of Turkey, by contrast, they are only a step or two away from Europe.

Self-determination does not mean simply drawing lines on a map as though it were a blank slate; one cannot disregard decades of history. However unjust the division of the Kurdish people following World War I between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria may have been at the time, the clock cannot simply be turned back. The transformation of Turkey into a bilingual state with Kurdish as an official language – as Swedish is an official language in bilingual Finland – while Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys widespread autonomy, might represent the best possible solution to the Kurdish question. Europe’s German-speakers are, after all, divided between the states of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy’s South Tyrol, and the arrangement is entirely satisfactory to all concerned.

A bilingual Turkish national state in which both Turkish and Kurdish are official languages would not be some arbitrary Western imposition; Turkish nationalists have traditionally viewed Kurds as Turks, while Kurds for their part were ready to fight in large numbers in defence of the common Anatolian homeland in Turkey’s War of Independence in the 1920s, against the European invaders and their local Greek and Armenian allies; Ismet Inonu, the most important of the founders of the Turkish Republic after Kemal Ataturk, was himself of partly Kurdish background. So too was the former Turkish prime minister and president Turgut Ozal, a pioneer in the lifting of restrictions on the Kurds.

In attempting to suppress all manifestations of the Kurdish language and identity, Ataturk, Inonu and their successors may have been doing what they saw as necessary in their endeavour to create a homogenous Turkish nation-state in place of the ruined Ottoman Empire. But today’s Turkish leaders have to realise that with the Turkish Republic a securely established fact, it is time for them to moderate a policy that has been too rigid for too long and that has come to threaten the very national unity it is supposed to uphold. Indeed, the ruling AKP has already taken major steps towards improving the rights of the Turkish Kurds, and it is imperative that Western leaders further encourage them in this direction, and help them to overcome the resistance of hardline nationalist elements in the army and elsewhere.

While the danger of radical Islam in Turkey is not to be neglected, yet it is ultra-nationalism that has proven to be the most dangerous force in contemporary Turkish politics, as witnessed by the assassination at the start of this year of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and by the attempt to prosecute the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in both cases for the ‘error’, in nationalist eyes, of raising the question of Turkey’s historic crimes against the Armenians. This ultra-nationalism is ruinous to Turkey’s own interests. A Turkey that allows Kurdish political parties freely to operate and the Armenian Genocide to be freely discussed would be much more attractive as a member of the European Union, which is where Turkey rightfully belongs. So much is at stake in an untangling of the Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan-PKK triangle that we cannot afford not to attempt it, difficult though it will be.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Friday, 21 December 2007 Posted by | Balkans, Iraq, Kurds, Middle East, Turkey | Leave a comment

Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction in retrospect

RwandaMacheteI supported the US-led military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime in Iraq and, like most people who did, I have had plenty of second thoughts about it. But I can say, hand on heart, that I never felt the question of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was in any way relevant to whether the war was justified or not. The Baathist regime may not have possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction according to some technical criteria, but it certainly possessed what I would call ‘weapons of mass destruction’, meaning weapons capable of destroying masses of human beings. In the Rwandan Genocide, between 800,000 and a million people were killed mostly using technologically simple weapons, above all the machete. This is several times more than were killed by the atomic bombs that hit Japan in 1945. Judging by the twentieth-century historical record, the machete is a more dangerous weapon of mass destruction than the nuclear bomb. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly carried out genocide and mass murder against the Iraqi population. With the weaponry still available to him in 2003, he was entirely able to do so again. That he did not possess what are technically classified as ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ may make a difference to how one evaluates the justification for the war, if what concerns one is British or American national security or even Middle Eastern regional security. But for those of us who thought about the intervention in Iraq primarily in humanitarian terms, what mattered most was his ability to harm his own people. The failure to discover ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq following the invasion made no difference in this regard.

In considering whether invading Iraq to overthrow the Baathist regime was the correct course of action, the number one question is whether it made life better for the Iraqi population. On this basis, it is very difficult not to have, at the very least, profound misgivings about the whole enterprise. The failure of the intervention to create a stable Iraq and improve the quality of life of the Iraqi people has been due to the prolongued, murderous insurgency by ultra-right-wing Islamist and former Baathist elements; if we have failed, it is essentially because the enemy has been too good at killing Iraqi civilians and because we have not been good enough at stopping it from doing so. The US and its allies of course made many mistakes that have helped to fuel the insurgency, and it is impossible to know what the situation would be like today had these mistakes not been made. Nevertheless, the principle of democratic accountability requires that the occupying powers bear responsibility for the poor record, particularly given that the population directly concerned – the Iraqis – had no say in the matter. So far as the wider region is concerned, it is a moot point whether the Islamist insurgents now ensconced in Iraq represent a greater danger than the former expansionist, genocidal dictatorship. But perception arguably matters as much as reality, and the perceived failure of the action in Iraq has greatly set back the noble cause of humanitarian intervention. The successful international interventions in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 have undoubtedly been vindicated from the perspectives of both humanitarianism and justice and the balance sheet in Afghanistan remains positive. It is a great tragedy that the perceived failure in Iraq has made the case for a similar military intervention to liberate Darfur that much more difficult to argue. A tragedy, that is, for the people of Darfur.

Neverthless, if the intervention in Iraq is to be condemned, it should be condemned because it hasn’t worked very well, not because it was wrong in principle. Helping to overthrow dictators is something our elected leaders should be doing more of, not less. The representatives of the Kurdish victims of Baathist genocide supported the invasion, as did many other of the best representatives of democratic Iraq, such as Kanan Makiya who, despite all the horrors his country has experienced since the overthrow of Saddam, still believes that it was the right thing to do. I do not for one minute regret standing behind these people, and behind Tony Blair – Britain’s greatest prime minister since Clement Attlee – against the Baathists, Islamists and phoney ‘anti-war movement’ spearheaded by apologists for Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic and other fascists. Let’s be clear about this: most of the people who marched in Britain against the war in Iraq may have done so for the best of motives; it was not they, but the leadership of the movement that was rotten. This leadership included Tony Benn, who praised Mao Zedong as ‘the greatest man of the twentieth century’, though Mao’s policies make the Iraq war seem positively bloodless and successful; the Socialist Workers Party, which continues to revere the Bolshevik Revolution, which was an unequivocally greater and bloodier failure than the Iraq war, and whose supporters continue to deny the Srebrenica genocide and support Hezbollah; George Galloway, who praised Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose leading lights in the 1990s joined with Alfred Sherman, a political friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen and political advisor to the genocidal murderer Radovan Karadzic, to form the ‘Committee for Peace in the Balkans’; Harold Pinter, a supporter of the ‘International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic’; John Pilger, a denier of Milosevic’s atrocities; and so on. Any movement spearheaded by such people should automatically be opposed, regardless of what it claims to be campaigning on. This does not mean the war was necessarily right, but it is a factor in the balance sheet.

Ultimately, the real division was not between those who supported and those who opposed the Iraq war – there were many honourable members on both sides of the debate – but between those who supported the Iraqi people and those who supported their oppressors. All those who supported the Iraqi people were, once the invasion had occurred, on the same side in support of the struggling Iraqi democracy, regardless of whether or not they had favoured the invasion. This essential division will repeat itself in future conflicts across the globe. In future crises, solidarity with freedom fighters struggling against a dictatorship, fascism or genocide may mean supporting military intervention, if that is what the freedom fighters feel is best for their country. Support for military intervention is a tactical question; solidarity with the oppressed against the oppressors – defending them against weapons of mass destruction, whether the machete or poison gas – is a matter of principle.

Monday, 26 November 2007 Posted by | Iraq, Middle East, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left | Leave a comment