Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

2011: The year the worms turned

I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.

1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.

Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.

2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.

For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.

3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.

For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.

4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.

The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.

5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.

All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World – that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !

6. Independence for South Sudan.

What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.

7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO. 

Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.

8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.

At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.

9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.

Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.

10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.

Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.

Happy New Year !

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Sunday, 1 January 2012 Posted by | Arabs, Britain, Egypt, Greece, Islam, Israel, Italy, Libya, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East, Misogyny, NATO, Russia, Sudan | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Libya – What next ?

Contre nous de la tyrannie, L’étendard sanglant est levé
– La Marseillaise

The sight of the democratic world standing back and watching while a particularly murderous but not especially militarily formidable dictator drowned a popular uprising in blood, after its representatives begged for our help, while his own neighbours demanded military action against him, on the doorstep of Europe, was too heartbreaking to bear. However little it would have taken to stop him, the West appeared to have insufficent will. The whining of the Cassandras was incessant – from ‘Arabs are not fit for democracy’ t0 ‘we’ll be sucked into the quagmire’ to ‘we don’t have the money for another war’. Yet in the end, it proved too much for Western leaders as well.

The credit goes above all to David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, Susan Rice, the wonderful Samantha Power and, perhaps, Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama has proven himself a vacillator in the mould of Bill Clinton, but this time the US president’s European allies pushed him forward instead of holding him back. Clinton came to office at the start of 1993 correctly inclined to intervene to stop the slaughter in Bosnia, but was rapidly deflected by the British and French and sent down the dishonourable path of appeasement; conversely, Obama was initially opposed to intervention in Libya, but was led down the right path by the current leaders of the very same nations. Britain is not an irrelevant poodle of the Americans; its voice does count. Though I disagree with almost all Cameron’s domestic policies, he has already made a tremendous positive difference on the world stage . And though I have been repeatedly horrified by Sarkozy’s policies in the past – toward Turkey, Macedonia, Georgia, gypsies – he has redeemed himself on this occasion. Some have suggested that he has been motivated by the desire to boost his flagging ratings before forthcoming elections, but it is actions, not purity of motives, that matter.

It is twenty years since Western and Arab states came together with UN backing to resist Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That was a legitimate and justified intervention to defend a small nation from aggression, but it was waged in the most reactionary manner possible. The Emir of Kuwait’s undemocratic regime was restored to power without any requirement to democratise, and the Iraqi people, whom President Bush had called upon to rise up against Saddam, were betrayed when they followed his advice. Bush actually preferred the survival of Saddam’s dictatorship to his overthrow by Kurds, Shias and other Iraqis. But the West has come along way since then. Even today, plenty of voices have been heard of people who apparently dislike Arabs and Muslims so much that they would prefer even a murderous, racist, genocide-promoting and terrorism-sponsoring tyrant like Gaddafi to stay in power to keep them down. Yet unlike in the days of Bush Sr, it is no longer possible for the West openly to side with a Gaddafi or a Saddam against a popular uprising.

The success of the international intervention against Gaddafi is crucial to encourage the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, to reassure their followers that the West is with them, and to strengthen those Western currents that are on their side, against those who prefer the dictators. But inevitably, there has been plenty of whataboutery from the usual suspects. Cameron effectively dealt with one such in the House of Commons on Friday:

Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Is the Prime Minister now suggesting we should develop a foreign policy that would be prepared to countenance intervention elsewhere where there are attacks on civilians, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman or Bahrain ? I hope he has thought this whole thing through.’

David Cameron: ‘Just because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere.’

End of.

Corbyn’s argument was disingenuous; if Cameron had simultaneously argued for intervening in all those places and Libya at once, he would have been accused by various Corbyns of being a crazy warmonger who wanted to fight the whole world, but if he concentrates on Libya he’s accused of being inconsistent. That is the way these people operate; they banged on about how the Iraq war was ‘illegal’ because it wasn’t supported by a UN Security Council resolution, but now that this intervention is supported by such a resolution, they’re still opposed. There is a certain type of leftist whose sole raison d’etre is to rubbish and sabotage every positive initiative that Western leaders try to take on the world stage, purely as an end in itself. Leftists of this kind are, quite simply, a scourge.

In fact, the West’s intervention in defence of the Libyan rebels will put us in a much stronger position to exercise leverage over the despots of the Gulf, and prod them away from repression. The repression in Bahrain and the Saudi intervention should be seen as a direct consequence of the Obama Administration’s prior demonstrable lack of enthusiasm for the pro-democracy agitation in the Arab world; Obama dithered over Libya, and the Gulf despots took the hint. But credit where it’s due; Obama came down on the right side in the end (though the thought that the West would have left the Libyan rebels to their fate if Russia or China had vetoed the UN Security Council resolution is a worrying one). Our next step should be to follow through with the Libyan intervention by applying heavy pressure on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to lift their repression, and vocally to support the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Libya is just a stage in a long struggle for freedom in the Arab world that isn’t going to be concluded tomorrow.

The biggest danger is that Libya will remain messy. Western leaders have correctly rejected the possibility of deploying ground troops, so this is not a danger of an Afghanistan-style military quagmire. Rather, the danger is that a combination of resiliance among the Gaddafi camp and fragmentation, division and Islamist currents among the rebels will combine to render Libya a failed state suffering perpetual instability – in that respect, like Afghanistan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. The longer the civil war in Libya goes on, the more difficult it will be for the country to recover – something that will demoralise both the region and the West.

Western leaders cannot engage in statebuilding in Libya, but they can engage in a concerted diplomatic effort aimed at resolving the Libyan civil war. The emphasis should be on pressurising Gaddafi and his family to leave Libya, while arming and supplying the Benghazi-based rebels. But the aim should be simultaneously to prepare the ground for a negotiated end to the conflict between Gaddafi’s former supporters and the rebels, which could take effect once the tyrant has gone. Such a strategy would, hopefully, encourage further defections from the Gaddafi camp, possibly even a palace coup against him.

The immediate aim of the intervention was to save Benghazi, Misurata and other rebel-held towns. But now that the basic military task appears to have been achieved, there will be a lot of hard work ahead.

Monday, 21 March 2011 Posted by | Arabs, Britain, France, Islam, Libya, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment