The US and its allies have waged a series of wars over the past two decades for legitimate reasons. One reason has been self defence: the US’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was a straightforward case of a state defending itself from attack. Another has been humanitarian: the interventions in Kosova in 1999 and Libya in 2011 averted humanitarian catastrophes. There is a strong case for intervening in Syria today on the same grounds. A third reason has been to promote progressive and democratic change. One of the ironies of the most controversial of the West’s recent wars – the Iraq war – was that although there were strong humanitarian and democratic reasons for waging it, these were not primarily stressed by Western leaders. Before President George W. Bush, US leaders had pursued the policy of leaving Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in power while strangling Iraq with sanctions over many years – at enormous cost to the Iraqi people. Although the Bush Administration bungled the occupation, the argument that a short war was a price worth paying to free Iraq from dictatorship, sanctions and isolation was not unreasonable. A pity, therefore, that the war was justified on the grounds of the Baathist regime’s supposed development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Even before the coalition failed to discover them, the grounds for invasion were not deemed sufficient by international opinion. The war was from the start a propaganda disaster from which the West’s reputation is still struggling to recover.
An Israeli or US attack on Iran would most likely be another such propaganda disaster. It would have no humanitarian justification, nor would it advance the cause of democracy or human rights in Iran or the Middle East. The argument that it would constitute a pre-emptive act of self-defence by Israel – which we shall come to – is not to be sniffed at but is nevertheless misguided. We are left with a purely strategic argument: the need to limit the power of a barbaric Islamist regime with an aggressively anti-Western ideology and foreign policy, that is promoting bloodshed and strife in the region. While this argument, too, is not to be sniffed at, it is not sufficient to go to war, and would not be accepted as such by world opinion.
It has been suggested that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states would publicly deplore an Israeli strike against Iran while privately rejoicing in it. In other words, Israel would be doing the dirty work for a group of regimes, at least one of which is, if anything, even worse and more dangerous than the Iranian regime itself. Iran promotes regional trouble and instability; it enables the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own people and supports the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s promotion of trouble extends far beyond the Middle East, through its export of Wahhabi fundamentalism from Pakistan to Bosnia. Last October, a locally grown Wahhabi, Mevlid Jasarevic, carried out a terrorist attack against the US embassy in Sarajevo. Osama bin Laden himself was the bastard offspring of the Saudi system. Going to war against Iran with the silent blessing of Riyadh would be like going to war against Stalin with the silent blessing of Hitler.
The idea that ‘weapons of mass destruction’ pose a terrifying threat is a canard. Nuclear weapons have only ever been used once, against Japan in 1945. The Cold War came and went without either side falling victim to them, yet nearly three thousand civilians were massacred in the US in September 2001 by virtually unarmed terrorists. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq in the late 1980s, but a much higher death-toll – up to one million – was achieved by the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, using much more primitive weapons, in particular machetes. In other words, sophisticated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are not needed to carry out mass murder, and those regimes that possess them have not used them against the Western democratic world, whose powers of deterrence have been sufficient to protect us from them – though not from more primitive forms of attack.
Israel has very legitimate reasons for wanting to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: the regime in Tehran has made clear it will never recognise Israel, that it views the state of Israel as illegitimate, and that it seeks Israel’s destruction. Its propaganda systematically demonises Israel and Israelis, and it supports terrorist and extremist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that are likewise formally committed to the end of Israel. It represents a real threat to the latter – broadly comparable to the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the Western democratic world during the Cold War. Yet the Tehran regime’s stated desire to see Israel abolished is no less utopian than the Soviet leadership’s formal goal of overthrowing world capitalism; it is a crucial part of the self-legitimising ideology and propaganda of a tyrannical regime, not a concrete policy goal.
Against this threat, Israel possesses very effective protection in the form of its own nuclear deterrent. Even were it to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran would be in no position to use them against Israel, or against anyone else, since to do so would lead to its own certain annihilation. It is simply unserious to portray Iran’s leaders as lunatics seeking to commit suicide by launching a nuclear strike against Israel, as opposed simply to cynical, calculating politicians seeking to strengthen their state’s power in the region while exploiting anti-Zionist rhetoric. Former enemies of the West have not lived up to the stereotype of the suicidal madman: Saddam Hussein failed to attack the US forces that were amassing against him in Saudi Arabia in 1990, and instead passively awaited their offensive; Osama bin Laden did not die fighting heroically in Afghanistan in 2001, but scuttled off to Pakistan and hid there until he was hunted down; Ratko Mladic quietly let himself be arrested in Serbia last year. Furthermore, neither Ahmadinejad nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei possesses the sort of absolute power that Saddam possessed; the Iranian theocracy is far from democratic, but neither is it a totalitarian personal dictatorship. Its regional policies have been evil but sober rather than crazy; it has done nothing even as adventurous as trying to annex Kuwait, let alone launch a war that would inevitably destroy it. We should, perhaps, be more afraid of the nuclear capacity possessed by Pakistan – a highly unstable state deeply infiltrated by extreme, murderous Islamist currents, whose intelligence services are involved in supporting the Taliban’s war against Western forces in Afghanistan.
According to a poll carried out last month, 58% of Israelis oppose attacking Iran without US support. This is, after all, not 1967, when Israel took preemptive action in the face of a very real and immediate existential threat. Yet even that stunning victory, like the military victories won by Israel before and since, did not provide the country with lasting security. That can only come with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. For the longer this conflict continues, the more likely it is that Israel, not to mention the Palestinians, will suffer a major catastrophe. Meanwhile, as the Israeli author David Grossman argues, the uncertain results of a strike against Iran would have to be set against the long-term damage to Israel’s standing among the more educated, liberal and secular elements in the Iranian population that may one day overthrow the regime and come to lead the country. They would have to be set against the global anti-Israeli backlash that would inevitably occur.
Unfortunately, the same right-wing nationalist Israeli government that is apparently preparing to attack Iran, has shown itself a major obstacle to a peace agreement and to regional normalisation, from its foot-dragging over the peace process and its promotion of settlement-expansion to its obstruction of the wholly legitimate Palestinian demand for membership of the UN and UNESCO, undermining the most moderate leadership Palestine has yet produced. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was the world leader who supported the dictator Hosni Mubarak against his own people most openly during last year’s Egyptian revolution. There is absolutely no reason why Israel, the US and the West should allow themselves to be dragged into a damaging war to serve the reactionary, chauvinistic agenda of this government, which will probably use the opportunity to impose further repressive and discriminatory measures against the Palestinian population of the West Bank. A successful war against Iran would further encourage the Netanyahu government along its self-destructive nationalistic path, making a future peace agreement even less likely and further jeopardising Israel’s future.
Democrats should be deeply concerned at the climate being generated by this government and its supporters as they prepare for war. Nobel laureate Guenter Grass’s wrote a pretty innocuous and banal poem criticising Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran, containing such lines as the demand that ‘the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both. No other course offers help to Israelis and Palestinians alike’. He was consequently subjected to hyperbolic verbal attacks by senior Israeli ministers Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman and barred from entering Israel, while a campaign is being waged to smear him as an anti-Semite. If Israel is falling prey to this kind of hysteria, it is time for people who really care about the country to play a moderating role.
There is an Israeli left, and we in the West would do better to support them. The threat posed to the Middle East by Iran’s regime can ultimately only be resolved by a democratic revolution in that country. In the meantime, to weaken this regime, we would do better to concentrate on bringing down its murderous ally in Damascus, something that would not only save lives, but if handled properly might even improve the West’s reputation in the Middle East, instead of ruining it further.
Update: A strong case against an Israeli attack on Iran is made by Shalom Lappin at Normblog.
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 !
President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have revealed the true face of so-called ‘Western imperialism’ over the past couple of days – not so much diabolical or machiavellian, but small minded and wishy-washy. It should be obvious to all that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is finished, and that even if he succeeds somehow in retaining power, he is too discredited and too clearly rejected and despised by his own people to serve any further purpose as a supposed ‘ally’ of the West. Why, then, the unwillingness to solidarise with the Egyptian people who have taken to the streets to overthrow him; why the reluctance to ask him to step down ? They may be afraid of what will come after; they should rather be afraid of how a democratic Egypt, if it emerges, will remember the West’s failure to support its establishment. To talk of ‘reform’ in Egypt today is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s a bit late for that now; Western leaders would do better to show that they are on the side of the Egyptian people in their struggle against tyranny.
The Arab world and the Middle East have long presented a sorry story of dictatorship, political backwardness and religious extremism. Now, finally, something is occurring in the political sphere about which Arabs, Muslims and others in the region can justly feel proud. In the Egyptian popular revolt to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship, a kind of politics is being born that can inspire those in the region who have so long been lacking in positive sources of inspiration. The idea that we should withhold our full solidarity with the Egyptian protesters because we can’t imagine anything better than a corrupt and discredited despot is, quite frankly, disgraceful and embarrassing. Mubarak and his fellow pro-Western dictators are not the alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists; rather, the dictators and the Islamists are two sides of the same coin, feeding off and rejuvenating one another. The status quo is not the safe option; it is the source of the Islamist menace that has produced al-Qaeda and 9/11. Undemocratic Egypt has been a particular incubator of Islamic extremism; the system produced Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. We shouldn’t be afraid of what may come after Mubarak; we should be afraid of the status quo continuing.
Of course, it is not exactly unknown for revolutions to go very badly wrong, and the example of the Iranian Revolution is understandably in the minds of many. The overthrow of the Shah might not have resulted in quite such a disaster if the US had not backed his tyranny to the last and trampled all over Iran like a colonial master. Even an Iranian Baha’i professor I once studied under, who hated the Ayatollah Khomenei’s regime as much as anyone, told our class how he agreed with Khomenei’s famous pre-revolutionary complaint: ‘If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, or the marja’ of Iran, or the highest official, no one will have the right to object.’ If we now alienate the Egyptian people, we will have only ourselves to blame if a post-Mubarak government is less than well-disposed toward us.
Rather than being paralysed by fear, we should anticipate what the democratic transformation in Egypt could mean. It could mean that a regime that has been generating Islamist terrorism will be replaced by one that will act as a catalyst for democratic transformation throughout the Arab world and the Middle East. It could mean a decisive shift in the balance between democracy and dictatorship within the Muslim world globally. Of course, this is not pre-ordained, and things could go very badly wrong in Egypt. But let us in the West keep our eyes on the prize, and do everything we can to assist our Egyptian sisters and brothers in their struggle against tyranny. Obama and Cameron should begin by telling Mubarak that it’s time to go.
Let the tyrants tremble – victory to the Egyptian revolution !
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