Monday, March 31, 2008

Kofi gets his Bounce Back

from Comment is Free, Guardian, 25 March
Ian Williams

Last week, previous and present UN secretary generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon appeared together at the Waldorf Astoria on the occasion of the MacArthur Foundation's presentation of its first International Justice Award to Annan. It was pretty much their first public appearance since Annan handed over the reins to Ban on January 1, 2007, and it was a significant occasion for both them and the UN itself.

The explanations for Annan's absence vary. Certainly, in his ineffably polite way, he did not want to cramp his successor's style, but also in the early stages of Ban's tenure, his team paid too much attention to the "American" view - as expressed by the former unconfirmed US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, and the Murdoch press.

The vitriolic prejudice and attacks on Annan from Bolton and his ilk did much to redeem the Ghanaian's reputation with the rest of the world, but clearly influenced Ban's team when they arrived, basically clutching Bolton's "reform" plan in their hands. Their experience at the UN has clearly taught them a lot, not least about the qualities of the former secretary general.

It was Ban who approached Annan to undertake what seems to have been a remarkably successful mission to Kenya, and in fact leaned hard on the Kenyans to accept him.

In fact Ban and Annan have much in common. Both are humble men, in the best possible sense, confident enough in their own dignity to be approachable and personable, and they both have a strong moral sense that they do not brandish ostentatiously but manifest when needed.

In fact, a just criticism of both would be that they let their diplomatic duties muffle their use of the bully pulpit that the office provides. Even so, when he was campaigning for the office, Ban expressed his support for the "responsibility to protect" (R2P), and the International Criminal Court - anathema to Bolton, who had spent years trying to strangle it.

He reiterated that support at the presentation last Thursday, giving due credit to Annan, whose chief legacy was indeed getting the whole membership of the UN to agree to R2P. In effect, at the sixtieth anniversary of the organisation the membership agreed to reinterpret the UN charter so that threats to international peace and security against which the security council can take action included humanitarian disasters within states where the governments concerned had failed in their responsibility to protect their own people.

Of course, with the bleating from Belgrade about "sovereignty", the repression in Tibet or the continuing disaster in Darfur, not to mention events in Palestine, a cynical and superficially appropriate response would be "Big deal! So what?"

Certainly there has been a loss of momentum behind the idea, not least as the non-aligned and African states that Annan recruited to the concept have stepped back in the face of western double standards. Now that a rested and recuperated Annan is back on the world stage, allied with Nelson Mandela, an equally respected world figure, he can return to advance the work he started.

It will not be quick. It has taken several thousand years for the precept "thou shalt not kill" to gain acceptance, and the R2P may take some more. However there are signs. Already, in Sudan for example, China cannot preach absolute sovereignty to excuse Khartoum, so it has come under heavy pressure for its abuse of its veto.

One could only wish that the US would come under equal pressure for its use of its veto in the Middle East. It would do a lot to disarm the critics of R2P. Even there, some progress has been made. After a honeymoon period, Ban's UN has now remembered that Israel's settlements are illegal and that Israel promised to stop expanding them under the "road map". Pointing out the obvious may not seem revolutionary, but small things like this are big steps toward the idea that international law applies to everyone, not just those of whom Washington disapproves.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Negotiations, but no big sticks

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2008, pages 32-33

United Nations Report
Negotiations on Palestine, Western Sahara Continue to Continue to Continue
By Ian Williams

It is a year since U.S. Ambassador John Bolton left the U.N., and the title of his recent book, Surrender is Not an Option, sums up his career there—and, in fact, much of recent U.S. foreign policy. The first question of many which he begs is “surrender to what?”

The answer is soon clear. Application of international law and U.N. decisions in circumstances inconvenient to the U.S. and Israel, and indeed, more recently, Morocco, would be “surrender.”

Viewing Bolton’s tenure as part of a long process, he was not unsuccessful in furthering the drift to privilege at the United Nations, where issues are more and more set in the context of “negotiations” that are manifestly not about applying international law, but rather about twisting the elbows of the victims so that they acquiesce in their own dispossession.

Ever since Oslo the U.S., and now the U.N. in the form of the Quartet-entangled secretary-general, have stressed bilateral negotiations. At the time, I compared then-President Bill Clinton’s incantations about bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to an invitation to a toddler to enter the ring with a Sumo wrestler. It has become worse since then, as in both Palestine and Western Sahara the dispossessed are put in the position of someone whose house has been stolen and who has been offered the chance to discuss the possibility of cleaning it once a week while leaving the thieves in full occupation.

With his customary acuity, Afif Safieh, PLO envoy in Washington, deplores what he calls “static diplomacy” despite the thousands of hours invested in talk about talks, negotiating pre-negotiations and pre-negotiating negotiations.

It is always easy to sell diplomats on negotiations: that, after all, is what they do. While some have the good sense to appreciate Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick, all too often the purpose of talks is to avoid action. One of the lessons that tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Omar Al-Bashir learned in the Balkans and Darfur is that as long as you are talking sweetly, you can carry on doing what you want without interference. At the same time, countries that were reluctant to intervene could always tell their electorates that the issue was in the hands of the U.N., while keeping quiet about how they made sure that the U.N. was at best weak and at other times totally ineffectual.
All too often the purpose of talks is to avoid action.

Although many people have noticed Belgrade’s and Khartoum’s use of this tactic, fewer have noticed that this is precisely what Israel and Morocco have been doing. In both cases, the U.N. has been put in the position of brushing under the carpet its own resolutions, which offer just and lasting solutions to the problems.

In Western Sahara, all hopes have been placed on talks between the parties taking place in Manhasset, on the outskirts of New York. The third, inevitably inconclusive round took place in early January. It is a long time since a secretary-general, let alone any of the major powers, have called upon Morocco to honor U.N. resolutions—and its own promises—by accepting the referendum that is now more than 30 years overdue.

The Web site for MINURSO, the peacekeeping operation which was supposed to superintend the referendum, and which has been sunning itself in the desert for 15 years, does not even mention the Security Council resolutions condemning the Moroccan occupation, let alone the International Court of Justice ruling—that Morocco had actually asked for—which reaffirmed the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and dismissed the king’s claims to sovereignty.

Currently France has been joined by the U.S. and, of course, Britain in forcing POLISARIO, the Saharwi representatives, to succumb to Moroccan pressure. Sadly, the three powers are meeting with decreasing resistance from other, mostly smaller countries with an atavistic attachment to legality. The U.N. Secretariat, which one might expect—or at least hope—to stand up for the U.N. Charter and international law, remains silent, and in some cases even connives at this abuse.

Ironically, this is one of the few issues where Bolton was on the side of the angels, not least because he had worked many years with James Baker in negotiations. Of MINURSO Bolton says that, as with other peacekeeping operations, “there was simply no chance of success if one of the parties dug in their heels and refused to cooperate.”

Almost everyone, except the Saharwis baking in the desert, is happy with the status quo, he correctly points out. MINURSO has become an excuse for perpetual inaction based on what Bolton assesses as the disjuncture between “political reality” and “international legality.” The U.S. has now joined France in trying to push Rabat’s so-called “autonomy” proposal, regardless of previous decisions, and Britain is following suit.
The Uses of International Legality

International legality is not a concept that Bolton generally favors, but he does not hesitate to castigate his traditional enemies in the State Department and the Bush administration for failing to uphold it, not to mention their own slogans about “democracy” in Western Sahara.

The former diplomat, now a senior fellow at the neocon bastion American Enterprise Institute, is blithely unaware of any contradiction. His own role at the United Nations, and for years before in the State Department, was precisely to frustrate its decisions, not least on the issue of Palestine. It is also obvious that when Washington wants the U.N. to succeed in its endeavors, it does—and that when it wants the organization to fail, that is also what happens.

That brings us to the present Middle East impasse, where the U.N. is doubly constrained. The Quartet began with at least some hopes that the membership of the U.N. secretary-general would remind other members of the agreed legal framework of a Middle East settlement. However, the reverse is now the case: the Quartet has become a vise that squeezes the U.N. into effective repudiation of its own principles.

Inside the U.N., Ban Ki Moon’s administration offers unprecedented access to Israeli diplomats. In the past, of course, the U.S. performed the same role, with just the same effect, but now the reflexive pro-Israeli posture of the new secretary-general’s team exacerbates the abandonment of principle. Bolton records how Ban followed his advice closely, but the secretary-general is a person of principle, and is progressively discovering the difference between Bolton’s world and reality.

His team, however, lacks the U.N.’s institutional memory, which has made it even easier to overlook the U.N.’s history of previous decisions. That has made the U.N. a more attractive field for Israel, which has always been conflicted about the organization. Despite owing its existence to the U.N. partition resolution, the Jewish state has hitherto professed disdain for the organization because of the inconvenience of subsequent decisions.

Now that those resolutions are ignored, or at least not being stressed, Israeli leaders are happy to return to a more active role in the U.N. Bolton professes disdain for international law, but the Israelis are more pragmatic. While they want to endlessly negotiate about negotiations, all the while solidifying the facts on the ground, in the end they seek U.N. ratification of their conquests, which can only come about if a compliant Palestinian leadership agrees.

In an attempt to keep the U.N. spotlight on the issue, the Security Council holds a regular monthly session on the Middle East—but in the face of the perpetual American veto, it has now become a ritual, albeit an instructive one.

Israel has taken a tip from the Palestinians about using the United Nations. It recently moved and carried a resolution in the General Assembly, which, if relatively innocuous in itself, is almost certainly the harbinger of more substantive moves. Israel now is complaining to the U.N. about the Qassam attacks from Gaza. A Jan. 10 Security Council press statement understandably condemned an attack on UNIFIL in Lebanon, but squeezed in a condemnation of the Qassam attacks from Gaza.

No one at the U.N. will support the rocket attacks, of course, but the precedent will soon dispel any illusion of even-handedness, since the U.S. will promptly veto any complaints about Israeli attacks and incursions in either the West Bank or Gaza. The expansion of the illegal Har Homa settlement on Abu Ghneim, for example, which previously was the subject of furious, if ineffective, activity by the Security Council, is now almost totally ignored.

Lynn Pascoe, the former U.S. diplomat who is now the under secretary-general for political affairs, raised the issue of the construction at Har Homa in his monthly report on Dec. 21, pointing out that the secretary-general had reaffirmed the United Nations position on the illegality of settlements. The Quartet had expressed its concern over the tenders, calling on the parties to refrain from steps that undermined confidence, and underscoring the importance of “avoiding any actions that could prejudice the outcome of permanent status negotiations.”

The Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East lasted the ritualistic 20 minutes it took for Pascoe to read his report. The minutes say bleakly, “No Action”—which about sums it up. As they say, negotiations continue.

Imperial Earth, Arthur C. Clarke

Guardian Comment is Free 24 March 2008

The death of Arthur C Clarke epitomizes the end of an imperial era. As a young engineer, he was an active member of the British Interplanetary Society - which seemed a considerably more feasible concept many decades ago than it does now.

With other science fiction writers, such as Eric Frank Russell and Olaf Stapledon, not to mention the editor of the Liverpool Echo, a somewhat more serious journal then than now, the British Interplanetary Society was trying to get the British government interested in rocketry before the second world war.

The Treasury's horizons were much more constrained and it snorted at how improbable it was that science fiction concepts could become science facts. There was to be no money for such wild ideas. They were still snorting when the products of Werner Von Braun, who had had a more sympathetic hearing from the Reich's paymasters, began to fall on their heads a few years later.

Other country's took up Clarke's ideas for communications satellites, geosynchronous orbits and similar British boffin-like ideas, while Her Majesty's baneful Treasury - whose Greek and Latin-speaking mandarins seemed to have some Freudian aversion to rockets - killed the Blue Streak rocket that had the makings of a successful launch vehicle even if one overlooked its original purpose as an inter-continental ballistic missle.

Unlike China, India and Japan, the UK still has no independent launch capacity, and, those phallophobic Treasury types have cut British participation in the European launch programme to next to nothing.

Clarke's stories, like most of British science fiction over that period, reflected the decline of empire - with British roles shrinking as the sun set. Early on, Dan Dare, craggy jawed RAF pilot of the future, battled the Mekon across the solar system. But then it took super wheezes and ingenuity to overcome the clear shortage of cash and resources. From the range in Woomera in Australia, British pluck and idiosyncratic boffins orbited a teenager (less payload in those rationed, non-obese days) and stole a march on the Russians and Americans.

One of my favourite stories of the period had World War III in progress, before revealing that a British rocket base on the moon is revealed to have empty silos: it is an imperial bluff. (A bit like Trident really.)

Even more than the technology, the British writers of the 1950s and 1960s made a specialty in describing the end of the world as we knew it - with strictly non-theological apocalypses. On dunes and headlands sank the fire for a whole generation of British writers. John Wyndham with the Day of the Triffids, or the Chrysalis, were in evocative Ozymandian moods, as were those of the novels of Brian Aldiss or JG Ballard as well as others who need rescuing from their out-of-print state.

Clarke himself dwelt on the end of the universe in an even more grandiose metaphor, although none so grand as his former mentor Stapledon, who envisaged the supplanting of humanity in his 1930 novel Last and First Men. Indeed, even earlier, the prescient HG Wells' War of the Worlds can easily be seen as an alienated riff on Rudyard Kipling's Recessional:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

These writers did not actively regret the end of empire. They were urbane types who knew the game was up. After all, in general, the decline and fall of empire is not that regrettable, and at least London and the imperial motherland - whatever the frenetic Islamophobes say - has not suffered assault and destruction at the hands of Barbarian hordes.

Clarke's generation saw the pink bits on the map shrink to a few dots like Diego Garcia, on borrowed time. But it was probably some consolation for Clarke that he could watch the successor empire in an accelerated process of decline and fall. It's not Athens and Rome, as Harold McMillan thought: it's more like Trebizond and Byzantium racing to see whose accelerated imperial Alzheimer's finishes them off first.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Crocodile Tears in the North of Kosovo

Guardian Comment is Free 20 March 2008

History teaches that there is nothing so sanctimonious as a heavily armed victim - and that lots of gulls will be prepared to accept a bully's spurious claims to victimhood if the latter shouts loud enough. Bullies do tend to have big mouths.

It was difficult to keep a straight face upon hearing Moscow and Belgrade's pious invocations to Nato and the UN not to be provocative. Serbia's foreign minister Vuk Jeremic protested to UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon over what he described as "unacceptable and excessive violence". So it was of course the Balkan equivalent of poltergeists who bulldozed and burnt the border posts, threw stones, Molotov cocktails and grenades and fired automatic weapons at UN police and KFOR troops. They killed a Ukrainian police officer.

Of course, one could put this in the context of a robust tradition of public demonstration, but I rather suspect that if this were a mob of Kosovars surrounding the Serbian government offices in Pristina, Belgrade and Moscow would be condemning the supine response of the peacekeepers!

Then we see repeated over and over again the line that those occupying the court house in Mitrovica simply wanted their jobs back. That invokes sympathy anywhere in the world. But there are the technical details - they have actually been on Belgrade's payroll since 1999 and refused to apply for, let alone take, jobs with the court system run by the UN under Security Council Resolution 1244.

Belgrade's sudden attachment to every jot and tittle of 1244 overlooks its exhortations to Kosovar Serbs not to cooperate with UNMIK for the last decade.

In fact, let us peel back the onion another tear-jerking layer. The Serbs in the Mitrovica court almost certainly took up their jobs a decade earlier, when Slobodan Milosevic dissolved Kosovo's local government and instituted effective apartheid there by firing the Albanian Kosovars and replacing them with ethnic Serbs. Since then, they and others are actually paid much higher salaries than they would get in Belgrade in order to persuade them to stay.

One cannot help but suspect that many of the rioters are in fact on the payroll, and some of their belligerence derives from wanting to stay that way.

However, shooting at Nato is not clever. In my experience, the French peacekeepers, for example, tended to sympathise with the Serbs, and certainly made no attempt to stop Serb mobs' ethnic cleansing of Albanians from the north of Kosovo in the early days, even if they did escort the expellees to safety. Certainly when I crossed the bridge across the Ibar, they made it plain that I was on my own if the Serb "bridgewatchers" took umbrage.

But grenades and gunshots tend to solidify issues. KFOR is likely to be a lot less patient in the event of future attacks. The sad thing is that the Serbs in Mitrovica are being used, indeed abused, by the nationalists in Belgrade who almost certainly hope to provoke Kosovar riots against the remaining Serbs in Kosovo. It would allow politicians to posture as perpetual victims, quite reckless of the cost already paid by Serbs in Krajna and Bosnia for their gesture politics.

Disappointingly for the nationalists, the Kosovars have, surprisingly, been a model of restraint, with the Serbs in the south seemingly safe and secure, albeit unhappy about the change of regime. There is an opportunity for reconciliation and a strong Serb presence in a future Kosovo that some Serbs realise is worth grasping.

But not in Belgrade. At least in South Africa significant sections of the white community took an important part in dismantling apartheid and apologising for it. Few of the Serb nationalist politicians and their dupes demonstrating in Mitrovica think there was anything wrong with disenfranchising the majority population of Kosovo for a decade and then driving them out at bayonet point with massacres to gee them along.

Indeed, one of the braver Serbs in Belgrade recently took note of what passes for regret in nationalist circles - a lament that Belgrade had not implemented a final solution, involving getting rid of all the Albanians from Kosovo after it had first occupied it.

Victims need not be saints, but bullies' victimhood is more likely to be comeuppance. People who throw hand grenades in glasshouses should not be surprised if the roof falls in on them. Sadly the glass will not fall on the real instigators in Belgrade.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Yuck of the Irish

Guardian Comment is Free, my annual tribute to shamrockery...

So, on St Patrick's Day, the morning trains from Long Island will have been filled with young kids, whose Hibernity consists in having an "o" at the end of their names rather than at the beginning. My friend Jeff who commutes on the Long Island Railroad complains that they puke over the seats on their way to the parade and associated boozing in Manhattan, never mind during and afterwards.

At least it lends a touch of ethnic and ethanolic ecumenism to the boozefest officially run by the humourless bigots of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. One laments the lost opportunities. John McCain could have sent anti-Catholic bigot John Hagee to represent him, and Hillary Clinton could demonstrate her ability to walk on Guinness in Northern Irish peace-making by getting the AOH to invite a couple of Orange bands across from Belfast for the event. Those Lambeg drums would have really rocked Fifth Avenue.

It is easier to keep gays out of St Patrick's Day than politicians, but luckily the actual Irish have a sense of humour, and Dublin's parade is proudly inclusive, even if I am not sure it has the Orange Lodge doing the honours there.

I've done my bit for inclusiveness. Many years ago when I was president of the UN Correspondent's Association, we invited Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams to speak at the press club in UN headquarters. The motivation was not affection for the IRA, but to protest British policy that banned broadcasters from interviewing them, and also to tweak the UN for its craven banning of a Chinese dissident from speaking to correspondents.

The UN has been consistently spineless on such issues, but the UK is much more urbane. Sir David Hannay asked me at a cocktail party how the Adams event was going, and I replied with regrets that there had been no complaint from HMG. He drew himself up to his full hauteur and replied: "Who do you think we are? Chinese?"

When Adams came, the UN security officer, an Irish-American former member of the New York police department who had finagled the assignment, waited with me to escort our speaker into the UN. He told me: "As a matter of courtesy, Mr Adams does not have to go through the metal detector." I forbore from pointing out that bringing an IRA man in without a check was hardly a courtesy for the rest of us!

A few years later, I landed in New York after a long, gruelling and jetlag-inducing flight from Kazakhstan, and was wondering whether to crash in bed as I listened to my answering machine. But the invitation to hear New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark "on banning the bomb", woke me up. She was to speak, just round the corner at O'Neill's bar on Third Avenue. It was a deliciously unmissable invite. O'Neill's was the Sinn Fein HQ in New York. "Banning which bomb?" I thought as I showered and rushed to get ready.

Upstairs in the bar, one of the local Irish bands was tuning up. The singer shouted across as I came in: "Hey, Ian, we was wonderin'- d'ye know any New Zealand songs?"

I ran a search program through my befuddled brain, that not even a pint of Guinness was lubricating into full activity. "You know, I can't think of any at all," I was forced to admit, "but if you sing about unrequited love for a woolly sheep, you can't go far wrong."

Quick as a flash, the singer replied: "Ah yes, I know that one!" Myself, the rest of the band and anyone else in earshot, did a double take and looked at him, as he expounded: "Hey, McCloud, get offa my ewe."

Blessed is the nation that swapped serpents for sharp tongues and ready wit. It's a shame about the green vomitus though.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Williams on War

from the Huffington Post from Old Friend Marc Cooper

As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

Ian Williams on Iraq: "The War Isn't Present in the Media"

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By Marc Cooper

British-born author and journalist Ian Williams never flinched from opposing the war in Iraq in spite of his adamant opposition to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. While other writers were beating the drums of war, Williams warned that the White House was about to blunder into a catastrophe.

Williams' writing, which appears in publications ranging from The New York Observer to the Financial Times, can be found at his personal website. He's also a regular contributor to the online commentary of The Guardian.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Williams slams a constrained model of American journalism which he says "inhibits" reporters from seeing the real war in Iraq.

How difficult was it five years ago to see how badly things were going to turn out in Iraq?

It wasn't difficult at all. All of the signs and all of the information were evident. There were so many, at times, it was perplexing. I had seen the war coming for some time because the cumulative weight of the evidence was that the administration clearly wanted a war.

Once you accepted that as the basic premise, everything else was purely commentary. Was it about Saddam Hussein's behavior? Was it because he was a threat? Was it because of the oil? In the end, I don't think anyone has really answered those questions because none of it really makes sense.

The one thing that was making it certain, and I was very close to Hans Blix and his office at the time, was Saddam Hussein. If he in fact didn't have any weapons, why didn't he just didn't let the inspectors in more freely? It's the one thing that could have killed the momentum toward an actual invasion.

What about the media environment at the time prior to the invasion? It's easy to blame the media, but on the other hand, you certainly gleaned enough to understand the situation.

I think it was a case mostly of standing outside the herd of lemmings. It's not an exclusively American thing, but there is such a thing as a media consensus where things just become accepted wisdom. And of course official things become even more accepted wisdom.

So there you had the State Department, and both political parties - because there wasn't much opposition coming from what you might call the Democratic front benchers--and these were the sources of wisdom for many journalists.

They'll tell you that nothing really happens until someone says it on The Hill. And none of the major political figures were saying this whole thing was spurious. So most of the media just went along with the consensus. They didn't want to stand out like they were some sort of wild ultra-leftists or lunatics. The inexorability was being created in the media throughout this whole time.

You ascribe the media failings, then, to a lack of courage rather than some sort of ideological bias?

I think so. There were some cases that were ideological, certainly like that of Judith Miller. But mostly I think we are talking more about some sense of self-preservation. I know from personal experience, you don't get any medals for telling editors things they don't want to hear. And telling them something other newspapers aren't carrying.

Has this media environment shifted much over the last five years?

No. There's still a great deal of caution, not wanting to shock the sensibilities of their editors and their readers. I mean, look at the press in Britain. They are no paragons of virtue, but they are a lot less respectful to authority.

And don't forget, there's a complicating factor in Iraq. Saddam It was hard to draw the line. Even I am still being vilified by some because I was saying: "Look this war is coming. It's wrong. But don't be surprised if troops go in and find there are weapons of mass destruction there." A lot of people opposed to the war were taking an ideological
position that Saddam was a saint and that there couldn't be WMD because Bush said there was.

In my writing, I had to be very clear. That I was coming down on this issue on the hard facts and not because of any false sentiment for Saddam Hussein who, all things being equal, I was very happy to see go.

How do you evaluate the current reporting on Iraq, especially since the surge? Some critics argue that Iraq has just slipped from the front pages?

How can you report on a war when no American reporter dares to leave the comfort and security of an allied convoy or the Green Zone? You simply can't report on it. The second point is that given the conventionalities of American reporting, the only people who can report on this are Arabs and Iraqis and are therefore seen, ipso facto, as untrustworthy. They're the only ones who can talk to people on the ground. But they are used as stringers and sources only. You don't see their bylines. You don't see their analysis.

The continual inhibition of American reporting, the "just the facts" approach, means that you have op-eds written by people in complete ignorance of what's happening on the ground. And you have the news written by people on the ground who can't see what's happening at the next bus stop down the road and are inhibited professionally.

Compare this to the way The Guardian, Le Monde or the Financial Times would cover things, pulling it all together into a big picture, and you see the difference. There's something about the stricture of American J-School standards that makes that impossible.

So you think the European coverage five years ago about Iraq was much better than the American?

There was a lot more skepticism than in the U.S. press but at the same time there was also a disturbing amount of jingoism in the British press which was supporting the war. But also, some people who were supporting it were doing it on the same grounds, my sources tell me, that Tony Blair did. Blair wasn't worried about WMD. He only used that as the legal pretext to get UN cover. He was an active player in this, he wasn't dragged into this by George Bush. Blair wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he thought he was evil, and that this would be a sort of follow-up to Kosovo.

Which is a war you supported?

Yes, I did. Kosovo was good work but it was a one-time thing. You couldn't follow it up the way Blair wanted to Iraq. But there were a lot of commentators in the British press who were following Blair's line of thinking. Not the same exactly as Bush. The Never Again Crowd who thought it was payback time for Saddam Hussein.

Why is there such a weak anti-war movement in the U.S.?

This is war that happens to other people. You don't have the degree of casualties that you had in Vietnam. And if you have to face it - that the anti-Vietnam War protests were in large measure from people who didn't want to be drafted to be blown up in the jungle. It was not such altruistic concern about the Vietnamese getting bombs dropped on them.

Also, this administration has been very clever in manipulating the debate around the casualties. It's become sort of unpatriotic discuss them. The war is not present in the media because there's no way for American reporters to get out there and see what's happening to the Iraqis. That's the real war.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Clintons still don't do Ethics

From Tribune 14 March, 2008

Last week brought out the problems of ethics in politics – and journalism.
The phrase “journalistic ethics” is all too often an oxymoron. Nowhere was that more obvious than with Scotsman journalist Gerri Peev’s publication of comments by Samantha Power on Hillary Clinton. Power had, correctly, blurted out that the New York Senator was a ‘monster”, but asked for it to be put off the record.

Power, who consequently had to resign as foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, had written a deservedly prize-winning book on genocide. The world all too often says ‘never again’ about the subject: it should be said with much, more certainty by whichever political source or interviewee that Peev approaches in future.

Peev claims that since the whole interview was officially on the record, this allowed her to disregard Power’s request. It is a stretch. I see no sign that Peev told Power that she was disregarding that request, which I presume would have led to the immediate end of the interview. Has she ever treated any of Westminster’s many leaks in this way? I rather suspect not. Extending courtesy to interviewees and treating them fairly is a pragmatic principle as well as an ethical one. Who will ever speak freely to Peev again?

Power’s coyness was not dissimulation: the primary is designed to produce a Democratic candidacy to end the Republican hold on the White House after what most people would regard as the two most disastrous presidential terms in US history. In that battle, the candidates are under compunction to be collegial, but there is little doubt that the Clinton campaign is studying the Karl Rove play sheet, using its extensive contacts and influence to get the knife in on Obama, while making sure the fingerprints are not too visible.

Obama’s campaign suffers from ethical and practical scruples in returning the favour. Without the organizational support from the political apparatus that Clinton has, he cannot alienate his vital voter base by seeming to arm McCain in the event of her becoming the Democratic nominee.

Samantha Power’s book the "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." certainly does examine the Clinton family’s much vaunted “experience” and provides strong evidence that “here there be monsters”. Henry Kissinger once dismissively, but accurately said that “Ze problem with Bill Clinton is that he does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal!” But one forms the distinct impression that the softest part of his spouse is her teeth.

Looking at number of corporate donations going to Obama, and his pragmatic burning of sack-fulls of incense on the altar of the Israeli Lobby, it is difficult for me to be as starry-eyed as many of his supporters. However, my fears about him are just that: fears. In contrast, the Clinton campaign’s ruthless drive to power and the record of her and her spouse on every issue from the Middle East, to Iraq, to driving millions of welfare benefits, leaves little or no hope. She would be preferable to McCain, who has basked in the sympathy of previous victimization by the Bush-Rove machine – but is a dangerous conservative in his own right.

Since Ms Clinton has made such play of her “experience,” which after all was mostly being her husband’s spouse, she can hardly complain if we consider her in some measure culpable for his egregious failings. The couple was clearly a joint enterprise in the field of politics.

In Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda as thousands died, the Clinton administration’s sole concern was to avoid the domestic political embarrassment of risking any American casualties, regardless of actual massacres on the ground. It is no defence that he was embarrassed into this position by the Republicans who have since been so shamelessly profligate with GI dead. He shares the shame with them, and only contrasts his invertebracy with their cynicism.

We can presume Ms Clinton’s approval for her husband as governor of Arkansas during the Democratic primaries twelve years ago flying back to supervise the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, whose brain injuries would have disqualified him from trial, let alone execution in any civilized jurisdiction.

On a different note, we can presume her approval of the firing and subsequent social exclusion of old family friend Lani Guinier. Guinier, the first black woman law professor at Harvard was nominated as assistant attorney general for civil rights. Her work on proportional representation came under NeoCon attack, and the Clintons not only dropped her nomination, they cut off all relations with the old friend.

Hillary Clinton happily drew a salary for being on Wal-Mart’s board of directors without raising a peep about its viciously anti-union policies, its minimum wages and its denial of healthcare. Then she was a partner in one of the strongest anti-union law firms in the US, which probably qualified here for the directorship as much as being the President’s spouse.

No one can engage in political activity and come out with a halo. Even so, as Robin Cook said of foreign policy, there should at least be an ethical dimension. In the case of Clinton, and indeed Peev, that ethical dimension is as remotely theoretical as an eleventh dimensional superstring: not visible in our universe.

The Big What If

In the current edition of the Common Review - well worth subscribing!

The Big What If?: Giving Alternate History a Fair Shake

By Ian Williams

Last year, the Library of America published four novels by the late Philip K. Dick, marking his apotheosis from a writer of science-fiction novels, many of them originally published in pulp paperbacks with lurid covers, into an honored presence in the nation’s literary canon. One of the works thus commemorated is The Man in the High Castle (1962), an outstanding example of the alternate-history genre. Dick, whose enthusiasm for mood-altering pharmaceuticals somewhat challenged his own grasp of the universe, posits an alternative universe in which Frank Frink, a Jewish jewelry maker, lives in a San Francisco that, like the rest of the West Coast, has been occupied by the Japanese after World War II ended in 1945. Dick’s version of America is of a country fractured: a quasi-independent Midwest and a puppet southern Confederacy separate the Japanese West Coast from the Nazi-occupied Atlantic states. In the universe Frink inhabits, the point of historical divergence occurs when the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves the United States economically and militarily weak in the face of the Axis assault, opening the door for foreign occupiers.

Even stranger is how many of the characters in this story are themselves reading an alternate-history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies did win the war. However, in Dick’s characteristically complex, recursive fashion, Grasshopper does not depict our world, but an entirely different one in which the British played a much larger role. This double divergence from the historical record as we know it underscores a fundamental trope of the genre and highlights Dick’s ability to elicit nuanced questions about what we consider to be reality. Dick’s novel, an exemplar of the genre, does a fine job of showing us the world as reflected in a funhouse mirror: it forces us to consider the history we know—or think we know—so well.

• • • • •

All fiction generally explores these questions: If a person or group of people were put in this situation, how would they behave? What would the result be for them? It is the job of the author to run his characters, real or invented, through imagined scenarios—and these scenarios must have enough connections to the world the reader knows to make the novel comprehensible and give it resonance. Even the wildest fantasy or science-fiction novel, taking place in a galaxy far, far away, is forged from very human elements. Closer to alternate history is the historical novel. Like alternate history, the historical novel centers on historical or fictional characters. However, the latter tells a story set in the historical past as understood by contemporary culture and drawn from historical research.

Combining the best of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, alternate history brings a reader back in time to show the exact moments when specific events or individual decisions—even seemingly inconsequential ones—create a familiar, yet alternate, reality. And it is in the tension between what we know has come to pass and what the author offers us as a possibility that alternate history challenges our presuppositions about what victory or destiny—usually defined by the free and affluent—really mean.

But this genre doesn’t only belong to writers of fiction. Writers and historians have been asking what if? questions for a long time. The Roman historian Livy allowed himself an “enjoyable excursion” when he asked, “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in war with Alexander?” Many critics have taken umbrage at Livy’s flight of fancy, but not as many have quibbled with his patriotic answer—that the otherwise undefeated Alexander the Great would have lost. According to Livy’s History of Rome,

The aspect of Italy would have struck [Alexander the Great] as very different from the India which he traversed in drunken revelry with an intoxicated army; he would have seen in the passes of Apulia and the mountains of Lucania the traces of the recent disaster which befell his house when his uncle Alexander, King of Epirus, perished.

While Livy’s postulation is purely hypothetical (and some would say boastful), this prototype speaks to one of the central issues facing the alternate-history genre today: plausibility. If Livy had gone on to create an alternative account of the career of Alexander the Great, he would have certainly had to explain convincingly why the Macedonian predator had decided to attack Rome rather than Persia. Harry Turtledove, one of today’s masters of alternate history, dismisses Livy’s assessment of who would have won. He suggests that, for an alternate history to work, “the change has to be plausible, something interesting must spring from it, and (not quite so crucial) the audience must have some interest in it.”

Turtledove is outstanding in the genre not only because of his amazing productivity, but because his historical expertise reaches from World War II all the way back to the Byzantine Empire. He began as a historical scholar; his first—and least popular—book was a translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes (1982). Turtledove’s fascination with his original field of study eventually led to the Videssos series based in an “alternative” Byzantine Empire of that name. In the same way that C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brien mined Royal Navy chronicles for the exploits of Captains Hornblower and Aubrey, Turtledove recycled the minutiae of late Roman and Byzantine history in his fictional series.

Of course, one might wonder whether the average reader knows enough about the Byzantine Empire to tell if Turtledove is spot on with his plot and characters. Does one need a PhD in a given subject to get at the heart of an alternate history? Not according to Turtledove. He claims that he is able to attract a readership from science fiction and fantasy followers who are unlikely to have taken interest in historical novels set in ancient Byzantium by setting his narratives in analogous empires like Videssos: no prior knowledge of history required.

• • • • •

Many authors in the alternate history genre, including Turtledove, trace their inspiration back to the time travel/alternate-history novel, Lest Darkness Fall (1941) by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp’s novel follows an American, Martin Padway, who returns to Ostrogothic Italy just as the Roman emperor Justinian, now based in Constantinople, is trying to reclaim it. In a more serious recasting of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Padway, marooned in time, uses his knowledge to protect and enrich himself; because he knows the historical significance of innovations like printing, distillation, and double-entry bookkeeping, he is able to alter history even as he lives it.

And, following de Camp’s model, many of today’s alternate-history novels repeat the same pattern: introduce a slight change at a pivotal point—the untimely death of a military commander, for example—and watch how events unfold and build upon each other. That iterative patter is best summed up by a rhyme credited to British poet George Herbert more than four hundred years ago:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Drawing inspiration from this rhyme, Robert Sobel penned the Pulizer Prize-winning For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga (1973). Sobel rewrote the history of the American Revolution on the premise that British General John Burgoyne won the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, and, as a result, the rebellious colonies remained a part of the British Empire. Instead of depicting the life stories of individual fictional characters, Sobel offers a unique contribution to the alternate-history genre: an undergraduate-level history textbook—complete with bibliography—that covers the last two centuries of North America under British rule. While For Want of a Nail has been praised as one of the seminal works in the alternate-history genre, many historians dismiss the book as mere science fiction.

As Sobel’s work demonstrates, it tends to be a particular battle that serves as a point of divergence for alternate-history writers (on the uncertainty of victory we would do well to remember the Duke of Wellington’s description of his trouncing of Napoleon at Waterloo: “A damned nice thing . . . the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”) In the case of the Battle of Saratoga, had British commander William Howe stuck with the plan and marched north from New York to rendezvous with Burgoyne instead of south to take Philadelphia, that choice could have changed history. It is understandable why battles are often the focus of the genre: They are noisy, well-chronicled events that memorably frame and punctuate the flow of history as taught and studied in schools, and military historians—both amateur and professional—practice war-gaming in which they test alternative outcomes and strategies.

Sir Edward Creasy, in his preface to The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1851), defended this preoccupation with great battles:

For a writer, therefore, of the present day to choose battles for his favourite topic, merely because they were battles, merely because so many myriads of troops were arrayed in them, and so many hundreds or thousands of human beings stabbed, hewed, or shot each other to death during them, would argue strange weakness or depravity of mind. Yet it cannot be denied that a fearful and wonderful interest is attached to these scenes of carnage. There is undeniable greatness in the disciplined courage, and in the love of honor, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.

But for many writers and readers alike, it’s the spectacle of blood and gore that fascinates them. At the time, Creasy could safely ignore events in East and South Asia because in the high Victorian age of globalization during which he wrote, history was something that the West inflicted on the rest of the world. And it is in the “disciplined courage” and “love of honor” that we find Creasy’s references to the ancient Greeks, just as history in general reflects a Western and classical bias.

So it comes as no surprise to find a heavy Victorian influence on the alternate-history genre. The American Revolution—rewritten with the colonial rebels defeated or at least forced to negotiate an acceptable and durable compromise—is a trope that perhaps plays to nostalgic, Kiplingesque attempts to hold the British Empire together. In The Two Georges: The Novel of an Alternate America (1996), another one of these alternative scenarios, coauthored by Turtledove and actor Richard Dreyfuss, all of contemporary North America exists as a united British dominion, thanks to a reconciliation worked out between George Washington and King George III. Turtledove says, “It was inspired by Dreyfuss’s intense interest in alternate history—and by his notions about what might have been had America all remained in the Empire. He thought the world would be a better place had America stayed in. I just thought it would have been a different place!”

While many alternate historians share that bias toward “Western civilization,” there are also several who counter the lazy ethnocentrism that accepts the present triumph of the West as preordained. For example, in The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a world in which Western Europeans prove uniquely susceptible to bubonic plague, and Mongols and Muslims move in to fill the gap. Asia’s emergence as a global power in the twenty-first century may well inspire more examples of this kind.

• • • • •

While Byzantine or colonial history may attract some to the alternate-history genre, the American Civil War stands as arguably the mother of all armchairhistory obsessions—and the single biggest attraction for readers and writers of alternate history. The Civil War was the first modern war, and its consequences live on in contemporary American politics and society; it is a chapter of our history that resists oblivion. Its campaigns and personalities are endlessly revisited in both fact and fiction. Enthusiasts from across the nation annually don costumes and pick up rifles to reenact its critical battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg. “If I’m writing on the Byzantine period,” Turtledove confesses, “I can be confident I know more about it than my readers. For the Civil War, I really have to get it right; there are lots of detail people. The upside is that your target audience has the background you need.”

And of all the gruesome spectacles of the Civil War, the bloodbath of Gettysburg attracts the most attention from writers of alternate history, most notably Winston Churchill, who authored If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg (1930), and Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, who co-authored Gettysburg (2003), Grant Comes East (2004), and Never Call Retreat (2005). Ward Moore, whose Bring the Jubilee (1953) provided inspiration for Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, can also be counted among the ranks. Moore’s novel depicts a defeated and humiliated North suffering under the yoke of a resurgent and industrialized South, theorizing that a Union loss at Gettysburg would have ensured the North’s ultimate defeat.

Even though several of these writers admit to the implausibility of their premise, conceding that the North had the economic and military means to survive regardless of a defeat at Gettysburg, one still detects in their works a lingering sentimentalism for the Southern cause. Alternate histories of the Civil War ask readers to surmise that Southern victory was every bit as possible as Northern victory, and that only a few critical battles could have changed the outcome. In this light, it may be appropriate to place these fictional works in the same tradition as the film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel Gone with the Wind (1936), both of which romanticize the Confederate cause and construe the South as a “noble loser.”

Kevin Willmott’s 2004 “mockumentary” C. S. A: The Confederate States of America stands this sentimentalist tradition on its head. In Willmott’s film, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin goes to Europe and successfully persuades Britain and France to join actively with the Confederate cause. The North is defeated, and the slave market is mainstreamed into the Northern economy. The specific consequences of such an outcome are shockingly and imaginatively depicted. Commodities such as Aunt Jemima pancakes, Uncle Ben rice, and Darkie toothpaste flourish a century after the war’s end. Wilmott pastiches W. D. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, showing the full racist overtones, including a vignette of the capture of Abraham Lincoln disguised as black, and adding TV home-shopping-network sales of slaves and live reality shows in which escaped slaves are hunted down by the law.

“The romanticizing of the Confederate loss was one of my big targets,” said Willmott in a recent interview. He argues that

it has been one of the ways to remove people from the pain of slavery and the whole idea of the film was to put slavery back in front as the cause of the Civil War. We wanted to make people feel uncomfortable with the history—because they should be. So we showed the images connected with slavery, dogs chasing slaves, whipping. We wanted to find a way to make it as uncomfortable, as nervous and as painful as it should feel.

He goes on to say, “People ask, ‘well, do you think that they would still have slavery in a technological industrial society?’ And the answer is Yes! It was not about money. It was about keeping power.” He points out that in our real history, “Keeping blacks out of the money economy and reducing their buying power was also bad economics. But it was something deeper than economics; it was about white privilege, identity, things that are more important than money.”

By the logic of Willmott’s film, the Confederacy—or at least its ideology—actually did win the Civil War. As if to make his point, most electoral maps would support his thesis that the “so-called War Between the States” remains unfinished business. Willmott insists, “My view of the South winning the Civil War is based not so much on ‘What if?’ but ‘What is!’ . . . The Confederacy lost their way of life for a little while—but not for long . . . they exported segregation into the North: subjugated Blacks, chain gangs, peonage, the Klan, and lynching.”

Like Willmott and other masters of the genre, Turtledove animates his alternate histories by deploying real historical knowledge. Turtledove is yet another writer who extrapolates from the premise of Southern victory, but his explanation is more convincing than many. “In late summer [18]62,” he said in an interview,

the U.K. was trembling on the edge of recognizing the Confederacy. The British government even sent up a trial balloon saying that the Confederates had built an army and navy and were building a nation, too. Then news of Antietam arrived, and the government had second thoughts, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the whole moral nature of the war.

Why did Antietam turn the tide? As Turtledove explains, the Union narrowly won Antietam with the aid of Confederate battle plans discovered in a messenger’s cigars. For Abraham Lincoln, that victory at Antietam gave him the political leverage to emancipate the slaves and recast the war as a moral contest rather than an economic one. Turtledove summarizes the historical turn of events this way: “The fate of the country teetered on three lost cigars.” And it is those seemingly inconsequential three cigars that Turtledove seizes upon as the divergence point in his Southern Victory series, a series of eleven volumes with perhaps more volumes to come.

Turtledove’s method brings history to life. It reveals the personal, political, and socioeconomic motivations of his characters while challenging readers’ assumptions about the motives and morality of players in real history. His multivolume alternate history poses a serious challenge to notions of American exceptionalism that have crept into the minds of scholars, politicians, and laypeople alike—including, significantly, the historiographical presumption that the Union’s victory was inevitable and necessarily a good thing.

• • • • •

Even though alternate history has its legions of fans, the genre faces some daunting circumstances posed by the short historical memory of the reading and viewing public. Symptomatic was the experience of Robert Harris, whose novel Fatherland (1992) also presupposes a Nazi victory. In this story, the Third Reich survived because after discovering that the British had broken the Enigma code, it successfully starved Great Britain into submission. Harris imaginatively recreates a mature, Nazi-dominated society in which most Germans comfortably enjoy the fruits of victory. The hero of Fatherland is Xavier March, an honest German cop who, in 1964, discovers in Berlin the evidence of a crime and begins to investigate. The crime is the Holocaust, and in this universe, what Hitler had predicted about the Armenian genocide of 1915 has come true. The so-called “final solution” to what the Nazis called “the Jewish question” was indeed final: no one remembered it.

As Harris recounts in an article for the Independent, the TriStar film studio “optioned it and then dropped out when their market research showed that their target audience not only didn’t know who had won World War II, they didn’t know what World War II was.” Of course, the narrative loses its edge if the audience is largely unaware of what happened. Readers unfamiliar with what the original looks like are unlikely to appreciate the nuances inherent in a distorted version of that original.

Indeed, the problem of historical illiteracy is compounded the further back in time—and the farther away in distance—a novel is set. Hence, contrafactual Axis and Confederate victories and, less frequently, defeat or reconciliation of the American Revolution are standard themes for the genre, because American readers certainly are more likely to be aware of the real history behind these events. A general audience is less apt to know or care about medieval or European history. As for ancient Middle Eastern or Far Eastern history, those are realms of knowledge for only an erudite few.

Further complicating alternate history’s struggle for widespread appreciation is the temptation of writers to abuse their poetic license in order to make a point. For example, in this respect Philip Roth’s The Plot against America: A Novel (2004) is deeply flawed. Its depiction of an upsurge of domestic Nazism reinforces the point made by many writers that these things could happen here, and that the Germans were not unique in their perverse embrace of fascism. But Roth’s work fails the test of verisimilitude by missing the historical elephant in the living room: His American Nazis persecuted the Jews, but for the Ku Klux Klan and other reactionary Americans, Jews were peripheral targets. In their race war, American blacks were subject to discrimination, humiliation, and lynchings that were as bad if not worse than what happened to Jews in Germany before the “final solution” was unleashed.

• • • • •

For some purist historians, such as E. P. Thompson, straying from what did happen to what could have happened is “unhistorical shit.” With this critique, Thompson reveals his Marxist disdain for anything other than the inexorability of the class struggle. Or perhaps he simply sees history as the grinding of the wheels of fate: Why consider what could have been when we struggle to understand what actually was? Certainly the historical record is anything but complete, and alternate history can help us better understand not only history but human motivation. In alternate history no inevitability of historical development is granted. The genre puts human deeds, the moment of decision, in the forefront; even if that actor is a fabrication, the moment is one that someone could have grasped, and, in doing so, altered our very existence. In response to this assertion, some, like Thompson, may ask: But what about historical determinism? I would respond that the author does the determining here and, in doing so, subverts the notion that history occurs independently of human action, that it is a matter of chance or coincidence.

Historical determinism—that is, the assumption that the course of events is always inevitable—also fails to account for the occasions when the man was not found and the absence altered history. The death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 left no recognized native heir to come forward, with profound consequences for both England and, eventually, our modern world. Would Great Britain and, later, the United States have moved on to become global powers? If the English had lost at Hastings but Harold II had survived, would Duke William’s victory have been so assured or his conquest of the island so complete? There is clearly a role for individuals in history, and there are strong ground for assuming that the absence of key individuals, such as Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, or Roosevelt, would have profoundly altered history’s course.

The best examples of alternate history not only play off these individuals, but also make demands on readers’ knowledge. Indeed, readers of alternate histories must reconcile the two universes, generate a third one that combines what they know and what they are now learning. This genre can even challenge and inspire readers to discover more history on their own. Sir Edward Creasy anticipated these salutary effects when he wrote, “Most valuable also is the mental discipline which is thus acquired, and by which we are trained not only to observe what has been, and what is, but also to ponder on what might have been.”

Therefore, I won’t bother to defend historical imagination from the literary puritans who affect disdain for genre forms. If genre writing is to be dismissed, what are we to do with established mainstream writers such as Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, or Philip Roth? A strong case can be made for relating the best examples of the alternate-history genre to more respectable literary forms. Utopian and dystopian fiction—long regarded as politically and socially important, even prophetic—come to mind. The difference between Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia and Turtledove’s Southern Victory series, though, is that Plato and More set up their politico-literary experiments on a clean, white tableau, not worrying too much about how they came into existence. And the forms their imaginary societies take exclude historical contingency and reflect an implicit authoritarian tone. Turtledove’s works, in spite of their pulp reputation, avoid such deficiencies.

The best examples of dystopian fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984, are valuable precisely because they provoke readers to confront the present, rather than granting them an escape into an idealized or futuristic world. Orwell accomplishes this, in large part, because his novel does suggest a historical divergence (albeit vaguely specified) during World War II. Many readers are able to relate to 1984’s Winston Smith, in part, because of a shared history. The fictional world of 1984 was not as far away from the actual world of 1949 (when the novel was published) as it seemed.

Compare 1984 to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s novel, like Orwell’s, allows us gaze upon the history we take for granted from another vantage point. More than simply reflecting on a hypothetical historical contingency, the novel implicitly forces the reader to confront the fact that things could very easily have been different. The American defeat of the British during the American Revolution and the Allied victory in World War II were anything but inevitable, and history—far from being something preordained by God or fate—rested on the decisions of a few individuals.

If the Library of America’s choice to install Philip K. Dick among the greats truly signifies alternate history’s transition from pulp novel to literature, then the literary world should rejoice. Alternate-history fiction deserves not only literary respect, but also the respect withheld by some academic historians. And— who knows?—perhaps the genre’s rise to prominence will compel the reading public to look back into our own culture’s literary past and ask the question: Why do we canonize the books that we do? And, under different circumstances, might our choices have been any different? •

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Adrift on the Mayflower

Up on Guardian CiF,

My cleaner in Sullivan County, New York, charges over twice the minimum wage, but it would take her 40 days incessant hard toil on her hands and knees polishing floors to get whatever Ms Kristen got from New York state's governor, for a few hours work, possibly also on her hands and knees, but probably on a soft mattress.

While Governor Spitzer has a host of legal issues to contend with as a result of his meeting with Kristen, not the least is that he presumably violated the Mann Act, a piece of legislation dating back to 1910 that was designed to combat "white slavery," a quaint term which implies that it was more reprehensible than the more acceptable black slavery. It made it illegal to transport women across state lines for prostitution, "or debauchery," and of course, that was a legal device to make it a federal offence.

Even more than most of the puritanically-cast prostitution laws, the Mann Act has frequently been used for highly suspect purposes, whether imprisoning black heavyweight boxing champion for Jack Johnson for sending a railway ticket to his white girlfriend, or going after Charlie Chaplin for being subversively funny.

It seems that if anyone transported Kristen from New York to Washington DC and into the arms of Governor Spitzer, it was Amtrak, a Federal government-owned corporation. In addition, far from being drugged, bound and threatened, and railroaded, she would appear to have been an eager volunteer, rushing down to Penn Station, which is understandable when an hour's work weighs in at three months' worth of minimum wage toil.

Indeed, one has to admire the professional integrity of the model concerned. The cheers that greeted the news on Wall Street, made it plain that there were people out there who would pay far, far more for her evidence than she could earn in a month of trysts with destiny in DC. One may also commend the green-ness of her and the governor for taking the more ecologically sound Amtrak train instead of the shuttle.

However, it's those cheers from Wall Street that dull my otherwise natural schadenfreude at seeing a hypocrite laid low. As New York's attorney general, Spitzer put serious brakes on the Wall Street machinery for skimming off the savings and investments of ordinary Americans. He spoke truth to power and ticked off Hillary Clinton with his eminently sensible proposal for driving licenses for undocumented immigrants, and - not to be forgotten - tried to enforce the labour and pay laws on his state's employers.

In the end, it's the hypocrisy. Bill Clinton did not resign for his various affairs in which he paid his partners with vicarious access to power, despite parading his church-going familial lifestyle. Several Evangelical luminaries and their political allies did, quite rightly, resign for doing things that they had so piously denounced. And Spitzer as a state attorney general had boasted of his prowess in busting exactly such prostitution rings as the one he was patronizing so lavishly.

With this White House's propensity for politically-inspired prosecution, it is entirely possible that "Client Nine" was actually "Target One" not least since the Department of Justice's so-called Public Integrity Section is conducting it, which suggests that politics, not prostitution is in their sights.

The Democratic Governor of New York, highly unpopular with many influential and unscrupulous people, put his testicles and perhaps a bit more on a plate with a side order of ketchup. I hoped he had the balls to refuse to resign, but rather suspect he left them in the Mayflower Hotel. I suppose his last claim to prestige will be that he came in the Mayflower.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


from the March 14 Washington Spectator, a magazine well worth subscribing to!


It's Time to Build a New Corporate Democracy
by Ian Williams | March 15, 2008

Editor's note: Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, got his "say-on-pay" bill through the House last year by a 269-134 vote. A companion bill in the Senate, filed by Barack Obama, has been blocked by Republicans. President Bush threatens to veto the bill, if it does get through the Senate, because he "does not believe that Congress should mandate the process by which executive compensation is approved." That Frank's modest proposal—providing shareholders with a non-binding vote on the compensation packages of corporate executives—can't succeed in the Congress suggests how difficult it will be to pass anything that resembles a shareholders' bill of rights. In this issue, Ian Williams argues that the folks owning the shares might be ahead of elected officials in demanding accountability in corporate boardrooms.

"PITY THE POOR SHAREHOLDER!" ISN'T A CRY to get progressive blood pumping—except perhaps in indignation. But it should be. The battle for shareholders' rights in corporations is an integral part of the unending campaign for democracy in American society.

For years, supporters of free enterprise have claimed that the West has been moving toward a "shareholder democracy," in which many citizens—possibly even a majority—are also shareholders in the companies that dominate the economy. Left to their own devices for pensions, employees have come to own shares in mutual funds and personal pension plans. They "own" substantial portions of major companies, so at least the shareholder part is coming true.

However, even as share ownership spreads across the country, there is less democracy than ever before in the boardroom. Corporate executives have been gaining unfettered control over their companies and through them are exercising greater influence over the political process, to consolidate their organizational and financial control. Their influence is often exercised through checks written to political campaigns.

Some of that money is already visible in the primaries, where costs have far surpassed predictions we made in the Washington Spectator last year. The price tag for the Democratic nomination, for example, is far beyond $100 million, and the presidential candidates have already spent almost $600 million, with months to go before the general election campaign. Corporate finance has been the major funding source for almost all the candidates, as they go to corporate donors for the same reason the robber Willie Sutton went to banks: "That's where the money is." In fact, successful candidates do not have to make the trip. Corporations go to them, and often the same donors hedge their bets by sending contributions to the nominees of both major parties.

DOORWAY TO POWER—What's true for presidential candidates is also true for elected officials at the federal and state levels. Money comes their way too. These contributions, along with generously funded "non-political" campaigns such as those against the Kyoto accords or universal healthcare, have bought access for lobbyists and protection for management that cheats workers, pensioners and shareholders alike.

Equally significant, executives have looted pension funds, abandoned responsibilities for health benefits, off-shored production and slashed work forces while rewarding themselves beyond all measure—all under the cover of the political protection they have bought and paid for.

Their lobbyists thwart attempts at regulation in Congress and in state capitols, and sometimes actually draft the legislation they desire. If perchance interfering laws are enacted, industry personnel move through the revolving door to manage and staff the agencies, such as the FDA, USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, and Securities and Exchange Commission—to ensure that laws passed do them little harm.

The lax enforcement of existing securities law by the SEC highlights the question: just who are the corporations? In law, and in the traditional mythology of the free enterprise system, corporations are entities owned by their shareholders. But between the SEC, the courts of Delaware (where most major corporations' jurisdiction-shopping has led them), and the federal judiciary, it has become clear that the shareholders have as much power as customers—the power to walk away if they do not like what the CEO and his associates are doing.

The federal courts, in a position as scandalous as their misreading of "original intent" that provides First Amendment free-speech rights to multimillion-dollar political spending, refuse to reconsider the position that the Fourteenth Amendment—adopted to secure the rights of former slaves—also provides "personhood" and citizens' rights to corporations.

It is usually rights and privileges and not duties that corporations invoke. Corporations litigate their own free-speech rights and even sue for libel to silence their critics. But when was the last time you heard of a corporation being imprisoned, let alone executed, for any crime it committed?

At most, financial penalties apply, which leads to the contradictory phenomenon of shareholder suits in which the company, allegedly a collective of shareholders, diverts shareholders' funds to pay for executive misdeeds. Indeed, the company, i.e., the shareholders, will pay the legal costs of management, either to defend against shareholder suits or to restrict shareholder rights to nominate board members or discuss company policies. Management not only escapes without penalty but is generously rewarded for its misdeeds.

Corporate apologists usually justify management "compensation" packages with rhetoric that ties executives' interests to the interests of shareholders—although management is often handsomely compensated even when the stock they are husbanding plummets. Looting pension funds, slicing off health benefits, slashing workforces, and shipping jobs overseas are equally well rewarded.

In 2006 Henry McKinnell of Pfizer "earned" $198 million for resigning as CEO of the company after its share price dropped 40 percent. That was to cushion the blow of his barebones existence on the $5.9 million annual pension his board had approved without informing shareholders. This February, American Express CEO Ken Chenault doubled his take to over $50 million while his company's stock went down by a quarter and its telephone operations were off-shored to India.

The airline industry, which stays aloft by persuading employees to work longer hours for less money, and persuading the courts and Congress to free companies from pension obligations, deserves special scrutiny. Consider that during American Airlines' 2007 annual stockholder meeting, CEO Gerard Arpey claimed that $160 million in company shares given to executives was a "motivational tool" to turn American Airlines around. It does raise the question of why the workers who fill, maintain and fly the planes are motivated by pay cuts and the executives by pay hikes.

Executives argue that their exorbitant pay is approved by directors, upon the recommendation of compensation committees, who are in turn advised by compensation consultants. This involves more smoke and mirrors than a cigar bar bathroom and gets to the heart of the lack of any real shareholder democracy. As Alan Greenspan admitted with uncommon clarity: "Few directors in modern times have seen their interests as separate from those of the CEO, who effectively appointed them and, presumably, could remove them from future slates of directors submitted to shareholders."

(Did such coerced loyalty motivate longtime Wal-Mart board member Hillary Clinton, who never protested lack of healthcare for employees or the company's ferociously anti-union policies?)

Compensation consultants' consistent recommendations of higher pay for the head honchos are always based on "prevailing industry standards"—always rising, because boards and consultants always justify higher executive pay by warning that rival companies may tempt away managers. Yet the same executives presumed to be in such demand have created elaborate structures that make it almost impossible for shareholders to get rid of them without highly rewarding them in the unlikely event that they do go.

COVER OF DARKNESS—As CEOs have given themselves higher pay packages than ever before, their influence on government has produced round after round of tax cuts that have only served to benefit those who already have money coming out of their ears. It has become the received orthodoxy that the solution to any problem is tax cuts. Democrats have insisted that proposed tax cuts benefit the less wealthy as well, but it would be nice to hear them call for increasing taxes on those in the upper brackets, or even to mention that the quickest way to guarantee long-term solvency for Social Security is to end the contribution cap that excludes payment of Social Security taxes on earnings above $90,000.

Bob Monks, a veteran corporate-governance activist, makes a convincing case for this in his latest book, Corpocracy. In it he outlines the mechanisms that protect CEOs' privileges and prerogatives and ensure that government bends to their will. "Out of control CEO compensation is the symptom, the smoking gun," Monks writes, "but corpocracy and the discontinuity it has created with our political traditions is the real disease, the ultimate reality."

Monks argues persuasively that the core of modern robber baronage is the Business Roundtable, an association that restricts its membership to CEOs of major companies. It is possibly the most effective union in the country. He points out that in 1970, before the knights of industry sat at the Roundtable, the average CEO earned thirty times as much as the average worker. Executive compensation is now 300 times that of average worker compensation, and growing—even before tax breaks are figured in.

Citing a BusinessWeek report, Monk relates that 10 percent of the shares of the top 200 companies has been set aside for executive compensation, and claims that this has amounted to a transfer of $1 trillion in "the largest peacetime movement of wealth ever recorded." Much of this money is moved under cover of darkness, so to speak, with compensation hidden in stock options that are hard to quantify and often invisible because management is not required to identify it in reports to shareholders.

The Roundtable and its allies have fought every attempt to require that the cost of stock options be "expensed," i.e., shown in the accounts where shareholders can see them clearly. One ally on this front, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) led fifteen co-sponsors in a Senate resolution effectively calling for these executive extras to remain under the table. On a similar issue, when the SEC proposed to make it possible for shareholders to nominate directors on corporate boards, the Roundtable spent $13 million to thwart this very modest measure.

Monks sees this as part of a comprehensive campaign, whose blueprint can be found in a 1971 "Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System," written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell months before Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court. Powell outlined a campaign to make American politics, education, and media more amenable to what he considered the neglected interests of American business.

Monks is too astute to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but while noting the interesting coincidence that the Business Roundtable was set up shortly after Powell's call for a long march of business through the institutions, he concludes: "At the least, every man and woman who heads up the Washington office of a Fortune 500 company should say a little prayer to Powell on the way to bed at night."

We could add that that what Powell has written has come to pass. You do not have to entertain 1930s visions of top-hatted capitalists ruling the world from Wall Street to understand that the country suffers from a dangerously unhealthy concentration of power. Money talks in American politics, and the imperial CEOs and their allies are the ventriloquists.

SHAREHOLDER REVOLTS—The good news is that despite the growing imperial power of management, there are unions, pension funds, foundations and socially conscious mutual funds that have achieved some successes in reining it in. Shareholder pressure was instrumental in breaking the cabal of global-warming deniers at the oil companies, for example, leaving Exxon pretty much alone in its denial. It is relevant that Exxon's management has been notoriously ruthless in thwarting shareholder resolutions and stage-managing annual company meetings.

But Exxon notwithstanding, these campaigns are beginning to have an effect. This year promises to be the busiest proxy season ever, with a record number of resolutions spurred partly by demands for justice; they are also informed by recession fears that corporate management and their shills in government have led us all to the edge of the precipice.

There is a long way to go. Many of the 28 resolutions filed by the Laborers' International Union this proxy season were kept off board agendas with the connivance of an SEC that allows boards to block votes on resolutions they declare "ordinary business" and to ignore the outcome if such votes occur.

Yet unions and activists once dismissed as "special interests" (unlike the most successful union of all time, the Business Roundtable) are now aligned with hedge fund operators like Carl Icahn, who told me a year ago: "The trouble in America is, these guys try to give themselves options at cheaper prices even when the stock goes down. And this great gap between what the regular employee earns and what the CEO earns, it's just ridiculous. Every day the gap gets bigger. But there's no accountability." Icahn makes the obvious point that lack of accountability produces lack of efficiency in most organizations. Warren Buffet's eloquently expressed views on executive pay, corporate democracy and social responsibility also put him firmly against the CEO cabal.

On the political side, the battle lines are clearer than ever, as the GOP has increasingly become the political wing of the Business Roundtable. John Sweeny of the AFL-CIO pointed out last November that the SEC's chairman Christopher Cox, "caved to political pressure to take away a fundamental investor right," the right to nominate directors.

As long as one of the major political parties is totally committed to advancing the interest of the super-rich, which the CEOs have now become—and the other is only half-hearted in resisting their power, democracy is at risk. In effect, like independent nominees for boards of directors, it often appears that candidates for political office, despite rare and refreshing examples, can now only appear on a slate if corporate interests approve them.

The secret that allows corporate domination to continue is those citizens and shareholders who fail to use their votes and influence to push for improvement. Citizens concerned about democracy should carefully read the middle section of their newspapers—the bit between politics and sports—and follow corporate politics, and where they have shares, or influence, vote for better policies, if they don't want their inactivity at annual meetings to negate their votes in the polling booth.
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From The Archive
A Culture Of Corruption | Apr. 1, 2006
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For want of a Nail

My essay on alternate history is up as the cover story in the Common Review
Orwell, Plato, Turtledove, PK Dick, all human life is there, and a bit extra

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Never Again, - and Again and Again

With the furor about Samantha Power's comments on Hillary Clinton I tried to look up my review of her book from the June 24 2002 In These Times, to discover it was lost in cyberspace. I thought it worth looking over again.

Never Again, -- and Again and Again

Samantha Power’s book is about the American government’s responses to genocide, from the Turkish massacres of the Armenians through to modern times, with the Kurds, Cambodia, `Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Unaccountably she omits East Timor, or even earlier, the pogroms in Indonesia, where the problem was not Washington’s insouciance in the face of genocide, but an active complicity in the fomentation of it.

Since her book it is about official attitudes, it mostly excludes the American left, which had little power or part in shaping the debate. Sadly, one can only suspect that if the left /had/ had any influence, it would have been wielded on the side of the isolationists and America-firsters whose influence ensured that the usual response from Washington was evasion and dissimulation.

Right, Left and Center have all too often conspired in various forms of denial. Beginning with attempts to downplay the number of the victims, followed by attempts to reduce them and perpetrators to the spurious equivalence of “opposing sides” warped by inextinguishable hatreds, they both seize at any excuse to deny that foreign mass murder is any of our business.

People in the centers of powers also tend to assume that the perpetrators are people of integrity. For several secretaries of State, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were people with meaningful negotiations could take place, while, despite that, for many sectarians, both later became poster-boys of anti-US-hegemony.

In fact, what Samantha Power reveals is that far from the concept of “genocide” being a convenient cover for a rapaciously expansive US global hegemony, it has in fact been largely ineffectual in getting any action by successive US administrations.

Power’s book takes its title from Warren Christopher’s famous description of Bosnia as “A problem from Hell,” which he said was the result of “hatred” that was “centuries old.” With suitable encouragement the media began to trace the problem back to the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires – several hundred years before the first Slav hit the Balkans. Maybe it’s something in the water there.

In fact, what he really meant was that it was a problem from Hell for the Clinton administration, with its public commitments to stop the killings, a “feel their pain” sympathy with the victims warring against its determination to avoid any American casualties.

Power details the efforts by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to launch the Genocide Convention and indeed both to invent the name and to define the meaning of genocide to remedy what Churchill had said about the reports coming from Occupied Europe of a “crime without a name.” “Sovereignty cannot be construed as the right to kill millions of innocent people,” Lemkin had concluded in what to most of us seems to be a self-evident truism, but which, in fact flies in the face of received legal doctrine - across the political spectrum.

Lemkin’s campaign had been largely inspired by the Turkish massacres of Armenians. Reinforced by the Holocaust, of which he had early evidence, he fought tenaciously for the Convention at the United Nations, where the world gave the concept a far more inclusive definition than suspected by those who pooh-poohed events in the Balkans because “only” thousands were killed.

Ironically, Power points out, despite the election-tide shouts of “Never Again” from all over the US, the Senate did not ratify the convention for almost forty years – and when it did it was a desperate attempt by the Reagan administration to cover up the President’s gaffe in laying wreaths for dead SS troopers in the Bitburg Cemetery. Even then, the US anticipated its attitude to the International Criminal Court by adding reservations that even Reagan’s British allies complained nullified the ratification.

Power points out the awesome responsibility of the media in rousing public opinion for international action, but is candid about the awful way so much of the media carried out the task. The lesson to all future perpetrators has become clear – mount your main massacres off camera, except for a few showy killings of peacekeepers, preferably American, to ensure non-intervention.

The US networks averaged 30 seconds a month of coverage of Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their way through any Khmers suspected of having an IQ above subnormal. The response of the US government was to fight to keep the genocidal regime in the UN seat for some years after the Vietnamese had driven them out of power. Interestingly George McGovern, an archetypal anti-Vietnam War figure showed that he could differentiate between interventions: he called for diplomatic and international action against Pol Pot and his regime.

Similarly, after Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurdish insurgents in the late 80’s, the same Republican Right who recently returned to the bully pulpits of Washington determined to punish Hussein for his moral failings, were then killing efforts to deprive him of credits and food supplies for his genocidal activities. They denied the evidence, and materially and diplomatically encouraged him to continue his war against Iran, gas notwithstanding. The US delegation– whose brief recent absence from the UN Human Rights Commission was considered such a blow to the organization’s credibility, refused to support European allies who called for a Human Rights rapporteur against Iraq in 1989.

When not denying the evidence, another common trope from government is to emphasize the enormity of resources needed for intervention. As Power demonstrates, history has tended to disprove most of such fearful hyperbole. In most – indeed maybe all, recent cases, any sign of firmness, diplomatic and economic, let alone military, would have saved thousands of lives at little cost. Perhaps one of the most shameful manifestations of invertebracy was the Clinton administrations stalling of reinforcements and resupply for the tiny beleaguered UN force in Rwanda which still managed to save thousands, even as Madeleine Albright as US representative at the UN tried to strangle its supply lines rather than go to Congress for a few million peacekeeping appropriation..

It is of course true that even when governments do good, they often manage to make a mess of it. Power mentions the final NATO air assault that accompanied the joint Bosnian Croat offensive against the Serbs. It showed that intervention could have been relatively painless and speedy two hundred thousands corpses before. But what she does not mention is that as soon as Bosnian forces looked like taking more territory than earlier negotiations with Milosevic had envisaged, the air support was withdrawn. The Bosnian Serbs, Srebrenica and Sarajevo notwithstanding, were still to keep their ethnically cleansed half of Bosnia. It was a comeuppance but no Nemesis.

In Kosovo, Power demonstrates that there was indeed every justification for intervention and reminds those who wondered about the body count that many of those missing bodies turned up under police yards in Serbia. However, even so, there was enough dubiety about both motives and methods to sully the first direct interference to stop genocide that the US and NATO had ever undertaken. The high flying planes sacrificed accuracy not to protect the pilots so much as to protect the politicians whose polls would suffer if they were downed. Clinton obtusely discounted the only option that Milosevic feared, by announcing in advance that he would not put in ground forces. If he had announced differently at the beginning, the air war may not have needed – but on the other hand, Milosevic may still have been in Belgrade.

Power does not waste much time on the Left as a force in these developments. She is correct. While far too many of the Left were denouncing imaginary hegemonistic and opportunistic interventions on the part of Washington, she knows that the administrations were doing all they could stay out. She concludes that “The US record is not one of failure – it is one of success. US officials worked the system and the system worked.” Intervention was avoided and what is a river of corpses abroad in comparison with poll ratings at home?

It is not a happy conclusion, since she also deduces that “The last century shows that the walls that the US tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably shatter.” In other words, ignoring genocide is not only immoral – it is impractical. We all have to pay the price in the end. The torch in this field has been held, in general, not by the left, but by human rights groups and activists across the world, who have had the courage and tenacity to belabor all regimes that have abused their citizens.

It is largely their work that has led to the small harbingers of global accountability we see now: the arrest of Pinochet, the trial of Milosevic –and the establishment of an International Criminal Court. A world where Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon have to check with their lawyers at the same time as their travel agents is one that is surely improving. Power’s book is an eloquent and detailed testimony of why we should not let our government stand on the sidelines, let alone collude with crimes against humanity.


Samantha Power, Ä Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Basic Books, NY 2002, $30.