Thursday, May 29, 2008

Israeli Chutzpah going too far,I

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, pages 13-14

United Nations Report
Signs Indicate Less Fawning to Chutzpah By U.N., Quartet Officials
By Ian Williams


ISRAEL’S POSTURE as a heavily armed victim is preposterous in face of the evidence, of course, but it has been remarkably successful in the mainstream U.S. media, totally successful in Washington, and almost as effective in Europe since the 9/11 attacks, when Ariel Sharon adroitly conflated Israel’s battle to hold down the Palestinian territories with Washington’s “war on terror.” Given the current demonization of Hezbollah and Hamas, it is worth remembering that the first victims of this mischaracterized vendetta were in fact Sharon’s old enemies: Yasser Arafat, Fateh and the Palestinian Authority.

The West seemed not to learn from this experience just how expedient Israel’s definition of terrorism is, and has not challenged this constant expansion of “terrorist” to any opponent of Israeli policies.

However, chutzpah can be a banal form of hubris, and it has its penalties. Although its experience of the last few years may have led Israel’s leaders and diplomats to assume that no one would ever be so rude as to point out the profound difference between their promises and their performance, there are limits. After renewing its commitment to cease settlement expansion as its part of the so-called “road map,” Israel’s explicit announcements of new building in the occupied territories seem to have caused the various partners in the Quartet to take a reality check.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has appeared a bit miffed with the Israelis. The others, however, have been more explicit and have taken the opportunity to remind Israel about the inherent illegality of the settlements—let alone the breach of its solemn word over expanding them.

It takes time, but occasionally the truth does surface. A British diplomat complained to me that in 2006, when Margaret Becket was foreign secretary, the U.N. mission had been asked to show British disapproval of Israeli tactics during the Lebanon war without actually saying anything outright, for fear of offending Britain’s current equivalent of AIPAC, Labour Friends of Israel, which had increased enormously in power under the Blair premiership.

So it is with relief that one could hear new British Ambassador to the U.N. John Sawer speak some truth against the developing dogma in European capitals and the U.N. that Israel can do no wrong. (One must note that the British, who were at the receiving end of the terrorist activities of the political antecedents of Likud, should have been the last to be suckered by Israel’s recent conversion to “anti-terrorism.”)

At the March monthly Security Council meeting on the Middle East, which in contrast to some previous perfunctory events gave the subject some time, Sawer explicitly said, “Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements. The UK considers that Israeli settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal under international law. This includes settlements in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

Admittedly, even under Blair, the British had never explicitly or implicitly repudiated that longstanding position. Nevertheless, let us say, it was not actually restated very often. Sawer’s words were an implicit, and understated, rebuke to the American position on the settlements, which has morphed from admitting their illegality, to finding them “unhelpful” under Clinton, to promising that some of them can be annexed under Bush.

Indeed the ambassador also welcomed the Yemeni attempt at dialogue between Hamas and Fatah, implicitly repudiating the American-Israeli strategy of fomenting conflict between the two. These are small but significant signs that the Brown government is distancing itself from the Blair policy of complete subservience to Israel and the U.S.

Others on the same path of rediscovery of their principles and reality include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who started his term broadly accepting an American view of the concept. Confronted with Israeli lack of faith, however, he has become a quick learner. Exasperated U.N. officials, notably in UNRWA have had to deal with the Israeli actions. When UNRWA states that “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and—some would say—encouragement of the international community,” the secretary-general has no option but to listen, and be deeply concerned.

B. Lynn Pascoe, his (American) under secretary-general for political affairs, also added a stark statistic—which, without comment, objectively contradicted Israeli claims to unique victimhood. “In total,” he told the Council, “124 Palestinians, including 36 children, had been killed and 359 injured in Israeli operations. Thirteen Israelis had been killed by Palestinian militants, including four children, and 55 injured.”

While his report condemned Hamas rocket attacks, it continued with its indictment of the effects of the occupation, referring to the “580 Israel Defense Forces-imposed obstacles” blocking roads in the West Bank, and that the “levels of restriction had steadily increased each year since 2005, in both quantity and character, and were at the root of the Palestinian economic decline.”

Added Pasco: “Israeli settlement activity had continued in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the reporting period. Tenders and construction permits for hundreds of housing units had been announced this month. Construction continued on many settlements and related infrastructure, such as roads for settler use. The Israeli government had stated publicly that settlement expansion in East Jerusalem would continue.”

He also reiterated that “all settlement activity in East Jerusalem or elsewhere in the West Bank” is against international law, and pointed out Israel’s failure to meet its commitments under the road map, and its continuing construction of the wall despite the World Court decision.

Pasco even had the temerity to report that Israel had violated Lebanese air space no less than 222 times in the previous week, which constituted a “serious breach of Lebanese sovereignty and the Blue Line, and undermined the credibility of Lebanese national institutions and UNIFIL.”

Ban’s conclusion to the Security Council laid out that “Peace would be achieved within the agreed framework: an end to the occupation that had begun in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference; the principle of land for peace; Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973), 1397 (2002) and 1515 (2003); and the Arab Peace Initiative. That framework would lead to an end of conflict, the creation of a Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel, and a comprehensive regional peace.”

That road map is very different from the obscuration of the official agreement and Israel’s unilaterally declared conditions on it. Indeed, instead of fostering Palestinian acquiescence and a PA signature ripping up international law and U.N. resolutions, Ban’s “agreed framework” explicitly restates them and implies that apart from minor territorial adjustments, any solution must be based on the pre-1967 boundaries. Since Washington has constantly tried to obscure and downgrade those decisions, Ban has, in his own quiet way, made considerable progress by restating them.

Ban also will have to deal with the continuing campaign against the new U.N. Human Rights Council. Israel and its supporters are even more infuriated than they were before with the appointment of Professor Richard Falk, a professor of international law at Princeton, as the Council’s special investigator of Israeli behavior in the territories.

Falk replaces South African John Dugard, a veteran anti-apartheid activist whose acuity in comparing apartheid South Africa with Israel in the territories really upset Israeli supporters, from whom the truth traditionally raises the loudest cries. While Dugard had the support of his government, however, Falk is unlikely to get Washington behind him.

An outspoken critic of Israeli behavior, the minor details of being American and Jewish did not protect Falk from furious objections from Yitzhak Levanon, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “Someone who has publicly and repeatedly stated such views cannot possibly be considered independent, impartial or objective.” he charged. Of course Israel and its supporters would not really be satisfied with anyone but Alan Dershowitz, who has yet to find an Israeli action he cannot support.

Ian Williams, a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations, is working on a book about U.N.-Haters in the U.S., and has a blog at . His last book was Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Musings

My latest in the Guardian had thin-skinned posters proving all my points as usual!

It was an idyllic, sunny Memorial Day up in the Catskills region of upstate New York. At our local parade, the firefighters marched along the short Main Street to the firehouse in dress uniforms, the school choir sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and a boy scout recited the pledge of allegiance. The deputy sheriff, and the fire chief addressed the gathering and hoisted both the stars and stripes and the POW/MIA flag which also customarily flies from the local firehouse. Your average British fire-station is a hive of leftwing subversion if their union is anything to go by. That is not the case in the rural USA.

Even so, none of the speakers made partisan points about the current conflict, where sand and cities have replaced the jungles of Vietnam in a replay of pointless tragedy. Ironically, their orations were drowned out by aging bikers, of the kind who customarily wear POW/MIA insignia, as they revved their unmuffled hogs up the hill past the ceremony for a spin in the mountains.

Last weekend I re-read several Kurt Vonnegut novels, and the memory rippled through. That iconoclastic war veteran, survivor of Dresden and representative of another, more skeptical USA, described the national anthem as "gibberish interspersed with question marks." As a near-miss MIA himself, he had little time for vexillolatry. He could have ended up in dead in a ditch in the Battle of the Bulge, or a handful of cinders as a "friendly fire victim" in Dresden as the Allies did their best to recreate the Inferno on Earth. Flags were not to die for in Vonnegut's opus.

The POW/MIA cult seems to have ebbed from its height a decade or so ago, when so many fervently believed that the Pentagon and Hanoi were in cahoots to hide hundreds of imprisoned GIs. The conspiratorial rationale was that Hanoi hung on to hundreds of prisoners as bargaining chips to ensure payment of US reparations. But there could be no bargaining unless you disclose your chips, and reveal the hostages.

The fervour played to the best and worst of America simultaneously. There was a determination that the government could not reduce individual citizens to anonymous statistics in a faraway land - but there was also a complete insouciance about Indochinese casualties. One must wonder what the Vietnamese think when they help American teams scour for the remains of relative handful of US casualties in jungles strewn with the unmarked graves of up to five million Vietnamese, one-eighth of the country's population.

Nonetheless, faced with grieving relatives grasping at hope, Federal and state legislators in the 1990s succumbed and made the black flag of the movement quasi-official, sanctioning its hoisting alongside the stars and stripes.

Yet, both senators John McCain and John Kerry were united in the Senate committee report on the subject, that "while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." Ironically McCain, as an ex-POW himself, is getting heat for that from some of the last of the true believers.

Checking the previously fervently conspiratorial sites on the matter, the white heat of that earlier speculation is fading. The POW/MIA flag is becoming the insignia for all those lost in action, presumed dead. It would be a very brave legislator who moved to have it hauled down.

Yet, why support ill-founded conspiracies when there is clear evidence of a real one, the Bush/Cheney plot to send more GIs to die in a pointless struggle?

So it goes.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Brit in a China Shop

Simon Winchester's Why Oh Why whine on China.
from the Guardian Comment is Freee

Last week saw a classic example of a venerable tradition in British journalism - the "Why Oh Why" whine, notable in old Tory publications, which laments how the world has gone to the dogs since the end of empire, lack of respect for elders, the election of the first Labour government and so on. It was from author Simon Winchester - who really should know better. It was in the New York Times rather than the Daily Telegraph, but the genre was the same. Why oh why, he pontificated, "if the Chinese had come to know so much about earthquakes so early on in their immensely long history, were they never able to minimize the effects of the world's contortions - to at least the degree that America has? Why did they leave the West to become leaders in the field, and leave themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week?"

China, he lamented, "in its headlong attempts to modernize, has often demonstrated a dismayingly cavalier attitude toward the well-being of its people: skyscrapers are built with little attention to safety standards and are invariably far from earthquake-resistant; huge dams ... are erected in a slapdash fashion; subways, like the system burrowing through the waterlogged alluvium beneath Shanghai, are built with incautious haste; freeway tunnels are bored through earthquake fault zones."

Now while I would certainly question Beijing's weak attachment to human rights, and lament that progress there can mean a bullet in the neck instead of the death of a thousand cuts, it really does not behoove the people who gave us the Minnesota bridge, the collapsing apartment blocks of New York, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, to sermonise about this disaster. While the Three Gorges dam is very likely a disaster waiting to happen, how many American dams are in a similar position? A lot.

Should the society which kept people at gunpoint from fleeing New Orleans across a bridge during Hurricane Katrina really have the chutzpah to hector the Chinese? Should a society that uses taxpayers' money to build non-hurricane proof homes on the coast in flood zones really lecture Beijing? No more, one suspects, than Army Corp of Engineers who have carved the Mississippi basin into a series of serial disasters-in waiting.

Within a week of the Winchester whine a British coroner reported that the Nimrod aircraft the RAF had been flying had been unsafe for four decades. One only has to think of the appropriately Thatcheresquely-named Herald of Free Enterprise ferry that drowned so many passengers, to remember the Cumbrian nuclear reactor whose name keeps changing to induce forgetfulness about its sequential radioactive leaks.

China has launched humans into space. Britain, unlike Japan, China and India, has no independent launch facility, and has cut back its commitment to the European programme. It has recently been forced to pull out of science programmes because of government cuts.

So why oh why, the "Why oh Why" whine? Simon Winchester has an excuse. He is clearly plugging his new biography of Joseph Needham, the magisterial author of the Cambridge History of Chinese Science. But one suspects that Winchester's subject would not have been so disdainful of modern China. His biographical work should have helped him to "see oursel's as others see us". On this occasion, the rulers in Beijing seem to acquitted themselves more honourably in the face of a huge unpredicted earthquake than those in Washington and Louisiana in face of the predicted Katrina.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Rum Goings On in Puerto Rico

So I was in Puerto Rico, talking about rum and tourism, and engaging in a bit of both,
but took time out to check on the politics.

Here is my Guardian Comment is Free piece from 22 May 2008


On June 1 people in Puerto Rico will go to the polls to vote for who should be the Democratic candidate for the US presidency. Michelle Obama was making a high profile visit as putative first lady, and most of the advertising in San Juan that I could see was for Obama, while the governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed him.

However, since Acevedo-Vila is under Federal indictment on campaign finance charges, the embattled governor may not be able to deliver the votes for his endorsee and it is highly likely that Puerto Rico will return a majority for Hilary Clinton - who will cite it as supporting evidence for her claim that she alone can pull out the popular vote.

There is just one small point. While Puerto Ricans are US citizens, unless they move to the mainland, they cannot vote in the actual general election in November - even though they can in the Democratic primaries.

The average white melanin-sensitive working class voter, whose support Hillary is so dangerously courting, could probably not distinguish between most Puerto Ricans and African Americans. However, many Puerto Ricans can and do. No matter what their appearance, few self-identify as black.

Puerto Rico is a standing reminder that Iraq is just the latest in a long line of US interventions and manufactured excuses. The explosion on the battleship Maine, onto the Tonkin Gulf incident and then WMDs in Iraq, all display a continuity in enforcing liberation on other people whether they want it or not.

As a Spanish colony, Puerto Rico had more autonomy than as a "liberated" US territory.
In English, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth; in Spanish, it is an "Estado Libre Asociado," with shades of the Free State of Ireland.

On her husband's behalf, Michelle Obama promised self-determination for the island without committing to any of the options, but the problem is that the islanders have generally been deadlocked on the options: statehood, status quo, independence or enhanced commonwealth status.

Puerto Ricans are proud of their heritage and their language, and deep in their hearts would probably like to be independent - but like their Caribbean neighbours in the French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the material benefits of association with the metropolis outweigh the spiritual allure. Puerto Ricans have the St Augustine dilemma, who in his debauched youth allegedly said: "Give me chastity and continence, but not just yet".

Hence Puerto Rico's indeterminate status. Full statehood would end colonial status, and allow Puerto Ricans to vote for president and have a voice in the Federal laws that apply to the island, superseding local legislation. It would also be a big boost for the Democrats in congressional and presidential races, which is why Republicans may not be so ecstatic about the prospect. They would not make it easier by, for example, allowing more autonomy or an opt-out clause

The commonwealth status allows a hope of future independence, if (for example) they discovered oil under the island. It also allows for more autonomy for local politicians and interest groups than statehood - but it is understandably seen as a continuation of colonial servitude by the vociferous minority. In the meantime, Washington can be - like Cavafy's barbarians - "some kind of solution" to local wrangling.

The indeterminacy has lasted over a century, which does not augur well for American nation-building exercises elsewhere. But if the Puerto Ricans wanted to make sacrifices for humanity, they should really opt for statehood, and tilt the electoral balance in Washington, whatever mistake they may make on June 1.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Allez aux Etats-Unis d'Amérique!

Allez aux Etats-Unis d'Amérique!
A senior Republican accuses the Democratic party of wanting to turn America 'into France'. Quelle horreur!

There is indeed reason for quiet optimism for the Democratic party in November, as the GOP shows signs of pronounced epidemic Alzheimer's and disintegration - whether it's the Republicans losing previously rock-solid congressional districts such as that in Mississippi this week, or the actions of its upper echelons.

First, Bob Barr, the profoundly reactionary one-time Republican congressman, declares that he wants to run on the Libertarian ticket, pulling votes away from John McCain and - what is more - forcing the latter to reverse his impressions of a centrist lest McCain forfeit the party's core of conservative votes.

Second, while we can forgive the septuagenarian candidate himself for never being sure whether it's the Shia or the Sunni who are the enemy du jour, now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has chipped in. "It's pretty clear to me that the Democratic agenda is to turn us into France," McConnell said this week, showing multiple signs of memory loss.

He may have forgotten that in the little incident that led to the first ridiculous outrage against France, which was, of course, the Iraq war, our gallant Gallic allies were proven entirely correct. The war was a huge mistake, as most Americans now agree. Most have tried to blank out the memory of French fries turning into freedom fries in the congressional canteens. French letters were left unmolested by evangelical congressmen who never use that sort of thing anyway.

Typically, McConnell's dimming gray cells, while betraying the customary ingratitude to Marshal Lafayette and the French army and navy without whom Americans would be singing "God Save the Queen", may not have visited the largest city in Kentucky, the state he so badly misrepresents. It is named Louisville, and for a clue about which Louis it is named after, the city's symbol is the fleur de lis.

But is Barack Obama really promising universal health care, pensions big enough to live on, public transport and high speed trains, not to mention generous paid maternity leave, high minimum wages and all the other appurtenances of civilisation that France and much of Europe take for granted?

If so, he should say so explicitly. It could be a winner, not least if you throw in champagne, the cuisine, decent bread and hundreds of exquisite cheeses instead of processed slices and soi-disant American "cheddar."

Of course he need not link it too explicitly to France, which apart from occasional relapses into sanity, as over Iraq, is a little too, well, Republican, in its over-attachment to inflated national self-esteem, la gloire, la force de frappe, and the flag. But Europe may do nicely as a role model for the change he has promised. Allez Obama!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China's Crisis to Solve

The tragic events in Burma puts the Middle Kingdom right in the middle of it - again. Even after its own terrible natural disaster, Beijing surely has a brighter future than being the buddy of last resort for failed kleptocracies, especially in the year of its Olympic glory.

As predicted, the Olympic torches herald a bright window of opportunity for the rest of the world to lever their good causes. Khartoum is under pressure, the arms shipment returned with its lethal ballot substitutes undelivered to Mugabe, and now is surely the time to ensure that both aid and aid workers get into Burma.

The meteorological disaster and the resulting devastation in Burma are surely a test of the principle of th "Responsibility to Protect" that both China and Burma voted for, along with everybody else, at the 60th anniversary summit of the United Nations in 2005. Then Kofi Annan and his team persuaded the General Assembly that what happens inside countries was the business of the UN Security Council and that defences of "sovereignty" were not enough to protect governments that failed their duties.

The resolution targeted active crimes by a government against its own people, but the overall theme was that when a government failed in its responsibility to protect its own population there was not just a right but also a duty for the international community to do so.

The commission that did the leg work in preparation for the UN resolution also included a telling and highly applicable clause, that the principle also applied in the cases of "overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened".

The Burmese generals have moved beyond tyranny, and even beyond ineptitude. Their refusal to accept foreign assistance, even to the extent of confiscating what the UN has landed, is a humanitarian crime against the Burmese people affected.

The junta is so stubborn and uncaring about the actual welfare of its own people that outside pressure may seem ineffective and even counterproductive. However, that is predicated on a constant stream of finance for the kleptocrats and the military of China and Burma's neighbours in Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) from the looting of its natural resources.

Surely now is the time for some quiet but firm diplomacy: a message to the Middle Kingdom that it should move beyond its footling calls for bilateral diplomacy and tell the generals to allow the United Nations to co-ordinate effective aid delivery.

A delicate hint that taking the issue to the Security Council would put the Olympic host in an unwelcome spotlight (yet again) may be enough. After Darfur, Tibet, Zimbabwe and now Burma, the calls for a boycott would surely bring a monsoon rain on the parade in Beijing.

And who knows, even after the Olympics, any astute guys in the Chinese government may learn to pick better friends, no matter what the short-term gain. You do not have to be in bed with Bush and Cheney to condemn the rulers of Zimbabwe and Burma.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Court Appeals

Comment is Free 9 May 2008

John Bolton's political body lies a moulderin' in his grave, and Condoleezza Rice's state department is jumping all over it. The rebarbative former unconfirmed US ambassador the UN has spent his time since leaving attacking the Bush administration's softness on foreign policy in terms that would make him a poster boy for the John Birch Society.

And now the administration is backtracking on Bolton's self-proclaimed proudest achievement - the "unsigning" of the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court. John Bellinger, state department legal adviser told scholars at DePaul University: "We do not disagree over the statute's end goals, and we are prepared to work with those who support the court in appropriate circumstances." If not exactly a ringing endorsement, it signals an end to the war of attrition waged by Bolton and his ilk.

These palaeocons viewed the court as a direct threat to American sovereignty, and they used the Bush administration to fight it in every way. One was to refuse military cooperation to any country that ratified the treaty and refused to sign a bilateral agreement with Washington that uniquely protected Americans from being extradited.

The treaty itself, at least before Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, had so many defences built in against "politically motivated" prosecutions that Bolton and company feared that foreign observers could never really see what the problem was. Never mind that this was like developing air-fresheners for astronauts in case the moon was made of green cheese. The administration harassed small countries to sign bilateral agreements. Underlining the element of bullying already inherent in trying to exclude Americans uniquely from the court's jurisdiction, Washington did not apply the rules to its major allies, all of whom were among the 106 ratifiers of the treaty.

In fact, many of the so-called bilateral agreements extorted from small countries were as substantial as the "coalition of the coerced" that Bush pulled together for the invasion of Iraq, not ratified by parliaments, and in any case, according to many legal experts, illegal.

Bolton's now-abandoned policy was based on the Three No's he outlined to the Senate foreign relations committee: "No financial support, directly or indirectly; no collaboration; and no further negotiations with other governments to improve the statute ... This approach is likely to maximise the chances that the ICC will wither and collapse, which should be our objective."

The beginning of the end for Bolton's no-surrender campaign came even while he was still at the UN, when reality impinged to the extent that the US had to abstain on the resolution siccing the ICC on those responsible for the massacres in Darfur.

Now the turnaround seems to be based on pressure from, of all places, the Pentagon, whose troops the agreements were supposed to protect. The American Serviceman's Protection Act meant that the Pentagon could not work with the military of the many independent minded countries such as Chile that refused to bow to the Bolton diktat.

And, of course, since Bolton's departure and his scathing comments on the state department and Bush policies, there must also be some retributive factor: dancing on Bolton's political grave by downplaying the deed of which he was most proud, "unsigning" the treaty that Clinton, along with Israel and Iran, had signed in the last weeks of his second term.

But even then, all the main candidates left in the field are somewhat, well, Clintonian, on the issue. They all talk about cooperation with the ICC, and are prepared to entertain signing (or perhaps withdrawing the withdrawal) with proper safeguards. John McCain will be pulled to the right on the issue, at least during the election. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both sound warmer toward the ICC, not least since it began to investigate Sudan, where the ICC has been the only, albeit somewhat blunted weapon that the world has been able to wield against the perpetrators. Clinton says she will decide to work with the ICC based on American interests, while Obama, heading off a future wave of vigilantes, says he wants to consult the military before going ahead.

However, now that the US has stopped trying to strangle the ICC and is even cooperating over Sudan, it really makes no sense to stay outside, and certainly not to boycott meetings of states parties where any legitimate (if any) US objections could be dealt with.

It is a sad commentary on what this administration has done to the US's standing that when the treaty was under negotiation the other parties were quite prepared to accept that the US military justice system was exemplary and that war crimes committed by its troops would be prosecuted domestically. After waterboarding, rendition, illegal military commissions and sentences for Abu Ghraib more commensurate with a ticket for jaywalking than wholesale violations of the Geneva Conventions, US delegates will not be addressing their colleagues from any moral high ground.

Any new president who really wanted to draw a line under the US's shameful scofflawishness under the Bush administration should really ratify the ICC treaty immediately without reservations.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Base Instincts

Comment is Free
May 5 2008
Ian Williams

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed New Labour functionaries have been popping over to the United States for inspiration since the very beginning of the Blair project.

Indeed even before he became leader, Tony Blair visited New York in search of inspiration from the Clintons. When I suggested that Bill Clinton would sell his grandmother in the streets to get votes and donations, his answer was: "He wins elections."

Up to a point. Labour's debacle in the British local elections last week offers an opportunity to reverse the balance of trade in political advice. Democrats in the US can take a lesson from it.

In fact, it is now clear that New Labour has been a political neutron bomb that has destroyed the party while electing its leader. Brown may carry the can, but it was the cumulative disastrous effect of years of Blair's emulation of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that made it possible. Blair saw what Clinton was doing, and saw that it was good. He went home to produce a party without principles, dependent on wealthy donors. New Labour's bureaucratic weed killer withered Labour's grassroots organisation so that the leadership could be free of its membership's importunate reminders of what it was elected for. As local organisations were stripped of power, alienated members left like passengers from the Titanic, not least because they could see the iceberg toward which the captain and his officers were serenely steering.

Like the Clintons, Blair and New Labour took their traditional base for granted, assuming that tribal loyalties, and the absence of a reasonably humane alternative, would keep the voter banks of the working families delivering for them.

Inspired by the Clinton example, Blair cultivated wealthy donors so that he could avoid having to listen to what his guru used to call "special interest groups", like the unions which had set up the party and bankrolled it for most of its history. He also ignored the members, whose voice on every issue from selection of candidates to determination of policy was watered down.

Blair's desperate Clintonesque attempts to raise funds were the scandals that undermined Labour's claim to the high ground. However, the authoritarian, top-down leadership built by Blair, in emulation of the DLC, was convinced that it knew better than its rank-and-file members.

The leadership stuck to policies, ranging from the "private finance initiative", which quasi-privatised state functions on a no-risk, high-profit basis, to abolishing student grants, and most recently the proposed abolition of the lowest 10% income-tax band, despite most of its members' opposition.

Sadly, Brown was fixed on these policies, perhaps more so than Blair, who, like the Clintons, was somewhat flexible on policy issues as long as he personally won elections. Under the circumstances, it has hardly surprising that the party's traditional voters, faced with yet another boot in the testicles from the party that purported to represent them, deserted Brown last week.

So what is the lesson for Democrats stuck in the marathon synchronised seppuku that the primary has become? Simply that Barack Obama is their best hope. There are many who are justifiably agnostic about Obama's policies, about which he has been as vague as the other candidates. However, on at least one issue he has been consistently in advance of Hillary Clinton, and that has been on grassroots mobilisation - not just for fundraising, but getting out the vote.

It is not just his own efforts. Organisations like have responded to their members' votes and steered money his way. His campaign has inspired huge numbers of young people who had never bothered voting to register and campaign.

It is true that his success has bred increasing amounts of corporate money, but Clinton never had any other kind.

In keeping with what her husband and the DLC had done to the party as a whole, her campaign has relied on big donors while neglecting grassroots campaigning. Her only reason for staying in the race now is that she hopes to suborn the convention by persuading the unelected superdelegates to overturn the actual balloting for elected delegates.

Her chosen weapon is swift-boating Obama in the way that the Republican's racist slime factory will eventually do in the general election, regardless of the damage she is causing the party if he becomes the Democratic candidate.

There is no need to be dewy-eyed. People who want to reverse the baleful effects of the Reagan revolution have to expand those grassroots initiatives, and keep the Democratic candidates' feet to the fire to make sure they never again take their voter base for granted.

And who knows, maybe Brown and the Labour party may learn the same lesson?

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Mayday, Mayday, Chickenhawkdown.

Striking at Chickenhawks
Guardian, Comment is Free 1 May 2008

T'was long ago, and in another country. Besides, the day is, if not dead, not what it was. In my youth, much of Liverpool downed tools to celebrate May Day and marched behind the scarlet banners bright. They continued to do so, even when a Labour government introduced a May Day holiday, but made it the first Monday in May. In the boring new world of Labour, I checked and discovered that this year the Liverpool unions will wait until the evening for the May Day march so they can assemble after work.

But even that attenuated display is bigger than in the US, where May Day is now commemorated by a handful of diehard Anglo Socialists and a larger number of immigrant and minority who perhaps have not been informed that in the US May Day, declared after the first world war to be Americanisation Day, is now Loyalty Day by decree of the president.

It is likely that the Puritans of New England, like their dour colleagues left in the mother country, frowned upon May Day celebrations: maypoles, Morris dancing, Queen of the May and hey nonny-nonny-no in the bushes. It was worse than pagan, it was Papist, since the Roman Church had, as usual, dressed the orgiastic event in catholic clothes, with and tied the May Queen to the Virgin Mary.

As HL Mencken suggested, Puritanism was based upon the sneaking suspicion that someone somewhere was having a good time, and on May Day, people did just that. Even so, the day had enough resonance to be reincarnated by the unions to commemorate the birth of the struggle for the eight-hour day - in Chicago. Across the world, the workers took the American import as their own, while back in the US, the labour movement acquiesced in making the first Monday in September Labour Day, even though it is more noted for being the end of summer than the dawn of a new era.

Now, there is a great chance for the day to come into its own. The Longshoremen of the West Coast have declared a strike against the continuing war in Iraq, bringing May Day back to where I remembered it.

And how appropriate and American an occasion May Day is, quite apart from its Chicago origins. Five years ago, a draft-dodging popinjay of a president, dressed in full combat gear, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to a backdrop of the banner declaring "Mission Accomplished". Before he boarded, he had made the annual proclamation declaring the day to be Loyalty Day.

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, the military used to parade in front of the civilian leadership on May Day. In the new age of American power, the resolutely and perpetually civilian leadership of the Republican party chose to perform in front of the military. I actually have the doll of George Bush, US president and elite force Naval aviator, complete with his harness crossing at his crotch like a codpiece to give him the spurious machismo his own military career so eminently lacked.

Surely the time has come for May Day to be celebrated as Chickenhawk Day, to commemorate the folly of the deserter-in-chief and his clique, in perpetuity, or for as long as the war lasts. Whichever comes first.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Island in the Sun - the Sovereignty Stakes

Island in the Sun
Speculator, IR Magazine

Apr, 2008

Ian Williams is the man who would be king

In the old days, a sovereign was a tangible thing, a round, golden item – but German chancellor Angela Merkel has raised the question of how much sovereignty is worth. The tiny principality of Liechtenstein joined the UN only after Iraq invaded Kuwait in order to get cheap anti-annexation insurance. Washington had previously demurred at tiny microstates joining the world body but Liechtenstein’s Prince Hans-Adam II happens to be a personal friend of George Bush Sr.

Until recently, the principality’s banking security made Fort Knox look like a tin moneybox. Short of outright invasion, there wasn’t much taxmen elsewhere could do about the sovereign state. But now Germany is doing all it can to get its hands on the euros stashed in blind trusts in the mountains between Austria and Switzerland.

Britain invented the gold sovereign, has an actual sovereign, and represents almost a thousand years of continuous sovereignty – but while Liechtenstein was using its sovereignty to protect the fortunes of plutocrats, the UK has been hosting the plutocrats themselves. Gordon Brown feared that Greek shipping magnates, dodgy Russian bandits and many others would flee the country in a flock of frightened Gulfstreams at the merest hint they might have to pay tax like lesser mortals.

With all this liquidity sloshing about, surely the time has come to spin off a sovereign state as an IPO, so that hard-working entrepreneurs can participate in some of this sovereignty – and have enough financial clout to frighten any prying snoops.

In an age when Microsoft is financially bigger than all the microstates put together, sovereignty surely has a price tag. One problem is that you need inhabitants to have a sovereign state, but you do not want too many of them.

So I have a plan. Pitcairn is a British colony, peopled by 47 descendants of the Bounty mutineers, whose governor is the British high commissioner in far-away New Zealand. Half the adult males on the island were found guilty of sex offenses in 2004; some were sentenced to prison, others, community service.

Pitcairn is on the decolonization list of the UN, and the lawyers for the accused actually questioned British claims to the island. After all, when they landed, the mutineers hardly claimed the land for queen and country.

With a promise of generous stock options for the 47 inhabitants, they will soon be clamoring for independence – which is when we will set up the Plutocracy of Pitcairn Inc. All shareholders will qualify for a passport, and for a nominal extra fee will become accredited envoys with diplomatic passports. Of course, each share’s value will make Berkshire Hathaway look like a penny stock.

The Plutocracy of Pitcairn’s sovereign wealth fund will be so big that no government will dare act against it, in case we disinvest. It will be the first country in the world set up and run on sound business principles. And yes, just because we can, the currency will be the gold sovereign.

Affairs of States

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2008, pages 13-14

United Nations Report
Affairs of States
By Ian Williams

Some of the thousands of Palestinian children who, along with adults, formed a human chain in Gaza City (above) and along Gaza’s main north-south road to protest Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 1.5 million residents, nearly 900,000 of them children (AFP photo/Mahmud Hams).

IN FEBRUARY, the status of several territories came into question in various ways. Kosovo, with the support of the U.S. and most of the West, declared independence. In the very strictest legal sense, Kosovo is part of Serbia, although there is a much better case for saying that any state which attempts mass murder and expulsion of those it claims as citizens has forfeited any claim to sovereignty over them, or loyalty from them. Certainly that is what was accepted after the Pakistani army rampaged through what was then East Pakistan and is now universally accepted (despite an early Chinese veto of U.N. membership) as the sovereign state of Bangladesh.

The Serbs claim Kosovo despite the overwhelming majority of the population being non-Serb. In pursuit of their claims they have committed mass killings and attempted to drive the indigenous population from their homes, and have used religious excuses to do so. Serbs claim that hundreds of years ago, Kosovo was the cradle of their Orthodoxy and that, furthermore, the Albanians who live there moved in later, and what’s more are Muslims, and thus the core of a “Jihadist statelet” in the region.

It does not take too much imagination to see parallels with another occupation a little further east around the Mediterranean. Indeed, there are even parallels to the west, where Morocco claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, despite the wishes of the people there, on the grounds of ancient dynastic suzerainty—and of course let us not forget that an independent Western Sahara would be a homeland for Muslim terrorism.

It is perhaps not surprising that Israel is a close ally of Morocco and that many of its leading politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Binyamin Netanyahu, have expressed solidarity with Serb claims.

Luckily for the Kosovars, the Chetnik/Likud Axis is not quite strong enough to bring the Lobby into operation in Washington, and the U.S. has recognized the new Republic of Kosovo—in contrast to Washington’s denial of both Western Sahara and Palestine’s claims or, indeed, its denunciation of Taiwan for holding a referendum on whether to apply for U.N. membership under that name.

Of course, consistency in the face of lobbying has never been a strong characteristic of U.S. foreign policy, but at the very least President George W. Bush should follow on recognition of Kosovo with recognition of Palestine, as he promised he would at some time in the future.

Sadly, even as a lame duck president, he is unlikely to go that far, which is one reason why Palestine’s claims to statehood have actually boomeranged. For years at the U.N., the delegation incrementally increased the standing of Palestine and its representatives in the U.N., in the process annoying Israel and, of course, the U.S. But then the process reached its apogee and nadir simultaneously when Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority were given control of some of the occupied territories.

As the road map stalled, the territories became worse than Bantustans—for when the South African apartheid regime established the Bantustans it did not send in troops to kidnap their “citizens,” assassinate their leaders, or bomb and shell them.

Palestinian autonomy has been turned into a weapon against Palestinians. The pseudo government of the Authority—starved of independent finance, under continual harassment, helpless to protect its own people against Israeli incursions—is nonetheless held culpable for failing to control and police its own people.

When U.N. Under Secretary-General John Holmes makes the obvious point, also made by every other objective observer, that the Israeli siege of Gaza “collectively penalizes an entire population,” the Israelis condemned him for “encouraging terrorism.”

Referring to the disconnect between the reality of the situation and the negotiations, Holmes pointed out that Israel was “largely in control of what happens in Gaza. Israel continues to have the obligation of an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel must fulfill those obligations,” and sanely pointed out that this was not the way to foster the peace process.

Apart from the welcome, and recently rather rare, courage of a U.N. Secretariat official, it does raise the question: just how useful is having a notional quasi-state for the Palestinians? The pseudo-state has acted as cover for Israel’s continuing de facto occupation, during which the Jewish State has built its wall and innumerable settlements and their associated infrastructure. The only real road map is the one that shows the apartheid roads the Israelis have built linking the settlements. Even the South Africans did not have segregated roads—that is a modern Israeli accomplishment!

Years ago, only semi-facetiously, I had told friends on the West Bank that they should put up white flags, tell Israel “You’ve won: it’s all yours. Now give us our passports.” I hazarded at the time that they would not be able to see the IDF for the dust of withdrawing tanks.

There is no humor there for Israeli politicians who now regularly cite the nightmare scenario of a unitary state with either a Palestinian majority, or an overt and undisguisable apartheid state which would get little or no international support.

That is why the suggestion from Jordan’s former ambassador to the U.N., the redoubtable Adnan Abou Odeh, deserves serious consideration. The author of the most viable solution for a shared Jerusalem many years ago (see “Two Capitals in an Undivided Jerusalem” in the Spring 1992 issue of Foreign Affairs), he explained recently to columnist Rami Khouri, “Demography is our only available indigenous pressure source. We should tell Israel to take all the Palestinians along with the land, because the two cannot be separated. ‘Take me with the land’ should be our message to Israel, which would naturally lead to a single bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians. Israel does not want this, but we have to force it to choose between a two-state solution and a single bi-national state.”

Abou Odeh’s chosen method is to renounce Palestinian pretensions to statehood: “You have to eliminate the tool that Israel has been using to buy time, squeeze out Palestinians, annex more territory and cement its control of occupied lands. You have to remove the PA instrument that has played the role of sustaining the illusion of a Palestinian state, which is clearly not emerging. President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership should think seriously of unilaterally dismantling the PA.”

John V. Whitbeck takes a similar riff on statehood. In a follow-up letter to his article “If Kosovo, Why Not Palestine?” (see p. 12), he pointed out that Palestine has declared its independence and is recognized by dozens of countries—but not the U.S., the EU, and Israel. “The intelligent and legally appropriate thing to do now would be to reaffirm that declaration,” Whitbeck wrote, “but ONLY with the clear and compelling consequence of the ‘threat’ of demanding equal rights and democracy instead if the U.S. and the EU continue to refuse to recognize the State of Palestine.”
The Farce of “Free” Negotiations

That could indeed end the farce of so-called “free” negotiations, where, for example, Ehud Olmert and Condoleezza Rice can agree to take Jerusalem off the agenda in February without consulting Abbas. Ever since President Bill Clinton wrote the script for the farce of free negotiations between Palestine and Israel, it has been clear that the end of the script was for a Palestinian authority to negotiate the clear international rights of the Palestinians.

Ironically, support for the Palestinians’ legal rights has been steadily eroded while the PA has been in existence. For example, it is not quite the USS Liberty, but the sound of silence from the U.N. and from Canada over the death of Canadian Forces Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener shows once again that Israel can, literally, get away with murder.

The Canadian military board of inquiry concluded that the major and three other U.N. peacekeepers were killed in Qana, Lebanon in 2006 by a “smart” 500 kilogram Israeli bomb. But as the board points out, this was not the usual “collateral damage.” Israel has never confessed to either of the two possible explanations—either complete incompetence or murderous malice that saw it drop 14 bombs and 19 artillery rounds at the clearly marked U.N. observation post despite repeated calls both locally and even from U.N. headquarters to Israel to stop. Ottawa, which in recent years has sadly neglected its own good record of support for international legitimacy in favor of Israel, is as silent about the martyrdom of its own soldier as it is about the repression of the Palestinians.

It is, of course, not alone. In February it was revealed that the British government had fought in the courts to cut out a sentence on the Iraq weapons dossier that was being made public (see “How Labor Used the Law to Keep Criticism of Israel Secret” in this issue’s “Other Voices”). Some honest British civil servant had penciled in the margin that Israel was in violation of U.N. resolutions on nuclear weapons, and the government felt that its publication would damage bilateral relations between Israel and the UK.

It is symptomatic of how half of Europe has reversed its stand on Israeli excesses in the territories. There have been fewer and fewer prepared to question imperial Israel’s new diplomatic outfit. But it does appear that the actions in Gaza are going too far even for the newly sympathetic EU. Israeli diplomats are reporting back that the Europeans are close to breaking the boycott of the Hamas authorities in Gaza in response to Israeli-induced conditions there.

Insha’llah, as they say.