Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Worm Turning Time

No pushover

From Ian Williams

Passionate Detachment, Middle East International, 1 April 2010

This column’s title is a play on George Washington’s famous dictum, cited by former Secretary of State George Ball for his book on the US-Israel relationship, that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils.”

Comparisons are odious, albeit often effective when the rhetoric purples the air about the need for ‘no space between the US and Israel’, as it did so notably at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) rally in Washington on 21-23 March, when over 7,000 Americans applauded a foreign prime minister’s determination to rebut a polite request from the US president not to continue breaking international law.

In contrast, in the last century, for better or worse, the US and Britain have fought two world wars side-by-side. It was only a few years back that Britain finished paying off its 60-year-old loans from the US for fighting World War II. Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s post-war government jeopardised Britain’s precarious economy, and possibly cost him re-election, by going into Korea with Truman. Britain made itself a nuclear target by hosting US bases during the Cold War. Britain was first with the US into Afghanistan and British troops led the advance earlier into Kosovo. Tony Blair lost his premiership (rightly) for going with the US into Iraq. In return, this year, Washington effectively blew off London over the Falkland Islands, to which Britain has a claim accepted by much of the world. There is no British Lobby in Washington.

Now, consider the country that has never fought side-by-side with American troops, but did, within living memory, try to sink a US ship and kill all on board, and whose actions in the Occupied Territories, in the estimation of senior Pentagon officers, are jeopardising US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US bankrolls its wars, regardless of whether it was consulted beforehand, and it insists that the superpower must back its every deed – with “no space between” – to retain territories to which not one other country in the world considers Israel has a valid claim.

But there are signs that the worm is finally turning: that Netanyahu’s chutzpah might get the retribution that he has been begging for. Israel had to apologise to Turkey for making its ambassador sit in a lower chair. In contrast, there have been, and will be, no apologies for Netanyahu almost being sent out through the tradesman’s entrance in the White House (with no photo-call or joint public appearance), and being left to cool his heels in an anteroom while the president went off to dine en famille elsewhere in the building.

Indeed, the massive AIPAC love-fest, with its standing ovation for Netanyahu even as he serially insulted the president and vice-president of the US, might inadvertently have really been a wake. Its attendees almost certainly swing to the Republican right and some of them probably belong to some of the lunatic fringe groups on the far right.

But outside in the real world, Obama’s victory in the healthcare bill re-fired the overwhelming support he has consistently maintained among American Jews. Their backing for Obama belies any claims AIPAC has to be the Jewish lobby. Rather, AIPAC reflects the apparent realisation of Israeli Jews that Obama might be tough with their government. In contrast, the upstart J-Street lobby group that wants to close settlements and advocates a two-state solution is far more representative of American Jewry and is creating political space for sanity, even in the pro-Israeli camp. Almost as much space, one might add, as the Netanyahu government’s arrogance.

From the beginning, I have alternated between the suspicion and the hope that Obama and his colleagues have been giving Netanyahu enough rope to hang himself while they attend to the more pressing domestic issues. Until now, Obama’s White House has had to cope with the very real possibility that some diehard pro-Israeli legislators would be single-minded enough to derail the healthcare reform that the president has made his signature domestic issue. Now he can devote more attention to his signature foreign policy issue. There could hardly be a better time.

Israel’s international standing has for some time been much higher than it has deserved to be. But the past year has deservedly been a watershed, as incident after incident suggests that it is a rogue state with an overweening sense of entitlement. Forged passports for murderers, defiance of Goldstone, diplomatic spats with Turkey, casual insults to the US administration, are all underlain with the perennial finger up the global nostrils represented by Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.

The Israeli electorate would prefer a rubber-stamp administration in Washington, but is realistic enough to frown at a prime minister and a coalition who alienate the only country that can or would defend them if their sedulously-fed paranoid fears were realised. Israelis watched Obama’s White House snubs with interest, not least since most of them already suspected that the president was not the complaisant Clintonesque pushover they wanted. If Obama is serious about a lasting peace accord, Netanyahu’s maladministration is offering him a dual carriageway: domestic US support for financial or diplomatic sanctions against Israel, and a consequent collapse of the Israeli prime minister’s coalition.

Let us hope he follows through with some determination.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ban and Diplomacy

Ban Ki-Moon and the power of diplomacy

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 18 March 2009

The UN secretary-general, in an interview with MEI’s Ian Williams, describes how his low-key public style camouflages a direct and forthright approach in his dealings in private with world leaders, and speaks of his commitment to see international law upheld.

Many Arab observers stick with first impressions of Ban Ki-moon as a hopeless tool of Washington and appeaser of Israel. They should look more closely. In a recent MEI interview, he recalled his visit to the Gaza Strip in early 2009 just after Operation Cast Lead, saying: “I was horrified by seeing what had happened to the UN and to many thousands of Palestinians. I have been pushing very hard to get the crossings opened and to let the UN humanitarian process begin. They promised me to consider positively rebuilding the UN premises and ordinary people’s damaged community.”

On 8 March, Ban met Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and pressed him to open the borders into Gaza to allow reconstruction. Shalom was just the latest of a long line of Israeli politicians who want to see Ban, and even if the secretary-general has not yet managed to get the crossings opened, he did secure $10.5 million “reimbursement” from Israel for damaged UN property (MEI II, 6, p 20). He has also just won the cooperation of Israel for another visit to Gaza.

But the handshakes and photo-ops do not inhibit his statements. A day after meeting Shalom, following Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new homes for settlers in East Jerusalem, Ban’s spokesman said the secretary-general “reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law. Furthermore, he underscores that settlement activity is contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Road Map, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process.” Of course, that is the position of almost every UN member – but it is not often they volunteer that opinion.

In contrast, the US State Department mumbled that the approval for 112 homes in an ultra-Orthodox settlement was “the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of”, while Vice-President Joe Biden expressed slightly stronger (but still mild) distress at the resounding slap in the face that the announcement of new settlers’ homes represented for his administration.

Provide and facilitate
Superficial observers sometimes underestimate Ban because he maintains a low-key public approach, which allows him to continue to deal with recalcitrant leaders. In our interview, for example we discussed his role at the Copenhagen conference, which illustrates his diplomatic style. Climate change had been one of his key issues since taking office, and with little public recognition he played a major role in ensuring that the meeting would be a high-profile one, with attendance of a stature that could achieve results. He was instrumental in pulling the delegates together to salvage the ‘accords’ from the event; but when I asked if, in retrospect, he felt some high-pulpit naming and shaming might have helped, he quietly demurred.

“The secretary-general is not a negotiator,” he said “The members do the negotiating. We provide and facilitate. It is not our job to say we must agree on one or two degrees or on a timetable. I speak on the basis of scientific findings, the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change], but it is the member states who have to negotiate, who have to agree.”

To that end, he is very forthright in stating impeccable principles, but he does not comment in public about personalities, whether President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the generals in Burma, or, presumably, politicians in Israel. However, from his own account, and from others who have seen him in operation, he can be strong in private.

He says: “My meetings with those leaders have been quite straightforward and very vocal, and the record will show this. Most of my senior advisers were quite surprised by how outspoken I was – speaking from my own conviction.”

Ban added: “Normally, diplomatically speaking, one should be nice and indirect, but I believe in being straightforward with leaders who are very difficult to deal with, regardless of whom. But I am still able to maintain a relationship with them.”

Asked about his views on the Middle East, the secretary-general replied: “I can tell you that my dialogue with Israel and Arab governments has always been based on my convictions – human rights, resolution of differences of opinions – and in that regard I have had trust from both parties. Of course, my dialogue with the Israelis has been quite difficult. I have always been trying to communicate over the phone or at bilateral meetings, anytime, anyplace around the world where there is an opportunity. I have been working hard, even though we haven’t yet been able to resume negotiations.”

Of course it is a job that needs the patience of Job, and so it is not surprising that he is “working closely” with George Mitchell. “I have met and talked several times, and I have been trying to help the US effort work, and I think it may have a chance now.”

How did he envisage peace talks that did not involve Hamas? After all, there is no UN decision to boycott them. He side-steps the issue adroitly: “The Quartet has made it quite clear: the condition for their involvement is that they must renounce violence and engage in dialogue.”

Sudan’s crucial year
Ban described the situation in Sudan as a “number one priority” this year. “With an election in April and a referendum in January, it’s a crucial year for Sudanese and Darfurians. There have been so many summits and meetings, and in Addis Ababa, at the African Union, all the African leaders were committed, including President Bashir.”

But are there problems with talking to Bashir while he is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC)? “The ICC case has given a very strong message to the international community that there can never be, and will not be, any impunity. In that regard it created a very important message around the world.” Ban added: “In May, I open the very important review conference of the ICC in Kampala – very important to strengthen the capacity of the ICC. Sometimes you have to confront, but rather than directly confronting, you can use your own wisdom and experience, the cases in the past that have already happened, that is the best way to convince power of truth.”

I had asked Ban about the ICC when he was running for election – backed at the time by US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. He gave it his full support then and he explains why: “That was from my conviction. When I was foreign minister [of South Korea] I visited Rwanda and saw the Massacre Memorial. I was so horrified by what I saw there, I was convinced the international community had to take steps to prevent anything like what had happened there. I wrote in the guest book that there must be no repetition of these crimes.” His comments hint at the effect that the Gaza visit might have had for someone who grew up in a war-devastated country – an experience he keeps returning to.

Ban jokes that when he was elected he was told that ‘S-G’ stood for one of the office’s biggest responsibilities – ‘Scapegoat’. He is aware that in the job he has to look at the sensitivities “not just of the great powers, the P5 [five permanent members of the Security Council], but also NAM [Non-Aligned Movement], Islamic Conference, G77, all of them important political groups. Yet as a person brought up and educated, working for 37 years in diplomacy and as foreign minister of Korea, a small peninsula, divided still, and surrounded by big powers, I had always believed in the power of diplomacy.”

He will need a lot of faith in the Middle East. But if the ‘great powers’ decided to apply international law, he would clearly not be objecting.
Lobbies, genocide and fickle friends

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 18 March

Thou shalt not kill/ But need’st not strive/ Officiously to keep alive, the Victorian poet modernised the Sixth Commandment. The Israel lobby seems to have used his revised version in dealing with the ‘Armenian Genocide’ resolution in the House Foreign Relations Committee which passed 23-22 on 4 March, causing the recall of the Turkish ambassador to the US and jeopardising the recently concluded Turkey-Armenia accord. The affair said much about the power of lobbies in Washington, the cynicism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the irrationality of some national phobias.

The Turkish lobby is growing in the US. Turkish-American organisations have increased in number and roped in the pan-Turkic commonwealth, bringing support from Uighur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Azeri and other groups. Turkey has also been able to summon discreet assistance from military/security lobbies because of its pivotal role in NATO. However, its most substantial weapon has always been the ability to call on AIPAC, whose concern for Israel has outweighed human rights considerations. That did not work this time.

The Armenians, on the other hand, can rely on their own well-heeled, well-established lobby based on their longstanding and successful community, and have often been able to seek help from the Greek lobby – rarely loath to tilt at Turkey – and, of course, from human rights groups.

One had hoped for a more sophisticated reaction from Erdoğan’s government, given the strenuous efforts it has made at rapprochement with the existing Armenian state. It was, after all, the Ottoman Empire, not the Turkish Republic, that undoubtedly carried out mass killings in the old Armenian heartland. Neither the Soviet Union nor the French Republic took the rap for crimes committed under their monarchies, and Ankara carefully expunged many of the Ottoman links in its reinvention of Turkishness. Indeed, reportedly, many of the killings were actually carried out by ‘Mountain Turks’, or Kurds.

The use of the term ‘genocide’ also tends to cloud issues. Mass murder is reprehensible, whether carried out in the name of ethnic, religious, class or any other nomenclature, and sterile arguments about whether the massacres of Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia – and Armenia – count as genocide reduce mass murder to small print for the sake of a convenient handle. It is never completely clear: any Balkan Muslim who lived in Belgrade was fairly safe, as similarly was any Armenian in Constantinople.

In any case, support for Turkey on the issue has long been an embarrassment to pro-Israel representatives. Israel has not stinted in its evocation of genocide, yet in the past, its supporters have lobbied for votes on Turkey’s behalf. This time, despite approaches from the Turks, they decided not to intervene and allowed a free vote.

It would be nice to think that AIPAC had acquired a conscience. However, this is almost certainly another case of hubris. There is little doubt that this was conceived as a warning to Ankara – on a par with humiliating the Turkish ambassador to Israel (MEI II/6 p 18). It is inept and clumsy, but then so is the Israeli government. It sends out such conflicting signals you can almost forgive the lobbyists.

To be fair, while some of the legislators might have wanted to ‘punish‘ Turkey for Erdoğan’s presumption, others welcomed an opportunity to vote with their consciences. They had been opposing the resolutions not because they thought Armenians had not been massacred, but because they had been told it was good for Israel. Yet it was always difficult to base support for Israel on genocide but disclaim Armenian invocations of it, not least since the Armenians, like most such ethnic lobbies, followed the AIPAC blueprint in campaigning.

Rep Tom Lantos and the Anti-Discrimination League (ADL) publicly wrestled with their consciences over the contradictions between combating genocide and helping Israel. Abe Foxman of the ADL told the Jewish weekly Forward: “No Armenian lives are under threat today or in danger. Israel is under threat and in danger, and a relationship between Israel and Turkey is vital and critical, so yeah, I have to weigh [that].”

In the end, however, Israel needs Turkey more than vice versa. Ankara should forget about the resolution, even if it remembers the fickleness of its expedient friends.

Some might see paranoia in invoking the Israel lobby in this context. For those who have not read AIPAC’s own boasts about its effectiveness, it is worth remembering its successful pressure 20 years ago on a dozen senators to ‘unsign’ Bob Dole’s Senate Resolution on the 75th anniversary of the Armenian massacres. That so riled him that he came out batting alongside Baker and Bush against the loan guarantees that Yitzhak Shamir wanted to build settlements.

The previous big battle of the lobbies, often forgotten, was Ronald Reagan’s victory over AIPAC in selling early-warning planes to the Saudis. He marshalled the military-industrial complex and the oil lobby against AIPAC.

If well-heeled lobbies can overcome public opinion on vital issues like healthcare, gun control or banking reform, we should not be surprised that the lobbies predominate on foreign-policy issues on which the electorate range from neutral to ignorant. It is small comfort that it is not only the Middle East – just think of the US’ Cuba policy, which flies in the face of its allies, the electorate and now even most of the Cuban-American exiles. It’s no way to run an empire.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ban, the UN.

Ban The UN
Tribune 12 March
Ban: the man whose hour has come

Our UN correspondent says that secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, against all the odds, is doing a great job
by Ian Williams
Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Ban Ki-moon has an image problem – at least in the English-speaking world. The job description for the Secretary General of the United Nations has always been perplexing. As the old quip has it, what the permanent members want is a secretary to take the minutes and handle the correspondence, while the global public rather hopes for a general – a towering, charismatic figure who will speak truth to power.

He also has to negotiate with the power whose legality and ethics he might be questioning. That allows for some creative tension – not least since the UN Charter empowers the Secretary General to raise issues before the Security Council.

Since the UN’s headquarters is in New York, there is an extra complication. Much of the world media takes its cue from the American media, whose editorial views of the organisation tend to be somewhat jaundiced. Even on the liberal wing of American politics, UN resolutions on the Middle East are depicted as prejudiced and preposterous. That the US can usually only muster a few dependent Pacific atolls to vote with it on Israel is seen as the rest of the world being out of step. On the right, they are more consistent. They question the very existence of the organisation – let alone American membership of it.

So when Ban Ki-moon took office, he had many strikes against him. He had a foreign accent: he was South Korea’s foreign minister, which prejudiced leftists against him almost as much as his support from George Bush and John Bolton. That did not help across the Democratic spectrum either. Conservatives regard any UN Secretary General with suspicion – even if their own administration had nominated him.

It did not help that South Korea is almost beyond the event horizon – in the depths of a geopolitical black hole, with China, Japan, the US and Russia surrounding it and an eccentric neighbour in Pyongyang necessarily taking up a lot of policy attention. This meant that, initially, Ban was prone to accept American and Israeli views of the Middle East.

He inadvertently damned himself in the early stages by joking that the Korean press corps used to call him “the slippery eel” for his skill in evading tough questions.

Other journalists did not notice his sense of humour. The stereotype stuck: Ban was an evasive, boring bureaucrat who did what he was told. The few, unflattering profiles of him were widely accepted as standard – even though one was from a neo-conservative who was unhappy that Ban had not lived up to Bolton’s expectations, while another was a leaked, tendentious report from a Norwegian diplomat who had not secured the UN job she wanted.

In fact, almost unnoticed, Ban has secured $10.5 million “reimbursement” for the damage the Israel Defence Forces did to UN facilities in Gaza. This is a first for the UN, whose premises have often been targeted, and it depended on maintaining relations with Israel even while standing up for UN principles.

Israeli ministers queue up to meet Ban, even though his statements are often far more forthright than his predecessors, “As far as Gaza is concerned, I was horrified by seeing what had happened to the UN and to many thousands of Palestinians”, he told me.

He has shown an attachment to principle that is inconsistent with the caricature. When he was running for office, I asked him about the International Criminal Court and the “responsibility to protect”. He could – and, by all the rules of diplomacy and elections, should – have prevaricated. He could have said he would implement UN decisions. He did not. He declared his unequivocal support for them even though Bolton had made it his sworn task to kill off the ICC.

I asked Ban about this last week and he remembered. “That was from my conviction. When I was foreign minister, I visited Rwanda and saw the Massacre Memorial. I was so saddened and horrified by what I saw. I was convinced the international community had to take steps to prevent anything like what had happened there. I wrote in the guest book that there must be no repetition of these crimes.”

He speaks to President Omar Bashir of Sudan to try to bring peace there, but when I asked about the ICC indictment, he replied: “The ICC case has given a very strong message to the international community, that there can never be – and will not be – any impunity. In that regard it created a very important message around the world.

“I believe in being straightforward with leaders, who are very difficult to deal with – regardless of whom – but I am still able to maintain relationships with them. Most of my senior advisors were quite surprised by how outspoken I was – because I was speaking from my own conviction.”

Indeed, last year, he told the US House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee that the US was being a “deadbeat” about its UN dues, earning a rebuke even from the White House spokesman. But it was a closed meeting, from which a disgruntled congressman had leaked the comments, and the dues are now paid – making Ban the first solvent Secretary General for decades.

The lack of public profile is a mixed blessing. At least Rupert Murdoch’s minions have not yet been on his case yet. But Ban Ki-moon deserves more attention and support.

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Istanbul - the place to go

The Other Second City
The Common Review, (Chicago) Winter 2010

Ian Williams

For more than a century, fervent Greek nationalists
have had the “Great Idea.” This entails the recon-
quering of “Constantinople,” a city that reigned
as the capital of the Greek-speaking world for more
than a millennium. On a recent visit to that city, now
called Istanbul, I had what I thought was a fairly great
idea as well. Istanbul is missing its vocation as a center
for pilgrimage. To put it another way, the place could
be reaping a windfall, a gigantic revenue stream from
religious tourism.
This is a lost opportunity and a crying shame. With its
potential attraction to both Christians and Muslims, the
old city would make Rome look like a measly one-ring
circus. Istanbul could bill itself as “The Other Second
City.” It could be not just the second Rome but also the
second Mecca—with the benefits of drinks served on the
side for the infidel and the indifferently faithful.

Istanbul is one of the rare cities that
provides as breathtaking a view
from the inside as from without.
From the vantage point of the seven
hills claimed in emulation of Rome,
you can see all the way down to the
Golden Horn, the Bosporus, and
the Sea of Marmora, and from the
water and opposite shores you can
look up to revel in the sight of the
mosques, ex-churches, and pavil-
ions of Topkapi Palace crowning the
heights of the city that was, without
question, the greatest in the world
for at least a thousand years. From
the sea, the massive wall and towers
that the emperor Theodosius built
sixteen hundred years ago still frame
the magnificent view.
For connoisseurs of urban his-
tory, the city is a rich palimpsest:
successive architectural and reli-
gious scripts have been written
over earlier versions. Unlike many
cities in the Middle East, this one
has avoided invasion. But for most
nonreligious structures, wood was
the material of choice, and fires as
a result have reshaped and renewed
the city over the centuries, with
fatalistic rebuilding on the founda-
tions each time a structure burns
down. The churches, mosques—and,
I should add, bathhouses—have
been built of stonier stuff. And they
have lasted.
Following World War I, Kemal
Ataturk’s republican government
showed itself blind not only to the
city’s aesthetic grandeur but also to
its sacred history. Ataturk washed
Istanbul’s Byzantine-Ottoman
ambience right out of his hair and
moved the republic’s capital to the
up-country backwater of Ankara.
There, one of the major monuments
is, fittingly, a column erected for the
emperor Julian the Apostate, the last
non-Christian Roman ruler.
Ataturk and his party were no
friends of Islam. After all, they had
just deposed the caliph himself and
abolished the ancient office. They
also banned the veil and the fez as
symbols of backwardness. They had
no sentimental attachment to the
Ottoman era, which was, after all,
dangerously cosmopolitan, encom-
passing far too many nationalities to
be truly “Turkish.” Indeed, the Otto-
man urge to miscegenation was such
that by the end of the dynasty, any
Turkish genes in the sultan’s family
had been diluted to homeopathically
minute proportions.
taturk and his minions were
mistrustful of the Greeks
as well, not so much on religious
grounds but because of that vocifer-
ous Greek nationalist attachment to
the “Great Idea” and an insistence
on calling the city Constantinople.
Ironically for both sides, far from
being a Turkish nationalist renam-
ing of Constantinople, as both
Greek and Turkish nationalists
saw it, the name “Istanbul” is itself
Greek—from ‘stam Polis’ (“to the
City”). The name is symbolic of the
place’s syncretic nature. Even when
it was a mosque, the Hagia Sophia
kept its name, which means “Holy
While in the West the eccentric
Irish monks kept Greek and Latin
alive during the medieval period,
the Romans in the East were equally
alive and well, speaking and writing
Greek and preserving much of what
was, after all, their own classical
heritage. We should note that today
in the West those eccentric Irish
monks are celebrated. The Romans
in Istanbul, on the other hand, for
their comparable achievement have
traditionally been regarded as devi-
ous, decadent, and decayed.
s reactions to Muslims across
the West, and against the pros-
pect of Turkish membership in the
European Union, show, it is not
as if the West has been prejudiced
in favor of the Byzantines. It’s just
that we hated the Turks more. The
very word “Byzantine” is a Renais-
sance West European attempt to
obscure the direct imperial Roman
succession from Constantine I to
Constantine XI, who died on the
battlements as the city fell to the
Muslim soldier and ruler Mehmet
Fatih, “the Conqueror.”
Despite the bad press about the
cruel and lustful Turk, compared
with the Christian powers of the
West, the Ottomans beginning with
Fatih were a tolerant, multicultural,
and meritocratic culture. Christians
and Jews as well as Muslims flour-
ished and held the highest offices
of the state. Of course, there was a
downside, but I’m really not inclined
to weigh the relative merits of Otto-
man impalement against Christian
breaking on the wheel or hanging,
drawing, and quartering, not to
mention burning at the stake.
The “Byzantines” of Constantino-
ple became partners of the sultan in
running the empire. “Greek” sailors
dominated the commerce, the navy,
and the officially sanctioned piracy
carried on by the empire. Indeed,
under the Ottomans, the Phanariot
Greeks of Constantinople had a
larger territorial sway than in the
last centuries of the empire, reduced
as it was to a few enclaves around
the eastern Mediterranean.
After Ataturk demoted it from
imperial capital to provincial town-
ship, Istanbul went into economic
decline. The Greek population
eroded as well, and most of those
remaining were driven out in a
politically inspired pogrom in the
1950s—not because they were Chris-
tians but because they were Greeks.
Nevertheless, a small remnant
survived. They still call themselves
Romans, “Rumi.”

Chief among the remaining
Romans is His All Holiness,
Bartholomew, archbishop of
Constantinople, New Rome, and
Ecumenical Patriarch, who in the
eyes of the Orthodox is, if not
infallible, first among equals and
certainly merits a twenty-one mass
salute or whatever the equivalent for
princes of churches is, along with the
pope. However, Ataturk’s secularist
and nationalist successors deny the
patriarch’s global manifestation and
regard him as merely the head of the
church in Turkey. They insist that
the patriarch be a Turkish citizen,
but they closed down the only semi-
nary that trained priests in Turkey.
Hidden in a corner in the Phanariot
district, poor Bartholomew cannot
assemble the pilgrims the way the
pope can in Saint Peter’s Square.
This is unenlightened policy and just
plain bad for business.
Ataturk’s followers have been
equally ambivalent about the glo-
ries of the sultans’ Topkapi Palace.
Millions are attracted to London to
go to Buckingham Palace, which
has all the architectural merit of a
public housing project and which is
almost as recent as one, only to see
the changing of the guard. Topkapi
oozes beauty and faith and a history
going back half a millennium.
Above all it is a reminder of a
time when Istanbul was to Islam
what Rome is to Catholicism. It is
testimony that the city still hosts
the head of Orthodoxy. The great
religions may have had their hearts
in Mecca and Jerusalem, but their
heads were in Istanbul and Rome.
Istanbul combines both. It is the
original ecumenical pilgrimage
place, offering you patriarchate
and caliphate in one, churches and
mosques to die for, and relics galore.
For example, “the beard of the
Prophet” is more than just a ste-
reotypical Orientalist invocation.
In Topkapi Palace, the sultans,
doubling up as caliphs, amassed
the Amanat—“the Sacred Trusts.”
Still on display is a collection of the
Prophet’s facial hairs, head hairs,
and even the fragment of one of his
teeth. This is the sort of thing that
the devout are willing to pay to see.
But not enough people know about
it. All it lacks is a strong marketing
campaign with the appropriate state
sponsorship to give the Vatican a run
for the tourist purse.
There are allegedly sixty hairs of
the Prophet’s beard in the collection,
although only one is on display. That
number may seem excessive, if not
so much as Voltaire’s suggestion of
building a fleet with wood from the
Cross and floating it on the Virgin’s
milk, but the ancient accounts report
Muhammad giving away his beard
and hair clippings in his latter days,
which would surely have been cher-
ished by his followers.
Indeed, in contrast, some of the
more dubious relics in the Topkapi
were inherited from the Christians,
such as the skull fragment, arm, and
hand of St. John the Baptist. The
provenance of Moses’s staff, Joseph’s
turban, and Abraham’s cooking pot,
not to mention King David’s sword,
all seem to lack the chain of evidence
of the more directly Islamic relics
such as the hairs and the Prophet’s
“honored standard” that the caliphs
used to rally the faithful in arms.
Despite my instinctive skepticism, I
suspect that the relics of the Prophet
himself actually have more cred-
ibility than the glorified gewgaws
of much of the Christian tradition.
Islam has a political continuity and
places strong emphasis on continuity
of the chain of witnesses. The relics
of the Prophet had been collected in
the palace when the Ottomans were
caliphs, inheritors of a direct politi-
cal tradition. In fact, some of these
relics were brought to Istanbul from
Mecca to protect them from the
Wahabi upsurge, with its disdain for
tombs, relics, and such quasi-idola-
trous habits of Turkic Muslims.
big question debated in the
literature is whether the hair
is natural or dyed. The Prophet, by
tradition, had red hair and beard,
and when I first visited the palace
many years ago, so did I. On my
visit this spring, researching for a
book project, I took a closer look at
the subject.
Because the hair was seques-
trated in a reliquary and behind an
armored case protected by an alarm
system, empirical examination was
limited. However, many traditions
describe the Prophet as a redhead,
joining such distinguished company
as myself, the Norse god Thor, and
Judas Iscariot. However, Muham-
mad was forty when he came into
his prophetic prime. Sadly, by the
time I returned to squint at the
relics, I would have had to dye my
beard to return it to the Barbaros-
san hue it had on my first visit—so
I suspect that the two traditions are
not incompatible. The Prophet was a
natural redhead who wanted to pre-
serve appearances with his (much)
younger spouses in mind.
Although there is now a sheikh
reciting the Koran continuously
in the pavilion, which I do not
remember from before, the relics are
displayed as museum pieces, aids to
study rather than agents of sanctity,
and most of the foreigners arriving
seem to be in search of secular his-
tory. They spend as much if not
more of their time gawking at the
sundry bejeweled tchotchkes of the
sultans as they do at the relics. They
show the same lack of reverence as
the echoing tour parties trotting
at the double through the Hagia
Sophia, which has been for decades
in a dusty state of perpetual repair
and renewal: more scaffolding than
In fact, to get the feel of a genuine
Byzantine church, one has to go to
a working mosque, and one of the
relatively unknown treasures hiding
near the waterfront is the Küçük
Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia,
the former church of SS. Sergius and
Bacchus. Its dome was a forerunner
and template for the big one. It gives
a better impression of the original
church than its larger descendant.
Its marble walls survived, and
around its interior frieze the original
Greek inscription to the emperor
Justinian and empress Theodora
survives intact after fifteen hundred
years. Of course, it helps that it is off
the beaten tourist track—it is right
next to the railway track on which
the Orient Express rattled by for
a century or more—but its seren-
ity and dignity is far more likely to
evoke Yeats’s Byzantium than its
quasi-fossilized successor further up
the hill.
The Islamist Justice and Develop-
ment Party (AKP) is pushing the
boundaries of secularism all the
time and may be amenable to high-
lighting the Amanat aspect of the
Istanbul and Topkapi experience, not
least with the mosques all around.
Lending some of the many hairs of
the prophet to these magnificent
mosques would be a good first
step toward ratcheting up religious
Ironically, some of the Rumi
suspect that the AKP may be more
amenable to their plight than the
secularists and that the role of the
patriarch could be enhanced. So the
vision of Christian pilgrims coming
from all points of the compass may
not be that farfetched. But would it
be any fun coming to an Islamist-
controlled capital?
In fact, the AKP has run the city
for some time. It is true that twenty
years ago, there were far fewer head-
scarves on the women. In those days,
however, as soon as it grew dark, one
noticed a sudden disappearance of
unaccompanied women in the city
center. But that was a Mediterranean
thing as much as Muslim custom.
Now, although the volume of the
electronic call to prayer from the
minarets has clearly been incremen-
tally enhanced, the sudden twilight
disappearance of womankind is
much less apparent.
Secularly dressed women mingle
easily with those in headscarves,
sometimes in the same family group.
But these are not Wahabi women
kept in purdah. They walk to the
mosque hand in hand with their
husbands. Their garb is colorful,
slinky, and often brazenly figure hug-
ging. These are women who frequent
lingerie stores with fashions that
make Victoria’s Secret seem a model
of restraint. Islamist-owned stores
and restaurants do not sell alcohol,
but there seems to be no pressure on
those that do, as many drafts of Efes
beer and raki, in my experience, can
Istanbul is ready to step up to its
destiny. The vision is clear; all that is
needed is the implementation. This
city could be the crossroads between
Islam and the West. The history
of the caliphate, the Islamic relics
and the Ecumenical Patriarch, the
churches and mosques, if given the
chance, could begin to pull in the
pious punters from across the globe.
It may seem odd for a secular-
ist like myself to advocate it, but
many people who could not sprint
across the road to save their lives
have waved their pom-poms for the
economic benefits of staging the
Olympics. More seriously, though,
it must surely be a good stereotype
buster to remind people of the
centuries of coexistence of Christi-
anity and Islam in Istanbul during a
period when the Inquisition burnt
brightly in the West.

Orwell and the British Left

Orwell and the British Left
by Ian Williams

Extracted from the Cambridge Guide to Orwell, ed John Rodden.
From Logos 2010: Vol.9, Issue 1

According to his own last words on the subject, just before his death, Orwell was a supporter of Socialism and of the British Labour Party which had swept to power in 1945. Before then, for most of his writing career, certainly from The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937 onwards, George Orwell was an avowed proponent of socialism, although his conceptions of what that meant certainly changed over the years.

Despite his own unequivocal and often expressed views, the popularity of the Orwell “brand” has led many people to misrepresent his views since his death, and to appropriate his prestige for their own political projects. That was typified by the introduction to the most popular edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the US, which quotes him accurately as saying that all his work “was against totalitarianism,” while in a somewhat Orwellian manner cutting out his important following phrase “and for democratic socialism.” Since his death of course, other people’s ideas of socialism have also changed, and even geography has an effect. Socialism will have entirely different connotations, for example, for West Europeans, East Europeans and for Americans, as the truncated Orwell quote would suggest.

This chapter briefly traces Orwell’s political development in the context of the British socialist politics of his era and shows how at an early stage he defined himself specifically as a “democratic socialist,” thus intending to distance himself, and indeed socialism itself, from the various totalitarian tendencies that claimed, spuriously in his view, to be socialist.

Just as Orwell in some ways tried to define his socialism by exclusion, of communism for example, this chapter will rebut some the posthumous claims about his political thought that have been made in clear disregard for his own stated words. In doing so, it relies mostly on Orwell’s own writings, substantiated as they are by many contemporary accounts of colleagues and correspondents.

However, if we are rely upon Orwell’s own works they do need to be put in context for modern readers. The changes in the British Labour Party and society since he died, not to mention the clear difference between British and American domestic politics, despite recent signs of convergence, demand some explanations.

Striking Back at the Empire: Orwell and Class

Any reference point for Orwell’s politics has to be British, indeed, even more precisely, English, since that is where, despite his internationalism, he drew his political inspirations. Although it sometimes evokes comment, it was not at all anomalous that Orwell, an old Etonian scion of a family of imperial civil servants should have become a socialist. Many leaders of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, or Hugh Gaitskell for example, came from similar and even loftier social positions. What is more surprising is the gradualness of his transition to socialism, and it may be that which kept him more firmly attached to the politics he eventually chose, as opposed to the instant conversions to Communism, and often equally instantaneous apostasy, that sometimes characterized others of his milieu.

Orwell’s political metamorphosis from his imperialist chrysalis began with his experience in the British imperial police in Burma which gave him a profound distaste for the British Empire at work, although the later literary manifestation of that dislike in Burmese Days in 1934 certainly seems to have come as a surprise to his colleagues in the force.

Not long after his return from the outposts of empire, he described himself as a “Tory Anarchist,” to the editor of the Adelphi magazine and repeated this designation several times over the years. This was not the same as being a conservative: Samuel Johnson, William Cobbett, Jonathan Swift and others have provided a respectable precedent for writers by calling themselves Tories while defending what they saw as ancient liberties.

Apart from his distaste for the effect of imperialism on subject peoples, his Burmese experience doubtless accentuated his sensitivity to the caste system at home in Britain. Although the minute gradations of the hierarchy of rank in the Raj were notorious, it was simply a more codified and explicit version of the informal but still rigidly delimited social system in Britain, as reflected in Orwell’s calibration of his own origins in the “lower upper middle-class.”

That sensitivity to the caste order of the British social hierarchy was reinforced by his excursions into the lower orders for Down and Out in Paris and London, (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier. His excursions not only moved him to concern for how society treated its poorer sections, the plongeurs of Paris, the tramps of England and the miners of Wigan but emphasized how the British, or rather the English, caste system was not necessarily reducible to crude Marxist economic class analysis.

In the famous repartee between Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, the latter declared "The rich are different from you and me," to be robustly and famously countered by Hemingway. "Yes, they have more money." But Orwell discovered the obverse, that the poor really were different from the middle classes and that the difference between a British working class person and their upper middle class compatriots, even a “lower” upper middle class Orwell, was more deep-rooted than any mere quantitative difference in salary.

Indeed, Orwell went beyond accepting that the poor are different. He decided that they were better, in their ethics, their social cohesion, and even their patriotism. The latter concept was, of course, anathema to orthodox Marxists who held that the working class has no country. Unfortunately for dogma, twentieth century history seems to have settled this question in Orwell’s favour. But then one of the qualities of the working class in Britain, according The Road To Wigan Pier was he had yet to meet “a working miner, steel-worker, cotton weaver, docker, navvy or what not, who was ‘ideologically sound’.”

Most of Orwell’s contemporaries and subsequent critics see The Road to Wigan Pier as his personal road to a socialist Damascus. It was there that he discovered that poverty and squalor were the fate, not only of the tramps and what Marx had once unkindly called the lumpenproletariat, who had fallen through the gaps in the floor of society. He found that the miners of Wigan and the dockers of Liverpool, workers whose toil kept the whole British economic enterprise going, were trapped in hopelessness if unemployed, and dire insecurity even if they had a breadwinner working.

His research came as a revelation to him and to many of his readers. Before the Second World War and the social reforms in its wake, British society was much more stratified even than now. Workers and their children were rarely likely to get beyond elementary school, and even the autodidacts among them rarely had the leisure or opportunity to develop the literary skills that would allow the middle class reader a glimpse through the class curtain. Orwell had gone beyond the event horizon for most of the middle class of Britain. With an outsider’s senses, for example, of smell, he had gone to a different social planet – and discovered intelligent life there.

His experience completed his conversion from “Tory anarchist” to convinced Socialist, but it should be remembered that within the Broad Church of British Labour, there has always been room for Tory Anarchists and similar eccentrics, and he clearly did not rid himself of all his prejudices and eccentricities.

For example, he gratuitously added a Blimpish growl against other middle class socialists to The Road to Wigan Pier, “vegetarians with wilting beards, Bolshevik commissars (half gangster half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals.., escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics…) There is an element of exorcism in the exercise, since his own chosen life-style, keeping goats, running small holdings, fervent chain-smoking and ritualistic tea making, made him eminently parodiable in his own terms.

For example, it is difficult to believe, looking at the perennial scruffiness of his attire in all his contemporary photographs, that he ordered his clothes custom-made from his tailor! He may have been affecting an insouciance to distance himself from his origins. Even at the end of his life, in the hospitals, he was comparing, unfavourably, the middle class accents of visitors with the regional dialects of the staff.

There was also a Dickensian element in his outlook, which is not surprising in view of his own deep appreciation for the novelist. Just as Dickens actually made the trade union officials in Hard Times almost a culpable as Gradgrind the capitalist, Orwell’s phobias included the labour leaders who had come up in the world, and he did not seem to relate strongly to the trade unions, the cooperative movement, and the other genuinely working class bodies that made up much of the Labour Party’s base in Britain.

Indeed, the class struggle, in its more mundane form, of strikes and go-slows, do not enter Orwell’s works, whether essays or novels, in any significant way. While in Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith thought the only hope lay with the Proles, it is noticeable that they were not joining unions or striking! Even allowing for the fact that strikes were relatively rare and unions relatively weak after the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, one suspect that for Orwell, the English Proles were almost an equivalent of the Russian peasantry for Tolstoy, a moral force more than the socio-political unit of traditional Marxism.

The Independent Labour Party

When he did get involved in politics, Orwell chose to join a distinctively British body, the Independent Labour Party, which was towards the left and indeed the revolutionary flank of the British Labour Movement, but which had many distinctive approaches that Orwell shared. He was not as lonely a figure as an American socialist with similar ideas may have been, not least since socialism was in the mainstream in Britain.

The ILP had left the Labour Party earlier in 1932, but still had a wide, albeit shrinking base, members of parliament, and indeed still had many close connections and sympathizers inside the Labour Party itself and the unions. Although the ILP considered itself revolutionary, it was by no means Leninist and was open and non-dogmatic in its beliefs, with a mixture of pragmatic belief in improving the lot of people now and a firm belief that things could and should get much better – without being too specific about the form that future society would take.

It held what it called a “Third Way” position between Leninism and Labour Party right’s reformism, which is, of course, not to be confused with Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s later appropriation of that title.

The ILP believed that socialism could be brought about by an elected Labour Party, which could suppress counter-revolution “by ordinary legal power backed by a Labour organization, and could thus effect the revolutionary change to socialism.”

Indeed the ILP’s identification of a distinctively “British Road to Socialism,” backed by the power of mass organizations, was later usurped by the Communist Party of Great Britain itself, even down to the name, after the Second World War.

The ILP’s indigenous, non-dogmatic but robust politics is clearly one of the sources that Orwell was drawing on, when he declared, “England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.” He claimed, along with the ILP, that it “would be possible to abolish poverty without destroying liberty,” and its people were “more capable than most people of making revolutionary changes without bloodshed.” The emphasis of the ILP was just this, the abolition of poverty in the course of a makeover of society made possible by mass support.

While some commentators have inferred that Orwell was repudiating the Labour Party by suggesting that it was converging with the Conservatives, if read in context, Orwell was actually celebrating such convergence as a distinctively British and implicitly better way of doing things. He elaborated “Thus, no Conservative government will ever revert to what would have been called conservatism in the nineteenth century. No Socialist government will massacre the propertied class, nor even expropriate them without compensation.”

It was ILP leaders like Fenner Brockway who introduced him to Secker and Warburg for publication of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, and later Animal Farm in 1945 when the more communist-inclined Victor Gollancz demurred at Orwell’s political direction. Showing the same humanistic approach that Orwell certainly shared, and in a way anticipating the theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ILP’s leader, James Maxton MP, in his last major speech in 1945, repudiated statist versions of socialism, declaring, “We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an anthill.” In that he could draw upon the support of a vociferous co-operative movement whose political representatives in the inter war years had also warned of the dangers to workers of state control.

Orwell’s ILP connection explains how he could consider himself to be a revolutionary, while strongly spurning “foreign” ideologies such as the various forms of Leninism.

The Spanish Disconnection

Orwell had initially alienated the communists and many others of the more rigid left with his excoriation of them in the Road to Wigan Pier, but what really sundered any vestigial comradely feelings with them was undoubtedly the publication of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, and its exposure of the behaviour of the Soviets, their agents and supporters in Spain during the Civil War.

While he joined the militia of the Spanish sister party of the ILP, the POUM, in Catalonia at the end of 1936, it would appear that he was initially somewhat innocent of the sectarianism of the left and would at one point have happily joined the Communist- dominated International Brigades, because they were on a more active front near Madrid.

However, he was already on the Communist Party’s blacklist, with Comintern agents tracking him, as he became aware when the Communist-dominated Spanish Republican forces moved against the POUM and Anarchists in Barcelona. The Soviet line was that the POUM was Trotskyist, and commentators have often accepted that at its face value, although its leader, Andreas Nin had had strong disagreements with Trotsky. Regardless of whether or not it was Trotskyist, it certainly was not, despite what the Communist press declared, in league with the Fascists.

Orwell’s shock at the blatant lies of pro-Soviet writers was compounded by the perils of his own flight across the frontier, just ahead of the KGB, and the fate of several of his colleagues who did not make it. The vegetarians and escaped Quakers that he had inveighed against in the Road to Wigan Pier may have seemed an impediment to the onward march of socialism, but his Spanish experience persuaded him that the Soviet Union and its supporters were outright enemies. The experience exposed Orwell to the concepts for which he later coined the memorable phrases “doublethink” and “duckspeak.”

Critics debate whether Orwell was actually well versed in Marxism, but several very close to him say that he had read Marx extensively. What may fool people is that like those around the ILP or Tribune, Orwell would have instinctively revolted against the idea of using the specific Marxist dialect, which sounded so foreign to native English speakers

World War Two and Orwell’s Politics

After Catalonia, the Soviet Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 would not have surprised him as much as it did more trusting souls on the Left, but both the Pact, and the way that some intellectuals in Britain turned on a sixpence to match Moscow’s new love affair with the former Nazi enemy provided rich material for both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, not to mention a steady stream of war time commentaries.

As a result Orwell invited many on the Left to the ultimate in thoughtcrime. As befits one who fought against both, he came to “the old, true and unpalatable conclusion that a Communist and a Fascist are somewhat nearer to one another than either is to a democrat” Although this essential identity of totalitarianism despite its rhetorical colours was the constant theme of Orwell’s well-argued work for the last decade of his life, this was still a shocking concept to many who had adopted the slogan “No enemies on the Left!” during the late thirties. That was when Moscow had decided that democratic socialists were no longer the “Social-Fascists” of 1933, but essential partners in the Popular Front period. Many of them kept up kept up that belief even as Stalin decided he had no enemies in Berlin.

The mainstream Labour Party was broadly in favour of the war effort, despite a large pacifist element. Some ILP leaders, such as Maxton, continued to oppose the “imperialist” war with Germany without, however, ever subscribing to the Soviet embrace of their new Nazi ally –which caused a rapid realignment of the far left. The British Communist Party had promptly followed Moscow’s lead and declared it to be an imperialist war, a position held more consistently by people like Maxton and the tiny Trotskyist movement who remained antiwar even after the Soviet Union had involuntarily joined the war when Hitler attacked it.

While the ILP’s position of revolutionary opposition to the war was also initially reflected by Orwell, he and many others soon moved to strong, albeit highly conditional support for the British war effort. He rapidly lost his earlier pessimistic fear that it would bring about a form of fascism in Britain, deciding instead that the social changes and pressures of total war on the home front presented, not so much the opportunity, but more the indispensability of revolution. He had joined the Home Guard, the equivalent of the old militia, and the possibilities of an armed and trained populace excited him.

In the course of the Second World War, the British government would seize control of the economy and direct it towards the war effort to an extent far beyond anything that even Nazi Germany managed. Of course, it was all done in the name of victory, but when the scaremongers warned that socialism would mean draconian rationing and taxation, wartime Britain already had them both, unchallenged by the rich. The war about a large element of social and economic levelling, indicating what was possible in peacetime.

At the same time, with Orwell’s customary tendency to see the skull beneath the skin, his experience of war time Britain, the shortages, the rationing, the bureaucratic regulation also provided the backdrop for Nineteen Eight-Four. He had already detected this in the siege mentality of the Soviets and the bellicosity of the Nazis, but the direct experience in Britain was a chilling evocation of the possibilities inherent in war hysteria and the numbing effect of war’s deprivations. It could happen here after all.

His time at the BBC, where he produced programmes for India in 1941, tempered any tendency to euphoria. His not always successful attempts to get radical and nationalist Indian guests on the programme showed that the old imperialist establishment was far from dead and his direct experience of ideological control of the content, much magnified, became a crucial component of Nineteen Eighty Four.

Then as the war went on, the social unity, and the enforced egalitarianism that it entailed brought him to explicit support for the Labour Party or at least its left wing, where many had drifted from the ILP.

The Labour left mostly organized around Tribune, the independent weekly newspaper which Orwell joined as literary editor after leaving the BBC in 1943. He wrote some of his most memorable essays, including the As I Please columns, for it. It was an accurate title. His colleagues did not always share all his views, but it is a reflection of the eclectic nature of the Labour Party that, unlike in the more Leninist sectarian milieu, there was no hint of censorship. Orwell had a found an appropriate journalistic home at last.

He retained his old school and class connections and their contacts with decision-makers and his new Labour party connections added more as people connected with Tribune or the ILP joined both the wartime coalition cabinet and the post-war Labour government. His editor, Aneurin Bevan, not only joined the cabinet, he was instrumental in setting up the National Health Service.

Although we are unsure whether or not Orwell actually joined the Labour Party, he certainly canvassed for it in the May 1945 election that returned the self-declared socialist party to power with a massive majority. As we have seen, right up to his death, as we know in his attempts to correct American misapprehensions about the purpose of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he described himself a supporter of the Party and the government.

Socialist Anti-Soviet

In the heat of the war and even after, many on the Left were prepared to overlook the Soviet German pact, not least as the Red Army for several years rolled back the Axis forces in a way that the Western Allies did not.

Orwell’s incisively unforgiving attitude to the Soviet Union made him an uncomfortable partner for some of the Labour left, who while deploring Communism as it was practiced in Eastern Europe were equally, or more, concerned about the growing tendency for London and Washington to realign against their former Soviet Ally.

For example, Michael Foot, a colleague and subsequent editor of Tribune and leader of the Labour Party, while speaking admiringly of Orwell, still mischaracterizes him as a Trotskyist because of his firm anti-Soviet attitudes compared with the more ambivalent attitude that others had to the Soviet Ally. The real Trotskyists, as Orwell was discovering from his correspondence with Partisan Review in the USA, where they were relatively much stronger than in the Britain, consistently opposed the war.

Even before the 1945 election he had warned, “There is the impending showdown with Russia which people at the top of the Labour Party no doubt realize to be unavoidable.” He left no doubt which side he would put himself on. “In case of war breaking out, if one were compelled to choose between Russia and America, I would always choose America,” he told his former publisher Victor Gollancz warning that “In international politics . . . you must be prepared to practice appeasement indefinitely, or at some point you must be ready to fight.” However, he kept a sense of proportion, for example, curbing Bertrand Russell’s initial enthusiasm for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia.

The publication of Animal Farm, in 1945 “that anti-Soviet Farrago” as it was described in the communist Daily Worker, compounded his many sins with the Moscow-inclined left, whose vitriol level rose along with its phenomenal sales. What disgruntled Orwell more than their predictable attacks were the people on both the left and the right who agreed with the fable’s core message of a revolution gone bad, but felt it inexpedient to publish it during a war in which the USSR was an ally. Their determined efforts to thwart the satire’s publication provided yet more inspiration for the world of tightly controlled information in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The List

In recent years, the release of government documents showed that Orwell had provided a list to the British government of people that he thought the government’s “Information Research Department.” should not employ. For many people on both sides of the Atlantic, this has conjured up Un-American Activities Committee hearings and McCarthyite purges and dismissals, and some saw it as a vindication of their long-time questioning of Orwell’s socialism.

However, that begs far too many questions. The Labour government elected in 1945 had set up the IRD specifically to subsidize publications that championed “social-democracy as a successful alternative to Communism.”

Not one of those on Orwell’s “List” lost their jobs, were imprisoned, or can provably be said to have had any resulting impediments to their chosen careers, except possibly missing freelance assignments from a government department that they presumably disagreed with anyway!

Indeed, in 1948, just a little before, Orwell had written to his anarchist friend George Woodcock suggesting that their organization, the Freedom Defence Association, consider action against blacklisting. He explained, “It’s not easy to have a clear position, because, if one admits the right of governments to govern, one must admit their right to choose suitable agents, & I think any organization has the right to protect itself against infiltration methods. But at the same time, the way in which the government seems to be going to work is vaguely disquieting.”

Indeed, he went on point out that the communists were victims of the type of measures that they had themselves been calling for against fascists, while he himself more consistently lamented a general public indifference to freedom of speech.

Despite his uncomfortable anti-Sovietism, he never forgot that “one defeats the fanatic by not being fanatic oneself, but on the contrary by using one’s intelligence,” and did not apply double standards. He opposed the blacklisting and repressive action against individual fascists and communists alike, hewing to a higher, inexpedient, standard of civil liberties.

Orwell’s Socialism

Orwell’s memorable final books ensured that he is remembered more for what he was against, totalitarianism, that what he was for, which as he often asserted, was democratic socialism. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight- Four, as the Cold War chilled down all over the world, led to Orwell’s adoption by many conservatives in Europe and America, thus confirming for many of the communist-influenced left the dark suspicions they already had about Orwell’s political positions.

His death in 1950 not long after the publication of Nineteen Eighteen-Four froze Orwell’s political development in the coldest days of the Cold War and presented a stationary target for those of his opponents whose Manichaean world view considered any criticisms of the Soviet Union, especially those as trenchant as Orwell’s, as giving aid and comfort to the “real” enemy – “Western Imperialism.”

While his vision of socialism definitely excluded the Bolshevik model, it was an empirical and pragmatic version. He wrote during the war “Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better,” - a view that would have been entirely in harmony with the broad church that the Labour Party represented.

“Better” could apply ethically as much as financially. For example, in 1941, as he wrestled with the reality of a capitalist British government that had more controls on industry, labour and even food, clothes and furniture, than any other Western nation had ever tolerated – and still basically retained a free society, he warned, “I think we ought to guard against assuming that as a system to live under, socialism will be greatly preferable to democratic capitalism.”

He was not suggesting that socialism was less ethical, or even less efficient, than capitalism, but he consistently maintained that relative British prosperity under capitalism depended on the unsustainable and unethical exploitation of the subject peoples of the Empire. It typified his political approach, which combined a strong empirical and pragmatic streak with what a later Labour Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was to say about his approach to foreign policy, that it should have “an ethical dimension.”

There is no doubt that his experience of working for Tribune, and with people like Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan helped consolidate his support for the Labour Party. Along with the left around Tribune, he cavilled at the Labour leadership’s occasionally overcautious attitude to social change – even as he agreed with its staunch anti-Sovietism.

However the post war social democratic consensus in Britain ensured that Orwell and his works became not only part of the popular consciousness, but also a generally accepted part of political discourse. For democratic socialists, Orwell has become an icon, someone who could reconcile a concern for social justice with a concern for civil rights, and indeed who saw that there was no possibility of one without the other. When conservative Prime Minister John Major quoted Orwell in an election speech, there were guffaws from those, mostly Labour supporters who compared the writer’s socialism with the prime ministers recidivist conservatism, but the quotation bespeaks a popularity. The fact that Orwell is so often misappropriated is a tribute to his popular stature, but also to the failure of his misappropriators to read what he wrote so clearly and eloquently about his beliefs.

Despite the posthumous claims by conservatives and communists alike that Orwell had abandoned socialism by the end of his life, none of his colleagues at Tribune or in the Labour Party and ILP, has ever disagreed with the continuing force of Orwell’s self- assessment, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."


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George Orwell, The Road To Wigan Pier in Orwell, Secker & Warburg 1980, p 223

Gordon Brown, Maxton, , Mainstream 182

Orwell and Angus, CEJL Vol. III The English People

Op cit, p 29

Brown, Maxton p 302

CEJL IV, p 192.

CEJL III, p 432

CEJL IV, p 355

John Rodden, George Orwell, An After Life, p175

CEJL IV p 471

CEJL IV, p 539

CEJL II, p 265

George Orwell, Will Freedom Die With Capitalism? The Left News (April 1941), p. 1683.

CEJL III, “Why I Write,” p 28

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hiss at the UN

Was the UN a CIA plot?

This week's Catskill Review books explores the little known connection between the CIA and the founding of the UN. Saturday 2:30

Ian Williams interviews Stephen Schlesinger, author of "Act of Creation: the Founding of the United Nations," began his book when he discovered that the US had spied on all the delegations at the UN. He discovered the pivotal role played by Trueman, and Republican Senators, in crafting the UN Charter, not to mention Alger Hiss, the alleged Communist spy who functioned as its first Secretary General. But for the paranoid there's lots of of material- the OSS, forerunner of the CIA, ran the founding conference, chose the UN blue color, and even designed the famous UN globe insignia!
2:30 Saturday 13 March on WJFF, streaming and podcast

Friday, March 05, 2010

Taking Goldstone off the boil

Taking Goldstone off the boil

From Ian Williams
Passionate Detachment, MEI, 5 March

That tearing sound you could hear around the United Nations was the sound of people clutching at straws, and then losing their grip as consideration of the Goldstone Report returned to the General Assembly.

In casting his vote against a resolution that called for independent and credible investigations into Operation Cast Lead, Alejandro Wolff, the US deputy ambassador, said he supported independent investigations, but persisted with the trope that the Goldstone Report was “deeply flawed and unbalanced”.

As always, he evinced no evidence to prove that a report saying there was sufficient evidence to merit investigations was in any way flawed.

The Obama administration has refrained from the more shameless witch-hunting of Richard Goldstone, since, after all, he enjoyed the full support and confidence of most human rights and foreign policy officials who came into the administration from the Clinton era. But their characterisation of the report as unbalanced is repeating a slander without substance.

Wolff also lamented that the resolution did not call upon Hamas by name to conduct an inquiry. One feels sure that if it had, he and the others would have decried what would have been tantamount to recognition of a ‘terrorist’ organisation – and used that as another feeble excuse.

Canada was joined by Nauru, Panama, Macedonia and Micronesia in voting against the application of international law. The Dutch, Czechs and Hungarians abstained on the equally specious grounds that the resolution should have mentioned that the Palestinian Authority had only just set up a committee to investigate, while Israel was already investigating. There is, of course, a difference between investigating and whitewashing. But then the Russians also abstained, on the unspoken grounds that any precedent about international investigations into crimes against humanity was unwelcomely close to home.

It was supported by 98 votes to seven, with 31 abstentions, whose main motive, apart from Russia, was to avoid falling foul of the Americans. Significantly, the number of no votes dropped from 18, and previous abstentions moved into the aye lobby.

Interestingly, the Dubai murder (see, Mossad in the spotlight, in this edition) showed its influence. Australia, which, like Canada, had recently become an honorary ex-Pacific Trust territory (like Nauru and Micronesia voting consistently with the US and Israel) abstained this time, and the change was tied to Mossad’s use of Australian passports. France and Britain supported the resolution, both of them no doubt reinforced by the same incident.

The resolution gave both parties five months to conduct acceptable investigations and again called on the Swiss, custodians of the Geneva Conventions, to reconvene a meeting of signatory states to consider how they should be applied to Gaza and the West Bank. It also referred to a reference to the Security Council, which would, of course, put the US in the position of having to use its veto on behalf of a state that has consistently snubbed Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, to the point where he is rumoured to be considering resignation.

There have been objections that the five-month delay will take the issue off the boil, but Israeli diplomatic bungling, general bad behaviour and completely intemperate attacks on Goldstone should keep it bubbling, and there is no way the Arab states can pillory Israel’s delayed and inadequate response without putting the Palestinian side in the dock as well.
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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Ban on Asia

Ban tells it like it is
By Ian Williams
Asia Times 5 March 2010

NEW YORK - When Ban Ki-moon went to Myanmar last July, he was the first United Nations secretary general to enter since his Asian predecessor, U Thant, whose body was taken home after he died in New York in 1974. On that occasion, the military dictatorship of Ne Win provoked massive riots with its funereal disrespect for the country's most famous international figure.

South Korean Ban, 66, came under criticism for speaking to Ne Win’s successors, but was praised for his courage in risking a likely snub. In an interview with Asia Times Online, Ban said his visit was the first in 42 years for a living head of the UN, and he considered it well worthwhile. "I was able to speak to the general public there in an open dialogue. I was told it was the first time that any foreign dignitary had been able to speak to the diplomats, citizens, students of Myanmar."

He added, "I gave them the same message I left for the generals and the rest of the leadership - and hope they will implement it. I am still working very hard: most recently I have communicated again with Senior General Than Shwe, I left a strong message for those leaders. The release of the number two in Aung San Suu Kyi's party was very encouraging, but they must do much more to ensure the credibility of the electoral process," said Ban, in reference to the release last month of U Tin Oo of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The leader herself remains under house arrest.

"This year there will be an election and it is extremely important, crucial, [that it is an] inclusive, transparent and credible one, for that we are working very hard to get Aung San Suu Kyi released and all political leaders released," said Ban.

The junta has said there will be elections this year as a part of a so-called roadmap to democracy, but no date has been set.

Ban's visit to Myanmar summed up his distinctive approach. Despite his low-key public delivery, he claims - and others who have witnessed him do too - that he is firm and principled in private when meeting leaders, whether Sudanese, Israeli or Burmese. "My meetings with those leaders have been quite straightforward and very vocal, and the record will show,'' Ban said. "Most of my senior advisors were quite surprised by how outspoken I was - because I was speaking from my own conviction.''

Ban, who assumed office on January 1, 2007, said: "Normally, diplomatically speaking one should be nice and indirect, but I believe in being straightforward with leaders who are very difficult to deal with, regardless of whom, but I am still able to maintain a relationship with them. Because you know what, I was speaking officially, but at the same time I was trying to tell them of my own experience, what I have witnessed of the Korea experience of the transition to democracy, and the process of economic development from the ashes of the Korean War [in the early 1950s]. And so I have been able to establish some working relationships with those leaders, but I am always straightforward."
So he can talk to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan, even while welcoming the International Criminal Court's 2008 warrant for Bashir's arrest on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Ban can secure "reimbursement" from Israel for damage to UN property in Gaza and issue statements calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza, while still having his calls answered in Israel - and getting calls to answer.

Indeed, he is about to stick his head into another potential hornet's nest - North Korea. "The last visit from my predecessors to Pyongyang was in 1993 by Boutros Ghali. Before him, it was 1979. This is not desirable. I looked through this historical chronology, and I think we need to have stronger and better relations with North Korea. That is why I dispatched Lynn Pascoe [the UN special envoy] to Pyongyang to open a high-level dialogue where they touched upon all aspects of UN/DPRK relations. If I am invited, I will be prepared to go ... [if] I feel that there is a role I can play.''

It would be interesting to hear what he would say to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, but it would be in Korean and in private. The UN-imposed sanctions on North Korea after its long-range missile test and then nuclear tests last April and May. Six-party denuclearization talks remain stuck on North Korea's insistence on conditions that have no immediate chance of acceptance, including the demand for a Korean War peace treaty.

Ban has grown beyond the suspicions of some that his orientation is, well, Oriental, although he confesses he began his diplomatic career thinking, "What should I do for my country, totally devastated by war and very poor?'' He said he thought he could help enhance the status and prestige of Korea. "And so my major in college was in international affairs.''

Ban received a bachelor's degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970 and earned a Master of Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1985.

"It came to our attention that when SG [secretary general] Kofi Annan's term was over [in December 2006], that it was Asia's turn,'' Ban added. "So the Korean government considered the possibility of a Korean being elected, and at the time I was FM [foreign minister] and I was regarded as one of the most suitable.''
Ban was a suitable candidate not only because he was foreign minister. He had worked in Korea’s UN mission as director of the UN department and as chef de cabinet for the Korean president of the General Assembly from 2001 to 2002.

"The dream came at a late stage,'' he said. "But I really believed in the enormous work of the United Nations and its mission and what it could do for world peace and security."

The UN, he says, "Has been and continues to be a beacon of hope. It was the United Nations which really saved Korea. Sixteen countries came to the aid of Korea when North Korea attacked [South Korea in 1950].'' As an aside, he adds, "It was the first enforcement action under the UN charter. The first after only five years of existence."

Indeed, it is often forgotten that technically the Korean War was fought under UN auspices and the flag that flies at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is the UN’s blue flag. "It still does," Ban said, pointing out that "the United Nations command does not report regularly to me, but to the Security Council".

Former secretary general Dag Hammarskjold risked big problems with the US by going to Beijing in the 1950s, when Taipei represented China in the UN. Had Ban considered now going to Taiwan to help negotiate, since possibly the biggest threat to peace in Asia is the confrontation over the strait?

A visit by him would be unnecessary, he said. "I know that there is tension between China and Taiwan but I am also encouraged by what China has been doing by encouraging exchanges and cooperation, trying to free [up] investment both ways. Through these exchanges and cooperation I am more or less optimistic that there will not be too much mounting tensions.'' Reminded that the mainland showed no sign of moving its missiles, Ban was understandably unwilling to be drawn. "I hope they will overcome this problem,'' he said.

He is equally unwilling to be drawn on the question of whether he would expect a second term when his five-year spell runs out in two years. "I have been working very hard over the last three years because I believe in the ideals and mission of the United Nations. I will continue to do that, but now we at the UN are facing unprecedented challenges, multiple challenges facing us all at once,'' he said. "So I am very much preoccupied in trying to coordinate the UN’s response. In time I will have an opportunity to consider this issue."

When asked if his answer appeared to be him reverting to his alleged "slippery eel" mode of evading a question, he countered, "First I have to work harder and harder'' before giving thought to a second term. "I am very humbled every day by knowing that there are so many challenges facing us, and I know I am one of the world leaders that has to work very, very hard in close coordination with the others to address those issues. So I begin every day as if it is the first day of my mandate.''

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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