Friday, April 30, 2010

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate

Stereotype-bursting history

Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age – Between the Arabs and Israelis 1956-1978
Kai Bird
Scribner (New York), 2010, $30
ISBN: 9781416544401

Kai Bird is a distinguished biographer of American statesmen and their effect on public policy. This memoir, however, is almost as much about the effect of public policy on him as he grew up, maintaining his sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight despite the clash between their support for armed resistance and his own Gandhian non-violent philosophy. It also tells the history of the modern Middle East through the personal stories of Bird, his parents, and his wife (the daughter of Holocaust survivors).

As often happens, proximity to reality brought about a profound change in the sensibilities of the Bird family, who had originally moved to the Middle East with a liberal Western affinity for Israel and a bedrock assumption of American moral superiority. The author is detached from the usual accompanying sectarianism, tribalism and binary thinking. His chronicle of mis-steps implicates both Israelis and Palestinians, while erasing mental caricatures that even students of the region, let alone inhabitants, erect under the constant attrition of bias.

Bird is neither Jewish nor Arab – but he is of Arabist stock, which for many American partisans for Israel is even worse. Too much interest in Arabs or Arabic has not been conducive to career advancement in a Washington that has preferred its smooth flow of prejudice to be unchecked by reality.

His father, Eugene Bird, had applied to study Hebrew, but took up Arabic instead, subsequently working as a US diplomat through the 50s and 60s in Saudi Arabia, East Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo. Kai accompanied him, and later returned in his own right to the American University of Beirut. He was thus on, or near, the scene of the changes in Saudi Arabia with Aramco, the Suez War, the Six Day War, Black September, and all the other fallout from the 1948 war.

Watching the flickering black and white ‘Bonanza’ series broadcast by Aramco is not the stuff of history, but discovering that he was doing so at the same time as Usama bin-Laden (whose favourite show it was) illustrates history; as does living in the same Cairo garden suburb as bin-Laden’s future deputy, Ayman al-Zawaheri, does. Bird’s then girlfriend was held hostage in the Jordanian desert in the events that led to Black September, and a few weeks later he chats with one of the organisers in Uncle Sam’s, the student hangout near the American University of Beirut. While his father was vice-consul in East Jerusalem, he had to pass the nearby Mandelbaum Gate daily to go to school on the other side, and his childhood memories illuminate the parallel universes.

The child’s-eye-view of the Middle East and the tales of survival in Nazi-era Europe are set against stereotype-busting history. Bird emphasises the positive aspects of Nasser and his popularity – and the pragmatism beneath his rhetoric. Nasser was prepared to accept the Roger’s Peace Plan, as was Arafat. Of course, it is no revelation that Israel had planned to attack Egypt in both 1956 and 1967, and did so with no genuine cause; but it makes painful reading now to contrast Eisenhower’s successful brusqueness with Israeli reluctance to withdraw from conquered territories and LBJ’s acquiescence in the 1967 onslaught, let alone subsequent presidents’ acceptance of snub after snub from prevaricating Israeli leaders.

Towards the end, Bird goes to see Hillel Kook, who had raised money for the Irgun, but who also, in the teeth of resistance from ‘official’ American Jewish leaders, publicised the news of the Holocaust and campaigned successfully for funds to rescue threatened Jews from Europe. A resolute secularist, Kook opposed what he called Ben-Gurion’s ‘putsch’, when the latter, on the first day of the Israeli Constituent Assembly, teamed up with the Orthodox parties to abandon plans to write a constitution, declared the Assembly the Knesset, and locked in Orthodox hegemony over the new state’s mostly secular Jews.

As Kook predicted, unlike a secular republic, the idea of a Jewish state precludes non-Jews from real participation in its life. Another provocative assemblage of details recalls that many Israeli leaders would have been prepared to let their old covert allies, the Hashemites, be driven out during Black September, thus facilitating the original two-state solution. Instead, however, backed by Washington, the Israeli air force demonstrated its intention to intervene against the column of tanks heading south from Syria. Almost as significant, he recounts, was the refusal of the Syrian defence minister – Hafez al-Asad – to allow his air force to cover them.

This is an eminently readable and touching book, whose details are amassed not to score points but to make the point: that over and over again American and local leaders have missed opportunities to make peace.
Ian Williams

Big Bankrolls, Big Mouths.




Passionate Detachment, MEI 30 April


Unrepresentative chequebooks

From Ian Williams in New York
Recently, Ronald S Lauder, the lipstick magnate, and Elie Wiesel, one of many dubiously entitled Nobel Peace Prize winners, took out full-page advertisements in the major American newspapers attacking their own government’s foreign policy over settlements and Jerusalem. Others, like former New York mayor Ed Koch, weighed in with columns on similar lines. Wiesel claimed audaciously that Jerusalem was “above politics”, and, even more astoundingly, that “Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem” – welcome news to Arabs whose houses are being demolished, even in East Jerusalem.

Lauder claims, as head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), to be speaking on behalf of the world’s Jews. But there is, of course, one small detail. American Jews support Barack Obama at a rate far higher than the Gentiles around them, and they even support the president’s Middle East policy by a very clear majority.

So why is J-Street, the peacenik-inclined lobby group, regarded as an interloper when it reflects the majority of American Jewish opinion?

When you look at bodies purporting to represent American Jews, one useful question is: who elected them? For many of the organisations, the answer is: whoever signed the last big cheque. Lauder is president of the WJC because he is prepared to pay for it and fly his private jet worldwide to represent it. Others represent organisations whose constant fundraising drive leads them to invoke panicky threats of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli behaviour.

A frequent invocation is the United Nations’ alleged hostility towards Israel, which a recent American Jewish Congress mailing assured me was barred from being elected to the Security Council because of prejudice. In fact, Israel’s own behaviour ensures that it will never win an open election for a seat. But it is not the campaign that is the main purpose of such mailings; rather, it is the donations it solicits for its frenetically pointless activity.

Most American Jews are thoroughly secular, rarely if ever members of a congregation. Of those who are, less than one quarter identify as Orthodox. Israel’s official rabbinate does not accept the conversions and marriages of Reform Jews, who are the majority of the believers. Most American Jews seem content to identify themselves as Jewish in a cultural, ancestral way and play an active role in civic life without joining in the great welter of avowedly Jewish organisations.

Rabbi Elmer Berger used to head a large and arguably more mainstream non-Zionist element of American Judaism. Before he died, he admitted that after 1967 it was a losing battle. But of course most American Jews are not ‘real’ Zionists. They are proudly and passionately American and have no intention of moving to the Promised Land. It is Ersatz Israel, rather than Eretz Israel that attracts their sympathies. In the roots-hungry USA, just as Irish-Americans will sing lachrymose ballads about the Emerald Isle they have no intention of returning to, so many Jews, understandably alienated from their ‘real’ homelands of pogroms and Einsatzgruppen, adopt Israel as a substitute.

But just as Italian Americans don’t take dictation from Berlusconi about how they vote and think, American Jews are increasingly disinclined to obey orders from Netanyahu, let alone such unsavoury characters as Avigdor Lieberman.

So why are ‘official’ Jewish organisations so conservative and pro-Likud in their outlook? The community does, indeed, have a great tradition both of philanthropy and self-help, but there is a large element of self-selection both in the nature of the groups and even more so in their leadership. Numbers don’t make it in the community organisations. Chequebooks do. Many of the groups are private fiefdoms rather than mass movements. But then again, self-selection takes place. More American Jews give to non-Jewish causes than to exclusively Jewish organisations; but those who fund Jewish organisations tend to identify with Israel.

Taken together, these effects tend to distil what passes for American-Jewish leadership into the hands of an unrepresentative, richer and more right-wing coterie that is more extreme than many Israelis in its support for intransigent Likudnik policies. It is also more Republican, which represents a really small minority in the Jewish population, much of which looked with revulsion at its toadying to Bush and association with fundamentalist Christian preachers.

There have always been many American Jews who have spoken out against Israeli governments and for the Palestinians. But Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky spoke as Americans, not as Jews. Their Jewishness was incidental, an accident of birth rather than an organisational principle.

Into the vacuum came pro-peace J-Street, which goes out of its way to argue that it is a pro-Israeli organisation and, of course, it can do so plausibly, since the self-destructive nature of Likud policies is self-evident to so many Jews. Most American Jews might not see Israel as central to the Jewish identity, but there is enough commitment there for them to reject any avowedly anti-Israel movement.

Obama has also blessed J-Street with access, the lifeblood for any lobby, which has provoked the likes of Lauder and Wiesel to take to the hills. J-Street has opened space for the majority of American Jews to be heard after years of increasing conservative conformity.

Of course, Obama is not in the clear yet. Those unrepresentative chequebooks that make self-proclaimed community leaders can still be marshalled in an election. But J-Street blessing could help insulate legislators wanting to support his policies from strident AIPAC-inspired electoral pogroms that have traditionally picked off vulnerable allegedly ‘anti-Israeli’ legislators as an example ‘to encourage the others’. And hovering behind, they have the example of Barack Hussein Obama: vilified and slandered by the Likudnik/Republican fringe, he won unprecedented Jewish support for his election victory despite their vociferous opposition.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Neither Confucianism nor Communism -but Korean

Ian Williams: Neither Confucianism nor Communism but Korean

Review of B. R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters. Melville House Publishing, New York, $24.95.

Ever since its inclusion in the Axis of Evil, North Korea has flaunted its nuclear ambitions to the world, despite the costs to its international relationships. The regime, having suffered almost a year under the thumb of international sanctions and years of self-inflicted economic distress, is still as intransigent as ever, continuing to baffle observers and defy all logic. However, those who crave logic can find it in B.R. Myers’ new book. A close-up Korea watcher, Myers thinks that international negotiators have it all wrong, basing their strategy of engagement on a series of erroneous ideas about the nature of the government in Pyongyang.
On the surface, North Korea looks like a series of contradictions. Beset with an ailing leader and a yet-unclear succession, the regime seems bent on maintaining stability at home, even as it makes trouble for itself abroad. It invokes ideologies with clear Maoist allusions, even after dropping all explicit references to communism. To outsiders, the bizarre spectacle of the Kim dynasty—each successor less impressive and charismatic than the last—has always been a challenge to understand, which has given rise to widely differing assessments. Myers suggests that too many interpreters have been scrutinizing material intended for outside consumption and not availing themselves of the internal publications.
The exegesis that Myers offers tends to rebut traditional analyses that see the country through the spectra of other models, whether communist or Confucian. North Korea is a state bound by ethnicity and proud of its own homogeneity and purity. Its dominant ideology, according to Myers, is “an implacably xenophobic, race-based world view derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.” It is ironic, then, that the North’s most entrenched myth casts South Korea as Japan’s chief collaborator, when in reality, many of the North’s leading intellectuals were turncoats themselves.
While many nations dominated by ethnic chauvinism have sought to expand their territorial boundaries, in North Korea the tendency has been toward isolationism. This isolationism, however, should not be confused with the regime’s purported philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance (as it is usually translated). Indeed, Myers disputes whether Juche had any role except for Kim Il Sung to emulate his contemporaries like Mao through feigned philosophical innovation. Rather, Myers writes off the idea as a meaningless concoction, citing his own futile attempts to get North Koreans to explain the “innocuous, impenetrable, yet imposing,” concept.
Indeed, Myers points out that Kims I and II (and very likely III, waiting in the wings) are almost anti-gurus. Unlike Mao or Lenin or Stalin, the Kims’ propaganda reveals no great intellect, scientific acumen, or insights. Apart from the dynasty’s largely fictional account of Kim Il Sung’s “liberation” of the North—a narrative that downplays the roles of the Red Army in clearing out the Japanese, and the PLA in turning back the Americans—internal propaganda stresses the maternal aspects of the leaders. As Myers puts it, Kim senior was “more of a mother than all the mothers in the world.” For the North, he was the epitome of caring Koreanhood. Today, Kims senior and junior are continually depicted as going to factories, work sites, and military posts, and like Korean Clintons, sharing the pain of their people—but they do not come up with any memorable solutions. It is notable that they are not airbrushed, but depicted in all their podgy pot-bellied reality in the myriad icons the regime distributes, many of which illustrate this handsomely produced book.
In the end, Myers suggests that the mystique of Koreanhood, and the all-pervasive cult of the Kims, have been effective, that many economic refugees do actually return—even those who do not feel deep ties to the dynasty and the state. In short, despite the regime’s apparent idiosyncrasies, it is not going to go away. Indeed, Myers detects a surprising degree of sophistication in the regime, at least beyond its more brutal police-state qualities. Luckily for Kim Il Sung, the economy expanded under his leadership, albeit with a steady stream of aid and (unpaid) loans from his communist neighbors. But Myers stresses that even now, in the midst of hard times since the elder’s death, the regime’s internal propaganda does not fall far from the economic reality, but somehow manages to weave that reality into its narrative. There is no Orwellian increase in the chocolate ration from thirty to twenty grams a week. Unlike in China, where the famine of the 1950s just disappeared from the official state record, the recent North Korean famine (or at least food shortage) was acknowledged, albeit blamed on imperialist blockades, bad weather, and implicitly compared favorably with other global disasters. On the bright side, though, the famine was an opportunity for an action replay of the “Arduous March,” Kim junior’s fictional answer to Mao’s Long March.
Today, there is no longer even a pretence that living conditions in the South are worse than in North, but Myers identifies the most troublesome core northern myth: that idea that people in the South want reunification under Pyongyang’s maternal wing. This myth, taken with the North’s insistence on having a nuclear deterrent to defend the peninsula from the world’s ravishing non-Korean hordes, leads Myers to see little chance of Pyongyang giving up the bomb, but a serious chance that it might try to liberate the South before people in North see this how ill founded this delusion is. If that seems too innocently naïve and self-deluding, well, perhaps it is no more inherently so than the idea prevalent in Washington circa 2003 that Iraqis would greet U.S. troops with wide open arms.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Power of the Penny


MEI 16 April  "Passionate Detachment"

The power of economic weakness

In the immediate context of peace in the Middle East, the US is still, in Madeleine Albright’s accurate but overly triumphant phrase, “the indispensable power”. But increasingly the epithet is highly conditioned. Of course, Washington could bring Israel to the peace table with the ripping up of a cheque, not to mention adding some prominent small print to the implicitly open-ended security guarantee.

But in some ways a threat from the European Union to take away Israel’s favoured status would be almost as effective, not to mention if China or Russia really decided to re-enter the Great Game in the region 20 years after they walked off the pitch. The US is no longer the global arbiter, even though it remains the most important power in the world.

What all this points to is that those far-sighted people who gave us the invasion of Iraq were, like the proverbial stopped clock, occasionally right. Their prescient premise, as outlined in the Project for a New American Century, foresaw the impending end of American global economic dominance, and their solution was to lock in overwhelming military and security superiority.

It is ironic, but also predictable, that their policies have had the opposite effect. In the end, you need an economy that can pay for the military, and the two-war scenario in which they embroiled the US is an outstanding example of imperial overstretch. As the world’s mightiest power struggles in expensive wars of attrition against poorly financed and poorly armed opponents, it does not send a message of strength to the world.

The conservatives were as aggressive in cutting tax for their affluent friends as they were in spending money on wars abroad, so the military efforts have been fought on borrowed money. Bush tried the shock, but as the troops got bogged down, the awe was much less palpable – not least since the world is conscious that to pay the bills, the Pentagon has effectively to borrow money from the Chinese, the Gulf states, and even the Russians, about whose motives the conservatives tend to be highly suspicious.

Current overseas holdings of US government-backed bonds exceed $5 trillion. Interestingly, ‘oil exporters’, including the Gulf states, account for only about $200 billion of that, which suggests that many of them might have been scared off by the decline in the dollar and the increase in politically motivated boycotts and sanctions from Congress, much of it from people close to the Israel lobby.

For the numerologists among us, the foreign holdings of US Treasury bonds pretty much equal the Congressional Budget Office estimate of over $2 trillion for the cost of the Iraq war – Obama’s “war of choice” – and the Afghan war. Economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it at over $3 trillion for Iraq alone.

Indeed, the conservatives’ preoccupation with deregulation and the fetish for free trade have also done much to destroy the economic and fiscal base on which military might depends. While other countries were making cars and computers, the US was making weapons and exporting dodgy financial instruments. Even now, with Obama cutbacks, the Star Wars/Strategic Defence/Missile Defence boondoggle consumes two or three times as much cash as energy research. This is emblematic of the US’ existential problem. The nexus of paranoia, the aerospace lobbies and the neo-cons, force the expenditure of huge amounts on an unproved solution to a dubious threat, which diverts funds from coping with the very real likelihoods of peak oil and global warming.

It is possible that this administration can turn the US economy around, certainly more so than any predecessor or likely successor. But it has to do that with the burden of the bank bailout cash, and in the teeth of a business lobby that wants to keep looting-as-usual on the agenda. Short of a miracle, this is not going to be the American Century.

So where does all this fit into the Middle East? Obama, by temperament and force of circumstance, has realised that American diplomacy can no longer afford to be an oxymoron. But in the case of Netanyahu, to take the Teddy Roosevelt stance of soft talking with a big stick behind the back is difficult when Congress keeps the big stick locked up. The next phase in dealing with the recalcitrant Netanyahu is to send unmistakable signals to the Israeli electorate that their government is about to forfeit the support of its one reliable ally. A big and telling step would be an American abstention, or even a vote for, a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning settlement building.

But if Obama really wants to play hardball, he can make the US’ current economic weakness a strength and confront Republicans and AIPAC Democrats in front of the electorate. As AIPAC’s Steve Rosen once said: “A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

In the face of soaring national debt, unemployment and government cutbacks at home, just how supportive would the mass of American voters be to legislators who want to continue sending their hard-earned and hard-taxed money to a wealthy and ungrateful nation on the other side of the world? Somehow, I cannot see ‘Send More Money to Israel’ ever being on Tea Party placards.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Obama, US and UN

Obama, the US and the UN When Will Good Deeds Follow Fine Words? Ian Williams
English original of an article published in German in: VEREINTE NATIONEN – German Review on the United Nations, Vol. 58, No. 2, 2010, pp. 64–68.

When Barack Obama took office as US president in January 2009, the spirit of international relations changed dramatically. Instead of a general attitude of skepticism toward the UN that had been felt up to that point, the new president and his government share a positive mindset toward multilateralism. However, hindered by a reluctant congress, two ongoing wars and the effects of the economic crisis, the US has yet to demonstrate this new philosophy in binding international obligations. Should it fail to overcome these obstacles, America will not succeed in winning back the faith of the international community or take on a shared leading role in the UN.

One can never rule out the possibility that some future administration in Washington will again try to bully the UN into love and submission, but the administration of President Barack Obama gives no hint of it. Indeed, it has been heartening to see Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon becoming increasingly forthright about UN principles, liberated by the reduction in the sedulously vindictive attention that Washington formerly paid to the UN Secretariat. Of course, some things never change. The Obama administration still foists American personnel on the UN – as it is doing currently in the case of Anthony Lake, the new head of UNICEF – but at least they are not people hostile to the whole concept of multilateral organizations and, like Lake, actually have some qualifications for the job. Obama’s appointment of Betty King as Permanent Representative in Geneva and Susan Rice as Permanent Representative in New York sent appropriate signals to the diplomatic colleagues and UN officials alike, drawing a line under the era of Bolton, which was a snub for the body, whether calculated or insouciant. Symbolically traditional with Democratic administrations, the New York Permanent Representative became, yet again, a cabinet-level post. Apart from personnel, the US has re-engaged with the organization on many other levels. Its decision to stand for a seat on the Human Rights Council, and its success in winning one, parallels its various appointments, which have been of people with a track record of support for multilateralism and international law, although sometimes they do appear constrained by the administration’s attempts to reconcile its overall ethical positions with domestic realpolitik.

It is hardly surprising Ban Ki-moon recently praised the President to me as “the one who declared his full support for the United Nations strongly and publicly. I am very grateful for his leadership and commitment – and of course he paid the dues, he submitted a supplemental budget request.” 1

Better payment behavior

Financial engagement is almost as important as the political commitment. For organizations, just as for people, financial security is an inestimable boon, allowing them to concentrate on their jobs and on forward planning rather than juggling bills. In the case of the UN those bills were in the billions of dollars because of the US failure to pay. This year, Ban Ki-moon and the United Nations have reached just such a state. Thanks largely to Barack Obama and the new Democratic majority in Congress Ban is the first Secretary-General for decades who does not have to worry about paying the bills since the US has finally agreed to pay its dues and peacekeeping contributions. In fact payment of the agreed amounts has yet to be made.

Hostile Congress

For decades the US Congress has persistently refused to pay dues and peacekeeping assessments in full, or on time. It forced successive UN Secretary- Generals to be over-solicitous of US views, and more particularly of the prejudices of interest groups in Congress. Once the original decision was taken to reduce contributions in an attempt to force the UN to drop Palestinian programs, the gates were opened for others. The Israel/Palestine issue has been fairly consistent—and it is worth remembering that it involved many Democrats, not only actively, but also in the sense that many more were reluctant to defend the UN strenuously on the issue. On the Republican side outright hostility to the entire concept of the United Nations has been growing with the influence of the ideological right. While conservatives knew that they did not have a constituency, either in Congress or in the public for the US to quit the organization, they have used every excuse possible to cut funding, whether it was their disagreement with the UN’s positions on the Middle East or alleged mismanagement and corruption. Recently, for example, the gun lobby has used the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which is in the early stages of the negotiation process, to raise funds to fight a perceived global attack on second amendment rights.2

On a more pragmatic level, American politicians realized the power of the purse. For example, the US government immediately dismissed the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s proposal in 1985 of capping American dues at 15 per cent precisely because it would reduce the influence they had over the organization.3 So, even when administrations like that of Bush senior, which used the UN extensively, tried to reduce the arrears they were frustrated by hostile elements in Congress. Clinton was sympathetic to the UN, but not to the extent of risking conservative hostility to defend it. Indeed Congress even failed to deliver on the bi-partisan deal in 1997 in the Senate, between Republican Senator Jesse Helms and Democratic Senator Joe Biden to pay the arrears. George W. Bush, while his administration was far more engaged with the UN than his churlish rhetoric would indicate, did not use his leverage to deliver results in Washington. His advisors, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell almost certainly restrained him from indulging his own prejudices. So accustomed had Americans become to such negative attitudes that they probably did not fully appreciated the redemptive power of Obama’s declaration to the Nobel awards ceremony on 10 December 2009: “(..) America—in fact, no nation—can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”4

New Constellations
Eight years of calculated scorn for global governance, and a previous eight years of evasion and prevarication from Clinton had avoided admitting that. With Obama, we have a President who has declared his support for the UN, with majorities in both chambers of Congress, and whose Middle Eastern policy is, if not identical, closer to agreed United Nations parameters than any of his predecessors. In Congress, a significant pro-Israel faction is tacitly supporting the administration’s policy.

In addition, Ban Ki-moon, although originally the candidate of John Bolton and George W. Bush, has established warm relations with both Congress and the White House. He has been quite insistent on the dues issue and speaks of how he “went to Washington to engage myself with important Congressmen and women, Senators, President, Secretaries of State. I have had House Foreign Relations Committee breakfast meetings, and met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.” Indeed, he was so outspoken last year that he earned a reprimand from the Obama White House for calling the US a “deadbeat.” Obama’s press spokesman said his “word choice was unfortunate.”5 In fact his outspoken-ness follows a pattern of being tough in private and non- committal in public, which is an excellent diplomatic model – but he was dealing with the US Congress, for some members of which diplomacy is an oxymoron – they leaked his comments and then feigned indignation. But he did get the dues paid and the flurry did die down.

Anti-UN Crowd Relatively Silent

The surprising thing is that there has been relative silence from the usual anti- UN crowd. Of course, almost reflexively, the conservative Heritage Foundation accused Obama of selling out the US taxpayer by paying dues and peacekeeping contributions in full, and thirty Republican Senators voted for an amendment diverting all UN funding to military veterans.6 However most of them did so in full awareness that it would not pass, they were simply preemptively covering their rears against attack from the tea-party style conservatives. But the latter were too preoccupied with the deficit, Obama’s birth certificate and healthcare to waste over-much attention on the UN. On a more refined level, the various think tanks from the right whose discourse dominated foreign policy formulation under Bush no longer have any input into the administration which takes its advice from far more liberal, and multilaterally inclined institutions such as the Center for American Progress.

Different Position for the US

With mid-term elections in November 2010, it is possible that there may be a reversion to previous form on the part of the Congress, but in the meantime, apart from the obvious relief of Ban and the UN Secretariat, payment of the dues also goes a long way to restoring American credibility inside the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. Indeed, Washington’s re-engagement with the United Nations brings its own problems. It was gauche but accurate of then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call the USA the “indispensable nation,”7 in 1998 but it is less accurate now. With two continuing wars following the economic crisis stretching its military and financial overstretch make the USA more dispensable now. Other members are less tolerant of special treatment for the US than they would have been before and Washington has to work harder to justify its claims to leadership. Ban himself hastens to qualify the UN/US relationship, not least because he was, at least initially, regarded as an American appointee. “The United States is of course one of the most important states, but please remember that the whole Security Council, all the member states, appointed me. Partnership between UN and US is vital, without such support it is very difficult. However, my role as Secretary-General requires me to have an equally strong relationship with other powers and I think I have been able to get support and trust from all important members.”

Climate Change as a Common Issue
One issue where previous indifference and hostility still haunts the Obama agenda is Climate Change. Ban points out that Obama was the first US president to participate in a summit on climate change and contrasts that with his predecessor, “former President Bush came to the summit came but he did not take part in the official meeting, just the informal summit dinner and meeting.” Ban made climate change one of his signature issues upon taking office, and he is palpably relieved that the Obama administration is working in the same direction. The two worked together to ensure a high level of participation in the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, and in that they certainly succeeded. However, the President is still struggling with a recalcitrant Congress where many of his own party represent mining and similar carbon intensive industries, so even if they are not climate-skeptics they have vested interests in thwarting any effective action. That hampered Obama’s ability to make the grand gestures that might have helped sway some delegations in Copenhagen. His overall support for action at least deprived countries opposed to action of the opportunity to hide behind Bush’s previous scarcely concealed skepticism and indifference. And the United States, battered by financial crisis, which engaged on the issue, is much weaker and less fierce-some than the one that previously opposed it.

Although it was a muted success, the Copenhagen Accord would have been highly unlikely without Ban and Obama working in tandem. Ban’s efforts would have been neutralized by the previous administration. Indeed Ban even met the Senate Sub-Committee on Energy and Climate Change. “After that meeting, they passed the bill on Climate Change,” he says.

Long List of Unfulfilled Orders

However, understandably pre-occupied as it has been with the economic crisis and health care reform, the Obama administration had a disappointing lack progress on many tangible multilateral issues. While everyone welcomes the change in attitude, there is still a long list of international conventions and treaties that the US needs to join if it is to become a cooperative partner in the global community and fully committed United Nations member. For example, still awaiting signatures and ratification are the Law of the Sea, wanted by the Pentagon, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, crucial to the administration’s non-proliferation policy, the Conventions on Land Mines and the Rights of the Child both popular with Obama’s base. The administration is talking benignly about the Arms Trade Treaty and the International Criminal Court but faces strong domestic opposition.

Convention on the Law of the Sea

Some of these, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, supported by the former Republican Chair of the Foreign Affairs Richard Lugar, and crucial for American claims in the rapidly thawing Arctic, are such “low- hanging fruit” that only extreme pre-occupation with local politics can explain the failure to proceed with them. The Law of the Sea is the canary in the coalmine of whether sanity survives on Capitol Hill in international affairs. The only grounds for opposition are the quasi- theological opposition of some conservatives to “world government,” in principle. If the administration cannot secure ratification of an instrument that offers so many benefits to the US, that is wanted by the Pentagon, the navy, business lobbies and most of Congress, then there is little chance of progress on this front, and even less if the Democratic Senate majority is reduced or lost in the mid-term elections this year and as the last rational Republicans retire or are driven from office.

International Criminal Court

In the case of the International Criminal Court, the administration did send an observer delegation to the recent meeting of states parties in November 2009 in The Hague. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Stephen Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, have expressed a general desire to join, but Rapp said, “We are not a ratified state. The question of whether the United States would move forward on that is still, I think, many years away.”8 The US Senate has not ratified the treaty, but there is still some dubiety about the standing of the Bush administration’s reversal of President Bill Clinton’s signature. It has yet to announce any intention of reversing its previous “unsigning” of the treaty, but on the other hand is certainly not going to revert to Bush-era opposition. That is progress of sorts, although from another point of view it simply returns the US to a Clintonian position of benign tolerance for the Court.


One signature issue for the Obama administration in which it certainly needs the UN’s support is non-proliferation and disarmament, both as a general application and in particular cases, notably Iran and Korea, where Ban Ki-moon has sent his Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, in preparation for a possible visit by himself later this year. Of course, success is unpredictable with Pyongyang, but Ban’s background suggests that at least he will understand what is going on—which eludes many other interlocutors. On a larger scale, May 2010 sees the review of the Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) at the UN in New York, and here the international community will be testing the sincerity of the “allowed” nuclear powers, above all the US. Last year the Obama administration baulked at inspections under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which suggests that despite the definite improvement, the Pentagon might still have too much influence over policy. Any implication that the Obama policy is of the “Do as we say, don’t do as we do,” nature of the previous administration will certainly harden resistance from nuclear states. In particular, the administration is reconsidering American nuclear doctrine, which, under Bush, had not precluded first use of nuclear weapons, for example to respond to a chemical or biological attack. One suggested compromise is to declare no first use—but only against implementing NPT members. However, the change in tone is completely reversed from the Bush administration whose ideological opposition to multilateral instruments led it to sabotage the previous NPT review conference and kept the US from ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty even as it tried to apply their terms to other states—some states that is.

Middle East

That returns us to the tiresomely nagging Middle Eastern thread through the US/UN relationship. The almost guaranteed American tolerance for Israel’s nuclear weaponry will challenge its attempts to win support, even though the administration’s declared policy of universal adherence to the NPT has caught the attention of some Israeli politicians—and of course caused some frissons in India as well. It is indeed is over just such Israeli issues that the most likely questions will arise in the US/UN relationship, just as they were the original cause of the breach. For example, it was not edifying to see Obama appointees eating—even if they did not entirely swallow—their previous words on international justice when it came to the “Goldstone Report” on the Gaza conflict, even though their relatively mild comments about “balance” were far from the hysterical and ad-hominem abuse with which some quarters greeted the revered jurist. In fact, the US joined the UK and France in endorsing what is after all the main finding of the report, that the Israelis and Palestinians should conduct credibly independent investigations. In this context, it is noticeable that Obama has not used previous UN resolutions, and even less so the possibility of future Security Council decisions, to prod the maverick Benjamin Netanyahu back onto the trail laid down by the Road Map. In fact, his team has been very careful only to call on the Prime Minister to implement previous Israeli promises particularly on the Road Map. Congress is, to say the least, ambivalent about any UN resolution on Israel, regardless of what the State Department says. On the other hand the Obama administration has not “punished” the UN Secretary-General for his increasing forthright statements about Gaza, because his officials have been saying similar things, albeit less strenuously. Of course, it also helps add pressure on Netanyahu to deliver on Obama’s signature project of a Middle East settlement. The administration has endorsed the Arab League plan9 with its references to the UN-sanctioned borders from 1967, but it has hardly been assiduous in pressuring Israel to accept them, let alone fulfill its pledges the Road Map. Until it does, the world’s jury will remain out on whether the US has truly re-subscribed to the principles of the organization it founded.


In conclusion, it would be hopelessly optimistic, and indeed unrealistic, to expect the US to begin behaving in a European way in relation to the United Nations, but on any objective measure, this administration has moved a long way in that direction. Attitude does count, and replacing the grudging cooperation of the Bush years with the present open attitude makes a big difference for the United Nations and the world. Domestic constraints will almost certainly prevent the administration from actually going much farther in terms of ratifications and accessions to the framework of multilateral conventions, but at least it will not be consciously flouting and sabotaging them. Clearly there will be much more cooperation with the UN Secretariat and Agencies than before, but it will take some considerable time before the US is in an uninhibited position to exercise leadership with other member states of the organization. The memories of previous unilateralism, compounded with a distinct revanchist element of schadenfreude at the present relative American weakness, are likely to make many of them resistant to Obama’s multilateral charm offensive. Obama has at most two terms to woo them, and to consummate the relationship to make it more durable.

1 Interview by Ian Williams with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 23 February 2010 in New York, published in various places, e.g. World Policy Journal, Asia Times. All the following quotes of Ban stem from this interview.

2 See UN press release, GA/DIS/3396, 21.10.2009, and National Rifle Association/Institute for Legislative Action, 25.11.2009,

3 +UN+15%25&source=bl&ots=q0G_5xt632&sig=OYNAZd8jljVG- orj1AGfdbvddt4&hl=en&ei=tq6sS43FL8Wblgf475yQAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum =6&ved=0CBoQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=&f=false

4 Nobel Lecture by Barack Obama, 10 December 2009, Oslo,
5 The White House, Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 12.3.2009, 31209

6 U.S. Senate Rejects False Choice Between Supporting Veterans and UN Funding, UN Dispatch, 20.11.2009, veterans-and-un-funding

7 See

8 U.S. to Attend Hague Court Meeting as Observer, Reuters, 16.11.2009,

9 Interview with Barack Obama, Al Arabiya, 27.1.2009,

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Apartheid: My (very small) part in its downfall

Tribune, April 2, 2010
Ian Williams

Forty years ago, an event in Liverpool tied together Tribune, Peter Hain, Jack Straw and Eric Heffer, Jon Snow and among others, myself.

On March 19 1970, a mass meeting of students decided to occupy the Liverpool University Senate House and stayed there for three weeks, flaunting a red flag on its roof. That really upset the University’s establishment, which had always been profoundly reactionary, in contrast to the radical reputation of its surrounding city.

The Chancellor was Lord Salisbury, an outspoken leader of the Monday Club, supporter of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, whose capital was named after his family. It seemed that significant proportions of the University’s endowment were held in South African stocks. The Apartheid connection was the main target of the protest.

To the baying applause of Tory bankbenchers, the University staged a kangaroo trial and expelled one and suspended for two years most of the committee of ten elected to run the occupation of the city. In lieu of leniency, it suspended a couple for only one year. At the time, it was the harshest repression of the wave of student protest against Apartheid, the war in Vietnam and similar repressions.

At the time, Liverpool Trades Council made the university’s harsh sentences one of the issues of its traditional May Day strike. Indeed, a keen palaeographer can still discern “All Out May Day” painted opposite the old Senate House entrance. Eric Heffer moved an early day motion, Tribune carried an article by Richard Davies, one of the ten, while Peter Hain and Jack Straw, then head of the NUS, came to speak in solidarity.

Last month, survivors of the sit-in assembled in the University’s Victorian core to celebrate the fortieth anniversary. Times have changed, even for Liverpool University. The new Vice Chancellor Sir Howard Newby is actually offering University premises for the re-union, in welcome contrast with previous reactionary vindictiveness. In fact, ITN’s Jon Snow, one of the ten, had previously refused an honorary degree because of that. Sir Howard even expressed his personal regrets to Peter Cresswell, the sole expellee.

Cautiously, the establishment has moved to a cautious acceptance that maybe having had a Chancellor who championed Apartheid was not the most ethical move.

Looking over the roster of those directly involved, it was certainly a formative experience: the sentences may have redirected, but certainly did not blight careers. Many of us were from the first generation of our families to go to university, and we did not forget our origins nor did we forget that our education was a privilege hard-fought for.

From a motley collection of young Liberals, Labour, assorted Communists, Trotskyists and Maoists, emerged over the years a body of socially concerned citizens whose politics have collectively gravitated, I would hazard, to somewhere near Tribune’s rational left. Many were in the forefront of resisting the antics of the Hattonistas and Militant in Liverpool – but did not succumb to New Labour’s vacuous evasions.

Many years later I discovered that the Economic League had also put all ten of us on their blacklist – I even interviewed the guy who did it! But then I remember one of the local Special Branch, an ex Boxer, coming up to me at a rally, saying “I hear you’re having difficulty finding a job,” and reciting a list of all my unsuccessful applications for the previous six weeks. At the time it seemed almost a badge of honour to be considered such a threat. Then Alexei Sayle’s dad, a railwayman, volunteered that British Rail was so short of staff that the interview consisted of taking your pulse. If you had one, you were on. And so I became a British Rail guard and member of the National Union of Railwaymen.

I had already been to China, argued English Literature with Chiang Ching, drank with Chou En Lai, and the railways gave a PhD in the university of life. I coped with so many suicides that the joke was that Samaritans told callers what train I was on, so they would get a sympathetic hearing. I read book after book while stuck between trains, and rose through the NUR to the National Executive, only to go head to head with Sid Weighall, the autocratic General Secretary, who, to my sense of déjà vu all over again, tried to have me expelled. I began to write for Tribune, happy that my articles upset him even more.

I spent much of 1984 in India on a Nuffield Fellowship studying Indian unions and discovering that there were indeed places worse off than Liverpool and that was when I began full time writing, including some of the first dissections of the sordid reality beneath Militant’s rhetoric. After working on Neil Kinnock’s election team in 1987, I finished the first of four books and moved to New York, where I was for a while President of the UN Correspondents Association and am now on my fourth Secretary General.

It was there it all came full circle. Desperately busy, I got a call from South African newspaper –could I cover the visit of the newly released Nelson Mandela to the UN? I had the sense of history circling round and ambushing me. It was indeed a profound pleasure to meet him and tell him about the long strange road his courageous struggle had led to for lesser characters like the Liverpool 10, who his victory – and subsequent statesmanship - had vindicated.