Monday, July 28, 2014

No Quarter for the Quartet!

WRMEA, August 2014, Pages 11, 17

United Nations Report

No Quarter for the Quartet!

By Ian Williams

Quartet members (l-r) envoy Tony Blair, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 27, 2013. (STAN HONDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
The Quartet was originally set up to persuade a recalcitrant Israel to allow the United Nations to have a role in the peace process. It was also an oblique American token recognition of Russia’s vestigial Great Power status, which allowed it a squeaky wheel in the peace process, if not an actual hand on the helm. Comprising the European Union, Russian and American leaders, along with the U.N. secretary-general, the Quartet’s function was to encapsulate U.N. influence and isolate it from the corpus of decisions made by the U.N. membership. The U.N. members, even after the fall of the Berlin wall, were, of course, much less amenable to U.S. congressional pressure, and thus AIPAC’s influence.
Like any institution, the Quartet has changed over the years, but its main purpose has been to preserve the appearance of “doing something” about the Middle East, while avoiding doing anything that could produce practical results—above all putting any form of pressure on Israel.
It drew up the famous roadmap, then went along complaisantly when Israel, with American support, crumpled it into an origame finger pointed at the Palestinians. Then it watched, apparently hypnotized, as the peace process stopped proceeding. It had a brief moment after the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla—but even then its main function was providing some diplomatic relief for Israel, rescuing it from the international consequences of its own aggressive actions.
Throughout, the Quartet has been a classic fob off for the international public, giving the appearance of action, but none of the reality. Its unique structure of two Security Council members and two multilateral organizations gives it a permanent fudge factor. It was a fascinating display of fuzzy diplomacy, as the Quartet adopted increasingly vacuous lowest-common-denominator positions—which Washington then ignored. The other members of the Quartet did not want a public display of their impotence, so they let the Americans, and by extension the Israelis, get away with it unchallenged.
It then developed a new function—how to express U.S. gratitude to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his unstinting support of the illegal war on Iraq. As the Quartet’s special envoy, the oleaginous Blair, the most overtly pro-Israeli of recent British prime ministers, was allowed a prominent place on the world stage—and, according to contemporary news reports, the U.S. State Department paid his salary and expenses.
It is a measure of how ethical standards worldwide have slipped that there is little or no public outrage that a former British prime minister should be able to masquerade under quasi-U.N. auspices while being paid for by the Americans, usually to do the bidding of the Likudnik govenment of Israel. Blair’s job, in which he officially succeeded former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, is to boost the Palestinian economy. However, while Wolfensohn was occasionally outspoken when exasperated by Israeli frustration of economic growth, Blair has sedulously avoided doing anything that would inhibit his income stream from the Americans and all his sundry highly paid speaking engagments.
It is true that in June Blair declared independence of Israel by confirming support for the new Palestinian coalition goverment, but after all it is Washington that pays his bills, and Kerry also has shown considerable exasperation with Israeli inconsistencies over the peace process.
In the end, however, apart from keeping Tony Blair busy, the Quartet’s only achievement has been preservation of its own unity—a singularly useless feat. It is time to dissolve it, bury it, burn it and force the various parties to state their own positions and hold on to them.

Double Standard on Human Rights

In other news, Ban Ki-moon has just appointed Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, one of the most dynamic and effective of Arab diplomats, to replace South African Navi Pillay as High Commissioner for Human Rights. Being quite effective herself explains why Pillay was reappointed for only two years instead of the usual four. Like almost every other previous incumbent, she fell foul of the U.S. for being outspoken about human rights violations around the world including, of course, Israel.
The U.S. double standard on Israel, which includes ignoring the State Department’s own reports, provides cover for many of the Arab nations’ double standards, which in turn gives Israel’s supporters cover for pointing out those double standards. While it would be difficult to claim the Hashemites as paragons of human rights, they tend to be less worse than many of their neighbors, and Prince Zeid, who represented Jordan at the U.N., has played as good a hand as he could with the constraints of representing his government. More to the point is that he has consistently supported initiatives in support of international justice, notably the International Criminal Court.
While looking at international justice, yet another report ignored by the U.S. was that of “the U.N. Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.” It expressed grave concerns about the reported worsening health conditions of more than 75 Palestinian detainees on hunger strike now in hospital protesting Israel’s continued use of administrative detention.
The fact-finding commission called on Israel to accede to the demand of the hunger strikers to end the practice of arbitrary administrative detention of Palestinians. “It is a desperate plea by these detainees to be afforded a very basic standard of due process: to know what they are accused of and to be able to defend themselves,” said the committee. 
Compared with worldwide attention to, say, Irish hunger strikers, it is almost unreported that a first group of around 100 Palestinian administrative detainees launched a peaceful protest on April 24 and since have been joined by a couple of hundred more. The committee pointed out that “International humanitarian law only exceptionally allows for the use of administrative detention, yet the Israeli authorities have detained a large number of Palestinians for reasons not explicitly indicated.  Initial administrative detention orders of six-month periods can be renewed an indefinite number of times without producing charges.”
Included among those imprisoned under Israeli administrative detention are no fewer than eight elected Palestinian legislators. So much for bringing democracy to the Middle East! 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Neither Kilts nor Skirt Qualifies.

Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Tribune Published: July 27, 2014

Not long after Margaret Thatcher was elected, an otherwise progressive friend of mine confessed that she had voted Conservative, “Because Maggie was a woman.” I do hope that she has had some sleepless nights since then. We should be happy to see good women (and men) elected, but it is an unsustainable idea that estrogen any more than testosterone is in itself a qualification for high office. Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel might all have lactated at some time, but one does not associate them with the milk of human kindness, and they would all have been suitable for a casting call for Lady Macbeth.
Nothing became Barack Obama like his predecessor. As I wrote at the time: “His election might not be the Second Coming, but to pursue the eschatological metaphor, it would mark the end of the reign of the Anti-Christ.” However, despite the fawning press from the liberal punditocracy, if Obama disappointed you, just wait until you see Hillary Clinton. We are talking Tony Blair with boobs here.

Rarely can there have been a power couple more convinced of their self-importance than the Clintons, but within that couple it was Hillary who had more the messiah complex and stiffened the back of the invertebrate Bill when he wobbled in his fervor, as he so often did.
She stood by her man, and behind him, almost certainly urging him to “Do the right thing” to get the couple into the White House. That included flying back from the campaign trail to Arkansas as governor to sign the execution warrant for Ricky Ray Rector, the brain-injured condemned man who proved his unfitness for execution by saying Clinton seemed a nice guy – and asked to save the dessert from his last meal until afterwards. She was also an active partner in throwing black academic Lani Guinier to the neo-con wolves when they ran a campaign against her as a “quota queen”. Guinier had proposed a multi-member constituency system to allow minority representation without the ludicrous gerrymandering that blights American democracy. Nominated for an office by Clintons, her old friends, when the Wall Street Journal weighed in against her, they cut her loose politically and professionally.
Much praised for her forbearance in agreeing to work with  Obama when he so unforgivably defeated her, such forgiveness did not extend to defectors from her camp. It is clear that there is a little mental black book waiting for payback time for them. Bill Richardson, one of the more principled Clinton appointees, was saying only recently that his card was still marked, six years after he had endorsed Obama – and had had the decency to call Hillary to tell her what he was going to do. “Let me tell you”, he said then, “we’ve had better conversations.”
Hillary was notoriously responsible for making sure that the insurance companies got their pound of flesh in the Clinton healthcare proposals – and so bears some vicarious responsibility for excluding the single payer NHS option from Obamacare. After all, insurance companies are major healthcare donors. She backed her husband when the took huge steps to demolish FDR’s New Deal by supporting “welfare reform” that penalised poor and working families and put lifetime limits on unemployment benefits. She supported him as he rewrote the regulatory framework to allow the banks which had supported his campaigns so lavishly to reshape the financial system in ways that brought about the economic crash. And we are supposed to forget all this because it might end up with a president who, very occasionally, wears a skirt? Personally, I would rather have Prince Charles in a kilt.
The brouhaha about her is drowning out much more substantial candidacies on the left. Senator Elizabeth Warren has an appreciation for what is wrong with the country, and knows more is needed than just getting an ambitious and self-serving female in office.  She challenges the neo-liberal consensus, embraced by Hillary, which has led to disaster for the 99 per cent. And, beyond tokenism, Bernie Sanders is one of the few honest men to enter Capitol Hill and has the populist credentials to take on the Tea Party on its own ground with working-class and middle-class victims.
Choosing between a Hillary endorsed by oodles of expedient Wall Street cash and a Republican backed with crazed ideological money from the far right will be a tough choice.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Primary Discolours!

Primary Follies

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: June 29, 2014 Last modified: June 25, 2014

It is fitting that the Tea Party has a completely fictional symbolism for its ideology. In reality, Sam Adams and the other “patriots” were throwing duty free tea overboard in Boston Harbour to preserve their monopoly of smuggled – and thus more expensive – tea in the New England markets. But the Tea Party’s aversion to paying taxes of any kind, to anyone, does represent a consistent string to the tea bag story.
This month, the Tea Party combined with the American system of primary elections to mount yet another tangential triumph sending all sorts of contradictory messages. The number two Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, lost his bid to be the Republican candidate for his Virginia seat. It is measure of the age of unreason that Cantor, a poisonously reactionary shill for moneyed interests, appeared as a moderate when the Tea Party united to defeat the seven-term incumbent. It is almost heartening that he lost despite being backed by lots of campaign funding from the businesses he did so much to serve during his time in Washington.
There are many lessons from this about American politics. Cantor is so far to the right that he would have been almost unelectable 40 years ago, even in Virginia. In those days, the South was virulently racist, but it was quite appreciative of populist government measures that benefited the white poor and middle class. When the Republicans re-conquered the South from the old Dixiecrats, Cantor helped to bring a virulent neo-liberal ideology to the South, and from that base tried with some considerable success to impose it on the rest of the country. It is the combination of Dixie racism and Ronald Reagan’s California neoliberalism that has reshaped the global political landscape.
For ideologues like Cantor, the racist dog whistle was just a convenient tool to persuade poor and middle-class white Southerners to vote for their own economic destruction, and so he made two big mistakes: one was to be relatively rational on immigration reform, and the other was to be too visibly interested in national politics. In the words of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local” – and Cantor neglected his base, concentrating on his national ambitions, both personal and political. The successful Tea Party candidate emphasised that – and also Cantor’s subservience to the banks. It has to be said that few, if any, successful Tea Party candidates vote against big money when they take office – but they do talk about it.
Little remarked in the American media, the vote also represents a major defeat for the Israel lobby, for which Cantor was a fervent advocate. The lobby often claims success in overthrowing any candidate who had been in the slightest way critical of Israeli policies, but they are keeping understandably quiet about their abject failure to keep Cantor in power, which is a double failure since the lobby’s reputation rests on its ability to marshal funding for or against candidates. In this case, the well-funded Cantor’s loss signals that money is not necessarily everything in an election.
The success of the “insurgent” Tea Party candidate has emboldened many other contenders, so the inner-part conflict within the Republican Party will be accentuated even more, as two sets of reality-challenged reactionaries battle within it for dominance. The reaction of what passes for “moderate” candidates will be to adopt even more hardline positions – in effect, granting ideological victory to the rabid wing of the party.
However, these primary victories are within a small subset of the voters. The turnout for the primary elections is very low at the best of times, so a small, motivated group of voters can choose a party’s official candidates – who the majority of the actual voters in the general election might well find irrational and unsupportable.
Once again, the loopiness of the primary system comes into play. In many states, there are open primaries – which means that you do not even have to be a nominal supporter of a party to vote in its primary to pick the candidates. So now so-called moderate Republicans are trying to persuade black and Latino voters to support them in primaries against the more extremist Tea Party candidates.
Do Ed Miliband and his advisors really know the practical consequences of their zeal for primary elections?