Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reductio ex absurdo!

The potential impact of the Hobby Lobby case

Religious tolerance can only go so far
The Supreme Court seems to have been replaced by some religious conventicle. In the course of ignoring reality to fit theology, it has previously created some awesome precedents, but the Hobby Lobby case is a doozy.

For any American ostriches with their heads in the sand or non-US readers who thought it was just a strip from Ripley’s Believe it Or Not!, this is the recent ruling that says a corporation owned by religious believers has the right to opt out of providing otherwise mandatory contraceptive services to its employees under their healthcare plans if it offends the owners’ sensibilities.

It has always been surprising how many Americans imbue the Supreme Court with some objective detached legal wisdom, as it has always interpreted laws in a highly partisan way. In its glory days, at the time of the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court invoked ‘state’s rights’ to protect the rights of citizens from slave states to retrieve their property, even in states that did not recognize that people could be property.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court follows the famous Citizens United case in endowing corporations with powers, souls and consciences. I can hardly count the ways this ruling offends common sense. The justices seem to have a very circumscribed view of religion, somewhat contiguous with the Vatican (before the current pope, at least). First, the same court ruled some years ago that using peyote in American Indian religious ceremonies was still illegal, and somehow I can’t see the learned justices even considering the documented use of big spliffs in Rastafarian liturgy.

So would a sincere religious belief in the virtues of slavery – as espoused by almost all churches in the South before 1860, and a few even since – allow companies to enslave the sons of Ham? (This is, of course, hypothetical – it is much cheaper to employ them on Federal minimum wage.)

I foresee an almost endless line of petitioners for religious exemptions: Christian Scientists who own companies will want exemptions from providing surgery in employee healthcare plans; Jehovah’s Witnesses will want to exclude blood transfusion services. Shakers and similar sects eschew procreation – will they be allowed to avoid providing pregnancy services and maternity leave for their fecund employees? The courts have previously frowned on Quakers and other pacifist sects objecting to paying taxes to support military spending – will those same sects now be allowed to refuse legal leave to military reservists if it offends their sensibilities?

There are also interesting business implications. To begin with, once the Green family incorporated its Hobby Lobby business, it became a separate person, surely? But if the personhood of the owners is coterminous with that of the company, what happens to limited liability? If the company goes bust, doesn’t it follow that if the owners and the company are one and the same thing that those owners should accept the moral hazard of the financial – or indeed criminal – charges against the company?

When a company breaks the law, it cannot be imprisoned, executed or otherwise returned to the path of righteousness. Its owners and managers can practice corporate mayhem and escape unscathed. If the Green family and Hobby Lobby are coterminous in conscience, should they not be coterminous in consequences? If the company does wrong, shouldn’t the full force of the law come down on the owners – who cannot draw any distinction between themselves and the company when it suits?

There is more than a moral hazard here. As Forbes enterprisingly discovered, most of its pension plan is invested in companies making precisely the same type of products it refuses to allow its health plans to buy. Should the Green family be sued for its failure to maximize returns by discouraging employees from using products that would enhance the company’s pension funds? Why not?

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?

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Pots, Kettles, and Situation in Syria black!

WRMEA, May 2014, Pages 14-15

United Nations Report

It Helps to Have Moral Authority When Criticizing Perpetrators, Passive Onlookers

By Ian Williams

Syria poses a classic dilemma for the United Nations. It cannot do anything opposed by a permanent member of the Security Council, in this case Russia. But there is another dimension, as former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali eloquently complained: the U.N. has no army, no police force of its own. It cannot act unless member states provide the wherewithal for it to do so.
The countries who are prepared, or able, to commit substantial forces are not necessarily those best politically or ethically suited to operations. While Moscow, with help from Iran, has actively provided support for Syria’s military and Bashar al-Assad’s morale, we have to ask about the failings of the rest of the world, and in particular the West.
Diplomacy is interconnected. Washington’s tacit continuation of the Cold War after Glasnost exacts a price, fueling Rus­sian revanchism, and a desire to tweak the Eagle’s feathers. Hardly an occasion has been missed to humiliate Moscow. It is true that Russian rulers have often behaved stupidly and reflexively, playing to populist resentment at home, but they have surely been provoked—and the rewards for being sensible have not been so great.
It began with Russian support for Desert Storm, which was a huge breakthrough. (Indeed it is worth remembering that Syrian troops also played a role in that first Iraq war.) Sergei Lavrov was Russia’s permanent representative to the U.N. at that time, and he smarted under the combined humiliations of the West’s insistence on taking Iraq resolutions farther than their clear intent, and the maintenance of brutal sanctions when they had lost international support.
Russia’s invention of an Orthodox International to be the ghost of the Comintern has certainly trapped it into a geopolitical tangle from which it sometimes has difficulty extricating itself. It went along with sanctions against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic because it was clear to all but a coterie of leftists and nationalists that Belgrade’s actions were beyond the pale of international law. But then it ended up supporting him in ways that persuaded him, like Assad, to continue in his course of action.
The West’s reaction was equally shortsighted and presaged Syria. Secretary of State James Baker thought the U.S. did not have a dog in the fight. Britain and France assumed that the Bosnians would lie down and die, expeditiously, so if it were done, it were best done quickly. They feinted, providing U.N. peacekeepers who did not keep the peace but collaborated in the Serb siege of Sarajevo, while monitoring and counting how many shells were rained down on civilians.

Hardly an occasion has been missed to humiliate Moscow.

While we deservedly point the finger at Russia, in Rwanda the only dog in the fight barked in French. Paris supported the murderous regime and nobody else cared enough to intervene. Countries withdrew their forces and left the few behind isolated and at risk, doing their best to protect the victims.
It is in fact difficult to see a way out of the Syrian crisis in the absence of any credible actors with any moral authority. There are so many double standards that observers could easily grow cross-eyed. The U.S. is hopelessly compromised by the military, financial and diplomatic support it provides for lawless behavior by Israel, whose intervention in turn would possibly have only one positive outcome—uniting Syrians against it. The U.S., if not hampered by the Israel lobby, could make up to Iran and break the spurious unity of Alawite and Shi’i, but under the influence of the same lobby the U.S. was putting distance between itself and Turkey, which could have taken action—except, perhaps, for its less-than-exemplary behavior toward the Kurds, who straddle the regional boundaries.
In the end, where there has been action, it is because world public opinion turned against both the perpetrators and the passivity of the onlookers. That did not work too well in the case of Darfur, of course. However, it seems to be at least one of the principles behind Ban Ki-moon’s increasingly strong statements.
When he was running for the office, U.N. Secretary-General Ban pledged full support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” steered through the U.N. by his predecessor, Kofi Annan. Ban was sincere to the point of career suicide, since the temporary U.S. “permanent representative” at the time was none other than John Bolton, the paleocon who had made it his life work to destroy the ICC—and, for that matter, the United Nations.
Ban’s restrained delivery, sadly, means that his statements are not always taken as strongly as intended. In some ways this is a diplomatic plus. He can tell the truth without being mortally insulting to those he tells the truth about, which is indispensable in offering the U.N.’s intermediary services.
His statement in March went far beyond what most previous U.N. officials would have dared to say about a sovereign state. “Three years ago, the Syrian people stood up in peaceful protest to demand their universal rights and freedoms. In response came brutal force, escalating bloodshed and the devastation of civil war,” he declared, putting the blame clearly on the Assad regime.
“Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world,” he went on, “with violence reaching unthinkable levels. Syria’s neighbors are bearing the increasingly unbearable humanitarian, security, political and socioeconomic effects of this conflict.”
Ban said he “deeply regrets the inability of the international community, the region and the Syrians themselves to put a stop to this appalling conflict,” and appealed “to the region and the international community, and in particular to the Russian Federation and the United States as the initiating states of the Geneva Conference on Syria, to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process.”
So the secretary-general was not just pointing the finger at the parties in the conflict, but also at the other United Nations members who have failed the Syrian people. Valerie Amos, the U.N. under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was even more forthright, adding, “Our collective voice should be raised in protest at the flagrant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law…The international community needs to show the courage and determination to do all that is necessary to reach a political solution. Without that, we will see years more of destruction and continued brutality meted out to the people of Syria.”
It would, of course, be easy to dismiss this as empty rhetoric. But it is in fact more substantial rhetoric than the U.N. exhibited in the past, when under the shield of sovereignty and cowardice it kept its peace about the Balkans and Rwanda.
Ban has been equally forthright on the Palestinian question, calling out Israeli breaches of resolutions, the embargo on Gaza, etc.—at a time, one might add, when Egypt, a member of the Arab League, has been colluding in keeping the Strip isolated.
Some naming and shaming is certainly called for. In this benighted age, there are few independent moral figures. One could not even be sure that the late Nelson Mandela, whose gratitude for support against apartheid sometimes over-rode his ethical sense, as in his support for Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, would get this right.
That makes it even more important for a figure like Ban Ki-moon, backed perhaps by the “The Elders,” the group of statespeople set up by Mandela and Kofi Annan, to call on the various capitals—beginning with Moscow and Tehran— to act, to tell Assad that his time is up.
But that will only be the beginning. If there is a post-regime period, it will need international support. That would be a good time to call Moscow’s bluff—and invite the Russian army to send contingents of peacekeepers to the force that will be needed to maintain security in Syria.
Of course, Crimea does not assist. Moscow denies the right of Kosovars, after ethnic cleansing and massacres, to secede from the state that tried to drive them out. Washington tacitly supports the right of Israel to annex Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights and displace the indigenous inhabitants.
American negotiators back Israel in its attempt to redraw the internationally accepted 1967 line, but Washington condemns Moscow’s (rather clumsy) attempt to redress arbitrary borders drawn up by a Communist-ruled Kremlin. There are even echoes of Palestine in the Crimea: who should vote in a referendum? The Crimeans, who were driven out en masse by Stalin, or the settlers who came in afterward?
And that brings us to the birth of the United Nations. Following World War II, the key principle—evoked in the Middle East resolutions, surviving in East Timor and Western Sahara and invoked in Kuwait—is the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. By moving in troops in large quantities and staging a dubious referendum in Crimea, Putin is breaking a cardinal principle on which the shaky post-war peace has depended. Boundaries are not sacred: they can be renegotiated, they can be arbitrated and litigated—and, in truth, the Crimean boundary is far less sacred than many others.
But the prospect of changing them by force, or with the threat of force, is what united the Security Council against Russia, which was forced to use its veto on March 14.
Putin united the world against Moscow. Yes, the U.S. invaded Panama, Grenada, Vietnam and more, but it pulled out afterward. If Saddam Hussain had just installed a friendly regime in Kuwait and pulled out, he would not have united the world against him.
Russia might not suffer military consequences from its actions, but it has orchestrated diplomatic disaster for itself and others. Watch out for a referendum in the settlement zone, citing the Putin precedent. But it will make no difference. Like Morocco and Israel, Russia might have possession, but the overwhelming majority of U.N. members will not recognize it. Ban should wait to talk to an elected Ukrainian government that one hopes will blunt the influence of the nationalists whose rhetoric and actions have done so much to foment separatism in Crimea.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ban Right on Iran

WRMEA, March/April 2014, Pages 28-29

United Nations Report

Despite Outcome, Ban Was Right to Invite Iran to Syria Talks

By Ian Williams

U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (l) and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Jan. 22 press conference closing the Geneva II peace talks on Syria. (Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images)
George Orwell invented “non-persons” in his novel 1984—people so politically incorrect they were treated as if they did not exist. He also invented the “Two Minutes Hate,” in which crowds were worked into paroxysms of rage at the mention of Big Brother’s political opponent.
Today it is not Big Brother but the Dog’s Tail which decides which is a non-country or a non-person, and identifies which countries are so unfit that they can only be ritually vilified. In Washington, the powers that be seem to blithely forget the years in which the old China lobby persuaded them to ignore Beijing, and the sore loser faction bade them to boycott Hanoi—or how, until recently, no one could talk to the Palestinians. Even now, we can only talk to some Palestinians.
In a recent example of this selective and consciously directed amnesia, Norway’s permanent representative to the U.N. told the Security Council that his country was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. We call for the lifting of the restrictions in compliance with Security Council Resolution 1860 in all its elements, including the need for security for all the civilian populations.”
Compared with what comes out of mealy-mouthed Washington, this sounds like a strong statement. But readers accustomed to the sound of silence will note the absence of names in this otherwise resounding declaration by Norway in the first Security Council meeting of 2014 on the Middle East situation. In what perilously approached Orwell’s Doublethink, Norway could not bring itself to name Israel as the country maintaining the restrictions its diplomat was deploring in defiance of previous resolutions.
In contrast, Iran did not disguise its favorite target the way it used to, since the former “Zionist Entity” has now graduated to become “The Israeli Regime”—which, the Iranian envoy pointed out, “is the only one in the region that possesses all types of Weapons of Mass Destruction but is not a party to any of the treaties banning them.”
He added that it “should also be compelled to join such treaties, in particular to accede to the NPT, without any further delay and precondition, and place all its nuclear activities under the IAEA comprehensive safeguards, in order to remove the only obstacle for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East proposed by Iran in 1974.”
One might not totally appreciate the messenger, but the message is spot on!
Despite, or perhaps even because of, such eminently good common sense, Washington banned Tehran from the peace talks in Geneva, to which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon very sensibly had invited it.
As Ban recognized, you do not make peace by refusing to talk to opponents, and vetoing Iran’s involvement makes it more difficult to achieve peace. The whole debacle suggests that the Obama administration is acting from the Clinton-era script when its dealings with the U.N. are concerned. It is not surprising that Secretary- General Ban has quipped that SG stood for “Scape Goat,” but this debacle, unfairly, had him dubbed as Washington’s poodle—for taking a step with the full knowledge of the State Department and U.S. administration, but which the U.S. then expediently repudiated.
Despite being the victim of poison gas attacks itself, it is true that Iran has not exactly covered itself with ethical or humanitarian glory during the Syrian tragedy. But then, neither has Russia, which has supplied the bulk of the weaponry for the regime. And yet no one has suggested banning Moscow from the talks, or even the Assad regime itself. Additionally, after that regime, among the major obstacles to a rational and democratic solution are the fundamentalist fighters bankrolled by major Arab oil states—with whom the U.S. maintains the closest and most amicable relations.
The problem is that in some quarters—including these armers and bankers of war criminals—Iran is a non-country, which leads to palpably nonsensical acrobatics by Washington and others. The U.S. can have bases in countries bankrolling “terrorist” groups, but because those profoundly undemocratic regimes do not like Iran, the U.S. must be careful about talking to Tehran.
So Israel could sell the ayatollahs weapons in the course of Iran-Contra, during which the U.S. itself was using Tehran to arm right-wing terrorists in Nicaragua. The U.S. and Iran can both support the Iraqi government in defeating Sunni insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, and indeed colluded to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But because President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were, quite correctly, talking to Iran on the nuclear issue, they were on a short leash from AIPAC on Iranian entanglements. This time the dog had more than one tail: There was external pressure from Arabs and Israel, and of course the internal pressure from Congress being whipped up by AIPAC.
Clearly in the real world, it is to everyone’s advantage to have at the table a major player in the conflict—if you want it to end. But diplomacy is often best orchestrated to the sound of silence. Not mentioning issues is often crucial to getting parties to agree to talks, and so Iran’s invitation to the peace talks involved eliding the issue of whether Iran explicitly accepted the Geneva Communiqué on which the talks were based. It had not, but showed signs that it could be nudged that way.
So Ban, with the full knowledge of the U.S., invited Iran to the talks, despite the fudge on whether or not Tehran had signed off on the communiqué. He was taking a bold risk. He rightly believed that Iran should be there, but the talks were the property of the participants, each of which had an implicit veto.
It was a delicate operation, depending on complicity and discretion from all parties. Someone somewhere blew enough to bring the house of cards down. The U.S. side seems to have demanded explicit guarantees of Iranian acceptance of the communiqué, which precipitated an explicit repudiation of them by Tehran. That led to Washington demanding that Ban withdraw the invitation to Iran. American briefers immediately began to castigate Ban’s incompetence, even though it was U.S. diplomatic ineptitude that seems to have precipitated the collapse.
Was it the usual Iran haters who blew the structure down, or did someone in the administration do it so that they could appease AIPAC for defeating it on the sanctions issue? There were so many places such a complex operation could be toppled, it would be difficult to tell. It could be that one part of the administration knew what was happening, and another didn’t.
Clearly, Ban also, justifiably, feels let down by the Iranians for rising to the American bait so quickly. They should have just shut up and turned up.
But the name-calling cannot disguise the inalienable truth that if the talks are to be successful then Iran should be involved in them, that Ban was right to invite them and the U.S. foolish to disinvite them.
As a corollary, if the U.S. had a coherent foreign policy it would build on its common ground with Iran—in Iraq, in Afghanistan and, increasingly, on the nuclear issue, to persuade Tehran that there were advantages in working with Washington to force Assad to the negotiating table. Indeed, the U.S., as its own hydrocarbons bubble up out of the ground, could persuade the Arab Iran-haters to cease their pernicious activities in backing terrorist bands that tend to make Assad look good, even as they open a fifth column in the opposition’s ranks.
Washington could have expressed its regrets at the Iranian invitation, and let it stand. It is not in the longterm interests of the U.S., or any other responsive great power, to diminish the appearance of independence by the United Nations. In the end, the Geneva Talks epitomize the U.N.’s dilemma. The organization is needed to provide a neutral space, an arena for the negotiations. But it also needs the active collaboration of its most powerful and involved members to produce results.
A secretary-general can only play the hand he is dealt, and in this case Ban’s two aces turned to jokers. He should not let it dissuade him from trying to do the right thing in the future.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Onward, Onward Rode the Rogues: a mother lode of patriotic taurine excreta.

Ian Williams

Tribune Written By: Ian Williams
Published: March 7, 2014 Last modified: March 5, 2014

Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea are perilously close to tearing up rules that have kept us “the peoples of the world from the scourge of war.”
Both sides in the conflict will be invoking the United Nations Charter, which enshrines the inviolability of sovereign states and their borders – unlike the League of Nations, which was surprisingly active at redrawing borders after Versailles. The root of the problem is the weird West European notion of the nation state – a Procrustean construct in which populations had to be cut or stretched to fit homogeneously into a frame predetermined by nationalist ideologues. The French probably invented it – at a time when more than half their population did not speak French.
Looking at the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs almost leads to nostalgia, albeit with many qualifications. In their different ways, they at least provided for linguistic and ethnic diversity within one polity, which the European Union (despite its failings) also offers.
Boris Yeltsin’s power grab in Moscow led to the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving far too many questions unanswered, not least of which were the rights of minorities. A shared EU style citizenship, dual nationalities, linguistic rights should all have been negotiated – not to mention open borders.
Decolonisation in both Africa and the former Soviet Union led to many absurdities based on respect for existing boundaries whether drawn up by tipsy District Commissioners in Africa or playful commissars in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s. One of Stalin’s little jokes, Nagorno Karabagh, stranding an enclave of Armenians in Azerbaijan, is a classic unresolved issue that cannot be solved without adjusting borders.
So what of Ukraine? During the Balkan Wars, Bogdan Denitch, who represented the Democratic Socialists of America at the Socialist International, often quoted the Balkan formula: “Why should I be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in mine?” It seems to be doing sterling service in the Ukraine now.
If only Putin were as sedulous about the rights of, say, Chechens, as he is about Russian speakers in the Crimea. Or if Moscow had shown any respect for the rights of the Crimean Tartars. But then the respect for Iraqi sovereignty shown by George W Bush and Tony Blair is hardly a good example. Experience suggests that people believe in their own right to self-determination but are less convinced about the rights of others. Ask a typical Indian about Kashmiri rights, an Argentinean about Falkland Islanders, or a Moroccan about Western Sahara, and the chances are you will hit a mother lode of patriotic taurine excreta.
While many at the time would agree that the Sudeten Germans had been deprived of their right to self-determination, there is a consensus that Hitler’s “liberation” of them broke all the rules. It was the Nazis flouting of the rules against aggression and conquest that led to the UN Charter’s emphasis on sovereignty – which has been reasonably successful so far in averting a third world.
There are more questions than answers in the Ukraine. Its capital, Kiev, was the core of what became the Russian state. There were Polish, Lithuanian and Russian states on what is now Ukrainian territory but until 1917 there had been no independent Ukrainian polity. Ironically, Ukraine owes its present territory to Stalin and his joint invasion with Hitler in of Poland in 1939.
But the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, with their anti-Russian language moves, are not exactly paragons of toleration. If Ukraine has a right to national self-determination, then why don’t the constituent parts also have the same right? There is nothing in the UN Charter to stop boundaries being changed – but not by force. There are other ways. One is negotiation, from first principles with consultation and protection for all the parties on the ground. The other is the EU approach, which has been remarkably successful in making the borders meaningless for all but administrative purposes. If Britain and the new Europe can remain economically part of the EU while grovelling politically to Washington, Ukraine can join the EU without joining Nato and while maintaining the close political relations it needs with Russia. After all, those Ukrainian nationalists still want Russian gas to keep them warm.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Truth to tell and the uses and uses of ambiguity

The Sound of Silence

Written By: Ian Williams
Tribune  February 9, 2014 Last modified: February 5, 2014

The Geneva talks on Syria showed that the current United States administration has followed the old habits of its predecessors – putting truth in Ban Ki-moon’s quip that the SG stood for “scapegoat” rather than Secretary General.
It has been unkindly said that a diplomat is someone who is sent abroad to lie for his country. In fact, skilled diplomats would not lie, but they can be very parsimonious with the truth. Just as in real life, it is not good policy to tell people that they are ugly – even if it is true. If you are trying to reconcile enemies, you chose your words carefully. George Orwell wrote disparagingly in The Politics of the English Language about how official speech “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details”, but that is precisely what you have to do to get warring parties who are not necessarily rational in their discourse to talk to one another.
Fudging issues is often crucial to securing agreement to talks, and so Iran’s invitation to Geneva involved eliding the issue of whether Iran explicitly accepted the communiqué on which the talks were based. It had not done so explicitly, but showed signs that it could be nudged that way.
So Ban, with the full knowledge of the US, invited Iran to the talks, despite the fudge on whether Teheran had signed off on the Geneva communiqué. He was taking a bold risk. He rightly believed that Iran should be there, but the talks were the property of the participants, each of which had an implicit veto.
It was a delicate operation, depending on complicity and discretion from all parties. Someone somewhere blew hard enough to bring the house of cards down. The US side seems to have belatedly demanded explicit guarantees of Iranian acceptance of the communiqué, which precipitated an explicit repudiation of them from Teheran. That led to Washington demanding that Ban withdraw the invitation to Iran. US briefers immediately began to castigate Ban’s incompetence even though it was US diplomatic ineptitude that seems to have precipitated the collapse.
This is stupid on so many levels, not least since it owed as much to covering the rears of Barack Obama and John Kerry. This debacle, unfairly, had Ban dubbed the US’s poodle by some and incompetent by others for taking a step with the full knowledge of the US administration but which the US then expediently repudiated.
Because Obama and Kerry were, quite correctly, talking to Iran on the nuclear issue. But they were on a short leash from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Iranian entanglements. This time the dog had more than one tail. There was external pressure from Gulf Arabs and Israel, and the internal pressure from the US Congress being whipped in by AIPAC. The US could have expressed its regrets at the Iranian invitation, and let it stand. It is not in the long-term interests of Washington, or any other responsible great power, to diminish the appearance of independence by the United Nations.
Ban also, justifiably, feels let down by the Iranians for rising to the American bait so quickly. They should have just shut up and turned up. But the name-calling cannot disguise the inalienable truth that, if the talks are to be successful, then the Iranians should be involved and that Ban was right to invite them.
As a corollary, if the US had a joined-up foreign policy, it would build on its common ground with Iran – in Iraq, in Afghanistan and increasingly on the nuclear issue, to persuade the ayatollahs that there were advantages in working with the US to force Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.
Indeed, the US could try to persuade the Arab Iran-haters to cease their pernicious activities in backing terrorist bands in Syria that tend to make Assad look good even as they open a fifth column in the opposition’s ranks.
In the end, the Geneva talks epitomise the UN’s dilemma. The organisation is needed to provide a neutral space, an arena for the negotiations. But the UN needs the active collaboration of its most powerful and involved members states to produce results. A Secretary General can only play the hand he is dealt. In this case, Ban’s two aces turned out to be to jokers. He should not let it dissuade him from trying to do the right thing in the future.

About Ian Williams
Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Welcome to the Orwellian Nightmare and Worse

 Tribune 10 January 2014

Anniversaries are the base for many a column, and surely 30 years after 1984, the world’s most memorable dystopia is a solid foundation for this one. Orwell derived many of the ideas for Nineteen Eighty-Four from his observations of wartime London and the geopolitics of the Second World War. This year is also the 70th anniversary of 1944, a turning point of war which provided fodder for many of the essays of Tribune’s most illustrious literary contributor. There were unlikely to be any memory holes in Tribune’s office, but he certainly saw the equivalent in the BBC where he worked, and while Tribune could not run to a canteen, the Beeb’s seems to have “inspired” him with the colour (grey) for the Ministry of Truth’s equivalent, as did the University of London’s brutalist Senate Tower looming over Bloomsbury in which he located the Ministry.
Orwell saw how prototype technologies could be applied to tyranny. The ominous potential of helicopters was later demonstrated in places such as Chile, Vietnam and Afghanistan. In many parts of the world, drones drop their bomb loads with enough frequency of inaccuracy to be almost random, like the rockets that hit Airstrip One – and Orwell’s wartime London. He noted that newspapers did not report the V1 hits then. If alive now, he might notice that their contemporary equivalents go almost as unreported in the country that sends them.
The ubiquity of remote cameras and concealed microphones on the British streetscape has now been surpassed by the National Security Agency and its British comrades in scrutiny, whose surveillance exceeds the most fevered dreams of the Thought Police. And Fox News, with its braying 24 hours of hate, makes Big Brother’s two-minute hate sessions as inconsequential as quinquennial party political broadcasts.
It was perhaps a singular omission on Orwell’s part to miss water boarding from the repertoire of Room 101, but then maybe it was illiteracy on the part of the American torturers that they had not read Orwell and so missed out on the rat thing. But one supposes that setting dogs to lunge at named prisoners is almost as ghoulishly imaginative.
However, a successful dystopia conveys an atmosphere, a pervasive miasma of discomfort and fear, rather than a technological blueprint for the future, and none does as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sadly, it is that aspect which Orwell got so right.
It has now become almost thoughtcrime to voice the self-evident truths that between the end of the Second World War and the advent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher gave the West in general and even the United States the highest rate of economic growth and general prosperity in history. Although far from perfect, governmental involvement in economic planning, engineered equalisation of earnings, the rich paying proportionately more taxes, public provision of social goods, culture, health, education, even power and transport. Now, across the West, mesmerised elites ignore the results of this massive real time experiment, in which redistributive policies led to increasing prosperity for the majority for a quarter of a century.
That was when refugees from the McCarthy purges could come to Britain and continue to work and write, and a little later Harold Wilson could keep Britain out of the Vietnam War. Now the draft dodgers and witch hunt victims would probably be lucky to be extradited back to the US, but equally likely to be “renditioned” to torturers in regimes until recently expedient allies but now tyrants whom, of course, we now have always opposed.
Since Tony Blair went into Iraq in pursuit of an abstraction – international terrorism that was not there, and ignored the popular vote for an end to Thatcherism, the state of Airstrip One makes one almost long for the halcyon days of the 1960s. That Labour victory was a huge opportunity to exorcise the immiserating ghosts of Gradgrind from our political discourse.
It would have Orwell coughing and spluttering in his English churchyard to see how his dystopia has come so close to realisation, while the society that he critically supported at its inception with the Labour victory has, in retrospect, become almost utopian.
Happy 1984 + 30.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Help Poor Struggling CEOs!

Washington should step in to help out needy CEOs

The US has wage lessons to learn from England
Back in 1795, when Britain was fighting Napoleon, there was a financial crisis entailing an oversupply of labor and a shortage of food: bread prices rose, and wages fell.

The orthodox view was that the English peasantry were largely in earnest when they happily intoned, ‘God bless the squire and his relations/And keep us in our proper stations.’ While some might have said that in church on Sunday, however, in reality many of them donned masks at night and went out with flint and tinder. In eighteenth-century England – and indeed in the US – people had quaint traditional customs that included what one historian called ‘collective bargaining by riot’: if food prices went up, the local magistrates’ mansions and hayricks also went up – in flames.

By ancient law, the magistrates could fix the wages of local laborers, but the Justices of the Peace of Speenhamland in England, an area afflicted with serious rioting, decided not to. Instead, they used local taxes to supplement the wages of farm workers so that all taxpayers subsidized the payroll of the most affluent landowners, and paid extra cash to workers depending on the price of bread.

Two centuries later, the jury is still out on the motives of the JPs. On the one hand, their policy did save poor families from dire deprivation and actual starvation. On the other, magistrates tended to be rich farmers, so in effect they were subsidizing themselves while buying tangential arson insurance.

These days, we often maintain old traditions. University of California researchers claim chains like Walmart and McDonald’s use public money to subsidize their Scrooge-like pay policies. The minimum wages they pay are not enough for their employees to live on and are feasible only if society as a whole picks up the balance of the tab with food stamps, rent subsidies and state-provided healthcare; the researchers estimate that this government backing of the fast food industry amounts to $7 bn a year.

Those numbers can be multiplied by much more, as it seems 60 percent of new US jobs since the recession have been similar low-paid service sector jobs. As with the gentleman farmers of yore, paying low wages and letting everyone else pick up the tab is good for the bottom line.

But new times mean new problems. Nowadays, it is clear the bigger problem is that the growth of executive salaries is not accelerating the way it used to. Companies cannot afford, politically or financially, to keep executive compensation increasing the way management so manifestly deserves. If CEOs – those on whom our economic survival and continued prosperity depend – are paid less than their peers, it reflects badly on the perceived prosperity of their companies and thus on their shareholder value. This in turn affects market indices and thus the financial prosperity of the nation. It is essential, therefore, that our industrial leaders are seen to be paid well.

In view of such a national challenge, Washington must rise to the occasion just as those rural English magistrates did: it is imperative the government step in to supplement executive compensation. The essential ‘cost of ostentatious consumption increase’ could be met by granting tax credits that would provide needy CEOs with annual percentage increases tied to the rise in the average remuneration of their Fortune 500 peers.

Naysayers might argue that this is inherently inflationary, but it has sound precedents: most board compensation committees cite comparable CEO pay to justify rises for the boss who appointed them, and of course the rises they then award are taken into account by all the others. ‘Speenhamland for CEOs’ might be an esoteric slogan, but it is surely centuries-old wisdom whose time has come!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saudis Out -Israelis in UN Securitty Council?

WRMEA, December 2013, Pages 24-25

United Nations

In Rejecting Security Council Seat, Saudi Arabia Acknowledges Realpolitik

By Ian Williams

Members of Saudi Arabia’s U.N. delegation confer during the General ­Assembly’s Oct. 17 ­election of five new non-permanent members of the ­Security Council. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)
On the surface, Saudi Arabia’s decision to refuse its Security Council seat is as idiosyncratic as one would expect from a  monarchy. Diplomats view a seat at the Security Council as the apogee of their careers, so foreign ministries tend to take elections to it far more seriously than most other parts of their governments. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the United Nations and has in recent years sought and won seats on the Human Rights Council and other bodies.
Sometimes governments desperately want to shape Council discussions on certain issues—Morocco, for example, with Western Sahara, or Indonesia in times past with East Timor—so they exert great efforts to be elected. In a fit of heroic wishful thinking, Israel has announced its interest in being a candidate in 2020 for the “West European and Other Group” seat—more about which later.
The “unofficial” procedures for elections to the Security Council vary from region to region. The temporary rotating seats often are earmarked years in advance. Africa, in particular, rotates its seats among smaller subregions, deferring every now and again when the giants like Nigeria or South Africa want to be on the Council.  That is why Rwanda keeps popping up in the Council at inopportune moments, like during a genocide at home, or intervention in neighboring Congo.
Clovis Maksoud, the distinguished former ambassador of the Arab League, takes credit for devising the current system, almost Ptolemaic in its complex epicycles, that ensures Arab representation. The Arab group is split between Asia and Africa, so he arranged that the Asian group would cooperate to alternate with the Africans so there would always be an Arab seat.
To be elected to a temporary seat, countries need to get two-thirds of all the secret ballots in the General Assembly. But more often than not that is almost a formality, because the regional groups vote in advance for their nominees and ensure that the number of credible candidates matches the number of vacancies. Saudi diplomats had spent two years working on their candidacy, canvassing and doing what they do, so the Asian group already had given its blessing. A country really has to rile a lot of nations for one-third of the world to actively block its candidacy, and the Asia group is the U.N.’s biggest region.
The last time Riyadh had made a bid for U.N. glory was in 1991, when its then U.N. Ambassador Samir Shihabi ran for president of the General Assembly, overturning the expected candidate, Papua New Guinea. The success of that election, however, showed the dilemma for a Saudi government trying to look after its home constituency and yet pander to its essential foreign backers. Shihabi took the U.N. very seriously, and set up the association of former presidents to perpetuate his moment of glory. One of his first tasks as president, however, was to preside over the special meeting of the General Assembly called by George H.W. Bush in 1991 to rescind the U.N.’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution. Himself Palestinian by birth, Shihabi absented himself from the meeting—as, in fact, did the Israeli ambassador, whose government saw the move as Bush’s desperate attempt to win over American Jews after he had refused the loan guarantees Israel wanted to build its illegal settlements.
That hints at the reasoning behind the surprising decision. Saudi diplomacy by its very nature has to be somewhat contradictory. Riyadh wants Iran hobbled. The government is displeased that the U.S. backed off threats of military strikes against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. It’s unhappy with U.S. policies in Egypt. On the Israeli issues it would have to confront its existential ally, Washington, and there are many more issues where its domestic base would be unhappy if the Saudi representative voted the Foreign Ministry’s head rather than the imam’s heart.
So we can take with a sack of salt the idea that Riyadh’s refusal of the seat was solely to protest for Security Council reform, or on behalf of the beleaguered Syrians, let alone the Palestinians. After all, if the Kingdom were truly, deeply concerned about the latter, it could have turned off the oil pipelines many times over the decades before the U.S.’s recent achievement of energy self-sufficiency. If the concern was more about Syria, then a seat on the Security Council would give the Kingdom far more leverage with other members of the Council—with, for example, China, which has just become a bigger customer for its oil than the U.S.
The king simply was more astute in recognizing the realities of the regime’s position, which is predicated on keeping Washington as an ally. The U.S. may be a diminished superpower, after two disastrous stalemated military interventions and the financial crisis, but it still has more military clout than the rest of the world put together, and probably just enough influence over Israel to stop it from attacking and humiliating the land of the two shrines.
The sordid realities of global realpolitik and U.S. domestic politics put the Kingdom in an invidious position. It has contributed positively—since it is, after all, the “Saudi Plan” for Middle East peace that has been adopted by the Arab League and endorsed by almost every other player—except, of course, Israel. Washington’s verbal support for the formula has been correspondingly undercut in reality by its essentially unqualified military, diplomatic and financial support for the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
Recent reforms to the U.N. Human Rights Council were in part intended to lessen the over-emphasis on Israel compared with other members. A crucial improvement introduced by human rights supporters was the Universal Periodic Review, under which every member’s human rights behavior is scrutinized. This year, however, Israel was the one and only country to refuse to turn up for the review, which puts into sad perspective its supporters’ perennial claims of persecution. As we go to print, it has an opportunity to turn up, but the suspicion is that it will not.
Considering grandiose aspirations and hypocrisy, thoughts naturally move back to Israel’s declared intention to run for a temporary Security Council seat in 2019/20. To twist Groucho’s words, why does Israel want to be in a club that it has so consistently reviled and criticized over the years—let alone one that has so consistently condemned it in the past and would still be doing so were not for the automatic U.S. veto. So what would Israel gain from a seat, since it certainly would not have a veto as a temporary member? Well, other countries, like Morocco and Indonesia, as mentioned above, have sat around the Security Council chamber unblushing at defying resolutions against them.
Israeli diplomats, just like their U.N. counterparts, love the idea of grandstanding in the Security Council and pontificating on the behavior of the rest of the world. So they also overlook their prejudices against the institution and announced their bid. Unless Israel signs a peace treaty satisfactory to the Arabs and the Palestinians before then, however, their chances are minimal. Since the Asian group wouldn’t have them, and nor would any other regional group, U.S. pressure led the West European and Other Group to accept the state, eventually. For strange historical reasons having to do with the old British Empire, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the “other” in this title. And just to even out the anomalies, Cyprus joined the Asia group.
WEOG, as it is known in U.N. parlance, is the only regional group at the U.N. that has genuinely competitive candidates, who are not appointed by the group, but go to the general membership for election. So Israel, not particularly popular in Europe, would have to persuade serious contenders to stand down. They have not done so for others in the past. And then it would have to go to the General Assembly for an overall ballot, and get a two-thirds majority of the votes from diplomats who have fairly consistently demonstrated their antipathy to the state.
It would take a miracle of Biblical proportions to overcome such hurdles, and it is unlikely to be forthcoming. Indeed, the state of Palestine might be a better bet for gamblers!

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Curse of Canonization

 pub 8 December, Huffington Post.

When Nelson "Madiba" Mandela came to New York the first time we met, he exuded charisma combined with a rare modesty. He chuckled when I told him that he was responsible for my current career path, since a group of us were suspended and expelled from Liverpool University for occupying the Senate House in protest against the university's investments in South Africa. It was indeed edifying to be, in no matter how small a way, a comrade in arms of such a palpably heroic figure.
However, my skin crawled as I listened to the portentous yet vacuous platitudes that surrounded the announcement of his death. Once dead and canonized, our heroes' real lives fly out the window. Neither the media nor the public have time for feet of clay at the opposite end from the shimmering halo round the head. This cartoonish "goodies and baddies" view of the world is an understandable human foible, but it does become creepy when politicians and other public figures try to usurp the benign energy of those whom they would have had reviled, imprisoned, or even killed while they were alive.
British politicians revered Gandhi, after fighting his struggle for independence and locking him up. People speak unctuously of his passive resistance without mentioning that it was the British government, not least the equally revered Winston Churchill, whom he was resisting, who interned him during the war against fascism.
In the U.S. those who fought most bitterly against the socialist, anti-Vietnam subversive strike leader Martin Luther King once had nightmares but now, wow, they too have a dream. They even overlook King's philandering, just as they tend to forget that we know about his affairs because the genuinely reptilianly evil Edgar J Hoover was on his case.
Mandela's eulogies and epitaphs highlight what an awful curse it is to be canonized! You give your life for a cause, and then find your life distorted, rewritten and usurped to support people and causes that you reviled.
He was a charismatic, charming, humble, inclusive and forgiving leader who was prepared to embrace the former enemy and bring peace and progress. But forgiveness should not be confused with forgetfulness. He might even have been somewhat too forgiving of the behavior of his friends Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi at home. But gratitude is a virtue no less than courage, and being locked up for decades and oppressed for a lifetime surely enhances ones appreciation of those who supported you. It could equally incline you to doubt the moral authority of regimes like Washington's that puts you on a terrorism watch list.
Landing in Washington at an airport named after Ronald Reagan could easily make anyone question the good faith of a country that canonizes the president who crashed the economy, unwound the New Deal, traded with Iran to back the Contras and backed the Apartheid regime to the hilt.
The media eulogized the saintly Mandela, and imbued him retrospectively with an absolute commitment to non-violence, but it could not be farther from the truth. The Liberation leader did indeed advocate respect for the results of elections -- once the oppressed had been enfranchised, but he was actually the leader of an armed resistance group whose mandate was to force those elections upon the minority. Mandela's commitment to the Palestinians, like that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is rarely mentioned by the usual suspects because they cannily appreciate that any mud they throw at such towering figures is more likely to splash back at them, and more likely to bring attention to his views. All those commentators intoning platitudes about Nelson Mandela would be the first to join the ritual stoning of and casting out as "anti-Israel" any African American politician who had the temerity to support international law in the Middle East.
In that sense, Saint Madiba was indeed anti-Israel, and perhaps one reason that no one called him on it is that in doing so it might have brought up issues which are considered best buried. Mandela knew that Israel broke international sanctions on Apartheid, was the main conduit for laundering and cutting blood diamonds from South Africa and armed the regime there -- right up to an including nuclear weaponry.
Mandela was a giant of a statesman, whose passing leaves us with pigmies at the helm of most countries. But when someone dies after giving a lifetime to humanity, we should at least pay them the respect of addressing what they said, even if we disagree with them.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

An ethical foreign policy?

  I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because it shows me who is copying my work!

 Sanity prevails over Iran

by Ian Williams

Tribune Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Iran’s nuclear agreement recalls Robin Cook’s statement about foreign policy having an ethical dimension, often misquoted as “an ethical foreign policy.” Cook realised that ethics was just one of several dimensions. The Iran imbroglio almost has as many tangled dimensions as string theory – with the ethical one hard to find. Even the Israeli stock markets bounced upwards on news of the Iranian accord, showing the invisible hand in a better light than the long faces of Benjamin Netanyahu and his ideological supporters in the United States Congress at the reduced prospects of Armageddon in the Middle East.
Sanity is to be treasured wherever it can be found, not least because it seems a rare commodity. Barack Obama and John Kerry deserve congratulations for standing up against Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington.
One does not have to love the ayatollahs and their theocracy to sympathise with Iran, whose pariah status in its own right could be considered hard-earned, not least over its immoral and expedient support for the regime in Damascus.
But any objective perspective on Iran has to step back to include its opponents in the overview. Why is it that the loudest yelps against Iran’s alleged nuclear capability come from Israel, a state that itself has a large nuclear arsenal? Why do the claims that Iran is a threat to peace come from the same state which has noisily and repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, in between inciting the US to do so?
The West backed a bloody invasion of Iran by Iraq under Saddam Hussein, involving the proven use of chemical weapons and gas. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Western powers rammed through the punishing reparations to the Gulf States, which are still being paid by Saddam’s victims, the people of Iraq.
A United Nations commission determined that Iraq was the aggressor against Iran, which was scarcely needed, since it was so obvious. However, when I asked an Iranian diplomat at the UN why it did not leverage that aggression finding into first dibs on the Iraqi compensation payments to the Gulf States, he said that all Iran wanted was the vindication. It puts in context Teheran’s punctiliousness about international recognition of its legal right to have a nuclear enrichment programme, even if it agrees not to exercise it. It is a pattern that befits a theocracy.
India, which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, developed its nuclear weapons and then voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the Security Council for a civil nuclear programme that was within the NPT terms. In return, the US, in effect, gave up nuclear sanctions against India, with its declared arsenal, to enlist support against Iran, which has repeatedly declared it has no ambitions for a weapons programme and whose supreme leader has actually issued a fatwa against them.
Incidentally, while there is undoubted repression of journalists and dissidents in Iran, I actually told Iranian television, live, that even if the Iranians had the legal right to, they should not have a civil nuclear programme because it was environmentally damaging and economically devastating. They have had me back on their screens often since.
One can sincerely doubt whether any country, let alone Iran, needs a civil nuclear programme. Certainly, the costs that British consumers have been saddled with for electricity from the planned nuclear generators should raise questions about how economic such power is.
The cost of energy is clearly a factor in all this. I pointed out on Iranian TV that Iran was importing refined petroleum products because it lacked the technology to process the oil it was pumping.
The Gulf States, whose treatment of religious minorities, women and dissenters makes the ayatollahs seem positively liberated, have been supporting Israeli and the US bellicosity – behind the scenes, of course, since it ill befits the custodian of the two shrines to incite a unbeliever’s attack on a Muslim nation. Would Obama have dared thwart them and the Israeli lobby at the same time if natural gas had not relieved the US from its long-time energy dependence?
We can be pleased that Obama and Kerry have pulled off a deal and averted the immediate threat of war. But why should common sense be such a long-winded process? And how did shallow expedience so often hold it up?

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Wherefores of Romeo- Dallaire that is
The hero who stood fast in the Rwandan bloodbath
by Ian Williams
Tribune  November 1st, 2013

Roméo Dallaire should be the hero of an opera. His story certainly has all hallmarks of genuine tragedy. It embodies many of the key themes of the last century and evokes the Syrian debacle as well.

Dallaire was Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeper in Rwanda (UNAMIR) before and during the 1994 genocide. He warned UN headquarters in New York about the planned massacre and sought permission to intervene. The UN bureaucracy did not want to impinge upon “sovereignty” and refused to act without the government – which in reality was planning the massacre.

The bloodbath was presaged by a massacre of Belgian peacekeepers, which led the Belgian government to withdraw its surviving troops, despite the increasingly manifest need as the slaughter of more than 800,000 Rwandans began and continued for more than three horrifying months. Dallaire, along with a small contingent of Ghanaian soldiers and military observers, disobeyed orders to withdraw and remained in Rwanda to protect those who sought refuge with the UN forces and to deter at least some of the killings.

Dallaire’s unwillingness to obey orders and refusal to take the expedient way out cost him dearly. He was shunned by Canadian military colleagues, and, haunted with the memories of the horrors he had seen in Rwanda, had a nervous breakdown. Ethics and a conscience are uncomfortable attributes to have in hierarchies that only have such qualities in homeopathically diluted quantities.

In customary anti-heroic mode, Bill Clinton had signed Presidential Decision Directive 25, which not only limited the involvement of the United States in peacekeeping operations, but in effect led to a US veto on UN peacekeeping resolutions where the US did not have “a dog in the fight”, in the dismissive words of former Secretary of State James Baker.

Clinton was displaying his customary spinelessness, pandering to conservative obsessions about the UN. In these days of obsession with stopping their co-citizens having access to healthcare, it is hard to remember the conservatives’ previous preoccupation with the UN’s threat to American sovereignty. France, that great pillar of human rights in Syria, and upholder of international law over Iraq, was, of course, on the side of the genocidal regime in Rwanda. The UN simply buried the memo from Dallaire and left him swinging, and eventually endorsed a French peacekeeping effort, “operation Turquoise” which was actually a rescue mission to save the murderers from the advancing rebels. Dallaire protested unavailingly.

The left in general stayed silent, although with the enthusiasm of idiocy some, such as Ramsey Clark, rallied to the defence of the genocide, just as they later supported Slobodan Milosevic and excused Srebrenica. Since US imperialism was so ostentatiously absenting itself from the fray, the simplistic left had no point of reference on Rwanda and the deaths at the sharp ends of machetes left the members of it unmoved. It is a sad comment that massacres such Rwanda and Bosnia are not seen as inherently abhorrent but need some sort of litmus test to put them in political context. One can only assume that all the years of apologising for Bolshevik terror and massacres have attenuated the ethical senses of the Leninising left and its fellow travellers.

Dallaire’s ethical senses were more refined. Despite being career military he knew killing people is wrong, and that wherever possible it should be stopped. His heroism is reminiscent of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who landed his helicopter during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and threatened to shoot the US troops intent on massacring children. He, too, was shunned by his own command and took years to get recognition.

It is not just luxuriating in hindsight to affirm that, if Dallaire had had the go-ahead to seize the weapons and planners of the Rwanda massacre, it would have averted untold suffering.

Similarly, Dallaire recently said that the world should have intervened much sooner to stop events in Syria spiralling out of control. The form of that intervention is a subject worthy of intensive debate. But there can be little doubt that Bashar al Assad’s regime has been emboldened by all those who have peremptorily ruled out any intervention at all.