Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Deceased, Dubya and the Deranged.

Ours to Reason Why

On May Day next week, along with the more traditional observances of Spring and Socialism, we should pause to contemplate the anniversary of Bush's famous triumphalist landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln under the banner 'Mission Accomplished.'

Even three years after his hubristic landing and more than 2300 Americans and a hundred or so British six foot under, and approaching eighteen thousand wounded later, no one has yet produced a coherent and convincing reason for the invasion of Iraq.

The leader of a previous global empire, Lord Palmerston, said that only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein problem: one of them was deceased, the other deranged, while he himself had forgotten it. When future historians come to consider the mystery of why the Iraq War happened, it is possible that George W. Bush may come up with a similar response, albeit, one suspects, without the mordant wit

I always regarded the blood oil hypothesis as somewhat simplistic, despite the Bush dynasty's Texan connections to the oil industry. As oil hit $75 a barrel this week, risking Republican control of Congress in the mid-term elections, even after pausing to consider the recent $400 million retirement package for the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, surely no one can believe that the administration intended such a mammoth global energy balls-up.

Breaking the law to enforce it does not really ring as a slogan. Kofi Annan quite rightly pointed out that the invasion was against international law. Although Iraq was indeed in breach of international law by refusing admittance to UN weapons inspectors, it is worthwhile remembering that the Occupiers have still not readmitted those inspectors even though the UN resolutions mandating cooperation with their work are still on the books. All the evidence suggests that Iraqi WMD's were an excuse, not a cause, for the invasion.

Then there is the human rights excuse. While Saddam Hussein was indeed tyrant he had been at his blood-thirstiest while he was a favoured ally of London and Washington. And any demand for historical justice should be set in the context of complete inaction over East Timor in the past, or indeed relative sloth over Darfur now.

It is certainly true that Israel itself and its US lobby, AIPAC, were pushing for war on Iraq, as indeed they are now against Iran. Ironically, while pro-Israeli pundits have lambasted the authors of a recent report on the Lobby for their 'anti-Semitic' chutzpah in saying this, AIPAC's own website claims corralling Saddam Hussein as one its major aims and achievements.

However, while AIPAC certainly helped create a favourable climate for the invasion of Iraq, there is no way that it could have forced such costly military action simply because it was good for Israel.

One of the reasons for the success of AIPAC and some other strongly supported foreign policy lobbies, like the Cuban exiles, is that few of the players in Congress or the voting booths have a direct interest in foreign policy, and even fewer could give a tinker's cuss for the opinions of the rest of world if they are not reflected in campaign cheques or votes.

In the case of Iraq, the Lobby was rowing with the current in the administration. The professional military had been ousted from the Pentagon by bellicose ideologues, and the White House was in a preemptive mode.

This leaves unanswered the question of why so many in the administration wanted a war. Even if Cheney and assorted NeoCons whispering in the Presidential ear that Saddam Hussein was an Arab, and so was Bin Laden, therefore Baghdad must have been behind September 11, could George W. Bush really be that stupid? Could he have been taken in by Karl Rove's handiwork in conflating the war on terror with war against Iraq?

Well, yes. But perhaps not in this case. Once again, this was an excuse, not a cause. Iraq was a pre-existing obsession waiting for the World Trade Centre to happen.

If we were to ask Bush the Palmerston question about the causes of the 'Iraqi question,' we know he is not deceased. That still leaves unanswered whether he is deranged, or has forgotten quite why we are at war.

Unlike President Reagan, he has no signs of Alzheimer's so we are left with the hypothesis that, if not exactly clinically deranged, the President is, as the phrase from the previous empire had it, not quite sixteen annas to the rupee.

Sadly, it seems most likely that twenty-four hundred Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died to exorcise George W. Bush's (deeply deserved) feelings of personal inadequacy. His father left school at 18 to fight, bravely, in World War II. Bush Jr. pulled every nepotistic string he had to get into the Texas Air National Guard in order to dodge the Vietnam War, and deserted before completing his term of service.

Since then he has worn unmerited quasi-military garb on his frequent visits to military bases, and in every way behaved like the wannabe military equivalent of a cowboy on a dude ranch. And a year after September 11 he told Texan Republicans about Saddam Hussein, 'that man tried to kill my dad.' It may not be a totally convincing explanation, but it makes more sense than some of the others. In the end, of course, like the war itself, it makes no sense at all.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Nuts indeed - but that's Dubya for you.

Nuking our Way to Non-Proliferation

It is not only Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who is getting a sense of deja vu all over again. Until last week Deadline Pundit had been getting the type of funny looks previously reserved for the Ancient Mariner "Unhand me, grey-beard loon," when I suggested that there were high ups in Washington who were seriously planning military attacks on Iran.

And now it is out in the open, helped considerably by Seymour Hersh who is yet again saving the declining reputation of American journalism with his New Yorker piece. ( http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060417fa_fact ) Dan Plesch was in fact saying the same thing a month ago citing the Federation of American Scientists (see www.danplesch.net and www.fas.org) but because he did not say it in the New Yorker, no one noticed. But with Hersh's article. at last American mainstream reporters had a question to ask the administration, and the sound of silence was deafening. As far as I can see no White House or Pentagon spokesman categorically deny Hersh's premise.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw dismissed the idea as "completely nuts," which is, of course, true. It is also true that Jack has missed some very obvious salient facts including the dubious rationality of the White House, and indeed the insanity of the attack on Iraq. And once again, while Straw has been quite clear about his disapproval of military intervention, Tony Blair himself has been a noticeably reticent to disavow military action.

Straw, quite rightly, is pleading for diplomacy. However, you cannot have a diplomatic solution when the main protagonist, the US, refuses to talk to Iran, (ironically, except about Iraq) and is making plain that it wants to overthrow the regime.

This is more than contingency planning. It is clear that for some in the White House, almost certainly including Bush himself, the Iranian nukes, are just a McGuffin, a plot device to effect a regime change in Teheran, just as the Iraqi WMD's were in Baghdad. With mid-term elections impending, and Bush's popularity falling, the pressure will be for action this year. Watch out for implications that the problems of Iraq are all because of Iranian interference.

Equally ironically, in a week when there were near-libelous attacks on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for their Harvard paper on the Israel Lobby, the American Jewish Committee tried to put truth in the rumors by running a full-page ad in the Financial Times, implicitly calling for an attack on Iran.

The prospect of the US launching tactical nuclear strikes against Iran on behalf of the only nuclear power in the Middle East, in the name of nuclear non-proliferation, should at least waken the jaded sense of irony of other members of the Security Council.

The danger is that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese may, as they did over Iraq, take the administration's camouflage at face value, and help Bush and Blair get within diplomatic range of launching military operations to "enforce UN decisions."

They should be demanding an unequivocal repudiation of unilateral military action as an absolute prerequisite for any further support for diplomatic pressure on Iran.

Recess Appointment to the Human Rights Council?

It was very wise of the US not to run as a candidate for the new UN Human Rights Council. Even though the other members would have been unwise not to let the US win a seat, the resentment against John Bolton and the White House was probably too strong for delegates not to indulge themselves in the vindictive satisfaction of voting against Washington.

Once again, the old irony raises its rusty point. John Bolton had castigated the other members of the UN for allowing the new Council members to be elected by a simple majority rather than two thirds–which would have made it impossible, instead of just extremely difficult to get the US elected this year!

He also complained (correctly) that the resolution setting up the Council had no explicit bar to the usual type of UN General Assembly gerrymandering, where regional groups agree only to field the number of candidates for the number of seats.

But watch out for next year! When the US was voted off the budget committee, the ACABQ, last time, the British and others joined with them the following year to put the screws on New Zealand, which had defeated the US, to stand down. New Zealand did the noble thing and made way for the US, since it was told that the US would not pay the arrears if it were not represented. In this global Tammany Hall election, the US won with no opposition – and still did not pay the dues arrears. In similar fashion, the US lost an election to the Human Rights Commission in 2001, The US could only get 29 votes for one of the three seats, compared with France with 52 votes; Austria, 41; and Sweden, 32.

The following year, the US tried to get the WEOG group to adopt exactly the same rotation system for candidacies which other regional groups used to avoid elections, and which has resulted in human rights offenders getting on the Commission.

Failing in that, with its allies, it put heavy pressure on previously declared candidates Spain and Italy to withdraw in its favor, and in another triumph for democracy, the US was declared elected to the Commission without the tedious necessity for a vote.

We will almost certainly see some similar attempts for next year's elections for the Human Rights Council, which would be a really shameless invitation to other regional groups to do the same.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Buying Titles, Blair, Livingstone and Tuttle

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Many Americans will be unaware of some recent developments that cast an interesting light on developments across the Atlantic. The elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has rescued his city from being a perpetual traffic jam with his highly successful congestion charge on vehicles entering the centre. However, instead of being grateful for the easier access to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, the US Mission refuses to pay since they regard it as a tax.

Livingstone said, with his customary colourful phrasing, "It would actually be quite nice if the American ambassador in Britain could pay the charge that everybody else is paying and not actually try and skive out of it like some chiselling little crook." Apart from the fact that H.E. Robert Tuttle was a Reagan appointee, is a car salesman on a large scale, and has now been appointed by George W. Bush, probably for being a major donor, we can say little about his character. But please see my Ermine for IOU's column from Tribune, below, for some transatlantic connections on people buying honours beyond their apparent merits. Tuttle has as much qualification for being diplomatic as Livingstone!

On another tangent, here in New York, every time a Mayor wants to play the xenophobic card, he turns on diplomats for parking fines, for which the assorted freeloaders also claim diplomatic immunity. Of course, the assorted diplomatic community are nothing compared with the hosts of New York police, Fire Department and other city officials who park with impunity across the crowded city.

While exhorting Mayor Bloomberg to follow London's example in order to make Manhattan habitable again, there is another group that should be considering following the Ambassador Robert Tuttle's example. Every time the diplomatic core ventures through the sundry toll tunnels, bridges and roads of New York, they should cite the US Ambassador to London as their guarantee of free passage, since the tolls are clearly every bit as much a tax as the congestion charge.

And now my Tribune column, 31 March 2006

Ermine For IOU's

The "Ermine for IOU's" scandal may look as it if were a flashback to Lloyd George's days, but that is not doing modernizing dynamic Tony Blair justice. I suspect that the inspiration is not the old Welsh womanizer, but his transatlantic reincarnation, Blair's old chum Bill Clinton.

In the good old days when John Smith was alive, Comrades Blair and Brown were passing through New York and met some of the leaders of the Labour International Branch there. Their totally uncritical admiration for Bill Clinton was disturbing. "Don't you realize that he would put his grandmother for sale on the streets to get votes," I remonstrated. "But he wins elections," came back the reply.

A reply of another sorts came a few weeks later when a Liverpool councillor and PPC called to ask if I had met Tony Blair on his recent visit to the States. It seemed that he had referred to a "wild man from Liverpool," he had met in New York who, he charged, had been "badmouthing Clinton." "Guilty as charged," I happily admitted.

It was Bill Clinton who castigated American unions as "Special Interest Groups," while raking in the cash from Wall Street donors. It was Bill Clinton who sold nights in the White House in return for big campaign cheques. It was the Clintons who essentially decided that the purpose of the Democratic Party was to re-elect Bill Clinton, so that he could promulgate the voodoo economics which George Bush senior regarded as too reactionary and inhuman for his more moderate conservative taste.

Of course George Bush Junior's toxic reign has now imbued Clinton's terms with a rosy retrospective glow, but in his two terms Clinton effectively managed to complete the destruction of what was left of the Democratic Party's democracy and reduce the organization to a PO box for corporate donations, confident that the party's supporters would not vote Republican no matter what the Democrats did.

In return for big cheques, American donors have traditionally expected Ambassadorships and similar prestige jobs. In American usage, Ambassadors keep their title on retirement, so it has all the social appurtenances of a life peerage. But they all expect results, as when a few hundred thousand dollars from a Cuban American magnate got Clinton to sign on for tightening the embargo, a few million from Hollywood got his government to fight the Germans on behalf of the Scientologists, and half a million from a banana magnate bought a trade war with the European Union.

The basis for the donor-driven politics of America is the primary election, where ambitious individuals raise money to win elections to win the candidacy for political parties. Originally the primaries were intended to rescue politics from the smoke-filled rooms of Tammany Hall. They have now taken it into halls of luxury hotels and very expensive fund raising dinners. Effectively, there is no membership of political party in any sense that anyone in Britain would have recognized ten years ago.

But now, what you see in Britain is what we had already got here in the States: dwindling party rolls as members decide that a party leadership that seems to pay no attention to what they want is not really worthwhile spending money or time on; alienated unions being sent to the tradesman's entrance of Number Ten while the more piratical captains of industry get the red carpet treatment at the front.

The resemblances go even deeper. Blair originally won his leadership campaign, the closest thing to a primary the Labour Party had ever had, with an expensive campaign paid for by a wealthy individual with little or no previous connection to the Party. And now, along with a peerage, Michael Levy is the financial engineer behind his client Tony Blair's bid for financial independence from the unions, not to mention a key determinant in Britain's Middle East policy. At least Levy's son in Israel is anti-Likud, but British policy has been more tolerant of Sharon's excesses than, shall we say, Robin Cook would ever have countenanced.

There is a strong case for entrepreneurs and business people sending money to the Labour Party. Labour is better for the economy than Thatcherism, and there is a long tradition of millionaires supporting the party, even if the first name that springs to mind, Robert Maxwell, evokes caution more than applause.

Several of the recent donors say they were told to keep their loans quiet, which suggests that Clintonian reasons were paramount. Like Clinton, Blair was wrestling with the problem of how to finance an election when so many of his autocratically decided policies ran counter to the principles of the traditional members and supporters of the party. He had already attenuated the Labour Conference from a decision making body to an American style convention, a circus to endorse and showcase the winner of the expensive primary election for Party leadership. Party branches were overtly encouraged to go into hibernation.

But the members were voting with their feet ad dropping out. Unions were finding better uses for their political funds than supporting a leadership that regarded them with a baleful Thatcherite glare and which actually boasted of having the most regressive labour laws in Europe. Hence a secret slush fund and with a leap and bound, Tony was free, free to ignore his own party on Iraq, education, and all of his other innovations.

However, there is a price for this. If the first stage, the party organization, is jettisoned during the launch of the Blair fan club into political orbit, what does it leave for his successor? One answer would be state funding, which would perpetuate the current leadership's independence from the party's electoral base, at least until the Tories get their act together.

Big cheques, whether from government or millionaires, are not conducive to grass roots democracy, nor to grassroots activism of the kind needed to rebuild Labour's base. It would be interesting to hear what aspirant party leaders have to say about rebuilding the party. If members are to be involved in the choice of the next leader, and in the next election, it would be useful if promising candidates started persuading disgusted former members to return, not least by promising to listen to them.