Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It's the law

Since this was written, of course Livni has had to cancel her trip to London, despite the shameless grovelling from Brown and Milliband..

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pages 14-15

United Nations Report
Israel’s Obsession With Goldstone Report Reflects Fears of War Crimes Prosecutions

By Ian Williams

It is a tribute to the legal meticulousness of Richard Goldstone and his colleagues on the U.N. Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) fact-finding mission that the Israeli government is so obsessed with their report. It can see prosecutions of IDF and Knesset members just over the horizon. Binyamin Netanyahu and his ministers have raucously complained to Britain and France for not voting against the Council resolution that accepted the report, and to Russia and China for supporting it. And, of course, they keep confusing Obama administration criticism of the mandate the Council gave with criticism of the report itself.

[Judge Richard Goldstone (l), head of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special mission investigating Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay prior to the Council’s Sept. 29, 2009 meeting in Geneva at which Goldstone presented his findings. (AFP photo/Fabrice Coffrini)]

Judge Richard Goldstone (l), head of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special mission investigating Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay prior to the Council’s Sept. 29, 2009 meeting in Geneva at which Goldstone presented his findings. (AFP photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

In fact, Britain, France and the U.S. united in telling Israel to set up an impartial inquiry. Indeed, to their credit, Gordon Brown and Nicholas Sarkozy apparently tried to trade a “no” vote for Israeli pledges to hold an inquiry, lift the blockade and stop settlement activity and evictions. In the flood of personal attacks on Goldstone and his mission, neither Washington, nor London, nor Paris has seriously challenged the substance of his report or the integrity of his mission, let alone his own personal integrity.

Israel’s Western allies have been reduced to inanities, lamenting the mission’s failure to hear the case the Israelis refused to make. “Because Israel did not cooperate with the Mission, which we regret, the report lacks an authoritative Israeli perspective on the events in question, so crucial to determining the legality of actions,” declared the British envoy in Geneva, who should have been fully aware that it was precisely with that eventual excuse in mind that Israel refused to cooperate.

With all the outrage of a recidivist criminal asked to stop breaking and entering people’s houses, Netanyahu and his colleagues continue to bluster. A quick summary of their defense is:

“So let’s get this straight. Israel broke no laws of war during Operation Cast Lead, which is why we will not tolerate any impartial inquiry, even one we organize ourselves, into what happened then. Nor will we allow the issue to be judged by an international court, and what is more, just in case, we want the laws changed to allow us to do what we want when we say we are fighting terrorism.

“It is one-sided, partial, biased and anti-Semitic to suggest that our behavior and Hamas’ both bear scrutiny, and everyone knows that the U.N. is hopelessly prejudiced against us, which is proved by their cunning in heading a mission with a Zionist pro-Israeli Jew whose daughter served in the IDF. And since we refused to cooperate, the report did not hear any evidence from us and so is one-sided.

“Oh, and by the way, just because we keep rubbing Obama’s nose in our broken promises over settlements in no way lessens our demand that the White House sacrifice its hard-won global credibility by rescuing us from the consequences of our failure to hold the inquiry that Goldstone, the U.S., France and the UK have all asked us to hold.”

There is, of course, a small germ of truth in Israel’s protestations about the comparative fervor with which the Human Rights Council goes after the Jewish state compared with other malefactors. One would like to think that the states involved were imbued with deep human sympathy for the Palestinian predicament, but it does not take a cynic to doubt it. Egypt could immediately end the blockade on Gaza, for example, but it does not, in a callous exercise of realpolitik.

Equally, their obstinate pseudo-solidarity in the Human Rights Council has been counterproductive. The original inquiry mandate refused to look at the possibility of Palestinian groups committing war crimes, which has given the Obama administration wiggle room to refuse support to the report. Former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson refused the offer to head the inquiry precisely for that reason.

Goldstone, with the support of Navai Pillai, Robinson’s successor, accepted the position only on condition that he had a mandate to look at both sides. It is worth remembering why his credentials enabled him to do that. A veteran legal struggler against apartheid, he was on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped keep South Africa together after the fall of the apartheid regime. He became chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, meticulously building cases against the perpetrators of crime—against, one might add, mainly Muslim victims.

He was then drafted onto the Volcker Commission on the United Nations Oil for Food program and was prepared to engage in harsh criticism of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, despite a longstanding personal acquaintance and shared concern for international justice.

Goldstone’s daughter reportedly has said that one reason he took the job was because he wanted to ensure that the report did not engage in unfair criticism of Israel. I suspect that most people in the U.N. and the human rights community had no idea of the depth of his sympathy to Israel. Certainly, if it had been more widely known, it is likely that some members of the Human Rights Council might have protested vociferously at his appointment. They would have been wrong, of course. Goldstone has shown his integrity repeatedly, and his report could only be assailed as biased by people who have not read it, and who ignore the conclusions—which, after all, are most modest: that Israel and Hamas should investigate the allegations of war crimes.

Needless to say, the alleged friends of the Palestinians on the Council did their best to give ammunition to those trying to wiggle out of the report’s otherwise unassailable conclusions by failing to mention Hamas and including many sound, but contextually misplaced, political criticisms of Israel. To be fair, some Russians and Chinese are alleged to have told Israel that they were referring the report to the Security Council but voted for the resolution because of these other points, on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is a measure of how desperate Israel is that this “reassurance”—that the countries involved fundamentally opposed Israel policy on its eternal capital and occupation but did not want the issue to go to the Security Council and thus the International Criminal Court (ICC)—was so welcome to Israeli politicians. Indeed, Moscow and Beijing oppose the reference to the Court because they see Uighurs, Tibetans and Chechens as potential stand-ins for Palestinians!

So what next? The report will certainly be discussed at the U.N. General Assembly, whose decisions are now considered “non-binding,” despite the partition plan being accepted there and the Korean War run from there. However, it will certainly bring more grief for Israel if it does not hold the inquiry.
Imagine—Heavy Pressure From Israel!

Because the Security Council is the only body with the power to refer to the ICC prosecutions of citizens of states (like Sudan, Israel, the U.S. and China) that have not ratified the convention establishing the Court, there will be heavy pressure from Israel and its supporters on the U.S. and others not to allow the report to go there, and to veto it if it does.

Israel’s government has threatened to stop the peace process if the Report goes to the ICC. Interestingly, Netanyahu told the Knesset after hearing the UNHRC vote, “We will not allow Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in The Hague.” This was the Likudnik’s reminder to the White House that despite the Israeli prime minister’s vigorous defense of Operation Cast Lead against the report’s findings, it was in fact the “peace” Labor/Kadima coalition that had planned and initiated the assault.

However, the report already has had implications. Increasingly, Israeli leaders and military are having difficulty traveling abroad for fear of arrest and prosecution. The report recommends referral to the ICC if the parties do not conduct credible investigations within six months. But in any case, national courts will be armed with the Goldstone report to take action if any of the perpetrators set foot in their jurisdictions.

Despite the coalition government’s bluster, there is a serious question about whether the peace process is proceeding at all, since Netanyahu is refusing the Obama administration’s demand to honor previous pledges to stop settlement building. But far from being an obstacle to peace, the report offers multiple points of leverage for the White House, if it cares to use them. And it should—unless it wants to reverse the waves of good opinion generated since Obama went to Cairo.

While there is wriggling, there is also a lot of nuanced criticism in the administration’s handling. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff at the Security Council, while implying that the State Department also has not read its 570-plus pages, balanced the Washington’s “serious concerns about the report, its unbalanced focus on Israel, the overly broad scope of its recommendations, and its sweeping conclusions of law” with a firm statement: “Nevertheless, we take the allegations in the report seriously. Israel has the institutions and the ability to carry out serious investigations of these allegations and we encourage it to do so. Hamas is a terrorist organization and has neither the ability nor the willingness to examine its violations of human rights.”

Incidentally, he added, “just as we defend Israel’s right to self-defense, we cannot accept the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The people of Gaza must have hope for a better future and know that the international community hears their concerns. We call for a reopening of the crossings, with an appropriate monitoring regime, to allow for the entry of legitimate goods into Gaza.”

So there we have it. It is a small mercy but a significant one: a break in the doctrine of so many decades that the U.S. cannot criticize Israel.

One hesitates to ask whether even Congress will countenance continuing loan guarantees and grants to a foreign government that defies U.S. policy by expanding settlements, blockading Gaza, and obdurately refusing to conduct its own inquiry into Cast Lead. But even if it does, the administration, not Congress, casts Security Council vetoes. It is time for some hard talking to Israeli politicians about their future travel plans and the danger that their travel agents will need to become qualified as international lawyers.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Western Sahara & Sarkozy

Nicholas Sarkozy should not get too much praise for his success in getting Aminatou Haidar, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/1117/p06s10-wome.html the hunger striking Western Saharan human rights activist back into her own country. It is Sarkozy's France that has consistently provided diplomatic backing and a veto in the Security Council for all attempts to force Morocco to abide by its own promises, the UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice determination that the people of Western Sahara are entitled to self-determination.

Sarkozy's pressure on King Mohamed to allow Haider back home was impelled more by French embarassment at the way her hunger strike was drawing worldwide attention to the Moroccan occupation and consequent human rights violations which France has protected from international action. Indeed, in the last days of Javier Perez de Cuellar's tenure at the UN, France even tried to ambush the Security Council on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve to accept Moroccan occupation. "Tis the season!

The King recently re-emphasised that he was prepared to give the finger to the international community - but sadly the international community mostly does not care. Arab states are happy to denounce the illegal wall and refugee problem in Palestine while ignoring the even longer sand berm that Morocco built to bisect Western Sahara and the thirty five year occupation. The US began by treating the Moroccan occupation as a preemptive move against "communist" Algeria but does not really care anymore. Morocco's position as the closest Arab state to Israel probably counts more than any residual Cold War motives.

Then US Ambassador to the UN said after the occupation, “China altogether backed Fretilin in Timor, and lost. In Spanish Sahara, Russia completely backed Algeria, and its front, known as Polisario and lost. In both instances the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

Since then the French have inherited that American role. Just as Indonesia's egregious oppression in Timor brought the issue back onto the international agenda, Aminatou Haidar's brave stand is bringing Western Sahara back as unfinished business. If one hunger striker can embarass Sarkozy that much, the time is long past for France's role to come under more and embarassing scrutiny.

Asking the Afghans

Ian Williams: Why not ask the Afghans what they want?
December 18, 2009 Tribune

There are many people and organisations soliciting my support to get the troops out of Afghanistan immediately. Somehow, I can’t share their certainty. Unlike them, I want to know what the Afghans think. Earlier this year, when they were asked in an ABC/BBC/ARD opinion poll, 59 per cent of them wanted Nato to stay and more than 90 per cent wanted the Taliban defeated. Only 4 per cent admitted to supporting the Taliban. That is almost certainly an underestimate, but support is probably not significantly higher.

In the protestors’ imagination, Vietnam and Iraq conflate together with absolutist pacifism to a simple opposition to war in general and the Afghan war in particular. There are some who would have picketed the Normandy landings, but even their pacifism is not always so pure, since for many it seems to derive from the assumption that their own country is always wrong. I knew many sincere Communist Party members who worked fervently in CND, but were upset when the Committee of 100 protested in Red Square about the Soviet weaponry.

How many people who protested against the first Iraq war raised a voice about the earlier Iraqi invasions of Iran or Kuwait? Many of those who were shocked at the Nato intervention in Kosovo had few problems in maintaining a stiff upper lip for the victims of Vukovar, Srebrenica, Racak and the whole train of massacres that Slobodan Milosevic had directed over the previous decade.

If Tony Blair ever wants a retirement home or even, at current rates, political asylum, he should go to Kosovo where he will find not only a welcome, but also streets named after him. It was his finest hour, where the socialist governments of Europe and the people of Kosovo were united in wanting Milosevic’s brand of nationalist socialism stopped.

Which brings me back to my point. Before taking to the streets, why not ask those at the receiving end?

The United States’ presence in Vietnam was never tested in an election. Reportedly, it even thwarted an election that Ho Chi Minh, wearing his national liberation hat, might have won. The US was saving an unelected and corrupt regime with little or no legitimacy – even if the Communist regime afterwards was little better.

In Iraq, high percentages of those polled consistently want the Americans out. There is little or no evidence that they wanted them in to begin with, although the confused answers to the polling and their own government’s weak standing, might suggest that, like St Augustine, many Iraqis want the troops out – but not just yet. Foreign occupations are rarely popular. If Iraq had installed a new government and pulled out of Kuwait instead of looting and annexing the “19th province”, there might have been boulevards named after Saddam Hussein.

If George W Bush and Dick Cheney (and Blair, one presumes) had deposed the “indefatigable” Saddam and helped the military take over, the chances are that Baghdadis would be strolling down Bush Boulevard.

Barack Obama is now being accused of selling out positions he never held. First, he was never the leftist that the conservative right feared and some on the left foolishly dreamed about. Second, he always distinguished between Iraq, a war of (erroneous) choice, and Afghanistan – where the attack that killed thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre was plotted.

Iraq began as an occupation – a singularly and brutally inept one. But it has changed. The big difference is that Obama has set a timetable to get the troops out and shows few signs of wanting to hold on to some neo-liberal-inspired Mesopotamian empire. The Iraqis are hedging on that Augustinian “yet”, but does anyone really doubt that, if their government called on the Americans to get out, they would go?

During the presidential election campaign, Obama berated the Bush administration for diverting troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, so he is not adopting the Republican strategy now. The question is what to do with the troops. Poll figures show a noticeable decline in support for the Nato presence over the past few years, which suggests they have already been there too long and that Bush’s tactics were alienating potential friends.

One thing is clear. It is not an “occupation,” when the majority of the population supports the Nato presence and a twice-elected government wants the troops to remain. It is a consequence of previously failed tactics that the last Afghan election was so parlous, even if Hamid Karzai would probably have won on a recount – and did actually win enough of the votes on the first count to take office if he had been running under British or American first-past-the-post rules.

So, far from supporting some Afghan liberation fight, those who simply call for a withdrawal are flying in the face of the wishes of the Afghan majority and would leave them in the hands of a regressive and medievally bloodthirsty terrorist group that could not win an election.

By all means, the conduct of the war and its tactics deserve close and critical scrutiny. But those who make reflexive calls of “troops out” are in danger of abandoning a small and faraway country of which we probably know too much, since the West bears considerable responsibility for its present plight. The left should liberate itself from mental Manichaean slavery and reconnect to the complexity of reality on the ground.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Goldstone and after

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 2009 November

United Nations Report
What’s Next After the Goldstone Report?
By Ian Williams

[Palestinian children watch as Richard Goldstone, lead inspector for the U.N. Human Rights Council, arrrives in Gaza City on June 3 to inspect the destruction of the Samuni family home. Twenty-nine members of the extended family were killed during Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip. AFP photo/Mohammed Abed]

Palestinian children watch as Richard Goldstone, lead inspector for the U.N. Human Rights Council, arrrives in Gaza City on June 3 to inspect the destruction of the Samuni family home. Twenty-nine members of the extended family were killed during Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip. AFP photo/Mohammed Abed

Of course there is prima facie evidence that Judge Richard Goldstone is biased. He is Jewish, chair of Friends of the Hebrew University, president emeritus for the World ORT Jewish school system, and has a devoted Zionist daughter who made “aliyah” to Israel. But Hamas somehow neglected to make the allegations, even though Goldstone’s Sept. 15 report devoted over 70 pages to considering allegations of Hamas war crimes—compared with some 350 pages to allegations against Israeli forces, which the report suggested may have committed “acts amounting to war crimes and perhaps, in certain circumstances, crimes against humanity.”

Bearing in mind the more than 100:1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli casualties during Operation Cast Lead and in the months leading up to it, it shows remarkable forbearance on Hamas’ part not to have accused him in advance. They waited until afterwards to complain of the “imbalance” in the report. In fact, if Israel had deigned to present evidence to the U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry, Goldstone almost certainly would have devoted many more pages to Israeli allegations.

However it was pro-Israel sources that pre-emptively and retroactively calumniated Goldstone, his committee and his report for being “one-sided” and, even more hilariously, “anti-Semitic.”

It has long been a tactic of Israel and its apologists to refuse to cooperate with investigations, judicial or journalistic, and then to pounce on the result and declare it to be “one-sided,” or “biased.” Of course one breathlessly awaits any report from the Anti-Defamation League, NGO Monitor, Zionist Organization of America, U.N. Monitor, etc., ad nauseam, that has ever, ever, found an action of Israel worthy of investigation, let alone condemnation.

“One-sided” in this libelous lexicon means any criticism of Israel whatsoever, as is indicated by the criticism of the Goldstone report, which concluded quite correctly that “the government of Israel had not carried out any credible investigations into alleged violations.” But then, it said the same thing about the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza. If that’s not even-handed, one wonders what is.

In fact, the report from the Goldstone fact-finding team is exemplary. A human rights stalwart from South Africa, Goldstone is a staunchly independent member of Paul Volker’s Oil for Food Inquiry, which did not exactly whitewash the United Nations, and a longstanding prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Someone who opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa—his own country, moreover—by definition has better human rights credentials than the Israeli governments that for decades armed the white settler regime and consistently broke the sanctions against Pretoria. Talk about “blood diamonds,” by all means, but then cast your mind back to when Israel was a major exporter of apartheid diamonds.

Anyone who has ever met Goldstone, or had dealings with him, knows him to be a person of deep integrity, firmly committed to human rights and very sensitive to suggestions of bias. When he accepted the Human Rights Council assignment, in fact, he did so only on the assurance that he would be able to look at the behavior of both sides in the conflict in Gaza. He must have really summoned all his courage to take this position and, on all evidence of his past career, weighed every word very carefully.

Goldstone can draw some comfort from the likelihood that the shrill calumnies hurled at him primarily emanate from people who for the most part have not read the report but are screeching from a score provided by the Israeli government. In short, to be attacked by Alan Dershowitz is no bad thing.

As Israeli dissident Uri Avnery points out, the reason the Israeli government refused to cooperate is that it knows its behavior in Gaza was legally indefensible, part of a long, bipartisan Israeli pattern of beating up on neighboring populations to appear tough for its own electorate.

The hysteria and outrage is even remarkable in its lack of substance, since there is little new in the report. Previously, broadcasters have shown Israeli servicemen backing up the allegations of murderous treatment of civilians in Gaza. The U.N. had protested attacks on its premises. The world had watched the phosphorus shells raining flesh-eating agony on civilians, and seen the tortured aftermath. Israeli television viewers had heard a doctor’s agony as his family was murdered.

Every single credible human rights organization, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), has reported on the IDF’s criminal behavior during the operation. Just cast your mind back to January when the normally restrained ICRC said the Israeli military had “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded,” when for four days Israeli forces refused to allow ambulances to go to casualties. When the ICRC eventually gained access, rescue workers found 12 corpses lying on mattresses in one home, along with four young children lying next to their dead mothers.

Goldstone points out, reasonably, that if the Israelis were to carry out a credible investigation it could avert the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation he has called for. In fact, that is the report’s major understated conclusion: that there is a serious case to answer.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry complained that even though the government had not testified to the commission it had sent one of 6,000 copies of its own report, but that it had been ignored. In fact, the spokesman even cited Goldstone telling interviewers “We had a lot of information that came from Israel, both from the government—there was a long 160-odd page report from the Israeli government giving their version. We took that fully into account in making our finding.”

Like many Israelis and most of the rest of the world, the inquiry found that the Israeli version was totally unconvincing. The Foreign Ministry’s faux indignation is clearly from the “Who’re you going to believe—me, or your own eyes?” school.

If Israel does not mount a credible investigation—credible being loosely and generously defined as not the customary form of the IDF investigating and finding itself blameless, but one conforming to international standards—the report wants the Security Council to refer the case to the ICC.
A Crisis and an Opportunity

This offers both a crisis and an opportunity to Obama’s Middle East peace strategy. Hitherto Israel has relied on an automatic U.S. veto on its behalf. Obama has to weigh this very carefully. The reflex action has been to defend Israel, but optimists could detect some signs of nuance in the administration’s response.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, while complaining that Goldstone had opted for “cookie cutter conclusions” about Israel’s actions while keeping “the deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks,” urged the Israeli government to investigate further.

Obama’s envoy to the U.N., Ambassador Susan Rice, said on Sept. 17 that Washington had “very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report,” and pointed out longstanding “very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.”

It was the mandate that was unacceptable, however, not the report, which is still under study. Rice does not want to stand up in the Security Council defending the indefensible, not least on behalf of a government that is so doggedly giving the White House the finger on settlements.

Doubtless crossing her fingers for luck, she added that “We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the [Geneva-based] Human Rights Council and that’s our strong view. And, most importantly, our view is that we need to be focused on the future.”

But that future clearly depends on bringing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to heel and the settlements to a halt. A Security Council decision on the report requires that the White House make a critical choice.

A U.S. abstention, let alone a vote for a referral to the ICC, would send a seismic signal way up the Richter scale to Israelis about what Netanyahu is doing to relations with their only ally in the world.

While a U.S. veto would indeed protect Israel from the ICC, a report with the credibility of a revered and honored jurist like Goldstone will certainly help mount prosecutions in other countries across the globe, particularly in Europe. Already, there are many Israeli military and civilian officials who find themselves having to check with government lawyers as well as their travel agents before setting off. There undoubtedly will be many more.

As Goldstone wrote the report was issued: “Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the fighting will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy.”

One hopes this is printed out and placed in a prominent position above the desks of Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—along with a reminder that Israel is committed to lifting the blockade of Gaza, as well as freezing settlements.

These leaders can point out to the supporters of Israel among the liberal majority of American Jews that they overwhelmingly supported Goldstone when, with Washington’s support, he prosecuted Yugoslav war criminals. They also supported Sudan’s referral to the ICC, in part based on the work of one of Goldstone’s colleagues on the mission, Hina Jilani, who was a member of the commission of inquiry on Darfur.

Ironically, they should be helped by a sad fact: that the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority, along with Egypt and many of the Arab regimes, are unlikely to invest much in the way of diplomatic capital or effort behind the report or a referral of Israel to the ICC.

They covered for Sudan in Darfur, after all, and even if they are not eager to do the same for Israel, they are prepared to see Gazans suffer in order to get rid of Hamas. Egypt is Israel’s accomplice in the blockade of Gaza, in the collective punishment of its people for their temerity in electing the wrong government. Hamas has few friends among Arab regimes, not only for its atavistic ideology, but because of the threat its example poses to them if ever they deigned to have elections. They let Beirut burn, and they will let Gaza starve.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at .

Evans the Editor!

BOOKS: Northern echoes in Harry’s games with establishment club
December 17, 2009 Tribune arts

My Paper Chase by Harold Evans
Little Brown, £25

Harry Evans’ book is a remarkably evocative portrait of an eventful era in British history, painted with insight and candour – but without rancour. With self-deprecatory humour and affection, his anecdotes of life in journalism illuminate the changes that were taking place in society, in part spurred on by people like him.

He was especially well placed to observe. Son of a Manchester train driver, Evans made his way to the top of British journalism, shouldering aside the Oxbridge types who still dominate the upper echelons of government, even if their grip is not quite so firm as once it was. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder – but is well aware he has had every excuse for one!

His story implicitly explains his subsequent remaking of himself in the United States and his comfort with life there. As I can personally testify, Americans do not see northern vowels as a linguistic caste mark and most Brits are instant honorary WASPs. Evans is proud of his adopted home – as his recent books testify – but well aware of the warts that need to be included in any accurate portrait of the country. Typical of his sense of proportion, while deploring British libel and contempt laws, he was shocked by the propensity of the American media, unhindered by such restraints, to lynch the accused in the run up to a trial. As the knighthood he has accepted suggests, he is no self-hating Brit, and his pride in the better traditions of British journalism permeates this book.

He recounts with justified pride his work when editor at the Northern Echo – the exposure of ICI’s fishy attitude to emissions on Teesside and the NHS’ cavalier attitude to the long-proven efficacy of pap smears. It was there, too, that he began a campaign about the execution of Timothy Evans which finally had him declared innocent.

Too late for the victim, but it exposed the willingness of the judiciary to believe three impossible things before breakfast rather than admit that one of their colleagues had been wrong. The campaign played a significant role in the abolition of the death penalty. He is not boasting, just taking justified pride in a journalist’s job well done.

When he moved to the Sunday Times, Evans continued to erode the mutually protective mafia rules of silence and cover-up disguised as contempt of court and libel that covered the mistakes and injustices of our rulers. His Insight team’s investigations into Thalidomide and Rachmanism exposed a cozy nexus of legal indifference and corporate/state indifference to suffering and injustice.

He also confronted the Oxbridge omerta when his reporters waded through official excuses about national security to the revelation of the role of Kim Philby: the defector had actually spearheaded British intelligence efforts against the Soviets while working as a Soviet agent himself. Philby’s most redoubtable defence was not the coterie of comrades who had accompanied him from Cambridge into MI6, but the old school brigade who, as Evans points out, rallied to his defence when entirely justified suspicions were raised and almost appointed him as head of the organization. Even after Philby’s defection to Moscow, they closed ranks. Like the judges, they did not want the world to know about the incompetence and treachery of members of the ruling elite.

Ironically, Evans’ nemesis was an Oxford man, but the former “Red Rupert” Murdoch was by no means a member of the club, and that aspect clearly tickles Evans, even as he recounts the trail of dishonoured promises by which the media mogul destroyed any pretence of editorial independence. For some sections of the left, the Wapping strike by which Murdoch destroyed the print unions is still a litmus test. Evans is more nuanced. He had to deal with the same unions earlier – and he ruefully records that their obdurate leaders supported the Murdoch takeover because, they said, “We can work with Rupert.”

Ian Williams

Obama end of year report: Must try harder

Obama's Nobel Prize: must try harder

From Ian Williams Middle East International Passionate Detachment column 18 December 2009

Barack Obama accepted his Nobel Prize on 10 December admitting that it was controversial. He clearly got it for his aspirations and for others’ expectations of him, both of which represent a global sigh of relief at the end of the previous presidential era.

The prize is more controversial at home than abroad because so many people internationally share his stated aspirations and can clearly see a reconnection to reality in the US after long years of faith-based solutions. Across the world he has been indicating a left turn: diplomacy, engagement, and – what really won over the Norwegian prize jury – a commitment to nuclear disarmament that goes beyond telling other people to give up their weaponry.

Domestically, Obama is caught between the right and a hard left that is still far from liberated itself from faith-based politics detached from reality. The conservatives in the US will never accept him as a legitimate president because they believe that he is a liberal and a socialist, and some of them even think that he is a foreign-born Muslim. And although they are too abashed to say it, others will never accept him because he is black. The much smaller left either had him pegged as a sell-out simply because he ran for office, or voted for him in the naïve belief that he was the second coming of socialism in the US.

The cries from both sides about Afghanistan are illustrative, with left and right united in thinking he has capitulated to the Bush-era strategy. Yet during his campaign he consistently complained that the Republicans had diverted forces from what he called a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan to a “war of choice” in Iraq. He has, as he told the Nobel audience, set a timetable for quitting Iraq and moved resources to Afghanistan precisely to meet the gaps left by his predecessor: “One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 42 other countries – including Norway – in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.”

Many Americans will not understand the power of a confession like this in his speech at the Nobel ceremony: “America – in fact, no nation – can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.” This was never admitted during eight years of calculated scorn for global governance under Bush, and a previous eight years of evasion and logic-chopping from Clinton.

One small but vociferous group has seen Obama as the enemy from the beginning. Many of the same eccentrics who believe he is betraying Israel are those who see him as a forger of birth certificates and a crypto-Muslim. One hopes that exposure to these deranged Likudnik types will help inoculate him against Binyamin Netanyahu.

For it is in the Middle East that we will see whether or not he really earns that peace prize, which has been devalued by having been handed out to so many who failed before. So far, he has an excuse, but it cannot hold much longer. With the economic crises, health care reform and financial regulation, he has a lot to occupy him, and it cannot have escaped his notice that some of those who are poised to stab him and the Democratic Party in the back, like Senator Joe Lieberman, are closely tied to Israel. He has to watch his back.

In fact, he has been doing just that. His embrace of J-Street and the relative lack of contumely from the organised ‘official’ pro-Israel lobby suggest that he is well aware of the domestic political aspects and is dealing with them. Obama’s Cairo speech and demand for a settlement freeze were major steps forward. Indeed, on the small mercy front, the declaration that the settlements are illegitimate, that Israel should hold an inquiry into Goldstone’s allegations and that the East Jerusalem evictions are illegal are all there to set against the silence over Gaza and Cast Lead, and the later equivocation over settlement expansion. Overall, they still represent a turn that would have had the Israel lobby frothing at the mouth under Clinton.

However, the Obama team has been careful to phrase its demands on Israel in terms that are difficult to shout about: asking Israel to abide by its own promises under the roadmap on settlements or international decisions on Gaza, is not something that anyone but the most purblind legislators can get too upset about.

But one hopes that he or his aides are keeping tally of every humiliation and slight that Netanyahu has heaped on the White House with the intent to pay him back in full measure. Obama has missed opportunities to apply pressure, but he will lose all credibility if next year, with the major domestic issues dealt with, he does not begin to marshal the financial and diplomatic penalties Israel can expect for defying him.

However we should not, of course, reduce everything to the Middle East, even though all global issues seem to be exercised there, from the rule of law to disarmament. In many cases, but not all, he has to face down his military as well as Republicans.

Only this week his administration baulked at inspections under the Biological Weapons convention. It may only be one year, but no indication has been given of preparations to sign and ratify the clutch of international instruments that would put some truth in his stated aspirations. These include the International Law of the Sea (which the Pentagon actually wants), the International Landmine Convention (which it doesn’t), and the Child Soldiers Convention (the only other non-signer: Somalia).

End-of-year report: Tries hard, must try harder.

Friday, December 11, 2009

ElBaradei to run on Fusion ticket?

Elbaradei bows out

From Ian Williams

Passionate Detachment,
Middle East International 1 December 2009

To have John Bolton and the US government trying to keep you out of international office could be a matter of considerable pride. But an even greater achievement for Mohamed Elbaradei was to secure his third term as head of the IAEA in 2005, for he had decided to run again precisely because of Bolton’s challenge. Now some Arabs are wondering whether Elbaradei could face down the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt with equal success.

Elbaradei is certainly no mob orator in the Nasserite mode. Eschewing empty rhetoric, he is shy and diffident in conversation, but he does not pull his punches when he speaks on substantial issues. Noticeably, he avoids the third-worldist, Islamist rhetoric that tries to turn any opponent of the West into a hero. With his democratic convictions and cosmopolitan experience he certainly harboured no illusions about the late Saddam Hussein, or indeed has he about the government in Tehran, which has repaid his efforts to help with perpetual obstruction. His eminently objective good sense infuriates those on both poles whose subjective and expedient stands he refuses to endorse.

As he finishes his third and final term, the reason for his popularity with the rest of the world is obvious. Contrast his behaviour with that of the British senior civil servants sidling out of the panelled woodwork to stick the knife into Tony Blair at the Chilcot Inquiry in London. Their silence and compliance in the run-up to the Iraq war contrast starkly with Elbaradei’s outspokenness, not least because his candour was in the face of the most vindictive and unforgiving administration in Washington.

In March 2003 in the Security Council, with soft-spoken deadpan rigour, Elbaradei read his report with all the brio of a lawyer reading a will. But it helped rip up the tissue of lies on which the case for war had been built with his exposure of the documents that had been concocted to “prove” that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger. Similarly, his objectivity over Iran’s erratic nuclear behaviour has been an example to all in the face of similar pressure to stampede to war.

Begun under Eisenhower as Atoms for Peace, the IAEA had for years been a technical agency with a profile lower than the Universal Postal Union – and perhaps much less conducive to the public good. The “peaceful” nuclear reactors it promoted still generate by-products that are useful for making bombs. Elbaradei, realising that dichotomy, declared: “Under the current system, any country has the right to master these operations for civilian uses. But in doing so, it also masters the most difficult steps in making a nuclear bomb.”

Except for Iran, under a Security Council mandate, nations have that right now; but Elbaradei wants to remove it from everyone, “to tighten control over the operations for producing the nuclear material that could be used in weapons.” And, he also declared, “we must ensure – absolutely – that no more countries acquire these deadly weapons,” that “nuclear-weapon states take concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament,” and “we must put in place a security system that does not rely on nuclear deterrence.”

That sounds entirely reasonable to almost everyone, of course, except generals and politicians in the nuclear states who are quite prepared to cheer enforcement as long as it applies only to others.

When he says that the nuclear non-proliferation regime has “lost its legitimacy in the eyes of Arab public opinion because of the perceived double-standard” over Israel’s nuclear weapons, it is clear common sense. But it appears almost audacious when one considers the total silence from Western leaders about Israel’s arsenal, even in the face of Israeli insistence that the world must stop at nothing to thwart Iran’s ambitions.

On that, Elbaradei is equally forthright. An Israeli attack on Iran would “turn the region into a ball of fire and put Iran on a crash course for nuclear weapons with the support of the whole Muslim world.”

Elbaradei has proven that he is not a single-issue reformer. He breached the boundaries of technocracy in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “We may have torn down the walls between East and West, but we have yet to build the bridges between North and South – the rich and the poor,” pointing out that the “the nations of the world spent over $1 trillion on armaments. But we contributed less than 10% of that amount – a mere $80 billion – as official development assistance to the developing parts of the world, where 850 million people suffer from hunger.”

The question now is what he will do after he has stood down. Along with Amr Mousa from the Arab League, he has been touted as a presidential candidate when Hosni Mubarak’s term finishes in 2011. Admittedly Elbaradei has set himself considerable hurdles by demanding “built-in guarantees that the election be run properly.” His family history as a democrat and reformer is unlikely to persuade the Egyptian government to bypass the complex rules set up to ensure that the purpose of elections is to elect a Mubarak.

But having someone of his domestic and international stature running for office would certainly put the spotlight on the government in Cairo. It would also present a dilemma for Washington, whose affection for democracy in the Middle East has always been tempered with an attachment to regimes that will be “moderate” with Israel. In the meantime, there are more than enough non-proliferation tasks to keep the outgoing IAEA chief busy in the multilateral world, and that is where he has a serious comparative advantage: he is committed to disarmament for everybody, not just expediently for those whom the great powers, and more specifically the Western powers, distrust.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Irritating Iran

The nuclear deal that wasn’t
Middle East International 6 November 2009

From Ian Williams

Iran often seems to confuse causing exasperation with diplomacy. It certainly manages to irritate those who try to arrange a graceful climbdown, whether it is the EU states which tried to head off what looked like George W Bush’s rush to war or, now, the IAEA.

The IAEA’s recent compromise proposal in the ongoing dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme suggests that Iran transfer some three-quarters of its declared 1.5 tons of low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment by the end of this year. The uranium would then go to France for conversion into fuel plates for a Tehran reactor that produces medical radio-isotopes for cancer treatment. Just as the negotiators thought they were on the verge of a deal, the Iranians have seemingly asked for incoming shipments of uranium to match those they would send out.

This might seem bloody-minded, but the Iranians have a point. For decades other states, including Russia and China, have taken Iranian money and refused to deliver nuclear technology and materials. On the other hand, it is understandable that few if any other countries really applaud even the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

The Iranians also have a point that their case should not be before the Security Council. But that point has been somewhat obscured by their inept diplomacy and occasional tendency to be economical with the truth. What they are doing in the way of refinement of nuclear fuel does not breach their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. They are allowing inspections by the IAEA, and they have not processed the fuel to weapons standard. Their processing can, of course, be a step in the development of bomb-grade material, but that is true of all countries.

Getting Iran onto the agenda of the Security Council needed a referral by the IAEA for which nuclear-armed Israel, a non-signatory of the NPT, agitated. The arm-twisting and cajoling that brought about that result was actively supported by India, also a non-signatory and a possessor of nuclear weapons, in expectation of a deal with the US that would in effect legitimise its driving a juggernaut through the treaty. Iran refuses to accept the legality of the Security Council referral. Its resentments are certainly fuelled by memories of the Iraq-Iran war when the Council refused to act over what the UN later determined was an act of aggression by Iraq, not to mention Saddam’s use of missiles an d poison gas. By getting Iran on the agenda, the US and its allies pre-empted Iran’s ace – which would have been to follow North Korea in leaving the NPT.

There is an element of irrationality in the behaviour of many parties to this controversy. For example, in Israel the issue is what pretext can be used to hit Iran – but even then one suspects that this is more to fan the siege mentality than because of any real perception of threat.

It is ironic that the Iran’s diversion of efforts and resources into promoting its nuclear-based energy independence undermines the development of the oil-refining capacity it desperately lacks, in turn making it more vulnerable to proposed sanctions against imports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products. But seemingly opposition and government alike have now taken up the nuclear cause as a symbol of national pride.

The Security Council is a diplomatic and political body, not a tribunal of law or equity. But under the UN Charter, as the International Court of Justice ruled in the case of Libya over Lockerbie, its decisions are binding in international law. In the past, Iran had the excuse that North Korea had shown that a whiff of uranium could get the US taking notice and talking. The Obama administration is prepared to talk and there are interlocutors, like IAEA head Muhammad ElBaradei prepared to mediate. Iran needs to examine ways to secure the refined fuel supplies it needs – for its pride as much as anything else. It could compromise over uranium enrichment – maybe with an escrow account in third hands in case any of the suppliers default. As Iran has already shown, it can always make more uranium.

Obama's dilemma - thanks to Goldstone

Goldstone weaves a sticky web

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 6 November 2009

Amid the hysteria generated among Israelis in the wake of the UN report on last December/January’s assault on the Gaza Strip, it is easy to forget that the commission headed by the South African judge Richard Goldstone simply concluded that Israel – and indeed Hamas – had a case to answer about possible war crimes, and asked both to mount credible investigations.

Anyone who parses the statements coming from Israel’s Western protectors will realise that Israel has already lost. The US, the UK and France have all urged it to mount such an investigation, while making sure to accompany their requests with the now mandatory stroking of Israeli sensibilities.

The US regretted the “bias” of the report’s mandate – ignoring the fact that Goldstone had successfully insisted on rewriting it to include investigation of crimes committed by either side as a condition of accepting the position. The British envoy to the Human Rights Council (HRC) tied himself into a complete Möbius strip by declaring: “Because Israel did not cooperate with the Mission, which we regret, the report lacks an authoritative Israeli perspective on the events in question, so crucial to determining the legality of actions.” They would not be so indulgent about Radovan Karadzic’s refusal to appear at his hearing in The Hague.

But that is where the legal expertise of Goldstone and his colleagues is so damaging. The International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction only extends to cases that the country concerned has failed to investigate or try itself. So why does Israel not respond with a Kahan-style grey-wash job as it did after Sabra and Shatila?

One reason is political. As Binyamin Netanyahu obliquely reminded his coalition partners and Washington after the HRC vote: “We will not allow Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in The Hague.” It was, of course, Barack Obama’s preferred peace partners in the previous Israeli government who started Operation Cast Lead.

However, the main reason is that Goldstone’s expertise has boxed in Israel and its putative friends with a comprehensive and wide-ranging array of references. The report, which the HRC endorsed, recommends that the UN Secretary-General refer the issue to the Security Council, asking not only that it require Israel to mount an investigation, but that the Council itself should set up a panel of legal experts to monitor and report back on the thoroughness of any Israeli process. The ultimate sanction is that the Council can, as it did with Sudan over Darfur, empower the ICC to take proceedings against individuals from non-member states if Israel does not comply.

Well aware of the possibility of a Security Council veto, the report is also referred to the prosecutor of the ICC to consider in the context of the Palestinian Authority’s acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction. The UN General Assembly has in the past accepted Palestine as a state in almost everything except voting rights. If Palestine’s signature is accepted then the Court has jurisdiction on crimes committed in its territory, whether or not Israel has signed.

The report also suggests that countries consider prosecutions under the growing doctrine of universal jurisdiction of national courts against war crimes. The Israeli defence minister has already cancelled a trip to Britain for fear of just such a prosecution and other officials have already had similar problems with travel abroad.

Assuming that the UN General Assembly endorses the report’s conclusions, Switzerland will be asked to reconvene a meeting of the parties to the Geneva Conventions to consider conditions in the Occupied Territories. (It is worth remembering that the report, as well as considering the imprisonment of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit at some length, also considers and condemns Israeli behaviour towards Palestinian prisoners). It also asks the Assembly to consider the legality of use of white phosphorous, flechettes and tungsten in armaments and calls on Israel to put a moratorium on their deployment.

The Arab Group’s General Assembly resolution was restrained in its tone. It asked the secretary-general to refer the report to the Security Council and called on both Israelis and Palestinians to conduct the investigations demanded, with the secretary-general reporting back to the Assembly on progress. Needless to say, such a reasonably phrased resolution was likely to be unacceptable to the Europeans, desperate to avoid offending Obama or Israel.

The issue puts Obama in an invidious position. US opposition to any call for Israel to investigate would undo all the president’s bridge-building in the Arab world. Alternatively Obama could try to trade US backing for Israel over Goldstone for concessions elsewhere: such as settlements or the Gaza blockade. Washington will almost certainly try to procrastinate, even if the sticky web that Goldstone and his team have woven limits its options.

J Street is better for not being perfect!

J Street opens to traffic

Passionate Detachment, Ian Williams' America, Middle EAst International 20 November 2009
Ian Williams

It should not be surprising that J Street – puckishly named after a street that is missing from Washington’s grid map – is blossoming in the present circumstances. A president who likes their message was voted into the White House with overwhelming support from American Jews, while Israel has a right-wing prime minister whose American education accentuates rather than conceals his opposition to the deep-seated liberal sentiments of the community.

Although it has a long way to go before it can match AIPAC, J Street has already crashed its pretensions to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community. Its lines of communication to the new White House are a direct challenge to the monopoly AIPAC has exercised for so long.

Similarly, albeit in a small way, its related organisations have already shown an ability to blunt AIPAC’s biggest weapon, the power of the purse. When threats were made to mobilise funding against people who spoke sense on the Middle East, J Street’s affiliates raised money for the putative victims.

Obama’s National Security Advisor Gen James Jones spoke at its recent well-attended conference, and over 100 Congresspersons signed up for its host committee (even if many of them then went on to hedge their bets by voting for a fact-light resolution against Goldstone’s Report).

The organisation invited Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to its conference – and he played into its hands by spurning the invitation, thereby confirming the suspicion that this Israeli government only wants to relate to amen-sayers. He and the “official” Jewish leaders thought that withholding the imprimatur of Israel from the event would devalue it, but of course it enhanced its attraction for many of the participants.

Uncomfortable alliances
It may be significant as well that it was Netanyahu who originally broke the solid phalanx of “official” American Jewish unconditional support for whatever policies an incumbent Israeli government had. Back in 1994, his emissaries met with 60 members of Congress and their staffs to lobby against the involvement of US troops in the Golan Heights, with the sole purpose of frustrating incumbent Premier Yitzhak Rabin’s talks with Syria, which depended on such US guarantees to win domestic Israeli support. When Likud took power and tried to assert the old rules, its previous conduct ricocheted, creating space for Peace Now, then, and now J Street, to be critical without total excommunication.

During the George W Bush years there was no light between the US and Israel, and very little between the “official” Jewish organisations and the Republican Party. This led to some natural questions from American Jews about just whom they represented. Most Jews were horrified by the domestic and foreign policies of the administration and were clearly uncomfortable with the close alliance of “their” leaders with obscurantist fundamentalist Christians and conservatives.

In fact, as J Street’s polls discovered, most American Jews opposed more Israeli settlements, and supported active US engagement in the peace process, even if it meant disagreeing with an Israeli government. As a double-edged finding, the average respondents ranked Israel eighth in their policy concerns, and less than one-tenth ranked it first or second.

J Street came onto the scene with funding – and, under Obama, access, which clearly rankles with the official lobby. Describing itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” J Street claims to advocate “for American policies that, in our view, advance the national interests of the United States, as well as the long-term interests and security of the state of Israel.”

There is a contradiction here for J Street: if so many Jews rank Israel as way down their list of concerns, how do you rally support for an organisation whose focus is to rescue the country from its own government and which claims to be axiomatically “pro-Israel”? The “pro-Israel” aspect was a major issue of debate at J Street’s conference.

Nod towards Zionism
In a rational world, it is no more anti-Israeli to consider that its government’s policies are unethical and suicidal for the country than it is anti-American to think that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was disastrous and wrong. In some ways Americans have a little more leeway – it is easier to be a patriotic American and disavow Manifest Destiny than it is to be pro-Israel but eschew Zionism. But conservatives in the US are not known for rationality, any more than their colleagues in Israel.

It is possible to say that Israel should not have been created, but it was, and we have to deal with fact. But that is no more the way to win friends and influence American Jews than telling white Americans that their nation should not have existed because it was built on ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

J Street realizes that, polls notwithstanding, it would be wrong to dismiss the reflexive support for Israel’s existence that many American Jews have. That is why, just as American labour unions and radicals head their parades with stars and stripes, an organisation that claims to speak to Washington on behalf of American Jews will have a short life and no influence if it does not nod in the general direction of the Zionist idea.

It is politically far more effective to point out the truth that many Israelis admit: that Israel will not exist in anything like its present form if the current disastrous policies are pursued. J Street has been doing that effectively and it would be counterproductive if it succumbed to positions that, no matter how well-grounded, cross the line to alienate those 60% opposing settlement building.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be for Arab and pro-Palestinian groups and individuals to take advantage of J Street’s inclusively liberal outlook to try to join or support it. They would be much better off emulating the traditions of organisation and activism that J Street draws upon to mount their own parallel campaigns.

The real test is coming, however. Part of J Street’s appeal is its access to the White House, and that has been forthcoming, at least in part, because the organisation has helped create space for Obama’s Middle East plan. As that plan teeters on the brink of capitulation over settlements, it will be worth watching to see if J Street is open to two-way traffic. Can it pressure Obama and Clinton to deliver?

Obama, Health and the Left

Tribune 25th November 2009
Ian Williams

New York, with its vestigial social democratic culture, is less committed than most cities to private affluence at the expense of public squalor, but it’s still hard to find a public toilet in Manhattan. Left and right have a hand in this. A few years ago, New York was about to sign up a company to provide the type of automated toilet common in other cities. Threatened legal action demanding that these toilets meet standards for disability access flushed the deal away. The result is that everyone, wheelchaired or walking has to cross their legs.

The landmark health care debate in Congress shows similar behaviour from both sides. The Catholic hierarchy, whose flock includes millions of the uninsured, decided that it would be better that they die disease, than get insurance offering abortion services. Catholic Democrats on Capitol Hill joined the Republicans to hold the bill to ransom unless abortion was excluded. It is typical of such posturing that the Republican Party’s own staff insurance was promptly revealed to include just such services.

On the left, Dennis Kucinich, the most left wing, but poorest in cash and charisma, of Democratic primary contenders, voted against the narrowly passed bill in the House of Representatives because it did not include a public option. The lobbyists have indeed laboured mightily to exclude the one option that would make sense.

Since being an American conservative entails believing at least three impossible things before breakfast, we should not really be surprised that many of the states that fervently oppose “socialised medicine,” actually have socialised alcohol: the state government actually has a monopoly on liquor distribution. Even more relevant are the actuality-conflicted protestors who demand “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare,” the latter being the Canadian-style single payer health insurance programme for millions of American pensioners and disabled of all ages.

Not do such “fiscal conservatives” often mention the defence budget. But it is almost a constitutional convention in Washington that no one ever cavils at money for killing foreigners or letting native defence contractors make a killing out of the Pentagon budget, even if the sums dwarf health spending.

With similar dissonance from reality, the so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats who profess worry about the budget deficit, are most worried about the public option, whose cheapness could undercut the massive profits of the health insurance and drug companies. But if a few other Democrats had joined Kucinich’s politically correct gesture it would have wrecked the only chance since the New Deal to bring any sense at all into American Healthcare.

The bill is indeed deeply flawed. A single payer system like the National Health is insurance in the best sense: it spreads the risk and costs across the entire public, but the public option would at least allow the uninsured to buy the equivalent of what pensioners in the US have from the government. Instead, the current string and sealing wax effort mandates the purchase of insurance from money-gouging and inefficient private companies, who set their premiums on strictly commercial grounds. In 45 states they refuse to cover you for “pre-existing” conditions, and in any case, if you are old and more at risk, you pay more. Under the current bill if you do not put money in their pockets, the government will fine you.

There is a trade-off. In return for thirty or forty million compulsory new customers, the salivating insurance moguls promised that they would drop some of their current inhumane practices, like deciding that because you did not mention your adolescent acne on your application form, they will not pay to treat the cancer you have just discovered.

But despite all these pertinent points, Kucinich was wrong to oppose the Bill. Establishing the principle is far more important. The House Bill goes to a conference with the Senate to merge with their version, where some of the more egregious idiocies can be reconciled out. Admittedly there is a chance that some new ones could actually be added in, but, whatever the wording of the final law, for the first time it brings the USA somewhere close to middle of the twentieth century in making it the government’s business to ensure access to medical care for its citizens.

Without taking the piss – too much – we get back to the Manhattan toilets. Surely it’s a better tactic to build the toilets and get the plumbing in, and then to campaign for disability access.

In fact, precisely because Kucinich is correct about the inherent inefficiencies and injustices of the bill, there is scope now for improvements and inefficiencies. When the drug companies and the insurers show their true colours – putting the government more and more in the red -legislators can and should put the squeeze on them. They can introduce a public option, ensure that it can use its bargaining power with private providers to reduce costs and widen access. It’s the American way: get a toe in the door and then push hard.

What could keep me awake at night is nightmares about planeloads of New Labour acolytes, for example, the type who love primaries because they worked a few weeks on the Obama campaign, trying to get the NHS to emulate the deeply dysfunctional deal now being slapped together in Washington. It might be better than the present system, but if someone raises the Titanic, that’s no reason to book a cruise in it.