Norm Geras is dead

So it turns out Norm Geras has died. To be honest this wouldn’t matter to me one way or another, if not for the fact that his death has caused otherwise sensible people to behave as if a great intellectual has passed away (reaching dizzying heights here). It’s a repeat of what happened when Hitchens died, with even less justification.

Even the backhanded compliment flyingrodent gave that he “can’t imagine blogs without the Professor — Normblog really should be seen as the archetype of the form” is giving him too much credit. What Norm Geras did is no different from what the rightwing and “decent left” US warbloggers did and do: smear, lie, distort to manufacture outrage. The only thing Geras added was to play up his seventies marxist credentials to imagine how Marx and Engels would’ve totes supported the War on Iraq. Oh, and of course a certain sort of (imagined) upperclass English loquaciousness (e.g.).

In short, my opinion of Geras remains unchanged after his death, a bullshitter who used his writing talents to help make the world slightly worse, though only a minor offender compared to people like Hitchens.

Hullo John got a new ‘puter?



Well, yes, I do, as my old one died two weeks back. That was Sandra’s old computer, Id bought for her from a co-worker in 2008 or so and the hard disks just gave up the ghost. Its been through the wars before and she had already lost the data that had been on it a long time ago, so no great loss. Might buy a cheap new harddrive and get it fixed anyway, just for kicks. The new computer is great and I’m well in the honeymoon phase of owning a new computer, except for having to reinstall all my old favourite programmes and settings, which is always a chore. Not of great interest to anyone but me, I know, so have some Alexei Sayle.

Of more interest, this casual suggestion that the US might have experienced its Suez moment:

Humphrey is increasingly of the opinion that we are witnessing the USA’s ‘east of Suez moment’ at which the US is faced with the same strategic challenges that all empires are faced with. The legions will be recalled from Europe soon, and this is going to leave a major series of security and other challenges that need to be filled.

Which would make the War on Iraq something like what the Suez Crisis was for the UK: a point at which America’s military capabilities outreach its political power. It was capable of invading and winning battles, but its military might did not help America reach its wider goals. The War on Iraq was the quintessential late imperial war, one not waged for a concrete, achievable goal, but more to show that the aggressor is still an empire, still top dog. It didn’t quite work out that way, which means the empire is still looking for another enemy to defeat to make everything right again, hence the confrontational stance with Iran.

Brian Haw

It doesn’t matter that Brian Haw was hanging around with D\avid I\cke kooks too much at the end of his life or that his death was posibbly hastened by putting his trust into quackery rather than proper medicine, nor do questions of how effective an anti-war protestor he was. After all, none of us managed to prevent the Wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, while the War on Libya has proved we haven’t even learned anything from those disasters. What mattered was that Brian Haw had the courage of his convictions to camp out in front of Parliament for years, serving as a living reminder to the fuckers who had voted for these wars that no, the people of Britain did not agree with them and thought them wrong.

He did this so well that the then Labour government created and implemented a law designed specifically to
stop him demonstrating in Parliament Square. In typical New Labour fashion, they did this so ineptly that the resulting law applied everybody but him, as he was grandfathered in. (The law only allowed demonstrations to take place if at the start of a demo it had police approval, but Brian Haw had started his demonstration years ago, so…)

Somebody who managed to get under the skin of Blair and co to such an extent that they had to change the law to get rid of him (and failed) and who did so for all the right reasons, deserves our deepest respect.

No Fly-Zone wanking

In the middle of a comment thread on liberal Conspiracy on the desirability of a no-fly zone over Libya, Sunny Hundal says:

I’m happy for people to make valid points, but if the only response is IRAQ IRAQ IRAQ!!! – then frankly one should join Stop the War coalition and hang out with Lyndsey German. That is about the extent of your political nous.

Sunny Hundal is one of the founders of Liberal Conspiracy as the name implies a soft left blog that over the past five years or so has become one of the more important UK political lefty blogs. Sunny has his heart in the right place, but also an eye firmly on a possible political career so sometimes tend to let conventional Westminster wisdom overrule his own intelligence which makes him sound much dumber than he really could be. As a prominent leftist, even a soft leftist, Sunny has also been a frequent target of rightwingers and Decentists, and as with many people who are subjected to such hate campaigns he has internalised some of their assumptions. Put the two tendencies together and you have an explenation for the above quote.

For those of us who can remember as far back to the runup to the Wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s quite clear that “Lyndsey German” (sic) and the Stop the War Coalition were right to oppose them, that all our fears about what these wars would be have been fully justified and that in fact far from the outcast fringe group Sunny paints them as, millions of ordinary people were smart enough to share their views and march with them in opposition.

So if Sunny and co want to argue that a no-fly zone in Libya is urgently needed and that this time, western military intervention will work, that calling for it is done for more substantial reasons than just wanting to show how morally upright and brave you are, that it’s needed in this particular occasion and not say in Ivory Coast for more substantial reasons than that Libya is on the telly, they need to do more than get hysterical. Some choice quotes:

Sunny: If the Libyans rebels want some support against Gaddafi, then I’m afraid the arguments against helping them fall apart.

We definitely need some way to stop Gaddafi massacring his people and its a shame some on the left want to just sit back while it all happens in front of our eyes.

[...]

Galen10: Doing nothing is only an option if you have no conscience.

[...]

Sunny again: Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam says the time has come for full-scale military action against #Libya rebels – Reuters

Clearly, the correct response is to sit by and vent outrage on blogs and twitter while people are killed in their hundreds.

Yeah, nice one guys.

[...]

The delightfully named Rubert Read: I hope y’all will remember this debate, if and when Benghazi is crushed and the Arab Spring is demoralised and essentially finished.

This sort of posturing and emotional appeal reminds me more of the prowar “debate” in the runup to Iraq than anything opponents to the no-fly zone proposal argued in that thread. It’s an attempt at emotional blackmail by people who will never ever have to suffer the consequences of their advocacy. Or more succinctly:

Ok. I hereby announce the formation of the Free Libyan Legion. Since we all care so much, we’re going to follow in the footsteps of Byron in Greece and Orwell in Spain and get ourselves over to Benghazi and actually fight for Libyan Freedom. In person.

How smart people can be very very dumb indeed

Matt Yglesias was one of the earliest liberal blogging “superstars”, still a student at Yale when he first started blogging, bright, wonkish and always comfortable inside the Beltway, looking to be a Washington insider himself before too long. A centrist by nature, he gets along well with both Democrats and sensible Republicans, not afraid to go against established opinion on his own side. Analytical rather than passionate, he’s not very ideological and approaches politicals rationally. In short, Matt was the perfect candidate to be suckered by the Bush administration into supporting the War on Iraq. Unlike some however, he’s been big enough to admit his mistakes, so I feel a little bit bad picking on him still, but then his recent post explaining why he made that mistake was such a perfect example of how very stupid an intelligent guy can be:

1. Erroneous views of foreign policy in general: At the time, I adhered to the school of thought (popular at the time) which held that one major problem in the world was that the US government was unduly constrained in the use of force abroad by domestic politics. [...]

2. Elite signaling: When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously.[...]

3. Misreading the politics: [...] I figured Bush wouldn’t be doing this unless he said some reasonable plan for extricating our forces and stabilizing the situation.

4. Kenneth Pollack: The formal case for war that I found compelling was Kenneth Pollack’s “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” [...]

He also adds that “being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite” which is an obnoxious motivation but honest of him to admit that. What’s clear from Matt’s explenations is that he just didn’t think things through at the time, letting others (Pollack, elite Democratic politicians like Clinton or Daschle) do his thinking for him, relying on their honesty, assuming the reasons the administration and its supporters gave for the war where the real reasons and there were no ulterior motives. This lack of critical thinking is shown even more in reason one, in which he reveals how uncritically he swallowed the myth of American reluctances to get involved in foreign adventures.

The common factor in all these errors is I think a lack of ideology, of being able to look beyond a given issue to the greater framework in which it takes place. He would’ve done better had he reflexively rejected the cause for war rather than to try and judge it on its merits, as he wasn’t smart enough or suspicious enough to reach the right conclusion. His supposedly rational approach to politics and the war blinded him to the real interests of those promoting it. It’s a trap any of us can fall into if we think we’re more clever than we are: rationality has its limits and you can’t reach the right conclusion if you don’t have all the facts.

Because there was of course an ideology driving the war, just one that was never stated explicitely. If you buy into the idea that America has the right to invade other countries if it decides they have trangressed the international order, then the only question is whether or not the reasons for invading Iraq are serious enough, with the more fundamental question of whether it’s right to do so not on the table. And sinces the cause for war was built on lies, it became impossible for those who like Matt took those lies seriously to reach the right conclusion. Matt’s arrogance, combined with his naivity ensured that these lies were swallowed.

The last US combat soldier just left Iraq

The fifty thousand who remain are just tourists… So tired of this shit, especially since the Duthc news brouhgt a little retrospective of the war in which it described the reason for the attack the plan to bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling Saddam Hussein. The weapons of mass destruction have now been officially written out of history. Certainly the anonymous soldier cheering as the trucks rolled over the border about having brought democracy to Iraq neither remembered nor cared about Saddam’s smoking nuclear gun. Of course democracy is getting quite threadbare as an excuse as well, as Jamie’s find of a wannabe Saddam II shows.

Somewhat fitting to “end” the war with the same sort of lies as it started with.

Norm Geras is still a dick

I haven’t paid much attention to old stormy Normy in years, but the warmad professor has not changed a bit. Blustering against a Guardian columnist skeptical about the War on Afghanistan, he goes for his old trick of defining acceptable and unacceptable dissent

Now, here’s something else it’s not at all difficult to understand. If P opposes C, not by giving due weight to the magnitude of the evil that is E, but by referring to it in belittling and sneering ways, as though anyone like R who takes E seriously, and disagrees with P about the advisability of course of action C, must be either of low intelligence or of dubious moral character or both, then she, P, might be thought by others not to have a morally serious attitude to the scope of the evil that is E, using evasion and mockery where a person of mature judgement would refrain from doing this in a matter of such gravity.

To use the War on Iraq as an example of how one should honourably disagree is sheer genius in its brazen cheek. It was after all his side, the people who wanted the war who “belittled the reasons or the motives or impugned the character” of anybody who did not share their passion. There was no reasoned argument, just all the sneering and belittling, evasion and mockery Normy wants his opponents to be guilty of. It’s just the teeniest, tiniest bit of projection going on there…

The sanctions on Iraq were wrong too

I wasn’t one of the people, the very few people even on the left, who from the start insisted on the immorality of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. I’m ashamed to say I never thought much about it until much later, when Bush’s the younger’s war on the country became imminent. It just never appeared on my radar as an issue, nor made much of an impact in the newspapers here. Only when the sanctions were argued as an alternative to war back in 2003 I formed an opinion about them and for a moment I bought into the idea that it might be a good compromise alternative to the war, before coming to my senses. Now Andrew Cockburn’s review of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon makes it clear I should have been much more skeptical much earlier:

Most of the time, those overseeing the blockade were able to go about their task without public reproach. Every so often a press report from Baghdad would highlight the immense slow-motion disaster in Iraq, but for the most part the conscience of the world, and especially that of the American public, remained untroubled. Administration officials reassured themselves that any hardship was entirely the fault of Saddam, and that in any case reports of civilian suffering were deliberately exaggerated by the Iraqi regime. As one US official with a key role in the Unscom weapons inspections said to me in all sincerity at the time: ‘Those people who report all those dying babies are very carefully steered to certain hospitals by the government.’ In spite of reams of child mortality statistics collected by various reputable outside parties, such as the World Health Organisation, it was impossible to convince him otherwise.

Very occasionally, a ray of truth would shine through. In 1996, the 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN. Albright maintained that sanctions had proved their value because Saddam had made some admissions about his weapons programmes and had recognised the independence of Kuwait (he did this in 1991, right after the war). Asked whether this was worth the death of half a million children, Albright replied: ‘We think the price is worth it.’ Years later, as Gordon observes, Albright was still ‘trying to explain her way out of her failure to respond more effectively to what she described as “our public relations problem”’. Her attempts to justify the policy were echoed by other sanctioneers, such as the State Department official quoted by Gordon who maintained that ‘the US is conducting a public good which it has done a poor job of selling to other countries.’

[...]

Gordon puts all this in context. ‘Under the Oil for Food programme, the Iraqi government skimmed about 10 per cent from import contracts and for a brief time received illicit payments from oil sales. The two combined amounted to about $2 billion … By contrast, in 14 months of occupation, the US-led occupation authority depleted $18 billion in funds’ – money earned from the sale of oil, most of which disappeared with little or no accounting and no discernible return to the Iraqi people. Saddam may have lavished millions on marble palaces (largely jerry-built, as their subsequent US military occupants discovered) but his greed paled in comparison to that of his successors.

The economic strangulation of Iraq was justified on the basis of Saddam’s supposed possession of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Year after year, UN inspectors combed Iraq in search of evidence that these WMD existed. But after 1991, the first year of inspections, when the infrastructure of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme was detected and destroyed, along with missiles and an extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, nothing more was ever found. Given Saddam’s record of denying the existence of his nuclear project (his chemical arsenal was well known; he had used it extensively in the Iran-Iraq war, with US approval) the inspectors had strong grounds for suspicion, at least until August 1995. That was when Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law and the former overseer of his weapons programmes, suddenly defected to Jordan, where he was debriefed by the CIA, MI6 and Unscom. In those interviews he made it perfectly clear that the entire stock of WMD had been destroyed in 1991, a confession that his interlocutors, including the UN inspectors, took great pains to conceal from the outside world.

On a more theoretical note, the fact that sanctions could continue for so long under three presidents without real reason other than the fact that they existed is a good example of how real world “conspiracies” work. Most, if not all the facts about the futility of the sanctions were known almost from the start, as was the fact that the stated reasons why they should continue were never the real reasons. Yet criticism and awareness of these issues throughout their existence has been confined to the socalled loony left, with the official storyline being swallowed uncritically by everybody else. Including by me.

Official: Balkenende is a war criminal

He won’t appear before the International Criminal Court (conveniently located in Den Haag not too far from parliament) anytime soon, but the conclusions from the Dutch Iraq inquiry (PDF, in English) do show that the Dutch political support for the war was neither as easily decoupled from the actual war as the then government made it out to be nor justified by international law. Finally it has been officially confirmed what we all knew or at least suspected back then, that the existing UN resolutions on Iraq were never sufficient legal justification for the war. Not that anything will come from it, but at least we saw our beloved prime minister embarassed and humiliated.

I’m still reading the report as a whole, but the conclusions reached by the inquiry don’t contain any real surprises. That the war was illegal as well as immoral I knew anyway, that the decision to support the war was reached long before it was discussed in parliament, for entirely different reasons than officially stated, wasn’t news either. It was clear from the start that the CDA-led government was led by its traditional policy of “Atlantic solidarity”, a desire to engage with the US and be seen as a dependable ally of it, a lesser form of the British delusions of a special relationship. The war was never assessed on its merits, the possible outcomes were not taken into account.

Though the material support of the Netherlands for the war was small, the political effect of its support was to lend a veneer of respectability to what was essentially an unilateral US war. The distinction between “political but no military support” was completely unclear and largely elided outside the Dutch political debate, presented by the US as if it meant we had given our full support. Again, not a surprise.

Some common themes emerge from the inquiry’s conclusions, which are also coming to light in the British Chilcott inquiry. There’s the dodginess of the legal reasoning for the war, as well as the exagerration of the available evidence for WMDs — turns out the Dutch intelligence services were much more skeptical about this than the government told us at the time, shock horror. More important is the utter disdain for the democratic process shown by both governments. In the Dutch case, the inquiry concludes that the decision was rammed through parliament and went entirely against the wishes of a majority of the voters.

However I’m still convinced that the massive protests against the war in the Netherlands helped convince the government from active participation in the war, against their own instincs, as they realised they could not overcome the combination of active voter hostility and parliamentary resistance to this, including from their own MPs, at a time when the domestic political situation was far from stable. This is not directly supported by the inquiry’s conclusions, but reading between the lines the formula of “political support, but no military support” looks like a typical Dutch compromise position taken by an internally divided government unwilling to turn this disagreement into an open conflict. Interestingly during part of the runup to the war the government coalition included the LPF, the party of Pim Fortuyn, which was largely against the war, not something you’d expect considering its background…

(All of the above analysis is a bit late in the day I admit, but I’ve been busy…)