Posts Tagged ‘Seumas Milne’

Terror is the price of support for despots and dictators

January 7, 2010

Egypt’s complicity in the Gaza’s siege underlines the role of western support for such regimes in the spread of war

Seumas Milne, The Guardian/UK, Jan 7, 2010

An an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor had gone on hunger strike in support of a besieged people in another part of the world, and hundreds of mostly western protesters had been stoned and beaten by police, you can be sure we’d have heard all about it. But because that is what’s been happening in western-backed Egypt, rather than Iran, and the people the protesters are supporting are the Palestinians of Gaza instead of, say, Tibetans, most people in Europe and north America know nothing about it.

For the last fortnight, two groups of hundreds of activists have been battling with Egyptian police and officials to cross into the Gaza Strip to show solidarity with the blockaded population on the first anniversary of Israel’s devastating onslaught. Last night, George Galloway’s Viva Palestina 500-strong convoy of medical aid was finally allowed in, minus 50 of its 200 vehicles, after being repeatedly blocked, diverted and intimidated by Egyptian security – including a violent assault in the Egyptian port of El Arish on Tuesday night which left dozens injured, despite the participation of one British and 10 Turkish MPs.

That followed an attempted “Gaza freedom march” by 1,400 protesters from more than 40 countries, only 84 of whom were allowed across the border – which is what led Hedy Epstein, both of whose parents died in Auschwitz, to refuse food in Cairo, as the group’s demonstrations were violently broken up and Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was feted nearby. Yesterday, demonstrations by Palestinians on the Gazan side of the border against the harassment of the aid convoy led to violent clashes with Egyptian security forces in which an Egyptian soldier was killed and many Palestinians injured.

But although the confrontation has been largely ignored in the west, it has been a major media event in the Middle East which has only damaged Egypt. And while the Egyptian government claims it is simply upholding its national sovereignty, the saga has instead starkly exposed its complicity in the US- and European-backed blockade of Gaza and the collective punishment of its one and a half million people.

The main protagonist of the siege, Israel, controls only three sides of the Strip. Without Egypt, which polices the fourth, it would be ineffective. But, having tolerated the tunnels that have saved Gazans from utter beggary, the Cairo regime is now building a deep underground steel wall – known as the “wall of shame” to many Egyptians – under close US supervision, to make the blockade complete.

That’s partly because the ageing Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, fears cross-border contamination from Gaza’s elected Hamas administration, whose ideological allies in the banned Muslim Brotherhood would be likely to win free elections in Egypt.

But two other factors seem to have been decisive in convincing Cairo to bend to American and Israeli pressure and close the vice on Gaza’s Palestinians, along with those who support them. The first was a US threat to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid unless it cracked down on arms and other smuggling. The second is the need for US acquiescence in the widely expected hereditary succession of Mubarak’s ex-banker son, Gamal, to the presidency. So, far from protecting its sovereignty, the Egyptian government has sold it for continued foreign subsidy and despotic dynastic rule, sacrificing any pretence to its historic role of Arab leadership in the process.

From the wider international perspective, it is precisely this western embrace of repressive and unrepresentative regimes such as Egypt’s, along with unwavering backing for Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, that is at the heart of the crisis in the Middle East and Muslim world.

Decades of oil-hungry backing for despots, from Iran to Oman, Egypt to Saudi Arabia, along with the failure of Arab nationalism to complete the decolonisation of the region, fuelled first the rise of Islamism and then the eruption of al-Qaida-style terror more than a decade ago. But, far from addressing the natural hostility to foreign control of the area and its resources at the centre of the conflict, the disastrous US-led response was to expand the western presence still further, with new and yet more destructive invasions and occupations, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And the Bush administration’s brief flirtation with democratisation in client states such as Egypt was quickly abandoned once it became clear who was likely to be elected.

The poisonous logic of this imperial quagmire is now leading inexorably to the spread of war under Barack Obama. Following the failed bomb attack of a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day, the US president this week announced two new fronts in the war on terror, faithfully echoed by Gordon Brown: Yemen, where the would-be bomber was allegedly trained; and Somalia, where al-Qaida has also put down roots in the swamp of chronic civil war and social disintegration.

Greater western military intervention in both countries will certainly make the problem worse. In Somalia, it has already done so, after the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006 overthrew the relatively pragmatic Islamic Courts Union and spawned the more extreme, al-Qaida-linked Shabab movement, now in control of large parts of the country. Increased US backing for the unpopular Yemeni government, already facing armed rebellion in the north and the threat of secession from the restive south – which only finally succeeded in forcing out British colonial rule in 1967 – is bound to throw petrol on the flames.

The British prime minister tried this week to claim that the growth of al-Qaida in Yemen and Somalia showed western strategy was “working”, because the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan had forced it to look for sanctuaries elsewhere. In reality, it is a measure of the grotesque failure of the entire war on terror. Since its launch in October 2001, al-Qaida has spread from the mountains of Afghanistan across the region, to Iraq, Pakistan, the horn of Africa, and far beyond.

Instead of scaling down the western support for dictatorship and occupation that fuels al-Qaida-style terror, and concentrating resources on police action to counter it, the US and its allies have been drawn inexorably into repeating and extending the monstrosities that sparked it in the first place. It’s the recipe for a war on terror without end.

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Chomsky: ‘US foreign policy is straight out of the mafia’

November 7, 2009

Noam Chomsky is the west’s most prominent critic of US imperialism, yet he is rarely interviewed in the mainstream media. Seumas Milne meets him

Seumas Milne, The Guardian/UK, November 7, 2009

Noam ChomskyNoam Chomsky: ‘Obama’s campaign rhetoric was completely vacuous’ Photograph: Rex Features

Noam Chomsky is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar. A philosopher of language and political campaigner of towering academic reputation, who as good as invented modern linguistics, he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience. When he spoke in London last week, thousands of young people battled for tickets to attend his lectures, followed live on the internet across the globe, as the 80-year-old American linguist fielded questions from as far away as besieged Gaza.

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In a war for democracy, why worry about public opinion?

October 15, 2009

Escalation in Afghanistan is aimed at rescuing the credibility of western power, whatever Afghans or westerners might want

Whoever is in charge, it seems, the war on terror has truly become a war without end. Eight years after George Bush and Tony Blair launched it, with an attack on Afghanistan under the preposterous title of “operation enduring freedom” and without any explicit UN mandate, Gordon Brown has agreed to send yet more British troops to die for a cause neither they nor the public any longer believe in.

Granted we are only talking about an extra 500 troops on top of the 9,000 already there, and the decision is hedged with qualifications. Brown has nevertheless bowed to pressure from the US administration, the British military establishment and the warmongering wing of the media, anxious to exploit the government’s Afghan failures in the runup to the general election.

But if any more proof were needed that foreign wars are not regarded as any business of the voters, this is surely it. Yesterday’s batch of polls confirm public opposition to the Afghan imbroglio is becoming ever more entrenched. There has been a 7% increase since last month in support for immediate withdrawal, according to a Populus poll for the Times, with 68% wanting troops out within the year and strongest backing for a pullout among Labour voters.

That is feeding the growing disaffection among serving soldiers towards what many see as a futile sacrifice, supposedly on behalf of a hostile population in Helmand province. The public opposition of Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, scheduled to face a court martial next month after refusing to fight what he regards as an illegal war in Afghanistan, clearly reflects a wider sentiment in the army. Stop the War Coalition activists drumming up support for next week’s national demonstration have reported sympathetic approaches from off-duty squaddies and their families across the country. It’s the kind of climate that saw parents of soldiers killed in Iraq tell the official inquiry on Tuesday they want to see Blair indicted as a war criminal.

Reports are multiplying of a similar mood among American soldiers in Afghanistan, as US opposition to the war has also hardened. As in Britain, the rampant rigging in August’s presidential election was a tipping point: dying for Afghans’ right to take part in a fraudulent sham is scarcely the noble cause for which Nato forces were assured they were the standard-bearers.

But the signs are that Barack Obama is once again preparing to send more troops – even if not the 40,000 demanded by his senior commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal. Last week, the US president explicitly ruled out any significant reduction in troop numbers or switch from a “counter-insurgency” to “counter-terrorist” remit (targeting al-Qaida, rather than the Taliban), let alone military withdrawal.

Instead, the hints are of schemes to buy off Taliban footsoldiers in an attempt to repeat the trick that created US-sponsored Sunni militias out of elements of the Iraqi resistance during the 2007 US surge. The Iraq analogy is not a happy one, however. Those Iraqi “awakening councils” are already falling apart, notably in what was supposed to be their showcase of Anbar province, where a string of deadly attacks has taken place in recent days.

Add to that the fact that there is no equivalent Shia or Iranian-style threat to the Taliban in the Pashtun areas where they are strongest, and the new wheeze’s potential looks a good deal less impressive. As Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Institute puts it: “You cannot break an insurgency that strong with money. It’s not a mercenary force.” In fact, the Taliban now effectively controls up to 70% of the country, according to Pakistan government estimates, its support fuelled by nationalist anger and the thousands of Afghan civilian casualties inflicted by Nato forces.

Meanwhile, years of occupation and intervention in Afghanistan are yielding ever more bitter fruit in Pakistan. The war with the local Taliban is expected to escalate next week into a full-scale US-sponsored assault on South Waziristan, retaliatory attacks are spreading in the cities, US drone attacks have exacted a relentless civilian death toll and two million have already been made homeless by the spillover war.

Yet one after another, the official aims and justifications of the war in Afghanistan have failed or been discredited. It was a war fought to kill or capture Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but both are still at large. It was a war fought to destroy al-Qaida, whose leadership simply decamped and set up new bases from Pakistan to Iraq. It was a war for democracy, women’s rights, development and opium eradication – all successively demonstrated to be a hollow joke.

Now we are told it is a war to prevent al-Qaida-inspired terrorism on the streets of London, which shamelessly turns reality on its head. There were no such attacks before 2001, and both bombers and intelligence agencies have repeatedly identified the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as a central motivation for those who try to launch them. Last week, General Richards, new chief of the general staff, conjured up an even more lurid justification: if Nato pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida would seize Pakistan and its nuclear weapons.

The opposite is the case. It is the Afghan war that is destabilising Pakistan and driving the Pashtun rebellion there. The last remaining argument, that withdrawal from Afghanistan would risk “undermining the credibility of Nato” and the “international community”, used by Brown last month, is the closest to the truth. In the wake of its strategic defeat in Iraq, it would certainly signal that the US and its allies can no longer impose military solutions on recalcitrant states at will, as they have done since the end of the cold war.

Which is why US, British and other Nato soldiers are likely to go on dying in Afghanistan, along with thousands of mostly unreported Afghans. The alternative is not to “walk away” from the country, as often claimed by supporters of the occupation, but the negotiated withdrawal and political settlement, including the Taliban and regional powers, that will eventually end the war. That’s what most Afghans, Britons and Americans want. But political pressure will have to grow stronger – including, grimly, from a rising soldiers’ death toll – if it’s going to be achieved any time soon.

This rewriting of history is spreading Europe’s poison

September 12, 2009

Blaming the USSR for the second world war is not only absurd – it boosts the heirs of the Nazis’ wartime collaborators

Seumas Milne, The Guardian/ UK,  Sep 9, 2009

Through decades of British commemorations and coverage of the second world war – from Dunkirk to D-day – there has never been any doubt about who started it. However dishonestly the story of 1939 has been abused to justify new wars against quite different kinds of enemies, the responsibility for the greatest conflagration in human history has always been laid at the door of Hitler and his genocidal Nazi regime.

That is until now. Fed by the revival of the nationalist right in eastern Europe and a creeping historical revisionism that tries to equate nazism and communism, some western historians and commentators have seized on the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland this month to claim the Soviet Union was equally to blame for the outbreak of war. Stalin was “Hitler’s accomplice”, the Economist insisted, after Russian and Polish politicians traded accusations over the events of the late 1930s.

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The west widens the Fatah-Hamas split

July 28, 2009

Palestinian unity is essential for any peace deal – but the US, Britain and the EU are playing a central role in preventing it

It should be obvious that no settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict is going to stick unless it commands broad support or acceptance on both sides. That is especially true of the Palestinians, who have shown time and again that they will never accept the denial of their national and human rights. The necessity of dealing with all representative Palestinian leaders was recognised by Britain’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee yesterday, which called on the government to end its ban on contacts with Hamas.

But despite the parade of top American officials visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories this week to drum up business for a new peace conference, the US, Britain and European Union continue to play a central role in preventing the Palestinian national unity that is essential if any deal is going to have a chance of succeeding. Far from helping to overcome the split between Fatah and Hamas, the US, Israel and their allies in practice do everything they can to promote and widen it.

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UK: How many more will die in vain before we withdraw?

July 16, 2009

The attempt to exploit soldiers’ deaths to win support for the shameful war in Afghanistan thankfully isn’t working

All week politicians, media and the military have strained every nerve to turn public sympathy over the deaths of British squaddies into support for the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. After a year of parades, a new Armed Forces Day and a stream of censored reports of derring-do from the frontline, the killing of 15 soldiers in 10 days has triggered a barrage of war propaganda. Having all but ignored the same number who died in Helmand province last month, every tabloid and Whitehall stop has been pulled out to capitalise on the emotions unleashed by the continuing sacrifice of British teenagers in an endless war.

From the Ministry of Defence-orchestrated processions of coffins through the Wiltshire village of Wootton Bassett to the black ties worn by Sky TV presenters as they address generals as “sir”, the message is clear: this war is a “patriotic duty”, in the prime minister’s words. The only argument in parliament yesterday was whether the government had provided enough helicopters and boots on the ground to do the job.

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Will Israel be brought to book?

March 25, 2009

The evidence of war crimes in Gaza is a challenge to universal justice: will western-backed perpetrators ever stand trial?

Evidence of the scale of Israel‘s war crimes in its January onslaught on Gaza is becoming unanswerable. Clancy Chassay’s three films investigating allegations against Israeli forces in the Gaza strip, released by the Guardian today, include important new accounts of the flagrant breaches of the laws of war that marked the three-week campaign – now estimated to have left at least 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis dead.

The films provide compelling testimony of Israel’s use of Palestinian teenagers as human shields; the targeting of hospitals, clinics and medical workers, including with phosphorus bombs; and attacks on civilians, including women and children – sometimes waving white flags – from hunter-killer drones whose targeting systems are so powerful they can identify the colour of a person’s clothes.

Naturally, the Israeli occupation forces’ spokesperson insists to Chassay that they make every effort to avoid killing civilians and denies using human shields or targeting medical workers – while at the same time explaining that medics in war zones “take the risk upon themselves”. By banning journalists from entering Gaza during its punitive devastation of the strip, the Israeli government avoided independent investigations of the stream of war crimes accusations while the attack was going on.

But now journalists and human rights organisations are back inside, doing the painstaking work, the question is whether Israel’s government and military commanders will be held to account for what they unleashed on the Palestinians of Gaza – or whether, like their US and British sponsors in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can carry out war crimes with impunity.

It’s not as if Clancy’s reports are unique or uncorroborated by other evidence. Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a group of Israelis soldiers had admitted intentionally shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian mother and her two children, as well as an elderly Palestinian woman, in Gaza in January. As one explained: “The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way”.

They also tally with testimony of other Israeli soldiers from the Givati Shaked battalion, which operated in the Gaza city suburb of Zeitoun, that they were told to “fire on anything that moves”. The result was that one family, the Samunis, reported losing 29 members after soldiers forced them into a building that subsequently came under fire – seven bleeding to death while denied medical care for nearly three days. The Helw and Abu Zohar families said they saw members shot while emerging from their homes carrying white flags. “There was definitely a message being sent”, one soldier who took part in the destruction of Zeitoun told the Times.

Or take the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo – a Palestinian linked to Fatah and no friend of Hamas – who described to the Independent how he was repeatedly used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers confronting armed Hamas fighters in a burned-out building in Jabalya in the Gaza strip. The fact of Israeli forces’ use of human shields is hard to gainsay, not least since there are unambiguous photographs of several cases from the West Bank in 2007, as shown in Chassay’s film.

Last week Human Rights Watch wrote to European Union foreign ministers calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Gaza. In the case of Israel, the organisation cited the siege of Gaza as a form of collective punishment; the use of artillery and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas, including schools; the shooting of civilians holding white flags; attacks on civilian targets; and “wanton destruction of civilian property”.

Israel and others also accuse Hamas of war crimes. But while both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have echoed that charge, particularly in relation to the indiscriminate rocketing of towns such as Sderot, an exhaustive investigation by Human Rights Watch has found no evidence, for example, of Hamas using human shields in the clearly defined legal sense of coercion to protect fighters in combat. And as Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, argued recently, any attempt to view the two sides as “equally responsible” is an absurdity: one is a lightly-armed militia, effectively operating underground in occupied territory – the other the most powerful army in the region, able to pinpoint and pulverise targets with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world.

There is of course no chance that the UN security council will authorise the kind of International Criminal Court war crimes indictment now faced by Sudan’s leaders over Darfur. Any such move would certainly be vetoed by the US and its allies. And Israel’s own courts have had no trouble in the past batting away serious legal challenges to its army’s atrocities in the occupied territories. But the use of universal jurisdiction in countries such as Spain or even Britain is making Israeli commanders increasingly jumpy about travelling abroad.

With such powerful evidence of violations of the rules of war now emerging from the rubble of Gaza, the test must be this: is the developing system of international accountability for war crimes only going to apply to the west’s enemies – or can the western powers and their closest allies also be brought to book?


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