Barack Obama gives the world a hug

You have to hand it to Barack Obama – the guy can talk.     When George W. Bush appeared on the world stage,   the spoilt frat-boy was always embarrassingly visible beneath the presidential veneer, and his attempts to sound statesmanlike were often undermined by the disturbing smirk that tended to accompany even his more serious moments.

Obama by contrast, is serene, confident and convincing, emanating gravitas, sincerity and moral purpose in equal measure, with an ability to make even the most vacuous bullshit sound like the sermon on the mount.     All these rhetorical talents were on display during his address to the UN yesterday,   in which he exhorted our troubled world to put aside its differences and celebrate the ‘common heartbeat’ of humanity.   Take note of this characteristic flourish, you cynics, and repent:

So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, and that consumes our political debates. But when you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people and not the other way around.

Now if that doesn’t fill you with a warm glowing feeling then you are truly lost brothers and sisters.     Destiny.   Freedom. Dignity. Faith.   Justice –   it’s better than listening to ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ on a cold December evening.   And naturally there was also ‘hope’ too. With Obama there always is.

This cuddly Obamaspeak was littered with condemnations of the ‘mindless violence’, ‘extremism’ and ‘killing of innocents’ that are preventing humanity from coming together – activities that for Obama are the exclusive preserve of the evil ones that the world’s ‘indispensable nation’ has been so selflessly fighting these last few years.

On the same day that Obama was decrying the Islamic extremists who killed the US ambassador to Libya,   the Law Schools at Stanford and New York universities published a joint report on the horrific consequences of America’s drone wars in northern Pakistan.   Entitled Living Under Drones, the report describes how

US drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in north-west Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning.     Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

The report also notes that

These fears have affected behaviour. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.

Obama is directly responsible for the escalation in this campaign, and not only in Pakistan.     Every week, and sometimes every day, he personally approves drone   strikes in targets selected on the basis of ‘life patterns’ or what the report calls ‘groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.’

There is no way of knowing how many victims of these strikes were ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’ or how many were simply designated as kill-able targets because the US military and intelligence services regard anyone living or moving within a certain geographical area as an enemy.

The authors of Living Under Drones rightly condemn the drone wars as ‘counter-productive’.   But America’s reliance on such weapons is only one more example of the hollowness and hypocrisy of Obama’s speechmaking, in which condemnations of violence alternated with thinly-veiled threats that the US will ‘do what it must’ to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Obama rightly condemned the ‘extremists’ who killed the US ambassador in Libya.   But he did not mention that the White House has just removed the violent cult-like Mujahideen e-Khalq from its list of terrorist organizations.

This decision undoubtedly has more to do with the MEK’s willingness to participate in the covert bombing and assassination campaign being waged in Iran by Western and Israeli intelligence agencies than it does to its commitment to the ‘common heartbeart’ of humanity. Iran is also an obvious priority behind the massive US arms sales to America’s Gulf State allies over the last three years.

All these developments reflect a concept of statecraft that is generally concealed from the American public, and which was entirely absent amid Obama’s narcissistic outpourings yesterday.   For all his insistence on the role of   diplomacy and dialogue in international affairs, Obama is as wedded to the use of violence as an instrument of state policy as his predecessors, but unlike Bush he is much better at concealing it.

When he talks about the ‘common heartbeat’ of humanity and condemns the killing of ‘innocents’, he really sounds like he believes it, and perhaps he actually does.

But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to do the same.



Netanyahu’s Folly

There’s a good article by David Remnick in the New Yorker on the horrendous Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to manipulate the US election campaign and drag the US and the West into an all-out war with Iran.

As few people can be unaware, Netanyahu has been pressing the US and the West to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities for months, with a litany of shrill warnings that depict Iran as a mad state, intent on unleashing a second Holocaust and transforming itself into a nuclear-armed suicide bomber.

These warnings have reached a hysterical crescendo during the US election campaign, as Netanyahu has cranked up the war rhetoric and   accused the Obama administration of ‘naivete’ for not coming out overtly in favour of a military option and declaring a ‘red line’ over Iran.

Remnick condemns these manouevres and is scathing about Netanyahu himself,   noting that

On a trip I took to Israel a few weeks ago for The New Yorker, the political philosopher Avishai Margalit told me that Netanyahu was a kind of “mythomaniac,” a politician utterly absorbed and guided by his sense of heroic mission, and dismissive of the opinions and analyses of even his closest advisers. This goes for his innate distrust of any and all Palestinians, as well as for the vast range of military and intelligence experts, both inside and outside the Israeli government, who are constantly telling him that a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will end in political, diplomatic, and military disaster.

It is difficult, if not impossible,   to imagine the representative of any other US ally intervening in a national election campaign in this way without being told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business.   But such is the hold that Israel has come to exercise over US domestic politics that Obama cannot condemn Netanyahu too strongly for fear of appearing ‘soft on Iran’,   risking criticisms from Republican warmongers and Israel First-ers of ‘betraying’ or ‘ abandoning’ Israel.

The result is that Netanyahu is able to torment Obama politically with impunity, and he is taking advantage of the opportunity with a cynicism that is only matched by his overbearing personal arrogance.   Netanyahu would obviously prefer to have a Republican president in office, especially someone like Romney, a politician as vacuous as he is, whose ‘moral clarity’ echoes his own appetite for war and violence and his disregard for the consequences.

But Obama’s more cautious approach to the military option against Iran does not mean that he is averse to the military option either.     This week the US and its allies are assembling warships in the Gulf for what the New York Times calls ‘ the most widely attended international naval exercise ever held in the Middle East’ – an exercise that is clearly intended to ratchet up the pressure on Iran.

There is therefore, a very real possibility that the US and its allies – including the Gulf States that the Obama administration has spent the last few years arming to the teeth – will eventually do what Netanyahu is demanding of them.

For Netanyahu may be a dangerous and reckless fanatic and a cynical and unprincipled political operator, but it is by no means clear that saner or wiser voices will ultimately prevail either in the US or the West in general.

And as long as the military option in Iran remains ‘on the table’,   and as long as US governments continue to cowtow so abjectly to Israel,   there is a very real possibility that the world will find itself sleepwalking into the conflagration that Netanyahu is itching to unleash.






It’s an unwritten law of international relations that some lives matter while others don’t matter at all.     In practice this means that some people – or peoples – can be killed with complete impunity by more powerful states, while civilians or even servicemen from countries higher up the pecking order cannot be killed by countries lower down the hierarchy.

An example of this tendency can be found in the latest Iran sanctions bill, known as the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which was signed off by President Obama on 10 August.

According to Reuters, the bill contains a little-known clause pertaining to a 2007   lawsuit for compensatory damages against Iran, that was awarded to families of the 300 Marines blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Beirut in October 1983, by an early incarnation of the Shia-based Lebanese Resistance.

The Marines were in Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force deployed in Lebanon, following the bloody Israeli invasion the previous year – an invasion that was supported by the US and cost an estimated 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian lives.

Peacekeeping was only one objective in a broader attempt by the Reagan administration to prop up a pro-Israeli Maronite administration in Lebanon against the wishes of the radicalized Shia population.     The attack on the Marine barracks effectively ended those efforts.     When the multinational forces withdrew from Lebanon in February 1984, the US battleship New Jersey indiscriminately shelled Shia mountain villages for nine hours – an act of pure vengeance whose human cost has never been counted.

Few Americans were aware of that bombardment at the time, and few recall it now.   But many remember the US Marines as innocent victims of an act of ‘terrorism’ perpetrated by Hezbollah and Iran.

In 2007 a US court awarded $2.6 billion in compensatory damages to families of the slain Marines.     In 2008, the US government became aware $1.75 billion in Iranian assets held by a New York branch of Citibank, which the Central Bank of Iran insisted belonged to Iran.

Lawyers for the Beirut plaintiffs immediately sought to have these funds diverted to contribute towards the damages awarded to them.   Iran insisted that these funds could not be transferred and evoked the principle of sovereign immunity, under which the agents of one state are not subject to the laws of a foreign power.

When that foreign power is the United States however, the law is an elastic and malleable instrument, and the new bill contains a clause which effectively overrules the sovereign immunity principle.

Not only does it declare that the Central Bank of Iran ‘is not immune’ under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, but it has explicitly stated that ‘financial assets that are identified’ in the Manhattan case ‘shall be subject to execution or attachment … to satisfy any judgment to the extent of any compensatory damages awarded against Iran.’

According to Reuters, this legal ‘tweak’ may now enable the $1.76 billion to be shared amongst families of the Beirut Marines, and also amongst relatives of the 1996 bombing of the US military complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 soldiers and injured nearly 400.

It’s worth noting that Iranian involvement in either of these attacks has yet to be proven.   Not many countries would seek compensatory damages against a country on the mere suspicion of involvement in killing its servicemen, and even fewer would stand a chance of actually obtaining them.

But America’s privileged position in the international system means that it can do what it likes, and demand a level of justice for its own citizens that is conspicuously absent for the victims of its own military operations.

In 1996 the US government paid reparations to the families of the 290 passenger on the Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by the missile cruiser USS Vincennes in July 1988, following a decision by the International Court of Justice.

But the US government has never apologized or admitted responsibility for wrongdoing, and the prevailing official attitude was summed up by George H.R Bush in 1988, who told Newsweek ‘I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.’

These reparations are a rarity.   The US has never paid compensation to the Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange, which may have killed or maimed 400,000 people directly, in addition to the 500,000 children born with physical defects and two million people who have suffered cancers or other illnesses.

Though US veterans affected by Agent Orange have received $180-million, in 2008 a US court rejected a billion dollar lawsuit from Vietnamese families against the manufacturers of Agent Orange.

Residents of Fallujah are unlikely to be able to claim damages for the rash of congenital birth defects that continue to take place in the city, nearly eight years after the two sieges of 2004.

The New York Times recently reported that US sanctions against Iran may have cost the lives of more than 1, 700 passengers and crew, as a result of their inability to buy spare parts and new planes to upgrade Iran’s aging passenger fleet.

Should Iranian courts ‘award compensatory damages for these deaths and seek to obtain them from the US government?   Will the relatives of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan now seek redress in Pakistani courts, and will the US government or the ‘international community’ pay the slightest attention if they do?

In your dreams, reader, in your dreams.   Because in this world, decisions about damages and compensation for the most part have little to do with universally-applicable legal standards or respect for human life.

On the contrary, such decisions are ultimately dictated by power not justice.   And the US government’s ‘tweaking’ of the law to favour the Beirut plaintiffs has nothing to do with justice or ‘threat reduction’, but to a desire for vengeance and a determination to further punish, weaken and undermine a geopolitical rival.




In these tense and troubled times, with the western world lurching toward a catastrophic war with Iran with all the vision and foresight of a stag party in the last stages of a pub crawl, we are fortunate to have leaders with the integrity, humanity, and foresight to calm the more rabid and hysterical spirits among us and steer us away from the brink.

Thus we saw Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a characteristically measured and thoughtful speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, in which he rejected the ‘preposterous’ idea that ‘we should accept a world in which the Ayatollahs have  atomic bombs’.

As usual, Netanyahu compared Iran to Nazi Germany and evoked the Holocaust as a justification for military action.  But he went further than usual, quoting from the 1944 US government letter of response to a request from the World Jewish Congress for America to bomb Auschwitz, which rejected this option on the grounds that  ‘Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.

Got that folks? No?  Let me break it down for you:  Ahmadinejad is Hitler and the Iranian nuclear program is paving the way for a new Auschwitz, so anyone who baulks at the idea of bombing the hell out of it is colluding with genocide.  There, that wasn’t so hard was it?

Even by Netanyahu’s standards this was a shamelessly manipulative and dishonest piece of warmongering and political blackmail, but such hyperbolic comparisons are only to be expected from a politician who would not recognize truth and integrity if they moved into his house and lived with him for the next twenty years.

The Israeli leader knows that he has Obama over a barrel, or feels that he has.   The U.S. president is in an election year, and anxious not to be outflanked by the  Republicans by showing less than whole-hearted support for the military option in dealing with Iran.

But Obama is also justifiably reticent about waging another war in the Middle East with unforeseeable consequences when his second term is by no means guaranteed.  In any case,    the leader of the world’s only superpower isn’t going to allow himself to be railroaded into a war that he doesn’t want by Netanyahu’s brazen demogoguery, is he?

Well maybe not, but then again maybe yes.    Last week Obama reassured Netanyahu before he had even arrived in the U.S. that he had ‘got Israel’s back’ and that he was ‘not bluffing’ about the prospect of military action against Iran.

Yesterday the Peace Laureate was in more  nuanced and restrained mode,  rebuking his Republican opponents who have been queuing up at the AIPAC policy conference for ‘beating the drums of war’ .  Obama pointed out, correctly,  that ‘  typically it is not the folks who are popping off who pay the price’ for the wars they advocate, and warned Israel against taking  military action  ‘prematurely’.

All this sounds relatively sane compared with the bloodthirsty rantings of the G.O.P war clones queuing up at the AIPAC policy conference to reject Obama’s ‘appeasement’ and declare their willingness to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.    But tthen we learn from Haaretz  that Obama has instructed his Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to accede to a request from Netanyahu for  GBU-28 bunker-piercing bombs and advanced refuelling aircraft.

So even as Obama  insists that his defence of ‘Israel’s back’ isn’t intended to give Netanyahu a green light for a preemptive military strike, he is speeding up the transfer of weapons that will make this outcome more likely.

And on the other side of the pond,  we have a country with centuries of experience in international affairs, whose government is able to offer a more sober assessment of the current crisis.  Thus David Cameron could be found yesterday  warning  the Commons liaison committee that Iran’s  ambitions ‘ were dangerous for the Middle East’ and also posed a security threat to the UK, since there are signs that the Iranians want to have some sort of inter-continental missile capability’.

These ‘signs’ follow similar declarations from William Hague last month that a nuclear Iran could trigger a ‘new Cold War’ and that Iranian missiles could reach the UK.  Though Cameron, like Obama, warned Israel of the dangers of ‘premature’ military action, his speech produced the predictable flurry of dread-soaked headlines in the national press today, as it was undoubtedly intended to.  defines the noun ‘statesman’ as a  person  who  exhibits  great  wisdom  and ability  in  directing  the  affairs  of  a government  or  in  dealing  with  important public  issues.’  Your Dictionary  defines ‘ statesmanship’ as:  ‘  the ability, character, or methods of a statesman; skill and vision in managing public affairs.’

When the historians of the future look back on our era, they may well be struck by the  absence of  any of these qualities amongst the leaders who are currently dragging the world toward disaster.  Because rather than statesmanship, the evidence of the last week suggests that we are ruled by liars, cowards and weak men who lack either  vision or wisdom, and that we are all trapped dangerously in the world defined by the  Katha Upanishad  in which

Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.