Hey look: we’re at war against evil again

With ‘reluctant warrior’ Barack Obama’s declaration of war against Islamic State, the United States has found another in a seemingly endless series of justifications for waging war in the Middle East. In 1990/91 it was saving Kuwait.   In 2003 it was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.   Last year it was the chemical weapons ‘red line’ in Syria – an attempt that only failed because of vocal public opposition.   Now it’s ‘evil’ and ‘extremism’ and a ‘network of death’ and this time there is very little opposition at all.

Ostensibly, this war is directed against the IS ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, and is being waged by a coalition that includes Arab states, but that coalition is essentially a fig-leaf for yet another Western intervention in which IS is as both a pretext and a military objective.

Even as the US is bombing IS it is already paving the way for the formation of ‘moderate rebel’ enclaves in Syria that will be used to attack the Assad regime – a development that will intensify the civil war and escalate the destruction.       Already the US has identified another organization called Khorasan, which some analysts claim is even worse than IS, so that even if IS is ‘degraded’ there will be another enemy to take its place.

Generals and politicians now insist that the war against IS/extremism/whatever will last not for months, but for years.   All this points once again to a very disturbing conclusion: that Western democracies have tacitly embraced the toxic principle of permanent war as an instrument of policy in order to achieve specific strategic objectives internationally (control and supply of vital resources, strategic denial, the elimination of regional competitors in areas of strategic interest), while simultaneously imposing ever more authoritarian models of national security governance on the population.

In this sense we are edging closer to the world that George Orwell satirised in 1984, of endless wars with a constantly shifting array of enemies and alliances.     In Orwell’s novel the Party promotes its wars through the orchestrated ritual of ‘Hate Week’ directed against the enemy de jour, a festival of militarism which exhausts Winston Smith with its ‘processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters, the films, the waxworks, the rolling of drums and squealing of trumpets, the tramp of marching feet, the grinding of the caterpillars of tanks, the roar of massed planes, the booming of guns.’

Orwell was writing in the age of mass politics, of Busby-Berkeley style orchestrated crowd spectacles and displays of militarism that were associated with the European dictators.   Today the West’s ‘generational’ wars on more subtle forms of manipulation.

Ever since the first Gulf War, when the Pentagon first rolled out its ‘information warfare’ strategies for the CNN era,   Western governments have attempted to transform war into a pervasive but acceptable media spectacle, humming pleasantly in the background of our lives like a fishtank in an office.

For the most part the public doesn’t have to participate in these spectacles.     All it has to do is accept that such wars are necessary, because our governments are fighting evil or ‘terror’ and ‘extremism’, or   opposing tyranny or trying to stop rulers from carrying out genocide against their own people, or trying to ‘keep us safe.’.

On one hand we are encouraged to be afraid, and very afraid, of whatever our governments say we should be afraid of.     At the same time we are also expected to ‘go shopping’ as George Bush once urged Americans to do after 9/11, and leave these wars to Cobra and the National Security Council and all the big boys who know what they are doing, occasionally oohing and aahing like a crowd at a fireworks display while our governments unleash their latest weaponry or boast about the killing prowess of our special forces.

The war against Islamic State has already begun to follow the same familiar parameters.   As in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, there are the daily presentations from generals with chestfuls of medals, pointing to charts and listing strikes on   IS ‘ vehicle staging’ ‘storage facilities’, and ‘compounds’, and even a Khorasan bomb factory supposedly preparing ‘non-detectable’ bombs for use against the West,   like factory production managers listing the day’s output.

Once again there are the newsclips of cruise missiles and warplanes taking off from aircraft decks and the video-game imagery of exploding buildings in crosssights, silently bursting into smoke and flames like blooming roses. Yesterday AOL News published videos containing ‘raw footage’ of Islamic State strikes, and cheerfully reminded its readers to ‘ Be sure to tell us what you think in the comments’.

Readers duly obliged, with comments like this:

They say that death is more important to them than life. Our job is to make them happy.

Great shot. just make sure you don;t send any of our tax dollars there to rebuild that country,

Blow the towels off their filthy heads! The nerve of these bastards to think they actually
“terrify” us! Keep messing with us and we’ll turn your God-forsaken land into carnival glass.

Not impressed, want to see troops and bodies, this could be anything.

NUKE EM ALL and make it the overflow parking lot for Euro Disney!!

Well no one can say that those wars against evil don’t have the capacity to bring out the finest instincts in the population.   In 1984, the Party needed daily hates and hate weeks to bring emotions like these into play.   Now all you need to do is sit back on a sofa in front of an HD television or a computer screen and eat popcorn while F-22 Raptors and Reaper   drones eliminate evil from the world-beyond-our-borders.

It’s all rather painless and satisfying – to us, especially when we don’t have to think about the consequences of the latest war or who is being killed and for what.   It should be the job of journalists to inform and educate the public about the meaning and motives behind these wars,   but war has an astonishing ability to rob mainstream journalists of their critical facilities

In his superb introduction to 1984, Thomas Pynchon compared the more direct forms of censorship imposed by the Party to the more indirect forms of control employed by democratic states in which ‘ Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently called ‘spin’, as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round.’

This ‘merry-go-round’ has become the stuff of democratic politics for many years, but it tends to speed up once the bombs start falling.     Yesterday I watched Jon Snow interview former general Tim Cross and a creepy former advisor to Tony Blair on the Iraq war.   Snow, like many mainstream journalists, is clearly somewhat in awe of military men.     At one point he actually apologised to Cross for ‘talking politics to a general’ – as though war is some kind of apolitical activity.

Having a former Blair advisor on Iraq might have provided an opportunity for some forensic questioning about that war and its connection to this one.   Instead Snow’s guests were allowed  to pontificate with Cross on the pros and cons of ‘boots on the ground’ – an expression that increasingly makes me want to bite my own hand whenever I hear it.

At   no point have I heard or read any mainstream attempt to critique the official representation of the war against IS as a ‘war against evil’; or analyse the historical factors that gave rise to it, the impact of previous interventions, or the deeper strategic and political objectives behind the war.   Few journalists question the Imperium’s right to ‘intervene’ anywhere in the world or ask whether the seemingly endless capacity of Western states to create enemies that it must fight against might have ulterior motives.

There are a number of questions that Snow could have asked:   Was it a good idea to fund Islamist rebels in Syria, either directly or with the same proxy states that have now joined in Obama’s grand coalition?     Isn’t it odd, that the West should find itself fighting ‘extremism’ with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, a corrupt tyranny which has done more to promote IS-style jihadism than any other state, with the exception of the United States?   How can Saudi Arabia train ‘moderate Syrian rebels’, as Obama is now proposing, when IS came from those same rebels?     Why did the Iraqi army collapse despite a $25 billion training and equipment programme?

But such questions aren’t asked because they aren’t acceptable in a time of war, which is one reason why war is so useful to those in power.

And there is one other question that Snow could have posed: when does this end?   The answer is that it won’t, because too many powerful people simply don’t want it to, and unless we can figure out a way to stop them, we are heading towards far worse conflagrations than those we have already seen.



Destroying and Degrading: the War Machine Marches On

It’s often difficult to determine whether the seemingly endless wars and interventions that followed the atrocities of 9/11are directed by incompetent fools or cunning and devious knaves.     For thirteen years now, the US and its allies have carved a swathe of global violence across the world, which has left the shells of broken eggs everywhere but there is no sign of an omelette.   In fact, there isn’t a single case in which Western military interventions have produced anything more than the formal trappings of parliamentary democracy.

The overwhelming and terrifying legacy of these wars has been more violence, death and destruction, state fragmentation and political chaos, the destabilisation of whole societies and whole regions, the strengthening of old corrupt elites and the creation of new ones, all of which has strengthened   and empowered the same enemies that our governments are supposedly intending to destroy.

This less than stellar record raises a number of important questions about the conduct of that dark art that we call ‘foreign policy’.   Has the militarism of the last thirteen years been a ‘rational’ attempt to pursue strategic and economic interests, such as control of resources, markets, supply routes, the elimination of strategic rivals and the boosting of the arms industry,   using counterterrorism, WND and the war on terror as a convenient smokescreen?

Or is it the consequence of gross stupidity, shortsightedness, bureaucratic inertia, inner-circle groupthink,   and shallow and ignorant politicians who respond continually to ephemeral political pressures, lobbying and j’accuse op eds with kneejerk reactions that take no account of the longterm repercussions of their decisions and fail to make contingency plans to prepare for them?

To put it yet another way, is Western foreign policy directed by men who think like Machiavelli,   Bismarck, Talleyrand and Henry Kissinger, who know what they want to achieve and how to achieve it?   Or by a hybrid combination of Alan Partridge,Captain Mainwaring and Al Capone that lacks the insight or intelligence to avoid policies ‘wholly contrary to the purpose in view’, as Voltaire once wrote of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes?

Today our governments have thinktanks, informed commentators, academics, and security analysts at their disposal to help them make decisions.   Yet they failed to see the possibility that launching an open-ended ‘war on terror’ in response to the 9/11 attacks might actually work to the advantage of the al-Qaeda franchise and provide it with a powerful recruiting tool.       Or that the breaking up of the Iraqi state might lead to insurgency and civil war.   Or that encouraging Ethiopia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union might produce something like al-Shabaab.     Or that deciding overnight to bomb Libya might result in the destruction of the Libyan state, the collapse of its government and rule-by-militia.

Unless you believe that these outcomes were entirely deliberate and sought-after, then they suggest that our governments do not actually understand the world they are living in or they way it functions; that they have no ability to analyse their mistakes and learn from them;   and that they share the same characteristic that one historian once identified in Philip II of Spain, in whom ‘ No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’

Take for example, the US project to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, as Obama promised yesterday, with air strikes and drone attacks in Iraq and Syria modelled on similar tactics used by the United States in Yemen and Somalia.

According to the New York Times, Obama’s determination to eradicate the IS ‘cancer’ follows ‘harsh criticism for saying two weeks ago that he did not have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria.’ Now, hey presto! he has one, and to say that it doesn’t look very coherent doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In Syria, the US plans to bomb Islamic State, an organization that it helped create in order to fight the Assad government, while simultaneously promoting a new organization of ‘moderate rebels’ that will be entirely beholden to the CIA, in order to continue the fight against Assad.

This will supposedly be achieved by channeling weapons to favoured rebel groups, a policy that has already been tried and failed.   An analysis published this week by the Conflict Armament Research (CAR) organization of Islamic State weaponry captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, found that ‘ M79 90 mm anti-tank rockets captured from IS forces in Syria are identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the “Free Syrian Army” umbrella in 2013.’

Again and again the supposedly ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels have merged with the more ‘extreme’ elements or proven to be indistinguishable from them.   Islamic State itself has directly received training and weapons from many of the states who have funded the rebels, including Saudi Arabia.   Yet incredibly, the Saudis are now going to provide training bases for a new generation of ‘moderate rebels’ who will fight both ISIS and the Assad government!

Meanwhile the US proposes to build a coalition of states to fight IS, nearly all of whom were instrumental in funding, training and facilitating the jihadist fighting organizations that gave rise to it in the first place.   And as always, the faithful vassal-state Britain has joined the fray, with Lord Snooty promising to provide the Iraqi army with machineguns, in order to help ‘squeeze’ IS ‘out of existence.’

This will be good news for Manroy Engineering Ltd and other companies that manufacture machineguns, and it will undoubtedly help to replace the American machineguns, Humvees and other weapons that Iraqi units abandoned when they fled the Islamic State offensive during the summer.

But until Iraqis have a government and a society worth fighting for, there is no guarantee that many of these weapons may also end up in the IS arsenal.   Given that the Anglo-American occupation effectively destroyed Iraqi society and left in place the Maliki government that Sunnis – and IS – have been rebelling against, it is really difficult to see how ‘we’ can conjure up a new society out of the wreckage and chaos that ‘we’ helped create, any more than ‘we’ can find ‘moderate rebels’ from the various organizations that once gave rise to IS.

Personally I have no problem with the notion that Islamic State must be fought.   IS is a   violent expansionist sectarian movement that has nothing to offer the peoples of the Middle East but pseudo-religious tyranny and endless war.     It has murdered Shia, Christians, unarmed prisoners-of-war and captured journalists with shocking impunity and insouciance.

Such an organization is a direct threat to the lives and security of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. But the rise of IS is a product of societies that have already been ‘destroyed and degraded’ – and it is from within those societies, and from within the region as a whole that the resistance to it must come.

All this brings us back to the question that I posted at the beginning of this piece, as to whether the interventionist process is driven by stupidity or devious calculation.     The answer, I suspect, is both.

The characteristically hysterical attempts by the American and British governments to present IS – a movement that consists of between 18,000 to 30,000 fighters – as a threat to their own citizens and their ‘way of life’, rather than the Middle East itself; the dishonesty and historical amnesia with which these governments have ignored their own disastrous record; the rampant opportunism with which they have used IS as a justification for the establishment of new military bases in the Gulf States and an intensification of the ‘regime change’ project in Syria – all these factors suggest the amoral pursuit of ‘rational’ state interests.

But the latest reckless, ill-thought-out and back-of-a-fag packet response to the IS ‘evil’ also points back to Philip II, and the historical ‘wooden-headedness’ that Barbara Tuchman once analysed in her study of ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ The March of Folly.    

Today militarism is leading the Middle East and the world to catastrophe, and the latest war- that-is-not-a-war is just one more example.   Because as horrendous as IS is, the imperialist disease that helped create it can never be part of the cure.   Western military power may win some tactical victories, but it is incapable of reconstructing the societies that our governments and their allies have done so much to wreck, and is more likely to intensify the destruction and degradation and state fragmentation that has already wrought such havoc.

So whether it is the result of stupidity or calculation, Obama’s convoluted ‘destroy and degrade’ policy is likely to add another grim chapter to the march of folly of the 21st century’s forever wars – and another example of the reckless lunacy of a superpower with too much power and too little sense, and which appears to believe, again and again, that the best way to put out a fire is to shower the flames with gasoline.   .


Nelson Mandela’s A list Send-Off: History Ends as Kitsch

Call me a cynic, but I can’t help feeling that there was a great deal to be cynical about at the Nelson Mandela memorial yesterday, at least as far as the elite gathering of ‘global leaders’ and ‘ eminent persons’ was concerned.     For sheer crassness, the ‘selfie’ taken by Cameron, Obama and the Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt ( would Birgitte Nyborg do something like that?   You know she wouldn’t) was in a class of its own.

And please don’t tell me that these three pranksters were merely celebrating Mandela’s life, along with the tens of thousands of South Africans who sang and danced all morning.     What they were celebrating was themselves, like three teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert.     No wonder Michelle looked grim.

So now I know, the next time someone I really care about dies, I’ll be sure to bring my mobile phone along so that I can capture myself and some chosen friends posing for posterity.

The media nevertheless loved Obama, which according to the Guardian confirms his ‘rock star status’ amongst politicians.   Personally,   the more I hear Obama’s sonorous oratory, the more I get a sense of an essentially hollow man lost in admiration of himself, basking   in the slipstream of black politicians who are much greater and more courageous than he is, whether it’s Martin Luther King or Mandela.

Yesterday the rhetoric was on full display.   There was ‘hope’ of course – a commodity that Obama has staked his political career on selling and which increasingly looks like snake oil.

Obama also insisted that   ‘We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity’ – a statement that you would expect from the first man in history to get the peace prize without doing anything to deserve it, and who has done nothing to deserve it since.

It’s probably lucky for some inhabitants of Waziristan and other parts of the world – to take but one example – that Mandela’s service took place on a Tuesday, so that Obama was not able to participate in the ‘Terror Tuesdays’, where targets of drone strikes are selected from powerpoint presentations – often on the basis of their ‘signature’.

Obama also claimed that

‘There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.’

All of which is true.     But what have Obama or any of the ‘global leaders’ with him done to challenge poverty and inequality, even in his own country, let alone anyone else’s? This is a global elite that now presides over a world marked by unprecedented levels of inequality, much of which was visible within a few miles of the stadium where they were gathered.

Then there was Bono ( ‘As an activist I’ve pretty much been doing what Nelson Mandela tells me since I was a teenager’) – a man who I suspect probably sleeps with that   self-satisfied grin on his face – sharing a joke with his mate George ‘ I regret nothing’ Bush, the torture n’ war president who has chosen to put the deaths of more than half a million Iraqis and four thousand US soldiers behind him by painting puppies.

There was Tony Blair, or ‘Bush’s foreign minister’ as Mandela accurately described him, and the co-architect of a war that Mandela also condemned.     And John Major, for Christ’s sake.

And   Naomi ‘blood diamond’ Campbell. without her admirer the former dictator Charles Taylor, who is doing life for at the Hague for various crimes including terror, murder and rape.

There were the Clintons, America’s new royal family – sharing in the feelgood pan-African moment.     Bill Clinton the man who ordered a missile strike on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan which   made malaria pills – an attack that may have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Sudanese.

And Hilary, the woman who giggled ‘ we came, we saw, he died’ on hearing that Colonel Ghaddafi had just been sodomized and shot dead at the end of a war that has plunged Libya into violent mayhem from which it has yet to emerge.

Now just tell me what this lot had to do with fighting apartheid please.   Tell me where they were before Nelson Mandela was elevated to sainthood?     Tell me what they have to do with the kids in Soweto who once took on the South African state and did so much to generate the momentum that led to Mandela’s release?

Of course there was authenticity yesterday.   There were the tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans who were not famous who sang and danced in celebration of the man who symbolized the struggle that liberated them – even if freedom remains elusive for millions of black South Africans, or the miners who were shot down with the same impunity that the apartheid police once enjoyed.

These crowds had nothing to do with the ‘A list celebrities’ up above them.     They booed the sleazy Jacob Zuma, who symbolized a very different ANC to the one that Mandela once embodied.

Some called it ‘undignified’ and a symbol of continued ‘division’ in South Africa, but that booing was also the sound of an unfinished process of liberation that few of those looking down on it are particularly interested in.

So call me cynical, but it will take more than this rancid collection of preening glitterati   to make me change my mind.


Hello America: The President Would Like Your Permission to Bomb

Americans may be reluctant to get involved in another Middle Eastern war, but the US political elite is not going to allow a foolish and fickle phenomenon like public opinion get in the way of another righteous intervention.     After all, we are talking about foreign policy, national security and reasons of state here, and these are serious matters that require serious leaders,   with wisdom, good judgment and insight, and a profound understanding of a dangerous and unstable world filled with threats everywhere and forever, and where the evil ones would engulf the earth were they not held in check by American military power.

Such leaders must know, as the rest of the world does,   that America is the one ‘indispensable nation’ in these troubled times and that this indispensability is dependent on its credibility, and that for this credibility to be truly credible,   it must be regularly demonstrated through periodic acts of exemplary violence.

As  Michael Ledeen, the creepy little neocon and Contragate spook, once vulgarly observed:  Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.’

Fortunately, America is currently blessed with an abundance of politicians who understand the truth of this essential philosophy, men – and women – who know a crisis when they see one and have learned through deep and considered analysis and a knowledge of history that there is no crisis that a cruise missile strike can’t solve, and that there is no lie too big or too gross that can’t be told in order to bring one about.

Americans in search of answers to the Syrian crisis for example, can find them from men like John Boehner, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and John Kerry.   Or women like Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Rice and Samantha Power.   But most of all, they have the towering moral presence of President Barack Obama, the former community leader from Chicago who came to power on an anti-war platform offering Americans something called ‘hope’; the sonorous orator and Nobel Peace Prize winner turned war-junkie, who is now lying and stumbling towards with a breathtaking combination of manipulativeness, incoherence and deceit that almost begins to make his predecessor look as if he knew what he was doing.

Only last week Obama was about to bypass the UN and Congress and blast Syria on the basis of a cooked intelligence report on the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, because the conscience of the world demanded action, according to his increasingly dazed and glassy-eyed looking Secretary of State.   Such action, we were told, were going to be merely punitive and ‘deterrent’, a surgical slap on the wrist that would merely ‘degrade’ Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons, whatever that means, rather than take sides.

Then Obama suddenly decided to postpone the strikes and go to Congress after all.   Does this mean that he remembered that quaint old-fashioned notion called the democratic process?   Not exactly.   Obama’s team keep insisting that the president doesn’t require   authorisation from Congress in order to carry out military strikes on Syria, but the president is clearly nervous about the Democrats taking exclusive responsibility for the course he’s embarked on.

This is why Nancy Pelosi is backing Obama, and why the administration is courting Republican troglodytes like Boehner and McCain, who always want to shoot first and ask questions later,   and seeking a rubber stamp from Congress about a decision that’s already been taken.   Because it’s lonely at the top, and having stupidly painted himself into a corner and locked himself into a military response to the Syrian civil war that has no clear policy goals and few prospects of success, Obama wants consensus – or at least the appearance of it.

This pseudo-consultation also explains the slippage in the message.   Courting the organized mob that the Republican Party has become means that you have to throw them some chunks of raw meat to chew on.     So last week it was ‘no boots on the ground.’ Now Kerry has suggested that American troops might end up in Syria after all.

And now, who would have thought it, it also turns out that the ‘deterrent’ strikes won’t just ‘degrade’ Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons, but will be intended to have a ‘downstream’ impact on its conventional military capability – an objective that sounds a lot more like regime change and a direct intervention in the Syrian civil war.

And questions of conscience, humanitarianism and ‘saving lives’ are now slipping into the back story of a propaganda offensive that now portrays Syria as a threat to America’s national security.     The freaking hell it is.     Does Obama seriously anticipate a chemical weapons attack on New York?

No, but it’s always useful to tell Americans that this might happen and try to scare the fuck out of them, just as Bush and Co. once did when they suggested that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda might get together and saturate the eastern seaboard with anthrax and botulism.

The ‘national security’ narrative also allows the president to reserve the right to take unilateral action just in case Congressmen actually listen to their constituencies.     In 2007 Obama told the Boston Globe that he would only take unilateral military action in ‘instances of self-defense’, because ‘ The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.’

Presenting Syria as ‘an actual or imminent threat’ resolves that little conundrum, and adds one more lie to already febrile mix.     But then, if you’ve already told so many, then one more isn’t going to make much difference, not when America’s credibility is at stake.