It’s raining threats, hallelujah

One of the great things about living in a democratic society is that we don’t have propaganda.   That is something that authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran do.   They have stations like RT and Press tv which do nothing but mindlessly and uncritically promote the agenda of their respective regimes.

Here in the free world we have news, and real journalists, who speak truth to power, who interrogate their governments and never cease to call their more dubious assertions into question.     You know, like Fox News, which as improbable as it may seem, has just been voted the most trustworthy news outlet in America.   Or the BBC, or CNN or Channel 4 News.

I was reminded how delusional these assumptions are when I watched yesterday’s coverage by Channel 4 News of foreign secretary Philip Hammond’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on intelligence and security.   Hammond’s speech was essentially an uncritical glorification of the security services and an argument in favour of expanding their powers in the face of a proliferation of state and non-state threats ‘to our safety and security’.

These threats include North Korea, Iran,   Boko Haram, al Qaeda, Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the ‘illegal proliferation of military technology, ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, organised crime, challenges in cyberspace, you name it, it threatens us. So thank God we have the security services to ‘keep us safe’ – an expression Hammond used so many times one can imagine his audience repeating it drowsily like a mantra before they go to sleep at night.

On one level Hammond’s dire world of threats is nothing new.   We have, in one form or another, been hearing about the ‘complex threats’ to western security ever since the end of the Cold War, when new phenomena like ‘megaterrorism’ and ‘dirty bombs’ were presented as disturbingly unpredictable and unwanted consequences following the disappearance of the more wholesome and comprehensible Cold War threats of mutual assured destruction.

And now an old threat is back in a new form, because:  ‘The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons, combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military, including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of NATO members states, are all significant causes for concern.’

Not only is this a cause for concern, but ‘ Russia”s aggressive behaviour [is] a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the greatest single threat to our security.’   And all this aggression, even though ‘We worked in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, to help Russia take its rightful place, as we saw it, as a major power contributing to global stability and order. We now have to accept that those efforts have been rebuffed.’

There are so much of this ‘good West versus bad world’ narrative that could be called into question.   How many of the threats that Hammond mentioned were due in part to the actions and policies of the West itself, for example in Iraq, Syria, and Libya?   Haven’t Western states also been modernising their military forces in recent years?   Isn’t it true that US military spending is now more than three times higher than China, its nearest competitor?   Is that a good thing or a bad thing?     Is it a good thing that Saudi Arabia is now the fourth highest military spender in the world, thanks to the weapons it brought mostly from Europe and the US, whereas Iran is not even in the top fifteen?

We know it makes some companies and corporations richer to chuck weapons around like this, but does this global diffusion of weaponry really help to ‘keep us safe?’     Did the West   really act towards Russia with a spirit of ‘openness, generosity and partnership’ after the Cold War?     Do Western states bear some responsibility for the ‘destabilising of Ukraine’ that Hammond refers to?

Is it true, as the foreign secretary suggested, that ‘The exposure of the alleged identity of one of the most murderous ISIL terrorists over the last few weeks has seen some seeking to excuse the terrorists and point the finger of blame at the agencies themselves’ and that those who have done this are acting as ‘apologists’ for the terrorists?  Is criticism now synonymous with apologism?

None of these questions were asked or even considered in Channel 4’s report, which focused almost entirely on a single question: whether we are spending enough on our armed forces.     It referred to ‘angry MPs’ who want us to spend more and interviewed   Liam Fox – neocon militarist on the extreme right of the Tory party – who naturally thought that we need to spend more.

This was followed by British military commander Sir Richard Dannatt, and Professor Michael Clarke from RUSI, both of whom expressed their anxiety about the level of defence spending.   The only dissenting voice was Sergei Markov, from the Russian Institute of Political Studies,   who dismissed Hammond’s suggestions and argued that the West had generated many of the threats it was now concerned about.

But this was a Russian speaking, and so Snow dismissed these arguments somewhat condescendingly as mere ‘beliefs’ – a categorisation that was not extended to his previous interviewees, even though their arguments were no less ‘beliefs’ than Markov’s.

Channel 4 News is one of the better news channels, but at no stage in this report did it even inch outside the official narrative and subject any aspect of the British government’s claims to serious scrutiny.   Instead it stuck so rigidly to the government’s talking points that it might as well been the official voice of the foreign office.       But that’s the thing: it isn’t.     Unlike RT or Press TV,     Channel 4 is an independent network without state funding.   It has the opportunity and to really think outside the box and ask ministers some serious questions about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Yesterday, faced with a series of dubious assertions by a government minister on matters of security, war and peace, it merely nodded obediently and decided not to ask any, and that may not be propaganda, but it certainly isn’t serious journalism.

Special Agent Philip Hammond: Our Man in Jerusalem

Years ago, as an undergraduate history student at SOAS, I wrote an essay on the Balfour declaration and the British role in the formation of the state of Israel for Professor Malcolm Yapp.   Professor Yapp kindly gave me an ‘A+’ for that essay, but I also remember a tutorial in which he queried my argument that Britain was self-interested, dishonest, and duplicitous, and had no interest in Arabs or Jews, except insofar as it could use them to further its imperial interests.

Professor Yapp put it to me that the Balfour declaration was in fact an act of selfless altruism that went wrong, but whose original intentions were good and even noble.   Yapp was a former foreign office offical himself, and I had no doubt that he sincerely believed this.   I sensed also that this belief reflected his conviction that the British political elite was generally – perhaps uniquely – benign and motivated by moral decisions and moral conviction, rather than the colder strategic calculations that other powerful states have made.

I didn’t accept this argument then, and nothing that I have seen since has led me to change my mind.   I thought about Professor Yapp   yesterday, when the newly-appointed foreign secretary Philip Hammond turned up in Jerusalem to bring British influence to bear on the Gaza war.

On the day that Israeli rockets killed more than fifteen people in a school in Gaza, Hammond attended a joint press conference with Netanyahu and gave an interview to Sky News in which he expressed his solidarity, understanding and support for Israel.

In a soft interview with Sky TV’s David Bowden that had all the forensic penetration of two pensioners playing ping pong in an old people’s home, Hammond blamed Hamas for causing the war and also for preventing a ceasefire.   Hammond neglected to mention that the ceasefire had been opposed above the heads of Hamas, without consultation, and without including any of its demands for an opening of borders or the ending of Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Hammond also reiterated the British position that Israel has the ‘right to defend itself’ against Palestinian rockets. He omitted any reference to the chain of events that led to the war which preceded the rockets, and his interviewer thoughtfully refrained from mentioning it too.

Most chillingly of all, Hammond twice expressed Her Majesty’s understanding for Israel’s ‘difficulties’ in conducting military operations in Gaza, on the grounds that ‘ if you launch rockets from a densely-populated civilian area there will be civilian casualties, that I’m afraid, is inevitable.’

So in other words, when civilians die, it’s not the fault of Israel, but Hamas. Faced with these insurmountable difficulties, Hammond politely suggested that Israel should conduct its operations with ‘restraint’ and in accordance with its core ‘western values.’

Such restraint was especially necessary, because ‘As this campaign goes on and the civilian casualties in Gaza mount, Western opinion is becoming more and more concerned and less and less sympathetic to Israel’, and ‘there is huge public concern about the level of civilian casualties and the humanitarian situation that is going on in Gaza.’

For Hammond, former defense secretary and millionaire-businessman, such ‘concern’ is more dangerous and disturbing than the ‘inevitable’ casualties themselves, because it is likely to make Hamas ‘politically stronger.’

This response is not just an example of hypocrisy, or political dishonesty and cowardice, though it is all these things.   What Hammond’s arguments reveal once again, is an entirely unproblematic acceptance of Israeli violence as an instrument of state policy at the upper echelons of the British establishment, coupled with a wary recognition of what he clearly regards as the naive sentimentalism of the ordinary public, that foolishly allows itself to be horrified by photographs of dead children.

The same logic once led Blair to slow demands for a ceasefire in the 2006 Lebanon war, when he was inadvertently captured on microphone offering to go to Lebanon to pretend to be a peace envoy so that he could ‘just talk’ – and give Israel more time to blitz the country and complete its war aims.

Hammond is working from the same playbook.     Though he reiterated at his press conference with Netanyahu that his government was ‘gravely concerned’ about civilian casualties, it is clear that it is only concerned about the political consequences of these casualties.   It was certainly clear to Netanyahu anyway, who thanked Her Majesty’s government for its support and told Hammond, ‘ I thank you for keeping your moral focus and your moral clarity. We shall need it in the days ahead.’

Netanyahu is not the man to talk to anyone about ‘moral clarity’.     And whatever that term means it has nothing at all do with the actions of our man in Jerusalem, who demonstrated once again yesterday the remarkable ability of the British elite to transform even a plodding and unimaginative appatchnik like Hammond into a cold-blooded, merciless exponent of amoral realpolitik.

Punching Above Our Weight

After a mild drop in the military budget over the last two years,   the government has announced that it plans to spend £160 billion over the next ten years on new weapons systems that include Trident missile submarines, aircraft carriers and drones as part of the MoD’s ‘Force 2020’ program.

Given the parlous state of the national economy and the scale of the deficit that supposedly justifies the government’s ‘tough but far’ emergency budget,   one might wonder why this weaponry is necessary.     Luckily, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond has the answer, declaring   ‘ It is essential that our forces are fully equipped to respond to the range of threats we face in this uncertain world’.

This explanation shouldn’t detain us long.   In the past decade, Britain has engaged in two major wars riding shotgun with the United States, in addition a number of more indirect ‘interventions’, which have done more to magnify these ‘threats’ than diminish them.     And if   ‘ al Qaeda’ and ‘terrorism’ are the main threats that we face, then what use are Trident nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers?

We often think of the United States as a country addicted to war and militarism, and in thrall to a military-industrial complex – a logical enough interpretation given that the US   spends more on ‘defense’ than its fifteen closest competitors combined.

But our humble island is not without its own military-industrial complex.     In 2011, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ranked Britain fourth in its list of countries with the highest military expenditure,   with a military budget of $62.7 billion in terms of military spending,   – 3.6 percent of the global total.     Given that the three countries above Britain in SIPRI’s world ranking are China, Russia and the United States, this is no mean achievement for a country with a population of just under 62 million that has no military enemies.

Like the United States, Britain’s ‘military-industrial complex’ is a profitable and self-generating activity.     BAE Systems (UK) is the second largest arms company in the world, producing weapons for domestic consumption and also for export abroad.     So important is BAE considered to the ‘national interest’ that politicians – most famously Tony Blair – have effectively placed it above the law and sought to screen the company from serious fraud investigations.

All this is supported by a powerful lobbying group that includes the Ministry of Defense and former politicians and military officers who walk through the ‘revolving door’.       But the MoD’s latest spending plans also reflect the special political and cultural importance of military power for the British establishment.

When I learned history at school, we were often taught to regard Britain as an essentially peace-loving pacific country, that preferred free trade to war even during its imperial heyday.       Needless to say, these interpretations ignored the wars of conquest and territorial acquisition that created its formal empire – not to mention the persistent use of military force in parts of the world that did not ‘belong’ to Britain to preserve an international order favorable to its economic interests.

In the course of history, Britain has fought quite a lot of wars, many of them of   its own choosing,   and British military prowess has always been part of our national self-image and our sense of what makes Britain great.     Whether it was Britannia ruling the waves or Britain’s supposed expertise in counterinsurgency, the British public has always been inculcated with the notion that its armed forces are ‘the best in the world’ and are indispensable not only to the ‘national interest’ but to global peace and security.

With the waning of British imperial power after World War II, and the various ‘fighting retreats’ that marked that decline,   the British elite continued to regard the military as a compensatory mechanism for the loss of empire, which enables Britain to continue to ‘sit at the big table’   and ‘punch above our weight’ as the dreadful image conjured by Douglas Hurd once put it.

In other words, without our nuclear subs, aircraft carriers etc, we would just be a minor country on the world stage, not the ‘beacon of light’ that Tony Blair once insisted that we should be.     Our politicians would not be able to stand on the White House lawn with US presidents,   or lay down the law at meetings of the UN security council.   Our soldiers would not be bringing civilization and democracy to Basra, Helmand and the Sahara.

Thus the former security minister Lord West in 2011 argued against cutting the military budget, declaring ‘we are not a second-tier power. We are not bloody Denmark or Belgium, and if we try to become that, I think we would be worse-off as a result.’

Yes, God forbid that we should become like ‘bloody Denmark or Belgium’ and allow ourselves to become ‘worse-off.’     According to the Rowntree Foundation, millions of the poorest households in the country face council tax rises of up to £600 a year,   as local authorities seek to compensate for the Coalition’s benefit cuts – cuts that was supposedly introduced to reduce the deficit.   More than 50,000 families in the UK are already homeless, according to Shelter, and more are still to come, as the government’s benefits cap takes its toll.

But never mind you whingers.   Take some comfort from the thought of those spanking new ships and aircraft carriers roaming the seas, and those drones and planes in the skies keeping us safe.       And know that as bad as things may seem, Britain is still out there, punching above its weight.


Telling lies about Afghanistan

‘ All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed,’ wrote the great radical journalist I.F. Stone  many years ago.   Stone could have added that some governments lie more than others, and that there are also times when governments  are more prone to manipulation, dishonesty and deceit than usual.

War has always had a special ability to bring these tendencies to the surface, and yesterday the lies were pouring forth at an alarming rate  in response to the deaths of six British soldiers in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.

In the early evening Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told  Sky News  that British troops were fighting terrorists in Afghanistan in order to ‘stop them fighting us here in our streets.’   In the same programme former British military commander and advisor to David Cameron, Sir Richard Dannatt gave  the interviewer the usual patter about the  ‘progress’ that was being made in handing over responsibility for security to the Afghan armed forces.

The idea that British soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan ‘to keep us safe’ was a lie that Gordon Brown frequently used during his dismal period in office.  And today, in the Telegraph, Hammond  repeats it once again, declaring

the mission is necessary for national security. UK forces, and troops from 49 other nations, are preventing Afghanistan again being used by al-Qaeda and other terrorists as a base to plan attacks against the UK and our allies. We are fighting there to prevent them attacking us here.

Pick that last sentence up, turn it over in your hands and maybe throw it out the window and take another look at it, and it will always remain a lie and nothing but a lie.  Numerous  reports  from the government’s own security agencies have concluded that the decisive driving factor behind terrorist attacks in the UK is resentment and anger at British foreign policies and the deployment of British troops in Muslim lands.

These were the words of 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, in a video broadcast on al-Jezeera on 6 July 2006

What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger…until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iran and until you stop your military support of America and Israel.

This may not be much of a justification for murdering commuters on the London underground, but such declarations  make it clear that a) contrary to the ‘we are fighting there to prevent them attacking us here’ thesis,  ‘they’ are fighting us here because our troops are over there, and b) that ‘they’ were not dispatched from Afghanistan like killer zombies in some army of evil, but grew up in the UK itself, where their ‘radicalisation’ derived from television and the Internet rather than al Qaeda ‘terror bases’ in Afghanistan.

The Coalition knows this, just as the Labour government did.  Yet Hammond goes on to argue that

Of course, addressing the terrorist threat in Afghanistan is not the whole solution, any more than the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has extinguished al-Qaeda. But we have got to make sure that Afghanistan is secure and that the terrorists who thrive in chaos cannot re-establish their pre-9/11 training camps.

This is a variant on the lie that Hammond told on Sky News yesterday, when he argued that the Taliban could not be allowed to return to power and protect al-Qaeda as they did before 9/11.   The fact that the Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden to maintain his jihadist training camps in Afghanistan is indisputable (though Pakistan also did the same thing).

These arrangements were a legacy of the Afghan jihad and the role played by international volunteers under bin Laden’s aegis in support of the Taliban’s victorious campaigns against the Northern Alliance.    But that does not mean that its leaders were aware of the operations that al-Qaeda was planning or engaged in.

Hammond’s image of ‘pre-9/11 training camps’  and ‘terrorists who thrive in chaos’ is also deceptive.   Such imagery is based on a James Bond/Old Man of the Mountains concept of al-Qaeda propagated by western governments and security agencies, which depicts a vast all-powerful organization directing global mayhem from secret ‘command posts’ in the Tora Bora mountains, much like Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s SPECTRE in You Only Live Twice.

Such depictions exaggerate the power that al-Qaeda has and has had, and they were  often deliberately intended to do so,   in order to create an enemy worthy of our new era of permanent war.   In doing so they have also distorted understanding of the kinds of operations that al Qaeda has engaged in and reinforced an image of  a hierarchical top-down organization that bears little relation to its  amorphous franchise-like structure.

From the point of view of western governments, al Qaeda is a useful label that can be attached to any country of strategic interest as a justification for ‘interventions’ carried out in the name of national security.   But attacks such as those carried out in the United States, London or Madrid do not require a territorial base.

The core group of 9/11 hijackers for example, received their crucial training not in Afghanistan but in the United States, and even the ‘muscle’ hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.   Some of the terrorist episodes in the UK over the last decade have been linked to Pakistan, not Afghanistan, which according to Hammond’s logic should mean that Nato should also occupy Pakistan.

Such attacks are not ultimately dependent on  ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but they do need grievances in order to recruit and motivate people to carry them out, and the bloody ‘terror wars’ of the last twelve years have provided such grievances in abundance.

The only thing that be said in Hammond’s defence here is that,  like Gordon Brown and so many others before him, it is quite possible that he actually believes this fantasy image of al Qaeda and is deceiving himself as much as the public.

The same cannot be said of his insistence that  the Afghan mission has been a success and that Central Helmand is a particular success story, let alone his assertion that

Despite the terrible events of this week, the overall trend of successful attacks, and UK casualty numbers, is sharply down. By mid-2013, the Afghans are expected to be leading security provision across the whole of the country, with ISAF in support. By the end of 2014 British troops will be able to end their combat role completely.

This ‘overall trend’ is a typically meaningless formulation of the type that the U.S. whistleblower Colonel Daniel Davis remorselessly unravelled in his recent leaked report.  As Davis pointed out,  the number of attacks and casualty figures may be rising or falling, but such variations do no necessarily indicate a ‘trend’ but a temporary phenomenon with various potential causes.

Davis emphatically refuted the notion that the Afghan security forces are ‘leading security provision’ against the Taliban, and reported that that many of its personnel have little inclination to do so and are deeply hostile to their Nato allies/occupiers.

These conclusions are radically at odds with the Vietnam-style ‘progress’ narratives emanating from the American and British governments, and which British politicians are now at pains to re-emphasise in response to yesterday’s deaths.  Thus David Cameron hailed the ‘sacrifice’ of the six soldiers who died in the name of ‘national security’ and mourned a ‘desperately sad day’ for Britain.

Indeed it was, but not for the reasons that Lord Fauntleroy outlined.  For the brutal truth is that the four hundred soldiers who have died in Afghanistan did not die for national security: they died because the British political elite is so deeply enmeshed in an essentially subservient relationship with its American counterparts that its leaders will do whatever the U.S. government tells them to do, and send soldiers to whatever battleground they are asked to fight in, regardless of how meaningless the war.

None of the three main political parties has any interest in challenging that relationship.  And no politician has the courage to break from the deadening consensus that has trapped the country in a futile and unwinnable conflict,  that will only end through negotiation with the enemy or the complete implosion of the brittle state apparatus on which Nato has pinned its delusions of progress.

In the meantime British soldiers will continue to die – and kill – in Afghanistan, not for national security, but for nothing at all.   And as long as they do,  the  governments that send them will continue to lie about the reasons for their deaths, and deliver patriotic bromides to enable the public to wash them down more easily.