Gaza in Ruins

More than eight months after Israel’s latest high-tech onslaught on Gaza, large sections of Gaza City continue to resemble the dead cities left over from twentieth century saturation bombing or 21st century ‘chimneyvilles’ that Sherman’s army left in Atlanta and Georgia.    Looking at the shocking photographs of the devastation during the last week or so reminded me of the three visits I made to Gaza in the mid-80s and during the first Intifada.

I thought of the people I met then, the pupils I taught English to; the smiling kids waving V-for Victory signs everywhere; the families who invited me in for dinner; the long conversations about politics, Zionism, national liberation and colonialism and so many subjects with people who unlike so many of my own compatriots, could not ignore politics and history because politics and history had not ignored them.

I remembered the deep red sunsets, the palm trees and the big waves that nearly dragged me out to sea one day; and the young Palestinian who swam out to see if I was ok and escorted me back to shore; the schoolchildren singing ‘One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow’ in English.  I remembered the teachers, the students, the former prisoners, the families living in tents because their houses had been demolished by the IDF.

Back then Gaza was a difficult place to live in – a pressure cooker with 800,000 Palestinians crammed into a tiny strip of land that had been reduced still further by the Israeli settlers.  You could see the ‘Sharon boulevards’ in many of the refugee camps where the IDF had blasted thoroughfares for their vehicles and crushed the armed resistance in the early 1970s.   In Djabalia camp you could walk past the large sewage pool where the conquerors made dozens of Palestinian men and boys of all ages sit or kneel for an entire afternoon after their first arrival.

Much of Gaza City was poor and rundown, but it was also a vibrant and surprisingly appealing place where thousands of people tried as best they could to lead ordinary lives under the weight of the occupation.  But even during the first Intifada I never saw anything that remotely compares to the apocalyptic devastation inflicted on Gaza last summer, and which has yet to be repaired.

Less than five percent of the aid that was promised to Gaza five months ago has actually reached it, according to the IRIN news agency, and donors now appear to be making their donations conditional on a political outcome which isolates and marginalizes Hamas.   One senior EU diplomat told IRIN last week that donors are waiting to see if the Palestinian Authority ‘gets a foothold in Gaza’ and produces ‘political certainty.’

And it has now emerged that the Quartet is withholding reconstruction assistance in order to pressure Hamas to accept certain preconditions.  And who is leading this process?  Why it’s none other than Peace Envoy Tony Blair.   According to Mousa Abu-Marzkouk, a senior member of Hamas political bureau chief, the Quartet has demanded that the following conditions must be met in order for Gaza to receive reconstruction assistance:

  • Accept the Palestinian reconciliation.
  • Accept the political programme based on a Palestinian state on 1967 borders.
  • Reiterate that Hamas is a Palestinian faction with only Palestinian goals and it is not part of any Islamist movement with regional goals.
  • Adopt the two-state solution as a final, not temporary, solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
  • Send an assurance message to Egypt that Gaza is not a terror base for Sinai terrorists and hold talks with the Egyptian government to stop terrorism in Sinai.

No one will be surprised to hear that Blair has laid down these conditions, which naturally are not matched by any comparable conditions directed at Israel. As is always the case with the Palestinians, the occupied/bombed population is expected to acquiesce to the demands of the occupier/bomber nation and its allies, which in the case of conditions three and four, now include Egypt, whose dictatorship Blair is advising in addition to his tireless work for world peace (that was irony folks).

The Quartet’s attempts to blackmail Hamas are really directed at the population of Gaza itself, at the tens of thousands of people who are still living in schools or bombed-out buildings.  This is a continuation of a game that Israel and the ‘international community’ have been playing ever since 2006, when the Gazans made the mistake of believing that democratic elections entitled them to vote for a government of their choice, which just happened to be Hamas.

And the fact that all this should be happening nine years later, to a population that is moving ever closer towards total ruin and collapse, is a shockingly cynical gambit from which none of those concerned emerges with any credit whatsoever.



Saint Tony Ascends to Heaven

It’s been a good year for that jetsetting businessman, philanthropist and peace envoy Tony Blair.  In September GQ Magazine voted him ‘philanthropist of the year.’   Now Save the Children have given him its ‘Global Legacy Award’ at a ‘gala dinner’ in New York attended by various A-List film stars, celebrities, and the latest incarnation of Lassie.

The first award received a great deal of criticism from left and right and prompted even Gary Lineker to note that GQ had finally discovered irony.  Yesterday’s award prompted more muted outrage.  Russia Today said that it provoked a ‘torrent of criticism’ before listing precisely two critical tweets, one of which was posted by George Galloway.  The Daily Mail condemned Save the Children’s decision to reward a man who had spent billions of taxpayer’s money on foreign overseas – not exactly a criticism delivered from the moral high ground.

There is something incestuous as well as incongruous about the award, given that the UK director of Save the Children is Justin Forsyth, who was recruited by Tony Blair in 2004 to direct the government’s efforts on poverty and climate change.  Forsyth was one of the key movers in the Make Poverty History campaign, a campaign that was cited as part of Blair’s ‘legacy’ yesterday.   He went on to become Strategic Communications and Campaigns Director under Gordon Brown, before accepting a £160,000 appointment at Save the Children in 2010.

So on one level the award raises the possibility that a charity officer may have helped reward a politician who once employed him for his work on poverty campaigning that both of them were once involved in.   But it also raises a number of wider questions about Blair’s ‘legacy’ and also about the role that he has played on the global stage.

Blair received the award largely for his work in Africa, from his promotion of debt relief when he was in office to the various projects and initiatives carried out by his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) since leaving it.

There is no doubt that some of Blair’s achievements in Africa have been positive.  Who could object to supporting health worker teams fighting Ebola?   Or fighting malaria in Sierra Leone?  Or helping the Rwanda government improve its power sector?  We might ask about the kind of world we have, in which African governments must rely on rich philanthropists to get such things done.

We might also note the fact that Blair’s philanthropy has been inseparable from his relentless and astonishing transformation into a capital accumumulation machine and his questionable financial arrangements and shady dealings with a succession of autocrats and dictators.

And then there is the little matter of the Iraq War.

Blair’s defenders would like to present the war as an unfortunate ‘mess’ that has sullied an otherwise entirely benevolent record, but the catastrophic consequences of that conflict  cannot be dismissed so easily – except by those who have no interest in recognizing them – and it is particularly shocking that Save the Children should have granted this award to one of the principal architects of a war whose consequences fell particularly heavily on Iraqi children.

Two million Iraqi children were displaced as a result of the Anglo-American occupation and the insurgency that followed.   A 2009 UNHCR report found that 93, 500 children had disappeared as a result of kidnapping, forced recruitment or abduction by armed groups.  Reports of the numbers of Iraqi children orphaned by war, occupation and sanctions range from 400,000 to as high as 4.5 million.

That is some ‘mess’, and Blair was one of those who did more than anyone else to make it happen.   He colluded with George Bush to facilitate a war of aggression, which he falsely presented to the public as a ‘preemptive’ war.   There is nothing that Blair can do in Africa or anywhere else to ‘balance’ this crime.

Yesterday he referred obliquely to the war in a speech that was filled with the usual emollient and grandiose pieties for which he has become famous, in which he proclaimed:

From the beginning of humankind there has been brutality, conflict, intrigue, the destructive obsession with a narrow self-interest.  But throughout all of human history, the cynics have never extinguished that relentless, unquenchable desire to do good. To act not only in self-interest and sometimes to even to act in defiance of it.

It is difficult not to see these pronouncements as yet another attempt to justify the Iraq war.  Blair has always regarded his willingness to take unpopular decisions as a true mark of ‘leadership’ and a sign of his own greatness, and he has made it clear again and again that he regards his decision to support the invasion of Iraq as a a brave and essentially noble act, regardless of the ‘brutality, conflict, intrigue’ that he was directly involved in.

That decision certainly harmed him politically in the short-term, but it was not in defiance of his own long-term interests. Had he refused to go along with it, it is difficult, if not impossible to imagine that he would have been as well-rewarded by American banks and financial insitutions as he has been.    And it doesn’t actually matter whether he regarded his decision to support the war as another consequence of his ‘relentless, unquenchable desire to do good’.

Good intentions are no excuse for a historical crime of such magnitude. By ignoring this component of Blair’s ‘ legacy’ Save the Children has helped to do what Blair what like the world to do, and transform that war into a tragic ‘mistake’ and a minor historical footnote.

In doing so, it shamefully ignored the consequences of that war and its ongoing consequences and Blair’s relentless promotion of global violence ever since.   And for a leading campaigning charity to behave in such a way is really rather unedifying and even sickening.

The Former Friends of Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s latest self-aggrandizing and bloodthirsty pronouncements on Iraq have not surprisingly been greeted with a storm of ridicule, contempt, and disgust across a wide spectrum of  political opinion.   Boris Johnson, Clare Short, Malcolm Rifkind, Christopher Meyer and even John Prescott have all joined in the chorus of condemnation.  Johnson says that Blair has ‘gone mad.’ Short says that he is ‘wrong, wrong. wrong.’  Former Deputy Prime Minister Prescott, who once voted for the Iraq war, now says that he once told Blair that he risked restarting the crusades by going to war.

Beyond the mainstream the condemnation has been even more severe and unrelenting, as is only to be expected.   Blair himself is clearly aware of this, and can’t understand why the world doesn’t admire him as much as he admires himself.  In his public appearances he increasingly looks like a haunted and hunted man, a disturbing mixture of arrogance, fanaticism and narcissistic self-belief that is entirely disconnected from any awareness of the consequences of his actions.

Blair may have become rich, but outside the elite circles that he serves, his reputation is in tatters and it is difficult to imagine how it can ever be restored.   Instead he is likely to spend the rest of his life as a faintly pathetic and dishonourable figure, hollowed out by his own lies and pursued by the horrific trail of blood, folly, madness and destruction that his dim-witted actions have helped unleash, and which he has never accepted responsibility for.

Unlike Bush, who has wisely chosen to retire to his ranch and paint puppies rather than make pronouncements on international affairs, Blair continues to call again and again for another war and another round of bombing in one country after another, in the apparent belief that it will all come out all right in the end and he will appear as some kind of principled and far-sighted prophet.

It is increasingly clear that only the most starry-eyed acolytes who floated in Blair’s slipstream or profited from his activities – either materially or politically – actually believe this is going to happen. Those of us who have long criticized the Great Deceiver can take some satisfaction from seeing the Emperor stripped of his clothes – even if it falls a long way short of the punishment that he should have received for conning and manipulating the country into an aggressive war based on fabricated intelligence, lies, and utterly ill-judged assumptions.

It would be tempting to regard Blair as a tragic figure – a great man brought down by his own hubris and a misguided desire to do good.  But Blair is not Creon.  He is not Julius Caesar, and he is definitely not Don Quixote.   In an interview with Mehdi Hassan at the Huffington Post yesterday, Professor George Joffe accused Blair of ‘total responsibility’ for the unfolding disaster that is now taking place in Iraq.

Joffe was one of three academic experts who visited Blair shortly before the Iraq war and warned him of the possibility of post-war chaos and sectarian conflict in the aftermath of the invasion.  Blair was not interested in any of this, and only wanted to talk about Saddam, observing that ‘ the man’s evil, isn’t he?’

Joffe and and his colleagues came away with the impression of a ‘very shallow mind’ who ‘personalised’ the invasion around Saddam Hussein, so that ‘the whole structure of Iraq was utterly irrelevant.. It was very two-dimensional.’

These criticisms do not only apply to Blair himself.  Too many people also saw Iraq in ‘two-dimensional’ terms, when they analysed the country at all.    Too many people blindly followed him in the rush to war or simply went along with it because to do otherwise would have harmed their careers, or because they wanted to experience the feelgood sensation of ‘saving’ a country from a dictatorship at no cost to themselves.

Now, to paraphrase Thomas Wyatt, those who once sought him out are trying to flee him, in order to preserve their own reputations.   One of them is Boris Johnson, who once voted for a war he now describes as a ‘tragic error’, but still insists that it was a faintly noble cause, even as he criticizes Blair.   Then there is ‘Baron’ Prescott, who says now that he disagreed with Blair over the war.   If Prescott disagreed with the invasion, no one outside the cabinet knew it at the time when his disagreement might actually have counted for something.

The Observer also claims to have reversed its opinions about the war that it once supported, but it still criticizes opponents of the war more than it criticizes the man who helped start it – who still gets regular op eds that he inevitably uses to advocate new wars.

Professor Joffe has dismissed Blair’s latest statements on Iraq and Syria for their ‘inability to understand politics and geopolitics.’   But clearly he isn’t the only one.   And his continued prominence is also an indictment of the liberal press which uncritically recycles his pronouncements on every possible occasion, of the ‘Quartet’ that appointed him Middle East ‘Peace Envoy’, of Yale University, which once hired him to speak about ‘faith and globalisation’, and so many other institutions that have sought his expertise – or lack thereof.

So Blair’s former friends may want distance.  But the real tragedy about Blair is not simply Blair himself, and the fact that this shabby and disreputable Pied Piper was able to get away with what he did for so long, and the legacy of neo-imperial violence and militarism that he advocated, which has yet to be overcome.


Iraq Implodes

The startling advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq are the most dramatic and visible success that the transnational jihad movement has achieved since its intitial emergence in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early 80s.   Since the end of that war, one of the key aspirations of al-Qaeda and the various franchises and networks that share its ideology has always been to carve out a political space or series of political spaces that would become stepping stones towards the creation of a new ‘caliphate.’

With the fall of more than five Iraqi towns and cities to ISIS forces last week, that aspiration is now closer to realisation than it has ever been.   Today ISIS is in effective control of a vast swathe of territory that spans Syria and central Iraq, and which in practice no longer recognizes the border between the two countries.  This outcome may not be permanent, but already it threatens to redraw the entire map of the Middle East.

Even if the Nouri al-Maliki government succeeds – with foreign help or by reactivating the Shia militias that wreaked such havoc in the last years of the Anglo-American occupation – it is difficult to see how Iraq can survive as a unified state and avoid its disintegration into all-out sectarian war and the creation of warring ethnic statelets – without a radical change in political direction that is unlikely to come from the corrupt and authoritarian government that now rules the country.

All this is an absolute catastrophe for Iraqis first of all, and for the Middle East in general, and much of it can be traced back to the invasion and occupation based on a fatal combination of imnperial arrogance, delusional ignorance, breathtaking incompetence,  and self-interest, that shattered Iraqi society and proved itself singularly unable to reconstitute it.

No one will be surprised to hear that Tony Blair denies any such connections.   That is what Blair has always done.    One might feel disgust at the fact that Blair wants again wants to bomb Iraq, but that is also a reaction that anyone familiar with the Great Man’s combination of narcissism and almost psycopathic irresponsibility has come to expect.

To Blair, ISIS is Maliki’s fault,  and any suggestions to the contrary are ‘bizarre.’  But Blair’s delusions are not unique to him.   Take the awful editorial in today’s Observer.  Back in 2003 The Observer enthusiastically supported the Iraq invasion.   Now, like its onetime crusader/hero, it is keen to disclaim any connection between that catastrophe and the events of last week.

Unlike Blair, The Observer says that it is among those who ‘questioned the wisdom of that decision.’   Such questioning doesn’t appear to have gone that far, since the editorial resents the fact that

‘With barely disguised glee, some who opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq now claim to see in the Isis phenomenon the final, cast-iron proof that George W Bush and Tony Blair were both reckless and wrong.’

Indeed they might.  And odd as it may seem to those who so uncritically set in motion the catastrophic series of events which ultimately resulted in ISIS, those of us who opposed the war do not feel much ‘glee’ watching the endless horror into which Iraq has fallen, but nor we feel any inclination to ignore the invasion and occupation just to make the likes of The Observer feel better about themselves, especially when presented with dishonest observations such as the following:

‘… to claim, 11 years on, that what is happening now can be attributed to what was done then is both facile and insulting. It suggests, in a sort of inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism, that Iraqis remain incapable of assuming responsibility for their own country.’

So let me get this straight.  According to The Observer, those of us those of us who say that the ISIS offensive is at least in part a consequence of the occupation that it once supported are guilty,  of ‘inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism.’  Yes, I see.

I’m not even sure what inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism actually is, but a newspaper that so glibly and uncritically propagated the lies that Bush and Blair once told them is in no position to call anyone else facile.  Especially when it still makes fatuous observations like this:

‘The invasion, whatever else it did, gave Iraq the chance of democratic self-governance that it would never have experienced under Saddam Hussein. It is this imperfect democracy that is now under threat – and which must now be improved, even as it is preserved.’

What are these leader writers on?  That Iraq’s politicians bear some responsibility for the sectarian fragmentation of the country is indisputable,  but it is dishonesty on a grand scale to attempt to separate these developments from the 2003 invasion.

When the Anglo-American occupiers took control of Iraq in 2003, they inherited a country whose society had already been battered by war, sanctions and dictatorship.  Its population had already experienced a massive drop in living standards; much of its infrastructure was in ruins as a result of the first Gulf War and the sanctions that followed; and the occupiers proceeded to compound the damage by dismantling the army and the public sector,  and allowing looters to tear at the fragile fabric of Iraqi society still further.

The result was a savage insurgency, and an international jihadist cause celebre and the catalyst for radicalization that al-Qaeda had sought after,  which brought the occupiers close to defeat, and from which they were only able to extricate themselves by terrorising/bribing Sunni tribes and empowering a sectarian Shia government that unleashed a campaign of murder and torture against Sunni insurgents and the communities that supported them.

As many as a million Iraqis may have died in this mayhem, not to mention more than three million refugees and internally displaced.   All this was overseen by a reckless and incompetent occupation regime that installed a new Iraqi political class that engaged in truly jaw-dropping levels of corruptions.  And somehow, according to The Observer, this ‘gave Iraqis the chance of democratic self-government?’

Please.   Since the occupation ended, the Maliki government has run Iraq like a sectarian fiefdom.  Its security forces torture and kill with impunity, shooting even peaceful Sunni protestors.   The annual death toll from political violence over the last three years has hovered between 7,000-8,000.

To call that an ‘imperfect democracy’ is certainly stretching the notion of imperfect.  But not many Western governments seemed particularly bothered by this – until now.  Most of them were looking for ways to visit similar ‘liberations’ in other countries, first in Libya and then in Syria, where ISIS first appeared.

And now we are witnessing yet another bleak chapter in this dismal history unfold,  which may yet result in Iraq being bombed yet again by the same people who bombed it before.

And naturally it’s not our fault. Because nothing ever is, is it?