Monday, 29 June 2009

Witchell's ranking

Is this the most shameless piece of BBC propaganda ever to come out of Iraq?

Apparently switched from embedded royalist to embedded militarist, the ever-fawning Nicholas Witchell reports from Baghdad on the coming end of US troop deployments in the major cities. It's the kind of brazenly loaded reportage that should embarrass any credible news organisation. But this is the BBC.

Consider this gross inversion of the truth from Witchell:
"After six violent years, the soldiers who came to liberate, but whom many regard as invaders, will be taken off city streets."
Yes, six years of invasion, occupation and murderous destruction perpetrated by those same US forces.

The open presumption in Witchell's baldly-stated assertion about "the soldiers who came to liberate" tells us all we ever need to know about the BBC's war apologetics and default defence of Western aggression in Iraq. The "whom many regard as invaders" caveat is offered as a play to even-handedness, thus retaining the standard lie that 'liberation' was always the primary task.

Token local residents are interviewed here by Witchell, some noting their approval of the 'withdrawal'. It should be "Iraq for the Iraqis", one man says. This is about the extent of Witchell's acknowledgement that there's a problematic Western presence in Iraq, a little inconvenience, it seems, to be set against the 'improvements' brought about by the surge and their possible undoing:
"But removing patrols like this runs the risk of undoing the gains of the past two years when the Americans surged their forces into local communities.
We're not, of course, invited to ask how, by any human calculus, one might measure these "gains" against the loss of over a million Iraqi lives.

On which momentous note, it seems somewhat churlish to point out Witchell's obvious violation of BBC 'impartiality' codes, accepting and repeating, as he does, the face value claims of US commanders.

The dutiful embed continues:
"Quite a bit of the credit for the security improvements is because US forces got out on foot, like this, into local communities, making friends and identifying enemies."
So, all culpabilities erased, then, as the troops try a little fraternising, making friends with 'good' Iraqis in order to weed out the 'bad' ones. Aside from the blatant bias, is it possible to find a more striking line in juvenile journalism? It's as though Witchell is still outside Buckingham Palace gushing about the royals' ongoing efforts to be more people-friendly.

Witchell has another Iraqi man stating his fears of a vacuum when the US leave, thus allowing the militias to return. It's a troubling thought for him. However, like some lofty departing colonialist, he concludes that the ball is now in the Iraqis' court:
"That's the big concern, that without American boots on Iraqi streets, the insurgents will see their chance. But the Americans are pulling back. It's up to Iraq now, and everyone from private soldier to President hopes it will work."
Quite how Witchell knows what this vast military-political chain "hopes" and thinks, is left unexplained. But the truth of 'benevolent retreat' to match 'benevolent invasion' must be readily assumed by the BBC.

We might more reasonably call it BBC supportage - rather than critical reportage. As with Mark Urban's cosy militarist pieces endorsing the surge, Witchell's coy reassurances are being used to excuse the invasion, rationalise the occupation and soften the 'withdrawal'.

Nicholas Witchell.
BBC News.
Duty done.


Friday, 26 June 2009

Iran: still no credible evidence of Mousavi poll win

As elsewhere, a week's a long time in Iranian politics. Declared polling irregularities aside, we've still to see any conclusive proof that the Iranian authorities rigged the entire 11 million votes separating Ahmadinejad from Mousavi and the other competing candidates.

What we've been assailed by, instead, is endless speculative assumptions about another make-believe 'colour revolution', with the liberal media, as ever, leading the charge.

Consistently absent in most of these 'pro-democracy' accounts is the fact that much of Iranian society both supports internal political reforms while rejecting external interference.

Thus, in a debate over the NAF pre-election poll, we hear
reiteration from one of its authors, Ken Ballen, that the desire for fundamental reform of the electoral system was also highly evident (86%) among Ahmadinejad supporters. Which helps illuminate some of the more nuanced truths about Iranian disaffection for the state and affection for Ahmadinejad. All too typically, those intent on undermining Iran have been content to blur these differing issues.

There's also more sober comments from Flynt Leverett here on the "wishful thinking" of the West. In short, he notes, the Iranian Islamic Republic is not, contrary to Western liberal hopes, a system on the brink of collapse.

Neither, one week on, do we have any credible challenge to the analysis offered by James Petras on the great electoral hoax.

Still, what of those election results?

Robert Fisk's asute commentary - alas, still-laden with non-Western demons - has little time for Ahmadinejad or the Iranian elite. He sees fraudulent activity. But also the reality of Amhadinejad's majority support:
"So let's take a look at those Iranian elections. A fraud, we believe. And I have the darkest doubts about those election figures which gave Mousavi a paltry 33.75 per cent of the vote. Indeed, I and a few Iranian friends calculated that if the government's polling-night statistics were correct, the Iranian election committee would have had to have counted five million votes in just two hours. But our coverage of this poll has been deeply flawed. Most visiting Western journalists stay in hotels in the wealthy, north Tehran suburbs, where tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters live, where it's easy to find educated translators who love Mousavi, where interviewees speak fluent English and readily denounce the spiritual and cultural and social stagnation of Iran's – let us speak frankly – semi-dictatorship.

But few news organisations have the facilities or the time or the money to travel around this 659,278 square-mile country – seven times the size of Britain – and interview even the tiniest fraction of its 71 million people. When I visited the slums of south Tehran on Friday, for example, I found that the number of Ahmadinejad supporters grew as Mousavi's support dribbled away. And I wondered whether, across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iran, a similar phenomenon might be discovered. A Channel 4 television crew, to its great credit, went down to Isfahan and the villages around that beautiful city and came back with a suspicion – unprovable, of course, anecdotal, but real – that Ahmadinejad just might have won the election.

This is also my suspicion: that Ahmadinejad might have scraped in, but not with the huge majority he was awarded."
Which pretty much accords with other useful speculations on what a fully fair poll would have shown and understandings, even from conservative analysts, of an electorate long used to such manipulations.

Unfortunately, much of the left seems to have joined the sabre-rattling liberals and outright neocons in hyping up this set of irregularities. Even the usually reliable ZNet appears to have fallen obligingly into line, with David Petersen decrying much of it's current output on Iran as "pathetic fare".

It's a touch ironic that rebuttals of the mass cheating claims, and confirmation of US skulduggery, are coming more readily from conservative corners, as in this summation from Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan's Assistant Treasury Secretary:
"Commentators are "explaining" the Iran elections based on their own illusions, delusions, emotions, and vested interests. Whether or not the poll results predicting Ahmadinejad's win are sound, there is, so far, no evidence beyond surmise that the election was stolen. However, there are credible reports that the CIA has been working for two years to destabilize the Iranian government."
While maintaining an intuitive solidarity for ordinary Iranians struggling to build a more accountable and equitable society, it's disturbing to witness so many liberal-left observers embrace, implicity or explicitly, the agenda-setting message of Ahmadinejad as a 'hardliner'.

Hardliner? Should it need repeating that the US has invaded and murdered over a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan? To my understanding, Ahmadinejad and Iran have engaged in no such hardline activities. The Iranian president is also denounced as "hardline" for calling Israel a racist state, while Obama's 'softline' approach, lacking in meaningful action, permits the deepening of that oppression.

The point is not about supporting Ahmadinejad. It's about seeing the reasons behind the depiction of him as a crazed zealot.

The 'hardline' tag is employed in similar assumed ways here by left-liberal analyst Juan Cole:
"By 2005, the hard liners had rolled back all the reforms and the reform camp was sullen and defeated. They did not come out in large numbers for the reformist candidate, Karoubi, who only got 17 percent of the vote. They nevertheless were able to force a run-off between hard line populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative billionaire. Ahmadinejad won."
It's worth noting here that Rafsanjani is actually a corrupt businessman, while Mousavi is a neoliberal advocate with a not-so-moderate past record on political freedoms - facts that Ahmadinejad used to positive advantage during the TV poll debates.

Again, while there's an obvious rift and struggle within the Iranian hierarchy, this doesn't necessarily translate into an overall collapse of faith in the system. This was evidenced by the diminishing number of protesters on the streets after Supreme Leader Khamenei's speech calling for people to stay at home and for the poll result to be respected. The reading here seems to be that, public concerns and reformist desires aside, most Iranians don't share the kind of benevolent destabilisation the liberal West is wishing upon their country.

Which, again, begs the question: why are so many on the more 'critical' left, so taken-in by these liberal/right demonisations? Part of the reason is their antithesis towards the Iranian theocratic system. Which is largely understandable given the brutal repression of leftist forces during and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Yet, that legitimate wish for a progressive secular democracy seems to have blinded many here, firstly to the more nuanced social and political dimensions of Iranian society, and, secondly, to the darker liberal-right demonisation taking place.

Meanwhile, a monetary prize is now on offer to anyone who can provide "a coherent story for how the Iranian election was stolen."


Friday, 19 June 2009

Occupation - the drama

The BBC drama series Occupation promised us a deep, searching journey into the tortured consequences of Britain's involvement in Iraq. What it delivered, as predicted, was a preoccupation with the personal angst, confusions and suffering of 'our troops'.

The problem, as ever, with this kind of output is the absent voice of the other. And not just an individual voice, but the qualitative, collective voice of an invaded, murdered and brutalised people.

The producers of Occupation think they've got around this by having the 'Iraqi voice' of female doctor (played by Lubna Azabal) engage in a melodramatic love affair with a British soldier (James Nesbitt). Conveniently, she speaks in implicitly neutral terms about the occupation, even, during the first instalment, appearing back in England at a Daily Express-sponsored PR event announcing Nesbitt's character as the heroic saviour of a little Iraqi girl.

Of all the plot devices, why choose this one? Why, with this generous three hour slot to chart the essentials of a contentious and illegal occupation, give so much central time to a love story? It's a particularly audacious insult to those victims and survivors of the mass carnage back in Iraq who not only want their occupiers out, but desire truthful acknowledgement of their multiple sufferings.

The drama's supposed theme is one of pained human engagement between occupier and occupied. But the actual act of occupation itself is never truly considered, the critical, existential questions about the occupier's motives and mindset left safely ignored.

None of the big, difficult issues are faced: why are these soldiers in Iraq?; how did the invading powers lie to get them there?; are these soldiers party to war crimes?

All of which begs related thoughts about why there isn't a more ambitious artistic commentary on these very questions.

The romance between Iraqi doctor and British soldier may be a metaphor for difficult engagement and healing between two distant cultures. Or, more likely, it may just be a shallow plot contrivance substituting for the key issues.

While humanitarian doubts about the occupation grow in the mind of Nesbitt's character, the accompanying plot around mercenary business ventures for the employment-scarce ex-squaddies keeps us safely detached from the fuller nature of the West's privatised war agenda.

Instead, a rookie American administrator tells the new mercenaries that the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA's) mass million dollar piles are all humanitarian-targeted funds. While we see the evident falseness of that claim, there's no illumination of the big corporate players like Halliburton and the privatised grand theft that followed. Incredibly, oil is barely mentioned. Perhaps they couldn't fit it into the love story.

The small-scale implications of this financial abuse are played out in part 2 as the new, raw military frontiersmen pitch for contracts and favours, revealing their fatal inexperiences in a land now saturated with hidden militias. But, again, there's no serious reference to the main corporate bonanza and the private-political patronage keeping it all going.

Nor are the Iraqi fighters accorded any coherent status as an actual resistance. They're simply dismissed, in the doctor's words, as young boys on the loose with guns.

As the love story continues in its improbably tangled way - her husband, another Iraqi doctor, coming into contact with Nesbitt and the mercenaries - we're still asked to reflect on the soldiers' pains, shames and misfortunes, but not to consider or debate Britain's own illegal presence and war criminality.

It's not a political film, some might say. Yet how can the political issue be avoided if we're to think truthfully about a drama called "Occupation"?

The script endeavours to relate some of the stark problems within the civilian hospitals as Iraqi surgeons demonstrate the pitiful conditions and lack of basic equipment. We also get a sense here of the cold disregard and amateur profit-driven priorities of the new parasitical military contractors.

The racist language is largely authenticated by asides to "raghead" Iraqis. We even have a young Western-educated Iraqi joining forces with the mercenaries, giving imminent sense to the fatal attractions of collaboration.

Yet there's never any more involving picture of the humanitarian chaos unfolding across this blood-soaked land; of the million or so lives that are being taken; of the biblical-scale upheaval and mass of desperate refugees on the move.

The particular issue of the British occupying role in Basra is never once addressed. Instead, they're assumed as 'just there', making the best of a bad situation, trying to cope and encourage normalisation of Iraqi life.

It's a 'problem war', a 'mistaken war', but never a criminal war.

Back home, the '7/7' attacks on London prompt a token family dispute about the anti-war movement. It's yet another facile take, from the soldier/mercenary viewpoint, on the 'realities' out there in Iraq.

Still on the family strain theme, the soldier's liaison with the doctor is finally revealed to his wife, leading to their tearful break-up. It may be well acted and observed. But it's still a lengthy, clich├ęd distraction from the actual occupation.

As tensions between the three soldiers grow over the war motives, one, the main mercenary, is now in a smart suit tying up a lucrative deal in Dubai with big money backers. Again, there's no added context about the political-corporate factors underlying all this.

Meanwhile, the other, more conscientious, mercenary returns to Basra intent on settling a score, and his own conscience, over the killing of his Iraqi mate, his resulting kidnap taking us into another good-Brit-bad-Iraqi plot-line. It all feels more of a flip-scene soap than a serious examination of a brutalised society under occupation.

Part 3 opens with the menacing kidnap scene, the Iraqi captor asking his hostage: "How many Iraqi refugees are in Jordan and Syria?" This question - shamefully ignored by the West and its servile media - is conveyed as part of a potentially barbaric execution scene. But it could, more appropriately, have been uttered by an actual victim refugee - or the doctor herself. Again, it's part of the selective 'voice' accorded to Iraqis in a script ever intent on demonising the Iraqi resistance.

As the contracting cash-in continues into 2007, Nesbitt's character goes in search of the doctor's kidnapped husband - permitting their own affair to develop. The suggestion of Western responsibility for the kidnap takes us into the possible dark dealings of covert ops. But the plot line is quickly curtailed with his mercenary-secured release. It might have been a lead into the demonic happenings inside Abu Ghraib. But systematic, private-trained torture is never on the dramatic agenda here.

Another spurious plot device to get the female doctor out of Iraq to the safety of England fails as a young fanatic Iraqi shoots her dead in the hospital. It's the scriptwriters' crude way of dealing with the issue of female immodesty within Muslim culture.

We finish with the funeral service of Nesbitt's character's son, another soldier lost to the tragic war in Iraq. A final argument between the three main characters throws up angry exchanges and questions about the market motives, moral motivations and futile outcomes of the occupation.

But it's all contained within their realm of suffering, their losses, their mistakes, their experiences. There's no equivalent scene back in Iraq of bereaved fathers and mothers. There's no concluding reflection on the staggering scale of their pain and loss.

Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism shows how power and Empire were sustained by dominant popular narratives such as the Victorian novel. It's remarkable how little has changed.

Modern war dramas such as Occupation affect a, perhaps, more sensory awareness over the invasion of another's country. But there's no essential difference in the perceived subsidiarity of that land, people and culture.

Like past imperial conquests and pretexts, the narrative line here is one of benevolent intervention. We, the viewer, are invited to pick our way around the various tensions of that premise - look at the chaos and suffering that's been created; what about all the broken lives caused - but the good, unfailing, do-the-duty, finish-the-job message prevails: 'we' were in Basra to liberate, to rebuild the country, to make the peace.

It's sobering when one really stops to think about the terrifying scale of mass murder and calculated terror 'we' have helped unleash on Iraq. And it's a fair indication of the cultural propaganda value of such dramas that much of the public will never really come to acknowledge that dark set of truths.

Even anti-war perceptions are shaped around this sort of agenda-setting output. There's an encouragement to see the consequent fallout of war - namely, the stresses and breakdowns of serving soldiers. Which isn't in itself invalid, so long as it allows a real, authentic voice to those who have actually been invaded, occupied and victimised.

This kind of drama consciously doesn't. Which is why it can get commissioned and appear on a BBC channel in the first place. It has the 'BBC-safe' stamp of approval. This, the establishment can say, is our 'recognition' of the suffering. Which, in practice, means the suffering of 'ours'.

It's a useful lesson in thought control. Quite how a 'landmark' film entitled Occupation can manage to evade the actual issues of occupation should be a question occupying the public mind.


Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Arab Media Watch study: request for response from BBC

A letter to the Director of BBC News.


17 June 2009

Dear Helen Boaden,

Arab Media Watch has just published a damning study of BBC and Al-Jazeera reporting of the Palestine-Israel issue.

It stands in direct contradiction of BBC claims to impartiality, objectiviy and even-handedness.

The report's findings reveal systematic use of Israeli sources, comment and pictures, while excluding or minimising those of Palestinian origin.

The study offers consistent illustrations of the BBC violating its own stated charter.

As noted:

“The absence of Palestinian sources and viewpoints, and the predominance of those from the Israeli side, go against the editorial guidelines of both broadcasters.”

It also also provides clear evidence of distorted context in presenting Israeli aggression as “responsive” action:

“Both broadcasters used words that unequivocally portrayed Israeli violence as a direct response to Palestinian violence.”

This report, confirming in detail the alarming extent of BBC bias, merits close inspection by the Director of BBC News.

I await your considered response with interest.

Yours sincerely

John Hilley


I'll publish any subsequent responses/exchanges here:


Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Iran and Simpson's world view

While Western political elites and their stenographers at the BBC continue to infer electoral chicanery in Iran, the sober evidence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidential election victory is all there in rather obvious pre-election poll data.

Quite simply, Ahmadinejad had a 2:1 base support lead across the country, with relative exceptions amongst parts of the educated and business classes. Even within Mousavi's own Azeri ethnic grouping, support for Ahmadinejad was still consistent with this recorded ratio.

Iranian officials have declared their intent to recount some disputed votes. This is welcome. But it doesn't invalidate the more fundamental truth of Ahmadinejad's consistent support base, a lead which foreign observers have conveniently ignored or mistakenly thought certain to go to Mousavi:

"They ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the “Iran experts” over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking."

It's been helpful to read this kind of calm analysis. Where, one wonders, is the production of such qualitative information from the BBC?

Instead, we've seen World Affairs editor John Simpson amble around Tehran in his white suit talking of "organised chaos" at the count - actually, there was the most civilised movement of people polling in the background - and imply serious manipulations as a section of Iranian citizens took to the street.

We can always rely on the BBC to feed us unreliable inference rather than informed analysis. A mature non-western electorate returns an 'unstomachable' candidate, and BBC reporters fall immediately into default mode suggesting strongly that the self-same 'official enemy' has done the dirty. Quite how Ahmadinejad has managed to do so on such a massive scale remains unexplained, unexplored.

Simpson conducts his to-camera pieces describing dissent on the street behind him. But what does this, in itself, tell us about the actual election? Where is the evidence that cheating took place? Many viewers are very keen to see the proof. Yet, we find no apparent obligation from the BBC to do that most basic of journalistic things: investigate.

Instead, we have Simpson's loaded conjecture:

This was not, of course, the result the West was hoping for. But political chaos and public disorder in Iran is not what any outside government wants either.
The election choice was basically between the openly anti-Western Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who made it clear he wanted to end Iran's isolation and talk to the Americans.
It would certainly not have been an easy relationship, even if Mr Mousavi had become president. Iran will always be a difficult country for the United States, Britain and other Western countries to deal with.
Even the Shah, who lost his throne because he tried to westernise Iran too quickly, was a difficult man to do business with.
Iran is an important regional power with an historical sense of having been held back by the West; its interests are bound to clash with those of the West from time to time.

It's not just the blatant pro-western bias in Simpson's output, but the acute poverty of information, as though the viewer can be palmed-off with this patronising view of a backward-looking Iran and a 'disappointed West'. Here's a viewer's letter to Simpson (noted at Media Lens) pursuing the point:

Hello John,

A regular reader of BBC online news, I've just read your article (dated yesterday, titled 'Difficult moment for Iran - and world').

The fourth paragraph runs thus...

Even the Shah, who lost his throne because he tried to westernise Iran too quickly, was a difficult man to do business with.

I nearly choked on my coffee reading this. Maybe I'm way off base here, but as I understand it, the Shah's downfall had more to do with the fact that (according to a 1976 Amnesty International report), Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.".

He was a totalitarian dictator installed during the 1953 Anglo-American overthrow of Iran's democratically elected president Mohamed Mossadeq.

Why do I, a software developer who was only a child during the Shah's reign, need to explain this salient fact to a senior BBC journalist whose field of expertise is supposed to be knowledge of world affairs and incisive analysis ?



Whatever the outcome of the electoral imbroglio, one thing we have learned from the BBC this week is that Simpson's and his peers' 'worldly-wise' dispatches are neither impartial or usefully revealing. Many of us already suspected that rather staid truth.


Saturday, 13 June 2009

Parade of the parodies

An acquaintance recently expressed surprise that, being motivated by (if not always practising) calm mindfulness, I could embrace political activity such as the Palestinian cause. I could see the logic, of sorts. Politics is often driven by negative, adversarial feeling. But, of course, you don't have to be party to hateful hostility to be politically engaged.

In opposing the warmongers who have visited mass suffering on Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it's useful to maintain the calmest possible demeanour in practical support of those at the receiving end of big power's own hate and aggression.

We can also work calmly and rationally towards the elimination of the BNP without resorting to their brand of hate, violence and incitement.

With the 'parliamentary crisis' still running - or the media's shrill, self-preening version of it - a similar kind of thought occurs about politics as a realm of hate and selfish gain.

Here's one to ponder: are most of the parliamentary class principally motivated by a basic concern for others? Here's another: are they remotely close to enacting comprehensive policies of compassionate advocacy? The two questions appear to coincide in the negative.

The truth is that, like many of the struggling citizens calling for their heads, they too are self-deluded victims of a political-market system predicated on gain, greed and survival at all costs. As we've seen, many don't survive. And the higher 'up' the political ladder, the more remote such people are from any notion of a true politics of compassion.

I have little hatred for Hazel Blears and her parliamentary associates for whom political life is a career, an exercise in stagecraft, a daily duck-and-dive in the art of evasion, denial, salespitch, backstabbing, aspiration, material reward, indulgent status, self-justification and even apparent public regret. The hating them bit is, if one is so inclined, easy. The desire, from this viewpoint, to see them locked up takes little further effort. But does any of that get to the serious heart of the matter?

The disconnect is neatly captured in Armando Iannucci's tour de force, In the Loop, with its sharp, vituperative study of ministerial dissembling and obsessive spin. As depicted, politicians are now, effectively, expected to lie and cover their backs. Unaccountable leaders wage privatised wars and bail out bankers without the slightest sense of shame or contrition. And the spinmasters are on permanent service to dress up all their venalities. All else - the actual idea of politics as a means of improving life, of securing justice, of stopping wars - is regarded as some abstract, fanciful notion.

We hear politicians say, many sincerely, that they entered politics to make a difference. But they probably know, deep down, that the 'logic' of the system, and their cossetted places within it, weigh towards the deliberate opposite.

The 'clean-up' response has only created another parade of the parodies with national celebs like Esther Rantzen putting themselves 'selflessly' forward. Rantzen, interestingly, described herself recently on the BBC as, "first and foremost, an investigative journalist." Perhaps she should undertake some critical investigation of her own political backer, the ex-high Tory businessman Sir Paul Judge and his Jury Team.

The Confucian ethics of selfless public office, it evidently isn't. But how more difficult to feel and discharge that kind of unselfish dedication when one's own economic wellbeing and survival is predicated on market rules.

Entering politics thus becomes a set of monetary and ego-fed calculations. I recall a number of the politics course intake at uni coveting a career in the Labour party as a sure, fast-track to economic and status advancement. Some were also fascinated by Machiavelli, and read The Prince as a kind of exciting manual on how best to effect those aims.

Wannabee politicos and a slave-copy media mark the daily, dark dealings around the Westminster village. Ministers rise and fall. MPs get ousted and interrogated by coy Newsnight presenters. But where amid all this manoeuvre and 'intrigue' are the more fundamental questions about political life as a place utterly bereft of humanitarian energy?

Hypocritical concern is the particular imprimatur of the liberal media. Thus, we've had that lofty defender of public virtues, the Guardian, calling for Brown "to be cut loose". All in the best interests of politics, parliament, the people, you understand. Brown is no longer 'up to the job', they worry; he doesn't command respect in the House, around the Cabinet table, in the constituencies. He's a liability. Not, of course, "he's the paymaster for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"; or, "he's got a whole lot of war crime blood on his hands."

Not to worry. With Brown beckoning Sir Alan Sugar into the government, we can all now feel inspired to become aggression-fuelled entrepreneurs. Apprenticeships in market ruthlessness and political survival.

You're hired, you're fired, you're morally acquired.

Compassionate politics? Don't be a wimp.


Friday, 5 June 2009

Obama's Cairo evasions

Barack Obama's Cairo speech has been hailed as a landmark event by much of the Western media, and well received in substantial parts of the Middle East and Muslim world. It promised a new engagement of Islam, Islamic countries, notably Iran, and made specific references to the "intolerable" situation of the Palestinian people, the "occupation", their "humiliation" and the need for an end to settlement construction.

Many a progressive pundit will have taken more than a grain of hope from the address, and understandably so when one reads back the specificity of Obama's words in recognising Palestinian suffering and in support of Palestinian statehood. The giddy thought of Obama's predecessor making such a speech adds to the proclaimed sense of "new beginning".

But what may be new in presidential words, perhaps even conviction, remains deeply compromised by presidential inaction. It's early days, many will remind; this is an opening salvo against Israel, others might believe. Perhaps. But none of this quite excuses an incoming administration already well-versed on the realities and immediacy of the task in hand. One sure thing we can say about Obama is that he does understand what has to be done to reach a nominal peace deal. The problem lies not just in the rhetorical stating of that agenda, but in the administration's unwillingness to effect a deal utterly antithetical to America's Israeli lobby and wider conservative network.

That requires much stiffer words and statements of intent. And Obama offered here no indication of such.

Let's deal, firstly, with some of the more obvious things that Obama didn't say.

He didn't say:
Israel (as well as Hamas) must also renounce violence.

He didn't say:
All settlements must be dismantled, including those in East Jerusalem.

He didn't say:
The Palestinian people have an inviolable right of return.

He didn't say:
Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza and those responsible must be brought to international justice.

Obama's conspicuous omissions on dividing Jerusalem and dismantling the East Jerusalem settlements is a particular example of calculated evasion.

Jonathan Cook has just written a timely piece on how Western politicians and an Israel-based Western media serve to blur the lines between the illegal settlements of West Bank and East Jerusalem. The former has around 300,000 settlers, the latter 200,000. Yet, East Jerusalem settlement is presented - where it's covered at all - as somehow different, 'relatively legitimate', part of the 'more complex' on-the-ground 'reality' of Israeli 'habitation'. As Cook notes:
"Most of the Israeli media can be depended on to toe the government line on East Jerusalem. But why are many foreign journalists doing the same? Some doubtless are ignorant, others lazy. But agency reporters and their editors, who are well versed in the intricacies of the conflict, are neither. Invariably, however, those making the final editorial decisions — as opposed to their Palestinian stringers who supply raw copy — are too close to Israel to remain entirely dispassionate.

Some are Israeli citizens, or married to one. But, even among those who are not, the overwhelming majority of senior editorial staff live inside Israel, and soak up the Israeli coverage, either in Hebrew or English. They also eat in Israeli restaurants and go to Israeli parties, making them susceptible to adopting the consensual Israeli perspective.

All too easily, agency journalists end up mirroring — and adding a veneer of legitimacy to — Israel’s opinion about East Jerusalem. Senior agency staff have admitted to this blind spot in their coverage. “We think of the East Jerusalem settlers as a separate category,” said one, who requested anonymity. Why? “Because that’s Israel’s view of them.” Questioned further, he agreed that they should probably be included in the figures for settlers. “It’s something we’re discussing,” he added."

This kind of "separate category", or "fact on the ground" as Zionists prefer, helps reinforce the notion that while settlement dismantling may be necessary, it's probably not really expected to happen unless Israel decides that it can happen. Coupled with the 'it's still early days' line from Obama's aides, Washington's 'peace' narrative remains one of 'suggested encouragement' to Netanyahu rather than forceful insistence.

Indeed, for Chomsky, it's a grim picture, with Obama offering nothing that hasn't already been said, even by Bush 1. He also makes the most obvious point on the settlement issue, ignored by Obama and the media alike:
"Overlooked in the debate over settlements is that even if Israel were to accept Phase I of the Road Map, that would leave in place the entire settlement project that has already been developed...
In post-speech exchanges with reporters from Muslim countries and Israel, Obama reiterated the problem of settlements, but failed again to make the crucial demands:
In response to a question on the steps the U.S. will take regarding the settlements, Obama said: "It's only been five months for me, Netanyahu has only been in office for two months, we've been waiting 60 years. So maybe we should try out a few more months before everybody starts looking at doomsday scenarios. This is difficult and it is going to take time."

"The Israelis have difficult decisions to make," he continued. "As I said in my speech, these settlements are an impediment to peace. That's not to deny the fact that there are people who are living in these settlements, there is a momentum to some of these settlements, and turning the back on those settlements involves very tough choices. That's why I said that America cannot do this for the parties."
This last statement bears close examination - much closer than the actual speech. In effect, it's an exercise in off-setting Obama's stated 'obligation' to the Palestinians. It's saying Israel has "difficult decisions to make", which is palpably true. But the US also has equally, if not more, difficult decisions to make. It has to decide whether it is prepared to take the necessary steps to enact a just peace agreement, which, when all the artifice is stripped away, means withdrawing support for Israel until it agrees to a meaningful solution. Instead, Obama's exit card is that "America cannot do this for the parties." Which, again, translated from diplomatic idiom, means a secondary 'facilitating' role rather than a primary enforcing one.

Words are important. But they mean nothing when not accompanied by decisive action. In this case, it involves withdrawing, in substantive part, financial, political and 'emotional' support from Israel until it adheres to a just peace. The likelihood of any such denial and sanction remains some considerable way off.

And, of course, settlements are only one part of any peace agenda. If Obama is serious about ending the Palestinians' "intolerable" situation, he should, even at this 'early' stage, be laying out a much more specific and demanding stall on all the substantive issues.

The Palestinian support movement can take a certain encouragement from this speech. Not in the belief of immediate or promised action from the US. But in the fact that these key words - "intolerable", "occupation" and the Palestinians' "legitimate aspration...for a state of their own" are all now on this administration's verbal record. Which gives the campaign that further bit of international weight to push for intensified collective action - namely, boycott, divestment and sanctions - against Israel.

Beyond that, Ali Abunimah rightly sees little room for optimism in Obama's words:
"He may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state "vision" aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end."