The United Kingdom of Insecurity

According to conventional political wisdom the first duty of a democratic government is to afford security and protection to all its citizens.   This objective is often misleadingly conflated with the notion of ‘national security’ – a principle that supposedly incorporates the duty of protection but actually often overrides it.  National security isn’t necessarily concerned with the protection of the public or even with the nation, but with the survival of the state.

‘National’ security has more inclusive and democratic connotations than the more fascistic-sounding ‘state security’,  which is why governments prefer to talk about it in the first person plural, and invoke the principle of protection in response to acts of political violence.  They promise to wage wars, or introduce emergency legislation and ‘Muslim bans’ in response to terrorist attacks or in order to preempt them in order to ‘keep us safe’.

The procession of sinister and shocking events of the last month have made it brutally clear that the British government is failing to keep its citizens safe.  The attack on Westminster; the massacre at Manchester; the jihadist stabbing spree at London bridge, and now yesterday’s attack on the Finsbury park mosque – all these events are part of a barbaric cycle of vengeance, fanaticism, and murder that may be paving the way for even worse horrors to come.

These events – though the British government will never acknowledge this – are part of a continuum of violence that reaches back to the Iraq War, and includes a series of reckless and failed neo-imperial military interventions and black ops that have reduced the heart of the Middle East and parts of North Africa to violent chaos.    However horrendous the events that we have witnessed these last weeks, they are only the most visible manifestations of the 21st century’s savage world of unwinnable wars and pseudo-wars that have no end in sight.

The governments that set this process in motion may not have intended these consequences, but the idea that their own citizens could somehow remain untouched by these events was never really viable.   So if we take the governments that launched these wars at their word, and assume that they really were intended to protect us, then we are looking at monumental policy failure, because what these wars have done is exacerbate every conflict and every threat they were supposed to eliminate.  They have created a series of failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide the perfect recruiting ground and battlefield for politico-religious fanatics.  They have fueled racism, of the kind we saw last night, and the murders of Muslims that have taken place in the US, and ushered in a cycle of tit-for-tat murders and atrocities that shows no sign of abating.

Presented as humanitarian interventions, they have killed people in huge numbers that barely even feature in the imagination of the West, and made it possible for a succession of terrorist organisations to present their obscene acts of violence as legitimate acts of revenge, however spuriously.

But violence is not the only threat to public safety, and the entirely preventable tragedy at Grenfell is a testament to a different kind of security failure.  It has made it brutally clear that there are some sections of the population who are not considered worthy of protection because they are poor, because they are migrants or because they are darker-skinned.

The stench of neglect at Grenfell is overwhelming, from the failure to respond to warnings from the local action group to the utterly inadequate official response that followed. And this neglect is itself the product of a wider failure of governance that reached a pitch of sociopathic delirium in the name of ‘austerity’, with its destructive cuts to vital services, deregulation, corner cutting safety procedures, and the gradual pulling away of safety nets and the essential struts that hold society together.

The result is that insecurity and precarity are now the dominant social forces – except for the minority of the population rich enough to take the future for granted.  This is why hospitals and A & Es are closing down across the country, why firemen, police and ambulance drivers are being shed, why patients wait for hours on stretchers in corridors.  It’s why the welfare system that was intended to be a safety net has now become a punitive trap and a form of humiliation for some of the most vulnerable men and women in the country.  It’s why jobs are becoming temporary, part-time and zero hours.  It’s why living longer is increasingly becoming a nightmare to be dreaded rather than a sign of social progress.

We rightly condemn the feckless, callous and grossly inadequate politicians who have presided over this process, but they are only the most visible expressions of a broader social process, which has increasingly ensured that no one is really secure except those who are able to afford it.

That insecurity is global and also national.  We now inhabit a country – and a world – that is bracing itself for the next atrocity and the next massacre.  It’s a world where no one is secure, where demagogues like Donald Trump promise to keep their populations safe by building walls and issuing blanket bans on Muslim immigrants; where Richard Littlejohn calls us to ‘war’ and Isis attempts to use the Finsbury Park attack as a justification for the ‘war on the UK streets’ that its own provocations have been seeking to promote.

It is not at all clear how we get out of this dystopian situation.  It may even be that we can’t.  But there is really only one possibility that offers any hope, and that is to acknowledge the failures of the last few decades, both at home and abroad and move beyond the shallow notions of national security that have been invoked too often for the wrong reasons.

We might also imagine a different kind of security,  based on the human rather than the national, that goes beyond war, counterterrorism and the imperatives of the state, and places the notion of the common good at its heart, and the possibility of a better future as its primary objective.



Tony Blair Says Sorry (again)

The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication,  and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again.  Blair last did this back in October last year,  when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’

This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct,  used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’

This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible.  It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.

Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all.   So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:

‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’

There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour.  Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.

In these circumstances,  it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen.   In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself.    According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing.  Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’

Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’  Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed.  It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’

These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.

Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’.   Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it.  We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’

Blair received the same warnings from other quarters.  In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East,  took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:

‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.   To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’

So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that  he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case.   To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him.   His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.

Blair is not entirely wrong though.  He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq.   There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned  the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq.  Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’

No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning.  But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.


Save a Refugee – Bomb ’em all to Hell

In less than a week, the British government has frantically changed its line on Europe’s refugee crisis like a twitchy gambler shuffling cards in the hope that the right one comes up.  First David Cameron rejected the notion that accepting more refugees was a ‘solution’ to the crisis, as if anybody had ever said it was.  Then, wrongfooted by an unlikely eruption of humanitarian fervour from the British tabloids, he agreed to take in a quota of 20,000 ‘vulnerable’ Syrian refugees over the next five years – though Syrian and other refugees already in Europe will not be allowed into the UK since that would only encourage others to follow them.

And now, with barely a pause for breath, Lord Snooty and His Pals are coolly plotting to transform the refugee crisis into a new casus belli in Syria and a justification for a new round of ‘humanitarian’ bombing against ISIS

That won’t be the end of it however, since Osborne warned at the weekend that ‘ You have got to deal with the problem at source which is this evil Assad regime and the Isis terrorists.’ Yesterday the creepy neocon former defense secretary Liam Fox – a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like – was on Channel 4 News calling for the creation of a no fly zone to enforce safe havens in Syria that would protect ‘vulnerable people’ from ISIS.

When Fox talks about protecting vulnerable people one can only stifle a hysterical giggle – coupled with a certain feeling of nausea.   This is the man who supported the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Libyan War,  Israel’s Gaza wars, and favoured military action against Iran.

These wars not only failed to protect ‘vulnerable people’, they also killed a great deal of them, even as they generated refugees in their millions; 4 million in Iraq; between 600,000 to 1 million in Libya; nearly four million in Afghanistan.  Such outcomes ought to cast some doubt over the notion that bombing can serve a humanitarian purpose, but Fox is not the man to ask such questions.

He would like to use British air power to fight ISIS and establish these havens, but since ISIS doesn’t have an airforce then someone on the ground will have to ensure such protection.  Who?  Well naturally it can’t be our boys, since even Fox isn’t dumb enough to believe that British troops would be welcomed in Syria.

Instead he suggested that ‘Arab countries’ might do the job.  That would be some of the Gulf states which provided ISIS with its start-up funds?   Perhaps some members of the coalition who are currently doing such grand work in Yemen?  How about Turkey, not an Arab country, but one which has nevertheless done so much to facilitate ISIS and many of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting ‘vulnerable people.’

Maybe the Kurds could do it, except that they aren’t strong enough, and anyway the Western states that praised their defense of Kobane last year are now in the throes of betraying them once again in order to keep Turkey on board the great anti-ISIS coalition.   Still why worry about the details?   After all, we never did before.  The main thing is to bomb, because bombing is always better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

The Sun certainly thinks so, and yesterday carried a picture of refugees arriving in Germany with the headline ‘ Blitz ’em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria’ – a touching juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the limits to the Murdoch press’s humanitarian blip.

The Sun also assumes that a) bombing would protect ‘innocent civilians’ and b) that British air power could ‘destroy’ ISIS – something that months of bombing by the US-led coalition have failed to achieve.    Given the record of British military adventures over the last fifteen years, the government’s rush to bomb is alarming and almost mind-boggling for its cynicism and simplistic belief that if you just keep bombing someone, sooner or later it’ll all turn out right.

Osborne insists that ‘ You need a comprehensive plan for a more stable, peaceful Syria – a huge challenge of course, but we can’t just let that crisis fester.’  As Hugh Roberts argues in the LRB, Britain and its allies rejected the last political opportunity – admittedly slim – that might have helped demilitarize the Syrian conflict back in June 2012, when they scuppered Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a political compromise at Geneva by insisting that Assad could not be part of it.

They did this because they were committed to a policy of ‘regime change’ that was driven by purely geopolitical calculations, even though it was often given a humanitarian rationale. This policy wanted more militarization not less, regardless of its impact on Syrian society. Recently-published Pentagon documents reveal that as early as August 2012, the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.

At a time when Western states were publicly supporting the notion of a ‘moderate opposition’, US intelligence agencies privately recognized that the ‘major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ consisted of ‘ the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – as part of an opposition that was supported by ‘The West, Gulf countries and Turkey.’

It is nonsensical to imagine that these same countries can now protect civilians or bring about a ‘stable, peaceful Syria’ by bombing the ‘Salafist principality’ they helped create.   On the contrary, such ‘havens’ will inevitably exacerbate the fragmentation of Syria, and they will also be used as bases to attack the regime – an option that was already being pursued in the first year of the conflict.

To point out this out does not mean that no one should do anything, or that external forces can be held entirely responsible for the catastrophe that has wrecked Syria.   Assad may not have seen himself as a tyrant when he inherited the family dynasty, but that is what he is, like all the Arab rulers who were challenged during the ‘Arab Spring’, including those that have been trying to overthrow him.

Syria was a tyranny when the Syrian army colluded with Christian militias in the Lebanese Civil War; when Hafez Assad participated in Operation Desert Storm; when US intelligence flew terrorist suspects off to Syria to have their feet beaten by Syrian security services.

Such a regime has no more right to rule than any of its counterparts, and the staggering violence that it has unleashed against its own population is evidence of its political and moral bankruptcy.  Nevertheless, in the short-term at least, it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it, because Syria has become a country in which only bad choices are available.

The immediate priority in both Syria and Iraq must be to defeat the fascistic ISIS, both militarily and politically, and prevent the two states from the complete collapse that would pave the way for indefinite warlordism and jihadism.  But that ultimately, must be the task of Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and will be dependent on a degree of political will that has so far been absent.

The foreign states that have done so much harm in Syria ought to commit themselves to that objective and use what powers they have to bring it about.

The question is whether they really want to, and it may be too late to do any of this.  The wars in Syria and Iraq may have to run their course, with all the devastation that involves, until there is very little left of either state in their present form.

That would be an absolute catastrophe, and it would generate a refugee crisis that will last for decades.   So we need to do anything we can to prevent it, but let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the current outpouring of public solidarity and empathy with refugees into believing that bombing is a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding.

And let’s not think that there is anything ‘humanitarian’ about rushing into a bombing campaign to save refugees in order to stop refugees from coming to Europe, because there really isn’t.

Watching the Contenders ( when they shoot, shoot, shoot)

I haven’t watched most of the debates between the four Labour leadership contenders, mainly because too much exposure to Cooper, Burnham and Kendall is bad for my blood pressure and has been scientifically proven to reduce my life expectancy by about seven years.   Nevertheless, last night I decided to ignore my doctor’s advice and watch the Channel 4 hustings.

I should have known better, because it wasn’t long before I began to experience the same familiar symptoms: first I found myself shaking my head in exasperation; then I began muttering curses under my breath and finally –  this was around the point when Andy Burnham had the temerity to deny having abstained in the welfare bill vote while simultaneously promising to stand up for the victims of austerity – I found myself throwing my arms up in the air and reaching for the invisible sword with which to commit harakiri.

In the end I shrank into a ball of frustration and despair before I reached for the zapper.  It was a real roller coaster readers, and I don’t intend to go through it again because if politics just consisted of debates like this there would be no point in politics at all.

Needless to say it wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who brought on this political near-death experience.  I thought Corbyn was quietly impressive, though he sounded tired, which isn’t surprising given the number of speeches he’s given this summer.  Perhaps he just didn’t feel the need to make an energetic contribution to the debate, given that his position regarding the other three contenders is now akin that of an impregnable sea wall with waves feebly beating against it.

The other three ranged from poor and lacklustre to downright pathetic.  Yvette Cooper sounded briefly as though she had actually discovered what a moral conviction was when she argued that the UK should take in 10,000 refugees.  Burnham, hapless triangulating opportunist that he is, continues to try frantically to guess what everyone else wants at the same time without seeming to realize that it is too late, and that for this Tommy the war is over.

Trying rather awkwardly to sound humane and Ukip-friendly at the same time – a difficult combination to be sure – he suggested that the government should take in more refugees so that it could make a ‘stronger case’ for reducing migration from within the EU.  Kendall waffled on this point and many others, perhaps conscious now of her complete irrelevance to the proceedings.

Both she and Burnham reiterated the same lie – that EU migrants are coming here and taking our benefits.  Of course neither of them said this explicitly because neither she, nor Cooper, nor Burnham dare say anything explicitly.   Kendall is clearly still smarting at the destruction of her political ambitions at the hands of the Corbynites, and stared at her nemesis with a weird intensity that was disturbingly reminiscent of Sissy Spacek confronting her high school tormentors in Carrie.

Like Burnham and Cooper, she came across as intellectually shallow and more concerned with chipping away at the architect of her downfall than articulating deeply-felt or thoughtful ideas which she clearly doesn’t have.  The others were just the same. Corbyn met with Hamas. Tick.  Corbyn is endangering our security.  Tick. Corbyn threatens to diminish ‘Britain’s place in the world’ by pulling out of NATO and scrapping Trident.  Tick.  Corbyn is soft on Putin. Tick.

When the subject of Russia came up Kendall fixed Corbyn with her vampirella stare and accused him of ‘defending Putin’.  Burnham immediately jumped in and agreed with her. Cooper tried to sound more like a foreign policy sophisticate with gravita, and pontificated that it had been proven that only ‘hard power’ could ‘stop Putin.’

Really Yvette?  Where has it been proven?  Oh never mind. Cooper is clearly the most intelligent of Corbyn’s three rivals, but she is no less shallow, evasive and politically shifty. This shallowness and dishonesty was especially visible during the discussion on the Iraq war and whether they supported putting Tony Blair on trial.

Cooper reiterated the stale argument that ‘everybody thought there were WMD’ in Iraq at the time, and said that there was no point talking about judicial procedures until the Chilcot Inquiry was concluded, but she didn’t believe anyone deliberately misled anyone. Burnham, who like her voted for the Iraq war, said pretty much the same thing,  and criticized critics of the war, saying that it was ‘easy’ for people to sit around making judgements about Iraq years afterwards, and that the decision was taken at a difficult time, after 9/11 and blah, blah, blah.

All this is straight from the Tony Blair I Did it My Way songbook, but if Burnham thinks that critics of the war lack gravitas or seriousness, then he really ought to look a bit closer in the mirror. Kendall said that she hadn’t been an MP at the time, but her touching acceptance that those who were in power at the time made the best decisions they could make it clear how she would have voted.

Nowhere, except from Corbyn, was there the slightest recognition of the horrors unleashed by those dreadful decisions, or any indication of their geopolitical consequences in Iraq and elsewhere.

Asked whether they would support future military action in Syria and elsewhere, the three of them hedged their bets, because bet-hedging is what they do, and argued that it would depend on what its aims and objectives were, and whether the decision was taken in conjunction with our ‘international partners’ – New Labour shorthand for ‘whatever the US wants us to do.’

When Corbyn pointed out that the Syrian Civil War was not a straightforward conflict between two sides, but a multifaceted conflict involving various protagonists, the three of them stared at him with incomprehension, as though he had suddenly started talking in a foreign language.

Burnham, Cooper and Kendall repeatedly referred to our ‘uncertain world’ as a justification for NATO, Trident and anything else, without exhibiting the slightest indication of any insight into why our world is the way it is, or the contribution that our government and its allies have made to that ‘uncertainty.’   Listening to them trying to sound like foreign policy wonks,  I wondered if any of them have ever read a book or an article on Iraq and the Middle East that didn’t simply reflect the ideas that they have so thoughtlessly and uncritically recycled for so many tired years, or consulted someone who might have provided some counterpoint to their endless clichés.

For everything that has been said about Corbyn’s unelectibility,  I couldn’t imagine that any of these three could win an election unless the Tory cabinet were proven to be running a paedophile ring.   I also thought that politicians like this will never forgive what Corbyn has done to them, and will never understand or accept the movement that has wrecked their aspirations for the Big Job.

On the contrary, I suspect that they will do everything they can to undermine and destroy him.  How they do this remains to be seen.  In his Observer article on Sunday, Blair pondered whether the right way to deal with the ‘parallel reality’ of Corbynism was to ‘ go full frontal and take it on or …try to build a bridge between the two realities.’

The prospect of Tony Blair going ‘full frontal’ is not a pleasant prospect to think about for long, but I really doubt if the Labour right will attempt bridgebuilding in this context.  So far they have thrown everything at Corbyn and accused him of just about everything except crucifying Jesus, and none of it has worked.

Faced with the inevitability of a Corbyn victory and the startling emergence of a genuine leftist upsurge within the party for the first time in more than three decades, I suspect that what they will do is take a leaf from Iago and Machiavelli and work behind the scenes within what Kendall calls the ‘resistance’, in an attempt to undermine and humiliate Corbyn and frustrate him at every turn.

Some of them will pretend to accept the new status quo – for now.  Thus Chuka Umunna has extended an ‘olive branch’ to Corbyn and declared that the views of the left could not be dismissed ‘out of hand’ and that the party should accept the result of the election.   Accept the result of an election in which the winner is projected to win a massive majority? What a novel concept.

And the left may not be dismissed out of hand,  but it will be dismissed, and if were Corbyn I would check very carefully what that olive branch has on it.  Lyndon Johnson once said that it was better to have his enemies inside the tent and pissing out than outside pissing in.  That may not be the case in this situation.

Corbyn’s enemies inside the party will have powerful friends outside the party to help them, who will continue what they have been doing all through his campaign.

All this, as John Rees has argued,   makes it even more essential that he has friends inside and outside the party to fight the fight that needs to be fought.  Because it isn’t necessary to place all the hopes of the left in a revitalized and democratized Labour Party, and there is no doubt that ‘hope’ itself can be a counterproductive and destructive political force if all it can do is raise expectations that are crushed and ignored.

But as things stand, Corbyn’s campaign represents the biggest opening for the left in decades, and belongs to a wider social movement that extends far beyond the dismal debate that I saw last night.