Trump Goes Robocop

There’s a certain kind of liberal/left commentator that – to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now –  just loves the sight of missiles in the morning.  For some they smell like humanitarianism.  For others they smell like meaningful action.  Or ‘doing something’.  Mostly they have the allure of American power – an aroma that is just irresistible for a certain kind of establishment pundit.

For these commentators American power is always power used for righteous ends.  In a world of cruelty and violence, of civil wars and state collapse and fragmentation, where ‘rogue states’ defy the will of the ‘international community’ and dictators slaughter ‘their own people’ with impunity, these pundits cry out for the world’s only military superpower to use its high-tech weaponry in the interests of universal justice and bring chaos and  disorder with the kind of order only Robocop can deliver.

Trapped like flies in aspic in careers that revolve around restaurants, cafes and tv studios in the capital cities of a declining Western world that seems increasingly unable to assert its will over anything at all, their consciences cry out against the spectacle of murder – some murders anyway – being transmitted daily on television and social media platforms.  They demand action.    And action can only mean one thing – that America blasts the forces of evil in the name of goodness and justice.

No amount of disasters can ever diminish this yearning.  When countries that were supposed to be saved by US power fall to pieces, these outcomes are either ignored, or else they intensify the intensify the hope that the next intervention will be the one the others should have been.

Without that belief in the essential goodness in American military power, it’s impossible to understand the incredible speed with which a man who less than a week ago was regarded as an ongoing calamity and a disgrace to the presidency by many of these same pundits,  has now become a figure worthy of respect and admiration, simply because he ordered 59 tomahawk missiles to be fired at a Syrian military airfield.

Overnight Trump’s defects were swept aside by the swooshing of missiles from aircraft carriers, and his orange hair acquired something like a halo from the bright blaze of burning rocket fuel as he sat having dinner at Mar-a-lago with Melania and the Chinese president.  As a result of the bombings ‘Donald Trump became president of the United States’, according to Fareed Zakaria, while MSNBC’s Brian Williams insulted Leonard Cohen by quoting from a satirical song and gushing that he was ‘guided by the beauty of our weapons’.

He wasn’t the only one.   Over here Labour MPs – including many of those who had abstained from last year’s vote calling for an international investigation into alleged Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen – praised Trump and criticized Corbyn for condemning the strikes in Syria.    And Tim Farron also praised the strikes, saying that they were a ‘proportional’ response to attacks on civilians  with ‘weapons that have been outlawed by the international community for their horrific and indiscriminate consequences.’

These weapons were also outlawed when Iraq used mustard gas and sarin against Iranian soldiers and civilians, with the complicity of the same country which is now enforcing the will of the ‘international community’ – without the authorisation of the international community.  And as was only to be expected, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland applauded the fact that ‘sometimes the right thing can be done by the wrong person.

Freedland, as always, has his reservations about the US wars that he invariably supports. He tells us that he doesn’t ‘trust’ Trump, just as he ‘didn’t trust’ Bush and Cheney.  God knows what Freedland would be like if an American war was waged by a president he did trust.   On this occasion however, he can only wonder ‘if the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that rained down on the Shayrat base in the early hours of Friday morning were a one-off or the start of something more.’

What would that ‘something more’ consist of?   All-out bombing of Syria?  Ground troops?   War with Russia and Iran?  Freedland doesn’t say.   He’s just happy that someone is doing something, even though he does acknowledge that there is a legal question. Trump acted alone; he did not have UN authorisation or even try to get it. Which means he might have been breaking international law in order to enforce international law. ‘

Some of these commentators, like Freedland, have noted the speed of Trump’s transformation, from non-interventionist president to righteous American bomber, and have attributed it to a kind of better-late-than-never humanitarianism.  The New York Times described Trump’s U-turn as ‘an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his.’

The idea that a man who refuses even to allow Syrian refugees into the US is so moved by the sight of ‘beautiful babies’ killed by chemical weapons is a pleasant fairy tale to tell to three-year-olds, but it is not the most convincing explanation for Trump’s Damascene conversion to military action.   The bombings might be the work of ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis, or Trump’s plummeting domestic ratings, or the impending investigation into Russian interference with the election campaign.

Fortune magazine noted that the Syria attacks ‘lit up’ the Dow Jones stock for ‘defense’ companies, particularly Raytheon, which makes Tomahawk missiles.  It’s probably only a coincidence that Trump owns shares in Raytheon, and would therefore have profited financially as well as politically from the strikes he ordered, but it’s nevertheless one worth noting.

Whatever his motivations,Trump has now discovered – like many American presidents before him – that bombing will always work in your favour no matter who you are or what the consequences may be.  That does not bode well, because the consequences of what Trump has done are potentially very serious indeed: war with Syria, and also with Iran and Russia – or whoever else crosses Trump’s red lines.

All this is ok, according to Fareed Zakaria, because ‘President Trump recognized that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms.   For the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.’

This ‘role’ essentially consists of a carte blanche for the US to project military power anywhere in the world.  Such wars invariable evoke universal principles, international laws and ‘red lines’, but in practice they are almost always used selectively, against specific states considered to be enemies of the US or obstacles to American/ Western geopolitical objectives.  

The response to Trump’s bombings makes it clear that too many influential people across the political spectrum have no problem with that whatsoever,  and their rapturous applause makes it likely that we will see a lot more missiles fired in the future by the one state that – regardless of the quality of its president – always has the right to fire them wherever it wants to.

 

Truth, Lies, and Politics

In Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a  pompous eighteenth-century professor asks the idiot-savant Kaspar Hauser a variant of the classic logical puzzle: You are traveling down a path and come to a fork in the road. One fork leads to a village where everyone tells the truth and the other to a village where everyone tells lies. Someone from one of the villages is standing at the fork, but you don’t know which village he comes from. You may ask him one question to determine which path goes to which village.

According to the professor there is only one correct solution to the puzzle, and he is completely flummoxed – and angered – when the uneducated wild boy Kaspar says that he would ask the stranger ‘ Are you a tree frog? ‘ – a left-field question which nevertheless resolves the puzzle.

I was reminded of this episode by an article by Jonathan Freedland today, lamenting the rise of ‘post-truth’ politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  In Freedland’s view, both Trump and Johnson come from the village of lies, but you wouldn’t bet on either of them to admit it unless they thought that such an admission would advance their careers.

Freedland rightly excoriates the narcissism and vacuousness of both politicians, and their indifferent attitude to fact-based arguments and empirical evidence.  But his lament seems to regard these two dangerous clowns as some kind of freakish aberration – a manifestation of some inexplicable of intellectual and political decline that is particularly striking in the United States.

‘In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king, ‘ he wails. ‘ The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world.’

A depressing state of affairs, to be sure, but ‘post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with vapid mountebanks like Trump and Johnson.   There are few brazen examples political dishonesty than the manipulation of the 9/11 attacks by the American and British governments as a justification for endless war against enemies of strategic choice that had nothing to do with the attacks. .

You may quibble about whether politicians like Bush, Cheney, Rice and Freedland’s hero Tony Blair lied directly or lied by omission to justify war against Iraq, but their relationship with ‘the truth’ was no less contingent on short-term calculations that Trump’s or Johnson’s, and the ‘pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff’ were often conspicuously absent when it came to holding their spurious claims to account.

These weren’t ‘mistakes’; they were lies and fantasies, intended to mislead and terrify their populations and realize certain strategic objectives, and there are many, many others where these came from.   The Republican Party has certainly lowered the benchmark for evidence-free political lying.   For years rightwing politicians in the United States like Tom Tancredo have claimed that the US-Mexico border is being regularly infiltrated by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

No such groups have ever been seen – why would they?  Talk like that and you can’t be surprised if you get Trump offering to ‘build a wall’.   And it isn’t only Republicans with orange hair who tell lies.   We also have Hillary Clinton,  one of the most breathtakingly mendacious politicians in living memory.  ‘ Crooked Hillary’, as Trump calls her, is no less dishonest than Trump himself, yet Freedland doesn’t mention her.

Closer to home we have a government that routinely disseminates lies and half-truths for political advantage, whether falsely accusing Naz Shah of calling for Jews to be ‘transported’ to the US, inventing phony stories of jobseekers who supposedly benefited from Ian Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms, or peddling fake death rate stats at weekends to justify imposing a new contract on doctors.

Freedland quotes Washington Post editor Marty Baron, who asks ‘How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?’  It’s a good question, but the fact is we haven’t had such a democracy for a long time,  and its partly because we have tolerated this situation for so long,  that men like Trump and Johnson feel able to say whatever they like.

 

Us and Them

Like a B movie thriller that you’ve seen too many times before, the Paris terror-spectacle has reached its predictable conclusion.   All the familiar elements of jihadist noir were present: atrocity and murder followed by manhunts, hold ups, and quasi-military sweeps; neighborhood lockdowns, hostages, sieges, gun fights and explosions, culminating in a glorious act of suicide-by-cop with the two hero-martyrs coming out with guns blazing like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

From the point of view of the perpetrators at least, it had a happy ending.  Both the Kouachi.brothers and their accomplice Ahmed Coulibaly got to go to heaven, as far as they knew, after taking some of their hostages with them.  Naturally their victims were Jewish, because  Coulibaly ‘targeted’ a kosher supermarket in revenge for the treatment of ‘oppressed Muslims’ in Palestine – a noble and selfless act of solidarity that the Palestinians will no doubt be eternally grateful for.

I didn’t watch the ‘denouement’, partly because it was so brutally predictable, and also because I always feel that the actors/auteurs who create such spectacles want as many people to be watching their movie as possible, just as the Islamic State beheading moviemakers do, and  I refuse to give them that satisfaction.

And it isn’t only them.  Because even as the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly were making the use of their fifteen minutes of fame to project their ‘statement’ to a global audience, other scripts were also being written on newspaper front pages, Internet sites and rolling news tickers with titles like  ‘terror in France’, or ‘terror in Paris: a blow against freedom’ or ‘three days of terror’ or ‘France’s 9/11’.

These terror-movie scripts also contained depressingly familiar components; the shallow politicians talking in terror-cliches and exuding shocked innocence and indignation as they pledge to ‘stand firm’ and ‘unite against terror’; the inane proclamation of ‘our’ values,; the binary distinctions between us and them, civilisation and barbarism; the incessant reminders of the need to remain vigilant and the validation of our global state of emergency and the threat we face etc.etc.

And now the smoke is clearing, the credits are rolling, and the audience is leaving the cinema, and we must now await the aftermath.  Already some of its dimensions are becoming clear: grenade attacks on mosques and Muslim shops and restaurants; Marine Le Pen blaming ‘immigration’ and calling for a referendum on the death penalty, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the guys who carry out crimes like this don’t actually mind dying and even make a virtue of it.

Nor has it occurred to our dear old Sun, which gleefully celebrated the deaths of the two brothers today like a world cup goal or a torpedoed Argentinian ship.  And that thoughtful sage Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers have gleefully supported every bloody imperial adventure of the century and all the others that preceded it, has drawn deeply on his store of wisdom to tweet:

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible

Deep thoughts from Rupert there, that we would do best to ignore completely.  Elsewhere Internet comments pages and anti-Muslim websites are boiling over with genocidal fantasies of punishment, deportations, repression and war.  And this talk of war isn’t limited to the fervent upholders of freedom of speech and other values that define us from them.   Now Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which also has its own ‘them’, has come out with the usual Bin Ladenesque warning to ‘ stop your aggression against the Muslims, so perhaps you will live safely. If you refuse but to wage war, then wait for the glad tiding.’

From the liberal commentariat there have been calls for ‘moral clarity’ that used to come from neoconservatives, and for the ‘ruthless’ extirpation of the ‘death cult’ that created last week’s horror-spectacle.  Yesterday the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was quoting Pastor Niemoller to place the ‘murderous cult’ within a ‘ long line of murderous fascists, defined as such by their choice of targets. They hate dissent, they hate satire and, as fascist tradition demands, they loathe Jews.’

And in today’s Gruniad, Ian McEwan  takes consolation from the observation that’ a cult rooted in hate is a frail thing and cannot last; the fact that the psychopaths are vastly outnumbered.’

This is comforting, but it is also abject drivel.  For a ‘cult’ rooted in ‘hate’ AQ and its offshoots have lasted a surprisingly long time, and one of the reasons why they have done so is because of the catastrophic response to them, responses that also contained a great deal of ‘hate’ – even though we like to think of our wars as motivated by something more inherently noble.

I also subscribed to the ‘ I am Charlie’ meme for reasons that I explained in an earlier post, that doesn’t mean  I accept McEwan’s notion that that ‘ the brave and lively staff of Charlie Hebdo…hoped to face down hatred with laughter.’  Does he seriously think that pictures of a hook-nosed Mohammad looking a Muslim version of a Der Sturmer caricature was an act of love intended to ‘face down hatred?’

Murder should not confer a halo on its victims, and nor should it lead to shallow, incoherent and self-serving depictions of their perpetrators. For Freedland the Paris killers were just a ‘fascist death cult fighting a dirty little war’.  I don’t even know what a ‘death cult’ is.  Is it something like the Thugees?   Or is referring to the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

In using the adjective ‘fascist’ as a vaguely pejorative epithet  that means something like ‘bad people’ Freedland appears to have forgotten that fascism was a political movement with political objectives that went beyond the hatred of satire, and so is the modern jihad.   From what we know, one of the Kouachi brothers once claimed that Abu Ghraib and the invasion of Iraq was a major reason for his ‘radicalization.’   Yesterday Amedy Coulibaly defended his actions on the grounds of French participation in the wars in Mali and against Islamic State in Syria.

When one of his hostages said that he was not responsible for the actions of his government, Coulibaly replied ‘ You’re the ones who elected your governments, and the governments never hid their intentions to be at war in Mali or elsewhere.’

Personally I don’t think that is a very good argument, morally speaking, for slaughtering cartoonists or Jewish shoppers.   But the fact that Coulibaly made it suggests a wider political context and motivation that is almost always absent from terror-movie ‘us and them’ scripts.  He and his comrades were able to convince themselves that their actions had a certain legitimacy, according to a very primitive moral logic of ‘you did this to us so we can do what we like to you’.

Whatever you think of that justification it clearly wasn’t just their interpretation of religion that led them to accept it.  It’s too reductionist to attribute their actions entirely to Western foreign policy or to western actions in the Middle East,  but nor can they be separated from the wider continuum of violence that was wrought such havoc in the region over the last quarter of a century, in which Western states have been active protagonists.

Though our leaders like to present the 9/11terror wars as a clash of moral opposites, between peaceloving democratic states and terrorists intent on violence and terror for their own sake,  the experience of the last fourteen years makes it clear that militarism and terrorism reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate each other.

Though France did not support the Iraq ‘pivot’ it has been an avid participant in the ‘war on terror’ in pretty much everything else.  Hollande the socialist former schoolteacher has taken to war with a boyish enthusiasm that makes Sarkozy look like a pacifist.  A hyper-militarist with an almost pathetic desire to hurl France into any war that almost exceeds that of our own ‘punch above our weight’ political class, coupled with a willingness to sell jets to any Gulf tyranny, he has been itching to bomb anything, anywhere, particularly in France’s former colonies, ever since he got elected.

Clearly, to some extent at least, what happened last week is a form of blowback from these actions.   Recognizing these connections does not mean that jihadism would simply vanish if the West ‘withdrew’ from the Middle East.   But we shouldn’t imagine that our governments can carry out wars in which hundreds of thousands of people are killed and whole societies ripped to shreds and think that no one will want to kill us or take revenge.

People often forget that al Qaeda was a marginalized and weak organization even when it carried out the 9/11 attacks, whose franchise trademark of heroic ‘resistance’ was not nearly as popular in global Muslim society as it thought it would be.  The Bush and Blair wars changed that.  The ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that they used back then ushered in a series of wars and occupations that provided AQ and its cohorts with a continued flow of new recruits.

The world – and the Middle East in particular – is still paying the price for these conflicts. So it might be comforting to talk once again of civilizational war and use the Charlie Henbo murders to return to post 9/11 depictions of the 21st century as a cosmic strugle between good and evil.  But that didn’t get us very far then and it won’t work now.

No, the West was not the sole cause of the violence that is driving global society towards disaster, but the actions of our governments have been a major contributing factor in many different ways.  And at least at the level of civil society, we cannot evade our share of that responsibility by talking about ‘us and them’, death cults’ and ‘psychopaths’, let alone by blaming ‘Muslims’ or Islam.

And as long we refuse to recognize the violence in which our governments have been complicit, there always will be young men – and women – are going to want to kill us and feel justified in doing so, and we will be forced to watch the movie that we saw last week over and over again, with the same plot and the same script, until one day we end up getting the great civilizational war that too many people on both ‘sides’ seem to want.

 

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The friends of Israel: united in blood

Even by the standards we have come to expect from Israel’s powerful supporters, yesterday’s speech by the senior White House adviser Susan Rice was a sickening demonstration of intellectual dishonesty and mealy-mouthed hypocrisy.   At a public ‘solidarity’ meeting convened by Jewish groups in Washington,  Rice criticized the United Nations human rights council for its ‘unfair treatment’ of Israel, in voting for an inquiry into war crimes violations committed by Israel during the conflict.

Rice then repeated the lie that ‘Hamas initiated this conflict.  And Hamas has dragged it on.’  After reassuring Israel that it could always count on American support – even while Israel was briefing against the US Secretary State, she then slipped into the pseudo-humanitarian posture favoured by all Israel’s apologists and defenders, and expressed her ‘deep concern about the suffering and deaths of innocent people that arise from a conflict like this one, In Gaza as well as Israel.’

This ‘concern for both sides’, which so many of Israel’s supporters have expressed again and again during the last two weeks, is so utterly fake that it is actually a kind of moral obscenity.   So far three Israeli civilians have been killed in the war, while seventy percent of the 1,080 Palestinians killed in the war are civilians, according to the United Nations.  To  suggest,  as Rice did, that this grotesque disparity belongs to some kind of common tragedy is a shocking evasion of what is actually taking place.

But then all deaths, according to Rice, are not the fault of Israel, but Hamas, because ‘The people of Gaza, many of whom disapprove of Hamas and suffer under its misrule, are trapped in the crossfire.  The loss of children has been particularly heartbreaking.’

Somehow one suspect’s that Rice’s heart will be able to endure this strain, and one really has to resist the urge to vomit at her vile presentation of mass murder as a ‘crossfire’ – and interpretation which entirely disregards overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But her crocodile tears aren’t just an expression of hypocrisy  They are in fact a form of collusion in the hideous massacre that Israel is perpetrating in Gaza, and a green light to Netanyahu to escalate it still further.

Such collusion is not unique to Rice or even to her government.   It extends to the European Union and its member states, all of whom have expressed similar sentiments.  It includes the British government and its equally dishonest foreign secretary Philip Hammond, who expressed his government’s ‘grave concern’ about civilian casualties last week, while simultaneously expressing his support for Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ and his sympathetic understanding of the ‘difficulties’ faced by Israel in conducting its military operations.

All these governments and institutions have enabled and facilitated Israel’s monstrous act of collective punishment in Gaza, while simultaneously pretending to care about its impact on Palestinian civilians.  The best that can be said about such behavior is that it is a form of base moral cowardice.  At worst the refusal of the ‘international community’ to criticize Israel for anything at all is the work of aiders and abetters of Zionist violence who know perfectly well that this war has nothing to do with Israel defending itself but everything to do with crushing Hamas by crushing the Palestinian population.

The same can be said about the handwringing liberal commentators who have rushed to Israel’s defense, such as the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, who has tried to hard to help his readers understand Israel’s ‘security concerns’, while ignoring completely any concerns that Palestinians might have; or the atrocious Bernard Henri-Levy, the man who once warned the world of an impending ‘massacre’ in Benghazi and now loudly supports Netanyahu’s war and urges the Israeli army to ‘liberate’ Gaza from Hamas.

So remember these positions and statements, the next time these pseudo-humanitarians evoke universalist moral imperatives as a pretext for the next ‘humanitarian intervention.’  Remember it next time Susan Rice or Samantha Power call on your help to stop genocide.  Remember it when Obama or Cameron denounce the ‘unconscionable’ crimes carried out by this or that dictator as a cassus belli, and the world cannot stand idly by etc, etc

Remember that in Gaza the world did stand idly by, and not because its attention was distracted, or because it couldn’t figure out what to do, but because for most western governments and their liberal interventionist supporters, military violence against civilians is entirely acceptable as an instrument of national policy, providing the state responsible for it is on our side or doing it for reasons that we approve of.

Remember that behind the thin facade of humanitarianism that western governments have used to justify the new wars of the 21st century, there is the same old heart of darkness,  the same cold-blooded, merciless realpolitik, and for Israel, the same get-out-of-jail card that allows it to do anything to anyone, safe in the understanding that there will always be a moral fraud like Susan Rice ready to stand up and blame the victim while pretending to really, really care.