A legacy of death and dying

on a fateful day, in 2007 I quite vividly recall listening to a teacher at my school tell the class of her happiness at the fact that America had chosen, to her mind, the correct president in the person of Barrack Obama and had avoided four more years of the same under a McCain presidency. The four more years of the same she referred to in this was the torturous primacy of George W Bush who in his time did his level best during his time in office to steer his country away from the enlightened vision of its forefathers towards a nation with nothing short of a Stalinist embrace of its citizens and its enemies. I would openly confess that at that point in time I too felt a very similar emotion to my teacher, having always maintained an interest in world affairs I genuinely believed that with Bush gone and Obama in office that what we would see in his presidency would be a refreshingly new approach to politics. How naive I was. Albeit, my country has never been bombed by the US or had US agents destabilise/overthrow my government so it always remained easier for me to accept that the USA could be a force for good than it would be for an Iraqi refugee or Palestinian trapped in the warzones of Gaza, but none the less I was naive in assuming that all it would take to change the destructive imperialist agenda that the USA has followed since the times of Jefferson was one man. This being said, I will openly suggest that I feel that none of us could have predicted how far from the tree this particular apple would fall. Considering the rhetoric of the campaign I feel we have never before seen such a betrayal of principles by any individual who has walked the gilded halls of Washington. In this post I intend to cover the key issues which are often cited for why George Bush’s presidency was maligned by people all over the world and then I aim to compare it to that of Obama and arguably show how little has changed for the better and that actually in many ways things have only gotten worse.

First on the list of George W Bush’s crimes during his time in office would inevitably be his two ill-informed and disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq. Two more short-sighted examples of foreign policy I cannot think of unless pushed hard on the topic. To be fair to the planners of these acts, in both cases the invasions in a strictly military sense were a success but then it seems the planning for any eventuality went out the window. Like a football team who scores two early goals in every match they play but then concede fifteen the USA and its allies in both cases found themselves fighting a running battle  against a variety of forces that they were too ill equipped and too ill informed to ever win against. For example in Iraq after the initial invasion had ended and just as the occupation was getting under way, large crowds looted and torched much of the former Baathist government’s ministry buildings and no effort was made to prevent this riotous behaviour. Oh wait, some effort was made – but only to prevent any damage happening to any of the ministry buildings that were related in any way to the production of oil. In allowing this destruction of much of Baghdad’s infrastructure the coalition authorities demonstrated in a quite blatant manner their utter disregard for the safety and livelihood of Iraqi civilians. In coming years who knows how many lives that were lost to a Cholera epidemic in 2007 could have been saved if armed gangs had not been allowed to loot and burn down the health ministries. Ultimately both the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq had far more negative outcomes than positive ones for them to ever be recorded in a entirely positive light and it is largely due to GW Bush and his administration that both of these invasions were such catastrophic failures with each invasion focussing on the minutiae of capturing one figurehead individual while neglecting to ensure that the populations of the countries US forces were riding roughshod over were happy with what was being done in their name.

Next on the list of crimes that were committed with oversight by GW Bush was the massive infringement of civil liberties conducted by US intelligience agencies in the name of the War on Terror. As Glenn Greenwald at the guardian says in an article discussing the civil liberties records of US presidents:

Bush seized on the 9/11 attack to usher in radical new surveillance and detention powers in the PATRIOT ACT, spied for years on the communications of US citizens without the warrants required by law, and claimed the power to indefinitely imprison even US citizens without charges in military brigs.

Such a concerted effort to eradicate civil liberties that the founding fathers strove to define and enshrine in the constitution at the time shocked and horrified many commentators and with good reason really. The programme of extraordinary rendition through which people suspected of terrorism were kidnapped and tortured in nations friendly with the US was one of the most flagrant abuses of international norms and law that I can conceive of. The same can be said about the willingness with which the Bush administration accepted the daily abuses of privacy that were abetted by the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. Surely the greatest show of strength in the fact of hatred that the US could have demonstrated in the wake of the single worst terrorist attack in history would have been to show that even in possibly the nations lowest moment that the government were still unwilling to violate the principles of personal privacy. But ultimately, the Bush administration danced according to the tune of the terrorists and reacted by demonstrating just how contemptible Western democracies can be in times of crisis putting the lie to their claims of superiority over the theocracies and autocracies of the developing world.

The third charge that would likely also stick were it to be levelled at George W Bush in a court of law would be the use of torture in an attempt to extract confessions and intelligence from those who had already been treated illegally in either being kidnapped and illegally rendered across international borders or as a result of detention on often highly dubious grounds for endless amounts of time. That the victims of torture in Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were already victims of crimes committed by US forces does not however remove the later stain on the US of subjecting these individuals to torture. Such behaviour  and the frequency with which it was committed by the supposed “leaders of the free world” demonstrates how hollow such a title is and how much respect it should actually command in hindsight. To kill an innocent in a war is certainly an objective evil, but there is an argument to be heard that suggests torture is worse as the innocent must then live with the harrowing memory of being made to fear for their physical and mental health for the rest of their lives. And I genuinely feel that this argument holds some weight in light of the fact that often torturers simply extract lies from their victims who in sheer desperation will put their name to anything they are told to in an effort to stop their suffering and this is commonly known. It does take a special time of criminal to authorise such behaviour with the full knowledge that the likely outcomes will be of no use, and Bush certainly fits the mould. The exact same point about it taking a special kind of criminal to commit these crimes, can be raised about Bush’s rolling back of personal liberty and his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan too.

The reality, however, is that in reality the current president of the USA, Barrack Obama is guilty of two of the exact same crimes his predecesor, Bush, and arguably guilty of a worse third crime than Bush which would on the surface suggest that actually the Nobel Peace Prize winner is worse than Bush. Who would have though it ?

The first crime of launching questionable military interventions is certainly one Obama is guilty of, and much like Bush the end result doesn’t look very promising with the paint (metaphorically speaking) likely to run a little further before setting. The intervention which Obama championed was the lending of NATO air support to the Libyan rebels to help oust Muammar Gadaffi from power. Seemingly caught up by public and political sentiment that something should be done to support at least one nation in the “Arab Spring” uprisings and not wanting to overthrow one of his own Middle Eastern pawns considering the amount of money that has been poured into their pockets over the year, Libya was the unlucky nation to suffer the consequences of America’s attention. Much the same as in the case of the Afghanistan invasion , and almost identically to the Iraq invasion, the end result of intervention was demonstrably not thought out. The result being that a once relatively isolated/isolationist African nation is now a lawless war zone in which Islamist militias have monopolized power and control large swathes of the country and perhaps more alarmingly also hold large stockpiles of arms and munitions which if history repeats itself, as it is wont to do, will end up in the hands of whoever we fight in ten to fifteen years time. Of course, things might turn out just fine in Libya but the conflict has been officially over for more than a year and there is no end in sight of the lawlessness which grips much of the country and the parallels between the state of Afghanistan after its civil war and Libya as things stand is notable. So, on the first charge Bush’s crime will rank in the annals of history as the worst being as he went all out and invaded two countries as opposed to Obama’s one although there are the best part of three and half years left yet for Obama to fuck that one up.

On the second charge of restricting right and civil liberties within the USA itself, Obama, for a candidate who preached at length about open transparent government in his early campaigns and ultimately was carried to the white house on the back of the successes of the Civil Rights movement has a lot to answer for. While the getting involved in military interventions in another countries civil war struck me as a betrayal of all the Obama claimed to stand for during his election campaign, it is his attack on the rights that most people consider inalienable that must surprise most of all. The first demonstrable way in which Obama has betrayed those who voted for him is his failure to close Guantanamo Bay and end the abuses of human rights that have taken place daily there since its inception under Bush. Amongst the crimes that Guantanamo represents are torture and detention without anything like sufficient proof of guilt and often not even credible suspicion. The legacy of that site was one of the biggest blots on the Bush administration legacy and Obama’s inability or unwillingness to close down the facility there will certainly form one of the biggest blots on his presidential story. A further violation of the campaign rhetoric of open government would be the unfolding drama of the NSA’s massive spying operation in which seemingly almost every american has been spied upon and monitored without specific warrants which I won’t comment on much more than this as the depth of this crime is still only partly apparent as things stand. Needless to say that a crime of such scale really is Stalinist in its style and

The third and final charge which I think really is the deal breaker in demonstrating how Obama is measurably worse than Bush is his use of drone warfare both as means of repression both against american citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time and against poor brown people seemingly wherever he can find them. The move away from “boots on the ground” was something that Obama promised and so on that front, if literally no other, credit is due. However at no point in his run up to election did he ever make it clear that his intention was to remove one deadly force only to replace it with another equally deadly force which if possible is even less indiscriminate in its killing of non-combatants. The usage of drones which while not as directly comparable as the infringement of civil liberties and invasions of other countries was worth my raising as an issue for one reason. namely, that since taking office, Obama has already had more people extra-judicially executed with these weapons than were ever tortured under Bush’s orders during his entire presidency. This fact in itself is frightening when you take into account the tremendously positive light in which Obama is portrayed by comparison to the presentation of Bush jr throughout his presidency. However when you consider that Obama is not a full year into his second term yet, then the cogs should really start to whirr with the thought of how many more will likely die in later years. It must also be taken into account that many of the grievances that are often cited by the self same “islamic” terrorists that drones are supposedly utilised against involve grievances with the US army and its practices in the Middle East. While there are many reasons for grievances to be raised against the US armed forces, there are on balance probably several redeeming features which members of the armed forces have, Drones however can surely never have a redeeming feature as they simply kill and so the question must be asked as to simply how long it will be before this chicken comes home to roost and whenever that does happen we can already establish a chain of causation that leads directly to Obama’s trigger finger.

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The enemy of my enemy…

Last week, a most unsurprising development in the Syrian civil war was announced in the news which then was presumably followed by much agonised chin scratching in western political circles who’s narrative regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria prior to said announcement had been relatively simple considering the convoluted nature of the crisis. The announcement that I make reference to is that of the Al-Nusra Front declaring themselves for Al-Qaeda which was surely news to no-one yet hit with devastating force none the less as people perhaps began to wake up and see that again foreign policy is all to often dictated by the proverb that I have used as the title for this post and that once again in Syria we are in bed with a group we barely understand. In years to come I genuinely fear that this saying will only gain in poignancy as we reflect on the legacy of the Arab Spring which despite holding such dreamy promises in its early days seems to have mutated into something bearing a greater resemblance to a nightmare. While many forces have been at work throughout the ongoing Arab Spring, this mutation of the idealistic revolution into something resembling more on a daily basis the revolutions of France and Russia is in all likelihood due in no small part to the part that has been played by Western actors who have armed factions with whom they shared all too convenient hatreds. In this post I intend to discuss notable times where the sentiments of this proverb have been applied and will demonstrate that each time it has been used that the results are always as spectacularly disastrous for innocent lives and show further that the Arab Spring is seemingly no different.

Perhaps the most notable case in relatively recent history of the use of this maxim to broker alliances between nations that were ultimately hostile to each other in the name of overriding interests would be the Second World War. Two alliances of convenience were formed during the six years in which this conflict raged, both involving the USSR as a regional power. First off the bat, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a mutual non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after the foreign ministers responsible for signing it. This pact on the part of Nazi Germany guaranteed that the Soviet Union would stay uninvolved in any emerging European war leaving Germany able to focus its energies on subjugation of Poland and other Western European nations. This is a prime example of an alliance of convenience as the Nazi party ultimately clawed hold of power in Germany through stoking the fires of suspicion against Communists working to subvert the Reichstag and democracy yet in a moment of need came to an agreement with a supposedly newly found friend. It is also a prime example this type of alliance as it ultimately collapsed once the supply of mutual enemies between the once antagonistic nations came to an end with Great Britain seemingly at the point of collapse and the USA yet to enter the war. In one of history’s most disastrous back-stabbings, Hitler then suddenly re-remembered that he despised communism and that his rant in book form Mein Kampf called for the annexation of much Soviet territory to satisfy the Nazi hunger for land.

Molotov signs the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

Molotov signs the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

Another reason that the Second World War is a prime example of this proverb in action is that in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, another alliance of convenience was formed this time between Great Britain (and later the USA) and the Soviet Union who if anything despised each other more than the Nazis and the Soviets had done. After all, the political movement which Stalin was a figurehead of at the time had in the minds of the British at least deserted them in their hour of need during the First World War and also the central ideology of the Soviet Union was deeply antagonistic to the ways of life of the British Empire and the United States. The feelings of dislike were very much mutual with Stalin reportedly saying that Churchill was “the worst of the capitalists” but ultimately the common interest of beating back Nazism prevailed momentarily at least. Of course, the ultimate legacy of this alliance was that while it did put an end to the threat of Nazism it evolved into a cold-war between the two diametrically opposed ideologies with almost fifty years of tension that could have at any moment ended the human race ensuing. Besides the irony of an alliance between enemies breaking down into a conflict which greatly outlasted the original war it sought to end, history will look back on this and likely say the strangest thing of all was the Britain and the USA in an effort to stop one tyrant bedded another far worse one in Stalin who is often blamed for upwards of 50 million deaths throughout his reign.

Stalin, FDR and Churchill at the Tehran conference - Papa Joe, king of the political wheeler-dealers and (probably) world mass murderers.

Stalin, FDR and Churchill at the Tehran conference – Papa Joe, king of the political wheeler-dealers and (probably) world mass murderers.

As has already been alluded to in the above section on the series of alliances of convenience that were struck in World War 2 the Nazi party, inflammatory rhetoric put to one side, wasn’t afraid to make alliances with nations that it despised in order to get ahead of more direct threats. Another example of the Nazi’s propensity for such types of alliances is the friendship that developed between Nazi agents and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and one of the most divisive Palestinians to ever enter the political stage. Again, this relationship on the surface makes little sense as according to the racial hierarchy that much of the Nazi empire was classified by, the Palestinian Arabs who al-Husseini represented, were not many steps higher than the Jews and consequently would likely have experienced the same treatment had the Nazis every really made headways in the Middle East. The decision  by al-Husseini to ally with the most vocally anti-Semitic power in the world was seemingly based around a mutual dislike for the British who ruled much of the Middle East at the time through League of Nation Mandates and also around the concern of Jewish immigration into Palestine as European Jews escaped the persecutions of the Nazis. And we can assume that all the Nazis saw in an alliance with the Arabs was simply a convenient ally who could support in the fight against the more militarily powerful British. Whatever the reasons for the alliance, time passed and eventually it broke down and back fired on the Palestinians. By allying himself with Hitler, al-Husseini arguably seriously discredited the Palestinian cause for a long time by making his antipathy to the foundation of a Jewish state appear to be related to anti-Semitism rather than simply being a result of his support of Arab nationalism. In appearing to be close to Hitler, whatever the ultimate reality of their relationship, al-Husseini gave the most ardent Zionists a conveniently unapologetic figurehead of supposed Arab anti-Semitism who to this day is used to justify the position of strength Israel feels the need to maintain.

Not the type of image you want surfacing later in life when fronting advocacy campaigns of any sort.

Not the type of image you want surfacing later in life when fronting advocacy campaigns of any sort.

The next case of a country following the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is perhaps one of the most famous instances of this idea in practice, the USA’s collusion and financial backing of Pakistani and Arab forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion of 1979. Much has been done throughout the Cold War, the USA backed paramilitary forces that often were unlikely to reclaim power from the communist forces in whichever country but militarily were adept enough to be a serious thorn in the side of the supposed “international communist conspiracy”. The financial and logistical support which the foreign Mujahideen received enabled them to hold off the military juggernaut of the Soviet Union for over 9 years until Gorbachev decided that Soviet forces would withdraw in 1989 and arguably this defeat was critical in ensuring the eventual downfall of the one time superpower. If the record ended there then this alliance might have be the most successful alliance of convenience in the history of man but unfortunately for all parties involved the story does not end there. Slowly but surely after the Soviet armed forces withdrew, the Mujahideen warlords who, during the 9 years for which the conflict had raged, had amassed massive political and military power in Afghanistan dragged the country into a vicious civil war which ended tens of thousands of lives and destroyed more of the country than the Soviet Union ever managed. This period of Chaos did eventually end when the Taliban, a politico-religious force which sought to the end the period of instability  managed to gain control of the country. This in itself might have been enough proof that alliances of convenience are often very dangerous agreements but again history added some more spice to the dish when the Taliban allowed Al-Qaeda, architects of global terrorism, to take refuge in their Islamic fundamentalist state.

The direct result of Cold War politics

The direct result of Cold War politics.

Now that I have considered some historical examples of the use of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy …” I will now discuss the Arab Spring and show how true to form, alliances that were formed with groups purely on the basis of a common shared enemy seem to be doomed to failure. Either these alliances have already broken down in a remarkably short time scale, in the cases of Libya and Syria or seem consistently on the verge of breaking down as is the case in Egypt and to a questionable degree also Tunisia. For a movement that sprung from boundless optimism with the lofty intentions of killing off the corrupt old guard regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa we have come a long way to the point at which we are at now with the only thing that seems to have changed being the dictator who happens to sit on the throne. I’ll now briefly look at each case in hand:

  • Tunisia – The first country to overthrow its leader and the birthplace of the Arab Spring. When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire little did he know where his actions would end. The Arab Spring in Tunisia resulted in a massive democratisation of Tunisia with Ben Ali, head of state for 24 years overthrown, the dissolution of the political police and elections to a constituent assembly later that year. The newly democratised country of Tunisia is perhaps the most safe of all the countries who managed to overthrow their governments being as relatively speaking it was the most peaceful upheaval and did not rely on paramilitary groups or major violence to end the regime unlike the other three countries in question. However this is not to say that that the Tunisian “Jasmine revolution” isn’t endangered by foolish alliances of convenience like in neighbouring Libya. The calls to revolt which sounded in later 2010 appealed to a broad social consensus ranging from liberal human rights based groups through to hard-line Salafist groups and ultimately the success of the revolution was based on the involvement of every group that participated. In the time that has passed since Ben Ali was overthrown concern has been voiced that hard-line religious elements have begun to co-opt the democratic process for their own ends. In the case of Tunisia then the alliance that was formed between a variety of groups has yet to result in any major backlash as the result of hastily formed alliances and so there is still hope that Tunisia will buck the trend of one time allies either usurping the democratic process or forces supported by the west turning out to be a bigger threat than the government overthrown.
  • Egypt – The second country to successfully overthrow its government during the Arab Spring and a significantly more important regional player. Much the same as in the case of Tunisia the overthrow was ultimately achieved through the power of the Egyptian people themselves and not through the force of Western arms. Similar to the case of Tunisia, the threat to the Egyptian revolution is not one posed by alliances with external powers but created instead by alliances between liberally minded groups and radical elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood who were a critical component of the Egyptian revolution. Since the Election of Mohamed Morsi to the presidency and with the Islamist Bloc forming the second largest group in the Egyptian house of representatives, many Egyptians feel disillusioned and believe that their alliance with such elements was not worth it as increasingly Morsi rolls back the democratisation that took place in the absence of Mubarak and brings Egypt more in line with the Gulf Arab states.
  • Libya – The third country to overthrow its government and head of state, but the first to utilise Western military aid and financial support in doing so. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where protests were widespread and the majority of society seemed to support the overthrowing of the regime in Libya the protests were very much localised and relied on specific groups within society to achieve its aims. When Qadaffi’s armed forced seemed on the verge of crushing this regional rebellion. NATO intervened and through the use of air support helped the rebels slowly capture more and more of Libya until it fell to them. The alliance in question here is more at risk and this probably due to the fact that instead of being an alliance between different elements of society as a whole who had all suffered equally, it was an alliance between internal rebels and external powers with the only shared interest being the overthrow of a somewhat unpopular leader. From the beginning of the the Libyan revolution right through to today we have been aware of highly dangerous elements active in Libya and the end result is that while Qadaffi is no longer in power Libya does not seem much safer than when Rebels and the Libyan army were fighting throughout the country. The alliance struck between the West and forces in Libya is a perfect example of an alliance based on the proverb and like many such alliances has already broken down with Westerners and other traditional victims of fundamentalist Islamic groups being murdered and chased out of the country and this is still the early days with the new government seemingly unable to control the militias that fought in the uprising.
  • Syria – This last country is a slight aberration when compared to the rest I have discussed as unlike the others the revolutionary movement has not overthrown its government and is seemingly unlikely to do so. However as in Libya, Western politicians who have never been fond of the al-Assad family and its close ties to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have decided to aid the rebel movement, helping them in this are the Gulf Arab states who are wary of a Shia dominated Arab nation with close ties to Iran. As a result of these regional rivalries what started as a genuine revolution for reform and perhaps even the overthrow of the government has increasingly mutated into a sectarian civil war with militias financed by external powers aiming to establish again a nation far closer in style to Saudi Arabia than the enlightened democracies of Scandinavia for example. While support for the rebels in Syria has repeatedly been vocalised and Bashar al-Assad demonised, the actual military support that we saw given to Libyan rebels is yet to materialise and we can hope that this remains the case or in all probability what will happen is that we will see one dictatorial regime overthrown and a far greater threat replace it in the form of allies we have armed whose stated aim is the establishing of a worldwide fundamentalist Salafist state. Whether the support will dry up by itself as a result of the Al-Nusra fronts declaration of support for Al – Qaeda remains to be unseen but I would not hold out too much hope as I’m sure the people in charge knew the elements that were present in Libya before Qaddafi fell.

Of course one difference in this region is that the identity of who is friend and foe is generally speaking continually and rapidly changing and the Arab Spring only seems to have exacerbated this tendency. Perhaps in years to come, unlike the instances of such alliances I offered earlier in this post which have been critically assessed, politicians will escape the blame for  some of the foolish decisions that have already been made and in all likelihood will continue to be made by using this as an excuse and failing to learn the lessons of making alliances based purely on mutual enemies. It is not too much to hope that international politics moves away from rash alliances of convenience and towards building relationships based on much broader and more substantial criteria. An ideology based on hatred – of anything, what so ever, is a curse on all our houses.