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November 11, 2007

Book Review: More Time For Politics by Tony Benn

More Time For Politics: Diaries 2001-2007
by Tony Benn
Hutchinson, 400pp, £20

A succinct indication of Tony Benn’s remarkable revitalisation as a national figure comes when The Mail on Sunday ask him for an article on Iraq. He points them towards his weekly column in the Morning Star and they like what they see. And so, Benn remarks, “for the first time ever, The Mail on Sunday will reprint an article from a communist newspaper.” These diaries, Benn’s eighth volume, show his political range to be more expansive than ever. His speeches have been set to rap on record, and live to folk. Glastonbury Festival has become as much of an annual event as the Durham Miners’ Gala. Frequently humorous and always thoughtful, Benn’s diaries are a spirited account of an intensely political life adjusting to new forms.

Having left the Commons in 2001, Benn throws himself into campaigning as President of the Stop the War Coalition. The mass of demos, meetings and petitions come with attendant strains. His confession that he only drinks “an eggcup full of tea” before big demos, for fear of needing the toilet later, conjures up the image of Benn desperately dashing from the platform, leaving a cluster of stone-faced Trotskyists to placate the crowd.

Aside from politics, he is sustained by his other great love, family. He relies on the company of his four children and ten grandchildren ever more in the wake of the death of Caroline, his beloved wife of fifty-one years. Particularly in early passages, Benn is wrought with existential angst, “I sobbed and sobbed all the way to Stansgate…I wondered where Caroline was. Had she disappeared into thin air?”

Beyond the usual comrades of the Campaign Group, CND and the trade unions, Benn is buoyed by some surprising friendships. He has far more time for Ted Heath than any equivalent Labour figure, and the two unite in mutual loathing for Bush and Blair. Benn remarks on the frequency of presidential assassinations in the US, only for Heath to shoot back, “not frequently enough as far as the present one is concerned”. As for his social outings with the actress Saffron Burrows and the BBC’s Natasha Kaplinsky- they are sure to attract the envy of readers a good deal younger than Benn.

Harold Wilson once acidly remarked of Benn, “He immatures with age”. Benn himself argues he moves to the left with age. There is little sign of the former. A teetotaller and a vegetarian, he maintains a disciplined lifestyle, swiftly flooding any white space in his diary with meetings, articles and broadcasts. Nor is there all that much sign of the latter. His politics are more complex than the doctrinaire socialism some would presume, remaining an eclectic combination of Fabian gradualism, Christian ethics and anti-capitalism. He visits Highgate Cemetery to commemorate Marx, but also hails “Jesus the prophet, and not Christ the king”, and cites the Bible and Das Kapital as his favourite books. After the collapse of the fraudulent WorldCom, Benn argues, “it is actually the very nature of capitalism”. Yet he remains convinced that there is no alternative to progressive reform through the Labour Party.

His critique of the Iraq war, which dominates the political sections of the book, has proved prescient. Amid the hubris that accompanied Saddam’s fall, Benn emphasises the dangerous precedent of uncontrolled looting. The much-criticised interview with Saddam was done out of pure motives. But his usual eye for irony and hypocrisy was absent on this occasion. In any other situation Benn would surely see the absurdity of asking the man who invaded Iran, Kuwait and massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if he could advance the cause of the peace movement.

His famous distinction between personalities and policies throws up some unexpected encounters. Alistair Campbell, a bête noire of the left, is depicted in charming terms and despite Benn’s support for Sinn Fein, he cheerfully attends Ian Paisley’s birthday party. This distinction is soon pushed to its limits with his relentless excoriation of Blair. Blair is “fundamentally undemocratic” and speaks like an “imperial president.” At one point Benn fantasises about putting cushions in front of the teleprompters, to “destroy the speech.” Such persistent focus is to the neglect of some of the wider social forces at work.

The only respite comes when Blair promotes Hilary Benn. Indeed, some of the most revealing sections arise when family and politics collide. Benn curses those MPs voting through New Labour legislation, but of Hilary’s strong support for the Iraq war, he remarks matter-of-factly, “Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.” One is reminded at such points of Albert Camus’s assertion that, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Following Benn’s professed desire to return to Parliament one looks for signs in the diary, but the extracts are ambiguous. Having been granted the Freedom of the House he exists in a halfway state, sometimes walking out in disgust at PMQs, but longing to be back on the floor during the height of debate on the war.

Yet it would be unwise to bet against Benn’s return; as these diaries show, the man once shunned by the mainstream left as a sectarian, and demonised by the right as a dangerous radical, has become our national socialist.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

September 17, 2007

Naomi Klein and Disaster Capitalism

Writing about web page,,2159184,00.html

Naomi Klein

Disaster Capitalism is the neat neologism coined by Naomi Klein for her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It refers to the phenomena of societies traumatised by disaster, natural and man-made, being seized upon by governments and companies to further neoliberal ends unachievable under normal circumstances. Where most see a crisis, neoliberal actors spy new market opportunities. With citizens focused on daily survival, the usual resistant forces are weakened for just long enough. As Klein sardonically remarks, “some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.”

The accompanying ‘Shock Doctrine’ represents the thesis that for market economies to mutate into something like hyper-capitalism, some crisis is necessary. Klein cites the prophetic words of the high priest of free markets, the now departed Milton Friedman, “only a crisis- actual or perceived- produces real change.” The transformation of Chile into a capitalist laboratory (full of monsters, one feels the need to add), amidst the shock of Pinochet’s coup d’etat, is identified early on as an exemplar.

Dazzling in its intellectual scope and impecabble in its timing, The Shock Doctrine may well replicate the success of Klein’s zeitgeist defining No Logo. Collected here is the melancholy tale of the privatisation of New Orleans’ public school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The revelation of the economic “shock therapy” that paired up with the “shock and awe” bombardment of Iraq, to impose a 15 per cent flat tax, mass privatisation and unrestricted free trade on the country. As well as the rapid handover of the Sri Lankan coastline to business interests following the 2004 tsunami, blocking hundreds of thousands of citizens from their old fishing lands. In more ambitious and contentious sections Klein seeks to integrate the Falklands War and the Tiananmen Square atrocities into her thesis.

The Shock Doctrine isn’t actually released in the UK until Tuesday, and the Guardian extracts i’m going on aren’t specific enough to assess the criticisms of her take on China and Russia A few broader observations can be examined though.

Some such as Chatham House’s Diane Coyle on the Today programme, (scroll right down to hear her debate Klein) point out in a critical tone, that it’s not only capitalist forces which have exploited crises and disaster. Indeed, one thinks of the October Revolution, with Lenin returning in the famous sealed train (“like a plague bacillus” in Churchill’s memorable phrase) during The Great War of that time. Klein actually goes on to note the similar strategies of communists and fascists in the book, and the point in and of itself doesn’t invalidate her thesis. Additionally, given the present distribution of wealth and power it’s entirely appropriate to focus on neoliberal forces.

A more challenging criticism put forward by Will Hutton and Madeleine Bunting is that free-markets have not always advanced on the back of shock. Klein’s reply to this charge usefully makes a distinction between those periods when neoliberalism advanced incrementally and those when it “leapt forward”. Long-term political and economic factors are necessary to explain the hegemony of the market, but they are not alone sufficient. Conversely, one point which no contributor seems to have mentioned is that the rise of neoliberalism cannot be decoupled from its twin, neoconservatism. Particularly with regard to Thatcher and Reagan, it was often their social conservatism
on issues such as crime and the family, that motivated low-income, working-class voters to vote against their apparent economic interests.

Returning to some of the responses so far, Alexander Cockburn’s surprisingly critical review is littered with misrepresentation and false argument. For starters, Salvador Allende was overthrown not in 1971 but 1973 (poor form for any leftist), and Klein speaks not of “shock capitalism” but disaster capitalism. The latter may seem pedantic, but it is the title after all, and as is so often the case, a small mistake precedes a big one.

For Cockburn seems to understand Klein’s shock doctrine purely in terms of capitalism using shock tactics to advance its goals, from bombing to regime change. This reductionist interpretation leads him to place Friedman’s economic “shock treatment” alongside the overthrow of Allende and the bombing of Baghdad. But Friedman’s “shock treatment” is not merely another weapon in the armoury of capitalism. As Klein shows, it is a specific ideological doctrine which takes on a life of its own only after a critical event such as a coup or military invasion. Thus, Cockburn erroneously conflates cause with effect. That this original error is so, is further highlighted by his failure to even mention in passing the section of Klein’s analysis which looks at natural disasters.

The rest of the review is largely taken up with detailing centuries-old precedents for “shock capitalism”, in short; you’re onto nothing new Naomi. This seems cheap; Klein’s specific objective is to document how disaster capitalism relates directly to the neoliberal counter-revolution that culminated in the 1980s. This is another blow to Cockburn’s standing following his recent denial of man-made climate change (as demonstrated in this extensive debate with George Monbiot) and one hopes Klein rebuts her Nation colleague soon.

As for the implicit question, ‘Well what would you do then?’, that attaches itself to much criticism, Klein largely seems to favour solutions along the lines of the more egalitarian days of mixed-market Keynesianism. Klein is neither anarchist nor socialist revolutionary, as she writes, “It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy that demands no such brutality or ideological purity. A free market in consumer products can coexist with free public health care, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy – such as a national oil company – held in state hands.”

Klein’s work is a mordant reminder that the forward march of capitalism has rarely been peaceful, and that the tendency to monopoly far outweighs any individually empowering force. That so many ignore or ridicule these elementary economic lessons is apt proof of such work’s necessity.

July 25, 2007

Johann Hari takes on Nick Cohen

Writing about web page

Johann Hari turns out out a stinging review of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? here for Dissent magazine and settles some scores with the wider pro-war left. (Hari recanted on his own support for the Iraq war last year)

Hari usefully breaks Cohen’s analysis down into four components: Islamism, Ba’athism, the left and neoconservatism. It is the last of these that comprises the core of the review and finds Hari at his most polemical. He makes an argument similar to that i put forward in my Boar article on Paul Wolfowitz; the logic of those on the left who supported the Iraq war such as Cohen and Christopher Hitchens leads to the old rationale that the end justifies the means.

The Bush administration, they argued, was far from the ideal force with which to remove the Saddam regime but there was no viable alternative. As David Aaronovitch wrote one month before the war began, “it would be preferable if an invasion could be undertaken, not by the Americans, but by, say, the Nelson Mandela International Peace Force, spearheaded by the Rowan Williams British Brigade. That’s not on offer. It has to be the Yanks.” Such analyses, i have argued, fail to recognise that the means also change the end. It was entirely forseeable that an administration dominated by figures who support the barbaric death penalty would not take due care to minimise civilian losses, as the experience of Fallujah bore out. It was equally forseeable that a neoliberal administration for whom patient, egalitarian and well-regulated state building is anathema, would not be able to successfully usher in a new stable and democratic Iraqi republic. As one of anti-war playwright David Hare’s characters acidly remarks “When you knew what sort of butcher was the surgeon then there was no doubt about the outcome of the operation.”

Yet one most always twin such a critique with Cohen’s most significant insight. The imperishable point which he returns to more than any other, is that once the war had began the onus was on those leftists who had opposed it (often with good reason as he curiously notes) to at least offer their solidarity to those Iraqis (including many opposed to the war) struggling for liberal democracy in the most difficult conditions. The circumstances were appalling but who could deny Iraqi men and women their shot at the freedoms we enjoy? Cohen rightly castigates those on the left who instead backed the murderous Iraqi ‘resistance’ but also attacks those who while not supporting ‘the resistance’ didn’t exactly oppose it either and continued to source all problems back to the coalition. It was the conspicuous failure of the left to rally around the cause of a democratic Iraq, in spite of the failures of the coalition, that inspired What’s Left?

Hari quite rightly continues to support Cohen on these key points as well as thankfully on the bulk of his analysis of Islamism. Yet he is also right to home in on Cohen’s central weakness, which is not so much what he does write but what he doesn’t. Unlike Christopher Hitchens who happily continues to reaffirm his unconditional support for the war, Cohen remains at best cagey and at worst silent regarding his precise position on the war. Beyond fleshing out his argument on the left’s betrayal of solidarity he has written astonishingly little on Iraq itself. And a man who uses the case of Iraq as the departure point for his entire thesis cannot afford to be coy on this point.

In What’s Left? Cohen notes that “You have to judge people by the bulk of the evidence they present: the burden of proof they offer by way of explanation. If they say, ‘Of course I oppose burning women/the “enormities” of communism/Saddam Hussein/ Guantanamo Bay’, and then spend the rest of their time in passionate polemics against feminists, democracy, the American invasion of Iraq or the gullibility of critics of the US administration, you can reasonably doubt the strength of their opposition and convinct them of rhetorical throat clearing.” Yet it is precisely this ‘rhetorical throat clearing’ that Cohen lapses into when he offers token opposition to the coalition who ‘sold the invasion to their publics with a false bill of goods…its aftermath was a bloody catastrophe’, without bothering to examine the implications of these failings for his own support for the war. Moreover, he neglects to reflect on the consequences for his broad analysis which as Hari argues, mostly implicitly, and only rarely explicitly, posits a mutuality of interest between Iraqi democrats, as well as the ideals of the left, and US neoconservatives.

In the most damning passage of the review Hari brandishes the blood-stained sheets of the war, “A policy of systematic torture? The immediate imposition of mass privatisations, causing mass unemployment and sectarian unrest? The barricading of civilian men aged between 18 and 60 in Fallujah, a city the size of Baltimore, before attacking it with chemical weapons? Cohen does not say how these neoconservative tactics have been “fighting the Left’s battles for them”.”

Cohen recently debated his book with The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and it should be said came off much the better, Alibhai-Brown admitting she had neglected to read beyond the contents page. Nevertheless, he was confronted with the spectre of Fallujah by her, and responded by asserting that what he saw there was simply the “Ba’ath Party and Al Qaeda against the American army” thereby recycling the official propaganda of the US military. Cohen, while rightly excoriating those who fail to look such enemies in the face has nevertheless fallen into the reductionist fallacy of implicitly justifying, or simply ignoring, criminal abuses because besides the civilian deaths they also kill jihadists.

It remains to be said that Cohen’s book is both a brave and compelling work which should not be casually dismissed. Yet it appears to me that he may be trying to have his cake and eat it. By situating solidarity with Iraqis as the all-encompassing issue, regardless of one’s original position on the war, Cohen manages to evade the need for a retrospective analysis of his own position of support. He doesn’t write in favour of the war itself now but nor does he write against the original decision. Thus, one must allow for the fact that such a position, be it intended or unintended, has allowed Cohen to avoid reviewing his original position in the way Aaronovitch, Hari and Norman Geras (all have now said they wouldn’t have supported the war) have or as Christopher Hitchens on the pro-war left has. It may be in the hope of flushing out something more explicit and concrete from Cohen that Hari has written this extensive review almost six months after the original publication of What’s Left? In any case, it is now a necessity that we hear from Cohen on this point as we have from others- and soon.

Postscript: It has now been confirmed that the forthcoming autumn edition of Dissent magazine will feature Nick’s response.

May 02, 2007

Wolf At The Door

Even with the relentless ascendancy of ‘neocon’ up the political pejorative charts, Paul Wolfowitz has always attracted an impressive amount of scorn. The New Statesman welcomed the president of the World Bank to its front cover last year with the question, “The worst man in the world?” and signalled towards the affirmative inside. Most Europeans have always shuddered at the thought of a man who apart from being a chief architect of the Iraq war, reminds them of the beast their childhood fairy tales warned them about. Not to leave out the 90% of bank employees who opposed his appointment, and given the malaise that currently afflicts Wolfowitz many of the above will now be claiming vindication.

When Wolfowitz took up his post he was already in a relationship with Shaha Riza, then a communications officer at the bank. Given the bank rules prohibiting employee relationships, the latter was seconded to the state department. All above board up to this point, the matter plunged into the depths of political nepotism when it was revealed that Wolfowitz personally ensured that Riza’s future career would be feather-bedded with an inflated salary of $193,590, a pay package greater than that of the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

He now faces an official inquiry, widened to include accusations that Kevin Kellems and Robin Cleveland, two of the personal advisers fast-tracked in from the Bush administration, also received salaries disproportionate to their level and experience. As I write, Wolfowitz is still in place, but with even White House support trickling away his position seems unsustainable.

The best thing European member states currently marvelling at their predictive powers can do, is to end the Faustian pact by which Europe always appoints the head of the IMF in return for the US reserving the bank nomination.

Yet prior to all of the above there had been somewhat of an alternate bookkeeping on Wolfowitz. Guests often paid testimony to their surprise at discovering the man described by one former colleague as not so much a hawk but a velociraptor, to be actually rather mild-mannered and sincere.

On a political level Wolfie had found himself lauded by liberal interventionists as the one man who could bridge the gap between neoconservative rhetoric and reality. Having cut his political teeth battling Kissingerean realism, he rose to deputy secretary of defence, where influenced by Riza, an Arab feminist, he maintained his links with dissidents across the Middle East. He befriended Iranian feminist Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, as he had the leftist Iraqi opposition.

Such political alliances may seem strange to you but they are what is thrown up in the wake of the debased cultural relativism that has infected a significant part of the left. Democrats struggling against fascism and theocracy in the region, now often get a better hearing from such figures, than they do from those for whom all the world’s problems simply begin and end with US foreign policy. Yet Wolfowitz’s apparently good intentions are negated when set against his internal troubles, which offer a telling parallel with the wider failure of the neoconservatives.

The two years Wolfowitz has spent heading up the bank have been, ironically enough, distinguished by a vigorous fight against corruption. The policy was criticised for embracing collective punishment, with Congo losing its debt relief after its president blew $81,000 in a New York hotel. Applied both internally and externally its aspirations now ring hollow.

“The actions of even a very small number of individuals can tarnish the reputation of an entire organisation” those were the words of Wolfowitz in the latest report from the bank’s anti-corruption unit. At the time bank managers somewhat dryly compared this ‘war on corruption’ to the war on terror but the comparison has turned out to be wholly appropriate.

Just as the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib defaced a war supposedly rooted in freedom and justice, so too the misdemeanours of Wolfowitz smear and scar his corruption policy with that old epithet, do as I say, not as I do. Those who supported the Iraq war often argued that the end justified the means, the Bush administration was far from the ideal force with which to build to a new Iraq, but no one else would remove Saddam. Similarly, a few optimists argued that while Wolfowitz wasn’t the right man for the job, his experience in Indonesia, and cerebral nature would at least offer fresh insights.

Such arguments failed to recognise that the means can change the end. Individuals and governments whose personal commitment to justice and accountability is flimsy will not be able to achieve such ends elsewhere. As the shaming of Wolfowitz shows, this truth can be delayed but not ultimately denied.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 01/05/07

February 17, 2007

Letter Published in New Statesman

I have a letter published in this week’s New Statesman in response to Editor John Kampfner’s review
linktext of Nick Cohen’s new book ‘What’s Left?’.

It reads: John Kampfner correctly points out some of Nick Cohen’s terminological shortcomings. However, he fails adequately to tackle one of Cohen’s central points. His charge is not that the left fell into support for Islamist terror. The quotation Kampfner cites on “Stalinism, Castroism . . .” refers to George Galloway, not to the million who marched. Nor does Cohen argue that an anti-war position had no merits. Indeed, in his introduction he concedes: “They had many good arguments that I would have agreed with in other circumstances.”

Cohen’s charge is that, once the war had started, a clear majority of the left failed to back Iraqis fighting for democracy in the most difficult conditions. This leaves aside key figures on the left who explicitly backed “the resistance”. This void becomes clearer when filled by a few such as Peter Tatchell and the British trade unions that Cohen credits. “Where was he when we demonstrated for the Solidarity trade union?” Kampfner asks. But where were the left-wing marches for Iraqi trade unions?

December 27, 2006

The Shame of Hanging Saddam

Writing about web page,,1978665,00.html

Albert Camus’s Reflections on the Guillotine opens with an anecdote of his father’s relish as he prepares to attend the execution of a man who murdered a family of farmers. His father laments the leniency of the guillotine for such a crime, and makes his way to join the baying crowd. He says no more upon his return, instead, he lies down and begins to vomit repeatedly. Camus argued that this should be the response of any reasonable human. The sense of nausea and revulsion i feel at the death penalty was one of my earliest moral responses.

I felt that same revulsion yesterday evening when i heard that an Iraqi appeals court has resolved to apply to its former tyrant a practice which can only appeal to the basest and most brutal human instincts. When Saddam’s original sentence was passed some put the strange but recurring argument to me that the death penalty becomes of none or of lesser concern when murderous dictators are involved. The absurdity of this argument would commend it to the dustbin of history were it not for the prominence it retains, blazoned as it is across the frontpages of best-selling tabloids.

Those who argue this are perpetuating the very barbarism they claim to be punishing. By breathing new death into the worst instincts of humanity they further guarantee the prevalence of the crimes they claim to despise. As Camus saw, ‘it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.’ Or as George Bernard Shaw argued ‘It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.’

Too many understand the primary role of the law to be punishment. It should not be this at all, but rather the prevention of future crime. The death penalty is an emotional retaliation to murder rather than a rational, moral refutation of it. Human nature being malleable, the law should appeal to our better natures. All this applies equally to the execution of dictators. For human rights are either universal or they are nothing.

The pernicious effects of the death penalty go further. Those who argue for it help to ingrain a truly coercive conception of the relationship between the state and the individual. This has its effects in the field of nuclear weapons, the indiscriminate nature of which amount to states regarding individuals as disposable property.

Changes of leadership in Iraq have often been marked by the execution of the previous encumbents. Iraqis face a great struggle to salvage any tangible benefits from the immoral and disastrous invasion. But the abolition of state murder in their country would have been one. I should credit President Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Salih here for taking this position. Given the chance Talabani would have refused to sign a death penalty but a special law established for the tribunal denies him this right. The trial itself fell far beneath legal standards meaning any verdict was as Human Rights Watch argued, ‘too unsound’ to stand. The political meddling that removed a judge for being ‘too lenient’, epitomised the often farcical events. All twists and turns pointed to a pre-established conclusion; that Saddam would be hanged.

Moreover, the trial has only examined the torture and murders in Dujail following an attempt on Saddam’s life. The rather different outcome that is now imminent leaves his other trial regarding the Anfal campaign against the Kurds eternally paused. His reprisals against the 1991 Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings have been ignored. The trial has the stink of a hasty set of affairs driving towards a grimly inevitable ruling. How convenient that the Anfal campaign, when the US and UK colluded with Saddam, has only been skimmed. Destroying Saddam now means we lose the opportunity of ever achieving a lasting, comprehensive indictment of his rule. His victims are patrionised by this fumbled, half-baked trial. They are left with American platitudes and hypocrisy.

This trial should have assembled for posterity an inalienable judgement against the horrors of the old Iraq. Instead, it has been doused in the horrors of the new.

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