Writers pressure Obama over Afghanistan

A ‘new beginning will not be possible as long as we continue to spill the blood of the men, women, and children of Afghanistan,’ warns this message from notable American writers which appears in The Nation and the New York Review of Books.notthistime5.

Emperor Obama

Obama is certainly a good diplomat. He’s given an interview to a fawning journalist from the Saudi-owned Arabiyah channel (as opposed to the more credible Jazeera) in which he talks nice. Examine his words, however, and you see that the basic parameters have not budged an inch. ‘Israel’s security’ remains paramount; Hamas and Hizbullah are implicitly labelled terrorist (Iran supports terrorist organisations); the liberation of Palestine is reduced to an issue of economic development. On the ground, meanwhile, Obama’s first week was marked by the imperial murder of tens of civilians in Pakistan. Richard Seymour  provides an excellent analysis here:

The first Democratic president in the modern era to be elected on an anti-war ticket is also, to the relief of neocons and the liberal belligerati, a hawk. Committed to escalation in Afghanistan, his foreign policy selections also indicate bellicosity towards Sudan and Iran. During his first week in office he sanctioned two missile attacks in Pakistan, killing 22 people, including women and children. And his stance on Gaza is remarkably close to that of the outgoing administration. The question now is how Obama will convince his supporters to back that stance. Bush could rely on a core constituency whose commitment to peace and human rights is, at the very least, questionable. Obama has no such luxury. In making his case, he will need the support of those “liberal hawks” who gave Bush such vocal support.

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Obama’s Vietnam?

‘Friday’s airstrikes are evidence Obama will take the hard line he promised in Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ writes Juan Cole. ‘But he should remember what happened to another president who inherited a war’. Like most western commentators Cole reproduces uncritically claims about the deaths of ‘foreign fighters’ (unconfirmed, for the record). Pakistani officials are usually just as eager to conjure up foreign fighters in order to mitigate the backlash that the extrajudicial murder of innocent tribals would elicit.

On Friday, President Barack Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, killing what Pakistani officials said were 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. Many of Obama’s initiatives in his first few days in office — preparing to depart Iraq, ending torture and closing Guantánamo — were aimed at signaling a sharp turn away from Bush administration policies. In contrast, the headline about the strike in Waziristan could as easily have appeared in December with “President Bush” substituted for “President Obama.” Pundits are already worrying that Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor’s halfhearted war into a major quagmire. What does Obama’s first military operation tell us about his administration’s priorities?

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Rashid Khalidi on Gaza

I’m no big fan of Rashid Khalidi. He is a rather tame academic, not quite the fighter that Edward Said was. When in 2007 the London Review of Books organized a symposium in New York on the Israel Lobby, he, to the bemusement of his own debating partners, spent the better part of his time arguing against his own side. Like many veterans of the PLO, he remains too much of a Fatah man to be a spokesman for all Palestinians. He recently made comments during his trip to Egypt which could have come from Muhammad Dahlan’s script. However, now it appears even he is finding it hard to be a Fatah man. The following is a more nuanced analysis of the Gaza situation than his earlier words in Egypt but he takes a few disingenuous digs at Hamas all the same.

It is commonplace to talk about the ‘fog of war’, but war can also clarify things. The war in Gaza has pointed up the Israeli security establishment’s belief in force as a means of imposing ‘solutions’ which result in massive Arab civilian suffering and solve nothing. It has also laid bare the feebleness of the Arab states, and their inability to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli military, to the despair and fury of their citizens. Almost from the moment the war began, America’s Arab allies – above all Egypt – found themselves on the defensive, facing accusations of impotence and even treason in some of the largest demonstrations the region has seen in years. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbullah in Lebanon, reserved some of his harshest criticism for the Mubarak regime; at Hizbullah rallies, protesters chanted ‘Where are you, Nasser?’ – a question that is also being asked by Egyptians.

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Greek govt under fire over U.S. arms to Israel

U.S. weapons destined for Israel have been blocked from passing through Greece due to opposition protest.

A Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday the transport had been cancelled at the request of the Greek government. Reports of the shipment had provoked a media outcry in Greece, where Israel’s 18-day-old offensive in Gaza is deeply unpopular.

“I think the Greek government has some issue with the offloading of some of that shipment in their country and we are finding alternative means of getting that entire shipment to its proper destination in Israel,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

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Islam Now, China Then

by M. Shahid Alam

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” — Henry Ford, 1916

On some days, a glance at the leading stories in the Western media strongly suggests that Muslims everywhere, of all stripes, have gone berserk. It appears that Muslims have lost their minds.

In any week, we are confronted with reports of Islamic suicide attacks against Western targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Western countries themselves; terrorists foiled before they could act; terrorist attacks gone awry; terrorists indicted; terrorists convicted; terrorists tortured; terrorist suspects kidnapped by CIA; or warnings of new terrorist attacks against Western targets.

Unprovoked, without cause – we are repeatedly told – Muslims everywhere, even those living in the West, are lashing out against the civilized West. Many in the Western world – especially in the US – are beginning to believe that the entire Islamic world is on the warpath against Civilization itself.

Expert commentators in Western media want us to believe that the Muslims have lost their minds. They tell us that Muslims are inherently, innately, perverse; that never before has violence been used in this way, against innocent civilians. It is always ‘innocent’ civilians.

Other peoples too have endured colonization, slavery, expulsions, extermination at the hands of Western powers: but none have responded with violence on this scale against the West. Certainly not with violence against civilians. Never have Aborigines, Africans, indigenous Americans, Hindus, Jews, or the Chinese targeted civilians. They never attacked Westerners indiscriminately. They never targeted ‘innocent Western civilians.’

Is this ‘insanity’ slowly raising its head across the Islamic world really unique? Is this ‘insanity’ a uniquely Islamic phenomenon? Is this a uniquely contemporary phenomenon? Is this ‘insanity’ unprovoked?

We cannot of course expect any history from the corporate US media on this Islamic ‘insanity.’ In order to take the moral high ground, to claim innocence, the rich and powerful – the oppressor classes – prefer not to talk about history, or invent the history that serves their interest.

What is surprising, however, is that few writers even on the left bring much history to their analysis of unfolding events. Not being a historian – of Islam, China or Britain – I can only thank serendipity for the little bit of history that I will invoke to provide some background to the ‘malaise’ unfolding in the Islamic world. A little history to connect Islam today to China in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Implausibly – perhaps for some – the history I invoke comes from Friedrich Engels – yes, he of the Communist Manifesto, friend of Karl Marx, revolutionary – writing in May 1857 when the British were waging war against China, known to history as the Second Opium War.

More implausibly, this history comes from an article published in a leading US newspaper: The New York Daily Tribune (available in Marx and Engels Internet Archiv). Yes, in some remote past, a leading US newspaper routinely published commentaries by the likes of Marx and Engels. Today, the publishers of NYT, the Washington Post or LA Times would become apoplectic just thinking about it.

During the First Opium War of 1840-42, when the British waged war  to defend their ‘right’ to smuggle opium into China – Friedrich Engels writes — “the people were quiet; they left the Emperor’s soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after defeat with Eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy.” Yes, in those times, even enlightened Westerners spoke habitually of Oriental fatalism, fanaticism, sloth, backwardness, and – not to forget their favorite – despotism.

However, something strange had overtaken the Chinese some fifteen years later. For, during the Second Opium War, writes Friedrich Engels, “the mass of people take an active, nay fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hongkong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation…They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat. They kill and kidnap every foreigner within their reach.”

Had the Chinese decided to trade one Oriental disease for another: fatalism for fanaticism? Ah, these Orientals! Why can’t they just stick to their fatalism? If only the Orientals could stick to their fatalism, all our conquests would have been such cakewalks!

It was no ordinary fanaticism either. Outside the borders of their country, the Chinese were mounting suicide attacks against Westerners. “The very coolies,” writes Friedrich Engels, “emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists…conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection…”

Why do the Chinese hate us?

No doubt the Europeans then were asking this question. And, like the democracy-mongers in the United States today, unwilling to examine the root causes, the history of their own atrocities, unwilling to acknowledge how they “throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to murder,” the Europeans then too were outraged. European statesmen and newspapers fulminated endlessly about Chinese barbarity, calling their attacks “cowardly, barbarous, atrocious…” The Europeans too called for more wars, endless wars, till China could be subdued, totally.

Friedrich Engels was not deceived by the moralizing of the British press. Yes, the Chinese are still ‘barbarians,’ but the source of this “universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners” was “the piratical policy of the British government.” Piratical policy? No, never! We are on a civilizing mission; la mission civilizatrice Européenne. It was not a message that the West has been ready to heed: then or now.

Why had the Chinese chosen this form of warfare? What had gone wrong? Was this rage born of envy; was it integral to the Chinese ethos; was this rage aimed only at destroying the West? Westerners claim “their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres” are cowardly; but, Friedrich Engels answers, the “civilization-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they [the Chinese] could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.” In other words, this was asymmetric warfare. If the weaker party in a combat possesses cunning, it will probe and fight the enemy’s weaknesses: not its strengths.

Then as now, this asymmetric warfare caused consternation in the West. How can the Europeans win when the enemy neutralizes the West’s enormous advantage in technology, when the enemy refuses to offer itself as a fixed target, when it deploys merely its human assets, its daring, cunning, its readiness to sacrifice bodies?

“What is an army to do,” asks Engels, “against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy’s country, how to maintain itself there?” The West again confronts that question in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The West has ‘penetrated into the enemy’s country,’ but is having considerable trouble maintaining itself there. Increasingly, Western statesmen are asking: Can they maintain this presence without inviting more attacks?

Friedrich Engels asked the British to give up “moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese.” Instead, he advises them to recognize that “this is a war pro aris et focis [“for altars and hearth”], a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war.” If we can ignore the stench of Western prejudice in this instance, there is a message here that the West might heed. Is it possible that the Muslims too are waging a “popular war,” a war for the dignity, sovereignty of Islamic peoples?

In 1857, the Chinese war against Westerners too was confined to Southern China. However, “it would be a very dangerous war for the English if the fanaticism extends to the people of the interior.” The British might destroy Canton, attack the coastal areas, but could they carry their attacks into the interior? Even if the British threw their entire might into the war, it “would not suffice to conquer and hold the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwang-si. What, then, can they do further?”

The United States and Israel now hold Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. How strong, how firm is their hold? On the one hand, they appear to be in a much stronger position than the British in China. They have the ‘rulers’ – the Mubaraks, Musharrafs and Malikis – in their back pockets. But how long can these ‘rulers’ stand against their people?

What if the insurgency that now appears like a distant cloud on the horizon – no larger than a man’s fist – is really the precursor of a popular war? What if the “extremists,” “militants,” “terrorists,” are the advance guard of a popular war to restore sovereignty to Islamic peoples? Can the US and Israel win this war against close to a quarter of the world’s population? Will this be a war worth fighting: worth winning?

Shouldn’t these great powers heed the words of Friedrich Engels? Shouldn’t they heed history itself. After nearly a century of hard struggle, the Chinese gained their sovereignty in 1948, driving out every imperialist power from its shores? Today, China is the world’s most powerful engine of capitalist development. It threatens no neighbor. Its secret service is not busy destabilizing any country in the world. At least not yet.

Imagine a world today – and over the past sixty years – if the West and Japan had succeeded in fragmenting China, splintering the unity of this great and ancient civilization, and persisted in rubbing China’s face in the dirt? How many millions of troops would the West have to deploy to defends its client states in what is now China – the Chinese equivalents of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq? If Vietnam bled the United States, imagine the consequences of a quagmire in China?

Would the United States prefer this turbulent but splintered China – held down at massive costs in blood and treasure, with bases, client states, wars, and unending terrorist attacks on American interests everywhere in the world – to the China that it has today, united, prosperous, at peace; a competitor but also one of its largest trading partners?

At what cost, and for how long, will the United States, Europe and Israel continue to support the splintering, occupation and exploitation of the Islamic heartland they had imposed during World War I? At what cost – to themselves and the peoples of the Islamic world? There are times when it is smarter to retrench than to hold on to past gains.

That time is now: and that time may be running out.

Another turn of the screw – another attack by the United States or Israel – and this window may close irrevocably. If wars, civil conflicts or revolutions sweep across the Islamic world – unlike the Chinese revolution, most likely this turbulence will not be confined to one segment of Asia. In one way or another, this violence will draw the whole world into its vortex. One cannot even begin to imagine all the ramifications, all the human costs of such a conflagration.

The most vital question before the world today is: Can the United States, Israel or both be prevented from starting this conflagration? 

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (2007). He may be contacted atalqalam02760@yahoo.com. Visit his website at: http://aslama.org. © M. Shahid Alam.

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