Archive | November, 2012

Gaza on my mind

17 Nov

One of the many fascinating aspects of discussing the Middle East conflict with people is the fixity of positions. A red mist seems to come down on people. They are either decidedly pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli and seem immune to argument. Discussing the Middle East with someone resembles a First World War battle: firing from fixed positions according to a pre-arranged fire-plan. There is little give and take, just the trading of stock phrases and positions.
But perhaps this fixity of positions is entirely justified because the issue itself seems immune from rational argument, common sense and humanity. This is not to say that the antagonists and their supporters are without rationality, sense or humanity. Instead, it is to point to the central fact of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: power matters and everything else pales. It is supremely depressing to reach such a realist assessment but the current assault on Gaza, and the wider conflict within which the assault on Gaza must be viewed, underscores that those with power dominate and those without suffer.
It also underscores that Responsibility to Protect, the International Criminal Court and other apparent ‘advances’ in relation to human rights matter not a jot when compared with power. Is there any point to international human rights law when we see such egregious flouting of human rights by both Hamas and Israel? The plain and simple fact is that Israel is able to pound Gaza because it receives political cover (as well as military and financial support) from the United States. The US has stopped the UN Security Council reaching any resolution on Gaza.
A ‘solution’ to the Groundhog Day politics of Israel/Palestine will not come about until or if the disappointing President Obama uses leverage over Israel. Or if Russia and China become activist on the issue (which isn’t going to happen). At the minute Israel has carte blanche, and that means more dead children and misery. Israel will decide on a ceasefire when it assesses that the ‘kill ratio’ is sufficiently in its favour. During the last assault on Gaza it was about 100:1. And we know what will happen after that: Hamas will replenish its missile stocks, lick its wounds and the cycle of provocation and over-reaction will begin all over again.
The recognition of the supremacy of realism must not be mistaken as some sort of argument that essentializes Israelis as being bad. Just look around the Arab region: it is a political sewer in which rulers dominate and everyone outside of the tent gets nothing. If the shoe were on the other foot (that is, if the US backed a small Arab state in a hostile Jewish region) we would expect this state to behave as abominably as Israel.
Given the dominance of realism (and indeed, listen to Israeli and Arab policy analysts and they use very realist language like ‘deterrence’ and ‘leverage’) what can be done? Well, I think sane heads have to call it as it is: there is little point in sticking plaster ceasefires if the fundamentals are not dealt with. These are the Israeli-imposed apartheid, chronic insecurity among virtually all in the region, the hostility in the region towards Israel, and an international system that is content with apartheid. That means we must stop once and for all talking about a ‘peace process’ and other claptrap. We must speak truth to power and call it as it is: a disgrace to humanity. Apartheid was wrong in South Africa and it is wrong here. The failure to recognize the reality of Israel is idiotic, just as the reasons to deny Palestinian statehood defy logic.
The primary responsibility for the dead children lies with the Hamas and IDF commanders. But the system that supports them, and here we must look to Washington, London and elsewhere, is not without responsibility.

Teenagers go to war

12 Nov

I’ve been reading a lot of military autobiography recently. Much of it is excellent: searing and reflective. One thing that comes through is that US soldiers from the Vietnam War seem considerably more disturbed than their contemporaries from World Wars One and Two. Why should that be the case? While it is impossible to qualitatively compare the horrors of particular conflict, it is safe to say that US soldiers fighting in World Wars One and Two, and Korea, witnessed considerable atrocity. So what makes Vietnam, and its veterans, different?
My theory is that US troops in the Vietnam War were the first modern teenagers to go to war. Certainly young men (and women) have been going to war since organized warfare began. But the Vietnam War was different in that the soldiers (some drafted, others voluntarily enlisting) were the first generation to experience the joys, freedoms and frustration of being a modern teenager. The United States was extraordinarily wealthy after WWII and it was an era of consumerism and massive cultural change. Many in this generation had been acculturated to a very optimistic version of the ‘American Dream’. They also had experienced immense freedoms of movement (primarily through increased access to motor vehicles) and forms of cultural expression that encouraged autonomy. Some even experienced the counter-culture of drugs and an alternative worldview that spoke of peace and love.
And then this generation ended up in Vietnam, in a war that few understood, fighting alongside unreliable hosts, and against an often unseen enemy. It was a war with plenty of atrocities (although qualitatively probably not much different from many other large-scale conflicts). The big difference, I would argue, is that this generation had tasted the promises of being a teenager only to have them taken away through a war that was hugely controversial at home. The other factor accounting for the searing honesty of many of the Vietnam era autobiographies is that publishers were more willing to publish accounts that deviated from the ‘stiff upper lip’ genre. As is clear from recently discovered secret recordings of transcripts from German WWII POWs, soldiers have always been keen on profanities. So the Vietnam troops were by no means the first to swear in a combat zone, but they were freer to reflect this in their autobiographies. The medicalization of trauma also opened up a new lexicon for troops to describe their experiences. But, for me, the deciding factor in making Vietnam era autobiographies so much more anguished is that it was the first was to have large numbers of modern teenagers in the ranks.

Just out: Against stabilization

6 Nov

New article just out in the inaugural issue of Stability.

The full article can be found here:

And the abstract is here:

This is a polemic against the concept and practice of stabilization as practiced by leading states from the global north in peace support interventions. It is not an argument against stability. Instead, it depicts stabilization as an essentially conservative doctrine that runs counter to its stated aims of enhancing local participation and legitimacy. It is an agenda of control that privileges notions of assimilation with international (western) standards and mainstreams the military into peace-support operations. As a result, the value of peace is undercut.

No easy exit for Assad

2 Nov

What is Assad to do? The question is not posed out of any sympathy for his plight. He has heaped his woes upon himself, and there are tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women more deserving of sympathy.

The question is asked instead to try to scope out possible ways of ending Syria’s civil war, or more precisely Assad’s rule. The options open to other rulers simply are not open to Assad. The system he has created (and again this is his fault) does not allow for Presidents to stand down. His rule rests on a tight clique of kin and co-religionists. By standing down, he would imperil this clique, existentially, materially and symbolically. The nature of Assad’s despotic dynasty, just like many neo-patrimonial regimes in Africa, means that holding power is everything. Conversely, opposition (if tolerated) is nothing; opposition means exclusion from resources, legitimacy and even security. The Syrian political system does not allow space for former-Presidents to end their days writing memoirs, convening think-tanks, and serving on the board of major corporations. The John Major option of writing about cricket is simply inconceivable.

This zero-sum or all or nothing nature of political power explains why Assad is fighting. Quite literally he is fighting for his political life, and very possibly his life. The alternatives are unappealing, especially if you are used to total power. Gaddafi was killed by the mob in inglorious circumstances. Mubarak has been humiliated. Saddam’s trial and execution strayed into farce. Asylum in Saudi Arabia (availed of by Idi Amin, and currently home to former Tunisian President Ben Ali) is unlikely to be available in this case given Riyadh’s antipathy towards Assad. The International Criminal Court looks like an exhausting route. An amicable outcome following talks with the Syrian opposition seems unlikely given that they have made Assad’s departure the first precondition of any talks.

There was a proposal some years ago from a US university to establish a prestigious fellowship scheme for retired African Presidents. It was simply a way to incentivise retirement. But it’s hard to imagine Assad as the visiting professor of …. Butchery.

So that leaves clinging to power as his regime becomes weakened by international sanctions and an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. Beyond a fight to the finish, there really seem to be only two realistic options. The first is assassination (and the Syrian opposition have been quite successful in getting bombs into the heart of the Damascus regime) and asylum in one of the few ‘friendly’ states out there (presumably Russia or Iran). The former is out of Assad’s hands, and the latter would be humiliating and not in the script. So, Syria is condemned to a long-running descent into more conflict.