The Humanitarian-Interventionist Complex and Syria

IRC ad on Facebook, 9-15-18

Over the past few months, my Facebook feed has been showing numerous, very alarmist ads from allegedly “humanitarian” Western NGOs, about the alleged “threats” faced by people in the various portions of Syria that the central government has been retaking  from the well-armed, extremist-dominated rebels who have controlled them for some years. On the right is one recent such ad, from the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

A number of things strikes me about these ads:

  1. The IRC’s fundraising slide on that same ad.

    It seems obscene for these organizations to try to do fundraising (which is what most of these ads ostensibly aim at) on the backs of people suffering from a prolonged civil conflict.

  2. On the basis of what algorithm did FB target me for these ads? Maybe the same algorithm that sends me ads for an Israeli settlement-based, anti-BDS organization?
  3. How can the people who run these allegedly “humanitarian” organizations square the blatantly one-sided nature of their ads– and presumably also of the programs that they run that underlie the ads– with the norms of a humanitarian movement that has traditionally sought to serve all needy humans on an equal, non-political basis and to insulate itself from any political partisanship?

For some time now, I’ve been concerned about the increasingly political– and I should specify, pro-“Western”, pro-militarist– nature of organizations like the IRC, Mercy Corps (which also sends me lots of similar ads), or Human Rights Watch, or even Amnesty International.

Back in 1990, you will recall, Amnesty played a particularly dirty role in the “Kuwaiti incubators” affair. That year, when Iraq was illegally occupying Kuwait, many people in the United States and other Western countries were deeply moved– and in many cases, moved squarely into the pro-war camp— by the “Nayirah” testimony, in which a young Kuwaiti teen tearfully told a US Congressional group that Iraqi soldiers had looted incubators from Iraqi hospitals, tossing out the  babies who’d been in them. That testimony was later revealed as completely baseless, and “Nayirah” herself was revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador in Washington, who had never been in Kuwait during the occupation by Iraq, as she had claimed.

One of the many very troubling aspects of the Nayirah testimony was that at the time, Amnesty corroborated her claims. In a news conference that Pres. GHW Bush gave on Oct. 9, 1991, as he worked to ramp up support for U.S. military action against Iraq, he cited Amnesty’s reporting on a number of alleged Iraqi atrocities– including on the incubator incident, noting that Amnesty had been “debriefing many of the same people at the border [as had Nayirah’s alleged sources.]”

Thus, in the context of a U.S. president working to gin up support for an upcoming war, we saw Bush citing the (as it turned out, completely baseless) claims made by a non-governmental group whose stated raison d’etre had always until then been to rein in and end abuses committed by governments. Go figure.

In recent months, when I started seeing the IRC’s series of extremely one-sided Facebook ads about Syria– they circulated similarly alarmist ads earlier about “Aleppo” and “Eastern Ghouta”– I felt similarly upset at seeing an organization that had originally been founded to provide humanitarian relief to those fleeing Nazism now being so fully co-opted into the partisan, imperialist/militarist agenda of those working for regime change in Damascus.

Over the years, I’ve had quite few dealings with the IRC in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, where they have a significant “resettlement hub” that is run (under contract from the US government) to provide services to some of the refugees taken in by the United States and resettled in Charlottesville. So I started researching the organization a bit more. Here is some of what I found, both from the 2016 version of the “990” form that they have to file annually with the IRS (downloadable e.g. here in PDF)  and from Wikipedia.

First, from the 990 form:

(A) The IRC may present itself as a worthy citizen organization, and one that desperately needs money from the general citizenry, as claimed in its Facebook ads. But actually, in 2016, it got $415.4 million of its $727.8 million in revenues (57%) from government grants. (Also, that year, its revenues exceeded its expenses by $33.7 million.)

(B) Its Executive President is David Milliband, the former UK Foreign Secretary. For working 37.5 hours/week for the IRC that year, he took home a compensation package totaling $886,884. I imagine that by now it is more?

(C) On its website, IRC lists its board members, many of whom are CEOs of big US corporations or big financiers. It also lists a roster of “Overseers”, who “provide advice on policy, advocacy, fundraising and public relations.” They include Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger. Need I say more?

The IRC’s Wikipedia page currently has a couple of big flags on it, saying:

Nonetheless, the page does provide a lot of very revealing information about the organization, and some useful links that I plan to follow up. Like this one, to a  very expensive book titled “Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee and the CIA.”

Here’s what I think are some key paras in the Wikipedia page:

… So, in light of all of the above, I started to re-think the goal of all those ads– from Mercy Corps, as well as the IRC– that I keep seeing on my Facebook page.

Neither of these organizations needs the paltry number of $$ that I might be able to donate to them, if so moved. Neither do their heads who (like the heads of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty) pull in salaries that are more than 20 times what I ever earned at the height of my career as a researcher, writer, and columnist.

Despite all their window-dressing, these are not (any longer) organizations that are earnest, grassroots-based endeavors to pool the efforts of a great mass of citizens to work for the common good. No. They are an adjunct to the military-industrial complex– one that I like to call the Humanitarian-Interventionist Complex.

Of course, throughout the centuries of Western imperialism and colonialism, these countries’ leaders have always attempted to “sell” their more aggressive/imperialist military actions against other countries to their domestic publics as being in some way “humanitarian” ventures. That tradition goes back a long way, and has been revived in many new forms since the advent of social media. Libya and some of the stages of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan (“save the poor Afghan women”, etc) are just some recent examples.

But Syria seems to be the place where the Humanitarian-Interventionist Complex has in recent years had the greatest amounts of US/Western government funding to play with… and they’ve used a portion of that funding to help their governmental backers gin up support for Western war aims there.

And that, it seems to me, is what most of those social-media ad buys from HIC groups like the IRC or Mercy Corps are really aiming at. They truly cannot care very deeply if you or I would respond to the ad by giving them our paltry donation. But what they principally aim to do, on behalf of their governmental and big business backers, is to keep framing the narrative that the real story in Syria is one of “innocent civilians facing a dire threat from the Syrian government.” They bring the names of those allegedly threatened communities constantly to people’s attention: “Aleppo”!”Eastern Ghouta”! “Idlib”! (How many Americans, honestly, could even find these places on a map, know how to pronounce their names, or know anything about the people who live there and what they lived through during their time under the control of the “rebels?)

… And the credibility that these HIC organizations have with the generally “liberal” portions of the Western public is a huge political asset to the warmongers.

So it’s Nayirah’s testimony all over again, re-made for a social-media environment. Don’t click on the “Donate” button of such organizations. If you do want to give to an organization that provides relief services to the war-ravaged people of Syria on a basis of non-partisanship and need rather than Western war aims, then probably giving to the International Committee for the Red Cross would be your best bet…

Elizabeth Tsurkov on the failings of Syria’s “rebels”

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a young Research Associate with the West Jerusalem-based “Forum for Regional Thinking”, who has published several articles and hundreds of tweets over the past two to three years that were all strongly supportive of the anti-government forces in Syria. All the more notable, then, that on July 10, FORTH (as it is known) published a lengthy article in which Tsurkov reported that disaffection and hatred toward the leaders of the rebel factions and all associated with them is widespread among the ordinary Syrian residents of the dwindling number of rebel-held zones.

Tsurkov also highlights the fact that most “international” reporting of the situation (including popular attitudes) inside the rebel-held zones is deeply flawed because,

reporters for international media outlets have rarely ventured into these regions. Even when they do, they are heavily reliant on local fixers who are supporters of the revolution and motivated by the desire to highlight the atrocities perpetrated by the regime and its allies against the population…

Most Syrian opposition media outlets and media activists in rebel-held territories do not strive to offer objective reporting and see themselves as part of the revolutionary struggle against Assad…

Another factor that has reduced coverage of discontent among civilians toward the rebels is journalists’ fear of reporting and civilians fear of complaining about rebel abuses and corruption, as journalists and civilians who have done so have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped and tortured by rebels.

By contrast, she writes that in her past 17 months of investigations (which she describes as “research”), she

made an effort to seek out unemployed, impoverished Syrians, without connections to rebel factions, media outlets or activist collectives, while also relying on traditional sources such as interviews with rebels, NGO workers and media activists, as well as monitoring conversations and posts of Syrians online. The names of all interviewees were changed for their safety.

She had, she wrote, conducted all the interviews she did with people inside Syria via various messaging apps.

There are some problems with her investigative methods– including the basic ethical problem of a Research Associate at a very Israeli institution conducting “remote”, vox-pop interviews with citizens of a country that is in a long-unresolved state of war with Israel, and some of whose key territory remains under Israeli occupation 51 years after 1967. But still, Tsurkov’s report contains some intriguing information and a first attempt to explain the attitudes she uncovers that does a lot to counter the views so widespread among Western publics (as inculcated by many years of deeply flawed “reporting” by the Western corporate media) about the strength of the popular support allegedly enjoyed by the various rebel leaderships and the depth of the antipathy most Syrian citizens allegedly have toward their country’s government.

The evidence she adduces about the hatred that many Syrian citizens have toward the rebel leaders is fragmentary but intriguing. A couple of little examples:

Hossam, a medical worker in Daraa told me “most civilians here hate the rebels”, due to abuses against civilians, in particular kidnappings for ransom and of people who voice opposition to them. Raed, an activist in western Aleppo said that rebels kidnap “anyone who disagrees with them or says anything bad about them, civilian or rebel.”

In fact, the “native informants” whose views she recounts seem uniformly critical of the various rebel factions, along with the media organs and other NGO’s associated with them, and the outside powers whose flows of aid allow the rebel factions to survive and to continue to conduct their oppressive and parasitical rule over the populations under their control. Not a single one of the twenty or so anonymized individuals whose views she reports says anything to excuse or explain the actions of the rebel leaders. That is pretty stunning, given how strongly her previous writings had been in their support of the anti-government movement. But as she wrote in this latest report, “Interviews I have conducted online with civilians inside rebel-held Syria throughout the war indicate that the level of dissatisfaction [with the rebels] has only grown in 2017 and 2018.” (My emphasis.)

Built around the richly suggestive (but still fragmentary) tapestry of anonymized vox-pop quotes in Tsurkov’s report she produces some still preliminary attempts to analyze and explain her findings. At one point she writes:

Some failings of local governance can be attributed to regime bombings and policies, mismanagement, lack of funding for aid and services. Many other problems stem from corruption, nepotism and wanton disregard for the lives of civilians.

This formulation makes it seem as if she is willing to start considering that the rebels’ own failings are at least as much to blame for the popular disaffection as are the admittedly harsh effects of the government’s military actions, if not more so. To me, that is intriguing– especially, coming from her.

Back in late Spring 2011, I was one of the very few people in Washington DC who knew something about Syria who argued publicly that support for the Syrian government was much more widespread among the Syrian public than was support for the anti-government forces, and that this situation was therefore very different from that obtaining in Tunisia or Egypt, which had both seen the recent overthrow of their leaders by nonviolent mass movements. The presentation I gave at DC’s Middle East Institute in May 2011 starts at 4:18 in this partial video of the event, and continues into this segment. In November 2011, I gave this presentation on the topic at the Turkish-American think-tank, SETA.

My voice in the US national discourse on Syria speedily got drowned out by other voices that (unlike mine) were always heavily funded and supported by interested outside parties. A veritable tsunami of GCC funding flooded into the Washington DC think-tanks, always strongly insistent that the views on Syria only of dedicated anti-government analysts would be supported and promoted. The Middle East Institute was just one of those places, along with many others. SETA, of course, always had close ties with the Turkish government. I was never invited back to speak on Syria at either place and neither as far as I know was anyone else who dared to question the strong anti-Asad bias of the funders.

If the tsunami of GCC and Turkish funding was enough to stifle reasonable discussion in Washington DC, then of course those same streams of funding (and weapons), as well as those that speedily came along from Washington itself, had a far more catastrophic effect within Syria itself– both in creating and fueling the armed opposition movement that has kept the country mired in terrible civil war for the past seven years and in stifling any discussion of the shortcomings of the anti-Asad movements and leaders.

But now at last, as numerous centers of previous “rebel” control have surrendered back to the government, the voices of the Syrian people long held under the iron fist of the foreign-funded “rebels” are starting to emerge back into the global discourse. This has certainly started to happen in the areas where the government has regained control, through the reporting of Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, Robert Fisk, and others; though it remains deeply shocking, the extent to which these people’s on-the-ground reports from inside Syria are still pooh-poohed and demeaned by the overlords in the global discourse-policing business, who deride these people as misguided “Asad-lovers” or whatever.

So what will the global discourse policers say now, about Elizabeth Tsurkov’s latest article, which reports on the rebel-critical attitudes of many people who remain in the areas controlled by the rebels, and which comes from someone with a long and well-demonstrated sympathy for the rebels? Let us wait and see…

Palestine: The Return of “Return” (and Jerusalem)

In the lead-up to May 15, a key date in the history of the Palestinians’ ongoing “Nakba” (catastrophe) and the date– 70 years ago, in 1948– of the establishment of the State of Israel, grassroots organizations in Gaza and other parts of Palestine have been engaging in a six-week-long action called “The Great March of Return.” The aim of the action– as described in The Nation by one of its originators, Ahmad Abu Rtemah– has been “to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.”

The Great March seems to be being organized in a way similar to the weekly nonviolent mass actions that have been maintained in Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, and some other threatened West Bank villages for many years now. In those villages, each Friday after noon-time prayers, the population gathers to undertake some kind of a nonviolent mass activity– often, with very creative themes, and always designed  to encourage the participation of families and, where possible, sympathetic visitors. In Gaza, the Great March was launched on Friday, March 30, which was the 42nd anniversary of the original “Land Day” protest in the north of what is currently Israel, on March 30, 1976. On that day, Palestinian citizens of Israel held a nonviolent gathering to protest the expropriation by the state of some of their ancestral lands–and six of them were shot dead by the Israeli security forces.

Continue reading “Palestine: The Return of “Return” (and Jerusalem)”

5 steps to stop Trump from blowing up the world by the end of May

You have to believe the world is in trouble when a Defense Secretary hailed by Pres. Trump (and many others) as “Mad Dog Mattis” now looks as if he will be the most moderate high-level person in Washington’s national-security team.

By the decisions he’s made over the past two weeks, to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, and National Security Council advisor H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, Trump is now veering into full “Dr. Strangelove” mode.

Pompeo, who was merely a very hawkish Member of Congress until Trump named him CIA Director last March, still needs to be confirmed as Secretary of State– though Tillerson has already left. Pompeo’s confirmation hearings are expected to be held in April.

John Bolton’s appointment as NSC advisor doesn’t require any Senate confirmation, so he’ll be taking up the job on April 9. He has reportedly already started making plans for deep changes in the staffing of the NSC. Just as well for him that his new job doesn’t require confirmation: His views are so extremely hawkish that back in 2006, even a Republican-controlled Senate refused to confirm him as Ambassador to the UN!

The coming two months may well be pivotal ones for the whole global system, in which the integrity of the system of political institutions and power dynamics that has existed since 1945 could see its deepest challenge and its deepest upsets yet. Between them, Trump, Bolton, Mattis, and Pompeo will be controlling by far the world’s greatest nuclear arsenal and by far its largest and most capable array of non-nuclear forces.

And two key deadlines in Washington’s relations with presumed adversaries are fast approaching:

  • On Iran, on or around May 12, Pres. Trump is required (as a result of prior constraining legislation from Congress) to “re-certify” that Tehran has been complying with the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. He has said that before he re-certifies, he wants Congress to pass some specified, yet-more-restrictive legislation on Iran. Regardless whether that happens or not, if he fails to provide re-certification and announces a decision to exit the JCPOA, that will cause a major world crisis. The JCPOA, remember, has six other signatories in addition to the U.S. and Iran: Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the EU.
  • On North Korea, Trump recently informed the government of South Korea that he would accept the invitation from North Korean President Kim Jong-Un to meet with him in person, “by the end of May.” Any backing away from that decision, or the taking of any other moves to escalate tensions with North Korea, could at that point precipitate a deep political crisis in Washington’s relations with South Korea, China, and numerous othr East Asian countries.

John Bolton has a long and rich history of pushing for aggressive policies against both Iran and North Korea. Regarding Iran, just two months ago he wrote that Washington’s goal should be, “ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary,” which comes up next February. (Hat-tip on this to Robin Wright‘s excellent recent piece on Bolton.)

Bolton’s hostility to the Islamic Republic of Iran goes back a long way. During the George W. Bush presidency, when he was Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control, he systematically skewed the evidence he had about Iran’s nuclear program, in an attempt to win fiercer presidential policies against Tehran, as Gareth Porter has shown. He was also, in that position, a major provider to his boss, Sec. of State Colin Powell, and others of the fabricated evidence that helped jerk Pres. Bush into the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Bolton, lest we forget, was a major figure pushing (along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) for the invasion of Iraq. And he is one of the few original advocates for that war who is still vociferous in saying that he still thinks it was a good idea.

In a podcast I conducted with veteran UN-watcher Ian Williams last Saturday, Williams noted that Bolton is a true paleo-conservative. Unlike the neocons who married their desire to invade other countries with professions of an intent to build “democracies” there, Williams said, Bolton and his ilk just want to “go in there, overthrow things, then move on.” These are the kind of policies we can expect him to argue for, regarding Iran, North Korea, or other countries. And he will be the person constantly whispering in Pres. Trump’s ear, and totally controlling all the information that reaches the president on any foreign-affairs issue.

This, at a time when Trump clearly seems to be feeling under great threat from  the Mueller investigation, the growing chorus of women who accuse him of gross sexual improprieties, and the many other accusations of electoral irregularities and influence-peddling coming his way. A “Wag the Dog” foreign military adventure may seem attractive to him in the weeks ahead.

So what can those of us US citizens who want to prevent any such disaster do? Here’s my list:

  1. Swiftly (re-)build in your home town a broad-based antiwar movement of the kind that existed all over America prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As I wrote recently, the pre-2003 antiwar movement kind of collapsed once the invasion started. But veterans of that movement would know how to restart it– and could probably do so in coalition with the “Women’s March” organizers and pro-gun-control organizers who have emerged in the past 15 months. Hometown organizing is the key both to building grassroots pressure on legislators and to building a strong national movement.
  2. Build the broadest possible (even if temporary) domestic alliances in this phase of rebuilding the antiwar movement. Sen. Bernie Sanders got speedily out of the gate on Friday with a terrific 4-minute video listing the top reasons Bolton should not be NSC advisor that was published on Twitter. But antiwar people should not hitch their wagon to Sen. Sanders or any other single political leader or party at this time. (Even many Republicans can be expected to be appalled by the threats that Bolton and Pompeo pose… )
  3. Remain vigilant in demanding solid evidence of any claims of infractions or provocations by Iran, North Korea, Syria, or other presumed Trump/Bolton targets, and in demanding only the most highly qualified experts to analyze that evidence. We all know the way in which, under G.W. Bush, the evidence against Iraq was twisted and misrepresented. We should not allow anyone to be similarly fooled again.
  4. Build the broadest possible (even if temporary) international coalitions to expose and rein in the imperial aggressivity of the Trump/Bolton White House. Such coalitions should of course include members of antiwar movements from all round the world. But they might, in the present phase, include other political forces whose positions on a range of other issues we might disagree with– including pro-government movements in countries directly on the Trump/Bolton target list, or in other significant countries in the international system. US citizens who stand up to announce respect for the rights of Iran’s, or Syria’s, or North Korea’s people to be free of the threat of US regime change and able to determine their own future may be fearful of being labeled “sympathizers” of those country’s current governments. No! As during earlier eras of US aggressivity against Cuba or Vietnam, we would merely by standing by our respect for the self-determination of all the world’s peoples.
  5. Use the Pompeo confirmation hearings and every other political opportunity possible to demand support from our legislators for international norms including the inviolability of existing treaties (like the JCPOA on Iran) and the non-use of force in international affairs.

Why does Washington’s imperialist warmaking continue?

(This is v.2 of this blog post. I edited it to try to give a better picture of the casualty tolls in Iraq from the 2003 decision to invade. But those numbers are still really hard to capture. ~HC.)

In the months leading up to March 19, 2003, when Pres. George W. Bush launched an unprovoked and completely optional war of “total regime change” against Iraq, I was proud to take part in several of the broad and spirited antiwar demonstrations and other actions that took place all around the United States and the world.

But we failed to stop Bush from launching his illegal war.

It was 15  years ago this week, on March 19, 2003, that Bush unleashed the war. The negative consequences of that decision– primarily on Iraq and its people, but also on the United States and the integrity of the global order– were massive, and continue to this day. They include (but are not limited to) the following:

  1. The number of those who died directly or indirectly as a result of the invasion of Iraq or the numerous secondary conflicts sparked by the invasion has been estimated at around half a million. Around 4,500 U.S. service-members lost their lives. The numbers of those Iraqi residents wounded or displaced during the 15 years of conflict has been considerably higher. All these casualty figures continue to rise.
  2. The physical infrastructure of Iraq, a country of some 33 million souls, whose schools, hospitals, universities, road system, artistic infrastructure, etc, had already been very badly damaged by 13 years of extremely punitive, US-led sanctions, received considerable additional blows, leading to numerous public-health crises and de-development.
  3. Continue reading “Why does Washington’s imperialist warmaking continue?”

The less-mentioned lives of Mrs. Krim

This week, US media have contained many glowing obituaries of a 91-year-old medical researcher called Mathilde Krim, who in the early 1980s played an apparently huge role in publicizing and destigmatizing the then-new disease of HIV/AIDS and in mobilizing funding for NGOs and research centers working to understand the disease and treat its many victims. Dr. Krim died on January 15.

The New York Times, for example, carried this obituary, covering more than half a page, that devoted nearly all its column inches to the many contributions Dr. Krim had made to AIDS research.

What that obit referred to only in passing was the role she had played in immediate post-1945 Europe as a gun-runner for the Irgun– described there only as part of the “Zionist underground” rather than (as would have been more accurate) an already well-known terror group.

Mathilde and JohnsonBut neither the NYT nor any other Western MSM outlet I have seen/heard has made any mention of the role Mrs. Krim played as a very close confidante to Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson during the crucial days leading up to and during Israel’s “Six Day War” of 1967 again its Arab neighbors.

In those days, Mrs. Krim’s husband (her second) was Arthur B. Krim, a prominent Hollywood lawyer who was Chair of the Democratic National Finance Committee. Conveniently, the Krims had a ranch in Texas right next to Pres. Johnson’s; and it was a barely hidden secret in leading government circles in Israel and the United States at the time that Mrs. Krim was extremely close to Lyndon Johnson.

In the days leading up to the war, the many forms of “signaling” conducted between Washington and Tel Aviv were extremely important. Israel’s Labor Party PM, Levi Eshkol, needed to win support from Washington for the strategy he pursued in the lead-up to this war, which he and his generals were planning in exquisite detail in those days. And he needed reassurances from Washington that Pres. Johnson would back him, before he and his generals finally launched the “blitz” against the Arab armies that destroyed nearly all their capabilities in the first hours of the war. Mrs. Krim was almost certainly one key channel for those messages. She and Johnson were at their ranches together in the days leading up to the war (with several in-person visits and phone calls recorded between them); and then she went to Washington DC when he did, once the war broke out.

Mrs. Johnson, meanwhile, was suffering from what was described as a massive headache, and stayed in Texas.

More details about Mathilde Krim’s relationship with Johnson in that crucial period can be found in Donald Neff’s 1985 book Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days that Changed the Middle East. I don’t have a copy to hand but shall look for one shortly.

The huge role that Mrs. Krim played in 1967 is well-known to everyone who has seriously studied US-Israeli relations at that time. After all, she was an integral part of a well-oiled pro-Israeli influence movement at the heart of the US political system, and the DC-Tel Aviv signaling process that she was part of worked strongly in Israel’s favor to transform not just the Middle East but the whole shape of global politics. (It also led to the misery of the people of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem; Gaza, and the Golan Heights: all of whom continue until today to live under the military occupation rule initiated by that war.)

So surely, that role Mrs. Krim played in the events of May-June 1967 should have received some mention in the news media this week? That it has not, thus far, probably tells us a lot about the extreme skittishness with which the Western MSM continues to address any topics related to the deep entanglement of so much of the US political elite– especially the Democratic Party– with their counterparts in Israel.

Syria, the Western “left”, and the Palestinian-rights movement

I’m sorry that I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for so long. There has been a lot to ponder in international affairs. But I’ve been busy for the past 7-plus years publishing other people’s work. I feel very good about what my publishing company, Just World Books, has achieved. But I regret that because I’ve poured so much of my time and attention into the publishing, I’ve had so little time left to do my own writing.

Crucial among my concerns has been the question of how and why so much of the western “left”– a force that played such a strong role in the antiwar and broadly anti-imperialism movement in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003– has become so deeply co-opted into the allegedly “liberal/humanitarian” wing of the imperialist movement over the past 14 years.

There is much that I hope to write about this over the coming months. My thinking on the topic still evolves. But it already seems clear to me that a number of processes have been at work:

  1. The erosion of the whole memory/immediacy of the question of imperialism and the need to counter it, as I understood it back when I was young in the UK, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many younger people in the west today think that imperialism/anti-imperialism is “tired old dogma” or whatever. Or, they talk glibly, in re Syria, about “dual imperialisms”– that is, Russian along with US/Western– without any appreciation of the relevance of the history of western imperialism in the M.E. region or the significance of the fact that Russia is in Syria as the invited ally of the legitimate government of Syria wile the US/Saudi/western forces are there to disrupt, hobble, or topple the country’s entire governing system, in the continuation of plans that the Zionists and Americans have pursued for many decades now.

Continue reading “Syria, the Western “left”, and the Palestinian-rights movement”

2017: A crucial year for the Palestine Question

Several people have been noting that next year, 2017, will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, and Golan. But the imminent arrival of this somber– and truly mind-boggling– anniversary reminds me that 2017 will mark important anniversaries of three other crucial developments in the Palestine Question, too. These are:

  • The centennial (100-year anniversary, no less!) of the Balfour Declaration, the diktat from the British Foreign Secretary that imperial London would support the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine– whatever that meant… but would do so only provided that the “civil and political rights” of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine would not be adversely affected. (Fat chance!)
  • The 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine– which gave Israel (along with its conjoined twin, the never-born Palestinian Arab state) the only “birth certificate” it has ever had in international law; and
  • The 30th anniversary of the launching of the First Intifada, which started in Gaza on December 9, 1987, spreading rapidly through the whole of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Make no mistake about it: 50 years of rule by a foreign military is already a terrible travesty, and a crime against the whole Lockean concept that government can only legitimately be exercised “through the consent of the governed.” When the international community most recently codified and regulated the whole concept of rule by “military occupation”, in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (especially the 4th one), it was only ever envisaged that military occupation by a foreign military power would be a temporary, or short-term situation, pending the conclusion of a conflict-resolving final peace treaty.

But for Palestinians and the legitimate indigenous residents of occupied Golan? No. For them, occupation has hardened into a 50-year-old force that because of Israel’s massive (and completely illegal)  policy of moving of large numbers of its own civilians into the West Bank and Syria’s Golan region now looks harder than ever to reverse or displace.

I remember back in early 1987, when pro-peace (or pro-peace-ish) Israelis first started facing up to idea that their occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan was about to hit the 20-year mark. They were nonplussed! “How did this happen!” some of them exclaimed. That was back then, when there was still a fairly large “Peace Now” movement in Israel…

Six months after June 1987, the first intifada broke out. What heady (and painful) days those were for Palestinians. It may be hard to remember now, but traveling among all the cities of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and between those cities and Gaza was still relatively easy to do. Jerusalem was the organizing hub for the whole intifada. Throughout the six years that followed, the occupied territories were abuzz with numerous, very creative forms of nonviolent resistance…

Oslo, and the “return” soon thereafter to the OPT’s of the PLO leadership apparatus, put an end to all of that. Oslo ushered in, in quick order, the severing of Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank by an Israeli ring of steel; and then the progressive quadrillement of the whole of the West Bank– its dividing-up into tiny, mutually impenetrable cantons– by the new Israeli road system that had been specifically allowed by the PLO leadership as part of the Oslo arrangements; and the cutting-off of Gaza which later allowed Israel’s imposition on it of a debilitating, total siege…

At this point, nearly 30 years after 1987, I think the most constructive and realistic way to view “the occupation” is not as a singular step that started in 1967 that was somehow a “deviation” from what “should” have been Israel’s rightful path, but rather as a continuation of the settler-colonial process that started to gain international political traction with Lord Balfour’s declaration of 1917… and then won a serious (and troublingly “colonial”) international imprimatur from the infant United Nations in 1947…and has certainly continued since 1967 with Israel’s increasingly blatant colonization of the West Bank (and Golan.)

So let’s not just look at 1967. Let’s look at 1947, too– the year just 20 years earlier than 1967 when (a) the United Nations voted to give half of Palestine, lock-stock-and-barrel, to its overwhelmingly recently arrived population of Jewish settlers– this, in an era when everywhere else in the world de-colonization was already underway; and (b) the leaders of the Zionist yishuv in Palestine took the Partition Plan as their carte blanche (as Ilan Pappe has so rightly documented) to start launching their program of anti-Palestinian ethnic cleansing in–and soon enough also beyond– the areas the Partition Plan had allotted them. Yes, as Pappe has shown in his work, the Nakba started in November 1947.

And yes, the period of time that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan is far, far longer than the earlier period during which it controlled “only” the area within its pre-1967 boundaries (which were already, as we know, considerably broader than what the UN gave to the “Jewish state” in the Partition Plan.)

… And let’s look, too, at 1917, the year that Chaim Weizmann, Lord Rothschild, and other Zionist leaders managed to persuade British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to issue his infamous declaration, which was later incorporated into all the post-WWI peace agreements– as part of which, by amazing happenstance, Britain emerged with a neo-imperial “Mandate” from the League of Nations to rule over Palestine (and Jordan and Iraq)… just until these countries’ own inhabitants should be “ready” to exercise self-rule, you understand.

1917 came 32 years after the infamous Conference of Berlin,  in which the European powers sat round and solemnly carved up the whole of the African continent amongst themselves, to let each participating power engage in settler colonialism, looting, and rapine within its designated zone, exactly as it wished. But still, by 1917, the tide of global opinion was already starting to turn against settler colonialism and the “rights” of all the world’s peoples were much on the lips of diplomats.

Zionists have often tried to portray their movement as one of “national liberation” from foreign (including British) rule. In truth, though, they have always relied on the patronage of other, much larger, globally powerful states in order to realize their settler-colonial objectives in historic Palestine. That was the case in 1917. It was the case in 1947. It was the case in 1967. And it remains the case, today. Without the support that Washington has lavished on Israel– within its current, expansionist borders– for several decades now, there is no way that Israel could have defied all the norms by which the whole of the rest of the world community has to abide… and could have done so, continuously, for the whole of the past 50 years.

The publishing company that I founded in 2010, Just World Books, has published numerous great books on the Palestine Question. You can see the whole list of our publications here. Now, we are  working on our plans for the books we’ll be publishing later this year, and in 2017. (Stay tuned!) And we’re also, along with our friends, allies, and partners, planning to organize a great series of events around the whole United States in 2017, so that communities everywhere around the country can better understand what is happening in Palestine/Israel. More people in the United States than ever before are now hungry for good information about what’s happening in Palestine, and eager to understand both how the situation got to be where it is today, and what our own country’s role in that has been.

There’s no doubt that 2017 will be a crucial year for broadening the discussion of what’s happening in Palestine/Israel. But we shouldn’t just be looking at 50 years of occupation. We need to look, too, at 100 years of Western-supported Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine, the 70-year anniversary of the Partition Plan and the Nakba that it sparked, and the 30-year anniversary of the First Intifada. When we look at all these anniversaries and put them into perspective alongside each other, then we can much better understand the state of the Palestine Question today.


70th anniversary of Sétif massacre

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the massacre that the “Free” French forces committed against Algerians in the wilaya of Sétif in May 1945.  This was at the very same time that the victorious Allies in Europe were celebrating their victory over Nazism. During World War II, many Algerians had fought alongside the “Free” French, believing the propaganda they used about “liberty, equality, and brotherhood”. So once it was clear that the “Free” French and their other anti-Nazi allies would be winning in Europe, many of the former Algerian fighters from Sétif, holding their own victory parade in their hometown, held up banners demanding what they had been promised… The French response? A prolonged and very punitive massacre…

My dear friend Landrum Bolling was an American newsman in North Africa at the time. Hearing rumors of the massacre, he went to Sétif to find out what had happened, carving right through all the French attempts to cover it up. You can read a report (in French) of Landrum’s account what he saw, in El Watan today.

I’m very pleased that an interview with him that I blogged ten years ago helped bring his testimony back to public notice… But really angry that my blog archives here have become so corrupted that I can’t find that blog post any more. Darn it.


NYT’s lazy, content-free reporting on Algeria

Today’s New York Times carried an article reported from the Algerian capital, Algiers, by staff reporter Aida Alami. What a waste of a reporting opportunity! This was the first time an NYT correspondent had been writing from inside this important North African country for a long time. Previous NYT pieces about Algeria were one on March 1 on some serious antifracking protests in the south, reported by Carlotta Gall from who knows where (no dateline given, and no sourcing for what she wrote, either); and an AP story from last December 20 about Algeria feeling the effects of the oil price collapse… So clearly, for Ms. Alami to get into Algeria was a major opportunity for some good, well-informed, on-the-ground reporting.

She flubbed it.

Her article is headlined “In Algeria, Entrepreneurs Hope Falling Oil Prices Will Spur Innovation”. It consists almost entirely of interviews with two Algerian guys aged 30 and 38 who founded a PR company in the capital, Algiers, and recently (last February) organized a conference on “innovation” and “success”, under the rubric “Fikra” (Thought). The other named source is someone described as a senior analyst at the political-risk research firm Eurasia; but his location is not disclosed, so it’s likely that Alami spoke to him outside Algeria.

Does Ms. Alami provide us with any flavor of what life is like in today’s Algiers? None at all! As it happens, I was in the country for most of this past week, and in Algiers itself for most of that period. I could tell you about the bustling downtown pedestrian zones, the busy port operations, the stifling traffic jams, the tens of thousands of students at the capital city’s three massive universities, the construction zones (often completely Chinese-staffed and -run) all around the city, the bookstores and restaurants, the well-cleaned streets often with beautiful streetside plantings, etc etc. You get no sense of the city or the lives of its people whatsoever from Ms. Alami’s thin and ill-reported piece.

But the piece is far worse than actually ill-reported. It is massively misreported, including in the following ways:

(1) Ms. Alami writes:

Since [the] French colonial era ended in the early 1960s after a bloody war, Algeria has been relatively closed to the world culturally, politically and economically.

This is absolute nonsense– and is belied by the little bios she provides for the two entrepreneurs she talked to. Of one, she says he “travels between Nice, in France, where he has another company” (though she doesn’t name the other place where he travels between, I assume it’s Algiers.) Of the other, she says he was educated at King’s College, London…

One of the the things I did in Algeria this past week was attend an international conference of librarians, who came to the east-Algerian city of Constantine from many parts of the world. Now, it is true that a handful of foreign participants in our conference– as Ms. Alami also reported of February’s Fikra conference– did not get their visas in time to attend. But organizers of my conference said that at least one participant had been refused permission to come to Algeria by her employer, a major research institute in France… Go figure.

Culturally, Algeria has produced numerous fine writers renowned throughout (mainly) the French-speaking world; a unique, indigenous form of hip-hop-fusion music called rai that resounds throughout the whole Mediterranean, and further afield; and numerous world-class soccer players…

The Algerian economy is, as Ms. Alami notes, fueled in a major way by exports of hydrocarbons. This is not at all a country that is “closed to the world economically”!

Plus, the way she writes that sentence makes it seem as if, under French colonial rule, everyone in the country had full and wonderful access to the world outside. Totally not true. French colonial rule, like colonial rule everywhere in the world, involved the maintenance of heavy restrictions on the ability of the indigenous people to maintain relations with the rest of the world– or even, under France’s notorious system of “quadrillage“, with compatriots in other districts.

Now, it is true that the rulers of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria have had no incentive or desire to embrace integration with the neoliberal, US-led wing of the world economy. But that doesn’t mean it is isolated from the rest of it, at all. (And actually, I believe a lot of Algeria’s natural-gas exports are shipped to the U.S.; plus, a lot of U.S. firms are involved in various hydrocarbon exploration and extraction operations throughout the country– including Halliburton, which was doing the highly contested fracking there.)

(2) Since Ms. Alami’s visit to Algeria is/was such a rarity in the NYT’s reporting, she also definitely owes it to readers to try to describe the country’s tough geostrategic and geopolitical position more fully.

She writes:

The political system has been dominated since independence by one party, the National Liberation Front, while the economy has been choked by cronyism, insider dealing and anticompetitive regulations.

Algeria had its version of the Arab Spring in the 1980s amid another collapse in oil prices. In 1991, the army canceled elections after an initial round was won by Islamists, sparking a decade of civil war and terrorism that killed tens of thousands. Then, military leaders imposed a state of emergency that was lifted only in 2011.

What she does not write is that Algeria, population nearly 40 million, has two deeply troubled neighbors with whom it shares very long, hard-to-police borders. These are Libya and Mali. (A map should have been provided, to show this.) Given the proliferation of terrifyingly well-armed, extreme-Islamist militias in both those countries, today’s Algeria is in a very tough position indeed.

Add to that the fact that the country’s ageing, military-backed President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is apparently in a very vulnerable (and not clearly known) health situation with no clear mechanism in sight for organizing a succession… and the country’s politics actually seem much, much more important than the issue Ms. Alami chose to write about: whether two young-ish Algerian entrepreneurs are able to make a go of their PR company or not.

Back in early 2011, Algeria was just one of the many African Union countries that argued strongly against NATO’s use of any force against Libya. In the days leading up to the highly ill-advised NATO bombing of Libya, an African Union mission was actually in Libya, trying desperately to mediate a ceasefire between Col. Qadhafi and the Libyan opposition forces. But France, Britain, and their friends in the Obama White House were determined to go ahead with their bombing of Qadhafi’s forces, which they carried out under the (oh-so-mendaciously misapplied) excuse of a “humanitarian” intervention… And we have all seen what has become of Libya since then.

So nobody in the “west” listened to the anti-war arguments being made by the African Union governments, back in 2011. Today, now that Algeria is de facto and in practice a strong bulwark against any further spread of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the region, people in the “west” should certainly be eager to learn a lot more about the country’s situation. This, they won’t do by reading silly, inconsequential, and unthinkingly orientialist reporting like that of Ms. Alami.

Algiers bookstore  Algiers Bay