Bush and Blair: sufferers from Hubristic Syndrome?

Through an interesting and happy concatenation of events, I ended up at a small-ish lunch yesterday along with former British Foreign Secretary David Owen. He recently released– but only, alas, in the UK book market– a book called The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power.
The first thing to remember is that David Owen was also– long before he became a Labour MP, and even longer before he became Foreign Secretary, or a leader of the SDP breakaway from Labour, or the EU’s chief negotiator on former Yugoslavia– he was a medical doctor. And he seems quite serious about having identified an actual clinical condition that occurs in some leaders in politics or business, called Hubristic Syndrome.
As lunch wound down we had a short conversation about the book, and the whole theory of what, I’m afraid, we will have to call “HS”. He said it’s important to distinguish it from bipolar disorder (which, I gather, he thinks W. Churchill probably suffered from.) He said HS often occurs in individuals who also have some form of adult ADHD or propensity to addictions.
I haven’t gotten ahold of the book yet, but this is from the “Synopsis” published on the Amazon.co.uk website:

    For many politicians, power seems to go to their head, and becomes a heady drug affecting every action they take. The Greeks called it hubris, where the hero wins glory, acclaim and success – but it is often followed by nemesis. David Owen suggests George Bush and Tony Blair developed a Hubristic Syndrome while in power. He provides a powerful analysis, looking at their behaviour, beliefs and governing style, in particular the nature of their hubristic incompetence in handling the Iraq War. Both of them, and in her last year in office, Margaret Thatcher, developed many of the tell-tale and defining symptoms. A statesman, politician and medical doctor, with personal knowledge of the war in the Balkans, David Owen has unique insight into Blair’s premiership, including several meetings and conversations with Blair from 1996-2004. With his long political experience, Owen has written a devastating critique of the way that Bush and Blair manipulated intelligence and failed to plan for the aftermath of taking Baghdad. Their messianic manner, excessive confidence in their own judgement, and unshakeable belief that they will be vindicated by a ‘higher court’, have doomed what the author believes could have been a successful democratic transformation of Iraq.

It seems like an interesting move, to “medicalize” what we might otherwise regard simply as extremely bad behavior in these leaders. To me, at first blush, it doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation of what has gone on with these two men (and Maggie T. in her last year in power.) I guess I’ll need to read the whole book to see whether the concept of HS has any explanatory power, or simply a degree of descriptive power.
Also, if what they’re suffering from is a medical condition, does that– or should that– decrease the degree of actual responsibility we should attribute to them in connection with actions and decisions regarding the war that certainly did seem to involve a high, possibly even criminal, degree of both recklessness and dereliction of duty– including the duty of “due diligence”?
On the other hand, as a Quaker-Buddhist, I do hold fast to the two ideas that (1) There is that of the divine in everyone, regardless of how much I might disapprove of her/his actions; and (2) Harmful behaviors spring from lack of awareness of the truths about the human condition, not from any intrinsic badness in the perpetrator’s personality… And certainly, one of the main symptoms of HS would seem to be a very serious divorce from awareness of reality.
One further note: At the lunch David made the point– as alluded to in the publisher’s synopsis above– that he had supported the original decision to invade Iraq. As longtime JWN readers are aware, I never did. I disagree with David Owen that the outcome of the invasion “could have been a successful democratic transformation of Iraq.” From that point of view, if I were to subscribe to his general diagnosis of Bush’s (and perhaps also Blair’s) condition, I would probably tend to date the onset of HS in both men to a time considerably before March 2003… And yes, in Bush’s case, there is plenty of evidence of that– including many of the conversations described in Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial”, and the materials in the Paul O’Neil/ Ron Susskind book on Bush.
But, as noted above, I really do need to read David’s book before I comment too much more.

Mr. Blair discovers Palestine

I was reading Paul Rogers’s latest contribution to Open Demcracy, at the end of which he considers the question of whether Tony Blair will be able to have any impact at all in his new role as the envoy of the “Quartet” to Palestinian reconstruction and reform effort. In it, Paul lays out a fairly long list of things Blair ought to do if he wants to succeed, including being “prepared to engage in around five years of low-profile, media-averse effort”, etc etc… And then he concludes that “Under such circumstances, it is just conceivable that Blair might have a useful role to play.”
There are a number of structural problems in Blair’s role that Paul fails to mention, however. These include:

    1. The fact that Condi Rice and others US officials have made quite clear that Blair’s “mandate” (hah! evocative word in this context, don’t you think?) from the Quartet does not extend to Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking but only to overseeing and boosting some aspects of internal Palestinian reform.
    2. The intractability of these internal Palestinian reform efforts so long as (a) the (US-goaded) Fateh leadership continues to refuse to share power with Hamas, since Fateh itself is in a shambolic state of internal disarray and quite incapable of building any functioning national institutions on its own; and also, Hamas remains a potent force in Palestinian politics in the West Bank and the diaspora– not just in Gaza.
    3. The utter intractability of these internal Palestinian reform efforts so long as (b) the Israelis do nothing significant to dismantle the West Bank chokepoint/checkpoints that prevent the West Bank’s economy from functioning at any even minimally acceptable level.
    4. The pointlessness of these internal Palestinian reform efforts so long as (c) the Israelis make no significant engagement with serious, final-status peace diplomacy. Various ‘peace processors’ over the past 40 years have imagined you could build a tractable and functioning Palestinian leadership in a vacuum, quite insulated from the repeated smash-ups in the peace diplomacy. You can’t. If there’s no progress visible towards final-status peace you might have a functioning Palestinian leadership– but it won’t be “tractable.”
    5. This diplomacy doesn’t have five years to wait. If the overlords of the Israeli settlement project continue pouring their concrete over the West Bank for even the next 1-2 years at the same rate they’ve been going, there won’t be any viable two-state peace. Indeed, the whole region might be in an uproar.

Re the first point above, I was in a conversation with a couple of very savvy people last week in which they were speculating as to why one earth Blair would even think of taking a job with such a very, very limited “mandate.”
“Blair has to know he can go to Bush any day he wants and get his mandate changed,” one of these guys said. “It doesn’t make any sense for him otherwise? Why on earth would he take on the job if he can’t take on the crucial, Palestinian-Israeli aspect of it?”
Well, it is true that Bush owes Blair… big time!
But for Blair to elbow his way into the diplomatic portions of this job and then to hope to succeed at it– well, he has to be prepared to take on not only Condi but also Cheney and the whole ranks of maximalist pro-Israelis who are so deeply embedded within the whole US political system, not just the White House.
Does he have the guts as well as the smarts required to do this? I remain unconvinced. For all that he seems– especially by comparison with our own head of government here in the US– to be something of an intellectual “genius”, he is still someone who evidently lets his heart (or who knows what) rule his head when it comes to vital matters Middle Eastern. I mean, as I wrote a number of times in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Brits should— given their long and frequently harsh experience in Mesopotamia– have known much better than to give any support at all to Bush’s criminally ill-conceived invasion and “transformation” plan there…
So why should we think Blair could be any smarter over Palestine, today, then he was over Iraq five years ago?
Especially, given that he has done absolutely nothing to signal any second thoughts, reflectiveness, or real self-awareness about the terrible, terrible mistakes he made in 2002-03.
It would be great if he could rise to the moment and do something helpful in Palestine. But this man? Given his track record, I doubt it.

Britain’s upcoming vote on Blairism

Britons go to the polls May 3 to vote in local elections that will have a sizeable impact on the way that Tony Blair’s ten-year premiership ends. Blair, who has been Prime Minister since May 2, 1997, has promised he will step down from the post before this year’s Labour Party Conference, due in September. I’ve spent several weeks in the UK since early March– and was back there again early this week. In much of the country, people just seem eager for him to go, and quickly. But he has hung on and hung on.
His decision to join President Bush in invading Iraq in 2003– and the slavish support he has given to Bush ever since then– are the main cause of this disaffection.
Now, Labour looks set to do very poorly in next week’s local elections, and that performance is expected to bring Blair’s Labour colleagues to the point where finally they tell him that– for the sake of the party– it is time for him to go. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown now looks more secure than ever to replace Blair as head of the party (and therefore, also of the government.)
Given the huge popular revulsion with the current situation in Iraq, Brown– or indeed, anyone else coming in as PM in the post-Blair era– urgently needs to position himself as significantly different from Blair on the Iraq issue, and on relations with Washington more generally. The next general elections must be held in or before 2010, so the Labour Party’s next PM needs to be able to rebuild the party well before then.
That Guardian/ICM poll linked to above notes, regarding Brits’ attitudes toward national governance, that:

    A majority of voters, 54%, say the next general election should bring a change of government. Only 21% think Britain should stick with Labour.
    Labour support is now at bedrock. The party has only twice scored below 30% in the Guardian/ICM series, which began in 1984. Over a quarter of the people who say they voted Labour in 2005 have switched to either the Conservatives or LibDems…

Indeed, as I noted here recently, the outcome for Labour of the May 3 elections could be even graver. That day, voters in Scotland and Wales will also be voting for representatives in the regional parliaments they each now have– and in Scotland, there is a real chance of the Scot Nats, who have an openly secessionist platform, winning control of the Holyrood Parliament. If a velvet divorce between the two kingdoms of England and Scotland ensues, Labour might have a hard time winning in either of the two countries that emerge.
It would be ironic if Blair– the Prime Minister who has done the best of any PM in modern times at winning a reasonable negotiated outcome to the previously debilitating Northern Ireland conflict– ends up being remembered also as the man whose bullheadedness on Iraq helped break up the England-Scotland Union.
But what might we expect from a Prime Minister Brown regarding Iraq? So far, Brown has done very little, if anything, to tip his hand. Instead, he has remained a loyal– indeed key– member of Blair’s cabinet, with this loyalty underpinned by the agreement the two men reached some years ago that they would “take turns” in the premiership.
Today, however, the Guardian‘s Patrick Wintour is reporting that Lord Ashdown, the former UN high representative to Bosnia, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British envoy to Baghdad are going to be preparing a report for Brown roughly similar to the Iraq Study Group report handed to Bush last December. (Ashdown was the leader of the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party for a long time before he went to Bosnia, so he would bring a multiparty flavor to this project.)
Wintour had tracked down a speech that Greenstock made very recently in Australia, which hinted strongly at the idea of proposing a timetable for ending the occupation of Iraq.
Both Greenstock and Ashdown seem to favor a regional-conference approach to figuring out the modalities of getting the occupation forces disentangled from Iraq– very similar to what the Iraq Study Group proposed, but probably with more of an explicitly UN flavor to it.
It is quite possible, though, that a combination of public sentiment and the demands of military planners might push Britain’s next PM to pull Britain’s forces out of Iraq even before there is time to comnvene and such conference…
But a lot still depends on the depth of disaffection with Blairism that is revealed at the polls next week.
(Cross-posted to The Notion.)

‘Great Britain’ headed for velvet divorce?

On May 3, the voters of Scotland are headed to the polls to vote for the third Scottish Parliament since that body was created in 1999. There is apparently a pretty strong chance of a Scottish Nationalist Party victory there. The SNP’s manifesto calls– in reasonably argued terms– for Scotland’s independence from the Union it has maintained with England for exactly 300 years now.
The newly emerged “Scottish question” is impacting London politics in some very significant ways. Only one of these is the newly emerging possibility that the Holyrood (Scottish) Parliament might move towards secession. Another is the fact that the Labour Party’s annointed successor to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, who has loyally stood in line for years to wait for his turn as party and national leader, is now seen by many English people as far “too Scottish”.
Until very recently being seen as Scottish would have been viewed by most English people either as a plus or as something fairly netural. But now, suddenly, a surge in anti-Scottishness among many English people suddenly has Brown’s chances of winning the intra-party succession vote thrown into a serious degree of doubt.
Plus, Scotland has always been a strong Labor stronghold. So an SNP victory would signal a broad repudiation among many traditionally pro-Labour Scots of the Labour Party as Tony Blair has (re-)fashioned it… And then, an SNP-led secession from the Union would give the Tory Party a much stronger chance to recapture Westminster at the next election. (Indeed, it might hasten that election considerably.)
So the “Scottish Question” is big. The respected Scottish commentator Iain MacWhirter has argued for some months now that it may be time for a ‘Velvet Divorce’, similar to the one that in 1993 allowed the Czech Republic and Slovakia each to go very peaceably along its respective way.
The SNP’s manifesto is worth reading in some detail. Here what it says on p.7:

    Scotland can be more successful. Looking around at home and at our near neighbours abroad, more and more Scots believe this too. Independence is the natural state for nations like our own.
    Scotland has the people, the talent and potential to become one of the big success stories of the 21st century. We can match the success of independent Norway – according to the UN the best place in the world to live. We can do as well as independent Ireland, now the fourth most prosperous nation on the planet.
    With independence Scotland will be free to flourish and grow. We can give our nation a competitive edge.
    … Together we can build a more prosperous nation, a Scotland that is a force for good, a voice for peace in our world.
    Free to bring Scottish troops home from Iraq.
    Free to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland’s shores.
    Free to invest our oil wealth in a fund for future generations…

Note that reference to “our oil wealth”… With the vast majority of the North Sea oil that is currently controlled by London lying in what– under any divorce– would be Scotland’s economic exploitation zone, that line in the manifesto is presumably sending shivers down the spine of economic planners in London. (Note, too, those to “bring[ing] Scottish troops home from Iraq” and “remov[ing] nuclear weapons from Scotland’s shores.” Those ideas also seem to be very popular in Scotland these days.)
There are other reasons for many English people to worry about Scottish secession, too. One is that, without a concept of a shared “Britishness” to rely on, the question as to what it is that actually constitutes “Englishness” seems fairly hard to fathom.
I write this as someone who grow up in southern England, with Scottish, English, and Welsh forebears all proudly acknowledged as such within the family. And a high proportion of my “English” friends have similarly mixed ancestries.
But here’s another thing on this vexed question of English identity. I also grew up Anglican– which, in terms of religious affiliation was in the England of the 1950s and 1960s a sort of an unthinking default option. Back then, if you were a Catholic, or a Jew, or a non-conformist (i.e., a member of a non-Anglican Protestant denomination), then you knew who you were and what you were supposed to believe.
If you were Anglican, you never even really questioned who you were; and you certainly were never required to believe anything in particular.
In this regard, the idea of “Englishness” feels to me like a sort of ethnic-affiliation ‘default option.’ It’s what you are if you’re British but you’re are also not Scottish or Welsh or Irish.
I note that George Orwell, back in the day, had a similar problem figuring out what it was that constituted ‘Englishness’ for him. In one of his writings, it really came down to knowing how to make a proper, English-style pot of tea. And yes, that was an important task we had to master to get our Brownie Girl Guide badges back in the England of the 1950s…
MacWhiter has done some great writing many aspects of the Scottishness question. In this recent article, he wrote, fairly mildly:

    Most Scots seem to favour, not separation, but extending the powers of the Scottish parliament. They want a parliament that looks and behaves less like a Labour local council and more like national champion.
    Inexplicably, Labour have decided to reject any significant alteration or enhancement of Holyrood’s powers…

And here, he wrote about the anti-Scottishism expressed by many English writers:

    When commentators talk of the Scottish “raj”, “whingeing Jocks”, etc, they can indulge in identity politics without fear of being accused of supporting the BNP [the fascistic British National Party]. During last summer’s footie wars, The Observer ran the front-page headline: “Brown under fresh pressure over Scottish roots”. If Brown had been black the story would never have been printed.
    This ethnic hostility is rife on the internet. It is an opportunity for English people to get it off their chests, to rant at the non-English, and to celebrate their own values. For one problem about criticising multiculturalism, and calling for a return to British values, is deciding what those values are. George Orwell’s warm beer, cricket and spinsters on bicycles usually figure on the inventory of Britishness. But these are essentially English, rather than Scottish, values. It is not easy to have a Scottish “cricket test”.
    Now, I’m not for a second denying that Scots aren’t guilty of this kind of communal hostility themselves. There is far too much anti-English feeling in Scotland which is excused as banter, but is – in its own way – racist. That’s not the point.
    This identity crisis may be one factor behind the withdrawal of English support for the union, and it is having a blow-back in Scotland. It may be that English nationalism is becoming a more important dynamic of constitutional change than Scottish nationalism. That like the Czech Republic before the velvet divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union…

So anyway, the May 3 Scottish election: Definitely one to watch.

    Update Friday morning, Lille time:

I cross-posted this over at The Nation’s blog. There, I had also inserted the following paragraph:

    How ironic would that be– if, while government ministers in Washington and London argue about what final shape Iraq’s governance structure should take, one significant fallout from Blair’s decision to join W’s war-venture in Iraq should turn out to be the dissolution of Britain’s own 300-year-old Act of Union?

Iran and Britain in the Gulf, contd.

The 15 British naval POWs arrived home yesterday, after having been freed by Iran late Wednesday night. But even as they were boarding their plane to freedom in Teheran, four British soldiers on a patrol in Basra were killed— along with their Kuwaiti interpreter– when a roadside bomb blew up their vehicle.
A good friend of mine here in London who watches such things closely told me yesterday that every time the British forces in and around Iraq do something to pique the Iranians, then the pro-Iranian militants inside Iraq hit back by killing one or more British soldiers… Interesting, if so.
But quite evidently, everyone involved in the potentially extremely lethal military tangle in and around Iraq has been deeply engaged in probing and counter-probing each other’s forces and capabilities in a host of different ways, over the past four years.
Anyway, here in England, there have been some discreet but mounting questions over two aspects of the sailors’ capture: firstly over why they did not resist capture in the first place, and secondly over why they had not had firmer orders to give only “name, rank, and serial number” to their captors, resisting the Iranians’– as it turned out, fairly successful– attempts to interrogate them further and even to get them to utter filmed “confessions”.
Royal Navy head Lord Admiral Jonathan Band said today that the crew “reacted extremely well in very difficult circumstances”.
However, Lt Gen Sir Michael Gray, former commander of the 1st Battalion of the (always much more gung-ho) Paratroopers, was reported by the BBC there as describing the situation as a “shambles”.
And then, from what I very much hope is his comfortable wheelchair in Washington, here is neocon blowhard Charles Krauthammer:

    Iran has pulled off a tidy little success with its seizure and release of those 15 British sailors and marines: a pointed humiliation of Britain, with a bonus demonstration of Iran’s intention to push back against coalition challenges to its assets in Iraq. All with total impunity. Further, it exposed the impotence of all those transnational institutions — most prominently the European Union and the United Nations — that pretend to maintain international order.
    You would think maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation.

I suppose he would rather have seen this small engagement lead to the outbreak of World War 3? What a sad guy.

UK sailors released…. “stunning” ?

(5:05 pm. update: Gary Sick’s G2k comments are now appended in the continuation)
Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has announced that “he” will be releasing the British sailors. The US airwaves are now filled with quotes characterizing this very welcome release announcement as a “stunning surprise.”
No doubt it was a shock to Ted Koppel, the former ABC News anchor. Just two days ago, Koppel’s NPR commentary had knowingly proclaimed that this current hostage drama was deja vu from 1979. Koppel speculated that the crisis wouldn’t be over until Tony Blair was out of office. Koppel must be missing his Night-Line gig.
Surely I’m not the only one not surprised that this crisis is being unwound. After all, the world’s stock markets rallied yesterday (Tuesday) and oil prices plunged in anticipation that something positive was in the works.
A good thing too – I was getting nauseous from all the plausible to bizarre theories purporting to explain which Iranian faction was behind the capture, what their agendas were, and how the crisis presumably was playing into the hands of Iran’s confrontational hardliners. (never mind the “regime change” ideologues in the US and Israel) Even Juan Cole in Salon published a version of such interpretations.
A few lonely voices had contemplated that the crisis might have been consciously provoked by the British, or that the situation was recklessly stoked when Blair proclaimed he was “utterly confident” over the facts of the original British operation. It became a mutual TV propaganda war. (and the US mainstream media largely bought the official British version, “hook, line, and sinker.”)
I don’t know yet which account to believe on the immediate catalysts. I was more concerned that the “neocons” on both sides were painting themselves into corners from which a resolution would be supremely difficult to reach.
Over the past few days, however, close observers could see a series of encouraging signs from both London and Tehran suggesting that creative language was forming that could indeed be acceptable to both sides. From the British side, there was less blather about “absolute certainty” that their sailors had been on the Iraqi side of a maritime border line – a line that in fact does NOT exist in treaty form.
Richard Schoffield and Craig Murray were quite “spot on,” even as their early voices of sanity were pointedly ignored by most of the mainstream media. The problem at hand is rather “simple,” as Schoffield told the BBC over a week ago,

“Iran and Iraq have never agreed to a boundary of their territorial waters. There is no legal definition of the boundary beyond the Shatt al-Arab.”

That didn’t stop the New York Times (for starters) from reprinting the British “fake” map in their pages — with no indication that the boundary line indicated was not at all settled.
Even the British naval commander of the operation, Commodore Nick Lambert, had carefully observed in the early hours after the detention of his sailors that,

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters. The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated.”

Ambassador Murray was widely vilified for pointing out that it was ill-advised for Blair to have been “utterly confident” that Britain’s ships were on the Iraqi side of a “fake” line. Yet a week later, Murray noted that the border’s unsettled nature had become widely admitted within British foreign policy decision-making circles and even in the British media.
I suspect that this key shift “back” in British rhetoric contributed to today’s news.
From the Iranian side, there was recognition that the crisis was only increasing Iran’s woes in the international community. The public parading of the sailors, however relatively “different” from the images of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, etc, was also reviving ghastly images from the US hostage crisis of 1979. And few Iranian leaders wanted to re-live that isolation.
President Ahmadinejad is but one spoke in Iran’s complex decision-making wheel. The hub of that consensus forming wheel is Iran’s “Leader” – Ali Khamenehi. No doubt Khamenehi, in consultation with veteran key players in the top inner circles (e.g. Rafsanjani, Khatami, Velayati), decided that the boil had to be lanced.
Ali Larijani, the Iranian who gave the encouraging interview with Britain’s Channel 4 on Monday, chairs Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – a body that reports directly to Khamenehi – not Ahmadinejad. When asked if Iran would put the sailors on trial, Larijani replied,

“Definitely our priority would not be trial… Our priority is to solve the problem through diplomatic channels. We are not interested in having this issue get further complicated.”

Such conciliatory comments were welcomed by Britain.
While AN may have been granted the privilege to announce the pending release of the British sailors, the decision was hardly his alone to make.
Hats off then to the “grown ups” in both the British and Iranian foreign policy teams. Both sides surely realized that neither country had an interest in the sailors’ plight turning into a “hot” war in the Gulf.
The challenge now is to craft mechanisms to insure that such incidents don’t recur.
If a boundary is at long last to be agreed upon between Iran and Iraq, both in the Shatt al-Arab river, as well as in the territorial sea, it cannot be imposed from the outside. Instead, it will have to be achieved bilaterally between Iran and Iraq, and supported multilaterally by the interested international community.
All interested parties should also “fix minds” on dropping “gun boat diplomacy” in favor of “collective security” arrangements, beginning with all eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf. As is so often forgotten from the outside, local security is relatively more “vital” to the states that “live” there. It’s their front yards! As my mentor (Ramazani) long ago wrote, they all need to get their oil and gas securely to world markets, “they can’t drink it.”
Yet the Gulf’s littoral states also have the curse and luxury of the entire world also seeing their fragile waterway as critically important. Why not then dare to imagine more sustainable security arrangements as guaranteed through the UN Security Council rather than via the gunboats or aircraft carriers of any one outside imperial power?
Update (as of 5:05 pm EST)
Gary Sick (now a respected Professor at Columbia U., a key Carter NSC member during the hostage crisis, and a former Navy Captain) made the following 8 points on the “Iran-UK contretemps” via his closed Gulf 2000 forum (and which he just indicated can be quoted publicly) I disagree with him on some points, agree in most others. (Guess which?) See continuation:

Continue reading “UK sailors released…. “stunning” ?”

Craig Murray: About that “Fake British Map”

I have been extremely displeased by the media reporting regarding the ongoing Iran-Britain “detainee” crisis. The boundaries questons surrounding the Shatt/Arvand River are hardly of recent vintage. They are instead a crtical flash-point of contention that goes back centuries. Insuring access to world seaways via the disputed area is a vital interest, not just to Iraq, but to Iran also. And Iranians of all political persuasions have reasons to be deeply suspicious of “perfidious Albion” — on this issue.
It has been a crisis waiting to happen – or be manufactured. More on my views, a backgrounder, and cautions in another post.
For now, here’s a few stunning excerpts from the extraordinary blog of Craig Murray, the dissident former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and a onetime “Head of the Maritime Section of the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
As he did before, he’s blowing the whistle on “sexed-up” Blair-spin — and on the incredibly lazy reporting in the mainstream media (here in the US and in the UK):
Today (March 28th):

“The British Government has published a map showing the coordinates of the incident, well within an Iran/Iraq maritime border. The mainstream media and even the blogosphere has bought this hook, line and sinker.
But there are two colossal problems.
A) The Iran/Iraq maritime boundary shown on the British government map does not exist. It has been drawn up by the British Government. Only Iraq and Iran can agree their bilateral boundary, and they never have done this in the Gulf, only inside the Shatt because there it is the land border too. This published boundary is a fake with no legal force.
B) Accepting the British coordinates for the position of both HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land. Go on, print out the map and measure it. Which underlines the point that the British produced border is not a reliable one.”

Well imagine that. Should we be surprised? Who was it that invented the art of artificial line drawing in the Middle East?
Murray’s blog entries since March 23 are all worth considering – and comparing with what we’re reading in the media. To be sure, Murray sees room for blame on all sides

“None of which changes the fact that the Iranians, having made their point, should have handed back the captives immediately. I pray they do so before this thing spirals out of control. But by producing a fake map of the Iran/Iraq boundary, notably unfavourable to Iran, we can only harden the Iranian position.”

I share Murray’s wish that this be resolved rapidly, before ideological hotheads on both sides (AN & TB) turn this into something bigger and more difficult to unwind.
And will somebody please get Helena’s hotline suggestion – e.g., Colonel Lang’s “deconflict mechanism” – working and stat!?

British mark bicentennary of their slave trade abolition

Here in London, many people are making a pretty big deal out of an Act passed by Parliament in March 1807 that outlawed the involvement of British ships in the slave trade. Just a block or two from I’m staying, the British Museum has a lot of special events relating to this bicentennial (e.g., this one, on Sunday.) There’s a movie coming out called Amazing Grace, that is based on the life of the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce. I see the British Quakers have put together an interesting little on-line exhibition to mark this bicentennary, featuring some texts and other items from the collections of Friends House Library.
I think it’s excellent to remember this anniversary, and to find ways to reconnect with the strong ethical and religious sense of all those who worked and organized to end the transatlantic slave trade. As far as I understand the long, long global history of that ghastly institution, the enslaved persons in the Americas were about the first slaves in history whose condition of bondage and status as chattel was passed down from parent to child. And in fact, in a cruel irony, as the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons of African origin died out– due to laws being passed against it on both sides of the Atlantic, not just one– the value of the slaves who were already in place, working under horrendous conditions in the US, many Caribbean islands, and some South American nations, merely rose… And there was a strong incentive, until the whole institution of slavery was outlawed, which took many further decades, for slave-“owners” to try to breed their slave-stock as much as much possible, a matter to which many white men in slave-owning communities made a big personal contribution.
If you look at the (US Census Bureau-derived) demographic table in this section of the relevant Wikipedia page, you can see that between 1810 and 1860 the number of enslaved persons in the US rose from 1.2 million to nearly 4.0 million– despite the fact that the importation of additional slaves had been outlawed by Congress in 1808.
Imagine how many enslaved women were raped by white men and boys as part of that “breeding” program. Yes, another proportion of them doubtless bore children from relationships with enslaved men, and I hope that many of those relationships were marked by affection… But whether there was affection or no, the practitioners of the institution of slavery gave almost no recognition to ties of marriage or any other kinds of family ties among the “slaves” whom they owned. As many slave testimonies told, husbands and wives among the enslaved persons could be (and were) as easily separated as parents and children. A man, woman, or child could be “sold down the river” at a moment’s notice; or whole families could be split up when the “property” of a deceased slave-“owner” was divided among his heirs…
I started traveling towards becoming a Quaker some ten-plus years ago, spurred overwhelmingly by my reading of the journal of John Woolman, who was a mid-18th-century Quaker who grew up in a strongly Quaker community near Philadelphia. Woolman pursued many very important ministries of justice and conscience during his life, including by calling attention to the status of the native Americans, and by agitating against Pennsylvania’s raising of a war tax. (This was in the 1750s– quite a long time before the secessionist UDI movement called by its participants the “American Revolution.”)
But one of the most important ministries he pursued was undoubtedly the one against the institution of slavery.
By that point, many, many portions of the white settler community in the US were heavily involved in the institution of slavery… including some portion of just about all the many Christian denominations that had proliferated in the settler communities by then– and yes, that included the Quakers— and also a portion of the Jewish settlers. As far as I know it was only the Mennonites, among the Christians (and perhaps the other Anabaptists?) who had never participated in the owning or trading of enslaved persons. But many, many Quakers certainly had.
Actually, if you go back and read what the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, had written about the institution of slavery in the 1670s, you will see it is far from being any kind of forthright protest against the whole institution. See what he wrote, for example, here:

    ‘…if you were in the same condition as the Blacks are…now I say, if this should be the condition of you and yours, you would think it hard measure, yea, and very great Bondage and Cruelty. And therefore consider seriously of this, and do you for and to them, as you would willingly have them or any other to do unto you…were you in the like slavish condition.’

There were huge hyper-profits to be made in the business; and some were made by Quaker plantation owners in the southern states or Quaker slave-traders in Rhode Island and other states to the north.
Eighty years after George Fox was writing, John Woolman came along. He saw at first hand the misery and inequity of the institution of slavery. He heard all the allegedly “do-gooding” claims of the slave-holders and slave-traders among the Quakers… that they were “saving these poor souls from the misery of wars in Africa”, etc etc… and he slowly confronted them with his witness, one-by-one, and also in small groups and at impassioned meetings for worship and business.
He was not alone. There were other American Quaker abolitionists who joined him in his campaign. But he was the one who kept an extremely moving journal of all his efforts… And between them, these Quaker men and women made a big difference. They managed to persuade all the Quakers of the US to dissociate themselves from the institution; and it was on the basis of that achievement that many Quakers of later decades then became leaders in the broad national movement against what the Americans have often called the “peculiar institution.”
Too bad that, come the 1860s, it was only through the waging of an extremely fierce and bloody war that slavery was finally ended forever in the country. (More on that, perhaps, later: I really think that war was the biggest test for the pacifism of US Quakers– much more so than the distant war against Hitlerism some 80 years later.) Anyway, I guess the ferocity with which the southern whites fought in that war was a marker of just how very profitable the whole institution had been for them…
Back home in Charlottesville, Virginia,my good friend Bill Anderson– who’s an Anglican peace activist and an African-American— has a couple of times said to me, “Helena, I always have a soft spot for Quakers: Your people freed my family back in the 1830s.” I never know what to say. I feel much more ashamed that back at one point, Quakers in Virginia may well have actually “owned” some of Bill’s ancestors, than I feel happy that they eventually helped to “free” some of them.
I guess I wish the events here in Britain being held to mark the bicentennary of this country’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had a little less smug self-satisfaction, and a little more real reflectiveness to them. After all, should we really be doing much celebrating if someone stops beating his wife??
When I say “reflectiveness”, I just want to note that I’ve seen nothing in all the many newspaper articles and other items of commentary on this anniversary which looks at how many of the fine institutions of the “Enlightenment” here in Britain, as in the rest of Europe and also, certainly, in the Americas, were financed with the hyper-profits from the slave trade… And then, absolutely no reflection at all on the degree to which the legacies of the slave trade and other crimes of colonialism still live on in Africa; or, on whether these very rich and settled former slave-trading societies of northern Europe should not take seriously the task of effecting some real form of reparations to those ravaged home-communities of Africa.
… I do just want to put in links to two really excellent resources for anyone studying this subject. One is this book, Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves, reprinted by the University of Virginia Press from a series of excellent interviews made by (generally) African-American interviewers, with some of the last living ex-slaves in the 1930s. The other is Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870.
But what I really want to say here is this. By the time John Woolman got around to visiting his fellow-Quakers up and down the east coast of America in the 1750s, many of those he visited had succeeded in becoming quite strongly convinced that the institution of slavery was not just acceptable, but also good and ethical. It took Woolman and his friends many years of persistent persuasion to convince them of the error of their ways.
From today’s perspective, the error of their ways seems blindingly obvious!
So what practices are we engaged in today– practices that we may well think are not just acceptable, but beyond that, actively good and ethical– that future generations will look back and say “Unbelievable! How could people back then do such terribly damaging things???”

Thoughts on traveling to London

1.  Israel the microcosm

The day before yesterday, in the evening, I went to bed in Cairo. 
We woke at 1 a.m., in time to catch a ‘graveyard shift’ flight to
Frankfurt, arriving at breakfast time.  Bill headed over to
Prague; our friend Brantly who had been visiting us in Cairo headed
home to Virginia; and I came to London, arriving before noon.

Traveling as we did so (relatively) easily between these countries, and
traversing as we had to the numerous movement-control barriers they maintain–
generally at or near their international airports, or international
borders– I suddenly had a vivid sense that the extremely discriminatory
and damaging movement-control systems Israel maintains in the land it
controls in the West Bank and Gaza may well (and quite rightly) be
criticized by the good, liberal citizens of the rich countries of the
west…  But actually, the international order over which these
same western citizens preside  is also, itself, in many ways just
a larger version of the system Israel has maintained in the occupied

Consider this:

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