Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Too Early to Say

Every time I read anything by the Guardian's comment editor, Seumas Milne, these days I tend to burst out laughing at his feeble attempts to turn every issue into a bogus 'left-wing' political point and/or a denunciation of western imperialism.

Now there's no doubt that 100 years ago the most powerful countries in the world were all imperialist in their outlook, but the proximate cause of World War One was Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia which was swiftly followed, of course, by Germany invading Belgium with the clear intention of moving on to France.

In the circumstances a much wider conflict became inevitable as other countries piled in to support their friends and allies - and although the 'war to end all wars' represented a failure of the political process, the catalyst for the conflict was not down to the imperial ambitions of the British Empire.   

Yet you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise by the cartoon that Seumas has used to illustrate his piece - the destructive engine of British rule munching its way through other continents and countries of the world, as if people in those unenlightened times were likely to behave any differently.

A century later and things look very different, for obvious reasons, including the collapse of the Soviet Union which was another great imperial power up until 1991 - although one much admired, as I recall, by Seumas and other readers of 'Straight Left' which I wrote about in a previous post. 

Seumas is keen to warn us all about the US in the Far East where many lives were lost in defeating the military ambitions of Imperial Japan - and while Seumas is keen to state that Communist run China is not imperial Germany, I prefer the stance of Zou Enlai who when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution is reported to have answered: "it's too early to say".

Because that's exactly what I think about China - a fascinating country, but a hugely repressive state which is controlled by a political model that does not find favour anywhere else in the world except, perhaps, in fundamentalist religious regimes.           

First world war: an imperial bloodbath that's a warning, not a noble causeMatt Kenyon for Seumas Milne on world war one
Tory claims that 1914 was a fight for freedom are absurd – but then history wars are about the future

By Seumas Milne

'And in case there were any doubt that all the main combatants were in the land-grabbing expansion game, Britain and France then divvied up the defeated empires.' Illustration: Matt Kenyon

They were never going to be able to contain themselves. For all the promises of a dignified commemoration, the Tory right's standard bearers held back for less than 48 hours into the new year before launching a full-throated defence of the "war to end all wars". The killing fields of Gallipoli and the Somme had been drenched in blood for a "noble cause", declared Michael Gove. The slaughter unleashed in 1914 had been a "just war" for freedom.

Hostility to the war, the education secretary complained, had been fostered by leftwingers and comedians who denigrated patriotism and painted the conflict as a "misbegotten shambles". Gove was backed by the prime minister, as talk of international reconciliation was left to junior ministerial ranks.

Boris Johnson went further. The war was the fault of German expansionism and aggression, London's mayor pronounced, and called for Labour's shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt to be sacked forthwith if he doubted it. The Conservative grandees were backed up by a retinue of more-or-less loyal historians. Max Hastings reckoned it had been fought in defence of "international law" and small nations, while Antony Beevor took aim at "anti-militarists".

This is all preposterous nonsense. Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.

Germany was the rising industrial power and colonial Johnny-come-lately of the time, seeking its place in the sun from the British and French empires. The war erupted directly from the fight for imperial dominance in the Balkans, as Austria-Hungary and Russia scrapped for the pickings from the crumbling Ottoman empire. All the ruling elites of Europe, tied together in a deathly quadrille of unstable alliances, shared the blame for the murderous barbarism they oversaw. The idea that Britain and its allies were defending liberal democracy, let alone international law or the rights of small nations, is simply absurd.

It's not just that most men and all women in Britain were still denied the vote in 1914 – unlike Germany, which already had full male suffrage – or that the British empire was allied with the brutal autocracy of tsarist Russia.

Every single one of the main warring states was involved in the violent suppression of the rights of nations throughout the racist tyrannies that were their colonial empires. In the decades before 1914, about 30 million people died from famine as colonial officials enforced the export of food in British-ruled India, slaughtered resisters in their tens of thousands and set up concentration camps in South Africa.

Britain was supposed to have gone to war to defend the neutrality of "plucky little Belgium" – which had itself presided over the death of 10 million Congolese from forced labour and mass murder in the previous couple of decades. German colonialists had carried out systematic genocide in what is now Namibia in the same period.

As to international law, Britain's disdain for it was demonstrated when Germany had asked by what right it claimed territory in Africa a few years before. London refused to reply. The answer was obvious: brute force. This was the "liberal" global order for which, in the words of the war poet Wilfred Owen, the ruling classes "slew half the seed of Europe, one by one".

In reality, it wasn't just the seed of Europe they sacrificed, but hundreds of thousands of troops from their colonies as well. And in case there were any doubt that all the main combatants were in the land-grabbing expansion game, Britain and France then divvied up the defeated German and Ottoman empires between them, from Palestine to Cameroon, without a thought for small nations' rights, laying the ground for future disasters in the process.

Gove and his fellow war apologists worry that satirical shows such as Blackadder have sapped patriotism by portraying the war as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite". The incompetence and cynicism of generals and politicians certainly had horrific results. But it was the nature of the war itself that was most depraved.

Fortunately, the revisionists lost the argument among the public long ago – just as Gove has largely lost his battle to impose a tub-thumping imperial agenda on the school history curriculum. They will keep trying though, because history wars are about the future as much as the past – and so long as imperial conflict is discredited, future foreign military interventions and occupations will be difficult to sell.

For the rest of us, this year's anniversary should be a reminder that empire in all its forms, militarism and national chauvinism lead to bloodshed and disaster. It also contains a warning about the threat from the rise and fall of great powers. China is no imperial Germany, but the US – allied with Japan – is a declining global power in a region in which it is tightening its military grip. It's not 1914, but the dangers are clear.

Flat Earth Politics (30 December 2013)

Here's another offering from the Guardian's comment editor, Seumas Milne, who continues his very one-sided writings which condemn America, Britain and other western countries at every opportunity - yet have nothing to say about the vile regimes which previously controlled Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. 

I discovered only recently that privately educated Seumas was the former editor of the Straight Left magazine - the voice of a ridiculously pro-Soviet sect within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) during the 1980s. 

So I wonder what Straight Left and/or Seumas had to say about the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1982 because I, for one, would find that very interesting - as background to his relentless criticism of the west. 

In any event, I hardly agree with a word of what Seumas has to say - his reference to the 'justification' used by the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby seem ridiculous to me and no more justified than the reasons given by Anders Breivik for committing mass murder in Norway.

Does Seumas, for example, agree with Michael Adebolajo that Allah chose the off-duty, unarmed soldier - and compelled them to run his victim down with a car before attempting to cut off his head? 

I think not, but why let a casual throwaway reference - get in the way of a good story.

As for the rest of his article, Seumas ignores the fact that al-Qaeda launched its murderous terrorist attack on 9/11 from a safe haven in Afghanistan where the Taliban allowed the group to operate freely, so simply sitting back and doing nothing was never an option from an invasion that was supported by the United Nations.  

In Libya, the former Gaddafi regime (a former ally of the Soviet Union of course) was about to commit mass murder against the country's internal opposition before western countries intervened - yet again the state of the country is down the the 'west' rather than the need for totalitarian, often tribal and religious, states to embrace democratic reforms based on sharing political power and respecting minority rights. 

As far as I can see, according to the word Seumas inhabits the 'west' is responsible for all of the problems of the world and never does right for doing wrong - presumably even in the former Yugoslavia (a former Soviet satellite state) - where ethnic cleansing and mass murder was prevented only by the threat and use of military action by NATO.

The new and peaceful countries which have emerged from the former Yugoslavia - Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia - would no doubt beg to disagree with Seumas and his one-dimensional analysis about the pros and cons of intervention against tyrannical regimes.  

Many years ago I used to think of the followers of Straight Left as supporters of a one dimensional, 'flat earth' politics - and all this time later I've heard nothing to change my mind. 

Mission accomplished? Afghanistan is a calamity and our leaders must be held to account

British troops haven't accomplished a single one of their missions in Afghanistan. Like Iraq and Libya, it's a disaster

By Seumas Milne

'The wars unleashed or fuelled by the US, Britain and their allies over the past 12 years have been disastrous.' Illustration: Matt Kenyon

Of all the mendacious nonsense that pours out of politicians' mouths, David Cameron's claim that British combat troops will be coming home from Afghanistan with their "mission accomplished" is in a class all of its own. It's almost as if, by echoing George Bush's infamous claim of victory in Iraq in May 2003 just as the real war was beginning, the British prime minister is deliberately courting ridicule.

But British, American and other Nato troops have been so long in Afghanistan – twice as long as the second world war – that perhaps their leaders have forgotten what the original mission actually was. In fact, it began as a war to destroy al-Qaida, crush the Taliban and capture or kill their leaders, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

That quickly morphed into a supposed campaign for democracy and women's rights, a war to protect our cities from terror attacks, to eradicate opium production and bring security and good governance from Helmand to Kandahar. With the exception of the assassination of Bin Laden – carried out 10 years later in another country – not one of those goals has been achieved.

Instead, al-Qaida has mushroomed and spread throughout the Arab and Muslim world, engulfing first Iraq and now Syria. Far from protecting our streets from attacks, the war has repeatedly been cited as a justification for those carrying them out – most recently by Michael Adebolajo, who killed the Afghan war veteran Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May.

The Taliban is long resurgent, mounting 6,600 attacks between May and October this year and negotiating for a return to power. Mullah Omar remains at liberty. Afghan opium production is at a record high and now accounts for 90% of the world's supply. Less than half the country is now "safe for reconstruction", compared with 68% in 2009.

Meanwhile, women's rights are going into reverse, and violence against women is escalating under Nato occupation: 4,000 assaults were documented by Afghan human rights monitors in the first six months of this year, from rape and acid attacks to beatings and mutilation. Elections have been brazenly rigged, as a corrupt regime of warlords and torturers is kept in power by foreign troops, and violence has spilled over into a dangerously destabilised Pakistan.

All this has been at a cost of tens of thousands of Afghan civilian lives, along with those of thousands US, British and other occupation troops. But it's not as if it wasn't foreseen from the start. When the media were hailing victory in Afghanistan 12 years ago, and Tony Blair's triumphalism was echoed across the political establishment, opponents of the invasion predicted it would lead to long-term guerrilla warfare, large-scale Afghan suffering and military failure – and were dismissed by the politicians as "wrong" and "fanciful".

But that is exactly what happened. One study after another has confirmed that British troops massively increased the level of violence after their arrival in Helmand in 2006, and are estimated to have killed 500 civilians in a campaign that has cost between £25bn and £37bn. After four years they had to be rescued by US forces. But none of the political leaders who sent them there has been held accountable for this grim record.

It was the same, but even worse, in Iraq. The occupation was going to be a cakewalk, and British troops were supposed to be past masters at counter-insurgency. Opponents of the invasion again predicted that it would lead to unrelenting resistance until foreign troops were driven out. When it came to it, defeated British troops were forced to leave Basra city under cover of darkness.

But six years later, who has paid the price? One British corporal has been convicted of war crimesand the political elite has shuffled off responsibility for the Iraq catastrophe on to the Chilcot inquiry – which has yet to report nearly three years after it last took evidence. Given the dire lack of coverage and debate about what actually took place, maybe it's not surprising that most British people think fewer than 10,000 died in a war now estimated to have killed 500,000.

But Iraq wasn't the last of the disastrous interventions by the US and Britain. The Libyan war was supposed to be different and acclaimed as a humanitarian triumph. In reality not only did Nato's campaign in support of the Libyan uprising ratchet up the death toll by a factor of perhaps 10, giving air cover to mass ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate killing. Its legacy is a maelstrom of warring militias and separatist rebels threatening to tear the country apart.

Now the west's alternative of intervention-lite in Syria is also spectacularly coming apart. The US, British and French-sponsored armed factions of the Free Syrian Army have been swept aside by jihadist fighters and al-Qaida-linked groups – first spawned by western intelligence during the cold war and dispersed across the region by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The wars unleashed or fuelled by the US, Britain and their allies over the past 12 years have been shameful. Far from accomplishing their missions, they brought untold misery, spread terrorism across the world and brought strategic defeat to those who launched them. In the case of Afghanistan all this looks likely to continue, as both the US and Britain plan to keep troops and bases there for years to come.

By any objective reckoning, failures on such a scale should be at the heart of political debate. But instead the political class and the media mostly avert their gaze and wrap themselves in the flag to appease a war-weary public. The first sign that this might be changing was the unprecedentedparliamentary vote against an attack on Syria in August. But the democratisation of war and peace needs to go much further. Rather than boasting of calamitous missions, the politicians responsible for them must be held to account.