Archive for the ‘News from Abroad’ Category

Why do Israelis do what they do?

July 22, 2014 3 comments

The most striking things about the commentary on the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza is the broad failure to ask why the Israeli government/military, backed by a large percentage of the Israeli population, is behaving like this.

Maybe the conflict has gone on so long that few people feel the need to ask this fairly basic question: what are the roots of Israel’s need to kill hundred of defenseless civilians in an act of “self-defence”, when any reasonably rational assessment of the actions suggests these actions a) constitute cold-blooded murder of children and other non-combatants, and b) feed an increasing hostility on the part of the Palestinian (and wider Middle-East) population, this decreasing the long-term chances of peace?

Perhaps the failure to ask that basic question, especially at times like this especially, is because the answer is at so obvious.  Or perhaps – much worse for any possible resolution to the conflict in the long-term – it’s been forgotten by outside observers, and internalised by Israelis to such an extent that it is no longer utterable.

But I think the answer bears repeating: the root of the murder of Palestinian children today is simple: the holocaust.

The State of Israel came about because of the holocaust, and the national identity not just of Israeli Jews, but also – until relatively recently – the vast bulk of American Jews, is inextricably linked to it.  After an initial period in which those creating the new, deeply militarized Israel built their identity around the Sabra, the very real threat to the new state’s existence in 1967, and the implied/inferred threat of a further genocide, led to very rapid formation a of national identity based on what Daniel Navon calls the “embracing of victimhood” and in consequence a “paradoxical perception of military superiority and existential anxiety” (p.10).  Moreover, this national identity became shared not just in Israel but in the United States, to the extent that in many ways to be an American Jew was to be an Israeli living in America.

Ultimately, it is the fear of a new holocaust, however remote it might seem to outside observers but very real and very near in the days leading up to the 1967 war, which created the path-dependent institutions which we see in Israel and America (think Wall Street Journal) today, in which there is no escaping the internalised logic of “self-defence” born of victimhood.

It seems to be that until outside observers start to remember/learn all of this for the first time – perhaps starting by taking American Jewish and Israeli scholarship more seriously than it is “allowed” – then the chances of a long term resolution remain slight, since even the welcome generational shift amongst American Jews away from their parents and grandparents emotional link to Israel and to victimhood (and back towards the kind of relationship being developed in the 1947-67 period) may not have enough weight to counteract 50 years of institutional path dependency.

Of course none of this stops children being killed today, or tomorrow, or next year.  But maybe it’s better to promulgate some kind of informed hope for the future, based on some kind of understanding of the past, than it is to simply regard the Israel/Palestine conflict as an elemental hatred between peoples.



How Labour should outflank Cameron on the Juncker question

It is starting to look like Cameron will fail in his quest for someone other than Jean-Claude Juncker to be President of the European Commission.  John Major being wheeled out to argue that the whole anti-Juncker thing is a gambit to ensure greater UK influence by another route certainly suggests the Tories know the game is up.

It’s good that Cameron will have egg all over his face, and it is to be hoped that, as Juncker takes up his position (assuming a yes vote in the European parliament) at least some of the press will start to ask questions like:

Why did Cameron take the Tories out of the EPP political grouping, leading it to have no say in the Spitzenkandidat process which was completed in March?

Why didn’t Cameron speak up about the Spitzenkandidat process back in 2012 when it was first worked up by the two main European parliament groupings?  Why is it only now that he thinks the process is an insult to democracy?  Did he simply not understand what was going on across Europe?

Even if these questions are asked though, and Cameron’s absurd EU-illiteracy is exposed for it is, the news cycle is such that it’ll be old news come the Autumn – unless, that is, Labour keep it there.  Fortunately, Labour can do just that,  and in  a way which not only keeps the heat on Cameron through the winter, but which -more importantly – is good for the citizens of the EU as well.  It goes like this:

1) Article 234 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union allow for a motion of censure of the Commission President, which if passed by a two thirds majority, forces the resignation of the President and his commissioners (whom he will have appointed).

2) Labour MEPs, operating in collaboration with their SPD colleagues should make a specific set of social-democratic demands on Juncker early in his presidency (e.g. that Juncker should organize the repealing of the anti-Keynesian six-pack pushed through by the right in 2011, in favour an agreement focused on social and economic stability, or that Juncker should bring forward Lisbon-consistent ways of balancing richer nation states’ desire for temporary restrict freedom of movement of people with the interests of poor countries in restricting some freedom of movement of goods and services).

3) If Juncker and his Commission complies, then it’s a win for the left.  If not, they should go about campaigning for his censure, across the political groups.  Tory MEPs, in their new political grouping, would be embarrassed at the very least if they had to vote for a continuation of a Juncker presidency, and UKIP’s votes, abstentions or strategic absence would also be spotlighted.

4) Overall, this would be cast as Labour taking socialist action through its validly elected representatives, set against the Cameron ego-trip.

At the moment, the Labour strategy is wrong.  Glenys Kinnock and Miliband have been foolishly advised, and committed MEPs to a vote against Juncker on the first occasion, when he up for election following the European Council’s nomination (in accordance with 17(7) of the Treaty of the European Union.   This may seem an attractive anti-Juncker position, but it is very short-term, destined to failure because the rest of the SPD and the EPP is committed to maintaining the legitimacy of the Spitzenkandidat process, and is therefore an insult to SPD colleagues across Europe, who are disappointed in the first place that UK Labour did not embrace Martin Schulz as the SPD candidate.

There is still time for Labour to change course, and both reintegrate itself with the SPD following its Schulz mistake and be seen as a leading mover for proper reform within the EU.  But that time is short.


Law breaking for legitimacy: the thin end of the euro-wedge

It’s beginning to look like Jean-Claude Juncker will not become President of the European Commission after all.  Paul Mason from the left seems pleased, and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard from the sane wing of conservatism will not, I think, be shedding any tears.

But Jurgen Habermas has a different view, worth listening to.  He thinks that leaders of member states coming together to block Juncker’s election as Commission President by the European Parliament is very bad news indeed.

On the whole, I agree.

This is not because I think Juncker will be a good President – on this I agree with Mason and Evans-Pritchard that he is a  member of a self-serving elite devoted to a massively counterproductive continuation of austerity.

It’s because I don’t like the idea of state leaders thinking they can ignore the rule of law as a means of bolstering their political fortunes.

Let’s be clear what’s going on here.

If a Juncker Presidency is not recommended to the European Parliament by the heads of state at the forthcoming European Council, then these heads of state will have deliberately and knowingly breached article 17 (7) of the Treaty of European Union [1], which requires that the European Council takes into account the results of the European elections.  They may be able to talk their way round it if Junker decides, as seems likely, to withdraw his candidature before the European Council as a way to save face, but this will only be a technicality.

The Spitzenkandidat process – whereby the main European parliamentary grouping have selected their preferred candidates (Juncker for the EPP, Schulz for the SPD) as their part of the implementation of the treay – has been very clear for many months now, and it is only at this very late stage that national governments have started to suggest that “taking account” of the election results, in which the EPP gained the upper hand, might involve simply discounting them in favour of ‘candidates’ who have been nowhere near the process to date.

Moreover, there is a legal mechanism within the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU (article 234) for the European Parliament to make the President and his Commission resign should they lose the confidence of the Parliament,  meaning that national governments could work with others in their political groupings to put an end to a Juncker presidency if he turned out to be the disaster they’ve suddenly worked out he might be.  Indeed, They could even persuade enough MEPs to vote against Juncker after the European Council itself has proposed him – a bit odd-looking, but perfectly legal.

But that route has been ignored in favour of a bigger states vs. European Parliament powerplay, which prefers simply to ignore the rule of law in this case. (In Cameron’s detail-lite case, he possibly simply doesn’t know, just as he probably didn’t know that by taking the Tories out of the EPP, he removed himself from any influence on which Spitzenkandidat the EPP went for at its Dublin meeting in March).

What this likely breach of law is really all about is the panic of members states at the rise of the populist anti-EU right in the recent EU parliamentary elections.   Cameron, and now it seems Merkel (I reserve judgment on Renzi) are desperate to show that they are on the side of ‘their’ peoples, and thereby bolster their own legitimacy as democratic representatives.  But breaking the law is not a good way to do that.

Of course law shouldn’t be set in stone, and Habermas is very clear [3] that there needs to be a healthy tension between legality and legitimacy, with a space for forms of civil disobedience in cases where the law loses legitimacy, in a way which creates a process for the renewal and relegitimation of law . But this is the preserve of civil society, not the existing elite.  If demonstrations erupt against a Juncker presidency, linked to a wider movement against austerity, then the European Council might have a legitimate part to play in meeting the expressed will of the people, and reforming the treaties as appropriate (though as  noted, the scope for the Council to dismiss the Commission creates a legal route to meet that will anyway).*   For national elites to seek their own legitimacy in the eyes of their people by ignoring international law  is the thin end of a very big wedge.

If the anti-Juncker plan is carried through by Merkel, Cameron and others, I do hope the European Parliament will stand its ground and vote against their recommendation for President, wohever that may be, as an act of principle.  Sadly, I can’t see it happening.

Shame the Labour party stopped me being an MEP.  I’d have stood with Jurgen for a socialist AND democratic Europe.


[1] Article 17 (7) of the Treaty of European Union reads:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

[2] Article 234 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union reads:

If a motion of censure on the activities of the Commission is tabled before it, the European Parliament shall not vote thereon until at least three days after the motion has been tabled and only by open vote.

If the motion of censure is carried by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, representing a majority of the component Members of the European Parliament, the members of the Commission shall resign as a body and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy shall resign from duties that he or she carries out in the Commission. They shall remain in office and continue to deal with current business until they are replaced in accordance with Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union. In this case, the term of office of the members of the Commission appointed to replace them shall expire on the date on which the term of office of the members of the Commission obliged to resign as a body would have expired.


[3] Its interesting to see Habermas, in his interview with the Allgemeine Zeitung, positively welcome the rise of the populist vote in the European elections as a shock to the governing elite:

Der Rechtspopulismus erzwingt die Umstellung vom bisherigen Elitemodus auf die Beteiligung der Bürger.  Das kann dem europäischen Parlament und seinem Einfluss auf die europäische Gesetzgebung nur guttun

[Rightwing populism requires the adjustment of hitherto elite modes of governance toward citizen participation.  That can only be a good thing for rhe Europen Parliament and its influence on European lawmaking]


For further reading, see Bruce Miller’s useful post, including some useful translation of Habermas and others, and more generally Matthew G Specter’s Habermas: An intellectual biography, kindly sent my way by Chris Brooke.


D-Day poetry

I’ve long been fascinated by the choice of poem – Verlaine’s 1876 Chanson d’Automne – as the code signal broadcast by the BBC to alert the Resistance to the fact that D-Day was on, and that the planned sabotage actions should commence.

Was it simply chosen because of its brevity?  Because it had nothing at all to do with the matter at hand, being a melancholic yearning for ‘the old days’, and so less likely to raise suspicion that it was code?

Or was there some deeper meaning behind the choice?  Was the choice of Verlaine, a drug-addicted poet who wouldn’t have lasted long in Nazi society, a deliberate gesture of French defiance?  Was “quand/Sonne l’heure” seen as significant?  Is its quiet and pained yearning, in contrast to the tumult that it was set to announce, deliberately paradoxical.

I don’t know, but the poem, because of the context in which its recitation is now for ever set, is strangely moving.  Read it aloud to get the full sense of onomatopeia and the gulp-like stuntedness of the finale stanza.  In memory of D-Day, I’ll be reading the last stanza (with my liberal translation) at my parkrun event tomorrow.


Les saglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Categories: News from Abroad

On tribal segregation and liberal hypocrisy

January 13, 2014 1 comment

Amongst those interested in the South Sudan turmoil, this picture of upfront tribal segregation in a UN refugee camp has caused some debate:

View image on Twitter

My first reaction was one of concern, similar to that of  Sudan/South Sudan-focused journalist Bec Hamilton (@bechamilton) who tweeted:

Ethnicity is used readily enough by unscrupulous elites right now. No need for the UN to add to it……..The UN has a choice. A choice not to reinforce harmful &, more to the point, inaccurate divisions.

But perhaps it’s not that simple, I thought then, and emailed the photo to my wife – who has worked in (pre-independence) South Sudan* and also managed a large refugee camp operation during and after the Rwanda genocide of 1995.

Her response when she got home was salutary, and went something along the lines of:

Yes, I can understand exactly why they’ve done that, and while I don’t know the details, I may well have done exactly the same.  You have to understand, you liberal, wishy-washy buffoon, that this place is catering, at short notice and on a make-it-up-as-you-go-along basis, for women and children who are traumatized by the recent carnage and may have walked for several days to find this makeshift security and shelter.  What they want and need is immediate shelter, water and food, free from fear of violence, and if the best way to do that is via temporary segregation, so be it. And here are you worrying about whether the UN is reinforcing tribal division stereotypes, you total numptie.  Have you never bleeding read Maslowe’s hierarchy?

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be efforts at inter-tribal communication and as needs be reconciliation, via a safe central area, given that until a month ago the Dinka and Nuer lived quite happily alongside each other**, and to this extent Bec Hamilton is probably right to point out that the current ethnic violence has been stirred up by self-interested elites within and around the new government structures, but the immediate priorities of shelter and security clearly come first.  I mean, are you on fuckin’ acid, or what, you bleedin’ hippie?

Well, I paraphrase somewhat, but that was the general gist.

Somewhat chastened, I reflected on how, in very different circumstances, the debate about immigration is going in the UK, and about my take on it.  My take on it goes roughly along the lines of: economically and philosophically, free movement of people is clearly a good thing, but we do have to take on board the fact that the British working class has for a long time now been subject to a virulent anti-immigrant EU discourse, and it is therefore entirely appropriate – in order not to come over counter-productively as an elite ‘expert’ to find a route through which takes expressions feelings of insecurity as legitimate, and to seek to negotiate a new settlement for the long term.  Here’s one I made earlier.

Yet, on the other hand, I find myself unprepared – at least as a first instinct – to take on board the need for immediate security of South Sudanese women and children because. if I do so, they might fall into some long-term error of tribal distrust.

Really, I’m surprised at myself.

* Strangely, it’s not out of the question she may find herself back in South Sudan soon, as with he kids big enough to look after me now, she’s going on the International Emergency and Trauma Register, ready to fly off a a day’s notice to the next trouble spot, and given her experience in South Sudan, I guess she might get the call, in which case expect more blogging on this subject.

** Depressingly, the comments under the line of the New York Times article I link to above focus on the fact that the Dinka and Nuer have ‘traditionally’ had a war-based relationship, reflective of a pre-market pastoral society in which cattle-raiding is a key economic activity.  EE Evans-Pritchard 1940’s seminal study The Nuer even gets a mention.  It seems to me that arguing that tribal segregration is justified on the basis of a study of society three generations ago is a bit like arguing that we should restrict EU-migration because, you know, the second world war.

Categories: News from Abroad

William Hague vs the French military

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago in a radio interview, William Hague defended the UK intervention in Libya, with reference to Mali:

Well we were involved, if you recall, in saving lives in Libya, not in…..Ghadaffi was overthrown by his own people, and I think actually if we hadn’t been doing that, because what we did, really, shortened the Libyan conflict, these problems would have been even greater. If the conflict had gone on for longer there would have been an even greater flow of weapons and an even greater opportunity for extremists to take hold in Libya. So while the Libyan situation may well have contributed to what’s happened in Mali, I think that the action that the Western world took in Libya, if anything, mitigated that.

It’s worth comparing that with what French military strategists are now saying about the Libyan intervention.  According to Isabelle Lasserre in Le Figaro ($):

Des stratèges militaires considèrent que l’intervention au Mali est une conséquence directe de la guerre en Libye, qui, parce qu’elle a fait l’économie de troupes au sol, n’a pas été menée à son terme. Avec la chute de Kadhafi, l’ordre politique s’est effondré sans être remplacé par une nouvelle autorité digne de ce nom. Les mercenaires touaregs qui combattaient aux côtés de Kadhafi ont rejoint leur Mali d’origine. La Libye est devenue un arsenal à ciel ouvert pillé par les groupes armés du Sahel. Aujourd’hui, Benghazi a été évacué de tous ses ressortissants étrangers. Quant au sud du pays, il est devenu, selon le même haut responsable français, « une nouvelle région de déstabilisation ». Et, pour Paris, « un vrai sujet de préoccupation ».

[Military strategists are of the view that the intervention in Mali is a direct consequence of the war in Libya which, because this was conducted with few ground troops, was not carried through to completion.  With the fall of Khadaf, political order collapsed without being replaced by any authority worthy of the name.  The Tuareg mercenaries who had fought for Khadafi went home to Mail.  Libya became an open-air arsenal pillaged by the armed groups of the Sahel.  Today, Benghazi is totally clear of its foreign nationals.  As for the south of the country, it has become, according to the same senior French source, “a new region of instability.  And, for Paris, a real subject of preoccupation.]

So, for Hague, the swift end to the war brought about by Western  bombing indicates success.  For French military experts, now involved in picking up the pieces in Mali, it’s the very opposite.  I know who I believe.

And so it goes on.

French intervention in Mali means that jihadists are now in southern Libya itself,  with calls starting for further international intervention there (see same article above), while recent reports suggested up to 200 heavily armed vehicles have crossed Niger and Chad and are now in Darfur, Western Sudan.  Unintended consequence maybe, but no less real for the people of Darfur.

Of course I empathise with James Bloodworth’s humanitarian instincts over Mali, just as I empathised with Carl’s over Libya.   Sadly, it doesn’t mean they are right (though, to be fair to James, he is probably more right than Carl was).

For a wider discussion of how the Left might get to grips with the intractable problem of humanitarianism vs. the problems with interventionism see my recent essay here.

Categories: News from Abroad

The British anti-war left and Mali

January 16, 2013 3 comments

Since Friday, when white people started fighting there, it seems anyone who’s anyone in the mainstream media is an expert on Mali.  Funny that.

I’m no expert, but back in April 2012, I wrote:

Meanwhile in Africa, a nascent democracy has fallen, a large part of the country is in the hands of a different number of armed groups with differing levels of affiliation to Al Qaeida, trouble is spilling over into neighbouring countries and refugees are on the move.  All this is happening as a direct result of the UK’s last major military intervention.

I speak, of course, of Mali, and the vast desert area referred to as Azawad by those Tourags who seek its independence.  Over the weekend the major town Timbuktu and Gao have fallen to Touareg rebels, taking strategic advantage of the recent coup d’etat.  This coup d’etat was itself undertaken by a section of the army supposedly as a reaction to the civilian government’s inability to deal with armed rebellion in the North, and that armed rebellion was fuelled by the massive overspill of weaponry from Libya via Niger into the desert regions of Mali.

In the mix are various groups, with confused and confusing allegiance, and including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the (Islamist) Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) , the (Islamist) Ansar al-Din and of course Al Qaeida Middle East (AQIM), present in one form or another (from bases in Southern Algeria).

More details are here, courtesy of the very excellent Kal at The Moor Next Door. There’s a handy map here.  I don’t pretend to out-analyse Kal on the specifics of what are and what will be in the region, but simply ask the questions: do Cameron and Hague now accept that what seemed like a nice Boys’ Own Adventure is turning out to have very nasty consequences not just for the millions now directly affected (Mali’s population is 16 million to Libya’s 6 million) but potentially for the much of the Sahel and into the West African states?

Nine months on, we know a few more details of those “nasty consequences”.  There is open war in Mali. Ansaru in Nigeria are explicitly linking their activities to Mali.  Senegal is scared of what may be coming.  Mauritania, in its fragile state, is unable to restrict the movements of jihadists through its territories and prey to attack on its own towns, and Niger – already beset by major ecnonomic and environmental problems, will only suffer more from the growing regional instability.

Now if I, from a backroom in Lancashire, armed with nothing more than an internet connection and a keen sense of the unintended consequence, was able nine months ago to predict pretty well  how things would pan out, then it must all have been pretty damn predictable.  You’d have thought, in such circumstances, the anti-war left would have had something to say in the way of prevention.

Yet by and large, none of the people or organisations now so desperate to comment on what are, by any yardstick, serious, bloody events with huge consequences for the people of the Sahel region and beyond, had anything to say as, little by little over the summer months, the groups who had been fighting for territorial independence ceded ground and towns to those with more Jihadi aims, and it became clearer that the assault on human freedoms in Northern Malian desert towns would soon be in assaults in Central Mali.

In the end, I can’t help feeling that while what is happening now in Mali is actually quite welcome news for some on the left, who are happy to use it to reinforce their anti-imperial narrative or whatever, the energies and resources now devoted to commenting on the war, might have been better used more proactively few months ago.

Of course it’s a big ‘if’, but if leftie commentators, journos and politicos had been demanding answers from the government back in the summer about how it intended to deal with what was unfolding in Mali, then it might just have hit the Cabinet agenda, and it might just have kickstarted an international process of support for regional intervention.  As it was, it was December by the time ECOWAS came to a tentative agreement on use of its regional forces to support the Malian government, and by that time it was too late; French military intelligence clearly saw both that the route South was open to the jihadists, and that the jihadists had the capability and desire to take that road, and that if it didn’t strike now Bamako itself would be under threat (of course it may still be, but in a different way).

Of course the anti-war left is not responsible for what’s going on now – Cameron and co must bear some responsibility for that given that we now know how well briefed they were, or at least should have been, on the likely consequences for its southern neighbours of a changed regime in Libya.

But if the anti-war left is going to get serious about anti-imperialism/promoting the long-term advisability of stopping these continued interventions – we can be  sure enough there’ll be another one along in the non-too-distant future – it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.


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