Notes On The News
By Gwydion M. Williams
Less than two years after September 11th, al-Qaeda received a huge boost in the shape of the USA’s military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. There were maybe good grounds for less troops, but not the total pull-out that occurred.
I’d decided it was an error several days before the wave of suicide bombings. I had no idea of the state of al-Qaeda, but on general principles, I figured that people aren’t going to go on killing themselves for no visible return. And at a Russian website that covers Iraq news (http://www1.iraqwar.ru/?userlang=en), I saw the glee of posters of an Islamist persuasion. Of course I don’t suppose that those posters were bombers, they might even see terrorism as un-Islamic. Also only a fool would suppose that the US-designed and US-built Internet is safe from the prying of the US military-intelligence complex, which was also intimately involved in all stages of the development of computers and microchips. I assume that anti-Americans who give themselves an electronic presence are not thinking about doing anything violent or seriously illegal. While al-Qaeda seems to use the relatively safe technology of video tapes, audio tapes, written messages and word-of-mouth contacts.
The Muslim view thinks in terms of decades and centuries. The idea is to wear down the Western presence in the Middle East, which includes the Jewish settlement in Israel and did successfully expel Israel from South Lebanon. Other solutions are possible, Arafat has for many years been keen to create a residual Palestinian state out of the West Bank and Gaza, but Israeli hard-liners have been allowed to disrupt this by expanding settlements in areas which ought to be Palestinian by any rational criterion. They may impose some other solution in the short run, but without Arafat’s endorsement it will not be seen as legitimate
Meantime the overthrow of Iraq completes the destruction of those Arab regimes that shared some Western values. As distinct from being subordinate to Western interests, as Egypt now is and as Saudi Arabia has always been.
It’s not really in the Israeli or Jewish interest, much more a case of Jews finding a niche within the dominant Anglo culture. The USA’s decision to join the Great War in 1917 began a process that ended with the death of more than half of Europe’s Jews, their position was relatively secure in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, whereas they lacked a place in the fragmented nation-states that the USA insisted on creating. This was combined with the USA’s exclusion of most Jewish immigrants, along with South Europeans. South Europeans at least had a home of their own that was safe, despite poverty. Jews often had nowhere to go, which was why Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinians.
With the Cold War over, US and British policies are once again destabilising the rest of the world. The most successful Third-World states are countries like India and China, which can still choose which global influences they let in and which they exclude. Malaysia also managed to successfully pick and choose during the East Asian crisis of the 1990s, doing better than those countries that accepted Western advice.
What happened in Morocco was an attack by educated Muslims on a network of privilege from which their people are generally excluded, perpetually. And excluded with a demand that they abandon their way of life, and blame themselves when Western advice makes a bad situation worse.
The first two week of war established that Iraq could resist effectively, and that Saddam could not be dislodged as Baathist leader. But also that Britain and the USA could fight on for months if necessary, with firm majorities among the population for fighting.
The major weakness of most Western opposition was that it accepted the propaganda line of Saddam’s regime as an aberration that could readily be replaced with something better. It would have been much more convincing if they’d said that Iraq was unlikely to get anything better than Saddam, would be prone either to chaos or to a popular but intolerant Islamist regime. But this wasn’t done, so that opposition failed to get beyond those who would normally oppose any war that might be planned.
After the first two weeks, it was expected that fighting might take another month and cost a lot of allied lives. This would have been ruinous for Rumsfeld and Bush, there were voices raised that they had tried ‘Thunder-Lite’ and that it hadn’t worked. People would stick with them for the duration of the war, which was clearly winnable. But once the war was over, the blame game could begin.
But then there was a sudden Iraqi collapse, which was very curious. It could have been a simple betrayal, by Saddam or by his subordinates. But then, with victory officially won, Rumsfeld and Bush agree to pull out of Saudi Arabia. Curioser and curioser. There was also a lot of noise about Baathists taking refuge in Syria, a traditional foe that would also like some ‘bargaining chips’ in its efforts to recover the Golan Heights on its own terms. Iran was mostly ignored, they are Saddam’s bitter foes. But Saddam has never exactly been an enemy of the Saudi dynasty, he was serving their interests in the war against Iran, and ordinary Arabians see him as a hero. The huge Arabian peninsula has many hiding places, there is even a suggestion that Saddam might be in Mecca, where the US cannot ever go look.
What I think happened is that some deal was made. The Baath leadership wanted to survive and the US administration knew that a long war would cost them the next election. The Saudi dynasty was also scared of a long war, while ordinary Arabians sympathised with Saddam. So perhaps it was agreed that Saddam and the Baath hard-core would go to Arabia, while US forces would pull out. The USA would engage in loud bluster against Syria, but the Syrians would be reminded that the US president cannot declare war without Congressional approval. (This point was somehow missed by all of the journalists I saw, maybe because their Foreign Office contacts neglected to mention it to them.)
The Iraq-Arabian border is huge and porous, I suspect that Baathist refugees in Arabia could easily slip back and forth, which would explain various captures and surrenders. For the Baathists remain the most coherent force, and a genuinely free election might give them enough power to make them a necessary part of any government. Which is why the US is trying to delay any sort of democracy, but how long will this hold.
I also figure that I’d figure there are characters in the US administration who be happy to see Saudi Arabia fly apart, hoping that it would be replaced by a collecting of feuding small states that the US could easily manipulate. The logic of fragmenting Arabia would be appealing. The oil is mostly in Shiite territories, after all, while the government is dominated by Sunnis, and al-Qaeda also is Sunni. The House of Saud would be wise to start treating the US as an enemy, look to France and Russia for support. It’s what their founder Ibn Saud would have done, but does the House of Saud still have men of that quality?
[This was completely wrong. The Baathists including Saddam stayed in Iraq and many died there. Some survivors now work for the self-styled “Islamic State” that currently flourishes in the ruins of Iraq and Syria.]
The original idea of the UN as a prototype for an ideal Wellsian order is dead, or maybe was never alive. It is much better to view it as a club of sovereign states. This is the best we can have. What is needed is a better curb on the USA.
The latest UN resolution showed that the US cannot in fact ‘go it alone’. Also that Russia and France will make unprincipled deals, but that’s hardly news.
The UN ideal of a global ethical order should be dropped. It’s meaningless when it cannot be applied to the USA, or to any of the other powers with a veto. But it gives the appearance of morality to power-political acts, notably the subordination of Serbia.
It’s much healthier if the world knows that it has no power to punish the guilty, merely the losers in each particular power struggle. By recognising what the real situation is, we can then work to make it better.
I’ve always found that the scoring was better than the songs on the Eurovision Song Contest. This time it was hilarious, the UK got zero, it was a weak song, but the total lack of votes probably was a reaction to the Iraq war.
Weak songs mostly get a few votes from sympathetic countries—the hosts Latvia were saved from zero by their Baltic neighbours in Estonia. Also voting was based on where people were living rather than nationality or citizenship. Though the Turkish entry was good, it was a phone-in vote and there are a lot of Turks in the West European countries that voted for them.
It will be interesting to see what happens next year. Countries whose songs do badly can be ‘relegated’, which is why not all countries have an entry. But Britain is not going to be relegated, apparently, because we’re a big contributor to Eurovision funds. Money counts for more than public opinion, naturally.
Labour got a ‘Baghdad Crunch’ in the local elections, with the Tories getting a lot more seats than were expected. Of course it was England without London, which is different from Britain as a whole. And Thatcher stripped local government of any real local power, so why bother except to make a general political point?
Meantime I have just read and signed the petition: “Reject Nomination of Bush and Blair for Nobel Prize” (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/302184339). Having initially tried for 20000 signatures, it had more than 40,000 signatures as of 26th May. Someone even suggested they might get it jointly with Saddam Hussein, in line with Kissinger’s award. Of course Kissinger did help to get the USA out of the Vietnam War, which was a key move in the ultimate Cold War victory, along with the reconciliation with China.
Senders of junk mail look for one positive result per hundred to make it worthwhile, that’s the economics of ‘snail mail’. But with junk e-mail, the senders’ costs are so low that a response of one in 100,000 can be justified. (Economist, 26th April, Stopping spam). That’s why you receive an E-mail in Britain saying ‘Russian women seek American men’, and why men get offered enlargements to their breast.
Technology can only lower the costs, and filter-avoidance will keep pace with filtering. One spamming fraudster sent nine million e-mails, finding 29 mugs who between them invested over 60,000 pounds. (Financial Times, 13th May 2003). Spammers show a sheer indifference to how many people they bother so long as they find one or two fools who will fall for an obvious scam. And of course the fraudster was treated with immense leniency, being required just to pay back the money, judges are always soft on white-collar criminals.
Meantime California is trying to introduce a $500 fine per victim for spammers, which might help the more legitimate sort, those who are engaged in legitimate business rather than cheating or seeking customers for criminal enterprises. But what about the rest?
Myself, I’d favour adding a one-penny stamp, paid by the sender. This would not be a significant expense, way below the costs of using the system. And about the cost of ten seconds of the time of someone on the minimum wage in Western countries. You could also have a ‘clear-list’, people you’ll accept free mail from.
It would of course contradict the libertarian ideals which built the Internet. But libertarian ideals will only work when people choose to confine themselves to just the things that libertarian idealists think proper for them. These limits are not even the same as my own idea of what’s proper, and my view is relatively close to theirs, in global terms.
Libertarianism will only work if people choose just to use their freedom in narrow and confined ways, which of course they won’t. A small group can bully its own members into conformity, but the Internet is global and totally diverse.
The ‘coolest’ film just now is The Matrix Reloaded. As a film, it’s rather below the intellectual level of the X-Men sequel, which tries to have ethics. The Matrix special effects look exactly like special effects, cartoonish and implausible, making it an extended computer game with a minimum of plot. And it stops in the middle of a subplot, when there was a perfectly decent stopping-point earlier on with the recovery of the ‘key-maker’.
Philosophical meanderings about ‘choice’ are 20 years out of date. It had been thought from the 18th century that a good enough model could predict everything with utter precision. But when computers allowed this to be tried, it was found that even tiny differences could make staggeringly large differences to the outcome. (See James Glick’s book Chaos for a good account of the process, if you don’t know it already.)
But what was the appeal of the original? The core notion of The Matrix was that people living in a world very much like our own were actually victims of an enigmatic machine plot, confined to virtual reality, supposedly there as simple power-generating unit. This in itself was a bloody stupid idea, why humans rather than sheep? Especially why humans with a technology advanced enough to understand computers, rather than mediaeval?
Of course the plot is only a pretext, to justify the idea of being liberated by ‘God the Godfather’, a hacker-drugs-fetishist complex that was somehow the only source of freedom. It’s a plausible myth for some people, in the US there have even been cases (Guardian 19th March) of people getting so obsessed that they commit murder. The Matrix: Matricide?
Marx supposed that capitalism and bourgeois culture were two sides of the same coin. It was his biggest error, one of many false concepts that he took over from Adam Smith.
In the West, bourgeois culture has been falling apart since the 1960s. Thatcher thought that an extension of market forces would revive bourgeois culture.
What actually happened was that selfish desires produced a selfish and a shoddy culture. Adam Smith’s description of capitalism was simply wrong, it was built in a fit of ideological enthusiasm by Puritans, and by ex-Puritans who expressed their enthusiasm in new forms, especially in the 19th century.
In the 20th century, all of this fell apart, and in Britain Puritanism collapsed into insignificance. It was replaced by a consumer culture that tries to tie the deepest human impulses to the purchase of tedious consumer goods. This includes quasi-religious stuff—the National Lottery giving itself overtones of Divine Favour etc.
Consumer goods do not satisfy the needs they are tied to. Pop music and drugs do, to an extent. But such feeling are dangerous and self-destructive if not controlled. And the whole dominant ideology is against control, so who knows where it will end?
[I had the name wrong in the printed version: “Matrix” rather than “The Matrix”. I stand by everything else.]