Newsnotes 2003 09

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Chemical Ali and Bloody Basra

UN-forgivable [Iraq ‘Peacekeeping’]

A butcher’s double [Islamists Rising]

UN-ethical [New World Order]

Fires Of Babylon [Kelly Inquiry]

Lovely weather for snakes [Market Forces and the US Grid]

Painted Apes [Human Nature]

Chemical Ali and Bloody Basra

The occupation of Iraq has cost the lives of three more British troops.  Killed in Shiite-dominated Basra, which ought to be safe if anywhere was.  But the attackers struck with great precision and then escaped without loss.  Not easy to do against British troops, and especially not if the local population is pro-British, as they keep telling us it is.

Interestingly, the incident happened shortly after the capture in the north of ‘Chemical Ali’, the biggest foe of the Shiites on the Baathist side.  Has some sort of deal been done?

Whatever about that, the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is over.  The West lost.  Now the British and American governments are in military occupation of a country that they cannot govern without bloodshed, and cannot leave without a gigantic loss of prestige.  But there is talk now of withdrawal, not just from the normal protestors but also from the families of the British troops out there, who figure their lads did their job and should now come home.

It’s now damned obvious that the Iraqi ‘threat’ was imaginary.  The justification is being moved to the back-up Absolute Truth, Iraq is a lovely place that only needed the removal of the wicked Baathists to work splendidly.  They must have known the argument that Baathist brutality was the product of a fragmented and almost ungovernable population, groups that do not naturally cohere into any sort of society.  But they thought they knew better, believed that they could easily turn Baghdad into another Smallville, an advertisement for the splendidness of Western values.

Kelly, thou should be living at this hour!

UN-forgivable [Iraq ‘Peacekeeping’]

The United Nations has endorsed the USA’s claim to be the owners of Iraq.  It did not confine itself to ‘humanitarian’ problems—themselves the product of UN sanctions—but was deeply involved in the process of persuading Iraqis to live within a US-defined framework.  It was therefore quite reasonable for them to be attacked in Iraq by Iraqis who object to being owned.

Almost all Iraqis object to being owned, including those who were glad that Saddam has been overthrown.  A small number would be willing to be ‘branch managers’ for the US, but not many.  The Shiites are mostly staying quiet for now, not because they intend to live as the US requires them to live, but because they can expect to win if the USA dares to hold the elections it has promised.  They consolidate power in their own areas, and can protest in the name of democracy if the US tries to renege on its electoral promise (which they probably will).  Meantime the US and the Baathists are wearing each other down.

The same applies to the Kurds, things are going in the right direction from their viewpoint, and a collapse of central authority would suit them fine.  I’m sure they don’t want elections, which will show nothing except that there are more Shiites than Kurds or Sunni Arabs.  But their best bet is to sabotage the protest with reasonable-sounding demands, and hope to be left in charge of their own tribal territories in the absence of a strong central state.

Meantime the World Bank and IMF have fled Iraq, a suitable comment on President Bush’s bold words delivered a very long way from the danger.  And a direct encouragement to a new sort of terrorism: hitting the West in the West mostly serves to enrage Westerners, but hitting intrusive Western agencies in your own country makes most Westerners wonder if they should be there at all.

The Palestinians did their cause enormous damage by striking at aircraft, Olympic athletes and other uninvolved Western targets.  Contrast this with victorious guerrilla movements in Vietnam, Aden etc. that stuck rigidly to their own bit of the world, the territory that they regard as home.  From a Western viewpoint, if the war is in someone else’s country, then forget it and go home.  If the war has followed you home, then you’ve no choice but to turn and fight it, and to hell with concepts of ‘human rights’ that are utterly detached from real life.

In Iraq, sabotage on a major scale began only after the occupiers had been there few months, only after it was clear to the whole would that the US was not competent to restore basic services in the way that Saddam had done after the 1991 war.  And that the USA’s gigantic military machine could not suppress the random disorder that had begun almost as soon as they drove Saddam into hiding.  Saddam had suppressed both Islamists and straightforward criminals, of the sort now rampaging everywhere under US rule.  The actual situation is even more surreal than Gary Trudeau’s comic strip.

A butcher’s double [Islamists Rising]

A big bomb in Baghdad and a big bomb the same day in Israel suggests Islamists, not Baathists.  Suicide bombs are not Baathist, though they may have done the earlier pipeline sabotage: efficiently blowing up a pipeline suggests technical knowledge possessed by those who used to run it.  The Basra killings of the British Military Police was probably yet another link-up, Baathists now helped to operate by local Shiites who figure that the British are more of a threat to their pro-Iranian aspirations.

I’d not heard of Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello before he was blown up and killed. But his CV—Lebanon, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor—makes him absolutely a part of the UN’s role in disrupting vulnerable countries in the USA’s interest.  The UN has been playing an abominable role, a double-act with the USA, nice-and-nasty.  They could have done far more good by staying out of situations where the US has ignored the norms of international law.

East Timor was the nearest to a good case, but their right to be treated as a sovereign state was always solid under the official UN rules.  They only got independence when it suited the USA to disrupt Indonesia.

I’ve heard people say that though the war was wrong, it is now right to reconstruct Iraq.  Why?  While the Americans are functionally the owners of Iraq, you can’t be seen as neutral if you go along with it.

The US has flatly refused to turn over authority in Iraq to the UN.  The reasons are not explained, and most commentators have carefully avoided asking why.  To me it seems obvious: the US hasn’t yet abandoned the idea of Iraq as a permanent dependency, a wedge in the troublesome Arab-Muslim world.  Freedom means people doing what the US tells them to do, rather than what they themselves might choose to do.

If Iraq were under UN authority, it would soon pass back to local control, probably a corrupt and authoritarian democracy dominated by Shiite Islamists.  The US is not going to allow that.  If anyone could have made the occupation work, it was Sergio Vieira de Mello: I’d assume that he was the major target.

UN-ethical [New World Order]

The Gulf War of 2003 has made the UN almost an agency of the USA. Any Iraqi intending to oppose the US occupation would have to treat it as a target.

The UN charter includes various ethical principles, which are good to have but which are not meaningfully law.  Law begins with enforcement, and the UN charter is rigged to make enforcement difficult, with one-fifth of the world’s population possessing four-fifths of the vetoes.

The USA has used its power to stop the UN’s ethical principles becoming meaningfully law, except in particular cases where this suited US power.  Up until 1991, there was some doubt as to what the US would want to do, if it had the power.  By 1991, they did have the power, and Gulf War One showed very clearly that they preferred power to ethics.  At least it was clear to us; it has taken 12 years and a second Gulf War to get it through to the bulk of the population.

Criticism of unethical behaviour by governments is greatly weakened by tying it up with ‘human rights’, which do not exist without someone to enforce them. Enforcement is biased, and often completely crazy. You have the right to a lawyer and to interminable delays in getting a clear decision.  You do not have a right to food, clean water or a decent job for anyone who’ll do decent work.

I have no way of knowing what al-Qaeda are thinking.  But their main successes since 9/11 have been on Muslim territory.  Places where they could quite reasonably argue that the Western tourist presence is as demoralising as any occupying army.

Fires Of Babylon [Kelly Inquiry]

The Kelly Inquiry is revealing some basic truths.  Such as, never put anything in an e-mail unless you’d not be worried who saw it.  This includes police and intelligence services, and you never know who it may be sent on to.  (Encryption is doubtful, even for regular commercial secrecy. It tells a snooper what’s worth cracking.)

I’d agree that the story was ‘sexed up’ a little, though not by the BBC itself.  But there is a profound difference between news reporting and official documents shown to Parliament, on the pretence that Parliament will make an informed decision as to whether to go to war.

We also now know that protest did count.  Because of marches and petitions that produced no obvious result, they sexed up the data, and then behaved stupidly when the trickery got leaked.  These characters have an inflated idea of their own importance, and no concept of the usefulness of modesty and patience.

It also looks very much as if my speculation about Kelly was right.  The man was a government ‘insider’ seeing his world turning against him.  He was harassed for telling the truth about intelligence data that was suspect at the time, since shown to be utterly untrue.

Why was it so important?  Why, since Iraq was obviously not a threat, did it have to be talked up as an enormous menace?

It’s possible that elements in the Bush administration figured that Iraq would be a good battle-ground against the Islamists, with every chance that a conflict could undermine the traditional Islam of the Saudi dynasty and thus be extended into Arabia.  I’m not saying that they told Bush, probably they didn’t.  That’s not how I read Bush, or even Rumsfeld.  But advisors may say one thing and believe another.

The aim, I suppose, is to ‘clean out’ a reservoir of hostile values.  People who resist US ideas in their own country, even if they are not currently connected to terrorism.  I know about such thinking in its SF aspect: I’d suppose they think that the USA could survive another 9/11,or another dozen or hundred major strikes.  They might well think that such suffering would make the US stronger and better: it’s an attitude spread by people who might or might not balk at real-world applications.

Consider Terminator 3, where the world gets blown up at the end despite the hero’s best efforts.  A very odd solution to pick, contradicting the optimism of Terminator 2.  And Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger is now prospective Republican governor of California.  Moderate, of course.  But in Californian terms, being ‘moderate’ means he’s not pretending to defend traditional values in a serious manner.  Fellow-Californian and fellow-actor Ronald Reagan sounded as if he was, but he and Thatcher have been the biggest-ever trashers of tradition.  And nowadays, pro-trash voters are in a majority.

Lovely weather for snakes [Market Forces and the US Grid]

The Great East Coast Blackout was mostly caused by electricity trading.  The science magazine New Scientist gives a clear account of the process:

“The underlying problem is that the North American grid was designed decades ago merely as a back-up that would allow local suppliers to tap emergency power from neighbouring utilities. But a decade of regulatory changes has split power generation from transmission and distribution, so suppliers can now choose to buy electricity from power stations far away. This has led to heavy long-distance transmission on a grid that was not designed for it.”  (Preventing blackouts will cost billions, New Scientist 23 August 2003)

Here in Britain, the grid is fairly safe.  But a useful and efficient Directory Of Inquiries (192) is being replaced by a host of competing 118xxx numbers, some of which can get very expensive if you make an error using them.

Painted Apes [Human Nature]

Also from New Scientist, an argument that ‘Celebrity Cults’ are tapping into an ancient human instinct, a habit of noticing which of our fellow humans are doing well, and then trying to imitate them.  It probably worked well among hunter-gatherers, maybe even among small farmers and craftspeople.  But nowadays the celebrities are cynically manufactured, and the process is being abused to sell stuff.

People already suspected this, knew the whole process was and is rotten.  But also they feel that nothing can be done, even that nothing should be done.

The one bit of Thatcherism that’s really stuck is her there-is-no-alternative idea.  Figures for economic growth show that she was dead wrong: the ‘regenerated’ economy was slightly worse that the average for 1950 to 1975.  Had the Tories been led by a functional conservative who’d restored the Keynesian system to good working order, we’d be just as well off economically, and quite a bit happier.

To be more exact, the majority of us in the working mainstream of the society would be just as well off economically, and quite a bit happier.  The poor would have more money and feel less excluded, while the richest 10% or 5% would be lacking the wealth and power that they’ve grabbed from the rest of us.

Thatcherism/Reaganism pushed the idea of self-regulating free markets.  Supposedly, people would adjust themselves to an optimal pattern that was best for everyone.  It’s an idea that goes back as far as Adam Smith, and has little to do with the actual development of British Industry, which he never properly noticed.

At the level of theory, the idea of self-regulating markets overlooks actual human natural.  The crucial difference between me and people like me.  Between my personal unique and individual interests, and things that we’d all gain from if everyone did them.  The particular person and the mass of similar people get merged in a bizarre singular-plural entity known as ‘The Individual’.  The Individual knows what is best for The Individual, and therefore governments (which are somehow outside the control of The Individual) will only do damage.

This rubbish takes no notice of actual human behaviour, actual human history.  Every successful industrialisation has taken place with the encouragement of an interventionist government.  And at the level of particular individual people, only a minority can think in a truly asocial manner.  Much easier and more common is tribal thinking, in which a collection of rather similar people ignore everyone outside of the immediate network of friends and relatives.

That’s why ten generations of rationalist thinkers have firmly believed in ‘The Individual’ as the basis of everything.  It’s about imposing the values of your own tribe on everyone.  And it remains the intent for our ‘Neo-Conservatives’ or Post-Liberals.  Classical Liberals were cultured and sophisticated tribalists who wanted the rest of the world as permanent subordinated, with small numbers of outsiders let in if they fitted.  This lot are crude and incoherent, and I don’t think they’ll be able to make anything very permanent.


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