Knowledge is Power

[16 Apr 03] Ladies and gentlemen, the President.

My fellow Americans. Throughout this struggle our goal has been to remove the Iraqi regime and to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. We have achieved the first goal—and, I am proud to say, are well on track for the second. It has been a difficult task, thanks to the devious nature of Saddam and his minions. These weapons had been dismantled and hidden in civilian locations throughout Iraq: in hospitals... museums... and private homes. But with the enthusiastic support of the Iraqi people, every last component has been found and disposed of—on the black market, where they can now be safely recycled. More importantly, scientific manuals that may have led to the discovery of new ways to threaten America have been destroyed. True, some of these were not themselves new; some were in fact several centuries old. But this simply confirms the long-standing nature of the threat posed by Saddam.

Our aim has been nothing less than the defense of our nation and the peace of the world. Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work. It is an objective worthy of America, worthy of all the acts of heroism and generosity that have come before. If the Ba'ath party had deciphered the cuneiform on those piles of clay tablets, who knows what might have happened—what ancient spells and incantations they contained. Where would we have been had Saddam unleashed armies of wing-ed lions with the heads of mighty kings against us?

My fellow Americans, it was essential that we destroy these weapons of mass instruction. Once again, we applied the power of our country to ensure our security and to serve the cause of justice. And we prevailed.

May God bless our country and all who defend her. Semper fi. [Applause.]


[13 Apr 03] Child's play:

I asked Aurora whether they often play War in Iraq at school. "Oh yes, we've played it fifty or maybe hundred times!"


Sing, Fatwa Lady

[11 Apr 03] I've gotta say, those pictures sure remind me of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You remember—that amazing day in 1984 when a bunch of GIs drove the truck over from Checkpoint Charlie and hooked up a tow-rope and pulled the whole damn thing over? Sure, the Soviets were pissed, and it was a real bummer when they nuked Minneapolis, but you can't deny it was one hell of an uplifting moment. And with practically no fall-out whatsoever. Metaphorically speaking.


Mars, Blog of War

[ 1 Apr 03] Let's kick some Marji butt!


Ain't Gonna Play Sun City

[31 Mar 03] Something new (and at the same time old) for an old part of the site: International Moves Against Apartheid, a background paper I wrote as part of some research work in the mid-'90s. Someone out there might find it useful, and it might as well sit on the web as sit on my hard-drive.

Also: found in a gorse bush.


[20 Mar 03] The label "Cassandra" has been drifting around the web lately, attached with a sneer to opponents of the war. Some people seem to be using it to mean "prophet of doom", with implications of overreaction and false prophecy—which completely misses the point.

Cassandra was a Greek prophet of uncanny accuracy, who fell out with her suitor, Apollo. The angry god exacted his revenge by twisting her power: while her predictions remained as accurate as ever, now no one believed them. The moral of Cassandra's story is not that she was a prophet of doom, but that her prophecies of doom were right, and ignored.

Others have taken to wearing the label with pride, as a preemptive "told you so" about how bad the war would be, or how bad not having the war would be. But Cassandra gained no comfort from being able to say "told you so". Her power was a curse. No one should hope to be Cassandra; certainly no one should hope that their opponents are Cassandras.

None of us have the power of prophecy; all we have are hopes and fears. And I hope my fears are wrong. I hope your speech to the House was well-founded, Mr Blair, and that your belligerent noises have some connection with reality, Mr Bush. And I hope that the voice of Cassandra doesn't sound like this.


Love Song

[25 Feb 03] Inspired by Bill's persistence, I too am stepping once more into the breach, silence be damned. All irony aside, I think at the heart of my misgivings is the very question of regime change. My fear is not just that innocent Iraqis will die, or that Westerners face a terrorist backlash, but fear of what could happen if the negotiations leading to war are mishandled, even if the war itself is a military and humanitarian success.

We can argue about how much threat Iraq poses to the world until the cows come home, but a pre-emptive strike against that threat is not, no matter how much people try to draw the comparison, equivalent to Britain's declaration of war against Germany in 1939 or America's against Japan in 1941. Saddam's borders haven't expanded since his attempted invasion of Kuwait in 1990, they've contracted. He has in effect been locked up for twelve years—and now the hawks want him executed. So what are they saying? That he's fixin' to bust out of jail and go on the rampage. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. Maybes aren't really getting us anywhere.

So Tony Blair, at least for his domestic audience, has shifted his emphasis to Saddam's human rights abuses. Human rights are certainly of concern to me; I spent some time as a postgrad studying them. One of my interests was in changing international attitudes towards human rights abuses occurring within particular states, and how the balance was shifting away from paramount respect for state sovereignty. So I've been keenly interested in the role that the international community has (or has not) played in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, and so on.

But the Yugoslavian wars were not just about human rights, they were about protecting regional minority groups; they were a series of civil wars, with the international community lining up on one side or the other. And Rwanda, where the international community did almost nothing, was about a horrific orgy of genocide. This coming war, leaving aside the supposed threat Iraq poses to other countries, will be a new kind of animal: a war to remove the government of a sovereign state because of its human rights abuses. Effectively, we will have judged it a menace not only to its neighbours, not only to minority groups (whether clustered in distinct geographical areas or not), but to all of its own people.

I value human rights, and believe that no state is unanswerable to the world for its crimes. But at a moment like this we have to ask: who is this "we"? Who is doing the judging? Because if "we" are about to judge a regime criminal and bring about its removal on the grounds of crimes not against us (because those haven't actually happened, even if some fear they might) but against its own people—something that has not happened in quite this way ever before in the history of the modern nation state—we have to be very, very, very sure we're doing the right thing. Not just out of fear for our own safety, but because of a determination to do justice.

In the West we believe that only an institution as significant as the state should try an individual for his or her crimes, through its proxies in the legal system: judges, juries, defenders and prosecutors. Who, then, is fit to judge a state for its crimes? Not another state, but something bigger than states. Not the prosecution alone, but the whole court.

The cheerleaders for war bristle at this idea, because the only thing that looks like a court capable of judging entire states is the United Nations, and the UN is a flawed institution (as if there's a perfect alternative out there that everyone is stupidly refusing to use). They reject its findings before it's even found them, and reserve the right to ignore whatever it concludes. We don't need a UN, they cry; we don't need international consensus; we don't need a second opinion. We're the strongest military power on the face of the earth, the world's policeman, and if we want to be judge, jury and executioner as well, no one can stop us. We're Judge Dredd, and we are the Law.

There are Americans telling themselves that US leadership of this kind is only right and proper, as the US is the world's oldest representative democracy, and democracy is the fairest kind of government there is. The UN, by this same logic, is patently undemocratic, a talking shop stuffed with equal numbers of representatives from tiny principalities through to giant dictatorships. But international politics is not a democracy, and never has been; international politics is a talking shop. We talk and we talk and we talk, saying to each other, "Let's try not to go to war; let's buy each other's stuff; let's not fuck up the world," and hoping that the other guy listens. If the US is to assume the mantle of supreme arbiter on the basis of being democracy number one, who will it represent? And when does the rest of the world get its democratic say in whatever it decides?

If America dons the judges' robes and passes its own sentences on other states—which it is certainly within its military power to do—then the world will have changed far more profoundly than on September 11. American influence will have become explicit interference; the covert will have become overt. The world may be more peaceful, for a while. But beneath that peace will build fears and resentments far more threatening in the long term than the ones that concern the US at this brief moment in history.

America has an empire of influence, built on image. Its prosperity is built on the fact that a great many people in the world want, at least a little bit, to be like Americans. We buy American goods, we watch American movies, we listen to American music, we visit America, and some of us even emigrate to America. We do it because behind all of America's problems and faults we love what it stands for. There are people everywhere as kind and good as Americans (and others just as rotten); there are landscapes just as intriguing. But there is a certain spirit—of independence, of confidence, of optimism—that much of the world identifies with the US.

It's hard to reconcile that spirit with the role of self-appointed policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. In contemplating that role for America, Bush risks diminishing American influence where it counts the most: in the hearts, minds and wallets of the rest of the world.

If the world falls out of love with America, the American century really will be over.



[19 Feb 03] I've been sparing you and me both the joy of yet another online rant on the subject of war, but days of gnawing dread compel me to write at least something, so that I won't look back at the archive in a year's time and wonder why I was so quiet two weeks before the storm. Although looking back at last year I could just repost what I wrote then. What a long wait for the inevitable.

For inevitable it has been, which I suppose is why I chose not to spend every hour discussing it; all I would have done is made myself sick of the sound of my own voice. It was inevitable as soon as it was sayable; as soon as it was imaginable. A leader who wants to look strong Does Something. A president in his first term who wants to win a second Does Not Back Down. The strength or weakness of the case against his long-demonized foe Does Not Matter. And neither does polarizing electorates worldwide, provided the magnetic fields point in the right direction.

So I tried to focus on the positive side. Saddam is, after all, a dictator, hated at home and abroad, and in absolute terms his removal from power would be no bad thing. And American military technology is now so sophisticated that this removal can be achieved swiftly and humanely by a single bomb in a matter of minutes. Sure, there's some uncertainty about which bomb will be able to do the job, which means accompanying the lucky explosive with a number of less fortunate ones; and dropping those will take up several minutes on either side of the few in which Saddam will be swiftly and humanely removed. No matter; any non-dictatorial Iraqis of the kind begging to be liberated have had plenty of advance warning, and will have been able to relocate somewhere safe by now. Just like we Westerners are now safe from Terror.

And there is such a thing as a just war: look at the proud record of Western intervention in Bosnia, or Rwanda. All it took in Rwanda's case was five thousand troops, and we prevented genocide. Sorry: all it would have taken... to prevent genocide.

But this war is just, surely; Saddam's a bad guy. He gassed his own people, in that village; you know, back in the Iran-Iraq war—c'mon, it was on TV all the time. Except... it turns out that US intelligence wasn't so sure it was Saddam; it could have been Iran. So one of the key rhetorical claims about his monstrous wickedness is as substantial as Schrödinger's cat. Fortunately, rhetoric plays no part in determining anything as serious as the timing of war.

But that aside, he's still a major threat. It's only six short years since he first came to power, and already he's annexed Saudi Arabia, been handed Kuwait by weak-kneed appeasers, and now has invaded Jordan. You think he's going to stop there? Good God, no. Once he reaches the shores of defenceless Israel it's only a few short miles to the coast of New England.

Which is why we see an American government contemplating punishing Germany for not going to war... by withdrawing what was originally an army of occupation... and redeploying it to a new front line in Poland.

And they say irony is dead. But then they said that about Bin Laden.


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