Thursday, 31 December 2015

Christopher Hitchens and Iraq War Polemics Revisited

 In a review of And Yet, Christopher Hitchen's posthumous collection of essays, Tim Adams writes
 'The essay Power Suits, which shows Hitchens at his most rigorous and obsessive, reveals how he became involved in the story that disclosed how only last-minute intervention from Tony Blair prevented US plans to blow up the al-Jazeera TV network headquarters in Qatar. 
It is a measure of Hitchens’s gift for triangulation that he could allow such revelations to exist alongside his qualified support for the “war on terror”. He backed himself into many corners with his arguments in favour of armed struggle against the “forces of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein”'
Hitchens, contrary to misleading impressions suggesting otherwise, never became a neoconservative after 9/11 2001. He aligned himself with the Bush administration on both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars fought thereafter for what he saw as the same reason George Orwell sided with the West against Hitler; to preserve civilisation.

Far from this representing Hitchens having 'sold out', it was the logical extension of his admiration for Trotsky's 'moral moments' in having warned Europe about the spectre of fascist barbarianism in the 1930s ( as outlined in his essay The Old Man ). For Hitchens'. politicised religion and fascism went together hand in glove.

Those who saw Islamic fundamentalism as a vital new form of totalitarian threat to the Middle East and the wider world in the early 2000s believed that a war for civilisation was needed against these recrudescent forces. State totalitarianism of Saddam Hussein's kind and Islamist fascism were two forms of terror.

This stance, allowed Hitchens to take on activists in the 'anti-war' left who did tend to see all attacks on the west as a 'mere reflex reaction' to 'Western Imperialism'. Hitchen's position was that, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, the West had an obligation to try to put right what callous realpolitik had created in the past.

Most obviously, that meant supporting a war on the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the 'war on terror', both the terror imposed by Al Qaida and the Taliban, a group empowered by Pakistan's ISI and Saudi Arabia as part of their and US support for the mujahadeen in the proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Hitchens consistently opposed the alignment with Islamist forces as a cynical means to defeat secular democratic forces in the Middle East. He was an ally of Edward Said on the issue of Palestine and why he blamed religious extremism and the backing it got from the US for making resolution of the conflict more difficult.

There a number of traps Hitchens fell into through his 'triangulation'. it was almost as though he saw the 'anti-war' activists as effectively collaborating with Islamofascist forces just as Stalinists had with other totalitarian forces in the 1930s, most obviously fascism, as a means to destroy Western Civilisation.

In reality, the StWC in Britain was not actually that important as their 'arguments' relied on cliched propaganda tropes as opposed to informed analysis as to the very great dangers of invading Iraq from a practical and ethical perspective. It was as though arguments for the invasion were arguments against these moral pygmies.

This is quite obviously true because those 'anti-war' leaders who gained the most media attention, not least in Britain were self promoting defenders of totalitarian regimes and militant Islamist politics, frauds, fools and fanatics such as Lindsey German, John Rees, Tariq Ali, Inayat Bunglawala, Tamimi Azzam and Anas al-Tikriti.

It was these 'anti-war' figures who dominated in the run up to 2003, constantly offering the idea that the Western lands had terrorism coming to them because of their 'foreign policy', flirting as closely as possible to the idea terror was a mere and regrettable reflex response to it without positing direct links.

In the sense that Hitchens combatted them and their rationalisations of Islamist jihadi-terrorism, he did an excellent job. When, however, he started to see them as one reason why the Western Powers should go into Iraq and fight the global 'war on terror', at home and abroad, he went badly wrong-as did the war )

For the invasion of Iraq did unleash sectarian conflicts and assist in creating ISIS. Moreover, it was far more important in promoting regional and global terrorism than any of these creepy individuals could have dreamed would happen when they opposed the Iraq War on the basis they hated the the US and the West.

Some of the best arguments for the invasion of Iraq were, therefore, that they just must have validity because the StWC consisted of such repellent leaders who cared more about hating the West than they did about liberating, for example, the Kurds who had been consistently betrayed by cynical Western strategies.

The heated polemics of the early 2000s, both for and against the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars, seem very dated in 2015. The drivel of 'anti-war' icon Tariq Ali, extolling 'the Iraqi resistance' against US Imperialism, a motley array of Baathists and Sunni jihadists, has a grim irony with the stunning re-emergence of that force as ISIS in 2014

Likewise the ignorance of 'pro-liberation' leftists as regards the history of the Middle East is clearer. The idea that by removing secular dictators that pluralist and inclusive democracies would arise, seems increasingly naive with the passage of time, though it seems to have finally been recognised as regards the Syria conflict.

It is clear both sides  within Britain on the left, pro-liberationists' and 'anti-war' types, had as much in common with each other as they had differences; the inability to accept reality, the desire to fit facts to the ideological prescriptions of the fighting creed and militant utopian dreams about how what 'we' do can 'change the world'.

Some Brief Thoughts on Hitchens and Chomsky.

Hitchens was a contrarian who found himself aligned with the Bush administration after 9/11 if only because he saw the US and its great post-cold war hyperpower as the only force that could successfully defend democracy across the world from the ultimate blind conformity of all-'theocratic fascism'.

To an extent, his stance was designed to go against what he saw as the dangerous conformism of the 'anti-war' intellectuals and publicists who he saw as blind to the real dangers of 'theocratic fascism' and how it emerged out of the failure of secular democracy to take root in the Middle East.

On a whole number of issues, Hitchens was passionately ranged against George Bush but he was equally as scathing about those more obsessed with what was wrong with the US to the degree that they though defending and extending democracy was a form of 'US Imperialism'.

So it depends on what 'fashionable opinion' means. The forthright atheism resonated with liberal New York-Washington beltway opinion. but, equally as true, hostility to jihadi-islamism involved attacking the 'fashionable opinion' of 'anti-war' populists ( e.g Michael Moore ) and, of course, Noam Chomsky.

Hitchens had once been aligned with Chomsky on many issues from Vietnam to Palestine. It seems Hitchens ultimately gave in to the idea that US superpower could, as with World war Two, be used to liberate the Middle East from fascism whereas Chomsky sees every war as just yet more 'imperialism'.

This is just to outline the debate as it once was. Chomsky argued that Hitchens was a conformist and even followed a 'religion' in believing George Bush would liberate Iraq. Hitchens, on the other hand, saw Chomsky as a reflexive rationaliser of intransigent dogmatic leftist and Islamist stances.

On balance both of them were wrong about Iraq. Chomsky was wrong to think the Bush administration did not, in fact, take seriously the idea it was liberating it from Saddam Hussein. Iraq for them, and those such as Hitchens who went along with it, was about effecting 'democratic revolution'.

Hitchens was wrong in believing that the Bush administration could deliver that in the circumstances and in failing to question the WMD pretexts that were given ( here Chomsky was right in insisting that the burden of proof lay with those promoting the war, though he would have found other reasons to oppose it ).

Neither thinker was that impressive on Iraq or US foreign policy. Both tended to be more obsessed with being 'right' against other intellectuals. For Chomsky, those who do not see every conflict as caused mostly by 'US Imperial Power', or those in positions of power who fail to condemn it as such, are 'commissars'.

Hitchens, on the other hand, tended to set forth a worldview in which the failure to be 'anti-fascist', in opposing the overthrow of Saddam or in taking on the Taliban were spineless 'appeasers' who betrayed the 'internationalist' history of the Western Left. It was not the most sensible way to discuss one bigger issue-'will it work?'

Ignoring the Reality of Geopolitics in the Middle East.

The problem with Hitchens was that he tended to see what he wanted to see as regards Iraq and it followed on from this idea of a new war for civilisation against totalitarian theocratic regimes that had started after 9/11 and had, at the time in 2003, seen the US 'successfully' overthrow the Taliban.

Ideologically, Hitchens regarded totalitarianism as an religious phenomenon, and to thereby overestimate it as a global threat, the better to take it on both at home and abroad. So he unified very different regimes and terror movements as though essentially part of one challenge to the free world.

That has a certain dramatic appeal and, in a sense, it is true that dictatorships in the Middle East tend to nurture fanatical jihadi oppositionists based on conspiracist interpretations of the world. But they were not the same and in most senses opposed to each other.

One reason for that, especially since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought a proxy war in Iraq that has spread further afield. More more animus was directed towards Iran as part of an 'axis of evil' under Bush than it was towards the biggest sponsor of jihadism-Saudi Arabia.

The reasons were that the US had bases there to protect oil flows from the Persian Gulf and to contain Saddam or Iran. Saudi Arabia was a large supplier of oil at the time to the US and the Bush administration wanted to reduce that dependence by liberating Iraqi oil from Saddam's clutches.

By doing that it would be able to create a model US client state along democratic lines that would act as a regional beacon and trigger off demands for democracy across the borders of Iraq into Syria and Iran. But there was no way Saudi Arabia would allow Iran to extend its influence in this new democracy.

It was always highly likely that removing Saddam through a war would cause a sectarian war between Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, not least as Iran and Saudi Arabia would try to extend their influence through backing militias and factions for geopolitical reasons.

Hitchens ignored that because one of his main concerns lay with the liberation of the Iraqi Kurds. Yet the 'no-fly zones' helped protect them from attacks by Saddam. He was effectively 'contained' in 2003. Yet the sanctions policy had created great suffering for ordinary Iraqis.

The war never appeared at the time as a straightfowardly 'imperialist' venture to liberals leftist supporters. They suspended their scepticism through the belief Saddam had caused enough humanitarian suffering; removing him would end both sanctions and offer an opportunity to rebuild Iraq.

There were less famous but more informed writers at the time than Hitchens who cautioned against it from John Gray to Malise Ruthven who, in A Fury for God, called the plans to invade Iraq 'incredibly risky' because of the geopolitical competition and threat of proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Battle for Sangin and the Pipeline of Peace : The New Great Game in Asia.

'The UK sent a modest contingent of British military advisers to Helmand at the weekend to support the overstretched forces. The 10 British troops, part of a 300-strong Nato force, are based at Camp Shorabak, about 50 miles from Sangin. The MoD said they would remain inside the camp to provide advice and infantry training'.
News that British troops are being redeployed once more in Helmland, to help the Afghan National Army repel the Taliban from the town of Sangin, proved that the vaunted 'drawdown' of troops never mean 'withdrawal'. The clue was in the wording, despite the official end to Britain's war in Afghanistan being trumpeted.

David Cameron's statement in 2014-'mission accomplished'- was a form of 'public diplomacy' to assure the British public that Britain had completed its job and that it was, to use Blair's old refrain, 'time to move on'. Only it was not and the central objective in 'staying the course' in Afghanistan remained unmentionable.

Helmland is strategically important because the TAPI gas pipeline finally started construction on December 13 2015 and will run via Kandahar. This pipeline is a very important part of the US-NATO war in Afghanistan and the Afghan government pledged 7000 troops to help defend and secure the pipeline route.
While the TAPI pipeline is routinely presented in Western 'public diplomacy' ( when it is mentioned at all ) as part of 'development economics', a project to help rebuild Afghanistan through providing energy and transit fees, it is disingenuous to pretend that it is not central to certain geopolitical ambitions in Central Asia.
'According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the pipeline has been a focus of US policy to contrast the influence of Russian and Chinese investments in the region. Dubbed as the ‘peace pipeline’ for bringing together rival countries like India and Pakistan, the project would also enable Turkmenistan to diversify its exports away from China.'
Turkmenistan has the world's second largest gas reserves. The US-NATO has largely given up on 'nation building' and has sought instead to pursue 'Afghanistanisation' whereby Western military experts, trainers and special-ops forces get native troops to protect and defend crucial resource interests.
TAPI is a rival to Iran's IP pipeline, all the more important now that the nuclear deal with Tehran means Iran will have sanctions lifted and be able to export gas to Pakistan. If the US does not want Iranian influence, in tandem with China, which is backing IP, to expand too far, then securing TAPI is vital to India's energy security
The US fears Iran and Pakistan aligning too closely and so threatening the relationship with Saudi Arabia just across the Persian Gulf. The nuclear deal was considered necessary to bring Iran out of the cold and to shore up the Shi'ite dominated Iraqi government against ISIS and its threat to global oil supplies.
Gaining Iran's cooperation is designed prevent the US being drawn back into Iraq after withdrawal in 2011 and the new focus on containing China (the 'pivot to Asia'). In that sense TAPI is vital to America's ability to project power and influence in Eurasia by getting India onside as part of a strategy to check Chinese influence.
TAPI has some role in that general strategy, of asserting US influence in rivalry with China and Russia, by diverting control over energy flows away from Russian control and not letting Turkmenistan become dominated by its main export partner in China ( after a pipeline was completed connecting the two in 2014 ).
This is the reality in the New Great Game. Afghanistan is regarded as the crucial 'land bridge' between Central Asia and the burgeoning energy hungry economies and demographically expanding societies of South Asia. It is also has copious quantities of mineral resources the Western powers wish to gain a stake in. 
' Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.