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 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

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Fifty years ago, the Battle of the Bogside in Derry between Catholics and police, combined with the attacks on Catholic areas of Belfast by Protestants, led to two crucial developments that were to define the political landscape for decades: the arrival of the British army and the creation of the Provisional IRA.

An eruption in Northern Ireland was always likely after half a century of undiluted Protestant and unionist party hegemony over the Catholics. But its extreme militarisation and length was largely determined by what happened in August 1969.

An exact rerun of this violent past is improbable, but the next few months could be equally decisive in determining the political direction of Northern Ireland. The Brexit crisis is reopening all the old questions about the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants and relations with Britain and the Irish Republic that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 had provided answers with which everybody could live.

The occasion which led to the battle of the Bogside came on 12 August when the Apprentice Boys, a fraternity memorialising the successful Protestant defence of Derry against Catholic besiegers in the 17th century, held their annual march. Tensions were already high in Derry and Belfast because the unionist government and its overwhelmingly Protestant police force was trying to reassert its authority, battered and under threat since the first civil rights marches in 1968.

What followed was closer to an unarmed uprising than a riot as the people of the Bogside barricaded their streets and threw stones and petrol bombs to drive back attacks by hundreds of policemen using batons and CS gas. In 48 hours of fighting, a thousand rioters were treated for injuries and the police suffered unsustainable casualties, but they had failed to gain control of the Bogside.

Its defenders called for protests in other parts of the North to show solidarity with their struggle and to overstretch the depleted Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). In Belfast, Protestants stormed into the main Catholic enclave in the west of the city, burning houses and forcing Catholics to flee. The RUC stood by or actively aided the attacks. The local MP Paddy Devlin estimated that 650 families were burned out in a single night, many taking refuge in the Irish Republic

I was in Bombay Street, where all the houses were burned on the night of 14-15 August, earlier this year. The street was long ago rebuilt but still has a feeling of abnormality and menace because it is only a few feet from the “peace line” with its high wall and higher wire mesh to stop missiles being thrown over the top from the Protestant district next door.

The most striking feature of Bombay Street is the large memorial garden, though it is more like a religious shrine, to martyrs both military and civilian from the district who have been killed by political violence since 1916. A high proportion of these were members of the Provisional IRA who died in the fighting during the 30 years of warfare after Bombay Street was burned.

The memorial is a reminder of the connection between what many local people see as an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1969 and the rise of the Provisional IRA. It split away from what became known as the official IRA because the latter had failed to defend Catholic districts.

Pictures of the ruins of Bombay Street on the morning of 15 August show local people giving British soldiers cups of tea. But this brief amity was never going to last because the unionist government in Stormont had asked the prime minister of day, Harold Wilson, to send in the troops not to defend Catholics but to reinforce its authority.

It was the role the British army were to play in one way or another for the next 30 years. It was one which was bound not only to fail but to be counterproductive. So long as the soldiers were there in support of a Protestant and unionist political and military establishment, the IRA were always going to have enough popular support to stay in business.

British governments at the time never got a grip on the political realities of the North. Soon after the troops were first sent there, the cabinet minister Richard Crossman blithely recorded in his diary that “we have now got ourselves into something which we can hardly mismanage”. But mismanage it they did and on a grotesque scale. The Provisionals were initially thin on the ground, but army raids and arrests acted as their constant recruiting sergeant. Internment without trial introduced on 9 August 1971, the anniversary of which falls today, was another boost as were the hunger strikes of 1981 which turned Sinn Fein into a significant political force.

What are the similarities between the situation today and 50 years ago? In many respects, it is transformed because there is no Protestant unionist state backed by the British army. The Provisional IRA no longer exists. The GFA has worked astonishingly well in allowing Protestants and Catholics to have their separate identities and, on occasion though less effectively, to share power.

Brexit and the Conservative Party dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its parliamentary majority since 2017 has thrown all these gains into the air. DUP activists admit privately that they want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because they have never liked the GFA and would like to gut it. Sinn Fein, which gets about 70 per cent of the Catholic/nationalist vote these days, is pleased that the partition of Ireland is once again at the top of the political agenda.

“I am grappling with the idea of a hard border which I would call a Second Partition of Ireland,” Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein veteran and former lord mayor of Belfast, told me. He is baffled by British actions that appear so much against their interests, saying that “they had parked the Irish problem, but now Ireland has moved once again into the centre of British politics”.

Would Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to get rid of “the backstop” evaporate if he wins or loses a general election and the Conservatives are no longer dependent on the DUP for their majority? Possibly, but his right-wing government has plenty of members who never liked the GFA and their speeches show them to be even more ignorant about Northern Ireland politics than their predecessors in Harold Wilson’s cabinet half a century ago.

An example of this is their oft-declared belief that some magical gadget will be found to monitor the border by remote means. But any such device will be rapidly torn down and smashed where the border runs through nationalist majority parts of the border.

Northern Ireland may be at peace, but in a border area like strongly Republican South Armagh, the police only move in convoys of three vehicles and carry rifles, even if they are only delivering a parking ticket.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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On 8 May 1987 a Provisional IRA unit of eight men attacked a police station in the village of Loughgall in county Armagh 15 miles from the Irish border. One man drove a digger with a bomb in its bucket towards the building, half of which was destroyed in the explosion. But British forces had been informed of the time and place of the assault and SAS soldiers waiting in ambush opened fire killing all eight Provisionals and a civilian.

A quarter of a century later in county Monaghan just inside the border with the Irish Republic but not far from Loughgall, there was an incident proving that the earlier killings were still a live issue. In the last few days somebody, evidently an opponent of the IRA, used a bulldozer to demolish a substantial memorial to two IRA men, Jim Lynagh and Padraig McKearney, who had died in the SAS ambush.

A statement from the Loughgall Truth and Justice Campaign described the bulldozing of the memorial as a “desecration” and declared that “to do this to any of the Loughgall families is to do this to us all… but our memories and thoughts cannot be erased”.

The episode is significant because it shows the human and divisive reality of the Irish border and why its reappearance at the top of the political agenda is such a threat to long-term peace. The backstop is often discussed in Britain as if it was an issue primarily to do with trade which has been given exaggerated significance by Ireland and the EU in order to sabotage Brexit. Boris Johnson denounces it as being unacceptably “anti-democratic”.

In all cases, there is blindness towards the true reason for the toxicity of the dispute over the 310-mile border which stems from it being the physical embodiment of relations between nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants not just in the border region but in the north as a whole. That is why it has been one of the most fought-over and blood-soaked frontiers in Europe over the last 400 years. The map of the area is dotted with the names of battles ancient and modern. The destruction of the Loughgall monument shows that antagonisms have not moderated and, while some people feel strongly enough to build a memorial to two dead IRA men, others feel strongly enough to destroy it.

The visit of Boris Johnson to Belfast this week reveals once again the mixture of frivolity and ignorance with which the Brexiteers approach Northern Ireland. A new post-Brexit border is supposed to be monitored remotely by yet-to-be discovered technical means. But it should be self-evident that any CCTV or other gadget located on the border in a nationalist/Catholic area will be torn down in a few minutes.

The neutrality of the British government between nationalists and unionists was the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended thirty years of war in Northern Ireland in which two per cent of the population was killed or injured according to historians of the conflict (the same proportion of casualties in Britain as a whole would have meant 100,000 dead).

Careless of this sanguinary record, Johnson’s approach is entirely opportunistic: he will maintain UK neutrality but he expresses an undying commitment to the union. He and the new minister for Northern Ireland had a convivial dinner with the DUP leader Arlene Foster, on whom the Conservatives depend for their majority, before meeting the leaders of other parties. DUP activists make clear in private that they would like a hard Brexit regardless of economic cost because they want to keep as far from the Irish Republic and as close to Britain as possible.

Supporters of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) comfort themselves by saying that the Conservatives kowtowing to the DUP will last only as long as they rely on DUP votes in parliament. This could prove over-optimistic: Johnson leads a hard-right government riding a resurgent wave of English nationalism in which anti-Irish sentiment has always had an integral part.

This does not mean that a shooting war is going to restart any time soon. The unreconciled fragments of the IRA are disorganised and lack popular support. But the building blocks of the GFA are being kicked away one-by-one. The power-sharing executive and Northern Ireland Assembly are suspended and are unlikely to be resurrected.

The DUP understandably prefers to share power with the Conservatives in Westminster than with Sinn Fein in Belfast. Sinn Fein, for its part, does not want to be the junior and largely impotent partner of the DUP in an executive which would be complicit in implementing a no-deal Brexit which it opposes.

Sinn Fein can also see a substantial silver lining for its brand of Irish nationalism in the present crisis. Northern Ireland voted 56 to 44 per cent to stay in the EU and, when the Conservatives ignore this and pretend that the DUP’s pro-Brexit stance represents majority opinion in the province, they de-legitimise the union with Britain. This will not necessarily impel pro-Remain unionists to vote for a united Ireland, but it does mean that the significant minority of Catholics/nationalists who previously preferred to stick with the union is fast diminishing.

This will matter because in the not-too-distant future Catholic voters will outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. The outcome of a border poll will become more incalculable. But even the prospect of one – strongly advocated by Sinn Fein – will be deeply polarising. Brexit has succeeded in putting Irish Partition back at the centre of the political agenda, something that Sinn Fein had failed to do despite decades of effort.

Does this mean that Irish unity is getting closer? This prospect is increasingly if naively raised in the British media. But demographic and diplomatic change will not be sufficient in themselves to transform the political balance of power: the unionists/Protestants could not ultimately maintain their rule in the north despite being the majority. Catholics and nationalists are unlikely to be any more successful against resistance to a united Ireland by a determined Protestant minority.

Possibly Johnson’s gamble on threatening the EU states with a no-deal Brexit will pay off. They have hitherto never believed that Britain would do anything so self-destructive and they might just look to some last-minute deal. But, even if Leo Varadkar did want such an agreement, he would find it difficult to sell to Irish voters, while the EU would be seriously weakened by caving-in to Johnson’s bombast after declaring for so long that it would do no such thing.

Ireland does not relish a confrontation with the UK, but it has little choice but to demand that the EU stick to its commitments and, on the other side of the Atlantic, energise the political influence of the Irish-American diaspora. The Clinton administration was an essential driving force for the GFA. The US speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said that she will block any Anglo-American trade deal if it creates a hard border or the GFA is imperilled.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain, Ireland 
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I felt frustrated over the past three years at what appeared to me to be the shallow and Westminster-obsessed coverage of the Brexit saga by the media. Here was a crisis like no other in recent British history that was shaking the bedrock of society and government alike, but the reporting and commentary on it were over-focused on party politics and the process of Britain leaving the EU, and not on the reasons it was doing so.

Why were the divisions so deep and the debate, often the polite word for a shouting match, so angry and uncompromising? What did people really believe about Brexit and why did they defend their beliefs with almost religious fervour? Is it true – in the words of the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawyer – that Britain is having “a nervous breakdown” and, if so, why?

Brexit can be compared to an earthquake in which pent up forces are suddenly released, tearing open new fault lines and energising old ones such as inequality, de-industrialisation, globalisation, imperial retreat, immigration and austerity. All these have always had the capacity to provoke crises, but they had not previously done so on anything like the scale that many had forecast. Now they seem to be combining to provide the explosive ingredients in what is shaping up to be the greatest British general crisis since the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The date is not chosen at random: in the 17th century the British Isles were a byword for instability and violence and there is no reason this could not happen again.

But for now the British, though not the Northern Irish, are over-accustomed by four centuries of relative domestic stability to assume that this is the natural state of things. This contrasts with the experience of every other European country – they have all suffered calamitous defeat in war, foreign occupation or revolution during this long period. The British attitude to the past is therefore more nostalgic than that of its neighbours, fostering a conviction that Britain will always win through whatever the odds, and a feeling that “things will be alright on the night”.

I have spent the past six months travelling around the UK outside London trying to identify the different aspects of this national “nervous breakdown’’, if that is the right description. I chose cities and places in the interests of diversity and because they seemed to be particularly representative of different political, social and economic trends that were part of the Brexit story.

I went to a deprived district in Canterbury, which had once been regenerated by a large EU grant but had still voted Leave; I travelled a little further south to Dover whose great port will be in the frontline of a no-deal Brexit. I visited Cardiff, which, like many metropolitan centres in the EU, has benefited from being plugged into the global economy; this makes it very different from the Welsh Valleys an hour’s drive away which have never recovered from the closure of their mines and steel mills.

Birmingham has bounced back after from the collapse of its automotive industry in the 1970s and 1980s, but one of the architects of its regeneration, Sir Albert Bore, told me that he was fearful that the city’s economy could once again capsize outside the EU, which invested heavily in its renaissance. He says that “my mind almost explodes with rage” when he hears people blame the EU for problems caused by the failures of the UK government. In the northeast of England, the devastating shock of de-industrialisation, exacerbated by austerity, largely explains the region’s negative vote in the referendum.

Northern Ireland is a case apart but is the region in the UK where the decision to leave the EU is already having the greatest destabilising impact. I was struck by the fecklessness with which British politicians were unpicking the Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of guerrilla war, the most intense to be fought in Europe since the Second World War. The commentator and historian Brian Feeney explained to me that “all this stuff about bar codes and cameras [monitoring the border] is nonsense. They would not last a weekend because people would pull down any cameras or similar arrangements.”

People on mainland Britain are ignorant of Northern Ireland, but the whole country has become more segmented and ill-informed about what other regions are thinking. Chris Day, the vice chancellor of Newcastle University, says he was surprised when the UK voted to leave the EU: “It is the company you keep – university and London people didn’t understand what Sunderland and Wales were thinking.”

In some places, the motives for voting Leave – and the reason why the voters have not changed their minds – are clear enough: why should any of the “left behinds” and the “left outs” vote for the status quo at the behest of powers that be who had ignored their troubles for decades? More mysterious is why well-off farmers in bucolic Herefordshire should have voted to leave the EU, which has always paid them big subsidies simply because they own land. A feature of EU referendum often commented on is that so many people voted against their own economic interests, none more so than sheep farmers in the Welsh hills, who face extinction without the EU but voted Leave because, according to local sources, they feared immigration – though immigrants are almost entirely absent from the Welsh hills.

Some advantages spring from looking at Brexit Britain after working in the chronically unstable and divided countries of the Middle East where I have spent most of my journalistic career since the 1970s, with stints in Belfast, Moscow and Washington. The experience makes certain elements in the Brexit crisis jump out at one as having similarities with what I had witnessed elsewhere, while other developments are unique to Britain. Leavers tend to be, consciously or unconsciously, believers in British “exceptionalism’’ who bridle at the mention of parallels between Britain and other nations. Remainers pride themselves on being more globally minded than their parochial opponents, but their preconceptions often turn out to be equally insular.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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Bluff was a central feature of British power even when the British empire covered a large part of the globe. A story illustrating this tells of a royal navy captain who was sent with a small ship to the far east to force a defiant local ruler to obey some orders issued by the British authorities.

“What do I do if he refuses to do what I tell him?” the captain asked his superiors before departing. “We don’t have any more ships available, so you’ll just have to turn around and come home again,” was the less than comforting reply.

The captain sailed on his mission and transmitted the British demands to the recalcitrant ruler. “What will happen if I refuse to obey?” he asked. “In that case,” replied the captain menacingly, “I will have no alternative but to carry out the second half of my instructions.”

On that occasion, the British got their way, but it is only great powers that can afford to bluff like this and get away with it. Their bluff is not called because nobody wants to find out the hard way if they mean it. A mistake of Theresa May was to make the vague threat of a no-deal Brexit so central to her strategy and expect this to be taken seriously by Brussels. Most there thought she was bluffing because they believed that Britain would not do anything so economically self-destructive and politically divisive. Boris Johnson is now refurbish the no-deal threat to give it credibility, but this does not change the balance of forces which are, as always, skewed against Britain and in favour of the EU, something the Eurosceptics never seem to understand.

Analysis of a no-deal Brexit frequently lacks realism because the focus is on economics rather than politics. This contradicts the experience of the last three years when the prospect of Britain’s departure from the EU has generated great political destruction, but only limited economic damage for the obvious reason that Britain has yet to leave the EU. A British no-deal departure from the EU would, on the contrary, be opposed by so much of the population that it would produce a political earthquake, widening still further the fault lines within British society that are already gaping wide.

The hard-right cabinet appointed by Johnson implicitly recognises that the divisions within the Conservative are so rancorous as to be a recipe for paralysis if all factions are represented in government. But temporary cohesion achieved by giving almost all ministries to a single faction of the Conservative Party, which itself is a minority in parliament, may well prove more explosive. The fact that the most important decision taken in Britain for eighty years is being taken by such an unrepresentative group delegitimises it from the beginning.

A no-deal Brexit would only be the opening shots of an economic cold war waged against the rest of Europe in a conflict that might go on for years. This is unsurprising because a new feature of conflicts between nation states globally is that economic hostilities are replacing military hostilities, though the degree of confrontation varies vastly from country to country. The conflict between the US and Iran in which President Trump is trying to batter the Iranians into submission by an ever-tightening economic siege is the closest to a shooting war.

US and EU sanctions on Syria are similarly an attempt at economic strangulation. Their purpose according to US special envoy James Jeffery is to “make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime and let the Russians and Iranians, who made this mess, get out of it”. In practice, it is ordinary Syrians who are expiring because of collapsing living standards and lack of medical attention while the Syrian leadership suffers scarcely at all.

Sanctions and tariffs are central to Trump’s effort to make America great again and it is not an unintelligent strategy. It puts intense pressure on China as America’s great rival, but also on Canada and Mexico. America’s vaunted military superiority failed to win wars in Iraq and Afghanistan leading Trump to avoid similar debacles. In two and a half years he has not started a single military conflict, but he has started a series of trade wars. He understands that the US Treasury has a more impressive record in waging economic warfare than the Pentagon does in fighting hot wars. Sanctions and tariffs, unlike shooting wars, can be switched on and off and are less politically tricky because there are no dead American bodies coming home.

This approach matters to the UK because outside the EU it will inevitably be even more dependent on the US. A sign of this was the highly provocative and dubiously legal seizure by royal marine commandos of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on 4 July. This predictably led to the Iranian tit-for-tat capture of the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz on 19 July. In one of his last statements as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt said that Britain was not joining the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, though it seemed to have just done that, and was looking to European states, notably France and Germany, to set up a shipping protection force in the Gulf.

Many are pointing out the irony of the UK looking for EU states to provide naval escorts in the Gulf at the very moment that Johnson is asserting his intention to take Britain “do-or-die” out of the EU on 31 October. A UK decision to openly join – as it already seems to have done covertly – the US-led alliance against Iran would be an early pointer to the emergence of an Anglo-Saxon Trump/Johnson coalition in the Middle East.

Even more important would be the unavoidable reliance of Britain on the US in the event of a no-deal Brexit or a British departure from the EU so ragged and contentious that it would start a long-lasting economic cold war between the two. In such a confrontation, Johnson would look to Trump and Washington not just for a trade deal but for all-embracing political support against the EU.

Brexit in Britain has long ceased to be solely about leaving the EU and has become a vehicle for hard-right wing policies seeking to remodel Britain along lines closer to Trump’s America than the EU. In the event of rivalry with the EU, the UK would look to deregulation and lower taxes for business to attract companies away from the EU states.

Turning Britain into a “Singapore on Thames” sounded zany and impractical when first raised as an option after the referendum, but it is more feasible today – and attractive to much of the present cabinet – in the context of a permanent hostile relationship between Britain and the EU.

From Trump’s point of view, standing with Britain in such an economic cold war would be a way of weaponising the post-Brexit situation to destroy or damage the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, to which he has always been opposed.

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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What on Earth were the British politicians and officials thinking who gave the go-ahead for the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on 4 July? Did they truly believe that the Iranians would not retaliate for what they see as a serious escalation in America’s economic war against them?

The British cover story that the sending of 30 Royal Marines by helicopter to take over the tanker was all to do with enforcing EU sanctions on Syria, and nothing to do with US sanctions on Iran, was always pretty thin.

The Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, has said categorically that Britain took over the tanker “following a request from the United States to the United Kingdom”.

One fact about Iranian foreign policy should have been hardwired into the brain of every politician and diplomat in Britain, as it already is in the Middle East, which is that what you do to the Iranians they will do to you at a time and place of their own choosing.

The US and UK backed Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in 1980, but this was not unconnected – though it was impossible to prove – with the suicide bombing that killed 241 US service personnel in the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Commentators seeking an explanation for the UK’s seizure of the Grace 1 suggest that it was suckered into the action by super hawks in the US administration, such as the national security adviser John Bolton.

But, given the inevitability of the Iranian reaction against British naval forces too weak to defend British-flagged tankers, the British move looks more like a strategic choice dictated by a lack of other options.

Confrontation with the EU over Brexit means that Britain has no alternative but to ally itself ever more closely to the US.

Of course, this will scarcely be a new departure since Britain has glued itself to the US on almost all possible occasions since the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The lesson drawn from that debacle by Whitehall was that the UK needed to be always close to the US. The French drew the opposite conclusion that it must bond more closely with the continental European states in the shape of the European Economic Community.

The one-sided relationship between the US and UK was in operation in the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain walked into these quagmires to demonstrate its position as America’s most loyal ally while lacking a coherent policy and without adequate forces.

The Chilcot report said the only consistent theme that it could detect in British policy in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 was how to get its troops out of the country. Wanting to do it without offending the Americans, the British – in a major miscalculation – decided that this could be best done by relocating their forces to Afghanistan, where more than 400 of them were killed in action.

In its confrontation with Iran, Britain is in trouble because it is trying to ride several horses at the same time. It is supposedly seeking to adhere to the Iran nuclear deal and oppose US sanctions on Iran, but in practice it has done nothing of the sort and boarding the Grace 1 was a clear demonstration of this.

One feature of the present crisis is that the seizure of the Stena Impero is clearly tit-for-tat by Iran. It is, unlike past Iranian retaliatory actions, making no effort to conceal this, presumably calculating that there is not much Britain can do about it and it is a good time to demonstrate Iranian strength and British weakness.

Iran expresses no doubt that Britain is acting as a US proxy, though this has been true for a long time. But life as a proxy may be particularly dangerous in the Gulf at the moment because of the peculiar nature of the confrontation between the US and Iran in which neither side wants to engage in an all-out war.

This makes it necessary to act through proxies like the UK, an approach that minimises the chances of Americans being killed and Donald Trump having no option but to retaliate in kind.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Donald Trump, Iran 
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Is the rise of Boris Johnson to be the next prime minister the product of a soft coup? Does Donald Trump’s racist demonisation of four non-white congress members prove him to be a “fascist” leader like Mussolini and Hitler? The two questions should be answered together because political developments in Britain tend to emulate those in the US, and vice versa, though the latter is less frequent. The Thatcher-Reagan years in the 1980s were an example of this cross-infection and it happened again in 2016, when the British electorate voted narrowly for Brexit and American voters (though not a majority of them) chose Trump as president.

I used to be wary of alarmist talk of “soft coups” and analogies with the rise of demagogic populist nationalist leaders in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. But the parallels and similarities between then and now are becoming more menacing by the day. Observers who forecast that Trump and Johnson would face too many political obstacles to gain power got something very wrong.

Democratic choice will have played only a limited role in the selection of Johnson as prime minister, if that goes through as predicted. He will have been chosen by 160,000 Conservative Party members – a highly unrepresentative group – of whom, as others have pointed out, more than half are aged over 55 and 38 per cent are over 66 years of age. Johnson will head a minority government elected under a different Conservative leader, Theresa May, and will depend on the votes of a Protestant party that is the product of the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s supporters say that one should not take too seriously his overheated and mendacious campaign rhetoric, implying that he will adopt a more moderate approach in office. I would not count on it: many in Washington said the same about Trump, claiming that once in the White House he would come to his senses. Commentators forgot that leaders who believe that they have won power by demonising foreigners and minorities, and accusing their opponents of treachery, see no reason to abandon a winning formula.

On the contrary, Trump has double-downed in his attacks on non-white American politicians as being non-Americans and haters of America who should leave the country. Pictures of Trump whipping up his followers into hate-filled chants at a rally in North Carolina by denouncing Ilhan Omar, one of the four Congresswomen he has targeted, shows that there are no limits to his exploitation of racial animosities.

A few days after Trump spoke, Johnson was on a platform in Canning Town regaling his audience with a little story about excessive EU regulations strangling the business of a kipper smoker in the Isle of Man. This was the sort of invented, attention-grabbing tale by means of which Johnson launched his career as a journalist on The Daily Telegraph based in Brussels between 1989 and 1994. Then, as now, his stories portraying the EU as a bureaucratic monster sucking money out of Britain were exposed as false, but to little avail because they chimed in so neatly, as they were intended to do, with the prejudices of readers like the Conservative Party members who are choosing their new leader.

Trump’s poisonous demagoguery in North Carolina may have rallied his true believers, but it also created a counter-reaction. By way of contrast, Johnson’s kipper story was treated derisively but tolerantly, a bit of joke, showing once again that “Boris is a bit of a card”, not to be taken too seriously.

I wonder if Johnson’s approach is not more dangerous than Trump’s because it is more insidious.

Voters in England have always been suckers for politicians who present themselves as bit of wag. Nigel Farage cultivates this sort of public persona with his pint of beer and jocular approach. Johnson and he are part of a tradition of political figures who specialise in Falstaffian bonhomie, persuading voters that – suffer though they may from some very human flaws – they are the salt of the earth. Successful examples of this tactic include George Brown, the notoriously drunken deputy leader of the Labour party, and the Liberal MP Cyril Smith whom, police confirmed after his death, had sexually and physically molested children as young as eight years old (there had been 144 complaints against him, but no prosecution).

Johnson and Trump get away with it because people do not take them seriously enough until it is too late. But they press the same political and emotional buttons as the fascist leaders of the 1920s and 1930s. Like them, they lead nationalist populist movements fuelled by opposition to globalisation, which Hitler blamed on the Jews and the Eurosceptics blame on Brussels. “We want to build a wall, a protective wall,” said Goebbels.

It is worth looking at a copy of The New York Times dated 31 January 1933 – the day after Hitler became head of government – which is a classic example of a decent but complaisant person miscalculating the risks ahead. The writer points to the domestic opposition the new German leader would face “if he sought to translate the wild and whirling words of his campaign speeches into political action”.

The article looks forward to a “tamed” Hitler of whom it says many Germans are hopefully speaking. Overall, it plays down grim expectations, saying: “Always we may look for some such transformation when a radical demagogue fights his way into responsible office.” Judgement should be reserved until it is certain that the new man in power is “a flighty agitator” who would force the German people “to take a leap into the dark”.

Trump’s rhetoric is more belligerent and frightening than anything said by Johnson, but the latter could turn out to be the more dangerous man. The reason is that, for all his bombast, Trump has a streak of realism and caution and has yet to go to war with anybody. It is easy for him to claim to have “made America great again” because the US was already the most powerful state in the world, even if that power has begun to ebb.

Johnson, if he becomes prime minister, has a far more difficult path because Britain’s power in the world has long been weaker than people in Britain – and Conservative Party members in particular – realise. Confronting the 27 states of the EU is going to make it that much weaker and the only alternative alliance is greater reliance on the US at a time when its policies are becoming more mercurial and egocentric. British collaboration with the US in confronting Iran, while at the same time trying not to be targeted as a US proxy, is an early sign of the dangerous path ahead.

Trump is certainly dividing America, but then America has always been divided over race and the legacy of slavery. The divisions of the Civil War 160 years ago are the core political divisions of America today.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain 
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Britain is sending a second warship to the Gulf to protect its oil tankers from Iranian gunboats. HMS Duncan, a destroyer currently in the Mediterranean, will join HMS Montrose, a frigate, next week.

Britain is on the edge of becoming involved in a conflict in which it can only deploy limited forces, but it could become the target of Iranian retaliation for any US escalation of the conflict.

In a sense, this may have already happened, if the US was indeed behind the royal marine commandos taking over an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria off Gibraltar. It is difficult to take seriously the British claim that they carried out such a provocative act solely because of a request from the Gibraltarian authorities and in order to enforce EU sanctions on Syria.

The Iranians are demanding that the British release the Grace 1 tanker and it is probable that Iranian boats harassed the British Heritage tanker as an act of retaliation. An Iranian official warned the UK not to get involved in “this dangerous game”.

But Britain is already involved in the dangerous game and it is possible that the Iranians may find it less risky to act against Britain, whom they denounce as a US proxy, than directly against the US.

As in Iraq after 2003 and Afghanistan after 2006, Britain is becoming engaged in a conflict in which it is only a bit player, but must cope with the same dangers as the US. Some commentators seek comfort by recalling that a coalition of western maritime powers protected Kuwaiti tankers during the tanker war in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

At that time, it was Iran that was isolated, while today it is the US and Britain who are short of reliable allies who will do more than cheer from the side lines – as Israel and Saudi Arabia are likely to do. Already the United Arab Emirates is backing away from a confrontation with Iran, saying that is unclear if Iran placed small mines on tankers off the UAE coast in June, and it is drawing down its military forces in Yemen.

Iraq is at heart on the side of Iran as the only other significant Shia-majority power, while Qatar has its own long-term confrontation with Saudi Arabia. EU and other states will be dubious about President Trump – the great disrupter – taking on the role of a coalition builder and will be nervous of where he may be leading them in the Gulf.

From the British point of view, the crisis in the southern Gulf has parallels with Britain’s involvement on the US side in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is making itself a target without knowing where the US is heading and to what extent Trump – along with his more hawkish lieutenants – are prepared for a limited or full-scale war with Iran. The furore over former UK ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch’s forced departure from Washington shows just how limited Britain’s influence is in the White House.

From the Iranian viewpoint, a slow-burn crisis just below the level of outright warfare may be the least bad option. It is an improvement over waiting for Iran to be slowly strangled by economic sanctions which are Trump’s favourite method of putting pressure on enemies and friends alike.

Neither side wants a war but that does not mean it will not happen because every confrontational incident has the potential to escalate out of control. Britain says it wants to de-escalate, but the sending of a second naval vessel will be seen by Iran as the opposite of that. There is also the question of what to do with the Iranian tanker that it has already seized?

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Britain, Iran 
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The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as British ambassador to Washington, because of his leaked messages to London criticising President Trump, is highly revealing about the real state of British knowledge of what is going on in the US.

Supporters of the former ambassador portray him as a skilled and experienced foreign office official who was “only doing his job” until brought low by the machinations of the Brexiteers and the treachery of Boris Johnson. His detractors view him, on the contrary, as an old-style representative of a europhile British foreign policy establishment which is out of place in the age of Trump.

Most striking in the copious excerpts from Darroch’s cables to the home government between 2017 and the present day – published by the Mail on Sunday – is that they do not contain a single original fact or opinion. They are a relentless repetition of the shallowest Washington conventional wisdom about the intentions of the Trump administration.

“This is a divided administration,” Darroch tells his readers and says that there are angry disputes within the White House which he compares to a knife fight. He suspects that Trump could be indebted to “dodgy Russians” and fears that his economic policies could wreck the world trading system. Possibly the president could “crash and burn” because he is “mired in scandal”, though politicians in London should “not write him off”.

Our man in Washington since 2016 believes that Trump has the ability to shrug off scandals and emerge from the flames, battered but intact, “like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scene in the Terminator”.

A senior diplomat from the British embassy goes to a Trump rally and finds the crowd to be almost exclusively white. He describes the enthusiastic atmosphere as being similar to that of home fans at a sporting event and the faithful attending a religious meeting. The ambassador suspects that Trump’s campaign strategy in the presidential election will be to “go with what he knows best” and appeal to his core supporters. Cunning fellow!

Darroch demonstrates a firm grip on the obvious, citing his own sources as confirming information which was already the lead item on every news channel and newspaper front page across America. On occasion, even these sources fail, as they do when Trump is deciding whether or not to launch retaliatory airstrikes on Iran after the Iranians shoot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

In an excerpt from a cable written at 12.39am UK time on 22 June, Darroch detects disarray in Washington: “Even our best contacts were unwilling to take our calls.”

Isabel Oakeshott, who obtained and published the cables, does her best to make Darroch’s words sound interesting and original by claiming “astonishingly” that the ambassador was dubious about Trump’s statement that he changed his mind on US airstrikes because of his concern over Iranian casualties. Similar scepticism had earlier been expressed by every new channel in the country.

Looking through the excerpts from Darroch’s cables, I searched for something that was not common knowledge and found nothing. Could Oakeshott, known to be sympathetic to Brexit, have deliberately excluded anything really new from her quotes? This is unlikely because journalists generally boost the explosive nature of the “bombshell comments” in their scoops.

It is equally unlikely also that she would deliberately fillet Darroch’s prose style and leave in only the cliches and tired phrases. Assuming that her excerpts are representative of the rest of his cables, it becomes clear that Britain’s most senior man in Washington knew so little about developments in the White House that he might as well have stayed in London, or, for that matter, the Outer Hebrides.

Does this matter? Yes it does, because it highlights the real weakness of Britain at the very moment that a British warship is in the Gulf – with another one on the way – confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboats, in a conflict which is driven by the US, and whose direction we cannot predict or even influence.

Is Britain kowtowing to the US? You bet she is, but this is scarcely fresh news. In the 40 years that I have been writing about British foreign policy in the Middle East, the priority of British governments has invariably been to find out what the Americans want, do the same thing as them as cheaply as possible and demonstrate what a valuable and irreplaceable ally we are.

This has been the ongoing British approach since 1940 with a brief wobble at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. The British drew the conclusion from Suez that they must be more closely allied to the US, while the French decided that, on the contrary, they needed to cooperate more closely with other continental states in Europe.

There is nothing foolish about a policy of Britain piggy-backing on American power though the strategy was accompanied by a great deal of self-deception. Brexit or no Brexit, it is not likely to change much. Tony Blair is unfairly blamed by many for cravenly joining the US in invading Iraq in 2003, but another prime minister – Labour or Conservative – would have done exactly the same thing.

The British acted in lock-step with the Americans and appeared to have little other purpose in being in Iraq. As soon as the bulk of US forces left, the British did the same thing and promptly lost interest in the place. The same was true when Isis captured Mosul and advanced on Baghdad in 2014. A House of Commons Defence Committee report the following year that as Isis was preparing to capture Mosul “the political section of the British Embassy in Baghdad consisted of three relatively junior, although extremely able, employees on short term deployment.” When Isis attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq the same year, the Germans poured in thousands of machine guns, assault rifles and anti-tank weapons while we managed to send just 40 heavy machine guns.

What Brexiteers – as well as many anti-Brexiteers – fail to understand is the degree to which Britain’s real political and commercial power has declined. There are lamentations about the decline of the foreign office and the defence forces, but it is too late to do much about this. It was, after all, the slogan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that the government apparatus was the problem, not the solution. This was always nonsense, but one result has been the ebbing effectiveness of the British state in general of which the weakening of the diplomatic and armed forces are only one aspect.

The vacuous cables and humiliating departure of Darroch, and Britain’s reliance on the US in any confrontation with Iran, tell the same story. Both expose in different ways just how isolated and ill-informed about the world Britain has become. So long as it stuck to old routines and alliances, this was not as obvious as it is now becoming. The only option will be to stick even closer to Trump’s America, but we have no means of influencing or even knowing about Trump’s chaotic course, as our former ambassador has discovered to his cost.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Donald Trump 
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The seizure of an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria by British Royal Marine commandos off Gibraltar is the latest episode in the long and disastrous history of economic sanctions in the Middle East. The UK claims that it is implementing EU sanctions on Syria, but the act will be seen by Tehran – and most other states – as the British enforcing US sanctions on Iran that the EU said it opposes. An Iranian official said a British tanker should be seized in retaliation.

Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary and aspirant prime minister, eager to show himself walking tall on the international stage, tweeted: “Swift action has denied valuable resources to Assad’s murderous regime.”

But that is exactly what has not happened. Economic sanctions in the Middle East and elsewhere have invariably been a collective punishment of an entire people while leaders and their security forces come through unscathed. UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 did not stop Saddam Hussein building luxurious palaces and giant mosques while ordinary Iraqis were reduced to selling their furniture and crockery in the streets.

I visited a village called Penjwin in mountainous northeast Iraq in 1996 which was in the Kurdish-controlled area, but still subject to UN sanctions. I wondered why so many people in the main streets had lost an arm or a foot. The explanation given to me by the villagers lives in my mind as a grisly example of the straits to which people can be reduced by the impact of sanctions on top of their many other burdens.

People in Penjwin said they were very poor and lived in the middle of vast minefields laid during the Iran-Iraq war. The one way they could make money was by defusing one particular mine, the Italian Valmara, and selling the aluminium wrapped around the explosives.

The Valmara is a lethal device with five khaki-coloured prongs at the top that looked like dried grass. If any prong is disturbed a small charge was detonated making the mine jump into the air to waist height and the main charge explodes, spraying 1,200 metal balls over a range of 100 yards.

“I defuse the mine with a piece of wire,” Sabir Majid, a middle-aged man who had formerly been a farmer, told me. “Then I unscrew the top of it and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines, I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinars (about 75 pence) to a shop in Penjwin.”

He said this was just enough to feed but not to clothe his family. Few of those who made a mistake in defusing a Valmara survived, but it was surrounded by small, difficult-to-spot anti-personnel mines which looked like large mushrooms and could easily take off a foot or a hand.

At that time, the UN estimated that between six and seven thousand Iraqi children were dying every month because of sanctions. The education and health services had collapsed: visiting foreign doctors “witnessed a surgeon trying to operate with scissors that were too blunt to cut the patient’s skin”.

I wrote many articles about the devastating effect of sanctions on millions of Iraqis, but nobody appeared to pay much attention. Foreign governments, such as the US and UK, blamed the continuation of sanctions, whose ill effects on the mass of the population they downplayed, on Saddam Hussein for not coming clean about his Weapons of Mass Destruction (that turned out not to exist) and not giving up power.

Two UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq resigned in succession in protest against sanctions, but it did no good. It is worth recalling the prophetic words of one of them, Dennis Halliday, as he left his post in 1998, keeping in mind that this was five years before al-Qaeda took root in Iraq. “What should be of concern is the possibility of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing,” he said. “It is not well understood as a spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions.”

Fast forward 20 years and compare Syria now to Iraq then. Three million people are trapped in Idlib province under Russian and Syrian government bombardment. There is a festering guerrilla war in the Kurdish-controlled but half-Arab area east of the Euphrates river.

All of Syria is subjected to economic sanctions by the EU and US which a leaked UN internal report in 2016 said were causing extreme suffering among ordinary Syrians. Basic medicines and medical equipment could not be purchased and imported into Syria by foreign aid agencies. The report, entitled “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures” – in other words sanctions –and leaked to the investigative publication The Intercept, quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying: “the indirect effect of sanctions … makes the import of medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, nearly impossible”.

The UN sanctions against Iraq used to target “dual use” items, such as pencils and tyres for ambulance because they could have a military as well as civilian application. Much the same thing happens with sanctions in Syria today with bans on drilling equipment and pipes for water supply and sanitation according to the report.

A more recent survey by a UN body coordinating humanitarian affairs in Syria published this May is ominously similar to the ones I used to read about Iraq 20 years ago. It says that at least 83 per cent of Syrians were living below the poverty line: “a monthly food ration with staple items costs at least 80 per cent of an unskilled labourer’s monthly salary and 50-80 per cent of a public service employee’s monthly salary”. It describes people trying to cope by eating less, avoiding medical treatment because there is no money to pay for it, child labour and child marriage, and being recruited as fighters to pay off debts.

In other words, a whole society is in meltdown. Part of this is the result of eight years of civil war, but sanctions exacerbate the suffering and prevent recovery. Least affected are those, both government and opposition, who command the armed forces to make sure they never lack for anything. The economic blockade of Iraq did not get rid of Saddam Hussein and the same is true of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The political equivalents of Jeremy Hunt in the 1990s claimed that the aid agencies’ accounts of the misery inflicted on the civilian population by sanctions were phoney or exaggerated. Well-informed officials like Dennis Halliday, who protested about what was happening, could always be smeared as being soft on Saddam. Critics of sanctions in Syria can be similarly ignored or discredited as sympathisers with Assad, though rigorous sanctions have demonstrably failed to stop him tightening his grip on power.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Donald Trump, Iran, Iraq 
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Four years ago, I was standing by the grave of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old child who drowned when the rubber boat carrying him and his Syrian Kurdish family from Turkey to Greece was flipped over by high waves. The picture of his small body in a red shirt and black shorts lying face down on a Turkish beach with his head in the surf was supposed to have focused public attention on the hideous plight of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Alan’s grave was an ugly stone rectangle in a cemetery beside the ruins of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria which Isis had ferociously assaulted and nearly captured in a prolonged siege in 2014-15. I found the scene all the more moving because there were no flowers and Alan’s little grave was surrounded by fresh earth gouged out by a bulldozer preparing the ground for more graves.

I thought of Alan again this week when a photo was published of a father and daughter, also refugees, lying face down in muddy brown water close to the bank of the Rio Grande which they had been trying to swim to reach the United States. Like Alan and his family, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez drowned together with his 23-month-old daughter Valeria on what they hoped would be the last lap of their journey to a better life.

The photo of Valeria and Oscar, her small head tucked inside his T-shirt and her arm embracing his neck, evoked a wave of emotion around the world. The Democrats in Congress sought to pass a $4.5bn humanitarian aid bill to ease the suffering of migrants on the border with Mexico. Predictably, President Trump aggressively counter-attacked with tweets claiming that many lives would be saved if only the Democrats would change “broken” immigration laws.

Over the years I have become suspicious of photos which epitomise some tragedy by portraying the death or injury of a single individual and are supposed to be galvanising international action to stop the same thing happening again. The emphasis is on pity and grief but attention is diverted from the person or people responsible for some horror. Where such attention-grabbing pictures are not available, tragedies remain little reported and unnoticed.

How many people in the EU states, who are appalled by what is happening on the US-Mexico border, know that the death toll among refugees there is far lower than on the frontiers of the EU?

So far this year 427 refugees are known to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach the EU according to the UN Refugee Agency. “Between 2014 and 2018, more than 17,900 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean – the remains of almost two-thirds of those victims have not been recovered,” says the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

“More people die on the EU borders than any other borders in the world,” says Nick Megoran, a political geography lecturer at Newcastle University, who specialises in borders and border conflicts. He says that the EU holds itself up as model of civilised behaviour, but this appears to apply only to its actions within the boundaries of the EU, while it defends its external boundaries from migrants just as aggressively as Trump.

The number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey or North Africa to the EU has fallen from a peak of just over one million in 2015, the year Aylan Kurdi died, to 15,459 so far this year according to the UNHCR. In 2018, six migrants drowned every day in the Mediterranean, making a total of 2,275 dead for the year.

Sometimes there are witnesses to mass drownings as fragile craft packed with refugees are swamped or capsized by the waves. A sparse but typical account of one such incident by the IOM on 2 June reads: “according to IOM doctors onsite: migrants reported over 95 were on the boat before it capsized, among them were women and children. Two bodies have been retrieved and 73 migrants have so far been rescued.”

Some boats simply disappear: in the first two weeks of June two boats, carrying between 40 and 50 people, are known to have left Libya but neither has been seen since and there is a growing likelihood that they sank and all on board were drowned. The only evidence for such tragedies is when human remains in various states of decay are washed up on the beaches.

The sharp increase in the rate at which people are dying is partly the result of Italy’s populist government’s determination to stop migrant boats and a consequent “reduction to search and rescue capacity”, says the UN. When refugees are rescued, they are returned to detention camps in Libya where conditions are appalling and they are in danger of being overrun by marauding militias in the latest phase of Libya’s endless civil war.

Lost in all this is the responsibility of individual European politicians and governments, notably David Cameron in Britain and Nicolas Sarkozy, who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The aim of the intervention was supposedly to save the people in Benghazi from revenge by Gaddafi’s advancing forces. In practice, it doomed Libyans to perpetual warfare in which their country is torn apart by predatory warlords acting as proxies for foreign powers.

In previous years, I used to see West Africans working on construction sites in Tripoli who were very much the same sort of people who today make desperate voyages to find work and safety in Europe. What happened was a wholly predictable disaster, since it was evident from early in 2011 that the anti-Gaddafi forces could only win thanks to the close support of Nato airpower and would be incapable of ruling the country.

Much the same was true of Syria from 2012 on where the western powers did not want either Bashar al-Assad or the jihadi-dominated opposition to win the war decisively. Self-interest alone should have told them that a state of perpetual warfare in Syria was bound to destabilise Iraq and provoke a mass flight of refugees towards Europe. If the powers and their regional allies had set out to create the chaotic conditions ideal for the growth of fanatical fundamentalist movements, they could not have done better.

West Europeans have a hypocritical sense of superiority over Americans when talking about Trump’s plans to build a border wall between the US and Mexico, but the defences of the European fortress against migrants are even more cruel and lethal.

When I was looking at the grave of Alan Kurdi in 2015, I thought that at least his death had led people to see the plight of the Syrian refugees for what it was. There was something in this, but emphasis on grief and tragedy has an unstated benefit for governments because it diverts people from examining too closely who is ultimately responsible for the death of these infants. Questions about who encouraged or tolerated the growth of murderous regimes in the Middle East or Central America are brushed aside. So long as governments never pay a price for their bungled military interventions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – then they will go on doing the same thing.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Immigration 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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