');
The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Topics Filter?
2016 Election Afghanistan Al-Qaeda American Media American Military Arab Spring Bahrain Boris Johnson Brexit Britain Cockburn Family Donald Trump Economics Egypt Erdogan EU Foreign Policy Gaza Greece History Ideology Immigration Iran Iraq Iraq War Ireland ISIS Islam Israel Israel/Palestine Jeremy Corbyn Kurds Libya Mental Health Middle East Mohammed Bin Salman Northern Ireland Pakistan Qassem Soleimani Russia Saudi Arabia Science Shias And Sunnis Syria Syriza Terrorism Tony Blair Torture Turkey Yemen 2018 Election 9/11 Abi Bakar Baghdadi Ahmed Chalabi Al Nusra Front Arab Christianity Artifacts Assassinations Banking System Benghazi Benjamin Netanyahu Berlin Wall Birmingham Bowe Bergdahl Catalonia Charlie Hebdo China CIA Corruption David Cameron David Petraeus Disease Drone War Drones Drought Drugs Economic Sanctions Europe European Union Eurozone Fake News France Gaddafi Georgia Germany Haiti Hamas Hillary Clinton Hurricane Internet Iran Nuclear Agreement Iran Sanctions Islamism Israel Lobby Jamal Khashoggi Japan Julian Assange KGL-9268 Lebanon Mali Marijuana Media Mental Illness Muqtada Al-Sadr Muslim Ban Muslims Nationalism Neocons Neoliberalism Nigeria North Korea Nouri Al-Maliki Orlando Shooting Osama Bin Laden Oxfam Palestinians Panama Papers Paris Attacks Political Correctness Poverty Prince Andrew Qatar Racism Recep Tayyip Erdogan Robert Mugabe Roger Casement Scotland Slavery South Korea Soviet Union Sudan Taliban Theresa May Tunisia Twitter Ukraine Venezuela Vikings Wahhabis War Crimes War On Terror Wikileaks Winston Churchill World War I World War II Yasser Arafat Yazidis Zimbabwe
Nothing found
 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
AgreeDisagreeThanksLOLTroll
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

China is responding to the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan much as countries have always reacted to life-threatening epidemics. At every level of society and government, fear of death – or, more accurately, fear of being held responsible for death – drives decision-making, which is consequently often ill-judged.

Officials do not want to cause a panic – but then again, nor do they want to be accused of inaction, or of hiding dire truths about the health crisis (many people have become convinced that more people have been infected, have even died, than the authorities are admitting).

I have been struck in the past few days by the similarity between reactions to two epidemics, though they took place 64 years apart in cities that could not be more different. One is currently taking place in Wuhan in central China, with its population of eleven million; the second struck Cork, an Irish city with a population of 114,000, in 1956.

I know a lot about the polio outbreak in Cork because, on 30 September of that year, I was taken to St Finbarr’s Hospital in the city, after being diagnosed with the disease. My parents were convinced I was dying, but I survived, though my legs were permanently weakened; I still walk with a pronounced limp.

I was aged six at the time and have a precise memory of the epidemic as it affected me personally, but I knew little about its course outside the hospitals where I was being treated. It was only 50 years later that I got to know the full history, when I went back to Cork to interview doctors, nurses and patients, as well as reading Irish health ministry documents and accounts in contemporary newspapers.

What I discovered was that as in Wuhan today, local people in Cork were convinced that they were being fed false information downplaying the severity of the polio outbreak. “There were rumours everywhere in the city,” said Pauline Kent, a physiotherapist who treated victims, “that dead bodies were being carried out the back door of St Finbarr’s at night.” The medical authorities were, in fact, truthfully announcing the number of new cases and fatalities each morning – but they were simultaneously undermining their own credibility by issuing upbeat statements, dutifully reported in the local newspapers, with headlines such as “Panic Reaction Without Justification” and “Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous Say Doctors”.

Unsurprisingly, such forced optimism was counterproductive, entirely failing to reassure a local population terrified that their children would die or be disabled for life (the other name for polio at the time was “infantile paralysis”). Despite the doctors’ insistence, the people of Cork did not understand that while polio is highly contagious, meaning that almost everybody became a carrier, only one or two per cent of carriers would suffer long term health consequences (about 50,000 people in and around Cork probably got the virus, though only 576 of those had passed through St Finbarr’s by the time the epidemic ended in 1957).

What comes across most strongly in letters from that period is that a frightened people want somebody to blame, and want visible action. People outside Cork asked why the city had not been sealed off, the railway line to Dublin closed. “Let Cork’s own people keep their Polio and not infect our clean city,” urged one enraged letter-writer in Dublin.

This need to blame somebody or something seems to be a feature of epidemics everywhere. During a polio outbreak in New York in 1916, a rumour spread that the virus had been brought by Italian immigrants from Naples; another bizarrely had it that the virus was spread by cats (as a result, 72,000 cats were hunted down and killed).

Similarly, people in Cork were convinced that the government and the local medical establishment were being wilfully blind to the threat posed by the disease. They demanded action – their drains cleaned and schools closed – even when doctors said it would do no good.

At first, the authorities tried to strike a correct balance between being open about the epidemic and not causing a panic. This did them little good because Cork’s population still believe that even worse news was being kept from them.

When my family and I returned to Cork from London in August 1956, we found the streets empty. When we expressed surprise at this, our taxi driver explained, as my father later recalled, that “people are afraid to come into Cork. Business is going to hell. If the epidemic goes on, in a few weeks half the shops in this street will be bankrupt.” Under pressure from advertisers, the local newspaper almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic the following month, shortly before I fell ill. The cynics had turned out to be right.

Such censorship was roundly criticised by one official, who wrote to the newspaper: “I for one would be very annoyed if I came to Cork with my family on a holiday and found polio raging and that the business people were prepared to allow me to come and to expose my family to the disease – for the sake of my money as a tourist.”

The Chinese government does appear to have been fairly open about the onset of the latest version of the coronavirus, compared to their secretiveness during the Sars epidemic eighteen years ago. But transparency may not do them much good, because frightened people, Irish or Chinese, naturally look to blame human agency, rather than an unpredictable virus that can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Sealing off the source of infection sounds like an attractive option to those outside the quarantine zone, even when effective quarantine is almost impossible.

For years after the epidemic had ended, fears ran high in Cork. Maureen O’Sullivan, a Red Cross nurse, told me that “at the sight of my ambulance in their street, people would think that the polio was back. They would run into their houses, get down on their knees to pray. They had lost all hope – they were that frightened.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Science • Tags: China, Disease 
🔊 Listen RSS

Today Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei gave his first Friday sermon in Tehran for eight years to an audience of thousands, as he tried to calm down the furious public reaction to the Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers, then proceeding to lie about their responsibility for three days.

Khameinei spoke of the “cowardly” killing of General Qassem Soleimani by the US, of President Trump using the destruction of the plane to “push a poison dagger” into the backs of the Iranian people. Rhetorical flourishes like this are not going do him a lot of good with critics who see the shootdown as epitomising the incompetence, duplicity and division of his government.

But the nature of the crisis differs markedly from the way it is being portrayed abroad. For more has gone wrong than a series of blunders. Obscured amid the plaudits and denunciations directed at Soleimani and Khamenei is the fact that both men’s policies in the Middle East had become counterproductive.

Over the last four years, Iran has had great success in spreading its influence in countries with large Shia populations. But it has failed to consolidate the status quo it played such a large role in creating. “The Iranians are good at gathering cards, but not at playing them,” is an old saying in the region.

Despite Iranian successes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the power structure in all three countries is rickety and prone to crises. Over the last four months, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have been rocked by mass protest, while Syria is in the final throes of civil war.

Much depends on how the Iranian leadership responds in the next few months to the assassination of Soleimani, formerly their high-profile viceroy overseeing the Iranian zone of influence. They could continue to head towards a full scale US-Iran conflict or, just possibly, veer towards some sort of compromise deal.

Neither side wants a war, as demonstrated by America’s belated revelation that 11 of its soldiers were injured by the Iranian ballistic missile strike on two of its bases in Iraq on 8 January. At the time, Trump had reassured the world that there were no American casualties. and therefore no need for him to retaliate. Meanwhile, Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq have been instructed not to attack US facilities in order to de-escalate the crisis.

In the longer term, if Iran continues with the policies pursued by Soleimani and Khamenei, it will feel compelled to resume low-intensity warfare to provide a counterbalance to US sanctions. Before this happens, Iran will have to decide if it is going to use the elimination of Soleimani to devise a new strategies to replace those that have failed.

Nobody watches the changing political winds in Tehran as closely as Iraqis, who know that their country is where the US-Iran struggle is being fought out.

“Iran is in a very critical position,” says a prominent Iraqi Shia politician in Baghdad quoted in the online magazine Middle East Eye. “The policy that Khamenei previously pursued in managing the Iraq file and the region is no longer successful. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard had contributed to creating problems in Iraq that turned into a burden for Iran and became an obstacle in the way of its negotiations with the United States.”

Discussions now taking place in Iran are about whether the Revolutionary Guards should retain the Iraq file, or be handed over to some other body, such as intelligence or the foreign ministry. Soleimani’s former deputy and nominated successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmael Ghaani, has been handling Afghanistan, and is less familiar with the Middle East.

Quite aside from US pressure for disengagement, it is very much in Iran’s interests in Iraq to take a less hands-on role, and to look to the Iraqi government and Shia political parties to drive out the US. In Syria, where Iran had orchestrated support for President Bashar al-Assad after 2011, an Iranian pullback is feasible, because Assad has largely won the war to stay in power, and since 2015, the leading role in supporting him has been taken over by Russia.

Given these developments, it should be easier than it looks for Tehran and Washington to reach agreement on reducing Iran’s regional activism. The problem is that in Middle Eastern politics, everybody tends to overplay their hand at one time or another, usually when they come to overconfidently believe that they can put their opponent permanently out of business. The US has repeatedly fallen into this trap in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – and it is all too likely to do the same in its confrontation with Iran which, whatever the two sides’ intentions, will remain a dangerous stalemate, always at risk of tipping into outright war.

The US maximalist demands on Iran’s nuclear facilities, ballistic missiles and regional influence effectively mean that it wants regime change or capitulation. Both outcomes are possible; neither is likely. The Iranian leadership tends to come together when threatened, and is prepared to use any degree of force to stay in power. Western capitals have been looking expectantly for an end to the clerical regime in Tehran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – but to no avail.

President Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018 without a coherent explanation of what was wrong with it, or what would be put in its place. Since then, both Iran and the US have carried out what could be deemed acts of war, culminating in the last few months in the Iranians attacking Saudi oil facilities, and the US assassinating Soleimani. On each occasion, both sides avoided full-scale retaliation, but this restraint rests on a knife-edge, and cannot last forever. The basis for a deal exists, but that does not mean one will materialise.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

I was in Iraq in April 1991 when government security forces crushed the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, killing tens of thousands and burying their bodies in pits. I had been expelled from Iraq to Jordan at the start of the rebellion in March and then, to my surprise, allowed to return, because Saddam wanted to prove to the world that he was back in control.

I was taken along with other journalists to see Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, the vastly influential spiritual leader of the Shia in Iraq and elsewhere, who was being held in a nondescript house in Kufa in southern Iraq.

He lay on a couch looking all his 92 years, surrounded by Iraqi security men who were hoping that he would condemn the rebellion.

I asked him what he thought of it. For some minutes I thought he had not heard my question, but then, speaking in a low gasping voice, he said: “What happened in Najaf and other cities is not allowed and was against God.”

His words were deliberately ambiguous, but I had no doubt that he was speaking of the hideous vengeance being exacted by military units loyal to Saddam, the killing of Shia men, women and children regardless of whether or not they had taken part in the uprising.

The Shia had risen up against Saddam in the final days of his defeat in Kuwait by the US-led coalition. While they were not expecting full-scale foreign support, they did believe that the coalition would stop Saddam using his remaining tanks and helicopters against them. But the US conflated the Iraqi Shia with Iran, where the Shia are the overwhelming majority, and had decided that it was not in American interests to see the rebellion succeed.

Coalition forces stood aside as Saddam’s tanks, with helicopters overhead, smashed their way into Shia cities like Karbala, Najaf and Basra, and then began their mass executions.

Three decades later, the US and its allies are still making the same mistake, treating the millions of Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan as if they were Iranian agents.

Down the centuries, the Shia have been one of the most savagely persecuted religious minorities; they fear today that in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they are once again being demonised, as Donald Trump denounces all who oppose the US in the Middle East as Iranian proxies.

Yousif al-Khoei, the grandson of the grand ayatollah and the head of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, told me that the confrontation between Iran and the US was already leading to “the rise of anti-Shia sentiment”. He receives many calls from non-political but very worried Shia who hear what they interpret as crude anti-Shia propaganda being spouted in Washington.

“The threat to demolish ‘cultural sites’ in Iran was shocking to hear from a US president,” said Khoei. “Ordinary Shia express fear that this may mean attacking our holy places and institutions where faith and culture are intertwined.” He told me how young Shia are angered by potential “gross violation of the Shia faith” by US threats to holy sites and shrines that have only recently been targeted by Isis. “We are still recovering from the losses Isis inflicted on the Shia,” he said.

One of the most significant developments in the Middle East since 1945 has been the rise of the previously marginalised and impoverished Shia communities in many – though not all – of the region’s countries, above all Lebanon and Iraq, the latter becoming the first Shia-ruled state in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171.

Yet American and British politicians too often treat the rise of the Shia as if this was purely the outcome of unjustifiable Iranian interference. Western leaders find it convenient to adopt the anti-Shia propaganda line pumped out by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, which persecutes its own Shia minority, and Bahrain, which has an even more oppressed Shia majority.

In both countries, Shia demanding civil rights are punished as terrorists and alleged proxies of Iran. Often, the Sunni authorities are convinced by their own propaganda: when the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi troops, crushed the Arab Spring protests on the island in 2011, Shia doctors in a nearby hospital were tortured to make them admit that they were receiving orders from Iran, though a high-level international investigation found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests.

After the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, its military commanders were paranoid about alleged Iranian plots to foster resistance to the occupation. In fact, it needed no fostering, because neither Shia nor Sunni wanted Iraq to be occupied by a foreign military force.

Old propaganda claims have resurfaced over the last week about Iran assisting the predominantly Saudi 9/11 bombers or enabling an IED campaign against British troops in southern Iraq, as if Iraq at that time was not knee-deep in discarded munitions.

Such self-serving conspiracy theories, whether they are being peddled in Washington, London, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, are counterproductive. They foster a sense of Shia solidarity that is to the benefit of Iran. We saw this over the last week, as anti-government protests in Iran in 2019 were replaced this year by crowds numbering millions jamming the streets of Iranian cities to mourn General Soleimani, that very same government’s top military commander.

At the heart of Shi’ism, more than in most religions, is martyrdom, and Soleimani is now being elevated in the eyes of Shia – and not just in Iran – to the status of a warrior martyr who died fighting for the faith.

The triumphant Iraqi army commanders I saw in the wrecked Shia cities of Iraq in 1991 all tried to persuade me that the Iranians had been the driving force behind the rebellion. Much the same nonsense is being uttered today about an Iranian hand being behind anything the west and its allies do not like in the Middle East.

When they claim to be targeting Iran, they are in practice targeting the Shia community as a whole – a mistake for which both they and the Shia are likely to pay a high price.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

The Iranian missile attack on two US bases in Iraq is symbolic retaliation for the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani on 3 January.

Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei said there would be direct action against the US by the Iranian armed forces, and this has now happened. The message is that the Iranian leadership wants to de-escalate the crisis; the initial tweet from the US president Donald Trump after the attack indicates that he wants the same thing.

This does not mean that Iran will not respond later, using proxies to retain deniability and possibly against a US ally, as it did when making a devastating drone attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais on 14 September. But even this type of low level guerrilla warfare is not inevitable, since Iran has shown in the past that it wants to avoid a full-scale war with a militarily superior US.

The assassination of Soleimani clearly came as a shock to Tehran, and will have shaken confidence that Trump will not risk a war under any circumstances. After all, Soleimani paid with his life for miscalculating the degree of American anger over pin-prick Iranian attacks last year.

Iran is more likely to seek to exploit the assassination for political gain, notably by increasing its influence in Iraq and acting through third parties. It will look to the Iraqi government, parliament and political parties to demand that the 5,200 US troops leave the country. They have been there since 2014 for the purpose of helping the Iraqi armed forces fight Isis but, from the moment General Soleimani was killed, have been looking to their own defence.

Isis, seeking to revive itself after its destruction as a de facto state, is one clear beneficiary of the Soleimani assassination.

Even if US troops stay for the moment, they will have a status near to that of hostages since many are in indefensible compounds in the middle of Iraqi military bases. The willingness of Iraqi security to defend American personnel is dubious, as was demonstrated when Iraqi troops in the Green Zone in Baghdad stood aside last week to let pro-Iranian paramilitary marchers enter the US embassy.

Iran will already have made significant political gains from this crisis as long it does not now overplay its hand and seek to humiliate the US. Street protests in Iran sparked by a rise in fuel prices last November led to the security forces killing at least 304 protesters, according to Amnesty International. Who would have expected that the next big street event in Iranian cities would be millions of people gathering for the funeral of the second most important figure in the government that had been doing the killing?

These were mourners, moreover, calling for vengeance against the US; protesters had previously blamed their leadership for wasting resources on foreign adventures such as those carried out by Soleimani. It is impossible to judge how far Isis has been re-legitimised by the recent rising of tensions, but it is in a stronger position domestically to withstand the tough times resulting from US sanctions without the fear of a popular revolt.

In Iraq, there will be many who will be pleased to see the end of Soleimani, who ordered the violent repression of protests over jobs and government corruption since last October; since then, no fewer than 500 protesters have been killed and as many as 20,000 injured.

But Iraqi protesters, too, have had the ground cut from under their feet because US interference in Iraq has just outpaced Iranian interference. Protesters will be accused of attacking a government that is seeking to defend Iraqi sovereignty. No Iraqi leader will want to be portrayed as pro-American. The pro-Iranian paramilitaries can present themselves as staunch patriots and not as Iranian proxies.

Soleimani has done more for his country by his death than he ever achieved during two decades years as head of the Quds Force, the foreign operation arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. From the US point of view, his assassination is proving counter-productive, leaving the government in Iran and its regional allies stronger than before.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has capsized Iraqi politics in the most dangerous of ways, making it possible that the country will be plunged once again into a state of permanent crisis and war from which it has escaped in the last two years.

President Trump is threatening sanctions against Iraq if it expels the 5,200 US military person in the country, while the Iraqi parliament has passed a non-binding resolution demanding the eviction of foreign troops after what it sees as a flagrant breach of Iraqi sovereignty.

Some commentators draw comfort from the fact that any official move by the Iraqi government to kick out US troops is far down the road and so, consequently, are any counter-measures by Mr Trump.

In reality, the crisis over the presence of US troops on the ground in Iraq is already with us and will get worse. The US troops returned to Iraq in 2014 to combat Isis after it captured Mosul and was advancing on Baghdad. The US forces provided logistic, intelligence and, crucially, helped orchestrate US air support for Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries fighting Isis. These anti-Isis forces consist of the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Shia paramilitary umbrella group, whose fighters are paid by the Iraqi government and headed by a senior Iraqi government official. Many of these paramilitary groups have Iranian links or are under Iranian control.

From the moment that a US drone killed General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the powerful Kata’ib Hezbollah group, the priority for US troops in Iraq changed. It was no longer to pursue Isis and prevent its resurgence, but to defend its highly vulnerable bases from possible attack by Shia paramilitaries. This immediately relieved pressure on Isis which is trying to stage a come-back. The biggest cheer in Iraq after the US drone strike last Friday will have come from Isis commanders in their isolated bolt-holes in the desert and mountains of Iraq and Syria.

The US bases in Iraq are in fact more usually compounds within Iraqi military facilities. This means that from day one the US troops there are close to being hostages surrounded by potentially hostile Iraqis. Iraqi security units made no effort to protect the US embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad last week. Even if the compounds are not directly assaulted or subjected to rocket fire self-protection will be their priority.

Mr Trump, supported by Boris Johnson, has justified the killing General Soleimani by pretending that his sole role in Iraq was to organise attacks on US and British forces. But the real history of the relations between the US and Iran since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 has in fact been a strange mixture of rivalry and cooperation. This is not obvious because the cooperation was largely covert and the rivalry explicit. Iraqis, whose leaders balanced nervously between Washington and Tehran, used to say of them: “They wave their fist at each other over the table and shake hands under it.”

This contradictory approach stretches back thirty years: the US and Iran both vied to be the predominant foreign power in Iraq, but they also had dangerous enemies in common. The US had not finished off Saddam Hussein after his defeat in Kuwait in 1991, because they feared that his fall would open the door to Iranian influence. Washington changed its mind on this in due course and, by the end of the 1990s the CIA and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards both had bases in Salahudin in Iraqi Kurdistan that publicly ignored each other’s existence, but communicated privately through third parties.

Rivalry intensified after the US became the dominant power in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in the long term both countries wanted a stable Shia government in power in Baghdad and realised that this could only happen if both the US and Iran agreed on Iraqi leaders acceptable to each other. Nouri al-Maliki was the choice of the US ambassador in Baghdad to be Iraqi prime minister in 2006 in the knowledge that Iran would approve – the British ambassador of the day objected and was shown the door.

This same system of joint decision making at distance produced al-Maliki’s successor, Haidar al-Abadi in 2014 and the current prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in 2018. The same convenient US-Iran arrangement decided the appointment of other senior officials, such as president Barham Salih, who was long close to the Americans, but was the surprising choice of Iran.

The common interest of these two outside powers was particularly close when Isis was at the peak of its strength between 2014 and 2017. The links were weakened by the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, damaged further by his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and finally destroyed by the assassination of General Soleimani.

A great danger in the present crisis is that Mr Trump and his advisers know even less about Iraq than did George W Bush and Tony Blair in 2003. For instance, a problem about attacking the pro-Iranian Shia paramilitary groups is that they are part of the Iraqi state. The Iraqi Interior Minister always belongs to the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian grouping. The military muscle of the Iraqi security forces, which the US is in Iraq to support, comes in part from such groups with whom the US has just gone to war.

It is not a war that the US is likely to win, but it will inevitably reduce Iraq to chaos. Thanks to such confusion, with its enemies at each other’s throats, Isis may again take root and flourish. In the Islamic world, the killing of General Soleimani will be seen as not only anti-Iran, but anti-Shia. Everywhere conflicts are being stirred to life of which Mr Trump knows nothing, but is about to find out.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

Iraqis have a well-honed instinct about approaching danger which stems from their grim experience during 40 years of crisis and war. Three months ago, I asked a friend in Baghdad how she and her friends viewed the future, adding Iraq seemed to me to be more peaceful than at any time since the US and British invaded in 2003.

She replied that the general mood among people she knew was gloomy because they believed that the next war between the US and Iran might be fought out in Iraq. She said: “Many of my friends are so nervous about a US-Iran war that they are using their severance pay on leaving government service to buy houses in Turkey.” She was thinking of doing the same thing.

My Iraqi friends turned out to have been all too right in their depressing prognosis: the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone at Baghdad airport is an act of escalation by President Donald Trump that ensures that Iraq faces a violent future. It may not lead to a full-scale military conflict, but Iraq will be the political and military arena where the US-Iranian rivalry will be fought out. The Iranians and their Iraqi allies may or may not carry out some immediate retaliatory act against the US, but their most important counter-stroke will be to pressure the Iraqi government, parliament and security forces into pushing the US entirely out of Iraq.

Ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran has generally come out ahead of the US in any struggle for influence within Iraq. The main reason for this is has been that Shia community in Iraq, two-thirds of the population and politically dominant, has looked to its fellow Shia in Iran for support against its enemies. Ironically, Iranian influence and popularity had been seriously damaged because of General Soleimani overseeing the brutal efforts by pro-Iranian security forces and paramilitary groups to crush Iraqi street protests, killing at least 400 protesters and injuring another 15,000.

Mounting Iraqi popular rage against Iran for its interference in Iraq’s internal affairs is now likely to be counter-balanced by the even more blatant assault on Iraq’s national sovereignty by the US. It is difficult to think of a grosser act of interference by a foreign state than killing a foreign general who was openly and legally in Iraq. Also killed by the drone was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the powerful pro-Iranian paramilitary group. The US may consider paramilitary commanders like him to be evil terrorists, but for many Shia Iraqis they are the people who fought against Saddam Hussein and defended them against Isis.

I was speaking to my pessimistic friend in Baghdad in late September in what turned out to be the last peaceable days before violence returned to Iraq. I interviewed a number of paramilitary commanders from the Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilisation forces, who all claimed that the US and Israel were escalating attacks on them inside the country. I wondered how much of this was paranoia.

I spoke to Abu Alaa al-Walai, the leader of Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, a splinter group of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of whose camps had been destroyed by a drone attack in August. He said that 50 tonnes of weapons and ammunition had been blown up, blaming the Israelis and the Americans acting in concert. Asked if his men would attack US forces in Iraq in the event of a US-Iran war, he said: “Absolutely yes.” Later I visited the camp, called al-Saqr, on the outskirts of Baghdad where a massive explosion had gutted sheds and littered the burned-out compound with shattered pieces of equipment.

I saw other pro-Iranian paramilitary leaders at this time. The drone attacks had made them edgy, but I got the impression that they did not really expect a US-Iran war. Qais al-Khazali, the head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told me that he did not think there would be a war “because Trump does not want one.” As evidence of this, he pointed to the failure of Trump to retaliate after the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities earlier in September that Washington had been blamed on Iran.

In fact, events developed very differently from what both I and the paramilitary commanders expected. A few days after I had spoken to them, there was a small demonstration in central Baghdad demanding jobs, public services and an end to corruption. The security forces and the pro-Iranian paramilitaries opened fire, killing and wounding many peaceful demonstrators. Though Qais al-Khazali later claimed that he and other Hashd leaders were trying to thwart a US-Israeli conspiracy, he had said nothing to me about it. It seemed likely that General Soleimani, wrongly suspected that the paltry demonstrations were a real threat and had ordered the pro-Iranian paramilitaries to open fire and put a plan for suppressing the demonstrations into operation.

All this could have been disastrous for Iranian influence in Iraq. Soleimani had made the classic mistake of a successful general in imaging that “a whiff of grapeshot” will swiftly repress any signs of popular discontent. Sometimes this works, often it does not – and Iraq turned out to belong to the second category.

General Soleimani died in the wake of his greatest failure and misjudgement. But the manner of his killing may convince many Shia Iraqis that the threat to Iraqi independence from the US is greater than that from Iran. The next few days will tell if the protest movement, that has endured the violence used against it with much bravery, will be deflated by the killings at Baghdad airport.

Wars are reputedly won by generals who make the least mistakes. General Soleimani made a bad mistake over the last three months by turning a modest protest into something close to a mass uprising. Trump may have made an even worse mistake by killing General Soleimani and making Iraq, a place where Iran has far more going for it than the US, the arena in which the rivalry between these two powers will be fought out. I can see now that my friend in Baghdad may well have been right three months ago in suggesting that retirement to Turkey might be the safest option.

 
🔊 Listen RSS

Nationalism in different shapes and forms is powerfully transforming the politics of the British Isles, a development that gathered pace over the last five years and culminated in the general election this month.

National identities and the relationship between England, Scotland and Ireland are changing more radically than at any time over the last century. It is worth looking at the British archipelago as a whole on this issue because of the closely-meshed political relationship of its constituent nations.

Some of these developments are highly visible such as the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to permanent political dominance in Scotland in the three general elections since the independence referendum in 2014.

Other changes are important but little commented on, such as the enhanced national independence and political influence of the Republic of Ireland over the British Isles as a continuing member of the EU as the UK leaves. Dublin’s greater leverage when backed by the other 26 EU states was repeatedly demonstrated, often to the surprise and dismay of London, in the course of the negotiations in Brussels over the terms of the British withdrawal.

Northern Ireland saw more nationalist than unionist MPs elected in the general election for the first time since 1921. This is important because it is a further sign of the political impact of demographic change whereby Catholics/nationalists become the new majority and the Protestants/unionists the minority. The contemptuous ease with which Boris Johnson abandoned his ultra-unionist pledges to the DUP and accepted a customs border in the Irish Sea separating Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain shows how little loyalty the Conservatives feel towards the northern unionists and their distinct and abrasive brand of British nationalism.

These developments affecting four of the main national communities inhabiting the British Isles – Irish, nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, Scots – are easy to track. Welsh nationalism is a lesser force. Much more difficult to trace and explain is the rise of English nationalism because it is much more inchoate than these other types of nationalism, has no programme, and is directly represented by no political party – though the Conservative Party has moved in that direction.

The driving force behind Brexit was always a certain type of English nationalism which did not lose its power to persuade despite being incoherent and little understood by its critics and supporters alike. In some respects, it deployed the rhetoric of any national community seeking self-determination. The famous Brexiteer slogan “take back control” is not that different in its implications from Sinn Fein – “Ourselves Alone” – though neither movement would relish the analogy.

The great power of the pro-Brexit movement, never really taken on board by its opponents, was to blame the very real sense of disempowerment and social grievances felt by a large part of the English population on Brussels and the EU. This may have been scapegoating on a grandiose scale, but nationalist movements the world over have targeted some foreign body abroad or national minority at home as the source of their ills. I asked one former Leave councillor – one of the few people I met who changed their mind on the issue after the referendum in 2016 – why people living in her deprived ward held the EU responsible for their poverty. Her reply cut through many more sophisticated explanations: “I suppose that it is always easier to blame Johnny Foreigner.”

This crude summary of the motives of many Leave voters has truth in it, but it is a mistake to caricature English nationalism as simply a toxic blend of xenophobia, racism, imperial nostalgia and overheated war memories. In the three years since the referendum the very act of voting for Brexit became part of many people’s national identity, a desire to break free, kicking back against an overmighty bureaucracy and repelling attempts by the beneficiaries of globalisation to reverse a democratic vote.

The political left in most countries is bad at dealing with nationalism and the pursuit of self-determination. It sees these as a diversion from identifying and attacking the real perpetrators of social and economic injustice. It views nationalists as mistakenly or malignly aiming at the wrong target – usually foreigners – and letting the domestic ones off the hook.

The desire by people to see themselves as a national community – even if many of the bonds binding them together are fictional – is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It can only be ignored at great political cost, as the Labour Party has just found out to its cost for the fifth time (two referendums and three elections). What Labour should have done was early on take over the slogan “take back control” and seek to show that they were better able to deliver this than the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. There is no compelling reason why achieving such national demands should be a monopoly of the right. But in 2016, 2017 and 2019 Labour made the same mistake of trying to wriggle around Brexit as the prime issue facing the English nation without taking a firm position, an evasion that discredited it with both Remainers and Leavers.

Curiously, the political establishment made much the same mistake as Labour in underestimating and misunderstanding the nature of English nationalism. Up to the financial crisis of 2008 globalisation had been sold as a beneficial and inevitable historic process. Nationalism was old hat and national loyalties were supposedly on the wane. To the British political class, the EU obviously enhanced the political and economic strength of its national members. As beneficiaries of the status quo, they were blind to the fact that much of the country had failed to gain from these good things and felt marginalised and forgotten.

The advocates of supra-national organisations since the mediaeval papacy have been making such arguments and have usually been perplexed why they fail to stick. They fail to understand the strength of nationalism or religion in providing a sense of communal solidarity, even if it is based on dreams and illusions, that provides a vehicle for deeply felt needs and grievances. Arguments based on simple profit and loss usually lose out against such rivals.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
🔊 Listen RSS

I live in Canterbury, where the Labour MP Rosie Duffield increased her slim majority tenfold in the general election. Given Labour’s defeat in almost all of the rest of the UK, it’s worth considering why this happened,.

A prime reason Duffield retained her seat is that that Labour had the support of a rickety but effective anti-Tory common front that counter-balanced the negative factors which were sinking its hopes elsewhere. The Lib Dem candidate unilaterally stood down and endorsed Duffield so as not to split the Remain vote, though he was promptly replaced by the Lib Dem leadership.

The Greens, meanwhile, did not stand – and a booth in Canterbury high street was selling blue badges with the message “Tories for Rosie.”

When Duffield, a former assistant teacher and single mother, first won the seat by 187 votes in 2017, ending no less than 185 years of uninterrupted Tory representation, the Tories and the media blamed the student vote.

But while the city does have two big universities and the campus of a third, this has been true for decades, during most of which the constituency routinely returned Sir Julian Brazier, a right-wing pro-Leave MP.

Canterbury and nearby Whitstable may look prosperous to visitors walking down their high streets, but the constituency contains deprived housing estates where people on the minimum wage struggle to feed their families.

In this the city is certainly not unique. One of the most extraordinary and contradictory developments in modern English political history is that people living in such “left-behind” and “left out” places decided to retaliate against a British establishment that had long ignored them by scapegoating the EU, even though it was often the only governmental institution that did anything to help them.

On the outskirts of Canterbury, for instance, is the estate of Thanington, which, because of its reputation for violence and crime, used to be nicknamed “Little Beirut” – that is, until 20 years ago, when it received a £2.5 million EU grant to refurbish it.

Even so, locals say that most of its population voted Leave in the referendum, and as happened in much of England and Wales, might have voted Tory last week.

I asked Mike Bland, campaign coordinator for Duffield, why she had won when so many of her fellow Labour MPs had lost. He said that Labour had lost support in the Leave-voting estates, but “voters stayed home and did not switch to the Tories.”

Duffield is popular and had distanced herself from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership – distanced herself so far as to attract furious denunciations from some leaders of the local party.

Labour could never out-Brexit a Brexiteer-led Tory party in Canterbury or anywhere else, but it could compensate for losing Leavers by winning enough Remain votes to make up for these losses.

In the constituency there had been a small Remain majority in the referendum, and Duffield was vocally pro-Remain. This was important because in other constituencies, Labour’s suicidal policy of being somewhere in the middle between Leave and Remain managed to alienate both sides, as it was always likely to do.

More Labour voters switched to the other Remain parties – often in Leave majority areas – than Labour Leave voters switched to the Tories. For all Boris Johnson’s triumphalism, the overall Tory share of the vote only increased by two per cent.

The Red Wall, much-loved by the media, was something of a myth, made up of traditional marginals and de-industrialised constituencies that had shifted unsteadily towards the Tories since the 1970s.

Of course, it’s easy to say what the Labour party should have done if it was less divided. Its ambivalent Brexit policy was a compromise between factions, however toxic it was likely to prove to the electorate as a whole. But the divisions were real, so the only real solution for Labour was to avoid a general election until Brexit was decided one way or another.

Numerous Labour and Lib Dem leaders are now saying how much they opposed a general election, but their opposition, if it existed at the time, was largely invisible.

Yet a speech by Tony Blair on 2 September accurately predicted all the political disasters that would follow if Labour and the Lib Dems chose to jump into what he termed the ‘elephant trap’ of a general election. Blair said that if Johnson “mixes up the Brexit question with the Corbyn question in a general election, he could succeed”. And succeed he did.

Obvious though this was from a glance at the opinion polls, Blair noted that the Labour leadership had been “inoculated” against political reality by its unexpectedly strong showing in the 2017 election.

Everything turned out precisely as Blair had forecast. Both Corbyn and Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, proved equally delusional about their prospects.

A minority Tory government in a hung parliament under an unpopular leader should have been seen by them as being good as it gets for opposition parties. Instead, propelled by wishful thinking, they obligingly consented to an election dominated by the twin issues of Brexit and Corbyn and which they would inevitably lose.

What will life in the “elephant trap” be like for the rest of us?

We can get some idea of the strength of the social and economic forces underpinning last week’s general election result by looking abroad. Similar revolts in non-metropolitan de-industrialised towns and city outskirts gave birth to the gilets jaunes in France and propelled Donald Trump into the White House in 2016.

Jeremy Corbyn is not often compared to Hillary Clinton, but some of their mistakes were similar. Both wasted the energies of enthusiastic supporters trying to win opposition-held constituencies and states when they should have been fighting desperately to defend their own political bases.

Populist nationalist leaders are popping up all over the world. Johnson is only the British iteration of this global trend. All have authoritarian instincts to which they give rein as far as political circumstances allow. Opposition to their rule is divided, intimidated or both.

Ominously for Britain, the populist nationalist wave is not receding. And once they’ve won it, few, if any, of these leaders have lost their grip on power.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain, Jeremy Corbyn 
🔊 Listen RSS

I suspected from the moment the general election was called that the result would be a large Conservative majority, a calamitous defeat for Labour, and a decisive victory for Brexit. To prevent myself getting too depressed by this grim prospect, I picked out and read two books on crises that were far more dire: one on the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England and the other on Verdun in 1916, perhaps the most horrific battle in the First World War.

My idea was that by concentrating on these savage conflicts I would have some relief from thinking about Brexit and its consequences. It would also help me view the turmoil over leaving the EU in less apocalyptic terms than is usually the case. Is it, for instance, likely that we are facing the break-up of the UK as nationalist parties – Conservatives, SNP, Sinn Fein, DUP – establish their dominance over different communities? For all the debate over Brexit, it is still unclear how far Britain ruled by a hard-right government will diverge from EU norms and follow the US model.

Reading these two books – Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 and Thomas Penn’s The Brothers York: An English Tragedy – was also a useful distraction from another irritating thought. This was that Boris Johnson might be the luckiest politician alive. It never made sense that Jo Swinson should have precipitated a general election, in which the Liberal Democrats would be squeezed, and would give up the advantages of being a small party in a hung parliament. Jeremy Corbyn should have been able to see that the one thing Labour had to avoid, as Tony Blair had warned, was a Brexit election in which its ambivalent policy on leaving the EU was bound to sink it and close the door to remaining in the EU.

Commentators before and after the election queued up to deny Boris Johnson’s claim that he would get Brexit done and denounce it as a fraud because he still has to negotiate the terms of departure. But, more realistically, the Rubicon has been passed and Brexit of some sort is bound to happen soon.

Johnson could adopt a more conciliatory mode, but I doubt it. Much the same was said about President Donald Trump when he was elected. Populist nationalist politicians, of whom Johnson is one, tend to repeat the same political gambits that got them into power in the first place.

Now that Brexit in its current version has been approved by the electorate, it is easy to forget what a weird project it continues to be. Much of what its proponents say is fantasy or simply unrealisable. There is only so much Britain can do to diversify its economy away from the EU, since 45 per cent of British exports go to there compared to 15 per cent to the US, while exports to Ireland easily exceed those to China. Britain’s negotiators will once again bump into economic and political realities that are the same as under Theresa May.

Brexit is bound to leave the UK weaker and poorer as a state than it would otherwise be – and part of this damage has already been done. But for Leavers, Brexit was always more of a political than an economic project. However often Remainers proved to their own satisfaction that leaving the EU was economic idiocy, it never made much impression on the level of support for Brexit.

Earlier this year, I visited different parts of the UK to discover why so many people appeared to be voting against their own best interests. Why, for instance, did people in the de-industrialised Welsh Valleys want to leave the EU when Brussels had heavily funded projects in the area. The answer in Wales, and in the rest of de-industrialised Britain, was that EU funding was never enough to reverse their decline, though it was not clear that anything could have done so.

The EU became the great scapegoat. Graham Simmonds, an independent councillor in the Valleys, told me that everybody from the government in London to the Welsh Assembly might have failed Wales, but “it was the EU against which people decided to push back.” They were impervious to arguments about the damage Brexit would do to the national GDP because they never saw it as their GDP.

This alienation was there at the time of the referendum in 2016, but it solidified farther between over the next three years, which helps explain Labour’s rout in its former working class strongholds on Thursday. Alex Snowden, a radical activist in Newcastle, told me that people’s core sense of identity had become more wrapped up in their position for or against the EU since 2019. He said that Brexit “isn’t just about views on the EU anymore, but a wider sense of alienation and dislocation.” A canvasser in the Canterbury constituency made the same point to me this week, saying that she had just talked to some Leave voters and “it is as if supporting Brexit is part of their identity. They don’t want to discuss it.” For many, Brexit and English national identity have united and submerged traditional loyalty to the Labour Party. This will be difficult to reverse.

The triumph of nationalism was always a likely outcome of the election. The three parties that had most to celebrate after the poll, primarily appeal to a single national community: Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England and – exceptionally – to some small degree in Wales.

Scotland is not Catalonia, but the repeated successes of SNP and Sinn Fein are bound to loosen the bonds holding the UK together. There will come a moment when people in the British rust-belt notice that voting Conservative has done them little good. Fresh crises are in the offing. I suspect it will not be long before I will once again be seeking solace in reading up on Verdun or the Wars of the Roses and thinking that at least things are not as bad as that .

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Jeremy Corbyn 
🔊 Listen RSS

Future historians may well pick 2019 as a decisive year in the decline of the US and UK as world powers. Of course, the UK started at a much lower level in the international pecking order than the US, but the direction of travel in both cases is the same.

This geopolitical shift comes exactly a century after the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, when the US and UK were at the peak of their power in determining the fate of nations after the First World War. They self-confidently redrew the map of eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa according to their own interests and with minimal concern about the effect on others.

Like most political retreats, the present one by the US and UK is masked by patriotic bombast about “Making America Great Again” or launching a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.

In the case of the US, the retreat from hegemony was made manifest this year when Iran carried out a devastating drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. Though a blatant act of war against an important US ally, Donald Trump, the US president, swiftly decided that it was not in America’s interests to retaliate. He may be putting maximum economic pressure on Iran, but he made clear he is not going to fight a war against them.

In October, it was the turn of the Syrian Kurds to become the next victims of the new American realpolitik when Trump greenlighted a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Despite having fought heroically and lost 10,000 dead as the US on-the-ground ally in the fight against Isis, the Kurds suffered immediate and predictable ethnic cleansing by Turkey.

The fate of the Saudis and Kurds carried a message about future American actions in the world that was ignored by a largely Trump-bashing media. Dismissing Trump’s foreign policy as crazy and self-serving, establishment critics seldom take on board that, in its crude way, the president’s actions do reflect a changed world order in which the US has lost its old supremacy.

Brutal, shambolic, even treacherous, Trump’s foreign ventures may be, but they often have a core of realism, whether he is dealing with South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Ukraine. The so-called “grown-ups”, usually military or diplomatic Washington bureaucrats who are protecting their fiefdoms and detest Trump, are often proposing alternative actions in the Middle East or Ukraine that carry a high risk of starting wars that Trump does not want to fight or the US cannot easily win.

None of the Nato leaders gathered in their hotel in Watford this week seemed to have taken on board the lessons of the failed US-led military in the Middle East since Bill Clinton intervened so disastrously in Somalia in 1993 – a war that is still going on.

Trump, likewise, may not know much about the half-dozen militarily conflicts currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), but he does see that they are “messy” and “endless” and that America would be well advised to stay out of them.

Significantly, Barack Obama also recognised the ebbing of America’s global hegemony and tried to stall – not always successfully – the enthusiasm for military action inside and outside his administration in Washington. Coming from different directions, both Obama and Trump recognised that the era when the US was the sole superpower that could always expect to get its way is now over.

Trump might easily have gone to war with Iran after a series of Iranian attacks in the Gulf over the course of the summer, culminating in the drone and missile assault on the Saudi oil industry. Sensibly, he decided not to retaliate, demonstrating the new limits on America’s willingness and ability to defend its allies.

The US has lost power, but then it has a lot more to lose than Britain, which saw a much steeper decline in its potential influence in the world in 2019. This had everything to do with impending Brexit as it became clear over the course of the year that the country would indeed be leaving the EU.

It is usually argued that, given the length and complexity of the transition period, Britain will not be really leaving the EU for some time. But the formal act of leaving will have immense impact and immediately diminish British influence in the world.

This is partly because the rest of the world sees Brexit as an act of self-destructive folly, given that 45 per cent of British exports went to EU countries in 2018, compared to only 18 per cent to the US. Suddenly, the country will be without real allies for the first time for over 200 years – historians say the last such moment was during some particularly dire moment during the Napoleonic wars.

Brexit supporters who enthuse about “global Britain” have been wilfully blind to the real balance of power between Britain and the EU as revealed by the withdrawal agreement. It should be obvious that British negotiators failed to get the terms they wanted because their EU counterparts in Brussels held all the high cards.

None of this is going to change: there is something ludicrous about Boris Johnson trumpeting his triumph in reopening the withdrawal agreement when he was only able to do so by accepting the EU’s original proposal of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and deserting his DUP allies.

At the beginning of 2019, it looked possible that the whole Brexit project might falter or be carried through in a neutered form, but as next week’s general election approaches it looks increasingly inevitable. Britain will be mired in a Brexit crisis of one sort or another for the foreseeable future, trying to establish a new relationship with the EU and the US, both of whom are more powerful and capable of getting their way than the UK.

The general election will be the point of no return for Britain in the current phase of its decline. Could it be saved from self-willed and self-destructive isolation by a stronger alliance with Trump’s America? Anybody looking for an American rescue should understand that, for different reasons than Britain, the US is also in decline – and remember what just happened to the Saudis and Syrian Kurds.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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.

Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr