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Another Bush Damaged by Iraq

He just misheard the question. A basically friendly interviewer on Fox News asked Jeb Bush, now seeking the Republican nomination for the US presidency: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorised the invasion (of Iraq)?” And he replied: “I would have.” When the storm of protest, even from Republicans, swept over him, he explained that he thought the interviewer had said: “Knowing what we KNEW THEN.”

An easy mistake to make. “Know now” sounds an awful lot like “knew then”. Besides, Jeb Bush is on record as claiming that he is Hispanic (on a 2009 voter-registration application), so the poor man was struggling with his second language. If only she had asked the question in Spanish, he would have understood it perfectly.

Enough. When you listen to the entire interview, it’s clear that Bush didn’t want to say a flat “No” to her question, because that would be a condemnation of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But as soon as he could, he switched to talking about the “intelligence failures” that misled his brother into invading the wrong country. Anybody can make a mistake. So nobody’s to blame.

Hillary Clinton, currently the favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination, uses exactly the same defence. In fact, every American politician who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq at the time claims that the problem was faulty intelligence, and maybe some of them outside of the White House genuinely were misled.

But the intelligence wasn’t “faulty”; it was cooked to order. There was no plausible intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so the US intelligence services were told to “find” some. There were no Islamist terrorists in Iraq either: Saddam Hussein hunted down and killed anybody suspected of being an Islamist activist, because the Islamists wanted to kill him.

The US Central Intelligence Agency agency tried very hard to create a link between al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq. The only thing they came up with, however, was a rumour that a little-known Islamist from Jordan called Abu Musab al Zarqawi who knew Osama bin Laden had been in Baghdad receiving treatment for wounds received in Afghanistan in May-November 2002. (He was actually in Iran at that time.)

If you were on the White House staff in early 2003, you HAD to know that the “intelligence” you were using to justify the invasion of Iraq was false, because you were one of the people demanding that the spooks manufacture “evidence” for it. The decision itself had been taken even before Bush’s election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism.

The incoming Bush administration was full of people called “neo-conservatives”. They believed that the Clinton administration had failed to exploit the sole superpower status that the United States inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to put the world to
rights.

What was needed, therefore, was a display of US power that would make all the “bad guys” behave. So invade somewhere and take the local bad guy down. Iraq was the obvious choice, because it was very weak after a decade of arms embargo, and Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy.

We don’t yet know just how disastrous the invasion of Iraq was, because the damage is still accumulating. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the man who now rules “Islamic State”, the terrorist-ruled new country that occupies the easten half of Syria and the western third of Iraq, started fighting Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance in 2003.

By 2006 at the latest, he had joined the group then called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely made up of jihadis from other Arab countries who had flocked to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. And the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was none other than Abu Musab al Zarqawi – who parlayed the reputation as a major jihadi leader that the US intelligence services gave him into a real leadership position in the resistance.

Through the years that followed, that organisation gained experience in guerilla war and terrorism, and through several changes of name and leadership (Zarqawi was killed in 2006) it ultimately morphed into Islamic State. Baghdadi was with it all the way, and now styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, demanding the loyalty and obedience of all Muslims everywhere.

So we owe a lot to the “neo-cons” in George Bush’s administration who pushed for the invasion of Iraq: people like Dick Cheney (Vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Undersecretary of Defense). They just used the 9/11 attacks as a vehicle for their pre-existing Iraq invasion plans.

It was Wolfowitz, above all, who worked tirelessly to link Irak to terrorism. And guess who is the most prominent name on Jeb Bush’s current team of foreign policy advisers (apart from George W Bush himself). Why, it’s the very same Paul Wolfowitz. The problem with Jeb Bush is not the foolish answers he gives. It’s the company he keeps.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Hillary…misled”; and “The incoming…guy”)

More Anti-Terrorism Laws

Left-wing, right-wing, it makes no difference. Almost every elected government, confronted with even the slightest “terrorist threat”, responds by attacking the civil liberties of its own citizens. And the citizens often cheer them on.

Last week, the French government passed a new bill through the National Assembly that vastly expanded the powers of the country’s intelligence services. French intelligence agents will now be free to plant cameras and recording devices in private homes and cars, intercept phone conversations without judicial oversight, even install “keylogger” devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.

It was allegedly a response to the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks that killed 17 people in Paris last January, but the security services were just waiting for an excuse. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the law was needed to give a legal framework to intelligence agents who are already pursuing some of these practices illegally. France, he explained, has never “had to face this kind of terrorism in our history.”

Meanwhile, over in Canada, Defence Minister Jason Kenney was justifying a similar over-reaction in by saying that “the threat of terrorism has never been greater.” Really?

In all the time since 9/11 there had never been a terrorist attack in Canada until last October, when two Canadian soldiers were killed in separate incidents. Both were low-tech, “lone wolf” attacks by Canadian converts to Islam – in one, the murder weapon was simply a car – but the public (or at least the media) got so excited that the government felt the need to “do something.”

The Anti-Terror Act, which has just passed the Canadian House of Commons, gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the right to make “preventive” arrests in Canada. It lets police arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. The bill’s prohibitions on speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism” are so broad and vague that any extreme political opinion can be criminalised.

In short, it’s the usual smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing measures that politicians throw out when they want to look tough. It won’t do much to stop terrorist attacks, but that doesn’t matter as the threat is pretty small anyway.

France has 65,000,000 million people, and it lost 17 of them to terrorism in the past year. Canada has 36,000,000 million people, and it has lost precisely 2 of them to domestic terrorism in the past twenty years. In what way were those lives more valuable than those of the hundreds of people who die each year in France and Canada from less newsworthy crimes of violence like murder?

Why haven’t they changed the law to stop more of those crimes? If you monitored everybody’s electronic communications all the time, and bugged their homes and cars, you could probably cut the murder rate in half. The price, of course, would be that you have to live in an Orwellian surveillance state, and we’re not willing to pay that price. Not just to cut the murder rate.

The cruel truth is that we put a higher value on the lives of those killed in terrorist attacks because they get more publicity. That’s why, in an opinion poll last month, nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism – and the French parliament passed the new security law by 438 votes to 86.

The government in France is Socialist, but the opposition centre-right supported the new law too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada is seriously right-wing, but the centre-right Liberals were equally unwilling to risk unpopularity by opposing it. On the other hand, the centre-left New Democrats and the Greens voted against, and the vote was closer in Canada: 183 to 96.

And the Canadian public, at the start 82 percent in favour of the new law, had a rethink during the course of the debate. By the time the Anti-Terror Act was passed in the House of Commons, 56 percent of Canadians were against it. Among Canadians between 18 and 34 years old, fully three-quarters opposed it.

Maybe the difference just reflects the smaller scale of the attacks in Canada, but full credit to Canadians for getting past the knee-jerk phase of their response to terrorism. Nevertheless, their parliament still passed the bill. So should we chalk all this up as two more victories for the terrorists, with an honourable mention for the Canadian public?

No, not really. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and all the other jihadis don’t give a damn if Western democracies mutilate their own freedoms, as it doesn’t significantly restrict their own operations. The only real winners are the security forces.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…rate”)

China’s Quarter-Century

The picture of the two Asian giants that most people carry around in their heads shows China racing ahead economically while India bumbles along, falling ever further behind. People even talk about the 21st century as “China’s Century”, just as they called the 20th century the American Century. But it may turn out to be only China’s Quarter-Century.

The headline economic news this year is that India’s economy is growing faster than China’s. Not much faster yet, according to the official figures – a 7.5 percent annual rate for India vs. 7.4 percent for China – but there is good reason to suspect that the real Chinese growth rate is considerably lower than that.

Anybody who goes to both countries can see that India has a huge amount of catching up to do. The contrast in infrastructure is especially striking: China has 100,000 km of expressways (freeways, motorways); India has only 1,000 km. But the differences in income and productivity are also very big: Gross Domestic Product per capita in China is between three and five times higher than in India, depending on how you calculate it.

But that is a snapshot of now. It was very different thirty-five years ago, when per capita income in India was still higher than it was in China. It was then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1978 to open up the Chinese economy that unleashed the spectacular economic growth rates of the recent past, and an economy growing at ten percent a year doubles in size every seven years.

That means (allowing for a little slippage) that the Chinese economy has grown more than twentyfold since 1978. That’s why it is so far ahead now. India’s growth rate was a quite respectable three or four percent for most of that period, but that gave the Indian economy a doubling time of around twenty years, so it has only grown around threefold during the whole period. India is not chronically poorer than China. It just missed that particular bus.

The next bus has now arrived: India actually could catch up with China if its economic growth rate is now really surging ahead of China’s. There is good reason to believe that it is, because China’s declared growth rate for this year is pure fiction.

China avoided the global recession after the 2008 crash by opening the credit taps to full and embarking on the largest spending spree on infrastructure (roads, housing, railways and airports) that the world has ever seen. But capitalist economies cannot avoid recessions forever. The country is now full of empty apartment buildings, the private debt load has doubled in five years – and the recession is coming.

More than that, China’s period of high-speed growth was probably always going to be limited. Japan enjoyed a quarter-century of ten percent annual growth in 1955-80 and became, for a while, the world’s second-biggest economy. But once its per capita income reached developed-world levels, the growth rate dropped down to developed-world levels too: between two and four percent. (Now it’s almost nothing.)

In fact, all the East Asian economies (except North Korea, of course) have followed the same pattern: a lengthy burst of ultra-high-speed growth, followed by a fall to the developed-state norm once a certain level of prosperity has been achieved. South Korea and Taiwan both did it – and then subsided to a growth rate not very different from that of the United States.

China has also had its quarter-century of ten percent growth, and it is probably over. The official figure for economic growth last year was still over seven percent, but the less easily manipulated numbers for rail freight, electricity production and bank lending suggest that the real growth rate was only around three percent. That is to say, less than half of India’s.

The other thing that will hold China back in future is a steady fall in the population of working age. India’s birth rate is still 2.7 children per woman (though it’s falling fast). China’s is at most 1.7, and the one-child policy means that it may even be lower than that. So fewer and fewer young Chinese are entering the work-force, whereas there will be no shortage of young Indians.

India’s total population will overtake China’s in less than five years (they are both around 1.3 billion), and after that the gap will steadily widen. While China’s population shrinks and its economic growth slows, India is only now entering the golden quarter-century of high-speed economic growth. In 25 years’ time, India may be back in the position it occupied for most of the past two thousand years: the biggest economy in Asia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9 (“In fact…States”)

Democracy Stalls in Burma

There was supposed to be a referendum in Burma this month. It would have addressed all the cynical clauses that the military regime wrote into the 2008 constitution to safeguard its own hold on power. But that isn’t going to happen: not now, and probably not before the national election that is due in October or November of this year. There are even people in Burma who wonder whether the election itself will be held on time.

“I would just like to remind you,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, for almost thirty years the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, “that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism (about the army’s real intentions) would be very, very good.” Speaking to The Guardian newspaper last month, she warned that “too many of our Western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process.”

She certainly got that right. Since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, her supporters abroad (who include most leaders of democratic countries) have assumed that democratic reforms were well underway. So they ended the sanctions against the military regime, and their citizens swarmed into Burma to invest in an almost completely undeveloped economy.

China and other non-democratic countries piled in too, of course, and an enormous economic boom is transforming Burma. Foreign investors have profited mightily, and ex-generals and other people with close ties to the military have benefited even more. There is even a more or less free press. But democracy? Not so much.

Former general Thein Sein is still president, and a parliament controlled by military officers and regime supporters remains in place. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will doubtless win most of the seats if the election is actually held next autumn, but the constitution written by the military bars her from the presidency on the ludicrous ground that her two sons are foreign citizens. (Her late husband was British.)

That is one of the reasons why changing the constitution has become a key issue. Another is the provision that gives unelected military officers one-quarter of the seats in parliament, which gives them a veto on any changes to the constitution. The regime did not really decide to hand power over to the civilians; it made just enough cosmetic changes to convince foreigners that it was now acceptable to invest in Burma.

A large majority of ordinary Burmese revere Aung San Suu Kyi (she is the daughter of independence hero Aung San), and five million of them signed a petition asking for an end to the constitutional ban on her being chosen as president. The regime simply ignored it, and it looks like it is getting away with it. The foreign investment just keeps coming.

The referendum on constitutional changes is in the hands of the current parliament, which is packed with regime supporters who were elected in a vote boycotted by the NLD. It was originally promised for this month, but no date has yet been announced. Neither has anybody revealed exactly which of the 201 sections of the constitution where changes were proposed will actually be put to a vote.

Which of the eight versions of a new clause about Suu Kyi’s eligibility for the presidency will be in the referendum, if it actually happens? Nobody knows, and it is basically the regime that will choose. Maybe none of them will. And it is now practically certain that the autumn election will be held under the old constitution.

It is possible that Thein Sein, the current president, is really trying to get his more recalcitrant military colleagues to accept democratic reforms and is just meeting a lot of resistance. The military have had absolute control of Burma for the past fifty-three years, after all, and a lot of them have got very rich out of it. But Thein Sein actually doesn’t sound like he’s very eager for full democracy himself.

In an interview with the BBC in March, he insisted that the army must remain active in politics – “Serving the interests of the people means being involved in national politics” – and that the role of the military would only change gradually “as the political parties mature in their political norms and practice.” In other words, the army itself will decide if and when to stop running the whole show.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the military will cling to power for as long as possible, but it is remarkable how the foreign supporters of democracy in Burma have gone along with the pretense. US President Barack Obama, for example, has visited Burma twice since 2012, but the harshest thing he had to say was that “I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are.”

It’s probably too late to reinstate sanctions now, so the Burmese are effectively on their own. The only recourse that might work is massive non-violent protests of the sort that happened in 1988 and several times since. The trouble with that is that the Burmese army has never been reluctant to shoot its own fellow citizens.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 12. (“A large…coming”; “Which…constitution”; and “Perhaps…are”)