Armed militias, the wild west and bags of loot

There are rival armed militias, each with a propensity for violence against unarmed civilians, that control different portions of territory. They get word that a huge shipment of money is coming into their turf. The bags of money will be deposited at a location right in the middle of disputed territory. The haul will be transported in due course, so the gangs start fighting each other for influence, determined to oust their rivals and capture the lucrative prize destined for their city. Sounds like a scenario from the American Wild West around the 1880s? Actually, this is Libya in December 2011.

The Guardian reported on December 17 that rival armed gangs are battling for control over the runways at Tripoli airport? Why? Because the United Nations, having recently released £100 billion pounds worth of Libyan assets previously frozen in order to oust the Qadhafi regime, includes an immediate shipment of newly printed currency. Several billion dinars worth of new money is arriving on five cargo planes at Tripoli airport. Whoever seizes control of the airport will be able to impose huge fees to make the newly minted currency available to the National Transitional Council. While the airport at Tripoli is controlled by a militia from Zintan, a town that saw heavy fighting against the Qadhafi loyalist troops, the main rival and ostensibly national army of the National Transitional Council is determined to gain control. Previous attempts to take the airport by the ‘national’ army have been rebuffed, but this consignment of cash is a large, highly remunerative temptation too sweet to resist.

The future does not look promising for Libya; as the Guardian reports,

“the fight to control the airport is part of a far wider battle for political and economic dominance in the new Libya; one that pits the various factions who united to overthrow the Gaddafi regime against each other, as well as remnants of the dictator’s defeated military.”

The battle over the airport is only one aspect of a brewing political battle over the future direction of Libya’s new regime. The National Transitional Council faces mass protests across the country, and can hardly exert its control outside its own base in Benghazi. While there is a ‘national’ army in name, formed back in February 2011 in Benghazi, most of this army is composed of Qadhafi-era generals. The bulk of the Libyan army remained loyal to Qadhafi. The militias in Zintan, Misrata and other cities are able to continue their operations thanks to generous assistance and support from the NATO powers.

In a telling comment from the Guardian article, the National Transitional Council,

“refuses to say who its members are, or even how many there are. Although it appointed a cabinet last month, policy decisions are taken inside what amounts to a black box. Meetings are held in secret, voting records are not published, and decisions are announced by irregular television broadcasts.”

That sounds highly reminiscent of Mussolini’s Italy.

The entire ‘Libyan scramble’ article is well worth reading.

And just to add to the revelations about the character of the National Transitional Council and its rule in Libya; the NTC is now open to hiring mercenaries to enforce its rule over Tripoli and other parts of the country according to the UPI press. To make absolutely clear exactly whom will be protected by any mercenaries (euphemistically labeled security companies), here is the explanatory quote from the UPI article – “The main focus of the security companies is Libya’s oil industry.”

Old poison in new bottles – when scoundrels combine their venom

With Europe engulfed in an economic crisis that threatens to bring down the eurozone, and possibly shrink the European Union itself, it is noteworthy to see that some people are doing well out of this crisis – very well in fact. The capitalist system is lurching from crisis to crisis, and while the political Left and socialist parties have experienced some growth from the widespread disaffection with the imploding capitalist system, it is the extreme Right that is also benefiting from the generalised economic malaise.

Marine Le Pen, daughter of the racist founder of the National Front in France Jean Marie Le Pen, has been credited with a surge in popularity for the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee party. The Guardian newspaper reports that Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic party, has brought a softer, gentler image to the party, in contrast to the blunt, brusque tone of the founding father, Jean Marie. She is currently a presidential candidate, and while she has toned down the hardline rhetoric, the program of the National Front remains the same – ceasing all immigration, particularly from the Arab and Muslim countries, glorifying the rabidly racist anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Vichy regime of France during World War Two, and a melange of populist patriotism and state regulation of French industries. Vichy France was responsible for the deportation and subsequent deaths of thousands of Jews, and upheld conservative French patriotism, replacing the French Republican-era slogan of Liberty, ‘Equality, Fraternity’ with ‘Labour, Family, Fatherland’.  Vichy was notorious for its anti-immigrant xenophobia, directed particularly against the Jews, the personality cult surrounding its leader Marshal Henri Petain, and its suppression of democratic liberties, including the repression of trade unions and organised labour.

Marine Le Pen is effective is promoting her message, and is winning sympathy from those suffering under the capitalist economic crisis. The Muslim community has replaced the role of the Jews in the National Front’s ideology – a supposedly alien, dark, potentially traitorous element working within French society to undermine and eventually conquer it. But the anti-Semitic prejudice is never far from the surface. One of the tactics that the racist Right in Europe has used to combat its exclusion from the mainstream as a ‘fringe’ party is take up seemingly ‘respectable’ causes, thus recovering from its tarnished image. Europe’s anti-immigrant political parties needed to ‘mainstream’ themselves, and find a brand name that would win them credibility. Well, they have done just that – support for the Zionist state of Israel.

Antony Loewenstein, an independent Australian journalist and blogger, has an excellent article documenting the purportedly strange bedfellows of European anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant politicians, and the Zionist state of Israel. Today’s new demon, Loewenstein says, is the Islamic community, and the far-Right has found a new theme to tap into. Earlier this year, a Russian neo-fascist organisation sent a delegation on a visit to the Israeli state. The Russian neo-fascists and holocaust deniers were met by politicians from the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The Russian delegates were reportedly impressed by the resolve of the Zionist movement, its dedication to creating an ethnically pure Jewish state, and the common recognition of a new enemy in the midst; Islam.  One member of the delegation bloviated that ‘radical Islam’ was an enemy of democracy, of humanity and progress.’ This was hardly a one-off incident.

Supporters of the extremist and racist Dutch politician Geert Wilders have expressed their warmest support for Israel, particularly in combating the Palestinian ‘terrorists’ and Islamic communities. Loewenstein explains that a collection of Europe’s anti-immigrant politicians from Belgium, Sweden and other countries visited Israel back in December 2010, where they visited Yad Vashem.  The Norweigan killer Anders Breivik expounded on his admiration for the Zionist state of Israel, and denounced the ‘failing’ of multiculturalism in Europe. No wonder that Breivik regarded himself as a friend of an apartheid state – the ruling circles in Zionist Israel are also striving to create an exclusively Jewish state, building settlements on occupied Palestinian land, corralling and expelling the Palestinian population from their homeland. The Zionist leaders, while condemning the Utoya killings, have long claimed that Islam is an alien presence, that undermines the harmony of any Western society.

That mindset corresponds with the statements by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, that multiculturalism has failed in Europe, and the main consequence of this failing is the alleged creeping ‘Islamization’ of European society. While the actions of Breivik have been roundly condemned, the ideology that spawned his violent behaviour continues to be nourished. No wonder that the anti-immigrant Right finds sympathetic voters in Europe, and extends its support to the efforts by Israel to create a society that negates ethnic integration between Jews and Arabs. Loewenstein links to a thankfully sane article in Haaretz that demands Israeli leaders strongly reject Marine Le Pen and the European far Right. Let’s not hold our collective breath for that to happen though.

Richard Seymour, in a thoughtful article on the ABC’s The Drum, related an incident whereby a group of unionised journalists prevented the rancid and splashy tabloid paper Daily Star from printing an egregiously racist anti-Muslim article. This action holds the key for a wider solution – to overcome the competitive sectarianism fostered by the mainstreaming of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant hatred, we need a multiethnic fightback, where all of us, the ethnically diverse working class, unites to fight off the racist attacks of the corporate mainstream. The trade unions have slowly and sadly abandoned a fightback approach, and instead chosen a conciliatory avenue, simply accepting whatever crumbs might fall from the corporate table. A cross-ethnic, united approach to fight for the rights and conditions taken away by the ever-predatory corporate-financial class can overcome the racial and ethnic divisions that are worsened by a capitalist economic crisis.

Predictions, obstructed justice and ten years of war

The Washington Post, the highly influential American newspaper, reported that the top US general in Afghanistan predicted that the Taliban would collapse as a viable fighting militia over the next several months, and eventually accept the offer of national reconciliation from the US-supported Afghan government. This confident prediction was backed up by a note of caution; the general warned that the Taliban could still strike. But he was optimistic about the ‘progress’ of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. There is just one thing to note about this report; this prediction was made in April 2005. This month marks ten years since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the Afghan war shows no signs of abating.

Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, remarked that after ten years of attacking impoverished Afghanistan, this war remains repulsive. Rather than making the world safe from terrorism, or crushing the terrorist training camps where the September 11 hijackers were supported (the stated reason for invading Afghanistan), the Afghan war has not only destabilised the region, it has embittered a new generation of young Afghanis against the United States, stoking the fires of anti-American hatred. The US has been fighting there not for the fake liberation of women, but to impose its exclusive military control over a region well-known for its petroleum and energy resources. Malalai Joya, a feminist activist and former parliamentarian in the Afghan National Assembly stated that Australia’s participation in this barbarous war is only making things worse in her country.

Afghanistan is rapidly becoming the host of a permanent US military garrison, with at least 700 US military bases in that country. This programme of building bases is rarely commented upon, but it is the platform on which the US occupation of Afghanistan depends. The base that is most heard about, if at all, is Bagram air field, the site where detainees are routinely tortured and brutalised by American soldiers. The Bagram airbase houses a secret prison, where suspected insurgents, and their families, and anyone unlucky enough to be arrested in the other decade long war, the ‘war on terror’ are detained and tortured. Some two-thirds of the prisoners held there have not been charged with any crime, and corruption in the Afghan police is rampant, the Truth-Out article documents. Bagram is becoming known as the ‘other Guantanamo’, the evil twin of the secret prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The United Nations has documented the systematic abuse and torture of detainees in Afghanistan’s prisons. The fledgling Afghan national army and police are being trained and mentored by US and Canadian troops, and the teachers are passing on their skills to the students. It is interesting to note that when the Soviets were in Afghanistan, propping up the socialist government of the 1980s, one of the main reasons the West cited for opposing the Soviet-backed regime was its (real or alleged) torture and imprisonment of political opponents by the Soviet-trained Afghan secret police.

The US war on Afghanistan, one of the main planks of the so-called ‘war on terror’ has aided the steady erosion of democratic safeguards and civil liberties over the last decade. Even basic legal principles, the right to a fair trial, habeas corpus, have all been violated by both the Bush and Obama administrations. The Bush regime declared that the doctrine of preemptive war would now apply – that means the US state has allocated to itself the right to plan and wage war on any nation or force that it deems hostile to its interests. This is a recipe for unrestricted warfare that was first advocated by the Hitler regime in World War Two; a doctrine outlawed by the subsequent Nuremberg trials. Obama has not only retained this doctrine of preemptive war, but expanded upon it. The ostensibly ‘anti-war’ politician of 2008 has escalated the militarisation of US foreign policy, and that is nowhere more evident than in Afghanistan. In his first two years of office. Obama has dramatically increased the number of unmanned drone strikes, the computerised warfare that is doing so much harm to Afghan civilians. Obama has authorised nearly four times the number of drone strikes in his first term of office than Bush sanctioned during his two terms in office. Obama the former law professor has become Obama the international war criminal and sponsor of state-approved terrorism.

Under this ‘war on terror’ title, Bush and Obama have created and vastly expanded the Department of Homeland Security, the hub of a police state apparatus. This police state structure and mentality is being used against anyone that the US regime deems a threat to its interests. The logical outcome of this martial-law ideology is the US-sanctioned assassination of its citizens abroad, and that is what happened to the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The extra-judicial murder of Awlaki, however repugnant his ideology, is the kind of behaviour that demonstrates to the people of the Middle East that the United States is a hypocritical power, professing liberty and respect for the rule of law, while violating liberty and carrying out acts of terrorism.

In 1985, after five or six years of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, Gorbachev began to ask serious questions about the viability of maintaining such a high level of Soviet presence in that country. By that year, the Afghan communist government was still fighting an anti-communist, Islamic fundamentalist insurgency. Rodric Braithwaite, author of the recent book Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, documents the strident debates within the Soviet Communist party’s leadership about whether to continue militarily supporting the Afghan communist regime, or seek some sort of negotiated political solution with the Afghan jihadist insurgency. From the late 1970s, the American government, the CIA and the associated intelligence community, began financing and training Islamist militias, the former landlords and mullahs that had been dispossessed by the Afghan communist government to fight and expel the godless socialists. The Islamic militants, composed of an assortment of warlords, drug traffickers, reactionary mullahs and tribal chiefs, were opposed to the reforms initiated by the socialist government.

Michael Parenti, an American political scientist, elaborated on how the Afghan socialist government, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) undertook extensive reforms in the country, introducing schooling for girls, a literacy campaign, education for women, legalising labour unions and seizing the large landed estates from the minority landlord class and redistributing them among the poor peasants. The Soviets had been assisting the PDPA government in launching agricultural projects, establishing health care clinics, and providing a secular education system. It took repeated requests by the PDPA government to Moscow before the Soviet leadership finally agreed to send in troops in late 1979. These collectivist policies angered the elites in Washington, Islamabad and Riyadh.

There were factional disputes that plagued the PDPA government, and these divisions harmed their cause. There were human rights violations, and the PDPA regime did use force against its opponents. But it also provided a standard of living for its people that has been unmatched by any subsequent Afghan non-communist government. The US sensed the opportunity, and they organised an anti-socialist jihad through their proxies in Islamabad and Riyadh. As Parenti explains “The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical mujahideen from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself.  Among those who answered the call was Saudi-born millionaire right-winger Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.”

When the PDPA government finally abandoned Kabul in 1992, the former mujahideen factions began a civil war, fighting among themselves and devastating Kabul and the major cities in the process. The civilian population was terrorised, cities looted and burned, raping and killing Afghan women and girls, and returning the population to a regime of misogyny and servitude. The Islamist guerrillas were from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, and they began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, targeting the minority communities, such as the Hazaras and Tajiks. Heroin production began to escalate soon after the arrival of the main mujahideen factions in Kabul. Out of this cauldron came the ideological progenitors of Al Qaeda. The current US-backed regime of Hamid Karzai, traces its ideological ancestry to the fanatical US-sponsored mujahideen militias of the 1980s. The assembled coalition of tribal chieftains, narco-traffickers, and fundamentalist warlords that comprise the bulk of the Karzai regime do not care one whit about democracy or women’s rights.

Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University and author of the fascinating book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the cold war and the roots of terror documents how the American military-industrial complex financed and supported an anticommunist jihad for political objectives. As the disparate Islamist groups fought each other for control of Afghanistan after 1992, they devastated the country and could not form a politically stable, unified political authority to run the country. The former paymasters in Washington and Islamabad began to cast around for another force that could stabilise the country and effectively govern. As Mamdani explains, the Taliban were born ‘from the agony and the ashes of the war against the Soviet Union.’ A ‘talib‘, or student, studying in a madrassah – a religious school – was a prime recruit for the new army to be raised by Washington and Islamabad for the fundamentalist cause. Throughout the madrassas of Pakistan, religious students were recruited and trained by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. Many of them were refugees from Afghanistan, longing to return to their homeland. Promoting a Saudi-style purist, misogynist and ultra-reactionary ideology, the Taliban was born with a political mission and religious zeal.

In January 2011, Canadian activist Michael Skinner published a thoughtful article in the Socialist Worker that explains the strong financial and military motivations for the current US war in Afghanistan. After examining the history of foreign interventions in that country, Skinner explains that US policy planners recognise Afghanistan as a crucial bridgehead for confronting the main regional competitors for economic influence, Russia and China. Most of the economic development projects in Afghanistan are geared towards accommodating the influence and investments of private corporations, particularly energy companies. Rather than liberating Afghans, the purpose of this war is to liberate capital. As Skinner observes ‘If nothing else, the Global War on Terror opened Afghanistan for business.’ Back in November-December 2001, Lance Selfa, feature writer for the International Socialist Review, elaborated three basic goals of the US ruling class in Central Asia; projecting US military power into the area, undermining Russian and Chinese competition thus gaining greater access to the Caspian Sea’s vast oil and natural gas reserves, and increasing the US domination of the Middle East. These objectives remain the same until today. Afghanistan is geographically at the crossroads of a region that holds enormous energy resources. Establishing a secure pro-US regime in Afghanistan serves as the launching pad for further US incursions in Central Asia.

Ten years into this war, where are the American politicians with the same courage and foresight that Gorbachev had in his day? Are there American politicians asking the difficult and serious questions about the Afghan war? The one politician who has been asking pointed questions about the US debacle in Afghanistan, Dennis Kucinich, is a lonely voice in the US Congress. His plan to quickly withdraw foreign forces from Afghanistan was strongly rejected and voted down by the ideologically monolithic – ‘bipartisan’ is the euphemism – US congress.

Malalai Joya, the courageous and principled Afghan feminist, has written in her book Raising My Voice that all foreign troops must leave immediately. The warlords must be disarmed and their political rule ended. The US tactics in this war of night-raids, aerial bombardment and bribery of insurgent commanders to defect has only escalated the violence and created a climate of rampant corruption. All countries, the US, Russia, China and others, must cease peddling armaments to the various factions of warlords. It is this constant flow of arms that makes political life in Afghanistan a fatal enterprise. Empowering the democratic-minded and secular parties is the way to combat the influence of fundamentalism.

After ten years of escalating violence and destruction, and with Obama extending the war into Pakistan transforming this war into an ‘Af-Pak’ conflict, it is time to acknowledge that this is an unwinnable war. More than that, it has needlessly destroyed lives and caused untold misery to millions. It is time to mobilise political opposition to this war, and prosecute the war criminal politicians, like Obama, who are responsible for intensifying it.

Walking out, Ahmadinejad’s speech, Obama and the stench of hypocrisy

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known to stir controversy, and make provocative speeches to the United Nations. He did not disappoint last month, when he made a blistering attack on the United States government and the associated NATO countries. The delegations from several European Union (EU) countries stormed out of the UN forum, as well as the US and Israeli delegations. What does walking out of the United Nations achieve? Nothing – if anything, it only demonstrated that Ahmadinejad struck a raw nerve. You can read the full text of Ahmadinejad’s speech and decide for yourself.

Conspiracy-mongering

It is true that Ahmadinejad has dabbled with various conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11 attacks. He called those attacks ‘mysterious’. Ahmadinejad accused the western powers of hypocrisy and deceit, alleging that “They tolerate no question or criticism, and instead of presenting a reason for their violations, they always put themselves in the position of a claimant. By using their imperialistic media network which is under the influence of colonialism they threaten anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 event with sanctions and military action.” But the main thrust of his rebuke was political – he criticized the use of September 11 by the United States as the pretext to launch wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are part of the larger US strategy to dominate the Middle East for financial and military advantage. A very legitimate criticism of a political superpower was met with a walkout by the US delegation.

It took the terrorist group al-Qaeda itself to respond decisively to Ahmadinejad’s conspiracy-mongering, telling the Iranian president to cease his ridiculous claims. Why did not the United States respond decisively, presenting the evidence of al-Qaeda’s guilt before the international community at the United Nations? In fact, why did the United States quietly murder the main perpetrator of the September 11 atrocities and dispose of the body so quickly?

There was another world leader who poignantly asked “I want to call on the governments of the world to reflect: since September 11th, 2001, a new and unprecedented imperialist war began, a permanent war, in perpetuity. We have to look directly at the terrifying reality of the world we live in. It is necessary to ask a series of questions on the basis of the risks and threats we face: Why is the United States the only country that scatters the planet with military bases? What is it afraid of to allocate such a staggering budget for increasing its military power? Why has it unleashed so many wars, violating the sovereignty of other nations which have the same rights on their own fates?” That world leader was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who also spoke at the United Nations. Chavez elaborated on the main danger to humanity today; “the absolute power of the military-financial leadership which is destroying the world in order to accumulate ever more profits; the military-financial leadership which is subordinated, de facto, to an increasingly larger group of States. Keep in mind that war is capital’s modus operandi: the war that ruins the majority and makes richer, up to the unthinkable, a few people.” Exactly.

Dabbling at the edges

Yes, Ahmadinejad has flirted at the edges of holocaust denial. He is too clever to deny the holocaust outright, but he gives credence to those who would deny its veracity. Ahmadinejad played host to a conference in 2006 which questioned the historicity of the holocaust. He hosted various anti-semites and holocaust deniers and provided them with a platform of respectability. The Iranian foreign minister at the time, Manochehr Mottaki, stated that the conference did not seek to deny the holocaust, but only to provide a forum in which a serious historical issue could be debated freely by historians. Well they are fine sentiments, because those were the exact points of view expressed by the foreign ministers of various European countries in 2005 and 2006 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the anti-Islamic, Muhammad-mocking cartoons which were purportedly intended to promote debate about important historical and social issues. Perhaps Ahmadinejad’s 2006 conference was his own, deliberately provocative response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons affair and the controversy it generated.

In his 2011 speech to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad did not deny the holocaust – he lambasted the abuse of that terrible genocide by the Israeli and US governments to drum up political and financial support for the Zionist state. He stated that “If some European countries still use the Holocaust, after six decades, as the excuse to pay fine or ransom to the Zionists, should it not be an obligation upon the slave masters or colonial powers to pay reparations to the affected nations?” Once again, he made a strident, pointed political criticism of today’s major powers. He made that comment in the context of attacking the huge military budgets of the NATO powers, while there is so much poverty, hunger and rising inequalities that condemn millions of people to a life of needless and avoidable suffering. Ahmadinejad said the following “Approximately, three billion people of the world live on less than 2.5 dollars a day, and over a billion people live without having even one sufficient meal on a daily basis. Forty-percent of the poorest world populations only share five percent of the global income, while twenty percent of the richest people share seventy-five percent of the total global income.” How is walking out of the United Nations going to address these criticisms?

Zionism, Palestine and religion

Unsurprisingly, Ahmadinejad criticised Zionism and the state of Israel. He castigated the ideology of Zionism, and made one passing reference to the Palestinian people. He completely ignored the main issue dominating the discussions at the United Nations – the quest by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the recognition of Palestinian statehood. No mention of the illegal Israeli settlements, the ongoing blockade of Gaza (though partially lifted by Egypt), the Arab spring uprisings that have brought hope and morale to the long-suppressed Arab people. Hardly a stout defence of the Palestinians by the supposedly pro-Palestinian Iranian president. Ahmadinejad is worried by the example of the Arab spring; the courageous and ongoing uprisings by the Egyptians, Yemenis, Bahrainis and so on against regimes that imprison and torture dissidents. The Iranian government has a long and notorious history of jailing labour activists and dissidents.

Ahmadinejad’s speech was infused with a religious world-view, and he made frequent invocations to a divine creator. The Iranian government is theocratic, and all aspects of state legislation are vetted by reactionary mullahs to ensure that political life remains strictly governed by religion. Secular people are attacked by the thugs of the ‘revolutionary’ militia, book stalls and publishing outlets advocating a secular humanist viewpoint are intimidated and shut down. The all-pervasive influence of religion in political and public life is hardly confined to Iran. There is one big country where religion (at least one version of it) exerts a profound influence on the political process, especially when selecting candidates to run for political office. That country is the United States, and this extremist rightwing political-religious movement seeks to impose its own brand of a Christian theocracy should it successfully place candidates in political office. It is not just politics that is under threat – education and public life would be subject to rampant and organised ignorance should the Christian fundamentalist movement gain ever-greater political clout.

Obama’s arrogant hypocrisy

Obama’s speech to the United Nations, full of empty bombast and arrogant pretensions, did nothing to address the substantive issues facing the international community. While referring to peace, he did not posit any concrete proposals for addressing the world’s problems. Instead, ignoring the plight of the Palestinians, he made vague statements about how ‘there are no shortcuts to peace’. Indeed, for the last twenty years (even longer), the Palestinians have been asking for statehood. He presented both the Israeli and Palestinian sides as equals, having ‘legitimate aspirations.’ Obama’s presentation of both sides as ‘equals’ reeks of hypocrisy and a kind of historical denial. Nowhere did he mention the continuing illegal settlements and land annexations, the displacement of millions of Palestinian refugees, the ongoing siege of Gaza and the deliberate immiseration of Palestinians living in Gaza.

Not only did Obama refuse to support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, he also failed to mention the 1967 borders, a reference that Obama made back in May this year which attracted heavy criticism from Israel and the American Republican party. Obama was in denial mode; denial that the Palestinians lived under occupation, that Israel has waged expansionist wars against the neighbouring Arab countries, that millions of Palestinians are still languishing in refugee camps. Just for good measure, he stated that the alliance with Israel is ‘unshakable.’ He spent the remainder of his time at the United Nations strong-arming other countries to drop their support for the Palestinian President’s bid for statehood.

Obama did make reference to the Arab Spring, and this measure demonstrates Obama’s rank hypocrisy. He paid ‘tribute’ to the people of Egypt and Tunisia, even though in both cases these regimes were armed to the teeth and supported by the United States until the final moments of their respective uprisings. No mention of the United States’ current measures to prop up the faltering dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen as the pro-democracy demonstrators are faced with American-made guns, tear gas and bullets. Obama’s reference to Libya and the NATO intervention there had the undertone of a threat – the ‘see what happened to Libya, we can do that to you’ connotation. No mention of the fact that the Qadhafi regime had become a solid ally of the US, Britain, France and western countries, opening up to foreign corporations, had cooperated with the CIA in the rendition of terrorism suspects, and had backed the US ‘war on terror’ since its inception in 2001. While declaring the Bahrain was a ‘close friend’ of the US, he made lukewarm remarks about seeking a negotiated solution for that country’s political problems.

Was there a walkout when Obama addressed the United Nations? No. Why this hypocritical, theatrical walkout when a right-wing, populistic demagogic despot like Ahmadinejad speaks, but only half-hearted but polite applause when the leader of the largest imperial power on earth makes a blustery speech, contemptuously dismissing the just demands of the international community? The walkout by EU member states, the delegates of the US and Israel while Ahmadinejad was speaking reeked of a contrived, hypocritical outrage. It was more about playing up to the cameras, much like in a bad soap-opera, rather than seriously addressing the issues that Ahmadinejad raised. Directly confronting his charges would have been the more political constructive, effective way to oppose the Iranian president’s remarks.

Obama’s meaningless posturing as a peacemaker only masks the deepening economic crisis facing the capitalist system, and he has no solutions to advocate. President Chavez took to the same podium, and spoke of the need for a multi-polar world, where no single power can impose its will on the rest. He spoke of the need for a new economic and social order, one that would place people’s needs before corporate profits. We would do well to heed his words.

Long reach of the Afghan war

News earlier this week that former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated by a Taliban suicide bomber prompted reactions ranging from shock and grief to resolution and determination. Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber in his home, the bomber having hidden the explosives in his turban.Rabbani had been a major adviser to the Karzai regime, and had been involved in the purported peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

The media reactions to his killing emphasized his role as a peacemaker, a wise political leader and man of vision. However, we would do well to remember that Burhanuddin Rabbani was the political leader throughout the 1980s of the CIA-supported mujahideen militias that fought the socialist government and Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Rabbani represented the mullahs that wished to stop education for young girls, force women out of paid employment and return them to the home, impose a rigid ideological orthodoxy that tolerated no opposition, that sanctioned the murder and torture of secular-minded and socialist people, and restoring the privileges and wealth of the landlord class that had been ousted by the communist government. The socialist government had cancelled the debts of the poorest peasants, and established cheap, low-interest rate loans for agricultural workers which undercut the usurious practices of the richest landlords. All these measures were reversed by Rabbani when the latter came to power in 1992.

Here is Rabbani with one of his friends from the 1980s;

Rabbani visiting his paymaster in 1986

Rabbani was the first political leader into Kabul in 1992 after the Afghan socialist government abandoned power. The mujahideen militias then turned their guns on each other from 1992 until 1996 when they were driven out by the Taliban. During that time, women were forcibly velied, the archaeological treasures of Afghanistan were looted, the educational institutions deteriorated, medical and health systems collapsed and there was a mass exodus of refugees from Kabul and the major cities that had been relatively untouched through the 1980s Soviet period. Rabbani was a fanatical psychopath responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans and the reversal of a relatively liberalised, secular society.

His murder was portrayed in the media as a blow to the peace process; however, the reality much more complex. As Stephen Grey of the Guardian newspaper points out, the vaunted peace process is actually more about lulling the Taliban into relaxing their guard, bribing their commanders to change sides, and generally stall for time as US and British forces continue hitting the Afghan population with night-time raids, unmanned drone strikes and carrying out this war of attrition against Taliban militants. Make no mistake, the Taliban are hurting; they are losing people, but they are responding with high-profile attacks and assassinations, the latest being the killing of Rabbani. The US and British forces in Afghanistan seem to have only one tactic for defeating the Taliban – encouraging defections through bribery.

The Taliban are most definitely a bunch of crazed, fanatical killers – there is no doubt about that. The suicide bombing of Rabbani is only the latest terrorist outrage carried out by the Taliban foot-soldiers. But sympathy for Rabbani is tempered when remembering the role he played in leading Afghanistan into its current deplorable situation. As we reach the tenth-anniversary of the current Afghan war, there is no end in sight to that conflict. The Obama administration has basically escalated that war, deepening America’s quagmire resulting in more deaths and new levels of violence. The Afghan war has nothing to do with liberating its people, but rather imposing US designs for military and economic dominance in the region.

A blank cheque for endless war

Near where I live in Sydney, there is a war memorial commemorating all those people from the area that died serving the Australian armed forces in wars overseas. There are columns for each war Australians have participated in, followed by the names of those that never returned. For instance, there are columns for World War One (1914-1918), World War Two (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-53), and also the International Campaign against Terrorism (2001 – ). You notice that last one? Unlike the others, the war on terror has no end date.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11 prompted justified outrage at the perpetrators and sympathy for their victims. Since then, there has been a continuous barrage of war crimes, an escalation of US wars in the Middle East, new offensives against Iraq and Afghanistan by the US imperial power, and a steady erosion of democratic civil liberties in the name of a ‘war on terror.’ In fact, the first decade of the 2000s can rightly be called the savage decade. The Bush/Cheney administration seized upon September 11 as an opportunity to implement imperial designs that long predate the actual terrorist attacks. As Anthony Arnove documents, senior national security staff were directed by Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser and later secretary of state, to capitalise on the opportunities for the US to reshape the world, implement regime change, and redesign significant portions of the globe for US imperial interests. The September 11 tragedy has become a blank cheque, a banner under which US war planners have justified their imperial interventions to a sceptical public.

The US has been carrying out war crimes in the name of September 11. It is a terrible, perverse usage of the tragedy to whip up public sentiment to commission crimes that have more in common with the doctrine motivating the perpetrators of September 11. As Robert Jensen, journalism professor at the University of Texas points out, there was no doubt that the Bush/Cheney administration was going to use 9/11 as an excuse to launch all-out wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. There was no illusion that the Bush/Cheney cabal were fanatical imperialists and racists, dedicated on demonstrating to the world that the US empire was on the war path. What is now becoming apparent is that the Obama administration is following practically the same course, although with a different disguise. Wait a minute, didn’t Obama declare an end to the war on terror in 2009? In a way, yes – he rebranded it as ‘overseas contingency operations.‘ A different name for exactly the same package – that’s rebranding you see.

Here in Australia, we are told that the world changed on September 11. Did it really? Yes and no. As Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, economics lecturer at Drake University says, certainly the 9/11 tragedy prompted calls for regime change, imperial retribution and preemptive strikes by the United States. The rendition program where torture is ‘outsourced’ to third countries under the supervision of CIA and MI6 officials, the imprisonment of terrorism suspects without charge or trial, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security provisions – these are all developments post 9/11. But the military-industrial-financial complex had plans for regime change, the economic outreach into more countries and extension of US military power years before 9/11, since the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989. With the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, a significant restraint on US militarism was removed. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter and main architect of the US-sponsored Islamic Mujahideen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, wrote in a 1997 book about the need for the US to confront Russia, China, India and others to remain the dominant economic and military power in Central Asia and the Middle East.

US war planners needed new enemies, and they came up with many – the clash of civilisations, rogue states, militant Islamism and so on. But 9/11 was the new mantra, and the beneficiaries of the giant military budget and security spending fixed onto a new ideological banner to disguise the agenda of imperial expansion. It is this broader context in which the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan (and now Libya) must be understood.

The National Priorities Project is an organisation dedicated to explaining, in terms as clear as possible, how the US federal budget is composed and how tax dollars are spent. They recently put together a report regarding the amount of money spent on national security since September 11, 2001. Since that day, the US ruling class has spent 8 trillion dollars on homeland security, the Pentagon’s military budget, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and all the associated spending on the US State Department and federal agencies. All this spending was supposedly prompted by nineteen hijackers armed with nothing more than box cutters? I think that Sheldon Richman is right – national security spending is a scam. As he points out in his article, opportunistic and cynical politicians have been using 9/11 to frighten people into accepting even more military spending.

Is the world actually safer because of the war on terror and all this military and national security spending? Well, according to the numerous security pundits, the world is safer because countless terrorist plots have been foiled, but they just cannot elaborate because of national security. It is the old ploy – “we could tell you, but if we did we would have to kill you” trick. Without adequate information it is hard to say, but I can make two observations. Firstly the war on terror has failed to thwart attacks on the European and Western countries. Secondly and even more importantly, the war on terror and the associated extraordinary renditions, torture and repression breeds resentments across the Islamic and Middle Eastern countries. When US forces and unmanned drones kill scores of civilians across Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq and other countries, don’t you think that some Muslim people will develop anti-American resentments and hatreds? The descent of the American military and political system into thoroughly detestable forms of behaviour – barbaric torture at Guantanamo and Bagram air base, the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the packs of unmanned Predator drones – all this behaviour leads to a massive buildup of discontent and sows the seeds for future terrorist attacks.

While the 9/11 fanatics were driven by a complex array of religious and political motives, there is no doubt that continued American support for Zionism, and the Arab dictators around the Middle East, was a major factor in their hatred of US imperial power. With the homicidal overreaction by the US empire, the terrorists kind of got what they wanted – an extension of American imperial criminality into costly and savage wars that are draining the US of its resources. The Afghanistan war is coming onto ten years, and thousands of American troops remain in that country. There is the ongoing occupation and insurgency in Iraq, and that conflict shows no signs of ending, even after Obama’s rebranding of that occupation and fake withdrawal of troops.

Not long after the September 11 attacks, former President Bush issued a new doctrine, a new national security strategy of ‘preemptive war’ to strike at terrorist groups and states that allegedly pose a threat, or are developing a credible threat, to the United States. This doctrine, continued by Obama, is basically a license to wage aggressive war. Was not this kind of behaviour outlawed and condemned by the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War Two? Obama explicitly endorsed the doctrine of preemptive war, ironically when giving a speech accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

I have to agree with Tom Engelhardt – when it comes to September 11, let’s cancel it. Let’s stop the commemorations, the gatherings of pompous politicians, the hoopla, the new towers, the waterfalls – let’s stop the lot. What is more important is stopping the abuse of the 9/11 horrific attacks to perpetrate even more terrorist crimes and imperial wars, while enveloping those wars with hypocritical reverential remembrance. Stop using the supposedly ‘hallowed’ ground zero to promote carnage and barbarism overseas. The 9/11 killings, while appalling and ghastly, are not a license for continuous war and descent into harrowing political conduct. Political life over the last decade is characterised by a continual assault on democratic rights; if you doubt that, just ask Omar Khadr, or Moazzam Begg. Let’s stop this endless war funding, as Engelhardt explains.

Anthony Arnove demonstrates that we in the western world have undergone a dramatic cultural shift, with the corporate-controlled media playing a huge role in promoting the war on terror hyperbole, legitimising the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and nourishing the racist Islamophobic campaign, targeting Arabs and Muslims in general as a potential fifth column in subverting ‘western values’, and bolstering public approval for war. Let us campaign for an alternative world, without imperialist wars and occupations, racism and soaring corporate profits. Let us regain the basic democratic and social rights that we have lost because of this undemocratic war on terror, and mobilise against the financial aristocracy and war profiteers to save our planet.

Byzantium – between the Turkish turban and the papal tiara

In September 2006, the day after the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist atrocities, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture in his former university city of Regensburg, in which he quoted from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. The latter had written commentaries about his debates with a Muslim interlocutor, discussing the differences and relative merits of Christianity and Islam. The Pope Benedict XVI chose to extract this quote from the Byzantine emperor’s writings: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

With this quote, Pope Benedict XVI thrust into the limelight not only the name of a previously obscure emperor, but also a long-neglected empire that had fought between the Islamic world, and the main Western Christian church, namely Roman Catholicism. That empire was Byzantium, and most people were asking – what is Byzantium? To answer that question, one should look no further than the marvelous book by Professor Judith Herrin called Byzantium: The surprising life of a medieval empire. I will address the Pope’s remarks a little later.

The title of this article comes from one of the chapters in Herrin’s book – a grand duke and admiral of the Byzantine emperor had made the statement ‘better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara’ back in the 1440s to summarise the crossroads that Byzantine civilisation occupied and the foreign policy dilemmas that confronted the Byzantine political leadership. This popular proverb stands in stark contrast to the sentiments quoted by the Pope above. But what Herrin’s book accomplishes is a sweeping and detailed examination of Byzantine civilisation – its art, architecture, law, economy and politics. Quite a wide-ranging scope in one volume.

Byzantium, the eastern half of the previously united Roman empire, grew from its ancient roots to become a cosmopolitan, medieval civilisation. The first portion of the book documents the transformation of what was the East Roman empire, with its new capital at Constantinople, into the sprawling inheritor of the Roman empire’s mantle, laws, paganism and traditions. But Byzantium then developed its own distinct Greek-speaking imprint on Roman customs, and its version of Orthodox Christianity. It is as a barrier against the spread of Islam that Byzantium is best-known. Apart from the stereotypes of exotic riches, endless political intrigues and interminable theological debates, Byzantium is recognised as the ‘eastern defender’ against Islamic armies. Indeed, Byzantium came close to being totally overrun by the Islamic Arab armies that came out of the Arabian plateau. The dual challenges of the Slavic peoples in the Balkans, and the Persian empire in the east, stretched the resources and fighting capacity of Byzantium to the limit.

But Byzantium survived the Islamic challenge, and ‘rescued’ Europe from the seemingly invincible Islamic conquerors. Herrin states that if Byzantium had fallen, most of Europe would have been conquered by the Islamic forces. In one sense, today’s Europe was only able to survive because of the intercession of the Byzantines. It is this aspect of Byzantine history which the Pope and his supporters would like to enlist for their political agenda during this era of fractious relations between the West and the Islamic communities. But Byzantium was more than just a ‘bulwark against Islam’ – which is the title of one of Herrin’s chapters. Byzantium also had a complex cultural life, with pagan, pre-Christian texts and authors being incorporated into the framework of Byzantine culture and philosophy. Byzantium was an eastern orthodox empire, but with partly pagan features and origins. Byzantium was definitely and stridently a Christian empire, but it also was shaped by the ancient Greek authors, the Roman thinkers and pagan customs which influenced its society. The burning of incense, the veneration of images of gods, the celebration of Christian holidays based on pagan, pre-Christian holy days – these all attest to the complex melding of pagan and Christian elements. The translation of pagan philosophers into Greek, the active debate and commentaries about science, mathematics, whether the world was created has always existed – these debates reflect an active cultural life in Byzantium.

While Byzantium fought to contain the Muslim armies, the empire can hardly be called a defender of Christianity. The great schism between Latin West Christendom and Easter Orthodox Christianity did not start with Byzantium, but it certainly worsened with the arrival of the Crusades. In the chapter ‘Fulcrum of the Crusades’, Herrin details how the Byzantines called upon their Latin Western Christian friends, namely the papacy and the west European Christians to help fend off the growing threat posed by the encroaching Seljuk Turkish empire. With this call, Byzantium and the Christian East opened up a cantankerous, fragile relationship military relationship with the Latin Christian West. While the object of the Crusades was to reconquer the holy lands from Muslim control, the relations between the Christian forces were marked by mutual suspicion and bitter recriminations. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, relations between the Latin crusaders and their Byzantine hosts had deteriorated so much that when the Byzantine side failed to fulfill the terms of their agreement, the crusaders abandoned their original objective of the holy lands and ransacked Constantinople itself. This mass sacking of Constantinople in 1204 not only poisoned relations between the eastern and western Christians, reinforcing the great schism between the Roman Catholic west and Eastern Orthodox East, but also reduced Byzantium to such a perilous state it was divided into a patchwork of Latin and Greek-speaking states. By April 1204, the greatest city in western Christendom was a mass of smouldering ruins, as Herrin states in her book. Anti-Latin sentiment ran high, and the prospects of recovery were bleak.

Yet by the 1260s, Byzantium recovered somewhat, with one of the Greek-speaking successor states, Nicaea, managing to recover Constantinople, holding off the Seljuk Turks and reestablishing a distinctly Byzantine empire, though in truncated form. With all these military fluctuations, it is a wonder that the many architectural achievements of Byzantium have survived – in particular the church of Hagia Sophia. A whole chapter in Herrin’s book is devoted to the construction, engineering feats, and survival of the church, which became a mosque in 1453 with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, and is today preserved as a museum. The scale of Hagia Sophia and its impressive dome suggests engineering skills that are exceptional. Most of the early Christian churches followed the template of a basilica, so to construct a dome was quite novel and daring for Byzantine times. The Hagia Sophia, as constructed by the emperor Justinian, has survived arson, riots and earthquakes throughout the years.

There is so much more to digest in Herrin’s book; I hope I have done justice to its contents with this short review. Byzantium persisted for another 250-odd years after the Fourth crusade. Herrin looks at the frequent challenges Byzantium had to face – wars with the Bulgarians, the transformation of an ancient economy into a medieval one, the continued toleration of a cosmopolitan society that included Jews, Varangians – Armenians found employment in the Byzantine armed forces. But one challenge proved overwhelming – the Ottoman Turks, who expanded from the Anatolian peninsula and finally conquered Constantinople in 1453.

The Byzantine empire was a complex, multifaceted state, with its own combination of Roman traditions and Christian practices. This brings me back to the Pope’s earlier quotation about Islam taken from Manuel II. Why did he choose to make this statement, rather than elaborate on all the scientific and cultural achievements of the Byzantines? I think the Pope’s use of that quotation was more than just misleading, as Herrin correctly notes. It poured petrol on an existing fire – the tension relationship between Islamic communities and the European West. I think Pope Benedict XVI promoted a stereotypical view of the Islamic world as uniquely irrational and incapable of rational change. Herrin’s volume goes a long way towards demolishing the highly inaccurate stereotypes about Byzantium as a tyrannical regime run by corrupt, effeminate cowardly men. We would do well to reexamine our own myths and stereotypes, rather than point an accusatory finger at other civilisations. Read Herin’s book if for no other reason than this one – Byzantium is absolutely fascinating.