Sunday, 8 January 2012

Checking my prejudices - 2

In the earlier post, I spent some time on a single paragraph of a recent Simon Jenkins column from The Guardian on the subject of Afghanistan. The column was titled Vanity, machismo and greed have blinded us to the folly of Afghanistan, and the first paragraph was as follows:
Ten years of western occupation of Afghanistan led the UN this week to plead that half the country's drought-ridden provinces face winter starvation. The World Food Programme calls for £92m to be urgently dispatched. This is incredible. Afghanistan is the world's greatest recipient of aid, some $20bn in the past decade, plus a hundred times more in military spending. So much cash pours through its doors that $3m a day is said to leave Kabul airport corruptly to buy property in Dubai.
I spent some effort looking at the issue of hunger in Afghanistan. You can read the full post here, but the short of it is that directly contrary to Simon Jenkins’s claim that “western occupation of Afghanistan” has led to starvation, wheat production (the central issue in Afghanistan’s food shortages) has never been as low since the 2001 defeat of the Taliban as it was before. This is despite drought, primitive agricultural practices, the absence of a viable milling industry, and the underfunding of the WFP. I hadn’t originally intended to spend so much effort on that one claim, but the subject is a serious one.

That earlier post also includes a passage from Terry Glavin’s excellent new book, Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan, to demonstrate why Simon Jenkins’s phrase “western occupation of Afghanistan” is the exact opposite of truth.

Now I’d like to go through the rest of the column. A lot of it is just abuse, which is pointless to argue with, but as well as looking for clear falsehoods like the ‘western occupation causes hunger’ claim, I’d like to clarify the argument behind the abuse and lies.

Here’s another lie to make clear that my use of the word isn’t just rhetoric: he writes of “the decade-long punishment of Afghanistan for harbouring Osama bin Laden.” To believe that the US or NATO has been punishing Afghanistan is to disbelieve the opinion of the majority of Afghans. The graph below is taken from the December 2010 ABC/BBC/ARD/Washington Post poll, Afghanistan: Where Things Stand (ABC story here and full PDF here) and it shows support for the presence of US forces amongst Afghans surveyed ranged between 78% and 62% in the years from 2006 to 2010.

The graph also shows satisfaction with US efforts dropping faster than support for their presence, suggesting that while the majority of Afghans want the US military presence, they also want them to do a better job. But for all the dissatisfaction, this is clearly not a nation that believes it is undergoing “punishment” by the US as Simon Jenkins claims.

Another Jenkins quote: “The demand that [Afghanistan] also abandons the habits of history and adopt democracy, capitalism and gender equality was imperial arrogance.” On capitalism, a 1999 article, The Life of a 102 year-old Afghan Entrepreneur: An Economic Perspective, by Mir Hekmatullah Sadat, gives an interesting view of 20th century developments in Afghan capitalism. On gender equality, the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan didn’t begin with the fall of the Taliban; here’s a short chronology. As for democracy, in every democratic country, the struggle for democracy has been a struggle against the habits of history.

And this, his opposition to democracy’s struggle against the habits of history, can be the key to unwrapping Simon Jenkins’s argument, and showing how perverse it is that he has become a resident favourite in the pages of The Guardian, supposedly a paper of the liberal left.

Simon Jenkins is on the side of of tradition against change, Tory against Whig, Lords against Commons, feudalism against democracy.

His anti-war argument is not the same as that of the anti-West anti-imperialist kitsch left, though it sounds it at times. His stand against British imperialism is rooted in nationalist isolationism rather than second-campism. He claims that the West’s Afghanistan policy will likely benefit “those who lost the cold war, Russia and China”. Similarly in a more recent column, Why is Britain ramping up sanctions against Iran? he writes that it seems as if “every utterance from Washington and London at present is scripted to bolster the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his insecure throne,” and laments that:
The attempt to set up pro-west regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan led the west to upset the balance of power established by the Iran-Iraq war and the Taliban-Pakistan regime in Kabul. Now the Iraq occupation has secured for Tehran unprecedented influence in Baghdad. Its influence also penetrates deep into western Afghanistan, and its support for resistance movements in the Gulf sheikhdoms is said to be growing by the year.
Be very clear about what he’s saying in the quote above. He laments the loss of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and of Pakistan’s domination of Afghanistan via the Taliban, because these regimes helped contain Iran, a greater enemy in his view. This is the brutal talk of a right wing ‘Realist’ rather than a second campist hoping for the overthrow of Western hegemony. I don’t like the latter any more than the former, but I do find it extraordinary that The Guardian gives regular space to the kind of reactionary views I remember seeing in The Sunday Telegraph in the 1990s.

I’ll have mercy and stop there. If I can suppress the nausea, I might do a third post on the bigotry of Mr Jenkins, but I’m not promising.


jams o donnell said...

For Grud's sake, never read Seumas Miilne or you may just explode!

The Grauniad has far too many arseholes for commentators. Sadly the same can be said for every paper... Never, never read James Delingpole!

kellie said...

Aye, but finding Stalinists and kitsch leftists like Milne or Neil Clark in The Guardian I expect already. Dog Bites Man, and not news. The little I'd paid attention to Jenkins in earlier times, I'd assumed he was much the same, but he's not. That one of The Guardian's favourite columnists should be a Tory isolationist seems more Man Bites Dog, or to quote Ghostbusters, "cats and dogs living together." And yet no-one blinks an eye.

jams o donnell said...

Well At least you are not reading Kevin Myers in the Indo!

Have a look at this one!

kellie said...

Seems a silly variation on playing five degrees of separation. I worked out a grim five degrees for myself ten years ago, but I won't type it up here.

On AQ Khan, despite what Myers writes, it seems he may not have been so concerned with keeping Pakistan ahead of India in the nuclear arms race if this is to be believed.

Anonymous said...

It would take a lot of looking to find a smugger, cosier Little Englander than Simon Jenkins. There's a to-the-point comment at Greater Surbiton in the second para of this post about Anders Behrens Breivik:

Patrick Porter said...

"He laments the loss of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship."

No, actually, he doesn't. He just laments the consequences, which include not only the empowerment of Iran and a new round of dangerous confrontation, but the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He may be a brutal realist, but your critique embodies the deadly good intentions of liberal hawks.

By the way, the new order - your 'good guys'- in Libya is carrying out widespread torture. That's why Jenkins, and I, will continue to warn you of the unintended consequences of the naive crusades you apparently still support.

kellie said...

He laments the loss of a balance of power between Iraq and Iran that was based on Sunni domination of Iraq. That was only possible by way of continued dictatorship, whether by Saddam Hussein or his heirs, so it's perfectly reasonable to summarise that as lamenting the loss of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

I have read the recent reports on Libya. They don't make for a case that a prolonged reign by the old regime would have been better.

Patrick Porter said...

Kellie, thanks to our actions, Libya is now unsafe for black people to live in. Nice work, liberal interventionists. Whether or not Libya is overall in better condition than under Qaddafi is not the issue. The issue is that we have made ourselves complicit in counter-atrocities that could not have happened without our involvement. Your nonchalance about this is breathtaking.

On lamentation of Saddam, here's what Jenkins writes:

"The only question for the west over the last three decades has been how to respond to Iran's fundamentalist leadership and, more recently, its craving for nuclear status. The answer has been of startling ineptitude. The attempt to set up pro-west regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan led the west to upset the balance of power established by the Iran-Iraq war and the Taliban-Pakistan regime in Kabul. Now the Iraq occupation has secured for Tehran unprecedented influence in Baghdad."

That is not the lament for the loss of a dictatorship, but the loss of a balance of power. Its disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Or are you saying that opponents of the Iraq war are automatically pro-Saddam? Or 'isolationist', or any of the other wicked things that opponents of military adventures are called at this site?

kellie said...

Patrick, if your argument is that governments who participated in the military intervention should do their best to stop current atrocities by working with the current Libyan government in building a democratically accountable rule of law, then yes, whether or not Libya is overall in better condition is not the issue, and the focus must be on what's wrong, not on what's right.

But if your argument is that the intervention as a whole is damned in light of its consequences, then you have to take the consequences as a whole, not just the bad ones.

I welcome the reporting of what's gone wrong, and I hope it has an impact. I welcome the robust response by Médecins Sans Frontières to torture in Misrata. I welcome the Amnesty report. That's why I tweeted links to these in recent weeks.

However if Western nations have been tarnished by some consequences of the intervention, we shouldn't pretend that there was a clean hands alternative. Allegations of rather more direct British and American complicity in torture by the previous regime have been widely reported in the last six months. And a case was made in this report that the EU's immigration arrangement with the previous regime played a direct part in racist violence against black migrants in Libya. Finally, some of the weapons used by the former regime against the revolution were supplied by NATO countries.

Had the West not intervened, its complicity in repression would have been the dominant story.

On Simon Jenkins and Saddam, I think you're trying to split a hair that is indivisible.

He describes the late lamented balance of power as the product of Saddam's war against Iran, and ascribes its end to the fall of Saddam. In his words it has no existence without the existence of the dictatorship.

Simon Jenkins seems to be a more clear-eyed realist than yourself on this question, no doubt seeing Bush Snr and Scowcroft's explanation of their failure to stop Saddam's 1991 repression of the southern Shia as perfectly reasonable: "While we hoped that popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf."

To demonstrate that Jenkins laments the passing of Saddam's dictatorship, it's not necessary to show him approving of it in all its aspects, only to show that he laments the passing of a balance of power which he himself sees as inseparable from the dictatorship. You can see that as admirable clarity or damnable inhumanity, but to carry on denying the clear meaning of his words seems a bit foolish.

On isolationsts, I don't regard all opponents of the Iraq war as such. The penultimate paragraph of the post makes the point that Simon Jenkins's isolationism comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to that of left wing second campists.

Patrick Porter said...


some important points here:

I don't think its just hair-splitting. You are right that my brand of realism is fluffier and more scarred by a sense of tragedy than Jenkins' one. But I think its important to register that Jenkins' reason for lamenting the fall of Saddam isn't because he is nostalgic for that regime's dictatorial nature. If that makes sense. This is important, because opponents of the war (which I, after some foolish attraction to neoconservative idealism) were at times branded as objectively (or even subjectively) pro-fascist. For all his ruthless realpolitik, I really don't think Jenkins is going that far.

Will post more anon, must dash off for work!

kellie said...

Yes, we agree on his reason for lamenting the fall of Saddam: the regime's policy towards Iran. But as that was a policy inseparable from the suppression of the Shia majority in Iraq, it was also inseparable from the regime's dictatorial nature.

Patrick Porter said...

Good point, but that isn't the spirit of Jenkins' argument. he does not miss Saddam's murderousness, at least in his public writings.

On Libya's state: I agree that any complicity with a torture regime is a grave crime and blunder, and I can only agree with you on that one. However, I don't think 'not going to war' should be held as a crime of omission that bloodies our hands on the same level as going to war. That is a bizarre set of ethics that presumes too much of our military power, our knowledge, and therefore the extent of our responsibility. If we were complicit in Qaddafi's crimes (either in facilitating torture or selling arms), our responsibility was to cease doing so. It was not to take part in an internal conflict which forseeably would result in us abetting atrocities very directly, not to mention further unbalancing our power and commitments generally.

Western policy towards Libya before the war should also be praised, however, for successfully persuading a state to abandon its nuclear programme without blood. Human rights matter, but so does disarmament, counter-proliferation and international stability. Serially attacking regimes that have either given up a nuclear programme or never had a deterrent has had a galvanising effect on Tehran, or at least has a serious chance of doing so. The good things we want in the world are at times conflicted. Hence a tragic, rather than a Manichean, world view on my part.