Not Saussure

January 23, 2007


Filed under: Blogroll, Foreigners, usa, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 8:06 pm

In the comments to my earlier piece about Nick Cohen, the excellent Mr Eugenides — whom I take considerably more seriously than Nick Cohen (that might, I realise, come over as a back-handed compliment; it isn’t mean to be one) — raises some points I thought I’d turn into a post. He writes, broadly summarising Cohen’s argument from The Observer:

Cohen’s wider point – he does phrase his description of the anti-war marches deliberately provocatively – is that the same people on the left who opposed Iraq for being an “anti-Muslim crusade” opposed our intervention in Kosovo to protect Muslims from ethnic cleansing.

The impression you get is that there are too many on the Left who will cosy up to anyone who is anti-American. Read the articles on Comment is Free almost daily praising Castro and Chavez, and the apologias for Ahmadinejad, the Belarussian guy (name escapes me, sorry), Hamas, Hezbollah – basically if you are in the Bush Administration’s sights that is taken to be evidence in and of itself that you must be doing something right. This even extends to the grotesque parodies of government currently ruling Sudan and Somalia.

And so we see the hard Left making common cause with regimes, ideologies and movements that it is quite legitimate to describe as “fascist”. Why is no-one marching about Zimbabwe? Why do Darfur marches get hundreds or thousands rather than hundreds of thousands? And how many more people would turn out if the US announced plans to invade Sudan – how many leftist groups would suddenly crawl out of the woodwork to express an interest in that miserable conflict / genocide – express an interest for the very first time?

I can’t speak for anyone else, and certainly not for the hard left, but I didn’t think much of Cohen’s points, I’m afraid. The point about people not demonstrating against Mugabe is a bit of a red herring, since what — in London, at least — would they be calling on the government to do? It’s not like protesting against successive British governments supporting apartheid South Africa, and no one, I hope, is quite so bonkers as to think we might — as I vaguely recall some spectacularly dim MP told Harold Wilson we should when Ian Smith declared UDI — send a gun boat to resolve matters. The solution, if it’s in anyone’s hands, lies with the South Africans, and they’ve got their own problems. Ditto Darfur; what, realistically, would be the point of the demonstration? To demand that Blair send Margaret Beckett to knock some heads together?

I completely agree that talk of ‘an anti-Muslim crusade’ is nonsensical, no matter how much the loonies over at Little Green Foothills would like one. That’s not, though, because of the Kosovo example particularly; that, to my mind, is best understood as NATO and others eventually putting an end to a civil war; the fact that the Albanian Muslims benefited from it was purely coincidental — they were the ones who happened to be getting the worst of it at the time, so the intervention was to their benefit. Indeed, the Serbian nationalists must be cursing their bad luck that 9/11 didn’t happen a few years earlier; in that event, I’m pretty sure we’d have been hearing a great deal about our plucky Serbian allies in the war against terror (and two world wars), the evils of the KLA, and Nick Cohen would have been complaining that people were supporting the successors to the SS Divisions Handschar and Skanderbeg.

As a slight digression, while we’re thinking about that part of the world, I was always rather puzzled by the British left’s enthusiasm for Croatian nationalism, given the late Franjo Tuđman’s politics; anyone know what Nick Cohen made of it at the time, out of interest?

But, anyway, I agree that, despite the rhetoric of both sides, it’s not a crusade against Islam. It certainly suits various people, for their very different reasons, to regard it as one. Clearly, it plays well for the militant Islamists themselves, just as it plays well for the proponents of a War Against Terror; a monolithic enemy, inspired by irrational religious hatred against you and all you stand for, is far easier to rail against than are actual enemies inspired primarily by far more mundane — as in earthly — considerations. ‘They hate our Ummah’ is as much a convenient myth as ‘They hate our freedom’. Being charitable, I can understand the left maybe not wanting to argue the complexities of the point with their Islamist comrades, just as Western supporters of our intervention in Kosovo probably didn’t want to break off to discuss the merits of liberal democracy with the KLA, but I agree they may not always understand them themselves.

As to the wider point about

if you are in the Bush Administration’s sights that is taken to be evidence in and of itself that you must be doing something right,

I have a rather different take on this. The late President Reagan used to joke,

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

and they are, I think, no less terrifying when spoken through an interpreter at a press conference given by someone from the US State Department than when they’re spoken to a US citizen by any other American civil servant. I tend to distrust the Americans when they get directly involved in helping other people run their own countries because, over the last 40-odd years, they’ve not really had a particularly brilliant track-record.

Because of the country’s history, American governments are understandably worried about being seen — not least by their own electorate — to have an empire, rather an unfortunate phobia in a military and economic super-power. Consequently, they’ve tended to pick whichever local satrap looks most likely to look after American interests and do what he’s told, and then back him to the hilt. Perfectly understandable; it’s pretty much what we did in the Princely States in India, after all, but the Americans don’t always seem astonishingly good at choosing their friends — Saddam, General Noriega, The Shah, President Marcos, assorted thugs and ruffians in South Vietnam and Latin America — it’s a pretty gruesome bunch, to my mind.

I’m sure they don’t deliberately pick stinkers; the problem is, I think, that because they can’t too obviously be seen to be exercising their imperial role, they have to justify their initial involvement because it’s a crisis — often it is, of course — that requires a strongman who, fortuitously, is much-loved by the locals, or at least all the locals other than those crazed by Marxism-Leninism or, nowadays, Islam and back him to the hilt. This sort of thing tends to bring out the stinker in people and, unfortunately, since the Americans can’t be seen to have their equivalent of the British Resident tell the chap that he’s got to buck up his ideas or the Raj will put his cousin or younger brother in place (the chap’s in power because he’s a freedom-loving type, much loved by the locals, or, at least, the decent ones, after all), things just go from bad to worse. Sometimes they manage to remove him, or can be persuaded to let the locals remove him, and he’s replaced by someone rather better. Sometimes — as, notably, in both Iran and Iraq in their different ways — it all goes horribly pear-shaped.

No, to my mind it’s not so much that if you’re in the Bush administration’s sight’s it’s evidence you’re doing something right as that if the US government decides to help your country towards peace and freedom, things are likely to get even messier than they and and it’s maybe time seriously to consider emigrating somewhere safer.

Let’s take a hypothetical example, close to home. No one — British or Irish — could, I think, truthfully say that he believed either the American people or successive American governments had much of an understanding of the complexities of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. When I lived in California for a couple of years during the 1980s I frequently found myself, God help me, having to defend Margaret Thatcher’s policy towards NI, not because I had a great deal of sympathy with it (rather the opposite) but because otherwise well-informed and intelligent people were recommending to me the most absurd policies which, if implemented, would assuredly have resulted in complete chaos both north and south of the Border. And the US goverment weren’t much better half the time, being mindful of their own public’s somewhat ill-informed opinion (it frequently came as quite a surprise to people that the Protestants are, in fact, the majority in NI — I well recall listening to the consternation on a radio phone-in when someone pointed that out, and that was in the days before the shock-jocks).

Now, given that, who — whatever their politics — thinks it would have been a good idea, no matter how bad things became — to ask the Americans to solve the problems in NI for us? I’d sooner ask the French to do it, for heaven’s sake.

And most Americans are considerably better informed about, and feel more warmly towards, Britain and the Republic than they do towards somewhere in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa they almost certainly can’t find on a map without difficulty.

No, I think the prudent citizen of any country whose problems the US government takes an interest in resolving would be best advised to treat the offer with the same suspicion I treat offers with domestic repairs from a great chum of mine who fancies himself as a builder; I don’t suspect his good intentions for a minute, but I’ve seen examples of his handiwork. He can, quite rightly, point to some successful jobs he’s done for people, but still…

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  1. I supported the war at the time, tho not from the position of the Decent Left. Now, I’m not so sure (ahem), for pretty much the reasons you give. But although I suppose we shouldn’t have gone to war, I’d still question some of your points from both articles.

    To say that first a country should do no harm doesn’t really take account of the fact that we were already involved in Iraq. The options were not invasion or nothing, they were invasion or sanctions. Of course we could have lifted sancions and withdrawn entirely – but that’s as serious a suggestion as Soviet liberation was in the 70s.

    Secondly, the suggestion that self-interest should be the norm ignores the special place of the Middle East.
    You ask “Who — whatever their politics — thinks it would have been a good idea, no matter how bad things became — to ask the Americans to solve the problems in NI for us?”. You imply the answer “No one, because the chances of them doing so successfully were tiny”.

    But a more relevant answer is “No one, because the situation in NI was irrelevant to the rest of the world, including the USA. Not only did they have no incentive to intervene, but no one had any reason to ask them to”.

    Much the same goes for the other examples you quote in both pieces – tho some of them at the time possessed a spurious veneer of importance because of the Cold War, but mostly just a veneer. Witness the fact that American defeat in Vietnam had little actual impact.

    But in the case of the Middle East, it really is vital that someone steps in and ensures stability in the region. Over the past decades this is what the Pax Americana has tried to achieve. I’m not saying it’s been wonderfully successful – the Iranian revolution springs to mind, and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, both partly a reaction to American actions. Nor is it morally justifiable, except thru hard-core utilitarianism. But it is vital for the maintenance of the world economy; without SOMEONE, and preferably someone pro-West, preventing the supply of oil being cut, we’re all totally buggered.

    This is a key point about Anti-Americanism, I’d say. The ideological Anti-Yanks have the most coherent thoughts, in many ways. They would actually like to see an end to capitalism – and no oil would give it to them. Everyone else lives off a system which is guaranteed by American involvement in the region, most obviously by troops in Saudi, but also by support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war. The word “involvement” there is key; I’m not saying that the Iraq war itself is justifiable by reference to these facts.
    But in the context of your reference to broader ideas about foriegn involvement per se, I’d say US intervention in the Middle East is vital.

    Comment by alabastercodify — January 23, 2007 @ 10:50 pm

  2. Into whose malign hands, though, do you say all this oil is likely to fall if the US don’t make sure it’s kept safe? Realistically, that is?

    Given that it’s as much in the interests of the current vendors to keep hold of it and keep on selling it as it is in our interests to keep on being able to buy it — more so, if anything, given their investment portfolios — I don’t see it as a particularly real and immediate threat. When there was a danger of the Soviet Union getting its paws on the oil, I might well have agreed with you, but I don’t see that as a particular problem now.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 23, 2007 @ 11:15 pm

  3. Firstly, the oil shock of the seventies shows that the threat is not merely that the oil might simply be prevented from flowing at all. Its supply can be severly restricted, to almost any degree, either to increase the price, to punish actions that those in charge disagree with, or to influence future policy. The potential for strong arming rather than necessarily total blockade can also be seen in Russia’s recent actions.

    The threat itself has changed over time, I’d say. As you say, there was a threat from Soviet dominance. Now it comes from Islamism and anti-western/capitalistism in a broad sense. Chavez has been urging OPEC to raise the oil price. OPEC has resisted. But if OPEC was dominated not by a Saudi regime that is pro-USA, and which guarantees the ability of the UAE and Kuwait to get on with selling oil without regional strongarming, but by a myopically anti-western regime in Iran coupled with a Saudi in chaos after the royal family is toppled, when the smaller produces would be at the mercy of these two, then how long would such rational use of their resources continue?

    That is my view. It is obviously built on a lot of “ifs”, tho I’d say none of them are unlikely. But ultimately I think it comes down to how rational you conceive players like Iran to be. I would see them as highly irrational in any sense that we would understand it. Of course it’s in Saudi’s interest to keep selling oil. Do Iran’s rulers feel the same way?And without American troop in Saudi then Al-Qaeda would try to overthrow the regime. And as you point out, who could blame them for doing so? In the chaos that would follow, there are no guarantees that a rational player will come to power.

    Comment by AlabasterCodify — January 24, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  4. Notsaussure writes:

    …I tend to distrust the Americans when they get directly involved in helping other people run their own countries because, over the last 40-odd years, they’ve not really had a particularly brilliant track-record…

    So far, so good. We’re at one. Notsaussure continues:

    …No, to my mind it’s not so much that if you’re in the Bush administration’s sight’s it’s evidence you’re doing something right as that if the US government decides to help your country towards peace and freedom, things are likely to get even messier than they and it’s maybe time seriously to consider emigrating somewhere safer…

    There were studies done on Kissinger [Bilderberger, CFR and one of Them] which tracked where he visited and what accrued about a month afterwards in those countries. Rwanda was an example, so was Vietnam. E. Howard Hunt died today and he was proud of his destabilizing role – openly. There is evidence that Cheney was the new Kissinger. There were allegations by a woman in a published book, Trance Formation of America, about his extra-curricular activities and interestingly, despite it’s direct challenge, she was never sued.

    NATO went into a situation in Kosovo before it became a crisis, stayed while it became an atrocity, then suggested a solution. So yes, wherever the US or NATO go in the world, the moment the envoy flies in, it’s time for safety minded people to fly out.

    This is the text I’m running with in my response to this excellent post:

    Notsaussure puts it down to the type of leader the Americans demand but I think it’s important to identify what we mean by ‘the Americans’. If one means the American nation, then I’m not on board. If you mean the powers that be [and these can be seen in such films as Twilight’s Last Gleaming], then yes, these people are culpable to the fullest possible extent, as far as I can see.

    Comment by james higham — January 24, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  5. It could of course also be that Kissinger tended to visit those countries where instability was on the horizon…

    Comment by AlabasterCodify — January 24, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

  6. Frankly Cohen just comes across as a sore loser. Who’s he trying to convince, at this stage?

    His “broader point” is nothing more than the same old apologetics for the War on Terror – I’m amazed he’s still churning it out, rather than hiding his head in embarrassment.

    Mr E writes:
    The impression you get is that there are too many on the Left who will cosy up to anyone who is anti-American.

    Well, maybe. But then again there are too many on the Right who will cosy up to anyone who is violently anti-Islam, and there are too many on the Left and Right who, like him, will cosy up to anyone who is pro-Oil-Industry. The world is full fools and bigots of all hues.

    The problem is that he has never restricted his criticism to those who deserve it. Quite the reverse in fact, he’s done his utmost to tar as many people with these insults as possible, to egotistically and dishonestly paint himself as the plucky battler standing alone against a sea of bigotry, and most of all to serve his own ends by conflating “anti-Americanism” with “anti-Iraq-War”.

    Comment by Larry Teabag — January 24, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  7. Alabaster — a couple of factual points; there are, as I understand it, only about 400 US troops in Saudi (training locals). The rest pulled out in 2003.. They’re presently in Qatar and the Emirates, primarily to scare the Syrians and the Iranians. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be around, so long as their hosts don’t object, so long as they stick to protecting these small states’ oil fields rather than trying to re-organise the ME for everyone; that’s the bit I worry about.

    Don’t know what you mean about ‘Do Iran’s rulers feel the same way’ about selling oil; they’re selling a couple of million barrels a day at the moment, I think, and I don’t recall their ever having shut things off in a big way — I think they did briefly after one of their civilian planes got shot down by mistake by the US navy (killing all the passengers, natch) during their war with Iraq, but that didn’t have any huge effect. Probably if the Americans started bombing them it would change their minds, but I think that would strain anyone’s tolerance.   

    The thing people tend to forget, I think, is that these places’ economies all depend on selling their oil for dollars, investing the money on the international markets and importing just about all their requirements.    They’ve as much interest in keeping the world economy going as has anyone else — possibly more so in many cases.

    As to Kissinger, he went in for an increasingly weird balancing act, as I recall.   I once tried reading his memoirs; he had some very strange accounts of how he’d have the US do such-and-such in country A, who would then react in a particular way, which would cause country B to do something, thus preventing country C from doing something else, which, in turn, would effect the result he wanted to acheive in country D (the object of doing whatever it was in country A).   How much of this ever actually worked out the way he thought it was going to and how much would have happened anyway I do not know.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 24, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

  8. now that is a good set of comments.

    Comment by cityunslicker — January 25, 2007 @ 10:28 pm

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