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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Imperial Civilising Mission Ended with Censorship

The article below belies the claim that British de-colonisation was a peaceful process by a civilised British empire, in contrast to other empires, especially the French.

The article by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins shows that British-imperial myth-construction was integral not only to empire's functioning but its formal end as well. 

The reasons for censorship are clear enough at the very end of empire. Imperial servants would not want, in the wake of victory over racist Nazi torturers and muderers, any of their own brutalities to 'muddy' the waters.

What's more interesting is the continuing reticence to release all the official papers from the colonial period. This is more puzzling, at first sight. However, a clue may lie in the resurgence of imperial thinking over the past twenty years or so. It's summed up in the phrase Tony Blair wanted to use but was advised against at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in 1997, just a few miles up the road: "I'm proud of the British Empire". 

The Empire was, as he and many other British and American leaders noted around that time, and especially after 9-11,  an 'empire of liberty' so not really an empire at all, more like one big happy family of nations enjoying the protections and privileges of imperial rule. As a key foreign policy advisor of Blair's, Robert Cooper, noted around 1998, within the empire, peace and civilisation and order; beyond it, savagery and the laws of the jungle. At least that was the mythology being re-constructed to rationalise and justify a doctrine of post-Cold War global interventionism. Cooper urged the Anglo-Americans to lie and deceive in dealings with what he arrogantly called "pre-modern" states - i.e., those which defied the West - because they lived by the laws of the jungle. The corrollary of lying abroad, however, was deception on a mass scale at home, as Bush and Blair mis-sold the war on Iraq on the basis of an imminent military threat.

All those anti-colonial revolts, all those brutalities and counter-insurgency wars, therefore, needed to "go away", disappear. The new "empire of liberty" being constructed by the lone superpower and its chief help-mate could do without untimely and inconvenient reminders of the true character of imperial rule: in the end, empires are based less on consent than co-optation of collaborationist minorities, and principally on force for anyone who dared seriously challenge the empire.

British transparency is a cultivated myth

Professor of history Caroline Elkins, who has worked on historic Kenya files released by the British government, analyses its record of scrubbing and concealing embarrassing information.
For decades, the British government has crafted and affirmed its own fictions of colonial benevolence. Its officials — both at home and in far-flung colonies — intensely managed a system of document culling, destruction, and removal in the waning days of imperial rule. Anything that might “embarrass” HMG was largely scrubbed, or sequestered, from the record. A colonial archive eventually made its way to Kew in south-west London. Devoid of countless incriminating documents, it offers a particular reality about Britain's past, a past that was carefully tended long before the sun set on Britain's empire.
Today there is hope for some degree of transparency. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has just released more than 1,200 records from 12 former colonial territories. These documents are but a portion of the some 10,000 files that Britain removed from 37 of its colonies on the eve of decolonisation and recently “discovered” in Hanslope Park, the government communications centre. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has declared that the government will speedily make all of the files accessible to the public.
Some members of the media have heralded this as a watershed moment.
The Mau Mau veterans
For certain we will learn much from these new documents. However, to celebrate their release as a historic moment is to miss the underside of the story. Recent events, placed in their historical context, suggest the FCO is hardly forthcoming.
These documents came to light in the context of an ongoing legal case. In the High Court in London, five elderly claimants are suing the British government. The FCO is the state's defendant. These Mau Mau veterans seek to prove that state violence in the detention camps of late colonial Kenya was systematic, calculated and approved at the highest levels of government. This case is the first of its kind. If successful, it could open the door to multiple other claims from colonised populations.
In the Mau Mau case, two years of countless document requests were met with FCO stonewalling. It was only through legal means that the FCO finally yielded in early 2011. The result was more than 1,500 files — all removed from Kenya at the time of decolonisation, and some of which the FCO has incrementally released to the Mau Mau claimants and their experts. A few months later, the FCO confessed that it had likewise found more than 8,800 files removed from another 36 former territories on the eve of colonial retreat. Thirteen boxes of “top secret” Kenya files are still missing.
Nine month review
As expert witness, I have had privileged access to the Kenya files. Together with a research team at Harvard, I have spent nine months reviewing the contents. This process has been anything but straightforward. Despite the legal context, the FCO has culled files, requiring multiple requests for full disclosure, and still files have not been forthcoming. At least two of our findings have particular importance for today's “migrated archive” release. First, there is extensive evidence chronicling the process of document destruction and removal in Kenya. The Colonial Office orchestrated a highly bureaucratised effort that required massive administrative manpower on the ground. In total, officials in Kenya estimated that some 3/ tons of documents were marked for destruction. Incineration times were calculated in case “emergency destruction” was needed. Thousands more documents were to be transferred to Britain. Second, the files released in the Mau Mau case tell us a great deal more about previously documented events and individuals in Kenya.
The current release excludes territories such as Palestine and Rhodesia. The Cyprus files exclude the period of the emergency. The Malaya files cover very little of the contested emergency years. The Kenya documents are a meagre subset of the files released (though culled) in the context of the Mau Mau case. Warning bells should be going off. The government went to extraordinary lengths to fashion its colonial archive. The first release of the “migrated archives” is, at first glance, lacking in substantive files, particularly for former colonies like Cyprus and Malaya where future lawsuits potentially loom.
Until the FCO offers a full and unredacted release of all files found at Hanslope Park, a healthy dose of scepticism is crucial. If not, we run the risk of overly applauding today's document release and reinforcing the FCO's myth of new-found transparency. (Caroline Elkins is professor of history at Harvard University and Pulitzer-prizewinning author of Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.)

Sunday, 8 April 2012

American Power Safe in Obama's Hands

President Barack Obama is making American national security an election issue with his most likley Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, because he has out-Bushed Bush and the GOP in general on the matter. Despite loud claims to be the "change" candidate in November 2008, and being swept to victory, President Obama has in all essentials continued the policies of his predecessor, the reviled George W. Bush.

More pananche than the Texan, perhaps, but essentially the same policies and concepts. He can now do what no other Democratic incumbent or candidate has been able to do for some time - go on the offensive against Republicans who normally claim Democrats are 'weak' on national security (despite the fact that Democrats 'did' all the big wars in the 20th century, and overwhelmingly backed the war on Iraq in 2003).

The US foreign policy establishment, which backed the war on Iraq, merely found what old time hardliner, Zbigniew Brzezinski, called the "new face of American power". Obama has successfuly ridden the waves of global revulsion - and the growth of considerable domestic 'isolationism' (which in truth was closer to a rejection at home of American global 'hegemony' - see the University of Maryand opinion surveys of 2006, featured on USBlog sometime ago).

Why does Obama feel he can go on the offensive against Romney? Because he has followed a hardline miliarist programme that any Republican chief executive would be proud of.

'He' killed Osama bin Laden; he launched more drone attacks, i.e. targetted assasinations, than Bush; he's retained rendition, i.e, kidnapping, as a practice; prevented the US Supreme Court from extending constitutional protections to Bagram inmates; retained the Guantanamo Bay torture facility; extended anti-terror surveillance on a massive scale to the 'homeland'; ordered and maintained the military surge in Afghanistan; continued to defend and finance and arm Israel's aggressions against Palestinians; ramped up the rhetoric of inevitable military strikes against Iran; ordered coercive regime change in Libya; maintained US support for corrupt and bankrupt regimes in the Arab world; and so on.

A criticism of President George W. Bush was that he ignored China and the rise of Asia. Obama has not. He's stationing thousands of US troops in Australia, making military treaties with China's border states, securing cooperation - cultural, military and other between India, Japan and Australia: from Beijing, this could look a bit like encirclement.

I am hesitant to say that Obama has not followed a 'proper' or 'authentic' Democratic foreign and national security policy - because he has: who launched the military offensive in Korea in 1950? Who escalated warfare in Vietnam in 1965? Never mind who was in office in 1917 and 1941. Democrats 'do' wars, just as Tony Blair 'did' wars and paid the 'blood price'. Democrats do wars; Obama is in a long line of Democratic war-makers.

Who said this? "Our country today faces a bewildering array of threats and opportunities. As president, ...I will safeguard America and secure our country’s interests and most cherished ideals. The unifying thread of his national security strategy is American strength. When America is strong, the world is safer. It is only American power—conceived in the broadest terms—that can provide the foundation for an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies.

"A XXXX foreign policy will proceed with clarity and resolve. Our friends and allies will not have doubts about where we stand and what we will do to safeguard our interests and theirs. Neither will our rivals, competitors, and adversaries. The best ally world peace has ever known is a strong America. The “last best hope of earth” was what Abraham Lincoln called our country. XXXX believes in fulfilling the promise of Lincoln’s words and will defend America abroad in word and in deed."

Tweak it just a bit by adding something about the universalism of American ideals and you could hear Obama's dulcet tones uttering those very words. But the quote is from Mitt Romney's website.

In the end, the differences between Democrats and Republicans are minimal in practice: they are parties of the Establishment that are completely united in their fundamental faith in American power.

When asked what changes he would introduce should he gain the White House, Obama responded in 2007-8: "I am the change". And he was absolutely true to his word: the face, the veneer, of US power is all that really changed.

There are those, disappointed supporters and 'neutrals', who say that Obama inherited a veritable mess that no one could have done much about. And they have a point.

But I would ask is this: if Obama could do little about his inheritance, what did he do about those things that were in his control, issues that arose within his own tenure - like the uprisings in Egypt, the intervention in Libya, Bagram, and the Wikileaks revelations - remember them, and Bradley Manning's incarceration in military prison? Amnesty and the UN investigated Manning's treatment as examples of the use of torture, lest we forget.

President Barack Obama has presided over a national security strategy that differs so little from that pursued by his predecessor that he feels he has stolen his opponent's garb.

That's why he can make national security an election issue. This may play well at the hustings; it augurs ill for the rest of the world.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Israeli Foreign Policy Cannot be Immune to Criticism

Why should Israel's overseas policies be immune from criticism? What's so special about Israel that any critique is immediately condemned? Is Israel always right in what it does? Does it not behave like other states today and historically - and carry out aggressions against threats, real or imagined?

The German Nobel laureate, Gunter Grass, is the latest to be condemned as an anti-semite for daring to suggest that Israel is an aggressive state that has frequently violated international law, defied the United Nations, presided over or committed war crimes and is currently threatening military aggression against Iran's nuclear programmes.

A few years back, two leading American scholars, John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt, of Chicago and Harvard universities, respectively, faced the most vituperative treatment from Israel and her friends, for writing a book that, problematically in my view, suggested that an Israel lobby that extended from US Jewish organisations to Christian Zionists - dominated American foreign policy. For that, they were condemned as anti-semites. It was only their relative seniority that kept them in their posts - they were candid enough to admit that themselves. And they predicted in very precise terms the treatment they would receive once their ideas were published.

Another state that brooks no criticism of its foreign policy from non-nationals is the United States; its home-grown critics are condemned as un-Americans, foreign critics as anti-Americans. By launching so much flak at critics, however, both Israel and its chief military and financial sponsor, the US, seek to deflect attention from their actual deeds, dismissing critics as racists (which is not to deny that there are also racists who operate under the cover of honest critique). But by tarring all critics with the same brush, both America and Israel seek to continue with their policies of aggression against other states or peoples.

Some facts:
According to Amnesty International: "Israel's military blockade of Gaza... left more than 1.4 million Palestinian men, women and children trapped in the Gaza Strip, an area of land just 40 kilometres long and 9.5 kilometres wide.

"Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and food price rises caused by shortages have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. As a form of collective punishment, Israel’s... blockade of Gaza is a flagrant violation of international law."

During its 2008/9 war on Gaza, "The Israeli army used white phosphorus, a weapon with a highly incendiary effect, in densely populated civilian residential areas of Gaza City, according to indisputable evidence found by an Amnesty International fact-finding team...

"When white phosphorus lands on skin it burns deeply through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn until deprived of oxygen." The white phosphorous was supplied by US arms firms.

White phosphorous is not illegal under international law but was condemned when deployed by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1991; but was then used in 2004, bu US troops in Fallujah, Iraq.

Illegal Settlements: No foreign government, including the US, recognises Israel's settlements in Sinai, the West Bank or the Golan Heights, nor in East Jerusalem. Yet, Israel continues to defy the International Court of Justice, the UN and the Oslo Accords.
Iran is accused of a determination to "wipe Israel off the face of the earth", an intention normally attributed to President Ahmadinejad, who is rightly condemend by all right-minded observers, including large sections of Iranian society. Yet, in practice, it is Israel which is busy denying life and human rights to Palestinians.

Nuclear weapons:
Despite the attention to Iran's nuclear programmes, Israel has long possessed nuclear weapons and long range intercontinental ballistic missiles. It also has refused to sign the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, citing "national security".

Why would Iranian nuclear weapons be qualitatively different from those possessed by Israel, Pakistan and India and, indeed, by North Korea, Britain, and the United States?

Has North Korea, the only other official US/Israel 'enemy' state, used its nuclear weapons? Behaved in a manner unlike any other state might? The lesson of North Korea, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and of Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, is that nuclear weapons provide the ultimate security against American or Israeli attacks and aggressions.

And that's why Iran's attempts - however undeveloped they might be - to build a nuclear arms capacity are so threatening - they would provide an ultimate line in the sand against external aggression. They cannot cite 'national security', however, to legitimise their policies, even though they have witnessed forcible regime change in their next door neighbour, Iraq, and in Libya, neither of which possessed the ultimate security guarantee.

Iran's nuclear programmes are part of the blowback that the USA and Israel reap for past aggressions in the Middle East.