Predictive Philippics …

Below is a piece that I wrote for Spiked Online ten years ago, in which I anticipated the ideological decay of the Western war-effort in Afghanistan. Now seen as one of the eternal dusty battlefields of the Forever War, it is hard to remember now that once upon a time many pro-war commentators still held up Afghanistan as emblematic of how Western military force could achieve liberal transformation. Vindicated ten years later, I republish it below.

What ever happened to the ‘good war’?

As Afghanistan starts to look more like Iraq, its image as a just war of self-defence is being questioned.

Afghanistan has returned to the media spotlight in the past few weeks. The recent burst of military offensive in the south, the resurgent Taliban increasing casualties among British and Canadian forces, and the unseemly scrabbling and pleading for NATO reinforcements and military equipment have all placed Afghanistan back in the news headlines. Lt General David Richards, the British commander of the 18,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told the BBC that the British Army has not seen fighting of such prolonged intensity since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, two years after invading Afghanistan, many felt that the Bush administration had overreached itself. Without the legal sanction of the United Nations, the invasion caused a diplomatic rift within the West – with Washington on the one side and Berlin and Paris on the other – as well as provoking a popular wave of opposition from within many Western countries. The failure to mobilise the international community behind the Iraq invasion made many suspicious about America’s motives. It was seen as a selfish war for oil rather than an altruistic and ‘legal’ war for the benefit of the world as a whole.

By contrast, the invasion of Afghanistan was seen by many as a just war undertaken in self-defence. It enjoyed the support of America’s key allies. The chaos in Iraq since the 2003 invasion seemed to confirm this view of the war in Afghanistan as a speedy and low-cost victory, stabilised by apparently wise European peacekeepers. In short, this was the ‘good war’ that liberated the Afghan people from the Taliban and created global unity against terror. Iraq, on the other hand, was the ‘bad war’, led by gung-ho Americans and giving rise only to schisms and chaos.

But with Afghanistan now looking increasingly like Iraq, the ‘good war’ is being called into question. With 33 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the last three months, suddenly everyone in Britain has something critical to say about the war. Opposition parties and the media – both liberal and conservative – routinely raise questions about the war effort. How are wounded soldiers being treated? Is the army overstretched with simultaneous deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq? Do our troops have the right kit? Are other countries contributing as much as Britain? Are they doing their fair share of the fighting? Are our boys getting the support they deserve back home? And so on. But this shortsighted griping leaves the politics of the war unchallenged.

The politics of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are very similar, even if only one has the support of the international community. Both wars have been marked by an absence of any overall strategic planning, with the Western military and political leaders trying to maintain momentum by constantly recreating war aims, offering up a new war aim in the face of any setback. With Iraq, US President George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair vacillated between several justifications for the war: urging the elimination of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, liberating the Iraqi people from tyranny, and spreading democracy in the Middle East.

We saw a similar pattern in Afghanistan. Following the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden (remember him?), the West’s war aims shifted to liberating Afghan women from Taliban oppression. This then turned into post-conflict ‘reconstruction’ operations, which have since shifted to helping expand the remit of the Western-backed government beyond Kabul. And now, by targeting opium production, the NATO campaign is morphing into a ‘war on drugs’ – that never-ending war with obscure and impossible aims that prefigured many aspects of the ‘war on terror’. Instead of pursuing a coherent war aim with fixity of purpose, it seems that Western armies are only discovering their aims and purposes in the process of fighting itself.

Originally established as an anti-Soviet military alliance, NATO has been tottering from one existential crisis to another since the end of the Cold War, in a desperate search to find its place in the new world order. Now locked in its largest conflict since its inception in 1949, the world’s most powerful military alliance seems to have at least temporarily resolved its identity crisis by fighting against Afghan villagers and tribesmen in military operations with embarrassingly adolescent names like ‘Anaconda’, ‘Medusa’ and ‘Mountain Thrust’. It seems the more the war effort is losing its coherence, the more verbose the names of operations become. NATO generals talk about the North Atlantic alliance facing a ‘fundamental’ test in the mountains of Afghanistan. But it would never be facing this so-called challenge if it had not gone out of its way to expand its operations in the first place.

It is clear that the myth of the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is rapidly fading away and the hollowness of the West’s war effort has been exposed. It is the attempt to find political meaning through the process of fighting itself, rather than realising premeditated war aims, that gives the war in Afghanistan its brittle character. Because it lacks any coherent principles, the war effort has grown in the past five years, quite independently of the Taliban’s activities, becoming increasingly destructive and violent.

The war in Afghanistan exposes the hypocritical image of peace-loving Europeans and Canadians, who supposedly devote themselves to humanitarian aid and social work in the Third World while Americans lob cruise missiles and cluster bombs. It is British, Dutch and Canadian forces that are at the cutting edge of NATO’s incursions into southern Afghanistan today. Accurate figures about Afghan casualties are hard to come by, but NATO forces routinely testify to hundreds of Afghan deaths in various skirmishes and battles. It is rarely clarified how many of these casualties are civilians. While justifications for the intervention in Afghanistan are constantly reinvented, the end results are always disastrous.

Republished with permission from Spiked Online.


Chinese Curses: Quick thoughts on historical change …

Another quick-fire update – hopefully building to more considered and lengthier responses at a later point when I have more time.

A rod for their own backs …

A codicil to my most recent previous post: there I discussed the anti-democratic nihilism of Remainers in their desperate hope – sometimes tacit, other times explicit – that a Remainer parliament will overrule the majority vote for Brexit. On the other side, the hair-trigger response of the pro-Brexit press to the High Court ruling was also remarkable. The demotic aggression with which the press pursued the High Court judges who batted Article 50 back to parliament was striking. That the Daily Telegraph in particular was willing to attack such an integral and hallowed pillar of the British establishment as the judiciary indicates the extent to which the political core of the British state has been eroded by decades of member-statehood. Still, in demagogically rallying to democracy and popular sovereignty against unelected officialdom they have made a rod for their own backs, and it will be used against them in future. We can rest assured that their newfound, full-throated advocacy of extending popular democracy over the institutions of the British state will not last.

With regards to the US election and so many commentators claiming that it is the end of liberalism, no one seems to be able to say what liberalism is. Those who are the actually-existing (left)-liberals of today don’t think of themselves as such, e.g., the SJWs, Twitter left and the critical / decolonial / post-colonial / radical / queer / feminist / poststructuralist / etc. left. On the other hand, those who do think of themselves as liberals in the proper old-fashioned sense of the term (classical liberals, Whigs, Hayekians, etc.) are as deluded as the fabled Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II on remote Pacific Islands long after the surrender (at least a century in the case of liberals). The historic and progressive gains of liberalism – and its distinctiveness as an explicit political theory of freedom –need defending now more than ever, particularly by those on the radical left, as so many are quick to bury something that hasn’t even subjected to an autopsy. Here, we encounter once again the flatness and exhaustion of so much political vocabulary: socialist, neoliberal, liberal, fascist, etc.

Sonderweg to Liberalism?

In light of the continued irruption of populism across the Western world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to Trump’s election victory was striking in its explicit commitment to prevailing liberal democratic sentiment. It may well be one of those peculiar historic ironies that the bloody German Sonderweg might yet turn out to lead Germany into being the European core of liberal democracy, as the far right populist waves flow and crash around Europe. Still, I expect Marine Le Pen to be beaten in the French presidential elections next year.

Further on Germanic themes, all the lamentations and teeth-gnashing over the Trump victory can lead us to conclude on a note from Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Hegel’s brilliant, carefully-weighed prose soars above the crude mediocrity of the present, but it still provides appropriate perspective on what can be genuinely described as the crumbling away of an entire political and social order:

… And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life – the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled” […] it is not the interest of such sentimentalities, really to rise above those depressing emotions; and to solve the enigmas of Providence which the considerations that occasioned them, present. It is essential to their character to find a gloomy satisfaction in the empty and fruitless sublimities of that negative result. We return them to the point of view which we have adopted; observing that the successive steps of the analysis to which it will lead us, will also evolve the conditions requisite for answering the inquiries suggested by the panorama of sin and suffering that history unfolds.   

Let them Dare! … Quick Thoughts on Article 50, Brexit and the US election

After a long, long hiatus, some quick and scattered thoughts and updates in response to recent events.

Months after the national vote to leave the European Union, the Brexit referendum continues to roil British politics. The bad faith and hypocrisy are striking. Since the legal ruling granting parliament a vote on Article 50, Remainers defend the British judiciary and parliament  while in the same breath clearly hoping that parliament will use the opportunity to thwart, subvert, undermine or variously dilute Brexit to the greatest possible extent (i.e., that parliament will act to restore the power of the Crown over parliament through the device of foreign negotiations with other EU member states).

The bad faith of the Remainers is exposed by the political redundancy of a parliamentary vote on Article 50. Parliament voted to have the referendum in the first place, and whatever the precise legal character of the referendum, to imagine that it could be politically over-ruled is deeply naive. In other words, the only option left to parliament is to rubber stamp the decision already made by the public. And unless you wish to make great claims about the importance of the British constitution (which I don’t), then what is the purpose of such a vote, except to undermine Brexit? Given that the politics of the issue is so clear-cut, there is little point grubbing about in the dusty parchments of the British constitution for precedent and guidance . The best political response to the situation is this: should our Remainer parliament hanker to or have an inkling of nullifying Brexit  then … let them dare: there will be riots in response, and a full-blown political crisis.

That Remainers are willing to countenance such an outcome only exposes their nihilism – an attachment to Brussels so strong that they are willing to tear away even the pretenses of democracy to which the EU pays lip-service, and push towards an open subversion of the popular will that will have terrible repercussions for the British state.  Mark Mazower’s much-remarked upon recent column for the FT rightly says that those concerned about a revival of fascism today should not fixate on potential dictators and demagogues but rather look to the degradation of liberal democratic institutions. He is right – and with regards to Europe at least, we should ask, who degraded those institutions? What happened at the same time across the whole of the European continent in the last two decades or more that has led so many people to feel politically disenchanted, alienated and removed from the processes of decision-making and public deliberation?

Britain was one of the few European states not to slide into dictatorship and fascism in the inter-war period, and perhaps history might repeat itself here. Notwithstanding the awful hyper-redundancy of comparisons to the inter-war period, consider this: while Remainers indulge nightmares that the shambolic UKIP might take over with Nigel Farage as a populist dictator, the Leave vote might be the thing that helps to pull Britain away if not from fascism, then at least from the vortex that will engulf the EU. A Leave vote, properly managed, could restore not only the democratic legitimacy of the British state that worries Mazower, but even give greater options to the British states in managing the economy, thereby enabling it to better weather the global economic crisis. Remainers clucking away about fascism-in-our-time may yet come to think that it is Brexit that saved them from the fate that awaits the member-states of the Eurozone.

The talk of fascism takes us to the US: Zizek’s click-bait interview for Channel 4 in which he said he would vote for Trump in the US election has sparked the predictable controversy. It is striking that, with characteristic delusion, the academic and SJW left have repudiated him, as if he were on their side to begin with. More to the point – and in contradistinction to his critics – Zizek did not make an ‘accelerationist’ defence of a Trump vote, as per the strategy of the KPD with regards to Hitler in the 1930s. Zizek explicitly bases his reasoning on the fact that Trump will not bring fascism to the US. I doubt Trump will win, and would myself abstain were I a US citizen.  Despite his support for Trump, Zizek is right as to the consequences of a Trump defeat, in as much as Hillary’s campaign has been based on using the threat of a Trump presidency to prolong the era of post-political liberal technocracy in US politics.

Hiding behind the specter of Marx

The piece below was published in the Platypus review at the beginning of last year. It was a response to an earlier review of Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production by James Heartfield. I’m republishing the piece here as part of a process of kick-starting this blog again. Except for some minor editorial corrections (typos, paragraphing, etc.) the piece is republished here without any other / substantive changes.

There is a fair amount one could take issue with in James Heartfield’s review of Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production—not least the redundant polemical sideswipes that generate heat but do not shed light. But rather than arbitrating between Kliman and Heartfield, I want to focus instead on the main contradiction in Heartfield’s argument, as it is Heartfield’s argument that has the most far-reaching implications for how we might think about capitalism and the prospects for social change. This is because Heartfield argues that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of capitalism, but is unwilling to follow through on his own claims.

Heartfield has two mutually inconsistent lines of attack on Kliman. On the one hand, Heartfield attacks Kliman for jumbling up Marx’s theory and ignoring what is, according to Heartfield, masses of crucial and obvious empirical evidence. On the other hand, Heartfield charges Kliman with failing to live up to Marx’s spirit—or what Heartfield describes as Marx’s “underlying method” but is in fact Heartfield’s own theory about the risk-aversion of the capitalist class. One line of attack is a technical and substantive discussion on the basis of Marx’s categories and the interpretation of the empirical evidence. The other line of attack is based on Heartfield’s own claims about the low morale of the contemporary capitalist class and the “anti-growth” ideas that they have embraced. In short, Heartfield holds Kliman to account by two incompatible standards.

Heartfield’s review oscillates between these two lines of attack. On the first line of attack, Heartfield variously accuses Kliman of reifying the falling rate of profit by extracting it out of the wider dynamic of capital accumulation, of under-emphasizing the exploitation of labor over recent decades, of over-emphasizing changes in asset prices and capital depreciation, and of overlooking the importance of consumption goods for the reproduction of labor power. On the second line of attack, Heartfield accuses Kliman of ignoring the political defeat of the working class and the resultant drift and disorientation of the ruling class. Heartfield strains to compress these two arguments into one by arguing that the defeat of the unions in the West and expansion of capitalism into the old Second and Third Worlds can be translated into the terms of Marx’s economic categories (i.e., how the relationship between constant and variable capital is altered). But there are a number of problems with the way in which Heartfield does this.

For a start, the manner in which Heartfield translates these political changes into Marx’s most elemental categories is often assertive, and without the evidence such claims can only have the character of intriguing hypotheses. For example at one point Heartfield claims that the post-Cold War Eastern European imports of U.S. industrial goods and export of cheap consumption goods to the U.S. have been fundamental to U.S. capitalism. But while this would certainly be nice for Heartfield’s theory, he presents no evidence for it. At another point, Heartfield asserts that the defeat of the unions prompted the growth of the U.S. labor force that correspondingly dampened the effects of the falling rate of profit, but never bothers to measure de-unionization against such trivial things as population growth, immigration, the changing composition and the feminization of the labor force.More important than Heartfield’s failure to substantiate such claims is the fact that at the most protean level of Marx’s theory, political defeats such as the crushing of the unions or implosion of the Eastern bloc only matter in as much as they impact ratios in the dynamic of capital accumulation. Heartfield sneers at Kliman’s use of “ratios” as opposed to “social relations” (relations that we can supposedly understand by communing with Marx’s “underlying method”) and charges Kliman with “over-objectifying” economic limits. But what are ratios if not relational? And what else is Heartfield describing but an objective social condition understandable in terms of a ratio of constant to variable capital?

Heartfield claims that the capitalists’ political victories over the last forty years have allowed them to lay claim to a mass of surplus value sufficient as to stave off the crisis tendencies identified by Marx. If true, why would we expect them to behave differently? Capitalists invest for profit, not to satisfy James Heartfield. If they are making enough profits as a result of the defeat of the unions, why bother investing proportionately more in what Marx would call constant capital (technology, etc.)? Doubtless capitalists have become decadent as a result of their earlier victory in the class war. But Marx’s theory is about dynamics—ratios, even—that occur independently of the existential mood of the bourgeoisie. The organic composition of capital is not going to change if the capitalists fire all the risk consultants and tear up the corporate social responsibility charters. The agency of the proletariat and its political consciousness matters for Marx but the consciousness of the capitalists and their failure to live up to the self-serving fables of entrepreneurship is neither here nor there in terms of the relationship (one might even call it a “ratio”) between constant and variable capital.

Either: Heartfield can say that the defeat of the organized labor movement and global expansion of capital has led to under-accumulation in terms of Marx’s theory as against Kliman’s claims of over-accumulation. This underlying organic composition of capital can be plausibly associated with a particular set of social and political conditions, such as the ideology of eco-doom and social skepticism towards growth. Or: Heartfield can say that the defeat of the organized labor movement and the global expansion of capital led to a restructuring of modern society so complete and sweeping that commodity fetishism no longer applies and relations of constant to variable capital do not matter in the face of our rulers’ moral torpor and timidity. Or, in a word, that Marx was wrong. Instead of the subjective political struggle for socialism displacing and triumphing over the objective social relations of capital, the opposite process has occurred whereby the subjective attitude of the capitalists has displaced the objective relations of capital. If the latter is true, then Marx is not only wrong now but was always wrong, since evidently his theory could not accommodate such a drastic social change in the development of capitalism while it is still recognizably capitalism. There is—of course—nothing intrinsically illegitimate about either line of attack. But by seeking to combine them without at least trying to reconcile their incompatibility, the overall effect cannot but be disingenuous.

Ethical Foreign Policy, Mark II: Saving Gaza, Saving Humanitarianism

During the last Israel-Gaza War of 2009, I wrote a piece for Spiked Online where I argued that (liberal) anti-Zionism was decaying into humanitarian anti-Semitism. The international responses to the most recent conflict in Gaza vindicate this earlier case, and merit elaborating the argument further, particularly given the inverse relationship between growing Western support for the Palestinians and the evaporation of prospects for Palestinian liberation. What follows are some polemical thoughts regarding framings of the conflict.

Given the bloody disasters that continue to unfold in Iraq and Libya and in which British leaders and force of arms have played such a distinguished part, it would be difficult to imagine how the British state could reclaim the moral high ground on the international stage. Fortunately for the coalition government, the protestors who marched supposedly in defence of the Palestinians have come to the rescue of British foreign policy. The ‘Save Gaza’ protestors have provided the opportunity for the ruling Liberal Democrats – renowned for their strength of commitment to principle – to seize the moral initiative. Business secretary Vince Cable threatened to cancel arms exports licenses to Israel should the Israeli assault on Gaza continue. So why does the plight of Gazans win increasing public sympathy within the West and growing indulgence from the British government?

Gaza protestors claim that attempts to ask this question are disingenuous apologetics for Israeli actions: Owen Jones derides this as ‘whataboutery’. Jones is doubtless right as to the tendentious character of pro-Israelis’ newly-discovered humanitarian concerns – concerns always chosen so as to diminish the suffering in Gaza. Jones claims that what justifies concern over Gaza in contrast to the example of the Islamic State (ISIS) is Western support for Israel. Taking collective action to change state policy where it supports militarism and oppression is to hold our state by a democratic standard, according to Jones. Hence, he claims, the political redundancy of demonstrating in support of the UK’s opposition to ISIS, as the UK is already opposed to that group.

The comparison with ISIS is more accurate, telling – and troubling – than Jones realises. Much of the justification for (yet more) renewed Western warfare in the Middle East continues to be humanitarian: while previously war was fought to overthrow Saddam’s tyranny, now more intervention is being undertaken to protect the Yazidi minority and punish ISIS for their war crimes and atrocities. What this suggests is that the basis of support for Gazans is – like that for the Yazidis – humanitarian. That is to say, the basis for solidarity extended to Palestinians is based on Palestinian suffering, and not on the basis of their political aspirations or potential.

This humanitarian focus differs from the character of the traditional support extended by the left to the Palestinian struggle, which was classically based on the Palestinians’ political agency. That is, their potential to overthrow a Western-backed imperial order in the Middle East – of which Zionist colonialism was only the spearhead – as well as the threat they posed to the conservative Arab dictatorships. Owen Jones and the Gaza protestors are demanding that the Israel-Palestinian conflict be aligned with and assimilated into the wider constellation of humanitarianism.

Given that humanitarianism has been the main justification for Western imperial warfare since the end of the Cold War, there is no more progressive sentiment in the ‘Stop the War’ march against Israel than there was in the ‘Save Darfur’ campaign that was marching to call for the bombing of Khartoum. Responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict now bear all the hallmarks of humanitarianism. There is the fact that the pro-Palestinian response is motivated by the urgent need to relieve human suffering – the upshot being the relegation of political transformation and liberation. Second, there is the widespread indifference to and ignorance of the politics of the conflict and region – e.g., the recent intra-Palestinian civil war between Hamas and Fatah and the disintegration of recent negotiations with Israel. Who’s side to take, which policy to support? One state or two states? This political indifference contrasts with the character of pro-Palestinian solidarity in the past, which was about extending political support to specific groups struggling to claim political leadership of the Palestinian nation as a whole – Fatah, the Palestinian communist parties, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or whoever. Today, there is no political support as such – in the sense of allying with a specific group with a concrete agenda and strategies – but rather generic sympathy for Palestinians’ collective suffering. Whatever political support there is is extended not to Palestinian groups, but rather to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s opportunistic attempts to boost Turkish influence in the region, or to the International Criminal Court.

That a humanitarian framing of the conflict is possible speaks to wider political and strategic changes both in the Middle East and the world as a whole. Israel’s military supremacy and the implosion of pan-Arab nationalism no longer allow Israel to convincingly portray itself as a nation in imminent danger of extinction, or as the victim of larger and more powerful forces. This allows for the Manichean politics of humanitarianism to take hold, which is always based on a binary opposition between villainous victimisers and innocent, pathetic victims. Humanitarianism also helps us better understand the ‘whataboutery’. The answer to ‘whataboutery’ in the past was not based on an index of Palestinian suffering compared to that of others, but because the Palestinians’ circumstances as a dispossessed, oppressed and diasporic nation gave them the potential to transform an entire region in the course of liberating themselves.

Today, whatever support the Palestinians do seek out and earn is based on their powerlessness – their incapacity to effect any political change without international support. The continuing involution of Palestinian liberation follows the logic of Oslo – the ‘Palestinian Versailles’ as described by Edward Said. The Palestinian struggle continues to descend from the struggle for secular, national self-determination to the struggle to secure international protection – the shadow of membership in the UN General Assembly, petitions before the global Star Chamber of the International Criminal Court, and so on. Hamas has gone even further: in its cease-fire demands the supposedly fearsome terror group and implacable foe of Israel called for a quasi-protectorate to be imposed on Palestine, including an airport and seaport under international supervision and borders patrolled by international peacekeepers. Here, history comes full circle, with the now realistic prospect that Palestine might be once again become a ward of international organisations – just as modern Palestine began as a mandate awarded to the British empire by the League of Nations. It is worth recalling that it was under the ‘sacred civilising mission’ of the League that Palestinian nationalism endured its first major defeat when the British crushed the Arab uprising of 1936.

The politics of humanitarianism also helps explain the decay of anti-Zionism. It is crucial to distinguish today’s slowly growing nebula of anti-Semitism from traditional anti-Semitism. One of the core components of traditional anti-Semitism was the notion that Jews were rootless aliens, whose political loyalties were always suspect because they owed allegiance to some nebulous transnational community whose supposed lack of territorial roots could be conveniently elided with the mysterious flux of international finance. While the Manichean politics of humanitarianism still imputes villainy to the Jews, by contrast today Jews are suspect for not being cosmopolitan, for their loyalty to a nation-state – and moreover a nation-state that appears to act as a classical, traditional nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its interest through military force, territorial expansion, unrestrained by international law or international organisation. Traditional anti-Semitism took the view of the nation against supposedly cosmopolitan Jewry – today, humanitarian anti-Semitism by default takes the view of the international community against backwards, nationalistic Jews. This incipient transformation of anti-Zionism speaks to Jones’ disingenuousness as regards the return of anti-Semitism. Jones presents anti-Semitism as a primordial, perennial prejudice that simply requires constant vigilance and repression and that cannot therefore be eradicated. In so doing, he disguises the contemporary left’s complicity in recreating the basis for anti-Semitism through its adoption of humanitarian politics in response to Gaza.

For the left and for Western states, the stakes are high. The disaster of Iraq means that intervention there is increasingly justified by reference to containment and the need to halt spiralling disintegration, rather than cast as part of a project of universalising human rights. The more humanitarian sympathy for the Palestinians that the left elicits, the more tempting a target Israel becomes for Western states. Anti-Israeli sentiment is the last refuge of humanitarian politics, and punishing Israel – precisely because Israel is allied to the West – increasingly becomes the only way in which Western states and political elites may recoup moral authority and restore their humanitarian credibility on the international stage.

Restricting arms exports is the first halting step in the humanitarian campaign against Israel. Again, history comes full circle: restricting arms exports was one of the distinctive planks of the ethical foreign policy launched by the first New Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who later resigned over the 2003 invasion of Iraq – itself the bloody denouement of New Labour’s ethical imperialism that Cook helped to pioneer. One of the test cases for Cook’s policy was British arms exports to Indonesia, then still ruled by the old anti-communist strongman Suharto, whose forces were brutalising the East Timorese in suppressing their struggle for independence. While humanitarian support for the Timorese did result in a military intervention that ousted Indonesia, the upshot was an international protectorate over East Timor, which formally ended only in December 2012.

Given how long the Palestinians have struggled for independence, they should look to the fate of East Timor under international supervision when they consider their response to their new humanitarian allies in the West.

The West’s Forgotten Armies

With the mayhem in Iraq, one news story from the Middle East that you might have missed  was the release on 11 September of 45 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers that had been captured on 28 August by the Al-Nusra Front, a Syrian anti-government militia linked to Al-Qaeda. The peacekeepers were Fijian soldiers stationed in the Golan Heights. Having threatened the Fijians with a Sharia trial and having issued various demands to the UN, the world body despatched special negotiation teams to the region. It is no surprise that the world’s media has paid less attention to the fate of Fijian soldiers than they would if the same thing had happened to Western soldiers. But this effect is not only the result of a biased media. It is the outcome of a political strategy through which the burdens of UN peacekeeping have been systematically deflected away from Western forces since the mid-1990s. The UN peacekeeping system has allowed Western states to harness the armies of developing countries into a force multiplier for their projects of global intervention.

That there are soldiers from the Pacific deployed on the other side of the world in a conflict in which their country is not involved is far from untypical. The Fijians in the Golan are only a small part of a large and cosmopolitan army nearly 100,000-strong and deployed around the world across 16 missions. With the overwhelming media focus on Western military intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it is still not widely known that, after the US, it is the UN that deploys the most military forces around the world. There are more UN peacekeepers fighting in the eastern border regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, than there are Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine. The mission on which the captured Fijians served in the Golan was a thirty-year old artefact of the Arab-Israeli wars. Many other peacekeepers are despatched to conflicts that are of a more recent provenance, that are still on-going – and deadly. Peacekeepers’ casualties have been steadily mounting in Mali, for example, where the UN mission has been deployed with a mandate to use force and to help extend the authority of the central state throughout the troubled north of the country. Altogether, 3,250 UN peacekeepers have died since 1948.

That this global army is mostly invisible in public debate reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of UN peacekeepers come from developing and transitional countries, mostly in South Asia and Africa. But while these countries deploy the soldiers, they do not call the shots. UN peacekeeping is predominantly financed by Western states and politically controlled by the UN Security Council, which is in turn dominated by the P3 – the three veto-wielding Western states, namely Britain, France and the US. The same is true of various regional peacekeeping operations, which are often prostheses grafted onto a UN base. This is true of the hybrid African Union-UN mission in Darfur, and the African Union mission in Somalia, which is effectively an extension of the US war on terror in the Horn of Africa.

The significance of this is that in an era in which global Western power is in decline, in which armies are shrinking and military budgets strained, multilateral peacekeeping arrangements manned by developing countries allow Western states to project global power at minimal political risk and at vastly reduced cost, even if this comes at the expense of strategic coherence. Richard Gowan of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation estimates that one NATO soldier is five times more expensive to deploy to the field than a UN peacekeeper. But the benefits are not only financial: UN peacekeeping expands the possibilities for military intervention. The political costs to France of intervening in its former colonies such as Cote d’Ivoire and Mali would have been much higher without the possibility of deploying alongside UN forces. Such arrangements allow Western states to mount military campaigns – such as Britain’s 2000 Operation Barras in Sierra Leone or France’s 2012-14 Operation Serval in Mali – without needing to confront the costs and risks of long-term nation-building and occupation that would normally result from military intervention. These burdens can be carried by the blue helmets and UN agencies: the UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone and the MINUSMA operation in Mali. Although essential props to Western power, these UN missions (whose soldiers were mostly provided by Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively) never endured the kind of public debate and legislative scrutiny to which Western operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been subjected.

In short, Western military intervention is not just about cruise missiles, drone strikes and NATO rapid reaction forces – it is also about Ethiopian, Uruguayan, Jordanian and Pakistani peacekeepers financed, controlled and supported by Western states to deploy to obscure missions in forgotten wars around the world. Next time the cry goes up among the Western chattering classes that ‘something must be done!’ in response to a humanitarian crisis or conflict, it is worth recalling that that ‘something’ we are talking about will likely depend on other countries’ soldiers acting on our behalf.

Spiked from the Russian press! A critique of Russian diplomacy over Syria

The following was commissioned, then declined from the Russian press last month:

Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control has been widely seen as a triumph for Russian diplomacy. Moscow’s proposal was crowned by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal plea to the US public, published in the New York Times on 11 September 2013, in which he defended international law and the UN as an alternative to US military action. But in truth when it comes to questions of force in international affairs, there is no principled difference between Moscow and Washington. While Russia’s proposal might undercut justification for a US strike, it also signals the growing substitution of might for right in international politics, and the further degradation of state sovereignty in favour of great power rule.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the West have often tangled over questions of military intervention. As well as the controversy over Syria, notable instances include the disputes over intervention in the former Yugoslavia and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But agreement over intervention has been more common than disagreement, with Russia nodding through countless new UN peacekeeping operations on the Security Council in cooperation with Western states – operations that have grown ever more militarised and coercive. Russia has never been shy in using military intervention to police its ‘near abroad’. Moscow has also traded its support for peacekeeping in Western spheres of influence in return for Western support of Russian peacekeeping in former Soviet republics. Russia acquiesced to the NATO campaign in Libya in 2011, even though it was obvious that enforcement of a no-fly zone for ‘civilian protection’ would inevitably escalate into full-blown war for regime change.

Whatever credibility Russia might once have had as a principled defender of non-intervention was lost with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Russia justified its intervention in Georgia on humanitarian grounds as spurious as those routinely manufactured in Western capitals. This was reinforced with the subsequent recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian secession that Russia justified by reference to Western recognition of Kosovo which seceded from Serbia in 2008 – itself the outcome of NATO intervention in 1999. Russia does not even have a strategic stake in the survival of the Syrian regime, let alone any principled attachment to international law. The dilapidated Syrian port of Tartus is worthless to Russia’s depleted post-Soviet navy, and the Russian arms industry will survive the loss of its Syrian export market. Russia’s only stake in the conflict is reputational.

Putin’s plea for international law is in fact a plea to Western capitals to recognise Russia as an indispensable diplomatic interlocutor and global power with as much right to police smaller states as Western powers. But how powerful can a state so dependent on Western recognition ever really be? The Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons beyond use will escalate intervention in that country’s civil war, and the likely failure to implement such a complex and far-reaching proposal will only provide justification for further escalation in future, as with the predictable escalation of NATO’s ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya. Russia might have temporarily succeeded in deflecting the US drive to war, but this is no victory for international peace, let alone for international law. In defending the role of the UN Security Council, Russia is putting forward a vision of international order in which great powers are entitled to create their own protectorates, to mount military interventions as they please and to decide what weapons smaller powers are entitled to. A world, in short, in which international law is whatever the great powers say it is.