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Gary Younge: Stranger in a Strange Land


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Gary Younge has agreed to discuss "Stranger in a Strange Land" on the forum. This is what Stuart Hall has said about the writings of Gary Younge: "Unfailingly insightful, illuminating and well-informed on the subjects that matter, with a genius for finding the place, the witness, the anecdote, the event, the detail, the angle which takes the reader right to the heart of the matter.... One of the tiny handful of contemporary journalists left who is consistently worth reading. A voive of our times."

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(1) On page xi of the introduction you attack the sanctimony of “many liberal Europeans: “Their critique of U.S. foreign policy was often sound. But the haughtiness with which they delivered it was way off key. When their governments or citizens slam America for its brutality and imperialist pretensions, all too often they fail to do so with sufficient self-awareness or humility to see what to the rest of the world is obvious: that their nations have acted in an equally pernicious fashion whenever they have had the opportunity.”

I was surprised by these remarks. I would say all my “liberal” friends are fully aware of Europe’s imperialist past. In fact, it often goes to the heart of why they hold “left of centre” political views. Nor were they persuaded by Blair’s appeal to history with his references to Nazi Germany. They knew that the Second World War was not a war to protect and advance democracy. (If so, why did Poland and Czechoslovakia end up under the control of the Soviet Union?)

The most amazing thing about the Iraq War was those people with so-called “left of centre” political opinions who fully supported the invasion of Iraq. This was true of both the Labour Party and some notable figures in the media. What is more, so few of them have admitted their mistake by supporting the war? Some have claimed that they might have come to a different conclusion if they had known that Iraq did not have “weapons of mass destruction”. However, that was the main reason why people opposed the invasion of Iraq. Other factors such the illegality of the invasion, a grasp of the history of the region and an understanding of Bush’s real motives, were more important in the decision to oppose the war.

(2) On page 7 you write: “Even by its own standards, Operation Enduring Freedom is proving a disaster. Taking western leaders at their word, it stated aim is to defeat terrorism. A reasonable test of their war aims, therefore, would be to ask whether their actions have made a terrorist attack more or less likely.”

Like most people, I would argue that the invasion of Iraq has made the problem of terrorism worse. Living in the UK I feel far less safe from terrorist attacks than I did before the invasion. As Kenneth Clarke predicted in the House of Commons during the famous debate on Blair’s Iraq policy, terrorist attacks on London would be inevitable consequence of British troops taking part in the invasion.

However, the problem is that Americans might well feel safer from terrorism since invading Iraq. After all, they have not seen a repeat of 9/11. It is possible for Bush supporters to argue that the reason for this is that they have frightened off terrorist action because of their aggressive foreign policy. Of course the real reason is that London and Madrid were targeted because it was easier to do and that political leaders in Europe were far more vulnerable to political pressure than those in the United States.

Do you think another terrorist outrage in the United States would increase or decrease pressure on George Bush to pull out the troops from Iraq?

(3) On page 9 you write: “From the outset Bush has been putting the world ‘on notice’ and warning: ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ Both he and Blair act as though there are only two possible responses to the terrorist attacks. Either you bomb one of the poorest, most famine-stricken countries in the world to smithereens, or you do nothing.”

It is amazing that Bush and Blair have been able to get away with this argument that there are only two responses to this problem. How did they do it?

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  • 3 weeks later...
(1) On page xi of the introduction you attack the sanctimony of “many liberal Europeans: “Their critique of U.S. foreign policy was often sound. But the haughtiness with which they delivered it was way off key. When their governments or citizens slam America for its brutality and imperialist pretensions, all too often they fail to do so with sufficient self-awareness or humility to see what to the rest of the world is obvious: that their nations have acted in an equally pernicious fashion whenever they have had the opportunity.”

I was surprised by these remarks. I would say all my “liberal” friends are fully aware of Europe’s imperialist past. In fact, it often goes to the heart of why they hold “left of centre” political views. Nor were they persuaded by Blair’s appeal to history with his references to Nazi Germany. They knew that the Second World War was not a war to protect and advance democracy. (If so, why did Poland and Czechoslovakia end up under the control of the Soviet Union?)

The most amazing thing about the Iraq War was those people with so-called “left of centre” political opinions who fully supported the invasion of Iraq. This was true of both the Labour Party and some notable figures in the media. What is more, so few of them have admitted their mistake by supporting the war? Some have claimed that they might have come to a different conclusion if they had known that Iraq did not have “weapons of mass destruction”. However, that was the main reason why people opposed the invasion of Iraq. Other factors such the illegality of the invasion, a grasp of the history of the region and an understanding of Bush’s real motives, were more important in the decision to oppose the war.

When it comes to "liberal" Europeans attitude to US foreign policy at the moment I would say there have been two dominant strands. One has rightly attacked American foreign policy but has occasionally done so with an air of moral superiority that is laughable given Europe's own history. I see little evidence from French or Belgian criticisms of this war, for example, that would suggest that the critics would relate this to what happened in the Congo or Algeria. Instead it is understood discretely in the history of US imperialism alongside Vietnam, Korea and the first Gulf war. This isn't a competition to see who's worse but to get things in perspective. What the US has done in Iraq is not aberrant but consistent with the colonial projects of the last couple centuries.

The other, as you rightly point out, has been those "liberal hawks" who bought the whole agenda hook, line and sinker. The debacle in Iraq has embarrassed some into recanting, but many peculiarly feel emboldened. For them this wasn't a one-off mistake. They have transposed their reactionary views about the war to supporting wars on multi-culturalism and civil liberties at home. Their books have a familiar feel. "I was left wing once. I went on a demonstration and refused to buy South African fruit. Then 9/11 made me see the world in a different light. Now I feel the left has betrayed me and the causes I believe in. I stand for Enlightenment values. They are against them. I am the Left. They are not." A friend recently described these folks to me as sub-prime commentators. Their departure is really just a market correction. They were never particularly left-wing in the first place. Now they are gone. No harm no foul. We won't miss them.

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(3) On page 9 you write: “From the outset Bush has been putting the world ‘on notice’ and warning: ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ Both he and Blair act as though there are only two possible responses to the terrorist attacks. Either you bomb one of the poorest, most famine-stricken countries in the world to smithereens, or you do nothing.”

It is amazing that Bush and Blair have been able to get away with this argument that there are only two responses to this problem. How did they do it?

Good question. With Bush I think it is the fear and horror of the original attack. The further away we move from the attack (that's from the same piece written on October 15th) the more difficult it becomes to evoke.

After the attacks people wanted action. Bush gave it to them. None could say he didn't do anything. I remember being in the US in October 2001.

Talking to people about the UN or other countries have responded different to injustices (Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa for example) Met with blank stares. People wanted something done. It was understandable but not very smart.

More incredible is how Blair got away with it. A Labour prime minister in a country that was not hit. There was almost a complete collapse of any link between the political culture and the political class. British people didn't want it and couldn't stop it. There was no viable party they could turn to - unlike in Spain - that would take action. In a sense he didn't get away with it because that is primarily why he had to leave prematurely. But he managed to jump before he was pushed.

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Guest Stephen Turner
.

The other, as you rightly point out, has been those "liberal hawks" who bought the whole agenda hook, line and sinker. The debacle in Iraq has embarrassed some into recanting, but many peculiarly feel emboldened. For them this wasn't a one-off mistake. They have transposed their reactionary views about the war to supporting wars on multi-culturalism and civil liberties at home. Their books have a familiar feel. "I was left wing once. I went on a demonstration and refused to buy South African fruit. Then 9/11 made me see the world in a different light. Now I feel the left has betrayed me and the causes I believe in. I stand for Enlightenment values. They are against them. I am the Left. They are not." A friend recently described these folks to me as sub-prime commentators. Their departure is really just a market correction. They were never particularly left-wing in the first place. Now they are gone. No harm no foul. We won't miss them.

Gary, do you feel that this phenomina was almost inevitable, given the scale of defeats suffered by the left over the past 30 years? A kind of semi-collective". I would like to be on the winning side for a change"

How would a defeat for America and the UK play out with them, do you see it re-altering their world view?

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I never put 'liberals' on the 'left' as they invariably fall for the flag-waiving; duality of choices of action; rationalizations for wars or not helping countries in need etc. They just have a slightly more benign view of how their own society should be run....slightly being the operative word.

That might be true of the United States but it is not the case in the UK. Very few “liberals” supported the invasion of Iraq. For example, every Liberal Democrat MP voted against the invasion in the House of Commons. The problem in the UK was the support the invasion got from Labour and Conservative MPs. Some left-wing Labour MPs voted against and a majority of its members were opposed to the war. However, the vast majority of Labour MPs are neither socialist, left wing or even liberal. They are careerist politicians who are willing to think and say what their leader tells them to think and say.

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Guest David Guyatt
They are careerist politicians who are willing to think and say what their leader tells them to think and say.

That, of course, John, is the great deception of political party "democracy". Parliamentarians serve the Party not the people who put them there. Of course there are exceptions, but insufficient to tip the scales in any meaningful way.

Gary, I also was surprised by yor remarks about the liberal European attitude to American policy. Why are you defensive? The world has moved on remarkably over the last fifty years, let alone the last two hundred. People have slowly cottoned onto reality, due largely, I think, to the internet.

No one I know considers European imperialism of the past to have been anything other than for the benefit of an elite few. In the case of us British, it was the ruling hand of the Rhodes-Milner club. But the same truth applies to the so called 300 families of imperial France. Today it is an imperial US -- perhaps imperious US is actually more accurate. They too, are serving the interests of a tiny elite.

The difference between those histories of yesteryear and today is marked. For the first time in human history, mankind can destroy his species in a relative blink of madness.

Surely it is right to chastise US foreign policy and try to make it jerk awake, rather than to feather-bed in the same old nod and wink manner that has dominated the political past?

David

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(2) On page 7 you write: “Even by its own standards, Operation Enduring Freedom is proving a disaster. Taking western leaders at their word, it stated aim is to defeat terrorism. A reasonable test of their war aims, therefore, would be to ask whether their actions have made a terrorist attack more or less likely.”

Like most people, I would argue that the invasion of Iraq has made the problem of terrorism worse. Living in the UK I feel far less safe from terrorist attacks than I did before the invasion. As Kenneth Clarke predicted in the House of Commons during the famous debate on Blair’s Iraq policy, terrorist attacks on London would be inevitable consequence of British troops taking part in the invasion.

However, the problem is that Americans might well feel safer from terrorism since invading Iraq. After all, they have not seen a repeat of 9/11. It is possible for Bush supporters to argue that the reason for this is that they have frightened off terrorist action because of their aggressive foreign policy. Of course the real reason is that London and Madrid were targeted because it was easier to do and that political leaders in Europe were far more vulnerable to political pressure than those in the United States.

Do you think another terrorist outrage in the United States would increase or decrease pressure on George Bush to pull out the troops from Iraq?

The quote you use was from an article written on October 15th 2001. The context is important. Neither Spain nor London bombings had happened yet. I was predicting them. I think there are a few reasons why there has been no terror attacks since 9/11 in the states, foremost among them being that they had the first one. The demographic profile of the Muslim community in the US is also very different. US Muslims are generally wealthier and better educated than the population at large. The pool of alienation and resentment which provides the political base from which bombers might emerge - the bombers themselves in Europe have been well-healed but the context is one of greater political resistance - is less pronounced here.

Indeed, according to a Pew survey that portion of the Muslim population here most likely to sympathise with violent acts are not from immigrant communities but African American converts. I think a terrorist outrage - God forbid - would increase pressure on Bush to pull out the troops. Most Americans I know disagree. They have logic on their side - acts of terrorism generally produce the kind of fear that prompts reactionary responses. But I think Americans are able to draw the conclusion that the war has made them more vulnerable and the war isn't working. I hope we never find out.

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  • 2 weeks later...
.

The other, as you rightly point out, has been those "liberal hawks" who bought the whole agenda hook, line and sinker. The debacle in Iraq has embarrassed some into recanting, but many peculiarly feel emboldened. For them this wasn't a one-off mistake. They have transposed their reactionary views about the war to supporting wars on multi-culturalism and civil liberties at home. Their books have a familiar feel. "I was left wing once. I went on a demonstration and refused to buy South African fruit. Then 9/11 made me see the world in a different light. Now I feel the left has betrayed me and the causes I believe in. I stand for Enlightenment values. They are against them. I am the Left. They are not." A friend recently described these folks to me as sub-prime commentators. Their departure is really just a market correction. They were never particularly left-wing in the first place. Now they are gone. No harm no foul. We won't miss them.

Gary, do you feel that this phenomina was almost inevitable, given the scale of defeats suffered by the left over the past 30 years? A kind of semi-collective". I would like to be on the winning side for a change"

How would a defeat for America and the UK play out with them, do you see it re-altering their world view?

The dominant trend in social democratic thinking has always been more nationalist than internationalist. I think this war simply exposed that fissure. With Blair and the Labour leadership I think there was definitely a decision to be on the winning side. Morally it was entirely bankrupt. But strategically it wasn't as ridiculous as it now looked. They calculated that the smaller nations on the security council could be bullied into backing it, that Saddam had weapons (I certainly thought he did too, but that was no reason to bomb him and there were inspectors there anyhow), that America was going to do it anyway, that they would win anyway and who would want to be on the wrong side of that. Trouble is they got their sums wrong. But these people who did the Euston Manifesto and so on were, with a few exceptions, never particularly left wing and I think popped their cherry in terms of the arguments for "liberal" intervention with Bosnia - which frankly was a more tricky issue even if I didn't agree with them then.

I don't see a defeat altering their world view for very long. I feel like the British have always seen this as America's war and the Americans have a habit of folding every event into their worldview rather than the other way around, whether it fits or not. In this case the logic is - we came to try and help these people have the great kind of democracy we have. But they don't want it. So screw them. Why should our great young men die to save these idiots from themselves. And that's the rationale coming from most of the Democratic leadership!

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That 'framing' of the options and arguement as two and only two possibilities is an old game and, in fact, a game based on the analogy with a team sport...either you 'win' the game, or you loose. Very perceptive remarks Gary. I never put 'liberals' on the 'left' as they invariably fall for the flag-waiving; duality of choices of action; rationalizations for wars or not helping countries in need etc. They just have a slightly more benign view of how their own society should be run....slightly being the operative word.

I agree on your assessment of liberals and the left. This war has in fact highlighted that difference as have the "debates" if you can call them that over multiculturalism at home. I think the party affiliation in this respect is immaterial. When I think Labour I don't think "the Left" although I know there are some leftists in there.

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Gary, I also was surprised by yor remarks about the liberal European attitude to American policy. Why are you defensive? The world has moved on remarkably over the last fifty years, let alone the last two hundred. People have slowly cottoned onto reality, due largely, I think, to the internet.

No one I know considers European imperialism of the past to have been anything other than for the benefit of an elite few. In the case of us British, it was the ruling hand of the Rhodes-Milner club. But the same truth applies to the so called 300 families of imperial France. Today it is an imperial US -- perhaps imperious US is actually more accurate. They too, are serving the interests of a tiny elite.

The difference between those histories of yesteryear and today is marked. For the first time in human history, mankind can destroy his species in a relative blink of madness.

Surely it is right to chastise US foreign policy and try to make it jerk awake, rather than to feather-bed in the same old nod and wink manner that has dominated the political past?

I'm not being defensive at all. Indeed whom would I be defending. In terms of Europe reckoning with its colonial past the world hasn't moved at all in my book. Otherwise how would you make sense of someone like Blunkett saying "And those who come into our home - for that is what it is - should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."

That's news to people in India, Ghana, Rhodesia and so on. Or Gordon Brown saying "The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world. Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values." Britain never apologised. And tolerance, liberty, civic duty and the rest of it certainly didn't hold much sway in the Kenyan concentration camps or the segregated caribbean.

It's not like the Americans were the first to invade Iraq. The Eastern committee of the British government decided in August 1918 that Iraq should be ruled by an "Arab façade". According ot Lord Curzon it would be "ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, an Arab staff." The arabs would eventually be granted independence, said Sir Mark Sykes, if they "proved themselves worthy". Until then, said Curzon Iraq would be absorbed into the British Empire "veiled by constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state, and so on." Sound familiar So no in our understanding of how Great Britain got to be great we have not moved on. And the French, Belgians and others are frankly worse.

Obviously colonialism was driven by class interests. But it was sustained and supported by a sense of racial and national superiority. Unless that is you think the 300 families of imperial France ran the whole show from Martinique to Algeria to through Senegal and Reunion by themselves.

The point I am making is not that we don't chastise American foreign policy. But that we do so in a way that creates real possibilities for solidarity with the US and global left. That means learning the lessons about how these imperial adventures gain traction in the wider population, who benefits, how they are defeated, and so on. Luckily in England we have plenty of resources because we've done it time and time again.

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Guest David Guyatt

Gary, I've interspersed my response in a nice shade of green below...

David

I'm not being defensive at all. Indeed whom would I be defending. In terms of Europe reckoning with its colonial past the world hasn't moved at all in my book. Otherwise how would you make sense of someone like Blunkett saying "And those who come into our home - for that is what it is - should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."

I frankly have little time for Blunkett and most of the rest of the political class. Although they officially represent the rest of us, I don't consider them to be representative of the views of the rest of us. They are a class apart and do as they please, irrespective of what the majority desire them to do. To that degree nothing has changed. But I do believe the zeitgeist of the rest of us have leapt ahead in leaps and bounds. Few here dispute that British governments of various shades and persuasions are a poodle to American hegemonic interests, which is why I said it is right to chastise US foreign policy. Chastising British policy has no effect whatsoever as everyone knows (or at least senses) that the shots are now called from Washington on important issues of foreign policy. Thanks largely, I think, to the private sisterhood of Chatham House and the CFR.

That's news to people in India, Ghana, Rhodesia and so on. Or Gordon Brown saying "The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world. Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values." Britain never apologised. And tolerance, liberty, civic duty and the rest of it certainly didn't hold much sway in the Kenyan concentration camps or the segregated caribbean.

It's not like the Americans were the first to invade Iraq. The Eastern committee of the British government decided in August 1918 that Iraq should be ruled by an "Arab façade". According ot Lord Curzon it would be "ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, an Arab staff." The arabs would eventually be granted independence, said Sir Mark Sykes, if they "proved themselves worthy". Until then, said Curzon Iraq would be absorbed into the British Empire "veiled by constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state, and so on." Sound familiar So no in our understanding of how Great Britain got to be great we have not moved on. And the French, Belgians and others are frankly worse.

Obviously colonialism was driven by class interests. But it was sustained and supported by a sense of racial and national superiority. Unless that is you think the 300 families of imperial France ran the whole show from Martinique to Algeria to through Senegal and Reunion by themselves.

I agree. Firstly, Curzon was part of the Rhodes-Milner Group and many of the souls of the group were racist to the core. And powerfully imperiaist to boot. It is a disgraceful aspect of the past and, sadly, it is also a disgraceful aspect of the present. The very core of the Rhodes Group was aimed at taking control of the mineral wealth of the world. That is still the case today.

The point I am making is not that we don't chastise American foreign policy. But that we do so in a way that creates real possibilities for solidarity with the US and global left. That means learning the lessons about how these imperial adventures gain traction in the wider population, who benefits, how they are defeated, and so on. Luckily in England we have plenty of resources because we've done it time and time again.

My own view is that the left has become the new middle right. At least in the UK and presumably also in the USA. There is no real left anymore that has any sort of genuine clout or influence. Yes, it can still occasionally be disruptive but that is all it can mnage. One clearly sees this by such displays as the one Brown made of inviting Thatchler to visit him for a chat and cucumber sandwiches and, of course, a photo opportunity, when he took over the reins of 10 Downing Street. Today, the "imperial advantures" are just as likely to take place at home as they are abroad. By this I simply mean the dominance of big business over government policy.

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