2015: A Year of Blow-back Beckons

If the Charlie Hebdo shootings signify anything, it’s that the year ahead will be one of blow-back for Western foreign policy. Despite the bold assertions of Obama’s State of the Union address, the high tide mark of Western influence has been reached. Ponder what is currently happening at home and abroad, and consider the context.

The so-called “Arab Spring” delivered the opposite of what our pundits and politicos promised. After a Western-sponsored coup d’etat Egypt is now a military dictatorship busily jailing and executing the elected Muslim Brotherhood it displaced. Meanwhile, GCC sponsorship and a NATO bombing campaign has turned Libya into a violent Islamist basket-case. In Yemen, despite widespread popular unrest, Saudi-puppet President Saleh hung on to power, ruling from Riyadh. Eventually his vice-president succeeded him, a man of almost identical political leanings, with what is claimed to be 99.8% of the vote (he was the only candidate in the election).

In Bahrain the government simply blamed the Shia for the uprisings and sprayed the protestors with bullets, torturing more than a few and cracking down on any sort of free speech and political assembly, a process which continues to this day. The Bahraini King did establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry to look into it all, which did confirm that yes, widespread human rights abuses from torture up to murder had taken place. It then suggested “recommendations” which would “improve accountability and bring government practice into line with international standards”. A tyrannical massacre was thus reduced to a matter of management, practices and standards. Bahrain’s Commission was such a staggering example of cynical state arrogance that I am sure it could only have been suggested by the mandarins of the British civil service.

In Tunisia alone things worked out reasonably well but the worst of the Arab Spring took place, of course, in Syria, where a brutal dictatorship had a long history of meeting popular uprisings with bloody suppression. The leaders there stood their ground, and what happened next revealed the true dynamics behind this so-called Arab Spring: the demonstrators turned out to be foreign-paid or foreign-born Islamist guerrillas with no central agenda, manifesto, or negotiating platform. Western media repeatedly and consistently misreported this fact, spreading instead all-too-familiar disinformation about WMD and human rights, and clinging to the manufactured Manichean narrative of good-democratic-Western-minded freedom fighters versus evil Arab dictator.

The reality is that Syria’s foreign-sponsored civil war made the incumbent government truly popular amongst the people who actually had to live in the country. Assad went from being a dictator to an elected president, one who had voluntarily disarmed his country of WMD under international supervision, and who was tabling substantial domestic reform. In contrast his opponents, those we pay and support, were silent, squabbling killers posting crazy YouTube videos. We know them now as the Islamic State. The idea that we could ever productively support a credible “moderate resistance” in Syria was either a fig-leaf to cloak our anti-democratic alliance with the Emiratis, or utter stupidity.

For those who could see all this, Kiev’s Euromaidan was simply the opening of a new front. Moscow had been one of Assad’s key supporters; Putin had been clear that Russia would veto any UN proposal for Western air strikes against the country. Russia had by then learnt the lessons of Libya: apparently we hadn’t. Thus the States, Israel, and the Emiratis lent their unconditional support to whoever promised they could shift the Ukraine out of its Russian orbit, a task almost as impossible and destructive as forcefully dislodging Gaddafi or Assad or Saddam. They were driven by the same “levitating self-confidence” (as John Le Carre put it) which saw them invade Iraq. Now, as will generally happen when you decide to challenge observable reality, everything is unravelling. Can we really insist it is perfectly legitimate to fund guerrillas in Syria, against an elected President, and at the same time isolate Russia on the grounds (for which we provide no evidence) that it is funding resistance fighters on its own doorstep? Fighters, one might add, who are resisting an unconstitutional government, and who are acting in pursuit of regional self-determination? It’s utter nonsense. Obama has no right to speak of advancing democracy in the Ukraine. Territorial integrity, perhaps, but no more.

The underlying point is that the West and its proxies have failed. Inevitably. Assad is staying, at least until his third seven year term expires in 2021. If social media is anything to go by, the chatter I’ve picked up suggests that Syrians are now more concerned with Lebanon and Iran than with the dwindling proponents of the Civil War, which is now in endgame, something that may be reflected in Israel’s airstrike against Iranian brigadier general Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi. Terrorist bombings will continue, but recede to what the Royal Ulster Constabulary used to call “a tolerable degree of violence”.  Meanwhile IS will hold on to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, which will become a dwindling pocket of heavily bombed jihadis. The House of Saud’s proposed security wall is a trick borrowed from Israel, and reveals not just a similar siege mentality, but the unspoken alliance which now exists between the Arab monarchies and the Zionist project. That alliance is one aspect of an over-arching change, further seen in the news that Saudia Arabia is re-opening its Embassy in Baghdad after a period of twenty-five years (that it didn’t open one during the American occupation is telling).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how high the Saudis build their wall. Acceptance of Assad is inevitable, as is rapprochement with Iran. As rapprochement nears, the propaganda against it will grow ever more ridiculous (see for example this piece of abject fantasy in Der Speigel). But it will happen. Then, in a process which has already started, a few hundred active, armed Islamist jihadis will return to their native Europe. Until now the West has either covertly facilitated or deliberately ignored their activities, because they were aligned to foreign policy goals. When the GCC realise Iran isn’t a threat, and the Emiratis reach an accomodation with Tehran,the only purchase anyone will have on these people will be their government handlers – assuming they had any.

Officially, the War on Terror has gone on for fourteen years, but these networks present something new. Until now, those Muslims arrested by British police for UK terrorism offences have generally been entrapped halfwits guilty of little more than saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or downloading a dodgy PDF. The calibre of Islamist now returning from the Middle East is quite different. Consequently we will see an even greater reduction in our human rights and civil liberties: witness John Sawers’ witless appeal for The End Of The Internet As We Know It. While some of this blather is probably retrospective justification for collection techniques already underway, if there is anything more they can grab, the intelligence community will take it. Secrecy will become the new privacy, and not everyone will be able to afford it.

Much has been written about the increasing militarisation of US police departments, particularly in the US, where social division and material inequality only worsened during the country’s first black Presidency. The tear gas and Pentagon-supplied armoured vehicles of Ferguson are a symptom of this. Remember, this was a country that responded to the flooding of New Orleans by building impromptu prison camps. The American state is terrified of large public protest; as terrified as the Gulf monarchies, probably. The UK government isn’t that much different. From 2005 to 2010 they banned protest anywhere within half a mile of Westminster.

The reason the American government is so senstive about this is because they have spent the last two decades paying for “colour revolutions” in countries of interest, not just covertly but overtly, through the National Endowment for Democracy. Similarly, the Emiratis have been paying for the boots-on-the-ground in Libya and Syria and parts of Iraq, and look what they’ve achieved. There is a general strategy here.

Supposedly, we have spent the years since 9/11 making the Middle East safe for democracy. We have failed. Instead, we have become much more like the Gulf monarchies we prop up. Our democracies have grown brittle and autocratic. Our governments are unrepresentative. Our media is supine and craven. Our institutions are hollowed out. Our societies are divided by caste. This is the blow back of our long War on Terror: we have finally created an environment conducive to real terrorism.



Britain’s terrible food paradox continues: “Celebrity Chef restaurants worst in country”

Being someone who actually enjoys food, rather than treats it as a positional good, I’ve blogged about our perverse, commodified, relationship with grub before now. However I take it as some vindication that the new Harden’s guide says restaurants run by celebrity chefs offer some of the most overpriced and worst-cooked food in London.

Heston Blumental and Marcus Wareing come in for a particular clobbering, and Gordon Ramsey doesn’t get off lightly either.

This will be a rich subject for future historians – how a nation of food banks sits glued to the telly watching kitchen-based reality shows while its more affluent citizens fork out small fortunes to dine at what are effectively marketing stands for media personalities, where they can play make-believe in the reflected glory of an imaginary life. For now, however, it beggars belief. This country has no idea how to eat, which must mean it has only some scant idea of how to live.

In truth, Britain’s relationship with food has been going downhill since the Inclosure Acts, and it has seen worse material inequality too, but what strikes me today is the utter intellectual poverty of the moneied. In previous generations and eras the people with cash were, however unintentionally, patrons of the arts. This should really be a fuller post, but historically the wealthy sponsored the Renaissance and the Baroque, or they spent their own (sometimes dwindling) inheritances to carve out their own careers as Romantics and Modernists. Their wealth and privilege afforded them some sort of confident aesthetic sensibility, which is essential for any kind of honest judgement. It is in fact the stuff of which culture is born. Now they’re as craven, mindless and programmed as the rest of us. There is something deeply pitiful about David and Samantha Cameron, Tony and Cherie Blair, Simon Cowell, Bradley Cooper, Lily Allen, David Beckham, Lindsay Lohan and Nigella Lawson (supposedly a chef herself) all booking and paying to show off their expensive dental work in a restaurant that has been slammed not just by Westminster Council – for countless environmental failures – but by the country’s pre-eminent restaruant guide for truly awful food. But the food never mattered. The paparazzis are waiting patiently outside, and that’s all that counts.

There is a terrible vacuum evident here; food is one of the windows through which we can see it. The fig-leaf that is “economic growth” can only cover so much.

Journeys with a Casio F91-W

casiof91wI bought a new watch yesterday, which brought on something of a Marcel Proust experience. Desperate for a timepiece but reluctant to fork out any more than absolutely necessary, I ended up with a Casio F-91W. I thought at first this was exactly the same watch as the first watch I had ever bought: a black plastic Casio from a kiosk vendor in a Cardiff shopping centre almost thirty years ago, but the F-91W did not come out until 1991, so that must have been some predecessor. The shopping centre in question has been demolished now, central Cardiff has changed tremendously, and the old man in the kiosk must be dead, but Casio are still making a practically identical watch.

So much has been and gone between these two watches. It is a funny thing, time; the application of a man-made mathematical system to the intuited linearity of human experience. I have set my F-91W to an hourly chime, the same chime I heard in primary school, in a village far away from me now. Vast gulfs and eddies of time, of life, hidden and swallowed and flowing, forgotten and remembered. Beep, says my watch, every hour. What oceans lie between those simple sounds, then and now. A digital watch from a pre-digital age. Memory hold the door.

By all accounts it loses no more than six minutes a year, which makes it more accurate than just about every Rolex ever made. Even so, its vast popularity passed without recognition until the US military decided it was a bomb maker’s tool, and thus every Arab who wore one automatically became a terrorist suspect. This began after 9/11, although Islamists were reportedly using Casios for bomb timers by the mid-nineties. The ‘Bojinka’ plotters intended to use this cheap timepiece to bring down eleven US airliners in 1995 (first they intended to assassinate Pope John Paul II). Their plans were abandoned, and the plotters were caught, apparently because of a fire in their apartment, but not before three Casio test bombs were detonated in the Philippines, injuring dozens, and nearly bringing down a 747.

The same hourly chime I now hear at my desk was heard briefly and fatally underneath the seat of a rising passenger jet out in the Pacific Ocean. A section of fuselage blew off, the air pressure dropped instantly, revealing a sun-dappled sea and one tiny Japanese island, and 24 year-old Haruki Ikegami, an industrial sewing-machine maker from Tokyo, died instantly. He was the first of the Casio deaths. It was also the first use of the “liquid bomb”. Airlines and airports knew about this type of device for eleven years before they introduced liquid restrictions in 2006, prompted by the uncovering of a non-existent “transatlantic airline plot” which occurred suspiciously close to the US mid-term elections. By this time, as Wikileaks later revealed, ownership of a F-91W was being used to justfify the continuing detention of 28 people at Guantanamo Bay.

Although it escaped my notice at the time, the markedly unfashionable F-91W became fashionable afterwards, or at least that is what the media told us. Journalists complained it was because of some terrorist cachet. I doubt it, although perhaps there is something stridently revolutionary about wearing something so perfectly functional and blatantly non-aspirational in today’s crassly commercialist age.

“It embodies that nice paradoxical conflict which adds an extra dimension of value,” Casio’s UK marketing director told the BBC, neatly and inevitably converting anti-market sentiment into a marketable demographic. Whatever he might think, however, the watch remains the same, and sells by the bucketload from Venezuela to Vladivostok. Mine cost nine quid. It’s got a little light too, and if you hold down the C button the LCD numbers say the word CASIO.

It amazes me that people can spend two grand on a watch.