Alexander Cockburn’s comments about the left’s inability to acknowledge US defeat in Iraq and the bogus ‘war for oil’ thesis are perceptive–a must read. But in Tariq Ali and Seumas Milne he has chosen the wrong avatars for the Left’s curious belief in the invincibility of ‘empire’. Tariq is a good friend and I have had this conversation with him several times. I know for a fact that he rejects the reductionist ‘war for oil’ argument. (He made his position clear in the Q&A after his recent London Review of Books lecture.) Milne sometimes hews to the establishment left line, but has shown far more independence and courage than some other left luminaries. I’d rather Cockburn had directed his criticism at Noam Chomsky, who best exemplifies the tendencies Cockburn excoriates, and whose odd positions on the Middle East have proven invulnerable to contrary evidence.
“The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at all – it’s rebranding the occupation… What is abundantly clear is that the US , whose embassy in Baghdad is now the size of Vatican City , has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time soon.” So declared Seumas Milne of The Guardian on August 4.
Milne is not alone among writers on the left arguing that even though most Americans think it’s all over, They say that Uncle Sam still effectively occupies Iraq, still rules the roost there. They gesture at 50,000 US troops in 94 military bases, “advising” and training the Iraqi army, “providing security” and carrying out “counter-terrorism” missions. Outside US government forces there is what Jeremy Scahill calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq , swelling up from the present 100,000. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000. Of these contractors 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals, typically from the developing world. “The advantage of an outsourced occupation,” Milne writes, “ is clearly that someone other than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq.
“Can Iraq now be regarded as a tolerably secure outpost of the American system in the Middle East ?” Tariq Ali asked in the New Left Review earlier this year. He answered himself judiciously,“They have reason to exult, and reason to doubt.”, but the thrust of his analysis depicts Iraq as still the pawn of the American Empire., with a “predominantly Shia army—some 250,000 strong—… trained and armed to the teeth to deal with any resurgence of the resistance,” all this with “ the blessing of the saintly Sistani’s smile”
The bottom line, as drawn by Milne and Ali is oil . Milne gestures to the “dozen 20-year contracts to run Iraq’s biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to foreign companies”.
Is it really true that though the US troop presence has dropped by 120,000 in less than a year, Iraq is as much under Uncle Sam’s imperial jackboot as it was in, say, 2004, even though now no US troops patrol the streets? If Iraq’s political affairs are under US control, how come the U.S. Embassy—deployed in its Vatican City-size compound, (mostly as vacant as a foreclosed subdivision in Riverside, California and planned in the same phase of megalomania) cannot knock Iraqi heads together and bid them form a government? Those 50,000 troops broiling in their costly bases are scarcely a decisive factor in Iraq’s internal affairs; nor are the private contractors.
Is a Shi’a-dominated government really to America’s taste and nothing more than its pawn? It was Sistani who forced the elections of 2005, calling Bush on his pledge of free elections, thus downsizing the excessive representation of the Sunni – who boycotted the election anyway. And if all this was a devious ploy to break “the Iraqi resistance” how come the United States constantly invokes the menace of Iran and decries its influence in Iraq?
The “Iraqi resistance” invoked in worshipful tones by Tariq Ali, as opposed to his ironic “saintly” reserved for Sistani, means, in his perspective, the Sunni. But if the Sunni ever had a strategy beyond a strictly sectarian agenda, it was scarcely advanced by blowing up Shi’a pilgrims and their shrines and setting off bombs in market places. If Moqtada al Sadr has been side-lined by the US and its supposed creature, Sistani, why has he been described as the “kingmaker” since his success in the parliamentary election this past March.?
As for the contractors, those sinister Third World mercenaries should not be oversold, unless the Shiites are supposed to quail before ill-paid Peruvians, Ugandan cops and the like., who will now be supposedly handing down orders to the Iraqi government. This takes a very imperial, and contemptuous attitude towards the capabilities of the Iraqi people.
If this really was a “war for oil,” it scarcely went well for the United States.
Run your eye down the list of contracts the Iraqi government awarded in June and December 2009. Prominent is Russia’s Lukoil, which, in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, won the rights to West Qurna Phase Two, a 12.9 billion–barrel supergiant oilfield. Other successful bidders for fixed-term contracts included Russia’s Gazprom and Malaysia’s Petronas. Only two US-based oil companies came away with contracts: ExxonMobil partnered with Royal Dutch Shell on a contract for West Qurna Phase One (8.7 billion barrels in reserves); and Occidental shares a contract in the Zubair field (4 billion barrels), in company with Italy’s ENI and South Korea’s Kogas. The huge Rumaila field (17 billion barrels) yielded a contract for BP and the China National Petroleum Company, and Royal Dutch Shell split the 12.6 billion–barrel Majnoon field with Petronas, 60-40.
Throughout the two auctions there were frequent bleats from the oil companies at the harsh terms imposed by the auctioneers representing Iraq, as this vignette from Reuters about the bidding on the northern Najmah field suggests: “Sonangol also won the nearby 900-million-barrel Najmah oilfield in Nineveh.… Again, the Angolan firm had to cut its price and accept a fee of $6 per barrel, less than the $8.50 it had sought. ‘We are expecting a little bit higher. Can you go a little bit higher?’ Sonangol’s exploration manager Paulino Jeronimo asked Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to spontaneous applause from other oil executives. Shahristani said, ‘No.’”
So either the all powerful US government was unable to fix the auctions to its liking, or the all powerful US-based oil companies mostly decided the profit margins weren’t sufficiently tempting. Either way, “the war for oil” doesn’t look in very good shape.
Milne advances the odd idea that with the (entirely imaginary) US “control” of Iraqi oil “the global oil price could be slashed and the grip of recalcitrant Opec states broken.” In fact, the last thing the majors want is to cut world oil prices.” Ask BP.
Milne and Ali are being naive and credulous in taking at face value US officials declaring that they are not wholly withdrawing and they will still be in business in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The reason for saying this is that they don’t want to see their influence go wholly to zilch. They therefore have to maintain — and are dutifully echoed on the left – that their power in Iraq is only a little affected by reduction of troop numbers from 150,000 to less than a quarter of that number.
The US line on this is in one sense sensible: In Iran many Iranians saw the hidden hand of Britain behind developments long after the Brits’ real power had faded almost to nothing. In the case of the US in Iraq it is easy to sell this when the right and left agree [that the] US is too powerful to have suffered a defeat.
The American right tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that “the surge” – a PR ploy by General David Petraeus to mask US withdrawal – was a military success, rather than the Sunni abandoning “national resistance” and throwing in their lot with the Americans. The left – or the substantial slice of it hewing to the Milne/Ali line – snatches defeat from the jaws of a victory over America’s plans for Iraq by proclaiming that America has successfully established what Milne calls “a new form of outsourced semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region.” Iraq is in ruins – always the default consequence of American imperial endeavors. The left should report this, but also hammer home the message that in terms of its proclaimed objectives the US onslaught on Iraq was a strategic and military disaster. That’s the lesson to bring home.
Gadi Taub’s NYT oped on the coming negotiations is so problematic, ahistorical, Israeli-centric, and rife with elisions, it reads like… well… a lot of other stuff cluttering the pages and electrons of said publication.
It leads off with the rhetorical question, “Will Israel remain a Zionist state?” – as if this is the most important issue to be tackled at the talks. Not “Will the systematic and willful oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people finally come to an end?” (Which all sane observers are doubtful will be the result.) Then he sets up the Zionist left’s desperate, tiresome good guys vs. bad guys frame: the pious seculars vs. the evil religious nuts.
The secular Zionist dream was fundamentally democratic. Its proponents, from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion, sought to apply the universal right of self-determination to the Jews, to set them free individually and collectively as a nation within a democratic state.
David Ben-Gurion and his allies also orchestrated what can only be described as a “fundamentally democratic” ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians, which “set them free” from their home, their lands, their lives….
Taub contrasts his Ben-Gurion good guys with the loathsome bad guys:
This dream is now seriously threatened by the religious settlers’ movement, Orthodox Jews whose theological version of Zionism is radically different…. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, later focused his father’s theological ideas around a single commandment: to settle all the land promised to the ancient Hebrews in the Bible.
Whether Likud or Labor, so-called “left, “center,” or “right,” all Israeli governments have devoted massive financial, military, and human resources to the expulsion of Palestinians, confiscation of their farmlands, demolition of their homes, and construction of illegal settlements. But that’s an inconvenient fact for Taub, who wants to blame the religious kooks. He then glorifies the secular Zionists some more:
Herzl never doubted that Israeli Arabs should have full and equal rights. For religious settlers, Arabs are an alien element in the organic unity of Jews and their land.
Notice he doesn’t mention Ben-Gurion here. Ben-Gurion never doubted that his militias must expel the multitudes of indigenous Arabs in order to fulfill his dream (their nightmare) of an artificial Jewish majority.
Palestinians inside Israel have never had “full and equal rights.” From day one Israel has treated Palestinians as second class citizens if that — see, for example, the Association of 40 unrecognized Palestinian villages inside Israel that still, 60 years later, seek recognition and basic social services like garbage collection. Several Palestinian orgs inside Israel are trying to get the country to (finally) adopt a constitution to protect their rights.
On the subject of apartheid, Taub’s op-ed rambles on about how there’s no apartheid now, but there will be someday soon if the pernicious religious settlers get their way. What, I’d like to ask Taub, do you anticipate the settlers would do that they aren’t doing already, that would get you to call it apartheid? No doubt, you will return to the NYT and write a new oped entitled “Now it’s finally apartheid, and it’s all the fault of the religious settlers — but not the government of Israel of course.” Taub also claims that if (?) Israel becomes an apartheid state, “Israel will betray the beliefs it was founded on.” Maybe Martin Buber’s beliefs, but certainly not Ben-Gurion’s, who insisted on Israel as a de facto apartheid state from the very beginning – how else to describe the impact of ethnic cleansing on those who are not allowed to return to their homes, not recognizing Palestinian villages, differing social services, etc.?
Predictably, Taub busts out that time-worn line of hasbara about how Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was an anti-settlement move, ignoring of course that it was a ploy to solidify Israel’s hold on the West Bank, as Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass proudly proclaimed.
But the most outrageous elision above all elisions is that Taub skips a chance to report some real news in his oped, about how far senior religious settler leaders have gone: calling for genocide of the Palestinians.
[Israel's former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party], said during his weekly Shabbat sermon that the Palestinians, namely Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, should perish from the world. Yosef, a founder of the Shas Party, also described Palestinians as evil, bitter enemies of Israel.
“All these evil people should perish from this world … God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians,” Yosef said.
Taub wraps it all up with the desperate plea of liberal self-absorbed Zionism, which I translate as “Please, please stop the occupation and the settlements now that they appear to be a threat of my dream of a militarily-enforced Jewish majority state existing in perpetuity”:
The religious settlement movement is not just secular Zionism’s ideological adversary, it is a danger to its very existence. Terrorism is a hazard, but it cannot destroy Herzl’s Zionist vision. More settlements and continued occupation can.
Never once in the entire piece does Taub mention the suffering of the Palestinian people. For shame!
As US officials arrived in Jerusalem last week to meet with Palestinian Authority and Israeli government officials, Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed Ramallah-based lawyer and former PLO advisor Diana Buttu about this week’s US-brokered direct talks between the two parties for The Electronic Intifada.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: What are the realistic expectations for an outcome of the direct talks, as Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land and expand illegal settlements, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that it is the Palestinian preconditions that threaten to sabotage the talks?
Diana Buttu: The funny thing about Netanyahu’s statement on preconditions is that the preconditions are actually Israeli, rather than the other way around. They’re making it a precondition that Palestinians have to accept that Israel is going to continue its settlement activity. And if the Palestinian side says no to settlement activity, then somehow that is a precondition, and the world is not into that.
The big problem is that while there is this announcement of negotiations, here on the ground [in the occupied West Bank], there is nobody who is greeting this announcement with any happiness, because we have been here before. We know what has happened in the past, and we know what is going to happen. And so, if anything, the direct talks are going to be a direct failure. Unless there is a very strong stance by the international community to stop Israel in its settlement activity, in home demolitions and in setting forth a terms of reference — that Israel is going to abide by the 1967 borders — then the talks are doomed to fail. We have been down this path before.
NBF: What is your response to how the PLO approved the talks, even though none of the non-Fatah parties approve of them? How did this happen, and what has the response been from the opposing parties?
DB: In terms of the PLO’s response, this is not new. [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas is the same man who hijacked Palestinian elections a year and a half ago, when he unilaterally declared that his term was extended. This is the same man who has failed to hold the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. This is the same individual who has canceled the municipal elections, all under the guise of, “oh, this is too difficult right now.”
So it is not at all surprising that Mahmoud Abbas, speaking on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, comes forward and declares that the PLO has accepted such talks when they haven’t. And declares that the Palestinian people are welcoming such talks when they are not. And has the audacity to speak on behalf of Palestine and the Palestinians when he is neither elected nor legitimate any longer, and has not even bothered to ascertain the opinion of other organizations, other factions that are members of the PLO.
NBF: Will this further split and antagonize the political factions against each other, or are we seeing more unity taking place?
DB: That is the one thing that is becoming interesting out of all of this — this is no longer the isolation of Hamas. It’s becoming the isolation of Fatah, in that you see all the political factions lining up on one side, and Fatah lining up on another side.
This is not where the situation was a few years ago, or even a decade ago when the majority of Palestinian factions were, in some way, shape or form, in favor of Oslo or in favor of the negotiations process. Today, it is exactly the opposite. So, if anything, Fatah has marginalized itself, and is becoming increasingly more marginalized.
The problem is that there is no way to translate that into any real change, because of Fatah holding the key, because of its inability to hold elections, with its refusal to listen to the factions. What it simply means is that we have this rogue party that is acting on behalf of its own interests and not the interests of the Palestinian people. That is going to continue to dictate the future of Palestine.
Unless this dissent transforms itself into a real push for internal change, then I fear [Fatah is] going to continue going down this path of isolating itself and marginalizing itself, and holding Palestinians hostage to its lack of vision and lack of strategy for Palestine.
NBF: You attended a press conference on 23 August given by PA spokesperson Saeb Erekat. What was revealed in the press conference, and what are most Palestinians concerned or skeptical about in relation to the talks and what is happening on the ground?
DB: There are two things that were revealed during the press conference. The first was that Erekat was unable to explain to journalists or to the Palestinian people what had changed, why they’re entering into negotiations now. He kept referring to pithy Quartet statements — no one really cares what the Quartet says or does, because they don’t really do anything — and he kept referring to the international community and its support for the peace process. But there was nothing that he could point to to explain why now is the time for direct talks.
In other words, there was nothing that he could say — neither in the form of guarantees, nor in assurances, nor in the form of a settlement freeze, or anything that he could take to the Palestinian people and sell. It simply was the result of their utter incompetence. There was no way to explain why they were going to negotiations.
The second thing that came out during the press conference, and this was clear to the journalists who were present, is that this is a leadership of lies. If this leadership had come forward and said, “we are under tremendous amounts of international pressure, both financially and politically” (which we know is the case), then at least we would have been able to give them credit for that. Erekat didn’t say that. Moreover, if this was the same individual who came forward and said they would halt negotiations, unequivocally, in the event that Israel does not impose a complete settlement freeze — not a partial freeze, not a moratorium — and a complete halt to home demolitions, then at least we would have been able to feel that this is a leadership that is responsive, a leadership that is honest.
Instead, Erekat came forward and said that there are going to be no negotiations. In fact, he used the phrase that Netanyahu will have chosen — no negotiations — in the event that settlements and home demolitions continue. What we know is the opposite. If they have not pressed for a complete settlement freeze now, if they have not pressed for a halt in home demolitions and land confiscation now, then the PA has to explain to us that somehow, magically, on 26 September — when the so-called settlement moratorium has expired — that suddenly the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are going to get a backbone?
So rather than him making these slogans and statements, we wanted to hear the truth. And instead we are faced with a leadership that lies. It lied about the pressure that has been put upon the PLO in order to enter into negotiations, and it will be proven on 26 September that the same leadership is going to — once again — lie to us about halting negotiations if there is no settlement freeze.
NBF: What are your major concerns about the Palestinian political atmosphere right now?
DB: The major concern is that we all know that this is going to fail. It doesn’t require anyone with any particular knowledge or foresight to realize that these talks are going to fail. The real question is what is going to come afterwards, and here is where I’m most concerned. For the past 17 years, the PLO, and in particular, Fatah, has had one strategy and only one strategy: negotiations, negotiations, negotiations.
And they have had only one strategy as regards to themselves, and that is survival. We are now at a stage where we are seeing that this is going to be — and I really hope that it is — the final blow to the logic and the ideology of negotiations, that people somehow have to negotiate their freedom.
The real question is, what is this leadership going to do? Is this leadership going to continue to hold us hostage to this tired, visionless lack of strategy? Or is something different going to come?
I’m not concerned with the talks, we know they are going to fail. My bigger concern is about what is going to happen once the talks fail, and is there going to be anybody who is going to come forward with a different plan, a different strategy, a different vision? And that is my fear. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Photo courtesy of Diana Buttu.
A Pointless Waste of Money
Virtually the entire economics profession insisted on ignoring the housing bubble as it expanded to ever more dangerous levels. Remarkably, even after the bursting of this bubble wrecked the economy and has given us the worst downturn in 70 years, most economists are still determined to ignore the bubble.
The basic story is very simple. For a hundred years, from 1896 to 1996, nationwide house prices just tracked the overall rate of inflation. This is a very long period in a very big market. If we see a trend like this persist for a hundred years it is reasonable to expect it to continue into the future, unless something big in the fundamentals changes. And, no one has produced any evidence that passes the laugh test that anything in the fundamentals of the housing market has changed.
This means that we should expect house prices to continue to fall, with nationwide prices dropping another 15 to 20 percent to complete the process of deflating the bubble. This price decline is inevitable and in many ways desirable. I don’t know why any of us would be happy if our kids had to pay more to buy their first house.
Trying to delay this adjustment process with schemes like the homebuyers’ tax credit were a pointless waste of money. Our government got millions more people to buy homes at bubble-inflated prices, ensuring that many will lose money when they sell. That is not good policy. Trying to sustain a bubble in the housing market is like having an agricultural price support program, except it is far more costly with far less benefit.
The housing bubble did support the economy prior to the recession. We will have to find alternative sources of demand to replace the demand generated by over-valued housing.
It is actually easy for economists to think of ways to generate demand. We can have public jobs programs, we can rebuild the country’s infrastructure, we can have tax cuts oriented towards low- and middle-income people who will spend the money quickly.
We can also have the Fed be more aggressive with its monetary policy, targeting an inflation rate in the 3-4 percent range. We should also push down the value of the dollar to get our trade deficit down to a more reasonable size.
Unfortunately, all of these policies face serious political obstacles in Washington. However, the job of economists should be to explain the problem to policymakers and the public and to berate those who seek nonsense solutions like re-inflating a housing bubble.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Violent clashes broke out early Monday morning between Palestinian residents of several Silwan neighborhoods and Israeli troops amid an extensive campaign of raids against Palestinian homes in search of “wanted” people to arrest them.
Several Palestinians were arrested over confronting extremist Jewish groups in Silwan settlements over the past few days, locals reported said.
The Israeli crackdown was over Palestinians confronting extremist Jews who recently carried out an assault against the Ain Silwan mosque in the Wadi Halwa neighborhood.
Two, a brother and his sister, were arrested along with a 68-year-old man and two brothers while one minor was handed a summons to appear at the police investigation department with his father in West Jerusalem.
Three other Palestinians were escorted in blindfolds and cuffs by Israeli police to investigation centers after an Israeli campaign of searches and arrests in south Nablus, northern Al-Khalil, and Bethlehem village on Monday.
Dozens of prominent artists in the Israeli theatre community – including actors, playwrights and directors — have signed a pledge that they will not perform in a newly-constructed cultural center in the Israeli settlement of Ariel. The pledge could cause the artists to be booted from the government-funded guild for theatre professionals, but they argue that this act of conscience is more important than their salaries.
Signatories include some of Israel’s most prominent actors like Yousef Sweid and Rami Heuberger, as well as playwright Joseph Sobol, famous for a play he wrote about the Holocaust called ‘Ghetto’. Some of those who signed the boycott pledge say that it is ironic that the new cultural center in Ariel settlement will be inaugurated with performances of the plays of Bertolt Brecht, who stood for justice for the oppressed – they say he would be turning in his grave if he knew his plays were being used as a tool of political oppression.
While the Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat argued that there is no difference between performing inside Green-line (1967 armistice borders) Israel and settlements, saying, “I call for the scheduled performances to be carried out as scheduled in Ariel and all over the country, as each citizen has the right to consume culture anywhere he chooses”, others disagree with the Minister, saying that performing in settlements constructed across the Green Line in violation of international law constitutes an inherently political act.
Analyst Gideon Levy wrote in his column in Ha’aretz, “At a time when the Tate Modern in London is presenting the impressive video work of Francis Alys, an artist who walked with a bucket of paint to draw the Green Line anew, Israel is doing its utmost to blur it. Now theater has mobilized on behalf of this campaign of obfuscation and darkness. Yes, there is a difference between legitimate, sovereign Israel and the areas of its occupation. Yes, there is a moral difference between appearing here and appearing there, in the heart of an illegal settlement (illegal, like all of its settlement siblings ) built on a plot of stolen land, in a performance designed to help settlers pass their time pleasantly, while surrounded by people who have been deprived of all their rights.”
The Yesha Council of Settlements responded to the boycott with a statement saying, “Our response to the letter signed by the army evaders and anti-Zionist left-wing activists will be very harsh.” They called on the theatre managers to fire all of those who signed the petition. The mayor of Ariel settlement told reporters that the artists in question cannot both receive government salaries and have a conscience.
Analyst Gideon Levy responded with, “Theater is not an army, actors are not soldiers, and artists who boycott performances are not draft dodgers. The few dozen theater figures who have signed the statement saying they will boycott Ariel are people of conscience who deserve praise. Should more be added to this list, the show won’t go on at Ariel.”