Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou

Death in slow-mo

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died last week after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013. 

The old tyrant Hosni Mubarak whom Morsi had replaced in 2011 in the wake of the Tahrir Square protests, died in pampered confinement. Not so his successor, held in solitary confinement for six years – thanks to the hard hearted Pharaoh who followed him.

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of Egypt’s new rais and of the Arab autocrats who have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Veteran journalists Robert Fisk and David Hearst are among the few to have called out the deafening silence of the world when Morsi died in the dock (see their tributes below). It’s was like as if a tree falls in the forest – does anybody hear? Certainly not the pusillanimous, obsequious rulers of the so-called “free world”. “How useful it is”, Hearst wrote, “for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.” 

It was if he had never lived. And death in the dock was perhaps the only way he could escape – he had in a fashion been rescued and gone home to his family and to those who had supported him through his long travail. 

Sixty seven year old Morsi was imprisoned in 2013 after being toppled in a military coup by Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was back in court facing a retrial on charges including espionage – part of a swag of cases that had initially seen him sentenced to death. 

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. These were the heady days of the brief “Arab Spring” and the fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak. It was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality.

When elections were held a year later, Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by And al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Morsi faced a number of trials, including on charges of spying for Qatar and of participating in prison breaks and violence against policemen during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and was sentenced to death and multiple decades-long prison sentences. However, the death sentence and others were overturned by Egypt’s appeals court in 2015, prompting the retrial proceedings.

The conditions in which Morsi and tens of thousands of jailed dissidents were being held, as well as concerns raised by his family and supporters about his state of health, had long attracted the attention of activists and international human rights organisations. British MPs warned in March 2018 that Morsi was facing an “early death” because of the conditions he was being held in, which included 23 hours a day of solitary confinement, sleeping on a cement floor and being fed only canned food. He was reportedly suffering from diabetic comas and was losing his eyesight. 

Morsi collapsed on Monday inside the infamous cages in which defendants are held in Egypt’s courts, and was pronounced dead soon after. Egypt’s public prosecutor declared that a medical report showed no signs of recent injury.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Morsi’s mixed legacy

Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our two and a half year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.  Mohamed Morsi’s last speech as president

David Hearst writes that for all his faults, Morsi was an honest man and a true democrat, but (that) for much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Fisk adds: “ … it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own … Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares. But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House”. 

The world today appears to be the play-pen of the ‘big man’, and of it’s Arab equivalent,  az-zaim, the boss: the autocrat with the big mouth and the large persona, with the power of patronage and the heft of the security services behind him – Tony Soprano bereft of all his redeeming features.

Morsi’s demise demonstrates to every ‘big man’ in the Middle East and beyond that their misdeeds will go unpunished and unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. On the bleeding edges of the Middle East, the bin Salmans and Assads, the emirs of the Gulf, and the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Sudan and Congo, will not be losing sleep. Nor, of course, will Abd al Fattah al Sisi. 

Hearst writes: “The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

But whilst the caged Morsi died alone and unsung, he will be remembered.

He is mourned by many millions of Muslim Arabs the world over, a martyr for the faith and a symbol of what might have been. The grief is more a remembrance of what he stood for more and the brief flickering of happiness and hope that accompanied his ascension than for what he accomplished during his tenure. His presidency was brief and bewildered, caught between many rocks and hard places in th turbulent tides of the short-lived Aran Spring, between the seemingly irreconcilable demands of democracy and the deity, between what the Egyptian people wanted and needed, and between what his Ikhwan believed they needed, even if their conception of what was good for themselves and Allah was not what the youths of Tahrir Square, men and woman both, had fought and bled for.

Critics have argued that Morsi opened the door to the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood – and indeed, he appeared to dance to their tune – but it is his successor and el Sisi’s allies, financiers and armourers, west and east, who by their actions and indeed, inaction, who are stoking the fires of radical fundamentalism.

To borrow from Bruce Cockburn, keep millions of  people down down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve.

There will be a reckoning.

There will be  hell to pay. 

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
                                                                                      Leonard Cohen
See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

The KIng of the Hill

The West is silent over the death of a man it once called the great hope of Arab democracy

Robert Fisk, The Independent, 21st June 2019

The lack of comment from our heads of state is positive encouragement to every Middle Eastern leader who now knows their own misdeeds will go unpunished

Ye Gods, how brave was our response to the outrageous death-in-a-cage of Mohamed Morsi. It is perhaps a little tiresome to repeat all the words of regret and mourning, of revulsion and horror, of eardrum-busting condemnation pouring forth about the death of Egypt’s only elected president in his Cairo courtroom this week. From Downing Street and from the White House, from the German Chancellery to the Elysee – and let us not forget the Berlaymont – our statesmen and women did us proud. Wearying it would be indeed to dwell upon their remorse and protests at Morsi’s death.

For it was absolutely non-existent: zilch; silence; not a mutter; not a bird’s twitter – or a mad president’s Twitter, for that matter – or even the most casual, offhand word of regret. Those who claim to represent us were mute, speechless, as sound-proofed as Morsi was in his courtroom cage and as silent as he is now in his Cairo grave.

It was as if Morsi never lived, as if his few months in power never existed – which is pretty much what Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, his nemesis and ex-gaoler, wants the history books to say.

So three cheers again for our parliamentary democracies, which always speak with one voice about tyranny. Save for the old UN donkey and a few well-known bastions of freedom – Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-in-exile and all the usual suspects – Morsi’s memory and his final moments were as if they had never been. Crispin Blunt alone has tried to keep Britain’s conscience alive. So has brave little Tunisia. Much good will it do.

Yes, it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own. Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares.

But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House.

It’s instructive to note how differently Morsi was treated after the coup d’etat that destroyed him. Banged up in solitary, unable to talk to his own family, deprived of medical help; just compare that to the comfort in which his predecessor Hosni Mubarak lived after his own dethronement – the constant hospital treatment, family visits, public expressions of sympathy and even a press interview. Morsi’s last words, defending his status as the still existing president of Egypt, were mechanically muffled by the sound-proof cage.

Our pusillanimous, disgraceful silence is not just proof of the pathetic nature of our public servants in the west. It is positive encouragement to every leader in the Middle East that their misdeeds will go unpunished, unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. Our silence – let us be frank about it – is not going to have the Bin Salmans or Assads or the princes of the Gulf or the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq shaking in their boots. Nor, of course, Sisi.

But yes, for many millions of Arab Muslims, Morsi was a martyr – if you imagine that martyrs have a cause. The trials and executions and mass imprisonments of the Brotherhood, “a terrorist organisation” in the eyes of Sisi (and almost in David Cameron’s until his security flunkeys told him it was a non-starter) will not destroy it. But are there any other Morsis around, willing to risk death in a prison cell as a price of their overthrow? Morsi himself told one of his senior advisers, Egyptian-Canadian physician and academic Wael Haddara, that if he could navigate Egypt towards democracy, he expected to be assassinated. Which, I suppose – given his ill treatment, isolation and unfair trials – was his ultimate fate.

The only western newspaper to give a friend of Morsi a chance to speak about him appears to be the Washington Post – all praise to it – which allowed Haddara the room to demand that Egypt must answer for the ex-president’s death. At a last meeting before he became president in June of 2012, Haddara asked Morsi to autograph an Egyptian flag.

And this is what Morsi wrote: “The Egypt that lives in my imagination: an Egypt of values and civilisation; an Egypt of growth and stability and love. And its flag, ever soaring above us.”

Would that a crackpot president or our own ignorant Tory masters were capable of such eloquence – or such honour.

People hold pictures of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral ceremony on 18 June in Istanbul (AFP)

Egypt’s first democratically elected president met an end as dramatic as his one and only year in power. The man feted on social media as Egypt’s ‘martyr president’ will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. The date alone on which it happened is significant. Mohamed Morsi died on 17 June, seven years to the day from the second round of his presidential election.

For all of his time in prison, Morsi was held in solitary confinement. He was allowed only three visits from his family in nearly six years. The state had ample opportunity to kill off a diabetic who suffered from high blood pressure in private, but if they wanted to convince the Egyptian people that their former president was dead, the job would have to be done in public, which is what Monday’s events were all about.

The cruellest pharaoh

We will never know the truth. Morsi’s nemesis, the man he handpicked to lead the army and who went on to depose him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will never allow for an international investigation. Egypt is ruled by a pharaoh as absolute and cruel as any in its long history.

But even if Morsi died of natural causes, who are the people responsible before the court of history?

How easy and convenient it would be to place all the blame for Morsi’s death on Sisi himself. How useful it is for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.

Another variation on the same theme was former US President Barack Obama’s private reaction to the massacre at Rabaa Square in the weeks following the military coup. He reportedly told aides that the US could not help Egypt if Egyptians kill each other. That comment alone explains why the West is in decay: Obama’s reaction to the worst massacre since Tienanmen Square was to go back to his game of golf.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for nearly six years. How many times in that period did Western leaders put pressure on Sisi to get access to him? None.

When State Department aides attempted to convince the former secretary of state, John Kerry, of the need to pressure Sisi to allow the Red Cross access to detainees in prison, Kerry rounded on him: “Give me a policy the Egyptians will not scream at me for,” a source with knowledge of the incident later told me.

Above the law

How many high-profile visits was Sisi allowed to make during the period of Morsi’s detention? He was feted on the international stage all over the world. France flogged him Mistral class warships. Germany flogged him submarines.

In Sharm el-Sheikh this year, Sisi was allowed to play host to world leaders from the EU and Arab League, purporting to uphold the world order. Far from taking lectures on human rights at the summit, Sisi gave them. Talking of the spike this year in executions, he told European leaders that executing detainees was part of “our humanity”, which is different from “your [European] humanity”.

“The global rules-based order is clearly under threat,” opined European Council President Donald Tusk. “We have agreed here in Sharm el-Sheikh that both sides will work together to defend it. Multilateral solutions remain the best way to address threats to international peace and security.”

What, Mr Tusk, has Sisi to do with the “rules-based” order? Who are you kidding?

The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East.

Morsi rotted in jail, forgotten by all but a handful of human rights advocates, who found themselves screaming into an empty room. The world moved on and forgot all about the man to whom they had briefly flocked.

With the arrival of US President Donald Trump, Sisi’s suppression of his political opponents was not simply sidelined; it was lauded. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

So who is responsible for Morsi’s death? Look around you. They call themselves the leaders of the free world.

Morsi’s legacy

Morsi did not die in vain, although it may seem like that today. I and my fellow journalist Patrick Kingsley were the last journalists to interview him, just a week before his ouster. Morsi struck me as a good man in the middle of events that were rapidly sliding out of his control. Even the palace in which we filmed him was not his main seat of power, from which he and his staff had been moved earlier. Power was slipping from his grasp, even as he proclaimed to me that he had absolute faith in the army.

He was better one-on-one than in public. He could communicate privately far better than he did publicly.

Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)
                       Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)

His speeches often failed to be understood, but he made two important ones during his time as president. The first was the day he was sworn in as president. Morsi wanted to be sworn in, in Tahrir Square, in front of the revolution that had brought him to power. He was told that it had to be in front of the Constitutional Court, packed full of the deep state, with members who vowed by hook or by crook to oppose him.

In the end, in true Morsi fashion, he was sworn in twice – once before the court and the deep state, the other before the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square.

What he said in Tahrir Square is worth repeating. “People of Egypt, you are the source of the authority. You give it to whoever you want and deny it from whoever you want,” Morsi said.

And he meant it. This is closely based on a verse in the Quran, which says that God gives glory to whomever he wants, and he takes it away from whomever he wants. But here was an Islamist telling the people that they were sovereign.

‘Safeguard the revolution’

His last speech as president bore an equally resonant democratic message.  He addressed future generations.

“I want to safeguard the girls. They will be future mothers who will teach their children that their fathers and forefathers were truly men who do not succumb to injustice and who never go along with the opinions of the corrupt and who would never give up on their homeland or their legitimacy.

“Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our 2.5-year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.”

Which is exactly what happened. The revolution was stolen by more than just the army, which was never going to allow a Muslim Brotherhood president to continue. It was stolen by Cairo’s elite class of liberals, who decried Morsi as an Islamist dictator. It was stolen by the politicians who lied that Morsi had seized all power for himself and was incapable of sharing it.

As we know now, both journalist Hamdeen Sabahi and politician Ayman Nour were offered high posts by Morsi. Nour was told to form his cabinet as he wanted. It’s ironic that Morsi told Nour he had to include one post – that of Sisi as minister of defense. They did not say it then. They admit it now.

We also know now, from the participants themselves, that Tamarod, the grassroots movement founded to register opposition to Morsi, was a creation of military intelligence.

This is not to absolve the Brotherhood of responsibility for what happened. A Muslim Brotherhood president was in all probability doomed from the start. There were many points in which the Brotherhood abandoned Tahrir Square for the warm, treacherous embrace of the army. They made huge misjudgments, but those misjudgments were not, in and of themselves, the cause of what was to follow.

A democratic hero

Morsi himself was an honest man and a true democrat. For much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Mohamed Morsi, confined to a courtroom cage

Who is responsible for Morsi’s death? We all are. There will only be two forces that profit from his death: Sisi and the military regime around him, and the Islamic State (IS) group, which “wished him hell and the worst of states”.

Morsi devoted his life to a people who abandoned him. If Sayyid Qutb before him became a hero for Islamists, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, Morsi’s legacy will be a democratic one.

Morsi quoted a poem  before his collapse :

“My country will still be dear to me no matter how much oppressed I’ve been treated, and my people will still be honourable in my eyes no matter how mean to me they have been.”

The man now feted on social media as the “martyr president” will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. He vowed to his end never to recognise the military coup that overthrew him, and he stayed true to his word. That is Morsi’s legacy, and it is an important one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner’s strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin’s moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then associate foreign editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.

Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

“The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

I fought in the old revolution 
on the side of the ghost and the King. 
Of course I was very young 
and I thought that we were winning; 
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen

Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany 

Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream – a Jerusalem reverie

The Kushner Peace Plan, the long awaited solution to the seventy year old – no, century old – conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, so we are informed via leaks and leading articles (see those at the end of this post), is about to finally be plonked down on the rickety and sloping negotiating table.

What President Trump has dubbed “the deal of the century” – presumably the now twenty years gone by 21st Century – has been developed, with varying degrees of involvement and disdain from both Israel and the the Palestinians, and from several significant others, including the US’ exclusively autocratic and repressive Arab allies. But the primary architects have been presidential adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

Whether this bird can fly is a subject for much current discussion and conjecture in mainstream and left of mainstream media; and we really can’t predict what will happen at this point in time.

But, if indeed we did need a person with Jewish genes to nudge the Israelis and the Arabs to realize peace in the Holy Land, then maybe Trump should have dispatched the Bobster to the Middle East instead of his ingenue and arguably disingenuous businessman son-in-law Jared Kushner and JK’s highly partisan, blinkered and thus discredited amigos.

You gotta serve somebody

Bob Dylan once sang “… there’s no success like failure, and failure is no success at all”. He also crooned: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there”. And to complete a trifecta of wisdom: “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

He has even worked out the Palestinians cannot be pushed to the negotiating table by the US and it’s corrupt, brutal Arab allies: “So many roads, so much at stake. So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity”.

And few could match Bob’s credentials for the gig. How’s this for resumé:

“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains. I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways. I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”.

And what will you do now, Mr Dylan?

“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, where black is the color, where none is the number”.

And then?

“… I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. And I’ll stand on on the water until I start sinkin’, but I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”.

And so, there’s Bob “flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight, flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight, an’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night”.

He’s “tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake, tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake … tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail, for the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale, an’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail”.

And yes, “he’s tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed, for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse, an’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe” …

But the question remains, will Palestinian youth, wild at heart and wired to the world, be “wishin’ and hopin’, and thinkin’ and prayin’”, to quote another zeitgeist philosopher, that one day they’ll be able to “gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing”.

And will Israelis, with their weapons, walls and wire, their soldier boys and girls, and two millenia of yearning for for a place of greater safety, no longer be “condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ….

See also, in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany  

Some FaceBook background

I’m finding The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew’s reportst very worthwhile and insightful, alongside those of her colleagues Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. Here is Bel’s take on the long awaited Kushner “Plan”, so succinctly encapsulated by Fisk himself:

‘How many times can you fit a South Sea Bubble into a Bermuda Triangle?’

He continued, in fine form:

“Trump’s fey and vain son-in-law, a supporter of Israel’s colonial expansion on Arab land, set off with Trump’s “special representative to the peace process” Jason Greenblatt (who says “West Bank settlements are not an obstacle to peace”) to work out the economic underpinning of Trump’s “deal of the century” …

… Kushner recently went to visit some Muslim killer-states, some of them with very nasty and tyrannical leaders – Saudi Arabia and Turkey among them – to chat about the “economic dimension” of this mythical deal. Middle East leaders may be murderers with lots of torturers to help them stay in power, but they are not entirely stupid. It’s clear that Kushner and Greenblatt need lots and lots of cash to prop up their plans for the final destruction of Palestinian statehood – we are talking in billions – and the Arab leaders they met did not hear anything about the political “dimension” of Trump’s “deal”. Because presumably there isn’t one …

… This very vagueness is amazing, because the Kushner-Greenblatt fandango was in fact a very historic event. It was unprecedented as well as bizarre, unequalled in recent Arab history for its temerity as well as its outrageous assumption … this was the first time in modern Arab history – indeed modern Muslim history – that America has constructed and prepared a bribe BEFORE the acquiescence of those who are supposed to take the money; before actually telling the Palestinians and other Arabs what they are supposed to do in order to get their hands on the loot”.

Read Bel Trew’s article here; and Robert Fisk’s, here.

 

Children of Abraham

The ancient and holy city of Hebron is rarely out of the news; and the news is never good. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”.

In May 2016, we visited Hebron, a fault line of faiths and a front line of an old war still being waged for possession of the Holy Land. It is a hot spot, a flash-point, where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity, and bad things happen. It is the seemingly intractable conflict in the raw, a microcosm of the Occupation, and there is no denying the brutality of the place. Most western journalists and commentators give their readers an impression that Israel absolutely dominates this Palestinian city of some 200,000 souls. In reality, the area under military control, immediately surrounding the ancient Ibrahimi mosque, holy to two faiths, is very small. But in this pressure cooker of a ghetto reside some 700 settlers and thirty thousand Palestinians, segregated from each other by walls and wire, fear and loathing – and by two soldiers to every settler.

On our return, the e-magazine Muftah published the following article.

Children of Abraham and the Battle for Hebron

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody – you were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain and my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the word.
Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

I recently returned from Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The city is a fault line of faiths and a front line in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a “hot spot,” a flash-point, a place where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity. Hebron has been a key focus of the tension and violence that has characterized the troubled relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Since October 2015, over 200 Palestinians and thirty Israelis have been killed across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel, in the latest flare-up in the decades-long conflict.

In March this year, an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting and killing a wounded twenty-one-year-old Palestinian, following a stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers. The soldier, just nineteen years of age, is now facing trial, amidst massive outcry on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.. In June, not long after we left Israel, a young Palestinian murdered a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl as she slept in nearby Kiryat Arba. Hours later, a Palestinian woman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Later that afternoon, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli car on a road just south of Hebron, killing a father and wounding his family. Local Palestinians gave emergency first aid to the victims and shielded the children from any further attack.

A Holy Land

Hebron has long been sacred to Muslims and Jews as the last resting place of the prophets Abraham and Isaac – the founding father of Judaism, and the son he had resolved to sacrifice until God ordered him to stay his hand. In the first century BC, Herod the Great, famed builder and bad boy, raised a mighty mausoleum above the cave where Abraham was laid to rest. Abraham’s wife Rachel, and his son, Isaac, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Isaac’s sons Joseph and Jacob – whose wrestled with an Angel to represent man’s struggle with God –  and Jacob’s wife Leah are also buried there.

As time went by, Christians and then Muslims revered Hebron as a holy place. Abraham was the founding father of both religions and his sons and grandsons, buried in the cave, are considered prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In time, a mosque was established on Herod’s edifice, and for a short while, during the hundred years of the Crusader kingdom, a basilica too.

In the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars expelled the Christians from Hebron. A small community of Jews continued to reside in the town of Hebron, however. In 1929, amidst rising religious and nationalist tension in the British Mandate of Palestine, some seventy Jewish men, women, and children were killed by Palestinians who had been incited to violence by rumours that Jews planned to overrun the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Many local Palestinians also helped save Jewish neighbors from the bloodshed. Following the riots, Hebron’s Jewish community largely ceased to exist, until the an-Naksa, or ‘setback’, of 1967, when Israeli military forces occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

In the early days of the occupation, Israeli authorities did not encourage Jews to return to Hebron. One of the first illegal Israeli settlements was established outside Hebron in what is now Kiryat Arba, and thereafter, a small settlement was built around the Mosque of Ibrahim. Beginning in 1979, some Jewish settlers moved from Kiryat Arba to the former Jewish neighborhood near the Abraham Avinu Synagogue which had been destroyed in 1929. Other Jewish enclaves were established with the Israeli army’s support and more homes were subsequently purchased or forcibly taken over from their Palestinian owners.

With the establishment of a Jewish presence in and around Hebron, the religious right-wing demanded that Jews be permitted to pray at the tombs of the patriarchs, and the 700 years old restriction on Jews praying here was lifted. Muslims and Jews were now obliged to share the holy place, although it was formally administered by the Muslim Waqf. Thus, even prayer became a focus of conflict and tension, and sometimes, violence, particularly during each faith’s holy days.

Tensions and Divisions

Since 1979, tensions have continued to increase between the small community of Israeli settlers living in Hebron (several hundred) and the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose lives have been turned upside down by their presence. These tensions reach boiling point in February 1994, when US-born Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims worshippers during the dawn prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque. He killed twenty-nine people and wounded another 125 before he was overcome and killed by survivors. Hundreds more Palestinians were killed or injured in the Israeli military’s response to the ensuing violence.

Goldstein had been inspired by a boyhood mentor, the ultranationalist New York Rabbi Meir Kahane, and had belonged Kahane’s militant Jewish Defence League, founded ostensibly to protect Jews from antisemitism, but implicated in numerous acts of violence in the USA  and elsewhere. On emigrating to Israel, he joined Kahane’s right-wing Kach Party.

The Israeli government condemned the massacre and responded by arresting Kahane’s followers, and criminalizing Kach and affiliated organizations as terrorists, forbidding certain settlers from entering Palestinian towns, and demanding that those settlers turn in their army-issued weapons. It rejected a demand by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that all settlers in the occupied territories be disarmed and that an international force be created to protect Palestinians.

UN observers came to keep the peace, but, after Israeli and Palestinian authorities could not reach agreement on resolving the situation, they departed. The Hebron Protocol was signed in January 1997 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat under the supervision of US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Under its terms, Hebron was divided into in two. H1, 80% of the city, and home to over 120,000 Palestinians, was placed under the Palestinian Authority’s control. H2, which was home to nearly 40,000, was placed under the exclusive control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in order to protect some 600 Israeli Jewish settlers who lived in the area. 

Jewish Israelis were barred from entering HI, whilst Palestinians found it nearly impossible to Access H2 unless they lived there. Palestinian residents of H2 experienced forcible displacement, restrictions on their movement, the closure of their businesses, IDF checkpoints and searches, and verbal and physical harassment by settlers protected by the IDF. 

In a surreal, sad parody, the mosque too was divided, with a separate mosque and synagogue. The IDF controls access, closing it to Muslims on Jewish holy days and to Jews on Muslim holy days. There are frequent bans on the call to prayer on the grounds that it disturbs the settlers, and likewise on exuberant 

Dual Narrative

We travelled to Hebron on a “dual narrative tour”. It was run by Abraham Tours, which operates out of the Abraham Hostel at Davidka Square in Jerusalem, and caters for independent and mainly young travelers on limited budgets. One half of the tour was conducted by a Palestinian guide and the other by a Jewish guide. They walked us though the streets surrounding the Mosque of Ibrahim, and gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with several members of each of the communities.

We visited the Muslim side of the mosque, which retained the wide prayer hall, the empty catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca, the qibla and minbar, and the beautiful dome; and the larger Jewish side, which was, once upon a time, the open courtyard leading to the mosque. Abraham and Sarah occupy the neutral ground between the two halves.

The area around the divided holy place is a ghost town. On one flank, a deserted street is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers in full battle gear, leading to the settler neighborhood. On the other side, past checkpoints and security screening, is Shuhada  (martyrs) Street, an impoverished souq with more shops locked up than open, a small number of Palestinian storeowners, and a bevy of children endeavoring to sell us souvenirs. Above the few shops that are still open, there is a wire mesh to catch rocks, garbage, and various unmentionables thrown at Palestinians from Israeli settler families who have literally occupied the higher ground, abutting and overlooking the souq.

Scapegoating the Other

The Palestinians we met told us that Jewish settlers have been trying to drive them out of H2, to claim it for themselves, and that they will resort to all manner of harassment to do so, including throwing stones, and assaulting Palestinian children on their way home from school. Indeed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently confirmed that movement restrictions, along with on-gong settler violence, reduced income, and restricted access to services and resources, has led to a reduction in the area’s Palestinian population. 

It is a desperate, hard life for all the Palestinians who live there. They cling on, refusing to leave or sell their ancestral homes. Offers, some very large, have been made in the past, but people will not trade their birthright, even when they are faced with physical threats to their lives. One Palestinian whose home we visited told me that his late wife was shot by Israeli soldiers, while his children were attacked by settlers. Nowadays, he and his few neighbors have no choice but to remain or flee without compensation as the Palestinian Authority has forbidden selling property to the settlers. And so they remain, in poverty and punishment.

The rebuilt and refurbished settler zone is a mix of run-down apartments. waste grounds, new community buildings and playgrounds, and a street of shops that once served the settlers’ needs but are now locked and neglected in a dusty, empty street. Here, the settlers too play the victim card, claiming that they area harassed, insulted, and killed. We met the administrator of the small Jewish museum and library who told us of how her grandfather was killed in 1929, and how her father was killed by an assailant in his own home. 

Today there are two Israeli soldiers for every Jewish settler. They are youngsters, barely out of high school. Heavily armed and nervous. With the power to end or destroy the lives of the Palestinians they occupy, many of them youths just like themselves. 

“You who build these altars then to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more”.

If only it was that simple on the fault line of faith and nation.

Below is a selection of photographs taken during our visit.

Read more in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East : A Middle East Miscellany

You can read more about the pain and passion of Hebron here:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/hebron-tombs-of-the-patriarchs
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli%E2%80%93Palestinian_conflict_in_Hebron

Hebron May 2016

img_5080

Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

Rojava and the Kurdish conundrum

Media coverage of the Syrian Kurds is largely a romantic narrative of brave and plucky soldiers -particularly photogenic female fighters and a selfless cadre of idealistic foreign fighters – in an egalitarian para-socialist, anarchist-lite reimagining of the Paris Commune overcoming poor odds against a resilient and vicious barbarian foe, threatened by traditional enemies to their rear, and about to be betrayed by their fair-weather allies. Some on the left cleave to a narrative that conforms with pro-Assad, Russa-aligned reportage that views any opposition to the legitimate Syrian government and its popularly elected President Bashar al Assad as either criminal or deluded, and a cat’s paw of western interests.

With US policy with regard to its erstwhile Kurdish ally in constant flux – some would describe it as floundering – here is a brief discussion on what or may not happen next. As is often the case in Middle Eastern affairs, and particularly in sad, shattered Syria, it may well be redundant tomorrow. 

But first, how did we get here?

Past

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group spread across northern Syria, southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. At the end of World War 1, with the disintegration of the multinational Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, the Kurd’s representatives joined delegations from many other small nations demanding their own independent states. Unlike those in Eastern Europe, the Kurds were to be disappointed. Britain and France has already determined to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, and with Treaty of Sèvres of 1922, Kurds were subsumed into the new states of Syria and Iraq. Kemal Ataturk, having ejected Greek and other forces from Anatolia and established a unitary Turkish state, had no intention of allowing the Kurds in the east their own patrimony. And neither did the Persians (the country did not adopt the name Iran until 1935). 

For almost a hundred years, the governments of Iraq and Syria, Turkey and Iran, for reasons  strategic, economic, political and nationalistic, resisted the demands of their Kurdish citizens for autonomy let alone nationhood, and indeed actively discriminated against them. Dissent and rebellion were suppressed, often brutally, well into the 21st Century. 

The Turkish and Iraqi armies have waged war are against their restive Kurdish populations for decades. After the second Guif War (the Kuwait one),Iraq Kurds were able to establish an autonomous statelet aided by a US underwritten no-fly zone. The Kurdish PeshMerga forces sustained the bitter fight against a seemingly unstoppable Da’ish after Iraqi forces had fled the field and extended military and administrative control beyond their own territory. Syria’s Kurds were able to exploit the chaos of the civil war to establish autonomous cantons in the north-west aground the city of Afrin, and in the Syria-Turkey borderlands in the northeast, now known as Rojava. Having borne the brunt of the fight against Da’ish, armed by the US and aided by allied air power and special forces, they earned the ire and suspicion of Turkish prime minister and now president Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who for his own political purposes, had broken a longstanding truce with Turkish Kurds, branding them as terrorists, he maintained, in cahoots with their equally terrorist Syrian confrères. 

Taking advantage of the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with al Qaeda-aligned opposition forces in the northwest and a US policy vacuum with respect to Syria, and with the tacit approval of Syria‘s Russian ally, Turkish forces occupied Afrin and its surroundings. The US reliance on the Kurdish militias who bore the brunt of the fight against Da’ish in northeastern Syria, and the presence of a small US force have deterred Erdogan from moving against Rojava. Until recently, that is, when US President Donald Trump declared that the US would soon withdraw its 2,000 ground troops from Rojava, leaving the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attack. Erdogan assured him that his forces would not move against Rojava … yet. The outcry among America’s allies was immediate. How could the US treat its allies so? What message would this send to potential allies in the future? The US would be handing Syria to Russia and Iran. Da’ish was not dead yet and would be reinvigorated by a US retreat and a conflict between Kurds and Turks. Backtracking somewhat, Trump has now threatened Turkey with economic destruction should it attack the Kurds. 

This then is the current state of play. 

Present

The Kurds are caught between a Turkish rock and a Syrian hard place, they can fight (they’ve a large, experienced, well trained and well-armed army, an esprit de Corp that few others possess) or they can deal – with Assad, that is, because Erdogan won’t play – for a degree of autonomy within the Syrian fold. The US might offer a no-fly zone which will interdict warplanes and choppers, strafing and barrel bombs, but wouldn’t stop tanks and infantry from manoeuvring with impunity. Kurdish forces would probably hold those off, and meanwhile others might be tempted into the fray. The resulting ground war could see neighbouring armies, Russian mercenaries and western special forces bogged down like the Americans were in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan. 

In their presently autonomous ‘commune’ of Rojava in north eastern Syria, the Kurds are not in the strongest strategical or geopolitical position. It has a sizeable Arab population in, and Turcoman also, and many are not too happy to be governed by Kurds. Divisions are ethic, racial, and tribal as much as political, and there are reports that Kurdish soldiers and administrators have been a tad heavy handed. Arabs and others will no doubt be pining for Assad’s comradely embrace before long. The Kurds themselves are divided amongst themselves, often between families and clan, and rival militias, and have been for generations. In Iraq, for example, two extended families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, have dominated Kurdish politics and have fought  each other since Iraq was created in 1922, often siding with the Iraqi government against their rivals. The provincial capital of Kirkuk in northern Iraq was occupied by Barzani-controlled forces during the successful offensive against Da’ish, but was recently taken by Iraqi forces with the help of pro-Talabani Kurdish soldiery.

Rojava, furthermore, is landlocked, and strategically placed between Turkey, Iraq and western Syria, and there are oil reserves and agricultural land that Syria would want back. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey all loathe the idea of an independent Kurdistan and indeed, could work together to enforce a blockade and ferment discord within.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is backing Assad’s campaign to reconquer all of Syria, and that includes Afrin, now Turkish occupied, and Rojava, which is currently being watched over by the US, and eyed-up by Erdogan. But Assad’s forces are currently preoccupied with retaking Idlib province from al Qaida and other Islamist groups and eliminating Da’ish hold-outs near Hama and in the south, so right now, they are not ready or able to move on either Afrin or Rojava. 

The Turks are quite aware that the Russians are reporting to Putin and also to Assad, and have been kind of warned off by the US, so they might be cautious. The Russians are in effect a tripwire. If the Turks occupy Syrian land, Assad will have to move against them – as will his Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah allies. He is probably already contemplating a move on Afrin, and if the Turks threaten to to occupy Rojava, he will have to move against them there too. And he has a brigade of battle-hardened troops just south east of there at Dier ez Zor. 

When push comes to shove, Turkey has a well-equipped NATO army, but it has limited battle-experience – fighting a historical Kurdish insurgency doesn’t count, and it’s officer corp has been decimated and demoralized in the wake of the failed “coup”. Assad can field a depleted but experienced, Russian-supplied army backed by Hizbollah and Iranian fighters. The Russians know this, the Americans know this, and one would assume that Erdogan knows this – unless he is totally blindsided by his sultanate ambitions.

Future

Academically, this Is all very interesting – but to the Kurds in Rojava, quite scary. They are the small guys and the fall guys in this geopolitical game. They fight hard and well and they fight to win what they can, but they also want to live to fight another day. They are used to betrayal and are probably inured to it. It has been their lot since World War 1 when they turned up at the peace conferences asking for a country of their own just like those other small nations who came into being in Eastern Europe.  

So they will deal with Assad – to save their skins, to save their towns, their homes and their families. They will endeavour to hold out against any Turkish offensive, buying time and perhaps, buying some for Assad too whilst he rolls up the rebels in the west and south. And whilst they hold on, they will bargain for a degree of autonomy, amnesty, and aid. 

This is where Russia can call the shots. There is in reality no good way forward for the Kurds, but there is a possibility that the worst can yet be avoided if Russia, keen to maintain it’s influence in a post-war Syria, can mediate an arrangement between Damascus and Ankara. 

Turkey’s bottom line is a border with Syria not under the control of the YPG/PKK, its erstwhile mortal enemy. Despite Erdogan’s jingoistic drum-beating, he probably does not want to occupy Syrian territory nor provoke confrontation with Assad and his allies. Assad wants a Syria free of Turkish (and, indeed NATO) troops and a return of his mandate and mukhabarat to all parts of the country, including the Kurdish north. He can live with the YPG, but only in its “proper” place: as a vassal, defanged, compliant, and a useful ally against Ankara.

Can and will the Kurds trust Assad? Never! After seventy years as second-class citizens in Syria, who would? One can but hope that the analogy of the Paris Commune is just that – an analogy only. That quixotic intifada ended tragically for the communards

Will all this come to pass? Who knows. The situation, the players, the circumstances change moment by moment. A few days ago, The Independent’s knowledgeable Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote: “The only solution in northeast Syria is for the US to withdraw militarily under an agreement whereby Turkey does not invade Syria, in return for the Syrian government backed by Russia absorbing the Kurdish quasi-state so hated by the Turks and giving it some degree of internationally guaranteed autonomy. Any other option is likely to provoke a Turkish invasion and two million Kurds in flight – a very few of whom will one day end up on the pebble beaches of Dungeness”.  As I was saying …

See also in In The Howling Infinite A Middle East Miscellany and East 

For more posts on the Middle East, visit:
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That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

Sanctioning Saudi – 1973 revisited?

In October 1973, Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia cut off oil sales to western states in retaliation for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. It was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.

The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, ushering in the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.

The extrajudicial murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by perpetrators allegedly linked to the Saudi ruling family, and particularly the ambitious and overweening crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, has introduced discussion of possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia – a scenario that Saudi’s brutal war in Yemen has not to date precipitated. I empathize “discussion” because there is a many a slip twixt the cup and the lip – Saudi’s western allies have long been complacent about and at times complicit in the kingdom’s many misdeeds in the interests of intelligence, security, and contracts; and also, in opposition to their  mutual Iranian enemy, and the ambivalent, and in practical terms, tepid support for the US’ quixotic ‘war on terror” (in conflicts that Saudi Arabia has in many instances fermented with its export and funding of fundamentalist Islam and its support for Islamist groups worldwide.

The kingdom has threatened retaliation in the (unlikely) prospect that sanctions are indeed implemented – the USA and its western allies are reluctant to take such a big stick to this strategically important ‘partner in freedom”.

Predictably, commentators, and presumably policy-makers, are asking whether therefore we’ll see repeat of 1973. Many observers of a certain age recall the pain of what was to become a great economic and political re-calibration – of kowtowing to Gulf tyrants, and of  endeavours to reduce dependence upon the old producers of the Middle East.  But few tend to focus on the gains to economies and corporate bottom lines during the years that followed.

The massive increase in oil revenues flowing into Gulf coffers kick-started a veritable “gold rush” as westerners beat a congested path to the open doors and chequebooks of the kings and emirs who now sought to “modernize” their medieval backwaters with industrial plants, high rises and condos, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, and more weapons than countries of their size and population could ever require or use.

For over four decades, it was party-time for consultants, fixers and arms manufacturers as democratic governments turned a blind eye to the repression, intolerance and inequity that prevailed among these valued customers. As was said about Catherine the Great and the partition of Poland, they weep as they take.

Visitors and expats sing the praises of these “miracles in the desert”, with their highways and shopping malls, but the kingdoms and emirates are still governed by medieval mindsets in which autocracy, patronage, patriarchy and misogyny, and religious intolerance and obscurantism contradict the values of the western nations who regard them as indispensable allies in their quixotic defense of democracy and freedom.

So, how much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?

The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century. Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns. The “West” is not as dependent on Gulf oil as it was in the ‘seventies. A surge in domestic and non-Mid East sourced oil and gas, and in renewables has reduced Saudi Arabia’s economic clout.

Meanwhile, the autocratic kingdom is feeling the pinch of diminishing revenues, royal drones, growing populations, youth unemployment, and economic recession. An act of economic warfare as hinted by Saudi insiders, like an extreme oil production cut, would have but a limited impact upon the global economy, and  would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. His signature $500 billion dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise and materièl, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically, politically and diplomatically in any standoff.

For other articles on the Middle East in Into That Howling Infinite, see: A Middle East Miscellany

The West should be careful over sanctioning Saudi Arabia – but not because of fears over oil prices

The 1973 Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and caused painful recessions, but the global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century, writes Ben Chu in The Independent, 29 October 2018

How important is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the global economy? Does Riyadh hold the world’s economic destiny in its hands?

These questions are not academic given the profound uncertainty over how the Jamal Khashoggi case will play out in the coming days and over how western governments could respond if credible evidence emerges that the dissident Saudi journalist’s killing was not a “mistake” made by “rogue” operatives but was, in fact, explicitly ordered by the all-powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

Donald Trump has threatened “very severe” consequences under those circumstances. And, for their part, the Saudi government also last week made it clear they would not passively soak up western sanctions or other forms of punishment.

“The kingdom emphasises that it will respond to any measure against it with an even stronger measure,” its Foreign Ministry said in a defiant statement. “The kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

Oil was not specifically mentioned. But then it doesn’t really need to be.

The Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973, when Gulf states stopped sales to the likes of the US, the UK, Canada and Japan in retaliation for western support of Israel, was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.

It is branded in the memory of politicians and civil servants of a certain age, but also on the inherited folk memory of the current generation. The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, clearing the way for the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.

So would we be going back to the 1970s? How much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?

The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century.Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns.

The recent spike in oil prices in 2010, when prices hit $125 a barrel, stimulated the domestic US shale oil and gas production sector. The industry grew so fast that domestic energy production today is almost 90 per cent of US consumption. A decade ago the US had net daily imports of 10 million barrels of oil and petroleum products. In 1973 it was 6.4 million. Today that is down to just 2.3 million.

Indeed, the US this year, thanks to shale, overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest daily crude oil producer.

It’s true that the UK and western Europe are still heavily reliant on imported energy and therefore appear particularly vulnerable to a sudden jump in global oil prices. But the European share of renewables as a source of final energy consumption has also been rising rapidly, hitting 17 per cent in 2016. A spike in oil prices would be likely to accelerate this switch away from fossil fuels (just as the 1973 embargo encouraged western energy conservation measures such as the Nixon administration’s 50mph US highway speed limit). Again, while this could actually be beneficial in the medium term for the west, it would hardly be in the Saudi economic interest.

The oil price has been rising since the middle of last year and is now close to a four-year high at $80. One Saudi newspaper columnist has suggested that, if faced with severe western sanctions, Riyadh could slash its roughly 10-million-barrel-a-day production by two-thirds, sending the global price back to $100, or perhaps even on to a record $400 a barrel.

Yet there was little of that kind of sabre waving at the Saudi “Davos in the Desert” business investment event in Riyadh last week. The Saudi business folk to whom I spoke were, instead, keen to see western alliances preserved and almost desperate for the present crisis to dissipate.

It’s clear why. An act of economic warfare like an extreme oil production cut would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. The crown prince’s $500bn dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically in any standoff.

There are certainly reasons why the west should tread carefully with Saudi Arabia, from state-to-state co-operation on terror intelligence, to considerations of geopolitical stability. But fears of a repeat of the 1970s oil embargo should not, whatever folk memory holds, be high on the list.

When Freedom Comes

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Bob Dylan, Chimes of Freedom

Hear the cry in the tropic night, should be the cry of love but it’s a cry of fright
Some people never see the light till it shines through bullet holes
Bruce Cockburn, Tropic Moon

When Freedom Comes is a tribute to Robert Fisk, indomitable, veteran British journalist and longtime resident of Beirut, who could say without exaggeration “I walk among the conquered, I walk among the dead” in “the battlegrounds and graveyards” of “long forgotten armies and long forgotten wars”. It’s all there, in his grim tombstone of a book, The Great War for Civilization (a book I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century – but it takes stamina –  at near in 1,300 pages – and a strong stomach – its stories are harrowing).

The theme, alas, is timeless, and the lyrics, applicable to any of what Rudyard called the “savage wars of peace” being waged all across our planet, yesterday, today and tomorrow – and indeed any life-or-death battle in the name of the illusive phantom of liberty and against those intent on either denying it to us or depriving us of it. “When freedom runs through dogs and guns, and broken glass” could describe Paris and Chicago in 1968 or Kristallnacht in 1938. If it is about any struggle in particular, it is about the Palestinians and their endless, a fruitless yearning for their lost land. Ironically, should this ever be realized, freedom is probably the last thing they will enjoy. They like others before them will be helpless in the face of vested interest, corruption, and brute force, at the mercy of the ‘powers that be’ and the dead hand of history.

The mercenaries and the robber bands, the warlords and the big men, az zu’ama’, are the ones who successfully “storm the palace, seize the crown”. To the victors go the spoils – the people are but pawns in their game.

There goes the freedom fighter,
There blows the dragon’s breath.
There stands the sole survivor;
The time-worn shibboleth.
The zealots’ creed, the bold shahid,
Give me my daily bread
I walk among the conquered
I walk among the dead

Here comes the rocket launcher,
There runs the bullets path,
The revolution’s father,
The hero psychopath.
The wanting seed, the aching need
Fulfill the devil’s pact,
The incremental balancing
Between the thought and act.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

There rides the mercenary,
Here roams the robber band.
In flies the emissary
With claims upon our land.
The lesser breed with savage speed
Is slaughtered where he stands.
His elemental fantasy
Felled by a foreign hand.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On heaven and on earth,
And each shall make his sacrifice,
And each shall know his worth.
In stockade and on barricade
The song will now be heard
The incandescent energy
Gives substance to the word.

Missionaries, soldiers,
Ambassadors ride through
The battlegrounds and graveyards
And the fields our fathers knew.
Through testament and sacrament,
The prophecy shall pass.
When freedom runs through clubs and guns,
And broken glass.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

© Paul Hemphill 2012

From: Into That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill Volume 5. See also: East – An Arab Anthology , and: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

Fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European nations in its thrall invaded Czechoslovakia to crush liberal reforms enacted by communist leader Alexander Dubçek in the brief era known as the Prague Spring. In ex post factum justification, the following month, Leonid  Brezhnev, General Secretary if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, expounded what became known as The Brezhnev Doctrine: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was meant to counter liberalization efforts and uprisings that had that challenged Soviet hegemony inside the Eastern Bloc, considered by Moscow as an essential defensive and strategic buffer in the event hostilities were to break out with NATO, the western alliance. In practice, it meant that  bloc members enjoyed but limited independence. Any challenge to the cohesiveness of the Eastern Bloc, whether, by either threatening the communist parties’ grip on power, or Lenin forbid, actually attempt to secede, the Soviet Union assumed  the authority and the power to define “socialism” and “capitalism“, and to act militarily to defend the status quo.

With Dubçek detained and Prague occupied, the country was subsequently taken over by a hard-line Communist regime subservient to Moscow. In 1968 alone, 137 people were killed by Warsaw Pact soldiers, and a total of more than 400 died during an ccupation of that ended only after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when veteran dissident poet Vacláv Havel became the first and last democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia – he served from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 when he became the first President of the Czech Republic. 

The events in Prague in August 1968 are described and appraised in an recent, informative ‘long read’ in The Independent, republished below.

With friends like these…

But first, as part of a continuing chronicle of the events of 1968 in Into That Howling Infinite (see below), here are some recollections of my own.  

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist (yes, a member – the only party I have ever joined!) fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.

The summer’s events in what is now-bisected Czechoslovakia occurred against a backdrop of anti-war demonstrations in the US, including the Kent State shootings (“four dead in Ohio”), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the tumultuous evenements de Mai ‘68 in Paris. These came as I was writing a dissertation on the Hungarian Rising of 1956 – a tragic precursor to Prague and to Brezhnev’s doctrine – and provided a pertinent background narrative and also, a coda for my story.

The shock-waves of the Prague pogrom rippled through my own world the following August when I was contemplating how to spend my summer vacation once I had earned enough money on the motorway construction site to pay for my travels.

I had a Czech friend – self-exiled Camille –  who encouraged me to visit his country that summer and to  drop in on his folks in Prague. Having completed my dissertation, I was pretty keen to visit such a historical and controversial city. So I booked a one-way ticket to Prague on British Caledonia – my first-ever aeroplane flight! It was my intention to visit the place where “Good King Wenceslas last looked out” and then head home to England via Austria and Germany. 

But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes. Or life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The date I’d chosen to travel just happened to fall a year to the day of the Soviet invasion. Our turboprop plane headed east into what was still the Soviet Bloc – that had twenty yeqrs to run – and flew OVER Prague! The first we happy travellers – students mostly – knew was that we were circling to land in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

So there we were, in passport control, without visas and accommodation, our itineraries awry, amidst border officials who were wondering who the hell we were and what the f@$£ we were doing there in their portal to the Iron Curtain. Eventually, things were sorted, visas issued, money exchanged (exorbitantly, as was the way in those days), and a bus provided to take us to a Communist Party Youth hostel, bleak, spartan, and crowded with enthusiastic, gorgeous Young Communist lads and lasses.

So there I was, in my first communist country. And, you know what, “they who know only England, who only England know”. I walked through old Buda and Pest, strolled by the Danube and the Sejm, the famous parliament building, walked the boulevards of my dissertation, and saw the scars of battle still there in the brickwork twelve years after the doomed Intifada of 1956. 

I’d heard and read about how the affluent and decadent west was an altogether different and better world than the drab, depressed and depressing cities of the workers’ paradises to our east. And yet, to my ingenue eyes, the look, life and life-style of Budapest appeared no better or worse than my Birmingham and Berkshire backwaters. 

Maybe it was because of my youth, inexperience, and background – maybe I hadn’t traveled enough to interpret and to judge. Apart from brief Boy Scout and schoolboy excursions into Europe-lite, Brit-friendly Belgium and Luxembourg, this was my first foray into distinctly ‘foreign’ lands with histories, cultures, governance, and world views quite different to the fields that I had known. 

I’d like to think that perhaps it is something intrinsically part of my software – an ability to adapt, accept, empathize, and, as far as it is indeed possible for a stranger, to become one with the scenery and slip into the machinery, and, to put it bluntly, take it all at face value.  As a “stranger in a strange land”, I accepted what I saw, observed, heard and learned, moved on – to quote American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – like “a mirror walking down a strange street’. For this is how I traveled in thise roving years, leaving very little by way of words and pictures of my travelling. All I saw, heard, observed, felt and learned was mostly stashed away on my hard-drive to be accessed in latter years – waiting, perhaps, for the advent of social media, blogs and highly portable electronic devices. 

Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –  westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade.

In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb. 

That impulsive decision in Budapest led me into new pastures. Back in Britain, an Indian summer gave way to bleak autumn and dark and damp winter, and my compass re-calibrated. I had been focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, on deep history and the Russian ‘soul’ (whatever that might be), on ideologies, betrayals, and Cold War skulduggery. But the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled:

You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. 

My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the Hippy Trail to India. There and back again, to quote JRR Tolkien, so fresh in my undergraduate canon. I traveled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed. 

Through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other whilst I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.

I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile, the Jordan and the  Orontes, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperial  endeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabad  and Jerusalem. 

On my return, I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life,  Imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona. my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.

In these troubled times, much of the world I once traveled is closed to the casual and the curious. I mourn for those dear, dead days when the map of the world was a signpost and not a warning. But today, I go wherever and whenever I can go, and I feel a wonderful sense of homecoming when I touch down in the bright sunlight. I get the thrill of fresh adventure when I arrive in new places with their sights, sounds and aromas. I reclaim and revel in the curiosity and wonder, knowledge and understanding, awareness and wisdom that was born back there in Budapest. 

And that is how Leonid Brezhnev changed my life!

These are the lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here since time immemorial. We still see the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We can chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”. Histories carved in stone,  mysteries locked in stone, as “canyons and castles pass ageless and ageing and captive in time”.  Forward to East – An Arab Anthology. 

See also, A Middle East Miscellany

Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968and Phil Och’s Chicago Blues 

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey Poets; The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Looking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone World; Back in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

Tanks for the memory


The Prague Spring: 50 years on what can we learn from Czechoslovakia’s failed attempt to reform communism?

Mick O’Hare, The Independent, 19 August 2018

Soviet tanks arrive to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ ( AFP/Getty )

Fifty years ago this week, on 21 August 1968, the citizens of Prague awoke to find tanks on their streets. For some it came as no surprise. Student activist Pavel Kamenicky was sleeping. “At first I thought it was the university bus trying to find the right gear,” he says. “But I realised it was way too loud. I jumped up thinking, ‘they’ve come’.”

Czechoslovakia had dominated news bulletins throughout the summer after its premier, First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, had begun reforming his communist government’s structures earlier that year. But now, what had become known as the Prague Spring, or Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face”, was lying crushed beneath the tank tracks in Wenceslas Square.

The Soviet Union feared its grip on the satellite states of eastern Europe was loosening and its patience had finally run out. Czechoslovakia and Dubcek had fallen foul of USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev’s eponymous doctrine, espoused retroactively in justification the month after Warsaw Pact troops took to Prague’s streets: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries,” Brezhnev said.

Soviet forces, alongside those of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, crossed the Czechoslovakian border at 11pm on the evening of 20 August. East Germany withdrew at the last minute when it was realised that, just over two decades after the end of the Second World War, the presence of German troops on Czech and Slovak soil could lead to unintended repercussions. The following morning, the foreign soldiers were in the capital, offering fraternal support to loyal comrades in Czechoslovakia.

Soviet tanks had intervened in post-war eastern Europe before. Towards the end of October in 1956, Hungarians revolted against their Marxist-Leninist government and declared a new administration, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and disbanding the communist-run state security apparatus. But barely two and half weeks later the western world watched aghast, but impotent, as Soviet forces entered Budapest to restore one-party rule.

Yet there had been real hope that Czechoslovakia could be different. 1968 was, of course, a year of revolution and political protest across the planet. But the Czechoslovak version was in many ways a rather gentler form of dissent. Dubcek had never set out to overthrow communism, merely to reform it.

The nation’s planned economy had been in decline throughout the 1960s. Dubcek had replaced previous first secretary, Antonín Novotný, in January 1968 and had attempted to liberalise communist party rule by tolerating political institutions and organisations not directly controlled by the party. Even multi-party government was mooted. More repressive laws were loosened, travel was made easier and freedom of expression, especially in media, accepted.

Leonid Brezhnev shares a joke with US president Richard Nixon in 1973 (AP)

Unwittingly though, Dubcek had created either a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on one’s political viewpoint. Reform emboldened progressives and led to demand for further liberalisation. Dissidents, especially students, but also the wider population in numerous Soviet satellite nations, began to push for similar freedoms.

He was wrong: 2,000 tanks and a 250,000-strong Soviet-led force of men invaded on Brezhnev’s orders; 137 Czechoslovak civilians were killed resisting; and, pleading with his citizens not to fight back, Dubcek was flown to Moscow.

Some citizens used the power of argument to voice their opposition, engaging troops in discussion to make their point – until photographs were used in Soviet propaganda to suggest the locals were making friends with the invaders. Dubcek returned as little more than a puppet of the Soviet regime and was replaced early in 1969. Half a million of his supporters were expelled from the Communist Party.

Leaders of communist countries meeting in Poland in 1955 to sign the mutual defence treaty commonly known as the Warsaw Pact (AFP/Getty)

The members of Nato, especially the United States – already involved in conflict in Vietnam and aiming to broker a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union – condemned the invasion but had no intention of intervening. In the aftermath, 300,000 Czechoslovaks, many highly qualified, emigrated to the west, although the authorities soon clamped down on their ability to leave.

The period between 1969 and 1971 is known in Czechoslovak history as the era of “normalisation”. The country returned to the Soviet fold; opposition both within and without the country faded; and the Communist Party returned to the hardline position it had held before the onset of the Prague Spring.

So, 50 years later, what does the anniversary offer today’s Europeans still struggling with political upheaval and, certainly in the east of the continent, getting to grips with increasingly nationalistic, repressive governments? Apart from the sense of betrayal felt by Czechs and Slovaks, both towards their own government and their supposed allies, and the reminder that totalitarianism brooks no dissent, are there lessons to be learned from the Prague Spring; and what became of Dubcek, its architect? Unsurprisingly the legacy is complex – as legacies are wont to be.

Perhaps the key to understanding Czechoslovakia in 1968 is that, unlike similar uprisings against the establishment, both in communist Europe but also elsewhere around the world – witness the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 – the Prague Spring was not a movement of only liberals, students (among other young people) and political intellectuals fighting a conservative establishment. It had wider cross-generational support drawing on the strong traditions of democracy that had developed in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, after its formation in 1918.

Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, author of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, who lived in exile in France from 1975, argued that it was a movement falling back on the “best traditions” of Czechoslovakia’s brief history: a “higher quality of democracy not based on the ills associated with capitalism”. By contrast, the later revolutions that would finally overthrow communism in Europe at the end of the 1980s were driven as much by the “victory” of Reaganism, free-market economics and monetarism as they were by the right to vote freely and express opinions openly.

It has become fashionable, with hindsight, to blame the suppression of the Prague Spring on “communism”. But let it not be forgotten that it was fervent communists who were carrying out Czechoslovakia’s reforms. Whether the Prague Spring was a “purer” revolution than those that followed is probably an argument for political ideologues alone, but a glance across the border towards Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows that the spoils of the “freedom” won in 1989 might not always manifest themselves with good intent.

Two decades after Dubcek’s attempt to reform communism from within, the then premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, issued an apology on behalf of all Warsaw Pact nations, stating that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a mistake, and that the USSR should never have interfered in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. (It should be noted that both Romania and Albania had refused to participate in the 1968 intervention; and Albania ultimately withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in the aftermath.)

It was the culmination of a number of apologies from Warsaw Pact nations throughout 1989 and it seems reasonable to argue that there was a direct link between these acknowledgements and the overthrow of communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Romania and, most poignantly, Czechoslovakia, that same year. Protesters realised that their actions would no longer lead to Red Army interference, and the Soviet bloc of eastern European nations had replaced their communist rulers within months of one another.

                          Vaclav Havel,was elected first president of Czechoslovakia  (Getty)

Perhaps 1968 showed us, if 1956 had not already, that the post-war façade of communist interdependence, internationalism and fraternal allegiance was broken, if indeed it had ever been more than a charade at all. The alliance was built on flimsy foundations and maintained by suppression. Czech historical novelist and writer Ivan Klíma has said that – for good or ill – the most important legacy of the Prague Spring was the delayed but ultimate destruction of the international communist movement.

But warnings must still be heeded. In a world where a nationalistically invigorated Russia under Vladimir Putin increasingly looks beyond its borders for a bulwark against Nato and the EU, the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact does not mean a concurrent diminishing of militarism: the annexation of Crimea by Russia has shown us that very clearly. And – even putting aside the Brexit debate – illiberal governments in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary threaten to overturn the European Union’s free-market liberal consensus. The threat, while changed in ideology, still lurks.

And what of Dubcek? After he was ousted as  first secretary he worked for the forestry service near Bratislava, in his native Slovakia. And after the final overthrow of communist rule in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989 he briefly returned to political prominence as chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, and later as leader of the Slovak Social Democrats.

Pavel Kamenicky, now 70, says: “We were idealistic. But Dubcek should have realised what was going to happen. Did he really think Brezhnev would shrug and say ‘carry on’?” On the other hand, Dubcek’s son Pavol has defended his father’s position, once saying: “I don’t know if people really understand what it meant to have your fate in Brezhnev’s hands.”

For right or wrong, however, Dubcek had in truth become more or less a political irrelevance by the time of the Velvet Revolution. Václav Havel, the poet and statesman who played a prominent role in the events of 1989 and became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Soviet era president, said: “Dubcek is a symbol of our nice memories, but nobody thinks he can influence the situation now.” Dubcek himself rarely spoke of 1968.

Although a Slovak, Dubcek was opposed to the 1993 split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and maintained his belief in the idea of a single, united nation. He was killed in a car crash in 1992, declared in an official investigation to be an accident. Conspiracy theories abound and even today 50 per cent of those Slovaks who know of him believe his death was almost certainly not an accident.

The crushing of the Prague Spring continues to echo down the ages, its eventual legacy yet to be determined.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/prague-spring-anniversary-czechoslovakia-soviet-union-wwii-czech-republic-slovakia-a8485326.html