Reason vs Emotion

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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Rotten in Tunisia: The Corrupt Rule of Ben Ali

He was the prototypical strong man softened by tactical reforms, blissfully ignorant before the fall, blown off in the violent winds of the Arab Spring. Having come to power in 1987 on the back of a coup against the 84-year-old Habib Bourguiba, whom he accused of senility, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was the face of Tunisia till 2011, when he exited his country’s politics in a swift repairing move to Saudi Arabia. Previous whiffs of revolution – for instance, in 2008 in Gafsa – had been contained and quelled by what was a distinct mukharabat-intelligence security state.

Ben Ali had the unwitting humour of generally humourless authoritarian rulers, mirthlessly characterising his reign as one of le changement and “democratic transition.” “I needed to re-establish the rule of law,” he explained to French television after seizing power. “The president was ill, and his inner circle was harmful.”

The military-security apparatus he presided over burgeoned despite his own efforts at reforming social security, education and women’s rights. The Presidential Guard was bloated to some 8,000 members; the National Guard, with its headquarters near Tunis-Carthage International Airport, numbered 20,000. A multiple set of police outfits were also created, including those specifically dealing with universities, tourism and politics.

The sense of non-change marked by extensive surveillance was characterised by indulgent portraits, often enormous, featuring a certain agelessness, a cultish obsession with found on billboard and buildings. Ben Ali could still claim that he was, relative to his despotic peers, more benevolent. Economic stability, in a fashion, was brought for a time, though this had the unfortunate effect of encouraging a needy cronyism. A bigger pie meant greedier hands.

His report card as minister for national security showed that, when needed, he would summon the security forces to do his bidding, crushing the Bread Riots between 1983 and 1984, a protest against the rise in bread prices occasioned by the introduction of an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

The sequence of events that saw Ben Ali undone would come to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. There were the spectacular displays of self-inflicted suffering, including the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisia’s very own indigenous Jan Palach, who had set himself alight before the tanks of the Warsaw Pact in January 1969. On December 17, 2010, the 26-year-old fruit vendor’s act directed against institutional harassment inflamed protests in Sidi Bouzid.

A country with a national unemployment of 14 percent, numbering as high as 30 percent in the 15 to 24 years age group, was throbbing with revolutionary dissent. Remittances from Tunisians working abroad had fallen; the global financial crisis from 2008 had bitten savagely. Policing, hypersensitive to any Islamist upsurge, had become more aggressive. But looming across the country were the predations of Ben Ali’s kleptomanic family of 140 persons, known colloquially as “The Family”, and a distinctly unholy one at that. Perhaps with a certain tired inevitability, a femme fatale figure was identified: the first lady and Ben Ali’s second wife Leila Trabelsi. The Trabelsi name became shorthand for habitual state corruption.

Something rotten in the state of Tunisia was also discernible to a highly literate populace now able to access diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks, which came to be regarded as something of a golden boy for the revolution. One US government cable from June 23, 2008 stands out: “Whether it’s cash services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.” Investment levels had declined; bribery levels had increased.

US ambassador Robert F. Godec also noted the exploits of the First Lady’s brother, Belhassen Trabelsi, whose rapacity included the illegal acquisition of “an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on.” For all that, he remained merely “one of Leila’s ten known siblings, each with their own children. Among this large extended family, Leila’s brother Moncef and nephew Imed are also particularly important actors.”

The twenty-eight days of protest also saw the extensive, coordinated use of social media, another technological manifestation that continues to terrify states of different ideological shades. In a dry article on the subject – again, another piece that reads oddly given the current rage against social media as a corrupting, conniving incubator of “fake news” – Anita Breuer, Todd Landman and Dorothea Farquhar suggested that, “Social network platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have multiplied the possibilities for retrieval and dissemination of political information and thus afford the Internet user a variety of supplemental and relatively low cost access points to political information and engagement.”

Other factors also came together. For one thing, the Tunisian army and senior officials refused to turn the guns on protesters with quite the same interest as other regimes might have done. What transpired was certainly a set of circumstances more profound in change than other states swept up in Arab spring time. For one, the ruling Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD) was given the heave-ho, remarkable for the fact that it had been the party of independence.

As the books, and political system, were being reordered and rescripted, a Tunisian court sentenced Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi in absentia to 35 years in prison, topped by a $66 million fine for corruption and embezzlement. The highlights of the trial suggest those of a gangster keen on guns, drugs and archaeological treasures.

The Arab Spring seems, to a large extent, a flutter of history and packed with a good deal of wishful thinking; but for a time, it seemed that lasting change might take place, staged as grand theatrical acts of protest against military thuggery. The stable of Egyptian politics was turned out; there were protests across North Africa stretching to Iran. But the strong men returned, and authoritarianism reasserted itself.  We bear witness to a flirt of history rather than any lasting consummation of change. Tunisia, however, proved the holdout exception. Ben Ali might well have counted himself unlucky, a victim of posterity’s considerable, mocking condescension.

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Extinction Rebellion: Leaving it to the Students

The protestor of school age sported a placard featuring a distorted caricature of Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison: “Scomo was liking it hot.” A glorious spring day, and a gathering was already fussing and buzzing outside the Victorian State Library and students were striking. The placard image was one that toasted both ways – looking “hot” for the purposes of appearance – the lace underwear, the high-heels; and also observing a climate heating the earth to a state of cooked oblivion.

Australia’s Pentecostal Prime Minister was thousands of miles away in Washington DC, spending time with the Big Man Uncle Sam, journeying there happy to be amongst friends (mates, as he would say), fairly indifferent to the climate change protests that have registered across the globe. He had, after all, been elected on a platform sympathetic to renting the earth.

Morrison’s life is sorted in God’s grand if erratic plan, which tends to ignore matters of an environmental nature. Climate change is best left to the hysterics; that’s their business. God’s business is to forgive and move a bit of furniture around in anticipating the admission of more souls to the Kingdom of Heaven. Till that happens for the Bible Bashing here-and-now, coal and other fossil fuels are to be worshipped.

How countries have managed to cope with climate change is a smorgasbord of conflict and desperation. Since 2018, another message, sometimes shrill, sometimes steely and sober, has entered the debate: Extinction Rebellion, a movement that began in the United Kingdom and remains focused on the message of climate emergency and immediate action. From being outré, it is now chic, the subject of petitions. We are frying, goes this message from the children, so listen. Embrace, then, such methods as non-violent direct action (NVDA) encouraged by one of the XR founders Roger Hallam. Embrace a platform, if at all possible, beyond politics.

Within months, the XR movement had made sufficient ripples to impress the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, and various members of the House of Commons. In June, MPs yielded to a core demand of the protest group: convening a citizens’ assembly made up of representative samples of the British population to discuss climate change.

Academics, for one, have hopped onto the bandwagon of children driven protest centred on Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, suggesting that civil disobedience is something worthwhile. This is a good thing for some, given that many have suffered what Christian Smith described in The Chronicle Review as a distinctly cloacal condition, the academic as a bullshit submerged citizen. “BS is the university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis in faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.”

While a clear view on non-violent protest is absolutely tenable from a moral and ethical perspective, it is worth considering who tends to be roped into such measures. Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay on civil disobedience remains a canonical text for the effectual protester; it is not sufficient to be merely against a condition or state of society (slavery or war). A platform of activism is needed to “quietly declare war with the State”.

Many academics have no such compunction in battling it out with the State. Middle-class welfare discourages that sort of thing. The first bastion of capitulation in most developed societies is the academic class. Its members are, all too frequently, the accommodators, the conciliators and the surrendering segment of society keen to prevent dissent in choppy waters. They are practitioners of sloth; skivers and shirkers, shifting workloads to adjuncts and sessional staff. Failed academics become, in time, failed managers.

When it comes to the thinking and Thoreau-like matters of disobedience, the heavy lifting, running, and all-round angst is best left to students, however salad-like they might seem. Otherwise, the focus tends to be confined to collective signatures that never go much further than a round robin email of conceited smugness and organisational dullness.

In Australia, an open letter signed by some 250 or so researchers and those loosely defined as members of the academic fraternity (the context is now so diluted as to be meaningless) have expressed their “support or the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement and the global week of non-violent civil disobedience and disruption planned for October.” The language is a bit Johnny-come-lately, an after-party intervention that sounds like the bore who cheered after the fact. “We stand behind XR’s demands for the Australian government to declare a climate emergency and to establish a citizens’ assembly to work with scientists on the basis of current evidence to develop a credible and just plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.”

Important to also note here is the tribalism behind the note: university disciplines chirping and bleating in an effort to identify some fictional solidarity lurking behind the impotence. The children had saved them; they could be relevant!

Given that the modern university is heaving and suffering under siloed hyper-specialised irrelevance, this must have come as a golden opportunity for ineffectual hivers keen to boost their presence and their value before the unalerted public eye. It gave managers a chance to leave their spreadsheets and signatures; it gave the lazed and the crazed a chance to rope in a protest march and badger high school students.

It was also a chance to be righteous, encouraging, in the words of the open letter, “all Australian universities and other major institutions to immediately divest funds from all fossil fuel and other industries which are contributing to the climate crisis, and to redirect investments urgently towards the renewable energy sector and other climate enhancing technologies.” (Climate is already being “enhanced” enough as it is; what is needed, surely, are technologies that moderate that enhancement).

The protests on this September 20, filled as they are with children, many tenaciously bright, do leave one with a sense of returned relevance: the civil disobedient class as resurgent, the activist as debater. But history shows that the students are best left alone to inspire and convince: despots, instructors and the military will eventually follow.

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“Strong Men” in Europe: Tony Abbott Visits Hungary

“I extend a special welcome to Australia’s former prime minister. It is in part due to his tough policy that we regard Australia as a model country. We especially respect it for the brave, direct and Anglo-Saxon consistency which it has shown on migration and defence of the Australian nation.”

These words of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Tony Abbott at the Third Budapest Demographic Summit uttered on September 5 would have made the former Australian premier gooey and weak at the knees. Abbott, it must be remembered, had been the proud architect of the “turn back the boats” refugee policy, insistent that naval matters dealing with such arrivals be given a military flourish of secrecy. It was not for the Australian public to know how many vessels might actually be making their way to Australia.

Orbán’s welcome pressed all the reactionary points of strongman mythology: inherent toughness, obsessive border security, and the singing praise for appropriate racial stock – the indomitable, pragmatic character that would not bow down to other “ethnic” elements in the populace. (The irony, of course, is that Australia’s ruthless anti-refugee policy has the support of a good many nationalities keen to ensure that yesterday’s immigrants prevent today’s boat arrivals).

Abbott, for his part, wrote gushingly of the Hungarian leader a few days after his Budapest meeting, seeing him as the prominent personality behind the Visegrád group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) who had valiantly rallied, along with the Brexiteers, against the European Union and its more intrusive expectations. Orbán “has not only transformed the economy but was the first European leader to cry ‘stop’ to the peaceful invasion of 2015 and is now trying to boost Hungary’s flagging birth rate.”

The account tallies with the wet-dreamers who find the Magyar crypto-despot admirably pugilistic and capable in prosecuting his goals, especially when it comes to Christianity and cultural identity.  Like Abbott, Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, was impressed in a meeting with Orbán, one that had not been anticipated. He spoke of Hungary, and Central Europe, having been victims of colonisation at the hands of Islam and the Middle East. Orbán, it was noted, was won over by Christian leaders in the Middle East warning about their treatment at the hands of Islam’s followers. “What did they say [about Muslim refugees]? Don’t let them in. Stop them.”

The admiration for Orbán is the praise afforded an ambitious and successful authoritarian running under the banner of threatened civilisations, keen to do battle with demons. Along with his ruling party Fidesz, the Hungarian leader has, as Timothy Garton Ash accurately conveys, “so completely penetrated the state administration that Hungary is again a one-party state.” An independent judiciary has been eliminated. Cronyism is encouraged; family members are favoured with government contracts; dissenters and opponents are the target of harassing tax investigations.

Since losing his federal seat in the May elections, Abbott has had little time for the antics of a fractious, scrutinising Parliament, and believes that Britain’s premier political institution is simply disrupting those who wished for Brexit. It was only before a gathering at the UK Policy Exchange where he finally felt he could give a “full throttle, double-barrel roar”, one “turbo-charged by the Parliament’s consistent attempt to sabotage the people’s vote.” (The inner despot in Abbott fails to appreciate that Parliament is the voice of the British people, however muddled it might be. Arguments on civilisation can cut both ways).

Abbott was also keen to move away from anything approaching environmental calamity and cultural accommodation. Being in Europe, and more specifically in such amenable company, had intoxicated him. This was the frontline against unwanted Muslim immigration and environmental doomsday preaching. “I mean,” he told summit delegates, “you get a million angry military-age males swarming into a single country in a year. There are not there to be grateful, but they are there with a grievance.” Nor was there a population bomb with a fuse waiting to go off, or carbon footprints worthy of concern, or an emissions problem in an increasingly heating world. Instead, his idea of the “extinction rebellion” was demographic rather than climate related; people, certainly the right people, were not breeding enough.

The demographic problems of various countries, with declining birth rates, had necessitated dramatic action. “Hungary, whose population is predicted to shrink by a quarter over the next half century, is waiving household debt for larger families and not taxing four-time mothers, among other measures worth careful study.”

Orbán, as with some of his European colleagues, is terrified by a demographic vanishing. “It’s not hard to imagine that there would be one single last man who has to turn the lights out.” At the third demographic summit, he noted “the spiritual foundations of Hungary’s family policy.” Demography, in being destiny, was unavoidable: “human life is finite; and that just as we enter life, so we must leave it.” With certain resignation, he noted the need to have more demographic conferences, in part to return his country to a state of model, diligent procreation. Woodpeckers, he surmised, had to be taught how to peck wood again. Christianity had to “regain its strength in Europe.” Abbott, himself a religious zealot, could only agree: Christian Europe had get back to some fecund, dedicated shagging.

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Lotteries and Rights in the Sporting Life

The pigeon flapped in desperation, moving across Melbourne’s lavish Capitol Theatre in fits and starts. It was more alarmed than anything else at the address being given by former Australian football (soccer to some) player Craig Foster. Foster has been beating the drum on one particular message for some time now: that sports can change the dimension of human rights, becoming, as it were, a fertilising agent.

At the Capitol, he made the point with various reiterations, reminding his audience about the fortunate Hakeem al-Araibi, who became his inspired subject of humanity. Al-Araibi was not merely a Bahraini refugee who had been detained for supporting fellow footballers who had protested during the Arab Spring, but a member of Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale Football Club. On a trip to Thailand as an accepted refugee, he found himself in Thai captivity facing the prospect of extradition to his homeland.

Foster’s very public campaign seeking his release from Thai prison demonstrated an unequal law of favouritism in this field: had the Bahraini national not been a footballer, a sports figure of some merit, there is little to suggest that he would have received such furious and tenacious attention. As Foster said at the time of al-Araibi’s release in February, “This is a man, probably the most famous young man in Australia right now, a courageous young man, a human rights defender… we’re so proud of all of Australia to have fought so hard to bring [him] back home.”

Currently, refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, detained at the behest of Australian foreign and domestic policy, are distant, faceless subjects of legal purgatory. Attention and sympathy is heavily rationed; not even the occasional gruesome death can spur the Australian citizen to storm the immigration offices. Such a point is acknowledged by Foster. When it came to garnering international support for al-Araibi’s case, critics pointed their fingers at Australia’s own venal refugee policy, one strong on outsourced mandatory detention. “Nor was it lost on any of us fighting so hard against two governments and monarchies and in urging FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation and the International Olympic Committee to uphold their human rights obligations that we are failing to uphold our own.”

Foster also notes that such matters should not be lotteries of fate. To his Capitol audience, he observed a certain luck of the draw in al-Araibi’s case: that being a registered footballer gave him more rights than standard citizens designated as refugees. FIFA, a governing organisation famed for habitual corruption, does at least boast of a commitment to respect “all internationally recognised human rights” while striving “to promote the protection of these rights.” The grim logic of this is clear: if you are going to have your rights infringed and impeded, best suffer as the practitioner of a certain sport.

Another take is also offered by in this regard, one that shows Foster to be, like his colleagues in the field of human rights, a figure conscious of brand and reputation. Never ignore the power of cash and sponsorship. Never discount vulgar pragmatism when protecting human rights. Linking their observance with image can be the stuff of financial prudence. “If countries are acquiring Formula One, football tournaments and the like in order to ‘sportwash’ their image,” observed Foster on a panel event at the UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation this year, “then surely there is a responsibility from sport inherently to make sure that human rights abuses aren’t occurring on that very basis.” Well, yes, but not always.

The focus on sports and rights is a field that is becoming verdant with well-wishers and talking heads. The big sporting event comes with broader social implications. With such endeavours come buildings, equipment and due exploitation. As Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation notes, “the industry not only depends on star athletes – who also have rights – but on the work of millions who build the sport parks, construct the stadia, manufacture the panoply of sporting goods and provide the services and catering that make mega-sporting events possible.”

Unfortunately, such realisations have not seen states such as Qatar deprived of their hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup. That particular country boasts a particularly crude system of binding migrant employees to a single employer with considerable control, known as kafala. Invariably, it is one rife with exploitation. This, despite claiming its abolition in 2016.

The Centre for Sports and Human Rights in Geneva was recently opened to study the relationship between rights and sports, though it remains to be seen whether it becomes an institution of weight rather than a laundering body for states with less than scrupulous human rights records. The optimists are currently out in force, given the record of the Centre’s inaugural chair, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. “Our collective vision is a world of sport that fully respects human rights.”

Where to, then, with such disagreements about rights? The avenues are few and far between in instances where repression abounds. The modern refugee has few guarantees, facing the eternal drawbridge that might, at any given moment, be lifted. As far as the sporting character, Foster suggests a regulatory chamber for sports, a global body that will adjudicate and dispense justice. The underpinning rationale here is the acknowledgement that human rights transcend sporting rights.

This view on talismanic sports figures being human rights standard bearers can come across as a bit green, fanned by an enthusiastic naivety that accompanies certain sports players. Sports figures are not merely the bearers of rights, but their promoters. The sporting fraternity must never shy away from the critical issues of the day. But the other, oft neglected side in such discussions is that sports figures are also there to be manipulated, to be drugged, stressed and watered by unscrupulous state bureaucrats. Inadvertently, such figures also serve ends they might be oblivious too. Be that as it may, Foster’s points, maturing within the legal framework he is developing as an incipient lawyer, are valid ones: the sporting character, by virtue of being one, also has fundamental human rights.

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Fake Arguments on Fake News

The constipated tedium that follows each call, denial and condemnation after another round of fake news and its giddying effects has become daily fare. Entire episodes with the sanctimonious and the solemn are being created to show up the citizen journalist, the blogger, the self-opinionated masturbator of news, in the hope that some high priest set will reclaim the ground. That ground, supposedly, is “truth”, a truly big word merely assumed by its advocates.

None of this is to deny that there is something dreary and depressing about accounts that are fabricated. But this is an age-old matter, and one that centres on the old question: Should you trust what is ever published? The facility to use language is as much a means of expression as deception. According to George Steiner, humanity’s Babel dilemma – having a multiplicity of languages that seek to confuse rather than clarify – had as much to do with the need to deceive than anything else. Learn the language, learn the deception.

The modern attempt to evade such deceptions is conventional as much as it is flawed. It questions the very media that was meant to disseminate accounts at speed and attributes traditional monopolies of truth to a Fourth Estate long in tooth and very much on its sick bed. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Financial Times have looked rather haggish at points.

There is a charmingly naïve assumption here: that the old press houses were somehow incapable of deception and censorship. The influence of media moguls; the cuts and modifications of the editorial boards and government censors, are all historically distant in such arguments. All that is Fake is new because – and here an element of snobbery creeps in – it is generated by the vox pops brigade.

That viral freight helped along by social media is being treated as the problem, the medium as dissimulated message. The Four Corners episode which aired on Australia’s national network on Monday is one such example, shrill in its concerns that the fake in news is undermining to democracy and its institutions. Its list of interviewed subjects supplies us a Who’s Who of sceptics and critics about modern journalism and the dark steed called Fake News.

Claire Wardle, Executive director of First Draft, is one who earns her crust attacking this wave and engaged in the process she regards as “verification training for journalists.” Her organisation supplies “Training and resources for journalists in an age of disinformation.” In her interview with Four Corners, she suggests how “we need to worry about fake news. People dismiss it as frivolous. It’s not. I think it’s the biggest crisis that we face as humankind because it is dividing us. And as we’re divided we’re going to get to a point where democracy is no longer functioning.”

Such a considerable overegging of that pudding is supplemented by other comments. Veteran journalist John Carlin makes no secret of his aversion to social media platforms, and their means of getting the message through an intemperate scream rather than a sober debate. “What social media does is give more weight and more value to the people who shout loudest.” But years before the clans of shouters got into the social media bubble, the Murdoch empire, through such trusty emissaries as The Sun, were happy pushing voters with reactionary prods and embellished accounts.

Behind such comments on the fakery of social media news is a paternalistic sneer, one directed against the great unwashed. Sometimes, the sneer targets a specific group, the abominations, the gullible freaks, the marginalised. Phil Howard, director of the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford, suggested in February last year that the condition for consuming and gorging the fake in news coverage is limited. “There is an upside to all of this. It appears that only one part of the political spectrum – the far right – is really the target for extremist, sensational and conspiratorial content. Over social media, moderates and centrists tend not to be as susceptible.”

That is all fine, if you treat terms such as “moderate” and “centrists” as fundamentally immutable and immune to the witch’s brew of conspiracy. All groups are susceptible, and the artery busting fury at WikiLeaks in exposing the underbelly of the Clinton campaign machine in 2016 all suggested that groups of any political persuasion are very happy to entertain dark pulls and urges. Julian Assange, the celebrated truth-sayer one day; pilloried Russian agent the next.

Technological reach has also given birth to a vibrant form of citizen journalism, the very sort frowned upon by conventional, often regulated networks. In 2014, Time noted that “the growth of social media, facilitated by technological advances that allow Internet access even in a war zone, has made detailed, ground-level information on the war available online.” Such journalism is praised as fresh and fair when it seems to shed good light on a position; dark, bought and compromised when it does not. The term “fake” is as much tactical as anything else.

But press traditionalists remain wary: the global cutting back of the press corps has led to an increasing reliance on freelancing, leading to such fears as those of John Owen at City University in London: “news organisations can’t contract out their duty of care and moral responsibility if they choose to air or publish freelancers.”

The battle over what is the fake and authentic in news easily dovetails into regulations of control and limitations on expression. It emboldens the censor and the police version of history. Laws criminalising it have been passed in countries as diverse as Malaysia, France, Germany and Russia. Some of this is being done with the connivance of the Fourth Estate, keen to accommodate the interests of state. Much information and content, as a result, is being inadvertently blocked.

Singapore’s own effort, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, ostensibly targets electronic communications of false statements of facts, the use of online accounts to facilitate such communication and “enable measures to be taken to enhance transparency of online political advertisements, and for related matters.” It reads like a gentle, sanitised effort, but its implications are beastly, permitting ministerial determinations on what, exactly, fake news might be. Such laws, it follows, tend to be used with impunity, targeting any revelations and disclosures that might embarrass the state and its bumbling officials.

Sandra González-Bailón of the Annenberg School for Communication does make a sensible and cautionary point on such efforts. “The risk of governments regulating social media is that they will regulate something that we don’t fully understand.” Nor, for that matter, do they.

While the authenticity verifiers marshalled across platoons of fact checkers might well be thinking they are doing us a service, nothing ever replaces the sceptical reader who covers multiple sources to identify an account and question it. Never just read lines, but between them; never just accept news, but monitor its content and those who produce it. To the informed sceptic go the spoils of enlightenment.

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Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq

The attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia southwest of Aramco’s headquarters in Dhahran had a few predictable responses. Given that the facility has a daily output of some 5.7 million barrels, damaging it was bound to cause a spike in the price of oil.

The question troubling the security chatterers was whether the party claiming responsibility – in this case, the Yemen-based Houthi rebels – had managed to engineer the feat. Drones, it is claimed, were used, striking at some 17 points. But such copyright is being denied to the rebels. For one, Riyadh is considering the possibility that the attack might have come from Iraqi soil, involving another group armed with cruise missiles. The direction of the attack, it is claimed by US sources, was from the north or northwest, suggesting the direction of the Persian Gulf, Iran or Iraq.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has decided to pour cold water on any suggestion that the Houthis were competently responsible. Having displaced John Bolton as hawk-in-chief, he is preparing the ground for possible retaliation. In his view, there is only one state responsible for the attacks. “We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran’s attacks. The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression.”

In another tweet posted on Saturday, the convinced Pompeo accused Iran of being behind some 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia “while [Hassan] Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy.” He ruled out Yemen as a base for the assault. Iran had “launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

President Donald Trump, for his part, is venting and waiting. “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we should proceed!” The more immediate concerns for the president are economic: releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and expediting “approvals of the oil pipelines currently in the permitting process in Texas and various States.” Many thanks to be had, it seems, for such strikes.

The machinery behind a military strike on Iran is being put in motion, one that was already being readied with claims of Iranian attacks on maritime shipping in the Persian Gulf and the shooting down of a US drone. (The latter led to a flirtation with the use of force by Trump). Generally speaking, the legal basis of any such attack is questionable, despite Pompeo’s airy contention that, “We have always had the authorisation to defend American interests.” Trump, however, has been briefed by a few warring enthusiasts in Congress suggesting that any assault on Iran can be brought within the purview of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is not troubled by legal niceties, happy to entertain the prospect of a regional apocalypse in the name of punishing the mullahs. Having called the attacks “yet another example of how Iran is wreaking havoc in the Middle East” he considered it important “to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment.” Like a delinquent of international relations, Iran, he tweeted over the weekend, “will not stop their misbehaviour till the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back.”

Accepting Iranian responsibility for such attacks has been an easy matter for many on the Hill. There are those, like Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, US Representative Adam Schiff, who are already satisfied that Tehran’s less than subtle hand is heavily involved. “I think it’s safe to say that the Houthis don’t have the capability to do a strike like this without Iranian assistance.”

Speculation and invention remain a foreign policy stable in Middle Eastern politics. The region still labours with legacy of a US-led invasion of Iraq inspired by fictional Weapons of Mass Destruction supposedly harboured by Saddam Hussein. It involved grotesquely extravagant assessments of Iraq’s destructive prowess; it involved intelligence failures, bureaucratic bungling and venal manipulation of the record in Washington, London and Canberra.

Zarif, for his part, is convinced that Pompeo, having failed in exerting maximum pressure on Iran, has now turned to a program of maximum deceit. The US and its allies, he tweeted, “are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won’t end disaster.” The question, however, is bigger than Yemen, and bigger than oil. The sole question here is whether Trump takes of the root of madness held out by Graham, or holds out for a meeting with Rouhani at the UN General Assembly.

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Doctored Admissions: The US University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem

Not so much a Desperate Housewife as a desperate mother, a contrite Felicity Huffman, known for playing Lynette Scavo, has been convicted for her role in the university admissions scandal in the United States. The scene is set for another dramatisation, though few can go past the sheer levels of tinkering Huffman was engaged in to have her daughter’s entrance exams marked in 2017. Money changed hands – $15,000 – a deed that has cost her 250 hours of community service, a $30,000 fine, and 14 days in prison.

The defence had requested a year of probation in lieu of jail time, with the same number of hours of community service and a more modest fine of $20,000. While not feeling particularly vindictive, the prosecutors suggested that this was just a touch rich, arguing in a memo that “neither probation nor home confinement (in a large home in the Hollywood Hills with an infinity pool) would constitute meaningful punishment or deter others from committing similar crimes.”

Huffman has been the conspicuous face of an admissions furore that should have enticed a yawn rather than any horror. It involved keen parents; it involved weak willed coaches; it involved generally thick children (the latter have been spared indictments) and it had the mandatory mastermind, William Sanger. The actress was gracious in punishment, wanting to “especially apologise to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices supporting their children.” Some fine acting, indeed.

The picture of those 50 or so individuals involved in this rigging matter is not pretty. It is the usual galling picture of failed meritocracy, an incitement to cheat and hustle your way through life. Manuel Henriquez, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley hedge fund in Palo Alto, was proud about how he and his daughter managed to cheat without detection.

Such scandals are only horrific as brief moments of shock: the ceremonial of it all is how normal it is, the acceptable face of a certain type of corruption. Money speaks garrulously, and university admissions are little different, seduced by the prospect of chocked bank accounts. There are ties to pull, people to bribe.

The means of payments vary, given the sort of packaging that university officials find acceptable.  In India, for instance, the donation is a formidable instrument to smooth the process. The problem is rife among medical colleges. Government records, as reported by Reuters in 2015, revealed that 69 Indian medical colleges and teaching hospitals had fallen foul of “rigging entrance exams or accepting bribes to admit students” since 2010.

There are deeper issues at play. To manipulate a system, the means to do so, and their assured success, must be present. There must be willing functionaries, questionable processes, and connivance. The Huffman-University problem is one writ large, a global pandemic of institutional failure. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s recent report noted “the ubiquity and diversity of corruption in higher education, including unethical, inappropriate, sometimes illegal practices” with evidence suggesting “that in every part of the world higher education is affected by corruption to some extent.” Wonky parents are simply a small component of the sprawling picture.

Transparency International identifies four grounds fertile for corruption in global higher education: the increase in the number of students which has not been met with adequate state funding; the need for universities to find their own funding; the remorseless pursuit of university rankings, feeble and intellectually questionable as that is; and the grant of “greater administrative autonomy” to universities, detached from the traditional role of education ministries.

In the US case, examiners were willing to disgorge the answers in certain prominent cases. Athletic directors happily received cash for favours, forging sporting records that never existed. In Australia, where education has become an insufferable cash cow, universities of various degrees of standing have been softening standards, going generous on poor results (admitting foreign students, for instance, with scores of 4.5 on the English Language Testing System, when the recommended minimum score is 7). The University of Tasmania went one better in 2018, with an enterprising staff member writing an email noting the waiving of English proficiency altogether as a requirement “to encourage acceptances for July 2018.” While university officialdom fattens, the thick shall inherent the earth.

The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption released a smoulderingly damning report in 2015 making the plain-as-day point that universities had to part business and academic functions. Intertwining “compliance and profit rather than separating them, and to reward profit over compliance, can be conducive to questionable and corrupt behaviour.”

This modest and cool assessment has proven idealistic: universities in Australia have conflated this to such a horrendous degree, subordinating toiling academic functions to those of the business model. This is not helped by the suffocating structures of pseudo-corporate vultures, pecking the institution of needed cash to pad out salaries that verge on the criminal. Vice Chancellors of limited education but supposedly equipped with acute business sense are prized; irrelevant, over-remunerated Pro-Vice Chancellors with egos the size of kept sporting fields extol “lived” values that seem distinctly dead. Universities, in other words, cannot be trusted with setting the standards, notably in areas such as English proficiency; the call of the lucre is too strong.

A convicted parent is purely sacrificial here, ignoring the point that universities are also prone to relaxing (well, breaking) rules and admitting the inappropriate, the under-qualified and the shoddy. If there is room in prison for the briber, there should just as well be room for the recipient. Overly keen parents may well desire their children to get a leg up in life (Huffman called it “giving my daughter a fair shot”), splashing generous cash in that endeavour, but it has to find a sympathetic audience. The corporate university, unscrutinised and policed, supplies it.

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Improper Purposes: Boris Johnson’s Suspension of Parliament

There was something richly amusing in the move: three judges, sitting in Scotland’s highest court of appeal, had little time for the notion that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension, or proroguing, of parliament till October 14, had been lawful. Some 78 parliamentarians had taken issue with the Conservative leader’s limitation on Parliamentary activity, designed to prevent any hiccups prior to October 31, the day Britain is slated to leave the European Union.

It did take two efforts. The initial action in Edinburgh’s Outer House of the Court of Session was unsuccessful for the petitioners. Conventional wisdom then was that such issues were, as a matter of high policy, political and therefore non-justiciable. Legal standards, in other words, could not be applied to the decision. (British judges tend to be rather reserved when it comes to treading on matters that might be seen as the staple of political judgement).

All three First Division judges thought otherwise, taking the high road that this was exceptional. Lord Carloway, the Lord President, accepted in principle that advice by the Prime Minister to the Queen would not normally be reviewable by courts. Such a realm was customarily one above and beyond the judicial wigs. That said, as a summary of the judgement records, “it would nevertheless be unlawful if its purpose was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny of the executive, which was a central pillar of the good governance principle enshrined in the constitution.” That principle was drawn, by implication, from the “principles of democracy and the rule of law.” Feeling emboldened, Lord Carloway, on examining the documents supplied by Johnson and his team, felt that improper reasons could be discerned.

Lord Brodie similarly noted the singular nature of the circumstances. Under normal circumstances prorogation advice would not be reviewable, but if it constituted a tactic designed to frustrate Parliament, it could well be deemed unlawful. In this case, Johnson’s move was “an egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behaviour of public authorities.” It could be inferred on the evidence that “the principal reasons for the prorogation were to prevent or impede Parliament holding the executive to account and legislating with regard to Brexit, and to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no deal Brexit without further Parliamentary inference.” Bold stuff, indeed, and hard to fault.

The third judge, Lord Drummond Young, was bolder still. No need to be nimble footed here: the entire scope of such powers, relevant to prorogation or otherwise, could be legally tested. The onus was on the UK government to show a valid reason for the prorogation “having regard to the fundamental constitutional importance of parliamentary scrutiny or executive action.” The clues of evident impropriety in Johnson’s action lay in the length of the suspension and the general circumstances suggesting a prevention of scrutiny. There could be no other inference that the move showed a wish “to restrict Parliament.”

The full bench, accordingly, made an order “declaring that the prime minister’s advice to HM the Queen and the prorogation which followed thereon was unlawful and thus null and of no effect.” Few more damning statements have ever issued against a prime minister of the realm.

In an effort to remove some egg on the faces of government officials, a spokesman for Number 10 claimed to be disappointed by the decision, insisting that Johnson needed “to bring forward a strong domestic legislative agenda. Proroguing Parliament is the legal and necessary way of delivering this.” This was a somewhat milder version from those offered by other sources close to the Prime Minister, claiming political bias on the Scottish bench. “We note that last week the High Court in London did not rule that prorogation was unlawful. The legal activists choose the Scottish courts for a reason.” The cheek of it all.

As for certain conservative outlets, accepting the judgement of the Court of Session was, well, unacceptable. The Supreme Court, it was hoped by the likes of Richard Ekins, would clean up the mess made by their northern brethren with clear heads. The Scottish decision had been “a startling – and misconceived – judgement.”

Which brings us to the second front opened up by petitioners in England itself. A High Court challenge, with an appeal now expected to be heard in the Supreme Court next week, initially failed to yield any movement. But Johnson had little reason, or time, to gloat. The government is now reverting to a stalling game, refusing to act on the Scottish decision till the English equivalent is handed down. Not all business, however, will be suspended: the work of select committees, for instance, will continue. The government also finds itself in the trenches, facing a Parliament intent on extending the Brexit date in order to achieve a deal.

The publication of the full, previously leaked doomsday document, the Yellowhammer contingency plan, anticipating measures if a no deal Brexit takes place, has also done its bit to pockmark Johnson’s efforts to maintain a steady ship. The prime minister, said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accusingly, “is prepared to punish those who can least afford it.”

The government’s hope is that the Supreme Court case will move at its usual snail’s pace, thereby making any point ventured by Johnson’s detractors a moot point. Richard Dickman of Pinsent Masons has observed that such appeals “take months sometimes years, but the court can move quickly in urgent cases like this one.” The occasion promises to be quite a judicial party: 11 of the 12 law lords will be sitting.

Testing the judicial weather, Dickman suggested that there might “be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision from the court with a more detailed judgment to follow.” Another chapter in the annals of British law and parliamentary farce is being written. In the meantime, the sentiment of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, reverberates through Europe. “We do not have reasons to be optimistic.”

Image from onenewspage.us

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Farewelling Dr No: The Sacking of John Bolton

Every time the president, or Pompeo, or anyone in the [Trump] administration came up with an idea, they had to face Dr No.” Cliff Kupchan, Chairman of the Eurasia Group, The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2011.

It was compelling viewing (one does not so much read Twitter as see it as a series of violent flashes). John Bolton, the armed-and-ready national security adviser who has been tiring of the US President’s jerks and adjustments, had floated the prospect of resignation. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’” To the New York Times, Bolton reiterated the account. “Offered last night without [Trump] asking. Slept on it and gave it to him this morning.”

Hours are lethal in Trumpland; entire worlds can implode at that time, and new ones grow with equal violence. President Donald Trump was keen to set the record crooked. “I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed in the White House. I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was certainly one of them. “There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed; that’s for sure.” It pays, however, to qualify: “But that’s true for lots of people with whom I interact.”

What matters in a Trump sacking is less the normality of its occurrence but its manner of execution. The axe is always held aloft, and, as with any court run by a fickle despot, may fall at any given time. On Tuesday morning, the signs of any movement regarding Bolton were entirely absent. At 11, a news briefing was announced by the White House for 1.30 that afternoon. Bolton would keep company with Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a chat on terrorism. Bolton never appeared, leaving Pompeo and Mnuchin to chuckle before the cameras.

Pompeo, unlike Bolton, has certainly found it easier keeping up appearances. Disagreements with the President are kept close to his broad chest. He is the manager of Trump’s ever-changing approach to policy, and capable articulating foreign policy swerves. But do not be fooled, suggest the talking heads. “Pompeo is as much a hawk on Iran as Bolton,” claims John Glaser, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Glaser’s diagnosis of it all? “It mostly boils down to Bolton’s reputation as a bureaucratic manipulator who makes enemies within the executive branch as a matter of habit.”

The manipulation had been placed in another register over the US-Taliban peace agreement. Trump was happy with the detail; Bolton wanted the agreement sunk as textbook example of capitulation. Trump’s circle of aides had gotten irate as Bolton’s public dissatisfaction grew. There were leaks into the atmosphere, and not very pleasant ones at that.

The decision to evict Bolton could easily have been caused by something else, the straw that tantalisingly, and destructively, broke the camel’s back. On Monday, the possibility of easing sanctions against Iran as part of a preliminary step to meeting Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, was mooted by the President and aides. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin was certainly open to the suggestion. Trump tested the water and concluded that “they’d like to make a deal.” A far cry from June, when Bolton’s apocalyptic fantasy was being entertained: a possible airstrike on Iran. With 10 minutes to spare, Trump called it off.

On Wednesday, the president attempted to add more light and shine to the canvas.  Areas of disagreement with Bolton were articulated. The former adviser had not been “getting along with people” in the administration; he had been “way out of line” on Venezuela. Such points merely underscore the difficulties Bolton was always going to face: from his moustache, which Trump detests, to his priestly dogmatism in international relations.

North Korea was always a case in point: for Trump, a moment for the picture books, the firm handshake for history, and promises for rosy readjustments; for Bolton, a chance to cause a flutter of terror in Pyongyang, airing the view that a “Libya” solution for nuclear disarmament might be in the offing. (That corker eventually assisted the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, hardly a recipe for smooth talking and deal making).

The point was something Trump did not miss. “We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model! And he made a mistake! As soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model, what a disaster! Take a look at what happened to Qaddafi with the Libyan model.”

Bolton’s sabre-rattling enthusiasts were bound to see things differently. “While John Bolton was national security adviser for the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals,” claimed a Bolton confidante. In another take, Bolton has been portrayed as the less mad of the two. Jay Nordlinger, senior editor at The National Review, saw JB as a model of consistency. Trump, on the other hand, had been dancing merrily off queue, breaking much fine china on the way. Certainly on Russia; certainly on Ukraine. At the last G7 meeting in Biarritz, Trump expressed his desire that Russia be readmitted to the club. He sported a curious account of Crimea, which was “sort of taken away from President Obama.” It was “embarrassing” for him, being “outsmarted by Putin” as he was.

Trump had put a halt on military aid to Ukraine and shown a coldness to the newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. His idea here is to push for a Ukrainian investigation of Joe Biden, the stuff of side-splitting hilarity. Bolton, on the other hand, was in Kiev paying respect to Ukrainians felled “in the defence of their nation against Russian aggression.” In saluting “the Stache” Nordlinger was hoping for his return. The chicken hawks will have their day.

Such shuffling and bloodletting is normally the stuff that thrills political wonks and media vultures. Engineered in-house political assassinations are manna from heaven, and supply good copy in bureaucratic hot houses like Washington. But Trump has made political sacking the stuff of banal ritual, ceremonial inevitability made that much duller for its frequency. Bolton came in praise, worked in disagreement and discomfort, and was ejected. Time for the next mug to take his place.

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Spikes of Violence: Protest in West Papua

Like Timor-Leste, West Papua, commonly subsuming both Papua and West Papua, remains a separate ethnic entity, acknowledged as such by previous colonial powers. Its Dutch colonial masters, in preparing to leave the region in the 1950s, left the ground fertile for a declaration of independence in 1961. Such a move did not sit well with the Indonesian desire to claim control over all Dutch Asia Pacific colonies on departure. There were resources to be had, economic gains to be made. The military duly moved in.

The New York Agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, brokered in 1962 with the assistance of the United States, saw West Papua fall under United Nations control for the duration of one year. Once passing into Indonesian control, Jakarta would govern the territory “consistent with the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the inhabitants under the terms of the present agreement.” Education would be a priority; illiteracy would be targeted, and efforts made “to accelerate participation of the people in local government through periodic elections.”

One article stood out: “Indonesia will make arrangements, with the assistance and participation of the United Nation Representative and his staff, to give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice.” In 1969, a ballot was conducted in line with the provision, though hardly in any true, representative sense. In the rich traditions of doctored representation and selective enfranchisement, 1,026 individuals were selected by Indonesian authorities to participate. Indonesia’s military kept an intimidating watch: the vote could not be left to chance. The result for Indonesian control was unanimous; the UN signed off.

Unlike Timor-Leste, the historically Melanesian territories of Papua and West Papua remains under thumb and screw, an entity that continues to exist under periodic acts of violence and habitual repression from the Indonesian central authorities. A policy of transmigration has been practiced, a point argued by scholars to be tantamount to genocide. This has entailed moving residents from Java and Sulawesi to West Papua, assisted by Jakarta’s hearty sponsorship.

The Indonesian argument here has been ethnic and political: to confect a national identity through assimilation. Under President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), one keen to push the idea of “Indonesia Maju” (“Advanced Indonesia”), renewed stress is being placed on infrastructure investment, economic growth and natural resources, of which Papua features heavily.

The indigenous populace has had to, in turn, surrender land to those transmigrants and appropriating authorities. “The rights of traditional law communities,” notes Clause 17 of Indonesia’s Basic Forestry Act of 1967, “may not be allowed to stand in the way of transmigration sites.”

Appropriations of land, the relocation of residents, and the odd massacre by Indonesian security forces, tend to fly low on the international radar of human rights abuses. West Papua lacks the cinematic appeal or political heft that would encourage around the clock coverage from media networks. Bureaucratic plodders in the various foreign ministries of the world prefer to render such matters benign and of little interest. Geopolitics and natural resources tend to do most of the talking.

In late 2015, for instance, Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and James Carouso, acting deputy assistant secretary for Maritime and Mainland Southeast Asian affairs, ducked and evaded anything too compromising in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. The consequences of demographic policies directed by Jakarta were assiduously ignored. Massacres and institutional accountability in the territory were bypassed, as were Indonesian efforts to prevent scrutiny on the part of human rights monitors, the UN Special rapporteur and journalists.

This year, more instances of violence have managed to leach out and gurgle in media circles. It took a few ugly incidents in the Javanese city of Surabaya to engender a new wave of protests which have had a rattling effect on the security forces. Last month, pro-Indonesian nationalist groups, with reported encouragement from security forces, taunted Papuan students with an array of crude insults in East Java. (“Dogs”, “monkeys” and “pigs” were part of the bitter mix). The fuse was lit, notably as arrests were made of the Papuans themselves. “Papuans are not monkeys”, proclaimed banners being held at a rally in Central Jakarta on August 22.

Government buildings have been torched in Jayapura. Additional forces have been deployed, and internet access cut. There are claims that white phosphorous has been used on civilians; prisons are being filled. There have even been protests in Indonesia’s capital, with the banned Morning Star flag being flown defiantly in front of the state palace. (Doing so is no mild matter: activist Filep Karma spent over a decade of his life in prison for doing so).

The struggle for independence, at least in the international eye, has been left to such figures as Benny Wenda, who lobbies governments and groups to back the “Free Papua” campaign. He is particularly keen to take the matter of the Free Choice vote of 1969, that nasty instrument that formalised Indonesian control, to the United Nations General Assembly. Last month, he had to settle for taking the matter to the Pacific Islands Forum as a representative of Vanuatu’s delegation. In January, he gifted the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet a petition with 1.8 million signatures seeking a new referendum for the territory.

The response from an Indonesian government spokesman was emphatic, curt, and conventional. “Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia’s internal affairs. No other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them. We firmly oppose the intervention of Indonesia’s internal affairs in whatever form.”

The hope for Jokowi and the Indonesian authorities will be simple: ride out the storm, conduct a low-level suppression of protests, and place any talks of secession on the backburner. In this, they can count on regional, if hypocritical support. In the words of a spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia recognises Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces. Our position is clearly defined by the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia.”

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Boris Johnson Trips: Duvets, Toothbrushes and the House of Lords

In 2017, MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory creature trapped in cold storage, suggested that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union was tantamount to fighting the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and Trafalgar, a true statement of British strength. (Much inconsistency there, but let him ride with it). “This is Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great reform bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things.”

Those things are not looking quite so victorious at the moment, stalling and falling as they are. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like his predecessor, is finding the House of Commons unruly, incapable of placation. He has lost every vote so far, failing to get the trigger by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to propel the country towards a speedy election. In response to that loss, Johnson appeared at the West Yorkshire Police Headquarters intending to crow about being “strong on crime” in front of a gaggle of police officers. Before asking the EU for an extension, he would “rather be dead in a ditch.”

He is also finding the House of Lords a tough proposition. Everyone is talking about ways that Brexit will not happen, rather than how it will happen. In order to effectuate the former, the need to take, again, the begging bowl to Europe to seek an extension past the October 31 date of departure is becoming pressing.

On Wednesday night, reports were filtering through that the House of Lords was determined to stay and debate for as long as it was required on the fate of a backbench bill seeking to block a no-deal Brexit. Some had even arrived with duvets and toothbrushes, anticipating a lengthy battle in the chamber. Richard Newby, the Liberal Democrats leader in the Lords, was relieved that it did not come to that. “I don’t think carrying through 24 or 48 hours as we have been doing in a sort of pathetic attempt to set a new Guinness world record… would do anybody any favours.”

At 1.30 Thursday morning, peers were informed that the bill tabled by Labour’s Hilary Benn would be returned to the lower house the following day by 5pm, scuppering any new attempts at a filibuster. (Such behaviour is precisely the sort that has gotten the conservative magazine, The Spectator, worried: pack the Lords, it suggests, with leavers, and we would not have this disagreeable nonsense). On Monday, the bill will again be voted on in the Commons and, if passed, duly become law with royal assent.

Johnson, through a spokesman, has expressed a desire to reject the bill’s force, requiring him to seek yet another extension on Brexit till January 31 if October’s European Council summit fails to secure a deal or Parliament’s consent for a no deal. “The PM will not do this. It is clear the only action is to go back to the people and give them the opportunity to decide what they want: Boris to go to Brussels and get a deal, or leave without one on 31 October.”

The debate, the angst, and the anger is taking place in a sealed vacuum, one that sees Europe and the European Union in the most abstract of terms. The United Kingdom remains psychically and spiritually estranged from the continent, a point that is also shown by the Remainers: Europe is only relevant as a commissariat to transact with, an assemblage of destinations rather than a set of ties. Well and good to get a vote to force Boris with his Begging Bowl to front up to the EU, but in the minds of most officials, the deal is done and dusted, on the table awaiting implementation. The rest is a carnival of despair marked by a parody akin to students who refuse to submit their assessments on time, though a worrying one for those in Brussels who fear that a successful exit might spell the end of the EU compact.

Such conditions breed foolishness, satire, and caricature. The trivial becomes arresting, compelling and disproportionately significant. A politician’s posture and demeanour – how that person behaves in the House – exceeds the interests of all others, including the mechanics of one of the most important processes in several generations. Where expertise on process is required, clownish expounding is preferred.

The delightfully hysterical reaction to Rees-Mogg himself is a case in point. The leader of the House of Commons has taken to becoming a bit of furniture, spreading out on the front bench, quite literally, the sort of behaviour that would not have been out of place from a Head Boy at a public school. This horrified conservative grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, former defence minister of the realm, and grandson of Winston Churchill. “He is in serious danger of believing his own shtick. He is an absolute fraud, he is a living example of what a moderately cut double-breasted suit and a decent tie can do with an ultra-posh voice and a bit of ginger stuck up his arse.” Even as the ship sinks, it is important to keep up appearances.

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Robert Mugabe’s Legacy: Revolution, Amity and Decline

Robert Mugabe is the sort of figure that always caused discomfort. He was a permanent revolutionary, becoming, in time, the despotic ruler who frittered away revolutionary gain. He played multiple roles in international political consciousness. As Zimbabwe’s strongman, he was demonised and lionised in equal measure for a good deal of his time in power. His role from the 1990s – Mugabe, the West’s all-too-convenient bogeyman and hobgoblin – tended to outweigh other considerations. In the end, even his supporters had to concede that he had outstayed his welcome, another African leader gone to seed.

In 2008, Mahmood Mamdani noted the generally held view in publications ranging from The Economist to The Guardian that Mugabe the Thug reigned. Yes, he had helped in laying waste to the economy, refusing to share power with a more vocal and present opposition, and created an internal crisis with his land distribution policy. But this did little to explain his longevity, his recipe of partial coercion and consent, the teacher-visionary and the bribing mob leader. “In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved.”

The obsession with character – one of Mephistophelian bargain and decay – is found in both the literature and the popular culture depicting Mugabe. The stock story is this: he taught in Ghana in 1963, a key figure in the nationalist movement split in what was then Rhodesia, becoming secretary general of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The Shona dominated ZANU was formed from the original Ndebele ethnic minority dominated Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Prison followed in 1964; Mugabe fled to Mozambique in 1974 though not before a spell of imprisonment at the hands of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda (his escape was probably engineered by Zambians); by 1977, he had assumed control of the organisation, though Mozambique’s President Samora Machel never quite trusted him, taking a leaf out of Kaunda’s book in detailing the mischief maker, albeit briefly. Military victory was sought against the Smith regime in what was then white-controlled Rhodesia, and it was with some reluctance that Mugabe found himself a signatory to the British-sponsored settlement in 1979, one assisted by Lord Carrington, Kaunda, the Commonwealth Secretary General, Shridath Ramphal, and, ironically enough, white apartheid South Africa.

On becoming leader, he was deliciously accommodating in his rhetoric, despite having entertained the prospect of confiscating land owned by whites a la Marx-Lenin and wishing to hold white leaders to account in war crimes trials. In his national address in 1980, he spoke of the bonds of amity; he wished for bygones to be bygones. “If you were my enemy, you are now my friend. If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me.”

Initially, Mugabe the progressive shone through: healthcare and education programs were expanded; literary rates and living standards rose; white farmers were reassured that mobs would not be knocking on their doors. Whites were included in a mixed cabinet; heads reappointed in the army, the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation. But he had his eye on dealing with rivals.

In 1983, former members of ZAPU’s military outfit attacked targets in Matabeleland. The result was uncompromisingly bloody: anywhere upwards of 20,000 civilians killed; many more tortured, maimed, tormented. In four years, ZAPU had been defeated, absorbed into the ZANU-PF structure. The extinguishment of such rivalry paved the way for a Mugabe presidency and near-absolute rule.

By the 1990s, economic conditions were biting. Real wages fell; the International Monetary Fund demanded domestic readjustments to the economy. Economic stagnation kept company with increasingly repressive policies against journalists, students and opponents. Calculatingly, Mugabe propitiated war veterans by awarding them generous pensions in 1997. Then came the next threat: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

In February 2000, a national vote on a redesigned draft constitution, the progeny of ZANU-PF, proposed British compensation for land; absent that, white farms would be seized without due compensation. Its defeat by a narrow margin saw Mugabe step up his campaign, featuring farm occupations and the sponsorship of veterans to assist in invasions of farms owned by white farmers. Mugabe was returning to an old platform.

The prevailing psycho-portraiture for such behaviour is never consistent. One variant finds its culprit in a decision Mugabe made in 1996. Secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years Mugabe’s junior, became his wife, considered within certain circles a less than worthy replacement for Sally, who died in 1992. Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper spared no punches, seeing in Marufu a lever pulling, power hungry creature akin to Lady Macbeth. “He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger.”

His former home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa, pinpointed a different year when the great compromiser and negotiator changed: 2000. There are no gold-digging suggestions, merely political manipulations filtered with a bit of paranoia. “He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him.”

Overwhelmingly, the narrative is of the great hope that failed, the rebel who trips. This echo of the good man gone bad is detectable in celluloid, with the fictional state of Matobo in The Interpreter, featuring as its political backdrop a bookish schoolteacher who defeated a white-minority regime but fouled up matters by turning into a tyrant. “The CIA-backed film,” suggested the then acting Minister for Information and Publicity, Chen Chimutengwende, “showed that Zimbabwe’s enemies did not rest.”

Mugabe was every bit the contradiction of the colonial-postcolonial figure, supported one day as the romantic revolutionary to be praised, reviled as the authoritarian figure to condemn, the next. The revolutionary to be feted was a motif that continued through the 1980s, despite signs that the hero was getting particularly bloodthirsty. A string of honours were bestowed like floral tributes to a conquering warrior: an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Massachusetts in 1984, despite the butchering of the Ndebele; an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh (subsequently revoked in July 2007); a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.

Accounts such as Martin Meredith’s Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, point to the aphrodisiac of power, violence as currency, the cultivated links with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Laurent Kabila, and the creation of a crony state. The DRC connection softened the blows of international sanctions, at least to some extent, keeping rural voters in clover and the security forces content. Such arrangements, involving a juggling of loot and measuring out the spoils, is rarely indefinite.

The narrative of the power mad creature runs through as a counter to the liberal thesis that Mugabe started with promise, and went sour. This would have been tantamount to suggesting that Lenin insisted on changing the world through even-tempered tea ceremonies and soft voiced mediation, only to endorse revolutionary violence at a later date. James Kirchick, oft fascinated by the wiles of demagoguery, saw the strains of brutality early: Mugabe’s time in prison, as with other revolutionaries, led to a certain pupillage with power, a sense of its necessity. Degrees in law and economics were earned via correspondence from the University of London, a way to pass carceral time for subversive actions against the white Smith regime in 1964. All that time, he nursed Marxist-Leninist dreams.

As leader of the movement to oust the white regime, Mugabe was not sparing with his use of violence. In this, he differed from the founder of the ZANU founder Ndabaningi Sithole, who renounced terrorism and subversion after his 1969 sentence for incitement. Nor was he averse to internal suppression: his cadres had to be trustworthy in the cause.

Over time, the distance between Mugabe the ruler, and the Zimbabwean citizenry, grew. International sanctions, applied with much callousness, bit. Hyperinflation set in. The state was left bankrupt. Food shortages in 2004 did not sway him. “We are not hungry,” Mugabe told Sky News. “Why foist this food upon us? We don’t want to be choked. We have enough.”

In November 2017, a coup by senior military personnel was launched in terms that seemed almost polite, a sort of dinner party seizure. Mugabe was placed under house arrest; his ZANU-PF party had decided that the time had come. The risk of Marufu coming to power was becoming all too real, though this femme fatale rationale can only be pushed so far. There were celebrations in the streets. Thirty-seven years prior, there were similar calls of jubilation for the new leader. Left with his medical ailments, Mugabe died at Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore on Friday, farewelled by his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa as “an icon of liberation, a pan Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation of his people.” The muse of history can be atrociously fickle.

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The Courage of Saying No: Children, Rebellion and Greta Thunberg

There is something to be said of wariness when it comes to revolutionary voices. As Albert Camus argued in that beautiful tract of illumination and contradiction, The Rebel, “All modern revolutions have ended in the reinforcement of the power of the state.” But he also argued that humankind were the only creatures refusing to be what they are, a permanent self-deluding bunch bound to cause various neuroses. The true rebel, then, is the one who says no, and can maintain credibility even as he risks becoming an ideologue, another dogmatist.

When children find themselves in the saddle, things get a bit more complicated. Hypocrisy and power are seemingly adult games: the supposedly innocent child is discouraged from expressing views and opinions. When they do, the accusation of hijacking, innocence gone wrong, and manipulation, is bound to be made: behind the child lies an adult Svengali, or at least something approximating to him.

The seventeen-year old Greta Thunberg has found herself plonked into the saddle of historical protest, making the case that any response undertaken thus far to deal with climate change has been woefully inadequate. It began in Sweden last year when, as a schoolgirl, she began protesting outside the parliament in Stockholm, claiming that her country’s climate change laws hardly amounted to “a green paradise”. This spawned a global children’s protest movement.

Her dissatisfaction struck a high note in her address to those gathered at the COP24 gathering at Katowice in December 2018. “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.” The maturity of saying no; the maturity of admitting to an environmental degradation so profound as to be existential.

The response to Thunberg has, in some quarters, been regrettably dreamy and praiseworthy, ignoring the more strident feature of the message. Radical, even species defying alterations are needed; the brake to be applied with conviction. Fine to protest; fine to make waves; but structural change of an unprecedented order is required. For Camus’s rebel, the danger here is that a theorem, or idea, may end up needing the police to enforce it. To date, the authoritarian element is lacking in the enforcement mechanisms in the climate change structure: states have been left to their own devices in cutting emissions.

Then comes the argument, one straight out of the Cold War manual, that the young Swede is a front and a product of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, manufactured on the assembly line of engineered protest. For the Japanese-born sculptor Hiroyuki Hamada, the NPIC targets “those who were not given skills and knowledge to truly think for themselves which are designed to serve the ruling class.” Hamada is suggesting a vicious circle: the children are caged by the system that demands its own set of rules to be abided by; they are rendered ignorant, lobotomised. Can we, then, trust them, and by implication such movements as Thunberg’s Friday for Future?

Hamada’s bleak circularity is similarly found in such views as Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at The Weekly Standard and contributor to such market friendly outlets as the Financial Times. Her approach, suggested Caldwell, was distinctly “at odds with democracy.” Those of Thunberg’s age “have not seen much of life. Her world view might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance.” The shabby tactic here is typical: leave it to the experienced ones who made the mess to begin with. They know better.

The political reactions have also varied in temper, veering between praise and scorn. On a visit to France in July to address the French National Assembly, Thunberg bore the brunt of various, less than sympathetic viewpoints of National Rally (RN) MPs and various Republicans (LR). MEP Jordan Bardella of RN was scolding of Thunberg’s gloominess, effectively denying her any necessary agency. Children were not be used to “exhibit a fatalism to try to explain to all people that the world is finished, that everything is going to catch fire and that nothing is possible.”

Republicans MP Guillaume Larrivé demanded a boycott of Thunberg’s speech, claiming that an intelligent battle was needed against global warming, one helped by scientific progress and political courage, not “apocalyptic gurus”. Colleague Julien Aubert also chipped in. “Don’t count on me to applaud a prophetess in shorts, a Nobel Prize for Fear.” The planet, yes; green business, no.

Thunberg’s response? “This is just hilarious. I have never once met a climate activist who was in this for money.” Playing on the matter of youth in her address, she managed a few keen blows of her own. “Some people have chosen not to come here today, some have chosen not to listen to us. And that is fine. We are, after all, just children.”

In Canada, similarly bilious reactions have followed. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier gave Thunberg the warmest of greetings with mighty claims that she was “mentally unstable”, “autistic”, “obsessive-compulsive”, suffering eating disorders, depression and lethargy. The fuming protests that followed encouraged him to qualify his remarks, calling Thunberg a “brave young woman who has been able to overcome her problems and deserves our admiration for that.” Look, instead, to the people behind Thunberg. “I wanted to show that the choice of influential groups and the media to make her a spokesperson for climate alarmism is not innocent.”

Very little is ever mentioned that Thunberg is perfectly entitled to express her views, however they might grate with the sages, technocrats and the elected. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was a document that went some way to lifting children out of legal oblivion.  Behold, then, such sections as Article 13, which grants the child “the right to freedom of expression” which covers the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information an ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of the child’s choice.” The usual caveats are tagged on the end, limiting the right in instances of reputation, protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.

The danger for Thunberg is that for any figure of mass appeal: the fatal nature of trendiness and the brief spell of a fashion. For all her self-commanding purity, she risks becoming the decent face of an establishment keen to assimilate her, giving her an ecological sexing up.

Temptations are being thrown her way. This month, it was announced that she was a winner at the GQ awards in London, sharing top billing with David Beckham, Iggy Pop, Nicole Kidman and Kylie Minogue. The award for Thunberg was given the title appropriate to such events: the Game Changer Award. Becoming the decent face of environmental protest is the last thing she should want; best be obscene and heard.

While it is all fine for preachy politicians or mainstream newspaper contributors to hector students who walk out of class for being unconscientious, take issue with times of protest (by all means protest, but do so outside school hours), and lecture them for lacking experience, it is also not a fitting statement about the state of affairs that led to such angst. The world may be entering its penultimate phase, at least in a climatic sense, but that hardly bothers the short-term parliament where the vested, constipated interest precedes the universal, bleak message. By all means be critical of Thunberg and appreciate the limitations of the rebel. She, at least, has the courage to say no.

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World Systems and Capitalism: Immanuel Wallerstein’s Legacy

“The dead albatross that hangs around our neck is our legacy of arrogance, racism. And we must struggle to atone, to reconstruct, to create a different historical system.” So wrote the late sociologist and thinker Immanuel Wallerstein in unequivocal tones of repentance on Europe’s legacy, its “oldest disgrace.”

Wallerstein was one of those refreshing types in an increasingly restrictive academy, the big picture sort rich with colour, engaged in splashing out portraits of historical development. Dreary minutiae and specialism was not for him even if he could play the game when needed, and his quest in sociology and history was a bold commitment to seek “a more egalitarian world and a more libertarian one.”

Within his work, the theme of inequality marks the gap between the Third World and the West. Only a transformation of the world-system itself, one dealing with “its division of labour and allocation of rewards” would rectify it. We still await that particular idea of orderly distribution on earth to be realised.

The Wallerstein method is the vision: the world-system seen as an integrated, interdependent whole. “There are not, and cannot be multiple capitalisms because capitalism is a singular structure that is the defining feature of the modern world-system.” It simply would not do to use a case study system of specific economies in understanding socioeconomic development; nor would it suffice to discern a pattern of magic in the pure realms of statistics, applied comparatively. What was needed was a new “unit of analysis” that refused to stop at the defined borders of societies.

The theoretical device best suited, he argued, was seeing development in the context of the centre (Northern Europe, North America, Australasia) and peripheral areas, with the former the engine for pushing the global capitalist system. Four different categories emerge: the core, semi-periphery, periphery and external. Considering the world-system from this perspective enabled a view of multiple, global polities, rather than a single one, while also understanding the transnational division of labour, one distinctly unequal in nature: the core, marked by capital intensive production and specialist skills, the peripheral marked by low-skill, labour-intensive production and raw material extraction.

World-systems analysis, accordingly, was not so much a theory as “a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies.” Moving towards a world “substantively rational” could only be undertaken with eyes wide open to intellectual and political challenges. “We can only struggle uneasily with both challenges simultaneously, and push forward as best we can.”

In The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974), he charted the demise of feudalism before urgings of capitalist growth, defining capitalism as “production for sale in a market which the objective is to realise for profit.” The feudal economy had been exhausted; climate had exerted its pull-on agriculture; epidemics had taken their toll. Growth became premised on Europe’s territorial expansion, the deployment of commercial enterprises backed by state machinery, and the flow of goods from the periphery to the centre.

Capitalism effectively de-territorialised meaningful state boundaries and did not necessitate the creation of a political empire in a strict sense. As Wallerstein posited, “the techniques of modern capitalism and the technology of modern science, the two being somewhat linked as we know, enabled this world-economy to thrive, produce, and expand without the emergence of a unified political structure.”

Three other volumes on this theme followed, coming out in 1980, 1989 and 2011. More bracing scholarship could also be found in such essay collections as Geopolitics and Culture (1991), The Politics of World-Economy (1984) and The Capitalist World-Economy (1979).

Some of his broader concepts can be found in the reflections of the neat introduction to World-Systems Analysis. In the 1950s, he recalls, there was interest in Cold War categories: the totalitarian and the democratic; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. For him, “the most important thing happening in the twentieth-century world was the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world.”

His critics deployed the usual devices in attempting to qualify, if not dismiss his work. In using systems as his benchmark he risked being all too simplistic, however vast his reading suggested. The fall-back position was often empirical: Was he correct in his use of evidence, his reading of historical events? Snootily, and typically within the usual disciplinary foxholes, he might have used historical sources, but was no historian. In the words of Stanley Aronowitz, Wallerstein “is asking questions about social structure rather than offering plausible explanations for the causes of particular events.”

And in his scheme lurked Karl Marx not so much as ghost as conductor, a point many were bound to take issue with. Marxist critics argued that too dominant a role was being attributed to trade rather than class interaction. Those like Robert Brenner argued that the unit of analysis was itself at fault, preferring the nation-state as the appropriate level. But unlike others of the Left, Wallerstein remained dedicated to the big-ticket issues: understanding economic inequality, identifying the predations of capitalism. Terms such as “epistemic violence” and the impenetrable jargon of the modern postcolonial oeuvre were distracting sideshows.

In his last days, he penned what he himself termed his “last commentary ever.” He had written 500, and that was enough. In it, he still held out hope of the possibility of “a transformatory use of a 1968 complex… by someone or some group.” He conceded that predictions on this score were speculative at best. Further “by-paths” of development might be followed, or not. “I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense.” There “a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.” By most measures, such odds look rather good.

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Inevitable Withdrawal: The US-Taliban Deal

It took gallons and flagons of blood, but it eventuated, a squeeze of history into a parchment of possibility: the Taliban eventually pushed the sole superpower on this expiring earth to a deal of some consequence. (The stress is on the some – the consequence is almost always unknown). “In principle, on paper, yes we have reached an agreement,” claimed the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on the Afghan channel ToloNews. “But it is not final until the president of the United States also agrees to it.”

The agreement entails the withdrawal (the public relations feature of the exercise teasingly calls this “pulling out”) of 5,400 troops from the current complement of 14,000 within 135 days of signature. Five military bases will close or be transferred to the Afghan government. In return, the Taliban has given an undertaking never to host forces with the intention of attacking the US and its interests.

Exactitude, however, is eluding the press and those keen to get to the marrow. Word on the policy grapevine is that this is part of an inexorable process that will see a full evacuation within 16 months, though this remains gossip.

The entire process has its exclusions, qualifications and mutual deceptions. In it is a concession, reluctant but ultimately accepted, that the Taliban was a credible power that could never be ignored. To date, the US has held nine rounds of talks, a seemingly dragged out process with one ultimate outcome: a reduction, and ultimate exit of combat forces.

The Taliban was not, as the thesis of certain US strategists, a foreign bacillus moving its way through the Afghan body politic, the imposition of a global fundamentalist corporation. Corrupt local officials of the second rank, however, were also very much part and parcel of the effort, rendering any containment strategy meaningless.

A narrative popular and equally fallacious was the notion that the Taliban had suffered defeat and would miraculously move into the back pages of history. Similar views were expressed during the failed effort by the United States to combat the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. An elaborate calculus was created, a mirage facilitated through language: the body count became a means of confusing numbers with political effect.

Time and time again, the Taliban demonstrated that B52s, well-equipped foreign forces and cruise missiles could not extricate them from the land that has claimed so many empires. Politics can only ever be the realisation of tribes, collectives, peoples; weapons and material are unkind and useful companions, but never viable electors or officials.

Even now, the desire to remain from those in over-funded think tanks and well-furnished boardrooms, namely former diplomats engaged on the Afghan project, is stubborn and delusionary. If withdrawal is to take place, goes that tune, it should hinge on a pre-existing peace agreement. An open letter published by the Atlantic Council by nine former US State Department officials previously connected with the country is a babbling affair. “If a peace agreement is going to succeed, we and others need to be committed to continued support for peace consolidation. This will require monitoring compliance, tamping down of those extremists opposed to peace, and supporting good governance and economic growth with international assistance.”

The presumptuousness of this tone is remarkable, heavy with work planning jargon and spread sheet nonsense. There is no peace to keep, nor governance worth preserving. Instead, the authors of the note, including such failed bureaucratic luminaries as John Negroponte, Robert P. Finn and Ronald E. Neumann, opt for the imperial line: the US can afford staying in Afghanistan because the Afghans are the ones fighting and dying. (Again, this is Vietnam redux, an Afghan equivalent of Vietnamisation). In their words, “US fatalities are tragic, but the number of those killed in combat make up less than 20 percent of the US troops who died in non-combat training incidents.” All good, then.

In a sign of ruthless bargaining, the Taliban continued the bloodletting even as the deal was being ironed of evident wrinkles. This movement knows nothing of peace but all about the life of war: death is its sovereign; corpses, its crop. On Monday, the Green Village in Kabul was targeted by a truck bomb, leaving 16 dead (this toll being bound to rise). It was a reminder that the Taliban, masters of whole swathes of the countryside, can also strike deep in the capital itself. The killings also supplied the Afghan government a salutary reminder of its impotence, underscored by the fact that President Ashraf Ghani played no role in the Qatar talks.

This leaves us with the realisation that much cruelty is on the horizon. The victory of the Taliban is an occasion to cheer the bloodying of the imperialist’s nose. But they will not leave documents of enlightenment, speeches to inspire. This agreement will provide little comfort for those keen to read a text unmolested or seek an education free of crippling dogma. Interior cannibalisation is assured, with civil war a distinct possibility. Tribal war is bound to continue.

As this takes place, the hope for President Donald Trump and his officials will no doubt be similar to the British when they finally upped stakes on instruction from Prime Minister David Cameron: forget that the whole thing ever happened.

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