Obama’s Africa policy – an expanding military footprint to grab resources

9 Aug

US President Barack Obama, the first African American to occupy the White House, has used his part-African background to leverage influence in the continent of his ancestors. Let us first get something out of the way – no, Obama is not a secret Muslim; no, he is not ignoring the rest of the world to focus exclusively on Africa; no, his ethnic heritage is not anything to be ashamed of; no, his place of birth is not in dispute – let us dispense with these Trumpist, ultra-right Republican talking points for what they are – rubbish. Obama has used his personal heritage as a political bridge into an important part of the world; Africa.

What kind of African intervention has Obama carried out over his two terms in office, and how exactly has he intervened in Africa? The answer to this question is put forward by John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and author of numerous books and articles about US foreign policy. In an article published in Common Dreams magazine, Feffer outlines that Obama’s initiatives, putting asides the public relations spin about entrepreneurial outreach, is an extension of the previous colonial, imperialistic policies: “Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods.” As Feffer states in his article:

Unfortunately US policy towards Africa have largely translated into holding the door open for U.S. multinationals to do what outsiders have done for centuries: extract the continent’s wealth.

Ethiopia has always been important

A series of outstanding articles and interviews in Tuck magazine have correctly highlighted the international importance and growing regional influence of the African country of Ethiopia. In interviews with Ethiopian academics and foreign policy experts, the importance of Ethiopia, a lynchpin in the East African region, has been emphasised and it has an increasing role in the African Union. Major international players, such as the United States, are giving Ethiopia and the East African region more attention and are establishing cooperative relations with that country. However, there is an assumption underlying these articles that has as yet remained unexamined.

Ethiopia, and East Africa generally, has always been strategically important to the great powers. It is not just from the early 1990s onwards that Ethiopia acquired the attention of the imperialist states. When Ethiopia was governed by the Communist regime (1974-1991), it was always regarded as a strategically important ally, for the former Eastern bloc countries. It maintained extensive trading, cultural and political relations with the other socialist countries, such as Cuba. The latter provided technical assistance, agricultural products, trade based on a system of mutual benefit and not profit-making with fluctuating stock market prices, and educators to school young Ethiopians in the socialist world-outlook.

The United States, Britain and other imperialist powers viewed Ethiopia as a battleground – indeed, Africa was in the midst of a Cold War fought between the allies of the rival superpowers.Ethiopia was no exception to this, and the United States sponsored various ethnic-based militias in secessionist wars to topple the socialist regime in Addis Ababa. The United States at this time was interested in opening up Ethiopia to its economic imperatives, and using the disguise of humanitarian intervention, funneled arms and support for the ethnic-separatist groups, gathered together in the Maoist-oriented Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This formation, having acquired power in 1991 after the disbanding of the Eastern bloc and removal of the socialist regime in Addis Ababa, has hung onto power ever since through dictatorial measures.

The EPRDF quickly abandoned any pretence of commitment to Maoist-style socialism and became an enthusiastic ally of the capitalist West. It has implemented IMF economic programmes, where corruption and mismanagement have become endemic. Human rights violations, including the suppression and torture of dissidents, is normalised. Agricultural products account for the largest portion of exports from Ethiopia, even though there are chronic food shortages in the country. The threat of famine is never far, and indeed famine has struck Ethiopia with depressingly regularity given the levels of poverty and food insecurity. As Graham Peebles explained in one of his regular articles for Counterpunch magazine about Ethiopia:

More than half the population live on less than $1 a day; over 80% of the population live in rural areas (where birth-rates are highest), and work in agriculture, the majority being smallholder farmers who rely on the crops they grow to feed themselves and their families.

The people of Ethiopia have suffered chronic food insecurity for generations: the major reason, as is the case throughout the world, is poverty. Other causes are complex; some due to climate change, others result from the ruling regime’s policies. Action Aid (AA) reports that unequal trading systems are a factor. The Ethiopian government purchases crops from farmers at low, fixed prices. International organisations encourage Ethiopia to produce cash crops to export, which reduces the land available for growing domestic crops – yes, Ethiopia – where millions rely on food aid every year – exports food. The country’s top exports are Gold (21%) Coffee (19%), vegetables and oily seeds, followed closely by live animals and khat – a highly addictive narcotic.

The Ethiopians experienced drought and famine during the socialist regime in the 1980s. The widespread famine of the mid-1980s brought the political situation to the attention of the international community. This reaction of the imperialist powers was to exploit the suffering of the Ethiopians for Cold War political purposes – food became a political football, with the BBC and various corporate media outlets broadcasting heart-rending images of the famine’s victims and concerts were organised to raise money for food aid.  There were no humanitarian motivations on the part of the governments of the imperialist states; they promoted the Euro-centric view that black Africans – and in particular, socialist black Africans – cannot feed and govern themselves. Any suggestions that there were natural causes contributing to the famine were dismissed out of hand, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the regime.

Here we are in 2016, and Ethiopia is facing famine and food insecurity – as of late last year, the number of people requiring food aid doubled to 8.2 million. Schools, hospitals and facilities have been forced to close down due to water and food shortages. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released startling figures that place the number of food-insecure people in Ethiopia at just over ten million. The OCHA report makes clear that there are definitive natural causes for this drought and resultant famine – the OCHA states that:

More than 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood. Their vulnerability is frequently exacerbated by natural and man-made hazards, including drought, flooding, disease outbreaks, intercommunal conflict and refugee influxes from neighbouring states. Drought and flooding increase the risk of water-related disease outbreaks, particularly Acute Watery Diarrhoea, malaria and measles and especially among children under age 5. Access to clean water and basic health care, including life-saving maternal and neonatal services, remains low.

How has the Ethiopian government responded? Firstly by denying the severity of the crisis, and secondly by downplaying its deleterious effects. The regime has imprisoned its opponents, suppressed journalists and has carried out repressive measures against Muslim and ethnic minorities, namely in the Ogaden region in the south-east of the country. These are crimes of which the former socialist regime was accused and condemned. As Graham Peebles explained his article called “Ogaden: Ethiopia’s hidden shame”:

The ruling party, the EPRDF, uses violence and fear to suppress the people and governs in a highly centralised manner. Human rights are ignored and a methodology of murder, false imprisonment, torture and rape is followed.

The ethnic Somali population of the Ogaden, in the southeast part of the country, has been the victim of extreme government brutality since 1992. It’s a familiar story of a region with a strong identity seeking autonomy from central government, and the regime denying them that democratic right.

However, the Addis Ababa regime has avoided outright international condemnation – because it is a valued proxy of the United States. In July 2015, US President Obama visited East African countries, including Ethiopia. He celebrated Ethiopia’s role as a solid ally in the ‘war on terror’, praised the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and expressed his appreciation of the Ethiopian military’s role in American-supported wars in Somalia, the latter having been the target of various ground-invasions by Ethiopian and Kenyan troops in a bid to stop Islamist militias in that war-torn country. Obama let slip on the real nature of Ethiopia’s post-1991 friendship with the United States:

Obama, who has delivered vague homilies about the importance of “democracy” and “human rights” in Africa, avoided, as he did in his previous stop in Kenya, any direct criticism of the Ethiopian regime. Instead, he bluntly spelled out what Washington values in the regime in Addis Ababa: “We don’t need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters.”

This is not to romanticise the period of socialist government in Ethiopia. There was political and economic mismanagement, the suppression of the ruling stratum from the former feudal-monarchical regime, the demand for political loyalty to the new regime and its allies in the Eastern bloc. The point is that we are quick to present the United States as an ethical friend of Africa, uniquely committed to human rights and democracy, unlike all the other major powers. Ethiopia, along with its neighbours Kenya and Uganda, is a military and economic outpost of the United States in the East Africa region, and provides its US-sponsored military force as a willing recruit for American foreign policy objectives in the region. Its lack of internal democracy does not provoke the slightest whisper of protest or rebuke from Washington.

Red Africa

The Soviet Union, in its day, intervened in the affairs of Africa. The political leadership of Moscow paid great attention to the politics and emergent nation-states of Africa in the wake of decolonisation after World War Two. How did they intervene? An article in The New Statesman provides an answer. Anoosh Chakelian, deputy web editor at the magazine, wrote an article called “What the untold Soviet history of “Red Africa” reveals about the racism of modern Russia”. She writes that there was a time, during the Soviet period, when anti-racist solidarity was a distinct component of Russia’s support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Racist violence in Russia today is endemic, and it is a terrible problem for Russia’s current authorities. However, as Chakelian explains:

But there was once a time when Russia was ahead of the rest of the world in welcoming migrants, and its attitude towards Africans and African Americans. Overshadowed by the Western preoccupation with the Cold War in Europe, the USSR’s relationship with Africa is a forgotten piece of Soviet history.

“In the Twenties and Thirties, not only was Russia not racist in relation to black people, but it was encouraging migration,” says Mark Nash, curator of Things Fall Apart, an exhibition held by the contemporary Russian culture foundation Calvert 22 in London.

“Four or five thousand black people came in the Twenties and Thirties to the Soviet Union per year,” he adds. “A number of them stayed because they were equal citizens and they had equal rights, which they didn’t have in the States until the Sixties. The official ideology was really anti-racist.”

African Americans, facing lynchings, discrimination and racist mob violence at home in the US, decided to make the Soviet Union their home, with its promises of racial equality. These emigrants found acceptance and a new life in the USSR, in stark contrast to their American homelands where discrimination and strict segregation still ruled the day until the major civil rights upheavals of the 1960s. While these African American emigrants have now become footnotes in history, their example serves as a useful reminder that in the not-too-distant past, anti-racism was an official ideology in a political sphere long demonised as a totalitarian nightmare. The Washington Post asked “What would compel a black American to move to Stalinist Russia?” Many reasons are provided, but one explanation is more compelling than the others; because class mattered, but not race.

What has this got to do with Africa? The Soviet Union, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, provided material and ideological support for those African parties and groups fighting imperialism and colonialism in their home countries. The Soviets made great capital out of the systemic problems of racism and economic exploitation in the United States, and supported those African political parties that adhered to its Bolshevik ideology. Was this political propaganda? In a way, yes. There is no such thing as a racial utopia, and the Soviets were out to export their political beliefs and philosophy to African countries.

However, we would do well to remember that in the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela were regarded as terrorists by Britain and United States, the Soviet Union heavily promoted the ANC, staunchly opposed the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and thousands of ANC activists were trained politically and militarily in the Soviet bloc. Mandela himself, after his release from prison in 1994, paid tribute to the role of the USSR in assisting the anti-apartheid struggle. As Russia Beyond the Headlines explained:

It is easy for critics of Mandela to label him a communist and downplay Russia’s intentions in ending state-sponsored racism in South Africa. Mandela refuted these claims in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote, with a tinge of humor, “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?”

The USSR had its own problems with ethnic minorities, particularly in the lead-up to and during World War Two – with the Volga Germans, the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. None of this is in dispute. Even today, we can see the political use of the Crimean Tatar issue by the United States to rally more public opinion in its current round of anti-Russian measures, downplaying the extent of political collaboration between the Crimean Tatars and hostile outside powers. The point is that racism in Russia today is a very serious malignancy, and any solution to this problem must examine the example of anti-racist solidarity and practicing international outreach provided by Russia’s recent history.

The American empire of military bases

The heading above comes from an article by Nick Turse, investigative journalist and writer for TomDispatch. Turse has written a compelling and rigorously researched series of articles demonstrating just how the United States, under a guise of secrecy, has constructed an enormous and extensive network of military bases, outposts and spying facilities that has turned the continent into a laboratory for American warfare. In an article called “America’s empire of African bases spreads”, Turse has documented his ongoing battle with the US military to uncover exactly just how many, and how geographically extensive, the archipelago of US military bases is in Africa. Turse elaborates that:

So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa?  It’s a simple question with a simple answer.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent.  It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.

The US military prefers to use a new euphemism – cooperative security locations (CSLs) to describe its military outposts in Africa. When taking into account all the other military facilities, spying locations, drone bases and considerable military settlements the US has, the number is astounding. Turse describes it as an AFRICOM base bonanza:

Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, GabonGhana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.

When the Romans built military bases, fortifications and militarised frontiers, at least they had the honesty to call it an empire.

The American military footprint, initiated by George W Bush, has escalated under Obama. The first African American president has overseen a massive increase in the US military presence in Africa, and all this activity is nothing new. Back in 2012, Lee Wengraf wrote an article for the US Socialist Worker newspaper entitled “Obama’s war in Africa”. The author writes that;

IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama’s doorstep.

Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from “boots on the ground” towards “alliance-building.” The idea is to cement American “indispensability” to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas–from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.

Rather than the direct deployment of massive numbers of American troops, Obama has shifted to a more cautious, tactical, but no less insidious policy of proxy-building; acquire reliable allies on the ground, such as Ethiopia, and they can perform the bulk of the hand-to-hand fighting. Meanwhile, US special forces, military experts and foreign policy planners provide the backup where needed. Let us not forget that usual driver of imperialist ambition; rivalry and competition. Wengraf explains that:

Today, global competition drives Obama’s foreign policy. During the past decade, the U.S. has engaged in a fierce battle with China for worldwide economic and military preeminence. The aim has been to encircle and contain China’s growing reach. The Economist reported a Department of Defense announcement that by 2020, 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia, along with “a range of other ‘investments’ to ensure that despite China’s fast-growing military might, America would still be able to ‘rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.'”

Intensified competition with China, and other powers such as Russia, is fueling the higher levels of U.S. military involvement in Africa and a new scramble for resources. This scramble is mainly about oil, in which Africa plays a critical supply role for both China and the U.S., but also about increased overall investment in resources–from diamonds and gold to land for agricultural investment.

Beijing is of course looking out for its own interests; neither the Chinese regime, nor for that matter the former Soviet Union, was motivated by benevolent altruism. China has dealings with repressive states in Africa, such as the Sudan; the latter receives military equipment and arms in return for oil. Beijing has successfully acquired the oil markets of the new nation of South Sudan, importing 77 percent of the latter’s country’s oil.

This is galling for the US, because the birth of South Sudan was nurtured by the Americans, who provided arms for its secessionist ambitions. The Chinese are building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, providing billions in every sector of the economy, from roads to telecommunications to health. The Chinese government is better at presenting itself as an equal trading and business partner for Africa, with the volume of trade reaching 222 billion dollars last year.

The United States is viewing the soft power approach of the Chinese in Africa with anxiety. It has responded with a mixture of escalating militarisation of the continent, and corporatisation of its business interests. The United States, while portraying its intervention in Africa as an anti-terrorist exercise, is actually the main purveyor of political destabilisation and violence. It is time to examine the US war on Africa, this undeclared offensive that the US military wants to keep hidden from public view. The election of an African American president was used to draw a false finish line underneath the problem of racism in American society. An African American president in the White House did not change the system, because it is not the presidential office that needs changing, but the imperialist system itself.

The Russian scientist, indigenous people and the Australian connection

29 Jul

Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian anthropologist, biologist and explorer who lived and worked in Sydney, NSW for a total of nine years, established himself as a respected member of the NSW scientific community. He created the first biological research station in the Southern Hemisphere, and made important contributions to the Linnean Society, the main scientific and natural history institute in the self-governing British colony of NSW at the time. He married the daughter of the five-times Premier of NSW, John Robertson. That should have solidified Miklouho-Maclay’s position in the Sydney scientific community and earned him a place in our history. However, he is largely forgotten, and his story has been revived through the efforts of researchers and historians, who compiled a fascinating documentary about him for the ABC in 2013 called ‘Remembering Nikolai’.

There is a large reason why he has been ignored – Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked among the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for three years, and championed the rights of the native nations to resist colonisation. Why is that important?

In the 1870s and 1880s, both the British colonies of Queensland and NSW were eyeing the natural resources of Papua and New Guinea for themselves. The Australian colonies, while not politically organised into a federation, were expanding on a capitalist basis. The Pacific islands, Polynesia and Melanesia were viewed as unexplored and untamed frontiers. NSW and Queensland lobbied the British government to colonise Papua and New Guinea. European colonisation of indigenous people and territory was in full swing in the late nineteenth century. The English, Germans, Dutch and French were already grabbing portions of the South Pacific and Asia – Melanesia was in their sights. Germany had set up a colony in the northern half of New Guinea, and the Queensland government strongly urged the British to get their foothold in the southern half of Papua.

Queensland’s ruling landed gentry, and to a certain extent, NSW – engaged in the practice of blackbirding. This involved the forcible recruitment, through kidnapping and trickery, of Melanesian workers into a scheme of indentured labour. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua – the indigenous people of these nations were forced into a system of slavery, working in the sugar cane plantations and landed estates in Queensland and NSW. The full story of blackbirding is still being literally uncovered until today. As Jeff Sparrow explains in his article for The Guardian:

Between 1863 and 1904, 62,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia, landing in Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Innisfail and Cairns. The majority of the indentured labourers came from today’s Vanuatu, with a substantial proportion from the Solomons, as well as smaller islands. Some came voluntarily (even accepting multiple trips). Others did not – and varying degrees of deception and outright coercion were used by blackbirders to persuade them.

By the 1890s, the so-called “Kanakas” were providing 85% of the workforce for the sugar industry.

What has all this got to do with Miklouho-Maclay?

Nineteenth century European anthropology was the hey-day of pseudo-scientific racism; the belief that different human races represented different species, and could be organised hierarchically into an evolutionarily-upward structure, with the lower races – such as the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia – at the lower end of the spectrum, and the white race, the colonisers at the top. Anthropology was used in the service of this colonising project, with pseudo-scientific devices such as phrenology and craniometry provided a veneer of respectability to a new imperial endeavour of systematic racism. Into this environment, Miklouho-Maclay worked tirelessly to refute this pseudo-scientific nonsense.

In a powerful article for Russia Beyond the Headlines, Miklouho-Maclay’s unending efforts in defending the colonised people are discussed at length. Early in his career, he travelled to the Canary Islands as an assistant to the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The latter espoused the pseudo-scientific racist views prevalent at the time, and Miklouho-Maclay was determined to disprove these supremacist theories. Europeans certainly did believe in liberty, equality and fraternity – as long as you were white.

Miklouho-Maclay was the first white man to settle and work among the indigenous Papuans – he moved there in 1871 and worked for three years among people deemed cannibals and flesh-eating savages. He formed close bonds with the people there, noting their complex societal structures and learned one of their many languages. He continued his ethnographic studies, and provided ample refutation of the predominant racism of his time. He wrote the following, quoted in the Russia Beyond the Headlines article above that:

“There is no ‘superior’ race,” Miklouho-Maclay wrote after finishing his research in Papua New Guinea. “All races are equal because all people on Earth are the same biologically. Nations merely stand upon different steps of historical development. And the duty of each civilized nation is to help the people of a weaker nation in their quest for freedom and self-determination.”

While making Sydney his second home, Miklouho-Maclay spoke out against the rising tide of colonisation, and criticised the push by his adoptive home to make Papua New Guinea an economic colony. Distrust of the newcomer turned into outright hostility, as he maintained his opposition to the new imperialism, driven by economic interests in the emergent colonies of NSW and Queensland. His campaign to defend the targets of creeping colonisation was examined in a biographical program on him for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). That program quoted his words on the issue of Papuan annexation. Miklouho-Maclay spoke of his time living in Papua New Guinea:

During my stay among the natives… I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives… about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.’

He went on, ‘should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.’

‘I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.’

Sadly, the tide of colonisation was too strong, and the British did eventually carve out a portion of New Guinea, taking possession without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. At the end of World War One, Papua New Guinea was handed over to Australia as a colonial possession. With the injustice of this act, the resultant implacable hatred that Miklouho-Maclay warned against was realised. That lead to a prolonged struggle for independence and self-determination in Papua New Guinea.

Ignored by the rising federative colonialism of Australia, Miklouho-Maclay was feted as a hero in his native Russia, and in the subsequent Soviet Union. His fight for racial equality was upheld by the Soviet authorities as a worthy example of a fighting intellectual-scientist. He was acclaimed by the Communist authorities as a man who saw beyond racial differences, and advocated the fundamental equality of human beings. Was this a case of the Soviet authorities exploiting his story for political purposes? In a way, yes. However, his life and work were celebrated during Tsarist Russian times, and his contemporaries, such as the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also sang his praises.

Tolstoy was moved to write about Miklouho-Maclay that, “You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being with whom communication can and should be established through kindness and truth, not guns and spirits”. Given the serious nature of racism in Russia today, perhaps the current authorities would do well to remember that not so long ago, the Soviets did actually elevate anti-racist scientists such as Miklouho-Maclay into a cultural hero because of his humanist and anti-colonial stand. His life exemplified cross-cultural and multi-racial solidarity.

Miklouho-Maclay is largely forgotten in Australia, because his life and work reminds us of an ugly chapter in the foundational history of the Australian capitalist state. With the unfolding discoveries about our genetic makeup facilitated by the human genome project, science is providing irrefutable evidence that there is no scientific validity for racism. However, we must confront the racism that exists in our own society, a racism that is damaging and ruining people’s lives everyday.

Australians should be interested in Antarctica

25 Jul

The title above comes from an engaging article published in The Conversation online magazine earlier in July 2016. Entitled ‘Why Australians should care about the South Pole’, the essay is a summary of a book on that subject by Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane from the University of Tasmania. The article, written by Leane, provides a succinct overview of her findings in answering the question above. A number of countries make claims on Antarctic territory, each with its own history of scientific and exploratory involvement in that continent. The Arctic and the North Pole have long been the targets of interest and competition by the various imperialist states, until today. However, let us not dismiss the importance of Antarctica.

Let us not miscontrue anything here; Australians are already interested in Antarctica, with increasing and disturbing news of the adverse impact of global warming on the icy continent: the East Antarctic glaciers are melting rates more rapid than the initial expectations of scientists; the eastern Totten glacier being the main cause of concern. A team of scientists returned from an expedition to East Antarctica in 2015 and reported that warmer ocean waters were causing the Totten glacier to melt from below.

This news is on top of the already worrying trend that in West Antarctica, the ice sheet there is losing twice as much ice now as compared to the last survey, and its collapse is a critical possibility. The West Antarctic ice sheet is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of humanity, and its melting has been observed and cataloged by climate scientists for half a century.

The specific, measured adverse consequences of global warming are one big reason to be interested in the icy continent. But these concerns are part of the wider campaign around human-induced global warming. There are many other reasons, specific to Antarctica, that make that continent an endlessly fascinating and rewarding experience in its own right. The scientific value of continued exploration and discovery in Antarctica make that icy region one of the most interesting places on Earth.

Whenever I raise the subject of Antarctica and the South Pole, my fellow Australians usually respond with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension borne out of a sense that interest in Antarctica is a general waste of time and energy. My first instinct is to respond with the enthusiastic contempt exemplified by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, brandishing a weapon of some description, loudly daring my interlocutor to repeat their inane question of ‘why Antarctica?’ on pain of physical obliteration.

This method, while personally satisfying, is not the preferred technique of esteemed writers and creators of cultural capital. So, placing our initial response on the back-burner, it is with great pleasure that I can highly recommend The Conversation as a source of information regarding the scientific and political importance of the Antarctic.

Australia has had a long and deep involvement in the continent. While the popular image of the Antarctic is one of icy remoteness, isolation, ferocious weather and tragic exploration events, this is only one side of the story. As Professor Leane writes in her article:

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which declared the continent a place of peace and science and put national claims on hold, seemed to leave behind the imperial ambitions that produced the “race to the pole” in the early 20th century. And while Antarctica’s potential mineral resources are an ongoing source of concern, the South Pole, sitting atop almost 3km of ice, is not an obvious place to drill.

Now occupied by a large scientific research station, where (among other activities) astronomers use giant telescopes to study cosmological events, the South Pole is often assumed to be a politically neutral place, immune to the clamour going on in the north.

So it is not just the fact of ecological change that makes Antarctica important. The Antarctic Treaty was intended to place inter-imperial rivalry on hold, avoiding the unnecessary competitive outburst over that land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provided a framework for international scientific cooperation, and this has produced results: scientific and cultural ties between Australia and China have been evolving positively since 1984, the year the Chinese government began its first scientific expedition to Antarctica. China now has four Antarctic bases, and in 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart and signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia for the purpose of expanding cooperation in the Antarctic region and Southern Ocean.

However, not all is smooth sailing – various countries, including Australia, have made territorial claims over portions of Antarctic territory. The competing wedge-shaped territorial assertions by the rival countries have resulted in making Antarctic territory resemble portions of a meringue pie, as Professor Leane stated. All of the claimants mapped out territory that all meet at the South Pole. The latter is not the geographic centre of the continent, however, it is the southernmost point of the Earth.

Interestingly, at latitude 90-degrees South, it is easier to travel to than the North Pole; the latter is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the South Pole sits on stable solid land. The United States established a scientific station, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Sitting in the middle of the rival territorial claims, the US does not currently make any claims in Antarctica, but is positioned to do so in the future, should that decision arise.

There are only a few frontiers left on the Earth that can truly be said to remain unexplored. Vast sections of Antarctica fit this definition. However, it is not just the icy land mass of the continent that is open to exploration; the enormous land underneath the ice sheets is a large area of terra incognita. That is the description of the territory that lies underneath the Antarctic icy mass provided by an article published in The Conversation called ‘What lies beneath Antarctica’s ice? Lakes, life and the grandest of canyons.’

The authors go on to explain that deep beneath the solid ice-mass, lies a complex and as yet unmapped system of subglacial lakes, rivers and canyons. There are currently 400 known lakes in this subglacial environment, and more are being identified:

Under such a large volume of ice, how is it possible for water to exist at all without freezing? The answer is pressure: when a large weight of ice is pushed onto water, it can stay liquid at temperatures well below the normal freezing point. What’s more, the large body of ice actually insulates the bed and protects it from the very cold air temperatures above.

The liquid water is created by heat from the Earth’s interior and from the friction generated as ice flows over the bedrock, which can melt the underside of the ice sheet. It is this water that flows into the subglacial lake basins and eventually into the ocean.

The largest of these known subglacial lakes is Lake Vostok, covering an area of 12 500 square kilometres, located underneath Russia’s Vostok science station in the Southern Pole of Cold, part of the East Antarctic ice sheet. In these climatically harsh environments, microbial life has been found.

In Lake Whillans, located in West Antarctica, a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms was discovered in 2013 by an American research team drilling through the overlying glacier to extract water samples from the lake. These microbes have never before seen the sun. So how do they survive? The microbes rely on the minerals from the sediments and bedrock, with the constant pressure of the glacier above grinding the rock into powder, thus making minerals available for microorganisms without the need for photosynthesis. As the authors Dow, Graham and Cook explain in their article:

Such life thrives in this harsh environment without sunlight for photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes depend on the oxidation of methane and ammonia, derived from sediments that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This momentous discovery of life in such a harsh and unforgiving environment may provide scientists with critical information on the development of marine life cycles.

Antarctica is not the exclusive preserve of one country or international power. It is the common heritage of humanity. As such, international scientific and political cooperation is not only desirable but necessary to study that land, preserve its ecosystem, and avoid the climatic catastrophe that awaits us should Antarctica continue its current disastrous course towards sustained melting and collapse due to global warming. The future of Antarctica should be of top priority not just for all Australians, but for the international community.

Israel, Uganda, and Netanyahu’s Entebbe visit

8 Jul

In early July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a multination tour of East African countries, starting with Uganda. He made a significant stopover in Entebbe, Uganda. Why? This was the 40th anniversary of the Israeli commando raid, a military action that  was aimed at rescuing Israeli hostages kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The latter found sanctuary at the time in Uganda, then under the rule of General Idi Amin. Israeli forces stormed the Entebbe airport, and during this action three hostages, all the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli commando were killed.

The Entebbe raid, as that military operation has become known, was praised by PM Netanyahu as a significant action against terrorism. Visiting the site of Entebbe in July this year, Netanyahu gave an emotionally-charged speech – which is understandable, given that his brother was one of the commandos who died during the military operation. But he also recycled a number of propagandistic myths and distortions that are possible only by taking a pair of scissors and excising huge portions of recent history from the picture.

Tuck magazine published an article that covered Netanyahu’s visit, an article that sadly uncritically reproduces the Netanyahu version of history. Let us have a look at the claims made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and how those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. He stated that this raid was a great victory against terrorism, and that the international community needs to cooperate to defeat this particular evil in the world. Netanyahu also stated that Israel intends to increase its economic, political and military relations with sub-Saharan and East African countries. He boasted that he was the first Israeli Prime Minister in over twenty years to make an official state visit to Africa. The purpose of this contribution is not to sound peevish or annoyed, or to make any personal attacks. The purpose is to examine those relevant portions of history that Netanyahu deliberately excluded from his speech in Uganda.

There is no doubt that General Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda was a military dictatorship, where opponents of the regime were tortured and eliminated. There is no question that Amin became, in his own erratic and schizophrenic way, a supporter of the Palestinian cause and made repugnant, repulsive anti-Semitic statements praising Hitler, revealing himself to be a very troubled, hateful person. He was most definitely the head of a monstrous regime. But what is missing from Netanyahu’s truncated picture is that during Idi Amin’s rise to power, he had two powerful patrons and supporters – Britain and Israel. He was a monster created, aided and abetted by influential backers – patrons that he eventually turned against.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine published in June 2016, author Helen Epstein relates that:

One issue that probably won’t be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit is why the hijackers chose Entebbe. The short answer is that Idi Amin, Uganda’s erratic dictator at the time, was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a professed enemy of Israel. But there is a longer answer: Israel itself helped install Amin in power, creating a monster who turned on his former patrons.

Israel had had a special relationship with Uganda since the latter’s independence from Great Britain, in 1962. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, sought strategic partnerships with states on the edge the Arab world, including Uganda, Kenya, Iran, and Turkey, to counter the hostile nations on Israel’s own borders. As part of what became known as the Peripheral Doctrine, Israel trained and equipped Uganda’s military and carried out construction, agriculture, and other development projects.

Israeli technicians were helping to construct, among other things, the Entebbe airport, so its blueprints and structure were well known to the relevant Israeli authorities.

Amin was a British-trained soldier, having risen through the ranks of the British-commanded King’s African Rifles, a multi-battalion unit raised from Britain’s East African colonies. This unit, loyal to British King and Country, was deployed in various actions in defence of the Empire, namely fighting the Kenyan Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. Amin saw action in that war, and proved himself a capable leader. The British were well aware of the type of man they were promoting, and in the early 1960s, when Uganda gained independence, it was Amin among other officers who were promoted to the very top of the fledgling Ugandan military hierarchy.

Israel was a keen supporter of Ugandan independence, and established a burgeoning relationship with the new country. Armaments and money flowed into Uganda, and Amin himself was fully supportive of this relationship. The civilian authorities in Uganda at the time, while professing Pan-Africanist sentiments, found themselves heavily dependent on the Ugandan army. Amin established close relations with Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, Israel’s military attache in Uganda. While the civilian Presidents tried to maintain their autonomy from the military, Amin and other army officers were secretly plotting to seize power for themselves. Bar-Lev had advised Amin to form a particular unit, trained by Israel, to protect Amin himself. It was this unit that provided the backbone for the 1971 coup d’etat that brought Amin to power. It is no exaggeration to state that while Amin hungered for power himself, it was his Israeli enablers that made such a seizure of power a practical reality.

Amin, having become chief of staff of the Ugandan army in the 1960s, was viewed as a great asset by the British and Israeli authorities. Amin ran a sideline operation in his position; he supplied armaments and training for rebel groups operating in the South Sudan, a predominantly African region ruled by the Arabic-speaking regime in Khartoum. Israeli-made weapons found their way into the hands of South Sudanese rebel forces via Uganda, and the Arab-majority Sudanese army was bogged down in a grueling conflict with secessionist rebels. In fact, until today, with South Sudan an independent state, its main military and political supporter has been the state of Israel. The support for South Sudanese rebels fighting the dictatorial regime in Khartoum is motivated by Israeli strategic and economic interests, not any humanitarian concerns for subjugated peoples.

It is no longer a secret that Israel maintained a flourishing and profitable relationship with apartheid South Africa for many decades, while the rest of the international community was demanded an end to any links with that racist regime in Pretoria. That particular international cause for democracy and racial equality was ignored and sabotaged by the Israeli authorities – however, now, Netanyahu wishes to invoke the moral authority of the international community’s support for his alleged stance against terrorism. Israel’s outreach to African countries is based on cynical and ruthlessly calculated political interests. The Israeli authorities are looking for friends to outflank all the Arabic-speaking countries. That calculation is no secret – Israel was fully supportive of the newly-independent African states back in the 1960s; those relations have gone through various fluctuations and changes since then, but the underlying rationale has remained the same.

Thankfully, Amin’s regime has passed into the pages of history. After his overthrow in 1979, he was exiled and never saw his native Uganda again – he remained forgotten and irrelevant. He spoke out on various issues concerning his country, but now no-one was listening. Uganda itself has remained firmly in the orbit of the United States; current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. As Helen Epstein explains in her New Yorker article:

Early in Museveni’s tenure, Uganda once again became a pawn in the seemingly endless undeclared war between the Arab world and the West. In 1994, the Clinton Administration began funding Uganda and other countries to destabilize the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom it held partly responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993. Ugandan troops have also been deployed, at the West’s beckoning, in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. plows roughly seven hundred and fifty million dollars annually in developmental aid into Uganda, including a hundred and seventy million dollars in military aid. Meanwhile, the Ugandan leader has for years received a free pass when it comes to human-rights abuses. These include allegations of election rigging, torture, and the killing of opposition supporters.

Was the Entebbe raid a victory against terrorism, as Netanyahu boastfully claims? Yes and no. What does that mean?

Yes, it was a victory against terrorism – if by that, you mean the terrorism of the dispossessed, desperate and vulnerable. The Palestinians, stuck in squalid refugee camps, denied a basic existence, their future hopeless and abandoned by the international community, resorted to desperate tactics, lashing out at any target however soft its vulnerability. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the very existence of the Palestinians as a nation was routinely denied by top-level Israeli politicians. Condemned to rot in refugee camps, with no education, prospects of hope of a bright future, the Palestinians struck out in dangerous, desperate and lawless ways, the only methods available to those that have been pushed out to the margins of existence.

Was it a victory against terrorism? No. The terrorism of the rich and powerful, those with the resources of a state at their disposal, goes unpunished and unaccountable. When refugee camps are bombed by warplanes, those who gave the orders for such actions remain at large, uninhibited by legal sanction. When an entire territory is blockaded and starved into submission, those who order and carry out such measures remain unpunished. When such punitive measures deny an entire population the basic necessities for survival, and undermine the ability of a society to sustain itself, the international community must do more than just watch. We would do well to remember the words of the late great humanist activist and author, Peter Ustinov, who stated that; “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

Obama in Vietnam – a view from Australia

17 Jun

US President Barack Obama made a well-publicised visit to two Asian countries in May 2016 – Japan and Vietnam. Specifically, he toured Hanoi, addressed the Vietnamese national congress and its ruling Communist Party, and then went on a historic tour of Japan. He became the first sitting American President to visit Hiroshima. His visit and speech at the atomic bombing site of Hiroshima garnered enormous media attention and debate. In particular, Obama’s refusal to issue an apology for the atomic attack on Hiroshima generated heated discussion and tensions both within the media, and within political and academic circles.

This issue has been extensively discussed; I have stated my position on that question in this article. While this is an important topic, it distracts from other, equally important issues that merit attention. It is to these unexplored issues to which we shall turn – namely, Obama’s visit to Vietnam. As President of the United States, Obama can visit any country that will take him, and that is fine. Given the long and tortured history of the relationship between Vietnam and the United States, Obama’s May 2016 trip will appear to be an exercise in mending fences. It is always commendable when two former adversaries resolve their differences and arrive at a form of reconciliation. Diplomatic relations between the two former enemies were restored in 1995. However, there are a number of points to note about his trip to Vietnam.

If we may use a sporting analogy – the contests between two adversarial boxers is normally a fight between evenly-matched fighters. Two heavyweight athletes, for instance, are pitted against each other, each with relatively corresponding strength and skills. The better boxer emerges victorious during the pugilistic context. The United States is a military heavyweight – and it deployed its enormous military forces against a military featherweight, Vietnam, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. From the mid-1960s until 1975, the United States ruling class unleashed its full military might – aerial firepower, ground troops, chemical weapons, CIA subversion programmes – against the people of Vietnam. Not only did three million Vietnamese lose their lives, neighbouring Laos and Cambodia were also targeted and ravaged by US aerial power. The environment of Vietnam was polluted by a combination of toxic chemicals, and their effects remain until this day.

As late as 2012, Obama, the anti-war candidate of 2008 and 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was praising the American assault on Vietnam, helping to open a militarist ceremony to commemorate that particular attack. In his speech at the Vietnam Wall on Memorial Day back in 2012, Obama’s celebrated the warrior ethos of the American military, and hailed the attack on that country as a just cause. His purpose was two-fold; to censor the history of public opposition to that war, and to cultivate a militarist-patriotism in the US to justify America’s current imperialistic adventures in the Middle East. Rather than take stock of the impact of that war on Vietnam, Obama was purely concerned with the trauma and suffering that the Vietnam intervention caused on Americans, ignored the tremendous suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people. It is worth quoting extensively from an article by Jack Smith, activist editor and former writer the US Guardian Weekly, detailing the impact of America’s war on Vietnam:

Vietnam, north and south, was pulverized by U.S. bombs and shells. The Pentagon detonated 15,500,000 tons of ground and air munitions on the three countries of Indochina, 12,000,000 tons on South Vietnam alone in a failed effort to smash the National Liberation Front backed by the North Vietnamese army. By comparison, the U.S. detonated only 6,000,000 tons of ground and air munitions throughout World War II in Europe and the Far East. All told, by the end of the war, 26,000,000 bomb craters pockmarked Indochina, overwhelmingly from U.S. weapons and bombers.

The Pentagon also dumped 18,000,000 gallons of herbicides to defoliate several million acres of farmland and forests. Millions of Vietnamese suffered illness, birth defects and deaths from these poisonous chemicals. The AP recently reported from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, that “More than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by land mines or other abandoned explosives since the Vietnam War ended nearly 40 years ago, and clearing all of the country will take decades more.”

It should also be mentioned — since it will be suppressed during the commemoration — that U.S. forces, including the CIA and the Pentagon-controlled South Vietnamese military, tortured many thousands of “suspected” supporters of the liberation struggle, frequently with portable electrical current. An estimated 40,000 “Vietcong” (suspected members or supporters of the NLF) were murdered during the long-running “Operation Phoenix” assassination campaign conducted by the CIA, Special Forces and killer units of the Saigon forces.

The Vietnamese, through sheer determination, courage and willpower, not only resisted the American onslaught, but inflicted a humiliating defeat on the US armed forces. Since the war ended in 1975, Vietnam has concentrated on rebuilding its shattered society and economy. From the mid-1980s, the Vietnamese authorities have opened up Ho Chi Minh city to foreign capital, attracting foreign investment, allowing foreign multinationals to open factories and invest, and embarked upon its Doi Moi (renovation) policy, creating what Hanoi calls a ‘socialist market economy’. The merits and demerits of this policy, and the evolution of the Vietnamese Communist Party since the 1980s is beyond the scope of this article. However, Obama’s visit to the Vietnamese capital is not just a friendly visit, as stated by Professor TJ Pempel from the University of California, Berkeley. Obama was indicating his desire to upgrade US relations with Vietnam, refocus America’s strategic priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, and include Vietnam in the US pivot to China.

The four-decades old arms embargo of Vietnam by the United States was lifted by Obama – a symbolic gesture, but an important one. This gesture, along with Obama’s cynical pitch to achieve closer economic and military commitments from Hanoi, was designed to ingratiate American interests with Vietnam, as disputes with China continue to simmer. Hanoi has its own tensions with Beijing, extending back in the late 1970s, and these tensions have sporadically exploded. Rival contestants, not just Vietnam and China, but also Japan and the Philippines, have clashed over the South China sea, a dispute about sovereignty over commercially viable territories in that maritime region. As Tom Arms makes clear in his article for Tuck magazine:

The South China Sea is a clear case of classic geopolitics. It metaphorically sits alongside the Panama Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, The English Channel, Suez and the Straits of Hormuz as one of the world’s maritime choke points. More than half the world’s merchant fleet traffic passes through the South China Sea. If China has total control then it can effectively cut off Japan and South Korea from Europe, Australia, India, the Middle East and Africa. It can also sever the link between India, Southeast Asia and the West Coast of America.

Then there is the oil and gas. There is as much oil in the South China Sea—seven billion barrels proven so far—as in all of Saudi Arabia. There is also 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

While the South China Sea has its own history and dynamic, it can be resolved through the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Interestingly, the United States is not a signatory to that convention, but wishes to intervene aggressively in a maritime dispute over which it has no jurisdiction. However, Obama’s sales pitch to the Vietnamese authorities is not purely a defensive reaction with regard to a maritime conflict, but rather a calculated attempt to seek closer ties with a historic rival, and use Vietnam’s existing tensions to cobble together an anti-Chinese alliance. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is not just about winning new friends, but seeking out regional alliances in order to further strategic economic and political goals.

Why is all this relevant to Australia? Australia is not only an enthusiastic supporter of America’s wars overseas, but was an active participant in the Vietnam war. When the United States launched its first attacks on North Vietnam in the early 1960s, Australia eagerly sent a team of military advisors – the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) in 1962. This team, along with American special forces, actively assisted and participated in, among other things, CIA initiatives, like the Phoenix Programme alluded to above, to disrupt the structure of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam – informally known as the Viet Cong – through torture, assassination, infiltration and terrorism.

In 1965, then Prime Minister Robert Menzies actively sought and acquired the approval of the Americans to increase Australia’s military commitment to support the United States in Vietnam. Menzies, through his ministers and officials, badgered and cajoled the relevant American and South Vietnamese authorities to push  for an escalation of Australia’s military involvement. While the government of the Saigon regime formally invited Australia to participate, this was done as a result of back-room machinations and arm-twisting of the Australian government, who eagerly pushed their way into being ‘invited’ as a military participant in the Vietnam war.

From the early 1970s, as the American assault on Vietnam was facing imminent defeat, refugees began fleeing from that country. Australia, one of the aggressors in that conflict, initially refused to take Vietnamese refugees, given Australia’s long-standing opposition to Asian immigration. The image of the ‘yellow peril’ was a long-standing staple of the xenophobic diet of white Australia. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam urged his parliamentary colleagues to reject entry to the ‘f**king Vietnamese Balts’ – a reference to the earlier Baltic refugees of anti-socialist (and Nazi collaborator) persuasion.

In the mid-1970s, after the complete collapse of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of American military forces from Vietnam, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did accept a small proportion of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Not that Fraser was motivated by humanitarian considerations, or that he was particularly generous or proactive – on the contrary. Fraser went out of his way to reassure his parliamentary colleagues and voter base that he was permitting only a minuscule portion of the Vietnamese refugees, and that they in no way represented any kind of threat to the ‘Australian way of life’. Senior Fraser government officials, including then immigration minister Ian Mcphee, stated that the Vietnamese refugees were not fleeing persecution, but actively seeking a better quality of life, implicitly accepting the premise that what motivated the Vietnamese asylum seekers was not an urge to survive, but greed for Australian prosperity.

Washington could renew the friendship with Hanoi by starting to provide compensation to the victims of the Vietnam war, the people who continue to suffer the ill-effects of the chemical warfare conducted by US forces over the course of that conflict. As Marjorie Cohn, law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, stated in an article about this issue:

Our government has a moral and legal obligation to compensate the people of Vietnam for the devastating impact of Agent Orange, and to assist in alleviating its effects. Indeed, the U.S. government recognized this responsibility in the Peace Accords signed in Paris in 1973, in which the Nixon administration promised to contribute $3 billion dollars toward healing the wounds of war, and to post-war reconstruction of Vietnam. But that promise remains unfulfilled.

After all, the American government has paid compensation to its own Vietnam veterans who continue to suffer the impact of Agent Orange and the toxic chemicals used by the US military forces in Vietnam. Let us end the distorting perspective of those who suggest that the United States ‘could have won in Vietnam’, that America ‘had one hand tied behind its back’ over there, that the politicians somehow ‘betrayed’ the front-line troops. Let us have an honest accounting of American savagery in that conflict, and seek out ways to prevent such wars in the future.

Muhammad Ali – the athlete-activist whose example lives on

8 Jun

Tributes to the late great boxer Muhammad Ali have been overflowing since the announcement of his passing earlier this month. John Wight has published an excellent two-part obituary to Ali in the pages of Morning Star. He explores the life and times of Ali, elaborating on how Ali defied the odds in the boxing ring, but also defied the mainstream political tide outside of it. Standing up for his principles, Ali sacrificed his heavyweight champion, lost three prime years of his career, and earned the enmity of the predominately white media and sporting power structures. Wight ends his extensive and moving obituary with the observation, “He truly was the lion that roared.”

The details of the formative and key events in Muhammad Ali’s life are well known – his upset victory over the fearsome heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston in 1964, his early conversion to the Nation of Islam and name change, his staunch opposition to the Vietnam war and refusal to be conscripted which cost him three prime years of his career and financial loss, his stirring comeback and famous victory over George Foreman in 1974. Let us focus today on the things that Ali stood for, and how he demonstrated that athletes and activism combine in powerful ways. As Richard Eskow put it in an article for Common Dreams magazine, Muhammad Ali’s life and principled stand spoke to the activist soul.

Eskow elaborates in his article that:

In the end, Muhammad Ali wasn’t just the most important athlete of his time. And he wasn’t just a world-changing activist. He was even more than those things: he was a unified human being. His occupation was inseparable from his aspirations, his spiritual ideals inseparable from his worldly activities.

Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam represented both a spiritual, and a political, awakening. In a time of strict racial segregation, where being black meant that you were a second-class citizen, Ali found a home within the Nation of Islam. The latter, an exclusively African American organisation, demanded self-respect and proudly displayed its pro-Africa spirit in all of its activities. Yes, that organisation taught its members that the white man was the blue-eyed devil. A hostile attitude, but understandable, given the horrendous violence visited by the white power structures upon the African American communities. From the day that Jack Johnson, the African American, became the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship, the media and sporting bodies put out the call for a white man to win back the prestigious championship for the white race. When Johnson succeeded in maintaining his grip on the sport, there were race riots across the country – reprisals by enraged whites against black communities.

Dave Zirin, the sports journalist and political writer explained in one of his articles;

The backlash against Johnson meant that it would be twenty years before the rise of another black heavyweight champ — Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” Louis was quiet where Johnson was defiant. He was handled very carefully by a management team that had a set of rules Louis had to follow including, “never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by yourself and never speak unless spoken to.”

Johnson himself was hounded and jailed on the most dubious pretexts in order to maintain the colour line in sport.

Ostracised and vilified by white America, it is no wonder that Ali found a spiritual home in the separatist Nation of Islam organisation. As Ali himself explained it in April 1968, during his three year banishment from boxing; “We don’t hate white people – we know them too well”. When he was banned from boxing, Ali lost his main income stream, going from a wealthy status to borderline pauper. Okay, not exactly poverty-stricken, but in dire financial straits. The threat of incarceration hung over his head.

Ali demonstrated that the bridge from the anti-war movement of the 1960s, when he refused induction, and the civil rights movement, which demanded racial and economic equality, was not that large an obstacle to cross. During Ali’s time in boxing exile, he continued speaking out against the war in Vietnam, and he maintained his absolute commitment to civil rights. This in a time when civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, were killed because of their principled commitment.

Ali-Frazier rivalry

One of the few boxers who helped Ali during his years of exile was Joe Frazier. The latter, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, used and developed his athletic talents for boxing and emerged from obscurity, much like Ali. Frazier and Ali shared an intense boxing rivalry, one that spilled out of the ring. After Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in the early 1970s, Ali and Frazier fought three grueling matches. In their first encounter, in 1971, Frazier handed Ali a rare defeat, hitting Ali straight in the head with his fearsome left hook, sending Ali tumbling down to the canvass. Frazier won that fight through sheer determination and persistence.

Ali had characterised Frazier in the pre-match buildup as an ‘Uncle Tom’ character, a pawn of the white establishment. This was particularly unfair – Frazier’s background in poverty was typical of black America. Cruelly labeled a ‘sellout’, Frazier could never quite shake off that tag. This was unfortunate, and Frazier was nothing but an honest, talented fighter. He was definitely not an intellectual – but then neither was Ali. After fifteen bruising rounds, Frazier defeated Ali, and for that, the white sporting establishment were gleeful – the draft-dodging traitor, the uppity black Muslim was hit on his head, and knocked down on his butt.

After his victory, Frazier was invited to address both houses of the South Carolina legislature. Not because the white politicians were particularly interested in Frazier, but because he was the black man who had finally knocked down Muhammad Ali. The latter had berated Frazier at every opportunity as a sellout, the white man’s champion – an unfair characterisation. However, Frazier did stand in the South Carolina legislature, at the time still draped in Confederate flag of the former slave-owning state. Frazier was not an ‘Uncle Tom’, but he was naive in his belief that the white establishment respected him as a fighter. As the 1970s moved on, the taunts and insults to Frazier from Ali became less political and more personal. The verbal humiliations only added to Frazier’s anger, and in their fights, Frazier turned all that anger into furious energy, pummeling and battering Ali. We will come back to point later.

Frazier only generated interest insofar as he defeated Ali. Frazier, a heavyweight champion in his own right, was subsequently defeated by George Foreman. The South Carolina politicians quickly lost interest; the swooning media stopped following Frazier, and he was relegated to the status of just another fading ex-champion. As Dave Zirin explained in his article about Joe Frazier, written soon after the latter died of liver cancer in 2011:

This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: the convenient hero of everyone who wanted to see Ali punished for his politics. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: internalizing and nursing every barb from “Gaseous Cassius” instead of letting it roll off his back. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: rejected by the same establishment so quick to embrace him when it suited their needs. Smokin’ Joe deserved so much better.

The Seventies

In the 1970s, as the mood of the country changed and the Vietnam war was concluded, Ali was welcomed back into the fold. He continued to box, but also took the time to extend his political commitment – he visited a Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon, expressing his support for the cause of Palestinian self-determination. He visited and toured the former Soviet Union in 1978, where he was just as popular as in Africa, America and other parts of the world.

Ali had already visited a number of countries in Africa back in the 1960s, touring Ghana and meeting with then-president, the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. Ali was welcomed as a hero, and he also visited Nigeria and Egypt. A continent that had been ignored by so many Americans, dismissed as an exotic jungle land full of savages, Ali took the time to understand its history and humanity, and the ravages visited upon it by foreign imperialism. Ali demonstrated a sharp political acuity, something quite rare in professional athletes. He gave courage to those who were struggling to find theirs.

After the famous fight with George Foreman – the rumble in the jungle, where Ali regained the heavyweight championship by defeating Foreman – his skills and health went into decline. For that fight, Ali used his now famous tactic, the rope-a-dope, where he waited, absorbing the powerful blows by Foreman, letting the latter exhaust himself. Ali waited, allowing the strong Foreman to pound away, round after round. By the middle of round five, Foreman was tired out. Note that prior to Ali’s banishment from boxing, he demonstrated his remarkable reflexes and footwork to avoid getting hit, while hitting his opponents. Now, he is getting hit – hit hard, and frequently. Foreman, Joe Frazier – these were only two of the hardest hitters in boxing at the time. Ali’s body is taking a barrage of punches – his kidneys, stomach, liver, rib cage, head – are all being battered repeatedly. He hurt himself in the fights of the 1970s. The physical decline had set in.

After Foreman, Ali had a number of fights; some were very strong encounters, some were ridiculously farcical bouts. The 1980 fight with Larry Holmes should never have happened; Holmes was an upcoming heavyweight contender, who had sparred with Ali in the 70s. Ali was in no condition to fight, and Holmes proceeded to batter a helpless Ali for ten rounds. As Thomas Hauser, a boxing writer and Ali biographer explained it:

Holmes, who was eight years younger than his opponent, dominated every minute of every round. It wasn’t an athletic contest; just a brutal beating that went on and on.

That was the night that Ali screamed in pain. After ten rounds, Ali’s corner threw in the towel. Although he won, Holmes was upset and depressed after that fight, and was reduced to tears because he had demolished his idol and hero.

The physical deterioration had set in, and Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. In his retirement years, Ali was feted as a sporting icon – there is no doubt that he was. However, his political courage was largely forgotten, as he was reduced to a sanitised sporting hero. Ali maintained his humanity in an otherwise barbaric sport. He exhibited not only physical courage, but grace and elegance, and was articulate at a time when boxers and super-star athletes were not known for any particular skills outside of their chosen profession.

There is so much more to Ali’s life that we could go into; however, other writers have covered that ground. Let us remember Ali as the powerfully articulate, gregarious and superb athlete-activist that he was. He was prepared to sacrifice his individual sporting success for his beliefs. He was not only shaped by the political and social context of his times, but actively shaped and contributed to it. It is a testament to his political vision that, even towards the end of his life, as he remained hobbled by Parkinson’s illness, he still showed political awareness and perspicacity.

In December 2015, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is not noted for his intellectual capacities, made a startling call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Muhammad Ali, who had left the Nation of Islam and joined the mainstream Sunni Islam in the mid-1970s, was asked for his comments. In fact, Ali had been gravitating towards the Sufi denomination of Islam since 2005, revealing his commitment to a spiritual quest. While not directly addressing Trump’s remarks, Ali, through his spokespeople, had the following to say:

We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda . . . I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world . . . True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” “I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.

Rather than lashing out at the obnoxious, bombastic bigot, Ali chose to ignore the ignoramus, calmly and rationally addressed the issues at hand, explained his position, and rebuffed the ignorance and hatred at the core of Trump’s remarks. Ali demonstrated an understanding of the political and social hot-potato issues of our times – an understanding far superior to that of the cartoonish, racist buffoon masquerading as a politician.

Let us salute the lion that roared – his resistance to imperialist war overseas and racist power structures at home is a lesson from which we can all learn.

Sadiq Khan becomes mayor of London, but Britain faces deep-seated problems

18 May

Sadiq Khan’s election as London mayor is a rejection of the politics of fear and Islamophobia, but let us not endorse his policies.

The election of Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, made headline news in the English-speaking world. It is no surprise that Khan’s electoral victory made news here in Australia, given our longstanding economic, political and cultural ties to the United Kingdom. It is not intended to go into all the intricacies of British politics in this article, however, the victory of an openly Muslim candidate for a major political position in the UK has elicited various reactions, and these responses are illustrative of the kind of politics that passes for policy debate in the English-speaking countries.

Khan’s victory in London, the economic and political capital of the United Kingdom, was a stern rebuff to the scurrilous and vitriolic campaign of smears and lies perpetuated by the Tory party opponent, Zac Goldsmith. The latter, a product of the wealthy financial elite of Britain, waged a campaign of Islamophobic smears and distortions, attempting to associate Khan with extremism, advocacy of violence, and Islamist political terrorism. As Padraig Reidy states in his article, published in the CommonDreams online magazine, the Goldsmith campaign attempted to turn the electoral contest into a racial and religious divide, invoking xenophobic fears of multiculturalism. As Reidy explains:

The Goldsmith campaign didn’t stop there. In an attempt to exploit sectarian divisions between London’s Asian communities, fliers were sent to families with Hindu- and Sikh-sounding names. Khan, of Pakistani origin, was no friend of India, they were told. He had not attended a rally to greet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited London. His party supported a “wealth tax” on family jewelry. Goldsmith, on the other hand, was always sure to celebrate Hindu festivals. (This proclamation of his love for the culture of India came unstuck in the days before the election, when video emerged of Goldsmith declaring his love for Bollywood films, but being unable to name a single Indian film or film star when asked).

It all culminated in a disastrous op-ed piece in the Mail On Sunday newspaper, where Goldsmith threw more accusations at Khan. The article was illustrated with an iconic image of a red bus that had been blown up by a suicide bomber in the 7/7 attack on the city. This felt a smear too far for many Londoners.

Goldsmith, following the best traditions of the Tory party, turned the electoral contest into a sectarian divide, not only invoking images of the July 7 bombings – and slyly linking Sadiq Khan with them – but also stirring up ethnic divisions, playing on the fears of the Hindu and Sikh communities of a politician with a Pakistani background.

Khan, in contrast, focused on the pressing policy issues confronting his city – housing, transport, the chaotic financial system – and promoted himself as the candidate for all Londoners, regardless of ethnic, racial or religious background. Khan was also cleverer than his opponent – anticipating the vitriolic attacks of his Conservative enemies, he turned the tables on Goldsmith, arguing that his background as a Muslim growing up in Britain gave him a unique insight into the experiences, problems and traumas of young British-Muslim people, finding their place in British society. Khan tapped into the multicultural diversity of London, and played that to his advantage. All the sly insinuations of Goldsmith’s campaign evaporated to nothing.

Khan’s victory is a direct repudiation of the politics of hatred and fear. Islamophobia is certainly not going to end completely with the installation of a Muslim mayor in a major European city. Let us not turn this into a Barack Obama moment – Obama’s electoral victory in the United States back in 2008 did not end racism, or usher in a post-racial America. Khan’s victory does not mean the end of the struggle. However, it is true to say that the underhanded and sleazy tactics of the Goldsmith campaign, seeking to stoke the fires of Islamophobic hated, backfired spectacularly. Khan scored an emphatic victory.

Speaking about Muslim mayors in European cities – this is nothing new or out of the ordinary. Professor Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan and expert commentator on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs, points out that Europe has witnessed Muslim mayors for the last 1300 years. In an article published in Truthdig online magazine, Professor Cole elaborates that Europe was not always a Christian-majority continent. Indeed, for most of its inhabited history, Europe has seen pagan, secular, Islamic as well as Christian religions dominate various portions and countries within its range. As Cole explains in his essay:

Islam is a major European religion and is a nearly 1,300-year-old tradition there.

[Sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected Ivo Komšić, a Christian, in 2013.]

Going back into history, parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule 711 to 1492. So, for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. We’re talking major Western European city here. In the 900s, Cordoba was the most populous city in the world.

The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983–985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore mayor of Palermo, the capital.

Yes, the sitting mayor of Rotterdam, a major European city, is Ahmed Aboutaleb. He has been a staunch opponent of violence and extremism in all its forms.

The Ottoman Turkish empire, having conquered vast swathes of the Balkans, and all the way up to Budapest in Hungary, appointed Muslim mayors for the major European cities under its control. Let us not forget that Istanbul – Constantinople – is a major European city with 14 million residents, and a Muslim mayor.

Let us sound out a note of caution – Khan’s victory, while welcome, should not be used to draw a false finish line in the struggle for economic and social equality. Khan belongs to the Blairite wing of the Labour party, a more rightward faction inside the party at odds with current Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Khan went out of his way – twice – to attack Corbyn, his own party leader, both during the campaign and in the immediate hours after he assumed office in London mayoralty. Khan publicly and clearly distanced himself from the more left-wing, Labour policies of Corbyn. Khan is a strong supporter of big business, and went to great lengths to reassure the financial elite that they had nothing to worry about in the wake of his electoral success.

Khan announced himself as a pro-business candidate, in a city that is the financial and political hub of the English ruling class oligarchy. He openly declared his intention to be the most pro-business mayor London has ever seen – something remarkable given that the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, was an out-and-out conservative who reinforced the privileges and wealth of the financial aristocracy. His record on British imperialism speaks for itself, having voted against the establishment of any inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, a war enabled among others by his political hero, Tony Blair. Khan has supported the development of Trident, the British nuclear weapons programme, and opposes Britain’s withdrawal from NATO. He is a strong and calculating supporter of British imperialism.

Khan did announce his intention to fix the ongoing housing crisis in London. How? By bringing together an alliance of housing associations, local authorities and real estate developers. That is all very well and good, but that does ignore one major problem – successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have done their utmost to open up London to real estate development, expanding the application of private housing, closing down and pushing out social and public housing projects. As Danny Dorling describes in an article for The Guardian newspaper:

The housing situation in the UK is so bleak that the key reason increasing numbers of people are becoming homeless is that they are unable to pay extortionate private sector rents. In February 2016, the Financial Times described the help-to-buy scheme as “help to cry”, naming it “one of the most perversely named government policies ever”. Squatting is on the rise again despite being outlawed in 2012: when people’s only choice is criminalised, the legitimacy of the law itself is discredited.

The new London mayor can start to redress these problems by first confronting the tired, and recycled old myth that London’s housing problem is caused by mass immigration – a widespread slander that obscures the real reason for the housing crisis; the housing laws of the country that make it possible for extortionate private sector rents to be charged, the demolition of public housing by the government, and the absence of rental caps. The new mayor has to make a decision – to side with residents or with the developers. As activist Duncan Thomas wrote in an article published in the Socialist Worker magazine:

The London we live is not the same London that is inhabited by billionaires; Khan cannot be the mayor of both. Any attempt to serve these two cities will sooner or later have to deal with its contradictions–and at that point, it will become very much about “choosing sides.”

The attack on public housing as part of a generalised assault on the working conditions and living conditions of the British working population. The cutbacks to health care, education and transport are undermining the quality of life for millions of working people. Let us heed the warning of Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran who, in 2014, wrote a powerful article about what life was like for working people like him prior to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). His article is entitled “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS. Decisions that originate in the philosophy of austerity cutbacks and neoliberalism, result in the destruction of social services, and adversely impact the lives of ordinary people. Khan has to make a serious choice – to govern for the ultra-wealthy one percent, or for the rest of us.


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