Qatar and the Saudi embargo

Since early June this year, Saudi Arabia has implemented a total land, air and sea blockade of the small oil-rich emirate of Qatar.

This embargo has been joined by the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as allies of Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Senegal, the Maldives, the Saudi-supported Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Mauritania and others have joined this blockade. The intention of the embargo is to force the Qatari emirate to fully comply with Saudi demands in joining an Arab anti-Iran alliance. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had diplomatic squabbles and problems in the past, the current imbroglio is of a greater and more severe magnitude.

The economic and political effects of the Saudi-imposed blockade were immediate, and are ongoing. Food supplies from Saudi Arabia, on which Qatar is heavily reliant, have been cut off. Qatar Airways can no longer use Saudi airspace, or the airspace of the neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE). Economic sanctions on the country have led to a collapse in Qatari stocks, and investment projects inside Qatar – bankrolled by GCC nations – have been suspended. Thousands of migrant workers in Qatar, already suffering under horrendous working conditions, have been left stranded.

Why this terrible rift between the two apparently similar allies? One of the positive effects of this situation – if we can find anything remotely welcoming in this crisis – is the renewed interest in the Gulf countries outside of a narrow field of academic specialists. Rather than dismiss the Gulf states with simplistic stereotypes about ‘’Arab sheikhs with money”, this Saudi-Qatari dispute compels us to examine the capitalist economies driven by petrodollars. The Gulf states, while acquiring huge sums of oil money and united in the GCC, have expanded their investments across the Arab and North African regions.

The Saudi regime accuses Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in the region. By this allegation, they mean that Qatar has provided support to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and backing the anti-Saudi Houthi militia group in Yemen. The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has denied these claims. The Saudi monarchy is rankled by the fact that Qatar has maintained excellent diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, the latter regarded as the arch-enemy by the Saudi-led GCC.

Qatar and Iran have cultivated extensive economic and diplomatic connections, including joint projects to exploit the vast oil and natural gas fields in the Persian Gulf. While ties were briefly cut in the immediate aftermath of the Saudi-imposed blockade, Qatar has quickly moved to restore full diplomatic ties with their Iranian neighbour. These connections undermine the Saudi regime’s ability to form a solid Sunni Arab coalition – with a strong pro-Western orientation – against the Iranian government. No doubt, Qatar’s continued friendship with Iran will only deepen the Saudi-Qatari feud.

Back in May this year, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia – his first foreign visit as president. After he finished his Saudi tour, he flew directly to Israel, which indicates the priorities of the Trump administration in foreign policy. Trump was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, and he managed to sign off on a huge armaments deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Emboldened by his visit, the Saudi regime implemented the blockade of Qatar soon after the conclusion of Trump’s visit.

Did the “Trump effect” encourage the Saudi monarchy to carry out this embargo of Qatar? Trump himself thought so, and said as much when he returned to the United States. He was taking credit for an escalation of tensions in the region, and the beginning of a conflict that was qualitatively different to previous disputes between the two GCC members. It is difficult to state whether he fully grasped the harmful consequences of this Saudi escalation – the Al Udeid US air force base, the largest American military base in the Middle East, is hosted by Qatar.

Qatar has always been a crucial lynchpin for American wars in the Middle East. The tiny emirate provides a staging post for US air attacks into Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was left scrambling to minimise the damage caused by Trump’s inflammatory remarks, even though he, like Trump is committed to the goal of an Arab front lined up against Iran. For all the talk of an Arab NATO, the latter remains a mirage. As Antony Blinken explained in his article, an anti-Shia coalition of Arab partners is not only untenable, it will only serve to inflame sectarian tensions and produce more terrorism, not less.

The Israeli government welcomed the imposition of sanctions on Qatar, and has rationalised its support as a step in the ‘war on terror’. Israel has long viewed Iran as a regional competitor. Israel’s longstanding and secretive connections with a number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have come under scrutiny as a result of the Saudi-imposed embargo. The quiet and growing Saudi-Israel alliance is based on a convergence of interests, namely, to fight what they perceive as Iranian influence in the Arab countries. It is not altogether surprising that the two fortress-states in the Middle East have found increasing reasons for practical cooperation.

The Qatari emirate has thus far been able to circumvent the Saudi blockade – having powerful friends and neighbours certainly helps. Turkey has stepped in with food aid, and has sent troops to the beleaguered nation. Russia, while maintaining a neutral stance in this dispute, has refused to join the embargo. The Russians have also sent food supplies, and have offered to mediate in this conflict. Interestingly, Oman, sultanate and member state of the GCC, has also refused to impose sanctions on Qatar.

The GCC, while it has technically maintained a united front, cannot resolve the deep economic and political divisions between its constituent members. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while being individual members of the six-nation GCC, have formed the main pivotal axis of economic and political power. These two nations have provided the bulk of capital accumulation inside the Gulf monarchies, and have dominated all areas of business, such as real estate, finance and telecommunications. The Qatari emirate has never reconciled itself to remaining in ‘second-class status’ within the GCC. The junior partner has always coveted a senior role within the GCC hierarchy.

Qatar has increased its foreign direct investments in other Arab nations. It has financed projects in those countries, and has attempted to play a greater political role. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have cooperated closely in the past, their rivalries have never been fully resolved. The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain, to crush the pro-democracy uprising in the latter nation back in 2011, was supported by Qatar. The Saudi war on Yemen obtained the practical backing of the Qatari emirate.

However, Qatar has played a mediating role in bringing political conflicts in the Lebanon, the Sudan and other countries to a resolution. Qatar has refused to join the Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance. Qatar hopes to maintain its regional influence by hosting the Al Jazeera media outlet, as a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. While common interests have been the glue that held the petro-monarchies together, internal rivalries sometimes break out into the open.

Let us be clear that there are no ‘good guys’ to support in this conflict. It is possible to recognise the injustice of the blockade without endorsing the Qatari regime. We would do well to remember that it is the migrant workers in Qatar who have been hardest hit by the Saudi embargo. Lowly paid and facing difficult conditions, it is the legion of migrant workers who face increasing difficulties in the wake of food and medical shortages. While Qatar is on track to host the 2022 World Cup Soccer games, it is the migrant workers that have taken on the bulk of the heavy and dangerous construction work. It is these people that we must never forget and continually support.

Britain’s imperial role continued long after its empire ended

The British empire, which once covered vast areas of the globe, ended with the wave of decolonisations back in the 1950s and 1960s. The debacle of Suez finally drew the curtain on the British empire. However, Britain’s imperial role intervening in foreign wars and propping up dictatorships has continued. In fact, long after the guns of both World Wars One and Two fell silent, British troops continued to be deployed – secretly or otherwise – to numerous theatres of conflict.

In a long article for The Guardian newspaper, Ian Cobain elaborates how Britain has been secretly at war almost perpetually since the end of the major world conflicts. Britain’s armed forces have been engaged in armed conflicts nearly continuously, even though its role as an empire-builder drew to a close. These conflicts have all had one thing in common, apart from the use of British military forces. They have all had some strategic military or economic interests that the British ruling elite sought for commercial advantage. Supporting tyrannical regimes is not a purely military exercise – it is also good for big business.

In his article, Cobain states that:

In fact, between 1918 and 1939, British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden. In the years after the second world war, British servicemen were fighting in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the British army’s 38-year deployment to Northern Ireland.

For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.

Only the British are perpetually at war.

A number of Britain’s wars are well-known, acknowledged by memorials and commemorative activities, and have entered the public domain as examples of the British martial spirit – such as the Falklands war. The horrors and trauma of that war are documented and commemorated, and its British veterans honoured. Other conflicts however, remain mired in secrecy. That is because these British interventions expose the duplicitous nature of Whitehall’s foreign policy, and its willingness to sacrifice human lives for financial gain. One such war, which is worth exploring, is the British involvement in the Omani civil war, sometimes known as the Dhofar conflict.

The Sultanate of Oman, while never formally a British colony, has always remained tightly controlled and supervised by Britain. Strategically located at the south of the Arabian peninsula, Oman sits on one side of the Straits of Hormuz, through which the mass flow of oil traffic takes place. In the 1960s, a mass rebellion broke out in Oman, with nationalist Arab guerrillas attacking the Omani armed forces and seriously threatening the very survival of the Omani sultanate.

Oman at that stage had only one hospital, and millions of Omanis were illiterate. Considering that there were only three primary schools, and no high schools, this was not unexpected. The ageing Sultan of Oman was entirely dependent on British officers and intelligence staff to maintain his regime. Dissidents were savagely punished, torture was routine, and Oman remained technologically backward. In this context, the Omanis role up in rebellion in successive waves, beginning in the 1950s.

Similar to the secretive American war in Laos, Britain waged an equally covert aerial and ground war in Oman. Raids and bombings by the Royal Air Force (RAF) were common in the 1950s. When a serious and organised uprising began in the mid-1960s, the British authorities rushed to the rescue of the beleaguered sultanate. The Omani armed forces were reorganised with substantial British military supplies, training and advice.

The British were ruthless in suppressing this rebellion, an uprising led by Arab nationalists, but among whose ranks also included socialists, Maoist-style Marxists and Dhofari tribes. The Arab nationalist insurgency gained the support (limited and partial as it was) from sympathetic Arab socialist and Marxist regimes on the outside. It looked as if Oman would slip out from British control. The Labour government of Harold Wilson had a problem – while ideologically committed to decolonisation, but sought to hang on to its vassal state. It waged this war in secret.

The conduct of the British forces in Oman provides a lesson in counterinsurgency. British forces burned villages, killed civilians, poisoned wells, shot livestock, and placed the corpses of their victims on display as a salutary lesson in punishment. Civilian areas were turned into free-fire zones, and no distinction was made between rebel fighter and civilian. All were considered adoo – Arabic for “the enemy”. The Labour government was understandably anxious about publicising its role as the guarantor for a slave-owning, torture-friendly sultanate, so the British role in Oman was concealed from parliament, and from public scrutiny.

By the early 1970s, the Omani rebellion showed no signs of abating. The British government, though committed to a military victory, also took steps to ensure that its vassal regime in Oman did not topple over due to its own incompetence. In a coup d’état organised by British intelligence and senior military figures, the Sultan of Oman was ousted by his son, Qaboos bin Said. The latter, a former British soldier, took the reigns of power in 1970 and implemented several modernising reforms. He restructured the irrigation system in the country, abolished slavery, allowed the use of new technologies, and generally permitted a degree of political liberalisation.

By the early 1970s, the Omani rebellion had run out of steam, and the reforms implemented by the new sultan resolved a number of grievances that drove the initial uprising. Though orchestrated by Britain, the details of the coup that brought the current sultan to power remain shrouded in secrecy. It is no secret however, that Britain has retained a close and ongoing relationship with the Omani sultanate, the latter having substantial deposits of oil. Britain maintains spy bases in that country, and the armed forces of both countries train regularly with each other.

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The British ruling class, while retaining its commitment to overseas interventions, has overseen the deindustrialisation of large segments of British society, condemning its citizens to social immiseration and rising inequality. British capitalism has moved from traditional manufacturing and industrial production to making consumer spending and financial speculation the main motivators of economic growth. The City of London maintains its international position as a financial behemoth, even though it shares this position with other imperialist countries such as the United States.

The British bourgeoisie has preached cost-cutting and austerity at home, while advocating for greater military intervention outside its borders. Britain maintains it pre-eminent role as an arms exporter to tyrannical and murderous regimes, but somehow cannot find enough money to alleviate the growing social and economic problems of inequality at home. The Grenfell tower inferno stands as an indictment not only of specific council authorities, but of a system that has sacrificed people’s lives for the benefit of corporate profits. Grenfell tower represents not just a slight aberration or maladjustment of resources, but the result of neoliberalism unchained.

The massive funding that goes towards waging wars overseas is better allocated in redressing the serious social consequences of privatisation and deregulation. If investment in the production of weapons and armaments is maintained, why is there no serious effort to improve the crumbling health and education services inside Britain itself? Nostalgia for a colonial empire – a nostalgia that ignores the very real brutality, violence and exploitative nature of that empire – is no substitute for a vision of the future.

Jeremy Corbyn, the failed war on terror, Manchester and Britain’s secret imperial wars

Back in May 2017, the Manchester terror attack shocked Britain and the international community. This was a cowardly atrocity committed against innocent civilians, and among the victims were several children. The fact that children were among the dead only served to heighten the sense of outrage at the perpetrator(s) of this bombing, and increased the need for people to come together to cope with the traumatic consequences. The grief-stricken survivors, and the wider public, were looking for answers as to why such an attack occurred.

People afflicted with grief after such an appalling event rally around to achieve a sense of purpose and closure. Vigils were held, and the politicians began to offer reasons for why such a terrorist bombing occurred, and prescriptions on how to stop them from happening again. Jeremy Corbyn, the British Prime Minister-in-waiting, offered an explanation that was powerful, novel and correct – the war on terror is not working, and British wars overseas cause blowback such as the Manchester attack. You may read his entire speech here.

Noting that the nation was united in shock and anger at this attack, Corbyn avoided the usual machismo, threatening language and blood-curdling calls for increased warfare that has become stock standard for Western politicians. In the midst of the 2017 UK election campaign, Corbyn offered the unadulterated truth – bombing countries in the Middle East, and participating in wars of aggression overseas only adds fuel to an existing fire.

He stated that this does not excuse or minimise the guilt of the perpetrator(s). Explanation of causative factors is not justification or an exercise in guilt minimisation. Corbyn’s speech was novel only because no senior politicians in the imperialist countries have the intelligence – or the courage – to plainly admit the truth.

Indeed, the link between overseas wars and terrorism is known to the public, and has been known to senior figures in the military and intelligence apparatus for years. Since 2003, the UK government has known that attacks such as the one at Manchester were likely, and they would be a direct consequence of British support for imperial regime-change wars in Iraq and Syria. The Manchester attacker, Salman al-Abedi, got his start as a foot-soldier participating in the Western-backed effort to topple the former Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The large community of Libyan exiles in Manchester – anti-Gaddafi exiles – were strident supporters of the British government’s decision to overthrow the former Libyan regime. The Mancunian exiles provided the on-the-ground recruits for Libyan militias and organisations fighting in the 2011 Libyan war. John Wight, commentator and journalist writing for Russia Today, wrote that with the Manchester bombing, the role of Britain in stoking and encouraging the carnage in Libya has been brought into the light for examination.

Wight examined the strong connections between the British intelligence community, and the Libyan Manchester exiles. The anti-Gaddafi effort would require the active participation of Libyans dedicated to the overthrow of the former Libyan socialist regime. The London government provided the necessary financial, travel and military services needed to ferry people over to the Libyan nation in order to fight in that particular regime-change war.

Wight notes that:

Even more damning, in the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack, are new revelations exposing the existence of a nefarious relationship between Britain’s security services and anti-Gaddafi militants of Islamist persuasion living in the UK, who were allowed to travel from the UK to Libya to join their cohorts in the campaign to topple the government in 2011. Among those militants was Ramadan Abedi, father of Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the aforesaid Manchester terrorist atrocity, which killed 22 and injured 159, many of them children, at a pop concert in the city.

Back in May 2017, Middle East Eye reported that the British government maintained an ‘’open door” policy with regard to British Libyans. What does that mean? The British government willingly allowed British Libyans to travel to their country of origin without any examination or scrutiny of their motives or membership in proscribed terrorist organisations. The militants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – officially listed as a terrorist organisation by the UK government – were permitted to travel to Libya to participate in the British-supported regime-change war in 2011. One of those persons was Salman al-Abedi.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the Home Secretary at the time of this “open door” policy was current Prime Minister Theresa May. This raises serious questions regarding what the government knew about the LIFG, the impact of participating in warfare on the returning British Libyans, and the extent of ideological radicalisation among them. The propensities of the LIFG could not have been unknown to British authorities. After all, the LIFG was banned as a terrorist organisation in the wake of the “war on terror”.

John Pilger, veteran journalist and foreign correspondent, wrote in an article about this issue that:

The overthrow of Gaddafi, who controlled Africa’s largest oil reserves, had been long been planned in Washington and London. According to French intelligence, the LIFG made several assassination attempts on Gaddafi in the 1990s – bankrolled by British intelligence. In March 2011, France, Britain and the U.S. seized the opportunity of a “humanitarian intervention” and attacked Libya. They were joined by NATO under cover of a United Nations resolution to “protect civilians.”

The war-torn chaos and fragmented anarchy of the Libyan state after the 2011 war demolishes the lie that the Western-backed war for regime change in Libya was motivated by humanitarian considerations or dedication to Lockean democratic ideals. The British government’s efforts in Libya are by no means an aberration, nor are dubious methods adopted unusual. Britain has a longstanding alliance of convenience with the most fundamentalist strand of political Islam, namely the House of Saud and its Wahhabist philosophy. Saudi Arabia is the principal ally of the British state in the region, but Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the other petro-monarchies are no less important to Britain.

Britain’s Libyan adventure is part and parcel of the imperialist state’s long history of secret foreign interventions. Britain’s empire ended a long time ago, but its role as an imperialist garrison-state did not. Ian Cobain, writing in a long article called “Britain’s Secret Wars”, states that the British have deployed their troops to foreign countries at least since the end of World War One.

Cobain, examining Britain’s imperial wars, notes that:

In fact, between 1918 and 1939, British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden. In the years after the second world war, British servicemen were fighting in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the British army’s 38-year deployment to Northern Ireland.

We will have more to say about Britain’s secret imperialist wars in the next article – stay tuned. For now, suffice it to say that not only should this failed “war on terror” end as Corbyn suggested, but the deceitful and duplicitous British foreign policy should be terminated. Propping up tyrannies that trample human rights and shackle popular aspirations in order to gain commercial and financial advantage for British corporations is a longstanding practice that must be reversed.

The dual citizenship controversy – the Trumpland effect on Australian politics

Over the last few months, the Australian political class has been consumed by an unprecedented crisis that reveals much about the character of our political life. This controversy involves those parliamentarians who hold, or are entitled to hold, dual citizenship. Those persons who hold Australian citizenship and can have, or do have, citizenship of another country, have been subjected to an extraordinary campaign of media questioning and scrutiny – bordering on McCarthyite hysteria.

Over the months of June and July, two serving Greens Senators, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, were informed that they were no longer eligible to continue their parliamentary terms. They resigned their positions soon after. What was the reason for this? Both were entitled to hold, or did hold, dual citizenship. Ludlam, born in New Zealand, has lived and worked in Australia since infancy. Waters, born in Canada to Australian parents, has also resided in Australia since she was an infant. She has never lived or worked in North America.

These resignations occurred within the context of an already bitterly divided and unstable Australian Senate. The Turnbull government called a double dissolution election in July 2016, proposing the rationale that the previous Senate was too divided and unstable, making it impossible to govern effectively. Whether that was the case or not remains debatable. Be that as it may, Turnbull displayed his particular genius – for taking a messy, unworkable situation, and making an even greater catastrophe out of it.

The July 2016 reduced the Turnbull government to a razor-thin majority of one seat – and produced an upper house composed of a collection of right-wing populists, anti-immigrant politicians, Christian fanatics and independents. Since then, the Australian federal government has been wracked by crisis and infighting, with various political groupings vying for influence as Turnbull scrambles to implement his government’s programme. It is in this context that the media campaign, primarily lead by the Murdoch flagship The Australian newspaper, against dual citizenship has taken place.

This furore over dual citizenship, emerging out of unclear circumstances, has now engulfed politicians from the major political parties as well. While the Greens Senators were the first victims, currently politicians of all persuasions are hurriedly scrambling to ‘prove’ that their ‘Australianness’ is unsullied by any association or connection with a foreign power. Even the serial pest, climate-change denier and all-round buffoon Malcolm Roberts is being grilled about his connection – to Britain. The One Nation senator is guilty of many things – he is an ignoramus, an embarrassingly ill-informed conspiracist and anti-immigration racist. There are many reasons to oppose him. Is he a servant of a foreign power? No, he is not.

It is interesting to note that with the case of Ludlam and Waters, the countries that relate to this dual citizenship controversy are New Zealand and Canada. The allegation, underlying much of this manufactured furore, that dual citizens pose a dangerously disloyal, potentially treasonous element in the body politic is preposterous in the extreme. It is worthwhile to note some relevant background here.

Australia is one of the countries that actively participates in the Five Eyes agreement. This is a multilateral intelligence-sharing arrangement where the involved parties cooperate in intelligence-gathering, military and espionage matters. The countries involved in this arrangement are the United States, Britain, Australia and – New Zealand and Canada. The latter countries share aspects of common law, colonial-settler history, and political loyalty at least since the end of World War Two. However, we are lead to believe that any Australian who holds citizenship with these countries is a potential traitor.

Perhaps we should be worried about foreign espionage in Australia, but we are examining the wrong people. There are spies in Australia – working for the United States. The latter country has a long history of recruiting, among others, persons inside the labour movement, to provide information and intelligence. For instance, none other than former Foreign Minister, Sydney-born Bob Carr, was marked as a Washington asset inside the NSW labour movement. For over 40 years, Carr provided information the internal politics of labour organisations, and he has dutifully served as a ‘moderate’ – that is to say, pro-American – influence inside the Labour Party.

The disqualification of the Greens Senators – and the current threat looming over other politicians – is the result of Section 44 of the Australian constitution. This section – an archaic clause in an equally archaic document – states that “Any person who is under acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or citizen entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.” This section is part of a document that was drafted by people who defined the newly emerging Australian nation as an outpost of British colonial rule – the First nations of Australia were excluded as a matter of course.

The 1901 constitution, composed by the founding fathers of white Australia, was never intended as a document to include non-British nationalities – far from it. This constitution was created precisely to preserve the British character of the new nation, and it reflects the ideology of the newly-rising Australian capitalist class of the time – as an outpost of the British race, opposed to any intrusion by any non-white influence, in particular Asian migration. It is no accident that the authors of the constitution saw themselves as British subjects first. One of the authors of the constitution, and first prime minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, made his views very clear about maintaining the purity of the white race in frequent debates in the Australian parliament.

It is true that we have come a long way since then. However, the current dual citizenship outcry and the demand for ‘true blue’ politicians serves two purposes. Firstly, the conservative government is using undemocratic measures to oust its opponents in the federal parliament. Having lost his July 2016 gamble, Turnbull and his political allies are attempting to undermine whatever opposition exists in the senate to shore up his crisis-ridden, scandal-plagued and incompetent government.

Secondly and more importantly, we are witnessing the Trumpland effect on Australian politics. The anti-immigrant xenophobia is being ramped up by political parties that are posturing as opponents of the unequal status quo. In earlier articles, I described this effect as the Ukip-ization of Australian politics. That phrase was coined by sociologist and blogger from Britain, Richard Seymour. In Australia, we have focussed our anger and energies on migration, and turned it into a toxic issue. Turnbull has adopted one of the central planks of Trumpland – turning immigration into a security issue. Immigrants are no longer viewed as people making a life for themselves, but as potentially disloyal elements in the wider society.

That last point leads us to make a final observation. Turnbull is not the Trump of Australia, but he is following in the footsteps of Enoch Powell. Known for his stridently anti-immigrant views and a champion of Friedmanite free-market libertarian economics, Powell gave rise to Powellism – the view that immigration undermines a socially cohesive society. The modern proponents of Powellism are either unaware, or wilfully deny, that social cohesion is undermined by economic policies that promote inequality. It is this growing inequality – not mythical ‘swamping’ by migrants – which requires the immediate attention of all politicians, and the necessary measures to reverse this increasing gap. Reversing Powellism demands that we follow the lead of Jeremy Corbyn.

The 1989 US war against Panama set the template for future US invasions

In May this year, former Panamanian military strongman and long-term CIA asset, General Manuel Noriega, passed away after brain surgery. He was 83 years old. The death of General Noriega, the former ruler of Panama unseated by the 1989 US invasion, was announced by current Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. The latter, referring to Noriega’s passing, made the pointed comment that Noriega’s death closes a particular chapter in Panama’s history.

In a way, President Varela is right – there are events that serve as bookends if you will, closing off a chapter of history. Noriega’s death received minimal attention in the corporate press, and the events leading up to the 1989 US invasion have faded from collective memory. However, this is an unfortunate situation, because the issues of the 1989 attack on Panama have contemporary relevance. The political and economic causes of the US intervention – named “Operation Just Cause” – require careful consideration in order to understand the pattern of US invasions over the last 28 years.

Writing in Jacobin magazine, Jonah Walters states that the 1989 American invasion of Panama set the template for imperialist wars; unilateral military intervention became an accepted measure not only on the conservative side of US politics, but also on the supposedly softer, liberal side. He writes that:

The invasion of Panama inaugurated a new period of American empire-building. The worst of the Cold War tension finally relieved, conservatives and liberals alike accepted unilateral military intervention as a core feature of American foreign policy, deploying specious appeals to humanitarianism to override historical claims to sovereignty.

As Walters elaborates, perhaps the current President of Panama can close the chapter on that particular turbulent episode in Panama’s history. However, the targets of US interventions and victims of the US military-industrial complex, must regard the 1989 invasion as the opening salvo in an ongoing story. It is interesting to note that the US incursion into Panama occurred just as the rival superpower, the Soviet Union, was withdrawing from its traditional ‘buffer zone’ of Eastern Europe. This change in international relations allowed US imperialism to go on an ideological and military offensive.

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Let us be clear – there are no tears for the passing of the former general. Noriega began his career under the tutelage of the United States – or more correctly, the American military-intelligence apparatus. Informing on leftist students in the 1950s, Noriega went on to attend the US Army School of the Americas – the academy that has churned out murderous despots, criminal officers and uniformed thugs throughout Latin America.

Noriega’s rule in Panama was characterised by the repression and torture of dissidents. He closely aligned his administration with the objectives of US foreign policy in the Central American region. When, in 1979, the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution toppled the hated rule of the pro-American dictator Somoza, Noriega did not hesitate to come to the aid of the Nicaraguan Contras, the collection of former Somoza regime rebels, killers, torturers and drug traffickers.

Noriega was one of many players embedded in the clandestine network that helped to carry out the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair – the political scandal that involved the secret funnelling of American arms to Iran, and the use of the proceeds to surreptitiously fund the Contras. General Noriega’s abuses of human rights did not trouble his American patrons. Noriega’s Panama was a necessary and valuable conduit for American money, armaments and military personnel.

Noriega’s value as an unswervingly loyal American asset began to change in the late 1980s – he became the man who knew too much. He asserted that the Panama Canal zone, an important arterial waterway in Central America, should revert to the control of the Panamanian authorities. The dutiful servant began to make demands of his own – and this political disloyalty had to be punished. Increasingly bombastic, Noriega’s paymasters decided to take action against their wayward asset.

The invasion and subsequent war were reasonably short – and the Bush Senior administration had domestic political considerations on their mind when conducting this war. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States now had a chance to vanquish the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’– namely, the reluctance of the financial-military oligarchy to launch wars overseas. This military intervention was meant to demonstrate an unmistakable change in America’s view of the world – that it was no longer constrained by anti-war opinion at home.

The 1989 invasion was intended to reverse the series of military defeats and debacles that the US military had suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, namely in Vietnam, but also the defeats of US-backed regimes in Central America, and the withdrawal of US Marines from Lebanon. The assault on Panama set the template for subsequent US invasions around the world. The attack on Panama was promoted by the United States as a reluctantly undertaken but necessary military action to stop a regime engaged in narco-trafficking and criminal activities.

The Panama attack was the earliest contemporary example of a ‘television war’; the main American media outlets basically served as adjuncts of the US military and administration. Churning out images and pretexts uncritical of the invasion, it was an exercise in corporate propaganda – and we will come back to that later in this article. The corporate media invited its audience to marvel at the new range of high-tech weaponry deployed by the US military.

One American general quipped that his soldiers were mesmerised by firepower – all these computer-software guided missiles and stealth fighters were required to minimise the chances of civilian casualties. The 1989 Panama invasion was almost the first real-life computer-game war, with the audience bedazzled with the supposedly sophisticated weaponry mimicking the fictitious counterparts in computer games of the time.

Greg Grandin explained in his article about the Panama invasion that high-tech weapons or not, Panamanian casualties amounted to between 300-500 combatants. For the United States, 20 soldiers died. Until today, the civilian death toll is unconfirmed, because the US military did not bother to count the civilian casualties.

What is known is that the US air force indiscriminately bombed the Panamanian barrio of El Chorrillo, a predominately poor area. The University of Panama, using their seismographic equipment, monitored 442 explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion. Fires engulfed the barrio, and countless civilians were burned. Bulldozers were deployed after the invasion to bury the corpses in mass graves.

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The defeat of Noriega was a foregone conclusion; with his defeat, a more compliant Panamanian financial kleptocracy has been installed – compliant with the aims of the United States that is. If Operation Just Cause was undertaken to stop a regime from carrying out criminal activities, then that invasion must be judged to be a failure. The recent revelations of the Panama Papers reveal the extensive and clandestine network of financial crimes and corporate conspiracies that have found a safe haven – a tax haven – in Panama after the overthrow of Noriega. Panama was, and is, a suitable location for money laundering – one of the principal practices of capitalist neoliberalism.

Earlier in the article, we used the word propaganda to describe the ideological leadup to the Panama invasion. This word has ugly connotations – something that happens exclusively in Communist countries, or in totalitarian dictatorships where the state controls the media outlets and the flow of information. This definition is too narrow in scope and simplistic.

Propaganda is deployed very effectively in capitalist societies – only it is not called by that name. Public relations, advertising and perception management are the tools of the corporate propagandist, the financial speculator and militarist war-maker. This propaganda is subsidised by the private sector, and engulfs public space with images and messages designed to disguise the financial motives of the sponsor.

John Pilger has written that much of what masquerades as journalism today can be accurately described as propaganda; the so-called ‘information age’ has truly become warfare by media. The US invasion of Panama, cloaked by noble intentions, was an exercise in super-charged militarism. We must dig deep into contemporary history to uncover the deceptions deployed by the US for that war, and subsequent invasions. We require, to use John Pilger’s words, not a journalism that serves as a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful, but an insurrection – an uprising of subjugated knowledge.

 

My migrant parents taught me the values to live by in Australia

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been discussing an issue that has a vast impact on the lives of ordinary Australians – the topic of Australian values. He has, along with his conservative colleagues, been playing the Trumpian ‘Australia First’ card by promoting a vision of social cohesion – called Australian values. When asked exactly what those values were, Turnbull struggled to compose an agreed list of them.

There are a number of reasons Turnbull has started this discussion – to boost his sagging ratings in the opinion polls; to stop the hemorraghing of votes to the other ultra-right anti-immigrant parties such as One Nation; and to distract attention from the growing income inequality in Australia. Turnbull, no doubt inspired by the electoral success of Trump in the United States (and the anti-immigrant xenophobia that was a crucial part of the Tory Brexit campaign in the UK), has forged the campaign around ‘Australian values’ as a political weapon of exclusion, rather than an instrument for social inclusion and cohesion.

There are many aspects to this issue of Australian values, and reams of articles have been written. Rather than go into all the permutations of this debate, let us focus on one core assumption of the right-wing brigade –  that migrants are unaware of Australian values, or that migrants have values that are completely at odds with living in Australia. In fact, it is the conservative side of politics that more than not, responds with the ugly trademark of Australian racism – ‘go back to where you come from’.

The refrain of the ignorant bigot, and the constant slogan of the Australian conservative, is the phrase above, which I have written about previously. Antoun Issa, senior editor of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, has written a perceptive article about this obnoxious feature of Australian racism. Emboldened by the rise of ultra-rightist anti-immigrant forces in Europe and America, blasting Australians of non-Anglo-Celtic background has become almost a sporting pastime, and has gained greater legitimacy in the mainstream media. The hounding of Yasmin Abdel-Magied is a case in point. After sustaining a campaign of vitriol and hatred against her, she is relocating to England.

As Antoun Issa explained in his article:

For some, Australia’s democracy and freedoms are reserved for Anglo-Celtics only. The vulgar retort “go back to where you come from” has been an ugly trademark of Australian racism dating back decades, as my Guardian column last year discussed. It is the standard rebuke for racists in this country when non-Anglo Australians dare attempt to participate in democracy on an equal footing, and question core assumptions of our socio-economic and political foundations.

The assertion of ultra-rightist white anti-immigrant xenophobia is nothing exclusive to Australia, or particularly new. What is different this time is the degree of normalisation that such hate speech has achieved, particularly in this age of the internet and social media. The occurrence of patriotic trolling, as Carly Nyst puts it in her article, is currently something quite new, and is sweeping all those countries where critics raise their voices against the rich and powerful. Social media outlets have become a new space for hate mobs to vent their vitriol. In a way, they are the inheritors of the legacy of all the old angry lynch mobs of racist whites that confronted the African American and civil rights protesters of the 1960s.

Unpronounceable names and fitting in

There is no desire on my part to be unreasonable or stubborn. So, look, I understand one basic fact of life in Australia – by Anglo-Celtic standards, I have an unpronounceable name. It is easy for me, and it rolls off my tongue. It is no challenge for other Armenians. But yes, for people from an English-speaking background, coming across what is for them a ‘foreign’ name is a challenge. I have had my name butchered by teachers during roll-call in school, mispronounced by baristas when picking up my order from the coffee shop, and mangled by sales people and postal staff when using their services.

I can relate to the experiences of Mariam Veiszadeh, who wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘The beauty of unpronounceable names is that we all eventually learn them’. Look, I understand – the average Anglo-Celtic person in Sydney is confronted by a bewildering array of migrants from all over the world – Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese, Tamils, Indians, Vietnamese, Afghans – each of us jabbering in our own languages, cooking our strange exotic foods, and making our first meagre efforts to understand Australian English – if you can call it English.

Understanding and pronouncing a person’s name is the first step towards accepting a core part of their identity as a person. I can create a video, and upload it to YouTube, in which I pronounce my name, and you can listen to it as often as needs be. When you mispronounce my name time and time again, and still tell me to ‘go back to where I come from’, it is a direct assault on not only my identity, but an exclusionary move to deliberately place me outside the pale of society. Ironically, the same ultra-rightist bigots who demand that migrants should immediately assimilate, are also the loudest voices in promoting moral panic about Australia being ‘swamped’ by hordes of migrants. When examining the data, they tell a different story.

Another person with a similarly unpronounceable name is Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner. He made a reasonable and viable suggestion to improve the quality of life for all Australians – that the media should contain more voices from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Greater multicultural diversity in the media would promote more awareness and acceptance among all sectors of Australian society, according to Soutphommasane. The predictable and obnoxious response from the conservative media to Soutphommasane’s remarks – ‘go back to where you come from’.

Values cannot be reduced to a simple shopping list of commodities that can be ticked once they have been consumed. Yes, we are all aware of some contenders for the category of Australian values – mateship, larrikinism, respect for law, commitment to democracy, etc. These are values that migrants actually understand and bring to Australia. The collection of allegedly Australian values are quite average and understandable to the migrant – there is nothing particularly unique or extraordinary about Australian values.

My migrant parents taught me values to live by and contribute to Australia – compassion, generosity, solidarity, and resilience in the face of obstacles. My late father kept the Shahada in the living room – and he was secular. He displayed the Shahada out of respect to his fellow Egyptians who were of the Islamic faith. He gave of himself to the cause of the Palestinians, as an expression of cross-cultural and anti-imperialist solidarity. No, my late father never advocated beheading people. He never promoted female genital mutilation, suicide bombings, or spousal abuse. If anything, there was domestic violence in the homes of the Anglo-Celtic families in our neighbourhood. I am a red-diaper baby – the child of socialist-minded parents. Standing up for the downtrodden and the oppressed is a crucial value I learned from my migrant parents.

Those values sound perfectly commendable to me.

Iraqi Christians who supported Trump now face prospect of deportation

Throughout June 2017, hundreds of Iraqi Christian nationals, residing mainly in Detroit, Michigan, were rounded up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. The Iraqi residents are Chaldeans, ethnic Assyrian Christians who practice the Catholic faith. What is distinctive about this particular deportation order is that Middle Eastern Christians form a generally supportive constituency for the Republican Trump.

The detained Iraqis have been transported to immigration detention centres in Arizona. The stories regarding the arrest and imprisonment of the targeted Iraqi Chaldean nationals makes for heart-rending reading. Families that have lived in the US for decades are now being torn apart. Some of these people arrived in the United States with unclear immigration statuses, or committed minor crimes and served sentences prior to gaining citizenship. Now they are being caught in the Trumpian deportation dragnet.

The Chaldeans have been targeted by Islamic State (IS) for persecution back in Iraq. While Trump, during the 2016 election campaign, was blasting illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, pledged to protect Christian minority groups from the Middle East. Trump, and current Vice President Mike Pence, loudly proclaimed that Christians were the most persecuted minority in the Muslim-majority countries. A bold claim – we will examine that later in the article.

Be that as it may, the Iraqi Chaldeans were given seemingly ironclad pledges of protection by the incoming Trump administration. The fact that Middle Eastern Christians vote Republican is nothing new – Syriac Christians have also been generally supportive of the conservative and Christian Republican party. The Iraqi Christian community threw their weight behind the Trump election campaign.

Currently, with the unanimous passage of the revised anti-Islamic travel ban, the Iraqi Chaldeans face an uncertain future. They face persecution should they be returned to Iraq, the latter still being a war zone where American troops (among others) are actively engaged in combat. As the Iraqi Christians were being rounded up, airstrikes and battles were continuing in Mosul, Tal Afar, and other cities.

The deportees do not want to be returned to Iraq, and there have been protests by the Iraqi Christian community against what they perceive as Trump’s betrayal of their cause. It is interesting to note that Mosul, currently under attack by Coalition forces, was one of the main historic centres of Eastern Rite Catholicism and Eastern Christianity. Chaldeans, descendants of the ancient Assyrians, practice their version of Catholicism. Deportation to Iraq in these circumstances is tantamount to a death sentence for the Iraqi Christian nationals.

Let us be clear – there is no joy or solace to be derived from the suffering of others. We must resist the temptation to denounce the Trump-supporting voters from the Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian community as idiots or deserving of their plight. There are idiots in every ethnic community – my own tribe, the Sydney-based Armenians, are no strangers to chaotic imbecility. Every community has examples of embarrassing idiocy. The Iraqi Chaldeans have the right to apply for asylum, and should remain in the United States. The anti-Muslim travel bans must be repealed, and a person’s application for refuge should be based on their own merits, regardless of ethnic origin, race, creed or gender.

The plight of the Iraqi Christians is nothing to be trifled with, or to be treated in a frivolous way. However, let us also stop using the phrase “Christian genocide” when referring to the killings in Iraq or Syria. That phrase is false and misleading – there is no “Christian genocide” occurring. What is occurring is a systematic campaign of persecution, murder and expulsion of all those who oppose IS-brand of fanaticism. Christians are being murdered in Iraq – that is absolutely true.

Those Sunni Muslims who oppose IS are also being killed in huge numbers. Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians – IS targets any group that does not conform to its particular perverted notion of religious fundamentalism. In early July, IS captured and killed 200 Turkmen civilians attempting to flee the city of Tal Afar. There is no suggestion that one group of victims are more ‘worthy’ of solidarity than others. We must examine the war in Iraq as a humanitarian tragedy that has swept up all its people in this ongoing, sectarian strife.

This leads us to an important set of questions – why do not the Iraqi Chaldeans wish to return to Iraq? Why do they not feel safe there? Why do they are regard life in Iraq as one with no future? This leads us to examine the impact of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. That invasion, a criminal undertaking pursued by a predatory imperialist power, was motivated by the need for economic and military expansion. The decision to send Iraqi Chaldean refugees back to Iraq demolishes the underlying rationale for that war – the lie of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The claim that Trump, or any US administration for that matter, is motivated by humanitarian concerns is preposterous in the extreme.

Since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States has established a political system that rewards sectarian patronage at the expense of Arab and Iraqi nationalism. Each ethnic group is pitted against the other, and voting patterns are encouraged along narrow sectarian-based lines. This is not to suggest that different ethnic and religious groups are condemned to live in eternal hostility – far from it. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the control of the Ba’ath Party, Iraqis of all ethnic minorities lived and worked side-by-side. The Chaldean Christians were left to worship and practice their religion as they saw fit. Political disloyalty however, was harshly punished, regardless of ethnic background or religious affiliation.

The situation of ethnic minorities since the 2003 invasion has deteriorated significantly. From a high point of 1.5 million, the total population of Iraq’s Christians has falled to 400 000. Churches and Christian places of worship are regularly bombed and attacked in the new post-US invasion Iraq. Christian communities continue to live and worship in Baghdad, but always under conditions of fear, never knowing when the next attack will come.

Actually, Iraq’s plight as a unified nation began, not in 2003, but in 1990-91, with the first American assault on that country. The savage aerial aggression against Iraq, rationalised as it was as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi military occupation, was the beginning of a series of continued assaults intended to break down Iraqi society. The direct military attack of Operation Desert Storm was followed by years of sanctions that crippled the once-functioning and stable Iraqi economy.

Lance Selfa, writing in the International Socialist Review in 1999, stated that:

But the biggest victims of Desert Storm remain the Iraqi people. Desert Storm left behind the greatest human-made catastrophe in modern times. By UN estimates, the war and the continuing economic sanctions have reduced a country which was once on par with the economic development of Greece to the economic level of Mali. The only word which captures the impact of the sanctions is “genocide.” The mind-numbing statistics–7,000 children dying a month, 1.5 million Iraqis killed since 1990, ordinary Iraqis receiving only 34 percent of the daily caloric minimum–don’t adequately convey the destruction of an entire people.

We must take note of the reasoning of Amrou Al-Kadhi, the latter a gay man from Iraq. He wrote in The Independent magazine of the homophobic killings and violence directed at LGBTQI persons in Iraq. What has his situation got to do with the Iraqi Chaldeans? Do not worry – we are coming to the point. Denouncing the assassination of Iraqi actor Karar Nushi, who was rumoured to be homosexual, Al-Kadhi forthrightly attacks the 2003 American invasion for breaking down Iraqi society, making such killings all-the-more frequent.

Al-Kadhi, while blasting the homophobia of IS, makes clear the terrible consequences of the American invasion for LGBTQI persons in Iraq:

Violence against LGBTQI+ people in Iraq has escalated dramatically since the Western invasion in 2003, and it’s not a coincidence. Just as the far right use LGBTQI+ rights as a way to brew racism, Isis exploit LGBTQI+ people as a tool to fuel anti-Western hatred. Disdain for the West is potent on Iraqi soil – what did we expect after destroying a civilisation for no actual reason? And homosexuality has become imaged as a Western export.

Note that Al-Kadhi is not engaging in simplistic and ritual denunciations of Islam and Muslims, or recycling clichés about savagely backward people in the Middle East. He is examining the targeting of LGBTQI persons in the context of the social impact of the imperialist bombardment of his nation.

It is high time for the Iraqi Christians who voted for Trump – and their similarly conservative counterparts in Australia – to re-evaluate the reasons why they voted the way they did. Trump and Pence, after making grandiose claims to be the ‘protector’ of Christians, have now shown their true colours. That the Iraqi Chaldeans wish to practice their religion is not controversial – worship the way you think is appropriate. The Christians of the Trump-Pence variety are agents of corporate pillage and plunder, and they have no allegiance – except of course to the almighty dollar.

There are Christians in the United States who understand and denounce the predatory militarism of their ruling elite, and who fight against it. The Christians that descend from the political lineage of the late great Reverend Dr Martin Luther King are the most reliable allies in any social or political struggle. Dr King was not just an avuncular, nice guy who gave speeches around the country – important though they were. He was also a radical critique of his government and its imperialistic foreign policy. It is the example of D King and his political followers from whom practising Christians can draw inspiration. Dr King, linking the struggle against imperialist war overseas with social justice at home, called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He was right back then in 1967 – and he is right until today.