Between 2000 and 2003, I wrote a series of letters to the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s English language daily), which, surprisingly, were almost all published. Mainly concerned with the USA’s role in the world, they also touched on the topic of post-colonial (or post-handover) schizophrenia in Hong Kong.
What is, perhaps, of interest to those who remember the period is that I began this correspondence prior to 9/11 and stopped it just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when I imposed a no television ban on myself (see published article). Whether my strident critique of the US and its policies was induced by my residency in Chinese Hong Kong or just indicative of my instinctive dislike of overweening power, I’m not sure; certainly opinions I expressed then had, a little while later, become more commonly held as support for jingoism turned to scepticism of US chest beating.
A footnote: after publication of the fifth letter (already post 9/11), I received a call from the US Consulate (don’t ask how they got my number) inquiring if I’d like to subscribe to its foreign policy journal to ‘get a more balanced perspective on things’! Not sure how much has changed under Obama (for Iraq read Iran), but the style is different.
(N.B. The date given for each letter is the date on which it was sent, not published)
LETTER ONE – 13th November 2000
The poverty of American democracy
The current dead heat situation in the US presidential election has shown up the superficial anomalies and anachronisms in the system there, but the real malaise goes much deeper and calls for a much more far reaching debate.
On Wednesday 7th November the US Consul General, Mr Michael Klosson, wrote a piece responding to Mr Shiu Sin-por’s article entitled “popular elections cannot secure good governance”. Mr Klosson extolled the virtues of American Democracy without offering any critique of that highly flawed system and, indeed, Mr Shiu Sin-Por himself, in his response in today’s letter column, is almost too gentle in his counter-critique of the consul.
American Democracy is based on a structure set up in the eighteenth century and only marginally modified since. It was designed to protect the interests of an oligarchy of landowners and rich manufacturers in society against the pressures of ordinary people. It was and remains a notional democracy where the real influence of the vast majority of the population is minimal. People are given a vote once every four years so that they feel they are involved and so that the government is superficially legitimated, but once the election is over American Governments get on with the real agenda set by those who matter.
Because, whilst allowing all citizens to vote, the people that the system responds to most of the time in terms of implementing policies are the lobbyists and campaign financiers with large cheque books. After the election, after the votes have been counted and recounted, it is these people who call the shots whether they be arms and medication manufactures, the gun lobby, oil companies or pro-Israeli elements. The fact that people do not have any real influence on Government in the United States (whoever is elected) is reflected in the very low turnout at elections – a sign of a moribund democracy urgently in need of reform.
In fact, in many ways the American political system is in as much need of reform as the Chinese. America also suffers from corruption, which in the US is legitimised in the form of campaign contributions, big money lobbying and no restrictions on campaign costs. It also effectively offers the people the choice of one Capitalist (as opposed to one Communist) Party with two slightly differing wings, whose leaders are chosen by a small number of people and have to be extraordinarily rich.
It is sad that America seems incapable of reforming its own system of government, though not surprising given that those in power rarely do reform themselves. It is even sadder that it hawks this system around the world as a paragon of democratic practice. It is an outdated, money based and artificially confrontational system of government where real oppositional voices are given no room. It is lucky for the world that China is currently looking to the European Social Democratic model as a possible way forward and not to the money based plutocracy of the United States.
In Northern European countries, such as Germany and Sweden, government is by consensus and parties work together to hammer out a joint programme after elections. People do not make careers by shouting abuse at each other or taking up hypocritical postures of democratic righteousness. It may be more boring but it is less manipulative and attempts to incorporate all of the voters who have voted. The United States should put its own house in order before preaching its gospel of democracy to others and Hong Kong should distance itself as far as possible from such a flawed model. Countries should also start criticising the US model of Government and calling for reform, in the same way that the US endlessly nags at others.
LETTER TWO – 16th November 2000
The importance of a mother tongue
Like your correspondent Banu Suresh (with whose plea I fully agree), I also have a comment to make on Tim Hamlett’s column entitled “English not such a class Act at Universities”.
Since returning to Hong Kong from Europe to resume my post in tertiary education after a year’s absence, I have noticed two topics continually being raised in, to my mind, a very confused and often arrogant manner. The first concerns the use of English in teaching, the second concerns Hong Kong’s status as an International City. Tim Hamlett brings the two together in the final sentence of his column with the bizarre assertion that reduced use of English in Hong Kong Universities might somehow affect Hong Kong’s “‘international city’ aspiration.”
To take the second point first, I do not understand what speaking English and being an International City have to do with each other. English-speaking and international are (luckily) not yet one and the same thing. For me, the great international cities of the world include Paris, Rome, Beijing and Tokyo, as well as naturally English speaking metropolitan centres such as London and New York. Hong Kong can also rest assured that it is already an ‘International City’ in most people’s eyes and does not need to demote itself to the aspiring category. It is a lively, eclectic and culturally diverse Chinese City that has also had 150 years of British influence. People come here to visit, because it is Chinese not because people speak English.
Use of English in Hong Kong is perhaps a less frivolous and more important topic. Cantonese and written Chinese is the mother tongue and primary form of expression of ninety percent of the population of Hong Kong. At all levels of education this should therefore be the primary language used to ensure that students can receive, articulate and express their academic learning in the most effective way. It seems quite reasonable for students to request that more of their classes be in Chinese. Would Mr Hamlett have enjoyed taking classes in Chinese (or French) when he was a student at University? Do the French or Italians insist that their university courses are taught in English? Of course not. An ability to read and understand English is important for the reading of texts, but the rest should, where possible, be in the mother tongue.
Because being able to express yourself well and clearly in your mother tongue is a prerequisite for being able to learn and speak another language effectively, at any level. By all means offer well run and effective classes to teach the English language (at tertiary level as well where required), but don’t force students to imbibe knowledge in all areas of learning in a foreign language. This can be extremely detrimental to a students’ creativity and confidence, and a serious block to their educational development. In my own establishment, students will often be tongue tied if asked to comment or contribute in English (particularly if faced with a mother tongue English speaker), but open, original and confident in their comments in Cantonese. Of course.
So to ensure its continued status as an International City (as opposed to an ex-British colonial city), Hong Kong should be more concerned about nurturing good spoken Cantonese and written Chinese skills and less obsessed with trying to ram a foreign tongue down people’s throats at every turn. It should take pride in its own language and not allow it to be endlessly diluted and bastardised. Good spoken and written English will then come more easily when genuinely required, and when it is taught as a separate subject. The mainland is proving this to be true very fast and most European countries have been following such a model successfully for decades.
LETTER THREE – 23rd January 2001
The USA, a clear and present danger
In November, I wrote a letter referring to American Democracy as moribund and corrupt. I said incoming presidents are more beholden to campaign financiers than the people who voted for them. And, indeed, as soon as Bush was declared the winner, promissory notes were issued to his backers. Removal of exploitation restrictions on recently protected forests for the mineral lobby. Appointment of a pro-firearms attorney general to please the gun lobby. And (most frightening of all) an immediate promise to give the arms industry the biggest government subsidy since the end of the cold war by commissioning a missile defence system.
As early as the nineteen fifties, President Eisenhower warned about the increasing power of the military industrial complex in America. He was concerned at how it was beginning to dictate foreign policy (prolongation of the cold war, encouragement of military adventures such as Vietnam, perpetuation of hot spots) by demanding, for primarily economic reasons, continuous rearmament.
It means that in the name of ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘market economy’, or whatever word is fashionable, the United States pushes its nose into other people’s business to increase its own arms sales. Taiwan is a good example of this. Maintaining tension between the mainland of China and Taiwan is of the greatest importance to builders of missiles, battleships and tanks in the US. Let Taiwan and the mainland come to an agreement in their own way and time, (as they have been moving towards during the US presidential interregnum) and a big military hardware market disappears.
It also leads to the expensive and destabilising megalomania of a project like Star Wars 2, potentially the greatest threat to international stability since the end of the Cold War. The United Sates cannot pretend that it is someone else who forced them to pursue this science fiction will ‘o the wisp. No one else is in their league. It is pure armaments industry subsidy-money that could be better spent on healthcare and education at home, or in aid to third world countries. No nation or terrorist is capable of seriously threatening the USA with a missile launched attack, and the very notion of the project being defensive is double-speak propaganda.
If such a system was operational, it would mean the US could attack any country it wished with impunity. This is what alarms Russia and China and makes European countries apprehensive. Building the system is a stalking horse for increasing offensive capability and forcing other countries into another arms race. This will lead to more poverty and social disintegration as happened in the former Soviet Union. Only the US and its arms manufacturers will get richer. It is not something to be proud of, or trumpet around the world as a shield for democracy and world peace. It is unilateral rearmament to feed the arms lobby. A real attempt at world domination.
The USA – not China, rogue states or terrorists – is THE clear and present danger in global politics, because it is continually provoking others to action and reaction. Colin Powell’s recent assertion that he sees China as a competitor only confirms the frightening (and pathetic) adolescent school-yard mentality of the US in international relations. ‘We’re not gonna let anyone share the world with us unless they accept OUR rules!’ The world would be safer if the US opted for co-operation not competition, built bridges not ballistic toys for the boys.
LETTER FOUR – 13th September 2001
Attacks on the USA – a great tragedy, but not incomprehensible
There will be many letters about the tragedy in America. And it is an enormous tragedy. But it would be even more of a tragedy if America were to learn nothing from it. President Bush in his speech to the nation spoke of America as an inextinguishable beacon of freedom and justice. He described the attack as a battle between good and evil.
But the truth is more complex. No one has really asked the question why? Why do some groups hate America so much? Why would they kill themselves along with innocent civilians for their cause? Is it because America is a beacon of freedom and justice in the world? Is that, like Hitler, what the terrorists are trying to extinguish? No it isn’t. To them America is a beacon of injustice and privilege. A wealthy country that organises world trade for its own enrichment. A bully that imposes its will selectively, particularly in the Middle East. A country that acts only in its own self interest, or in the interests of lobby groups. A country that props up feudalism in Saudi Arabia to ensure oil supplies. A country that armed Iraq until it got too cocky and then allowed its ruler to stay in power as a balance to Iran, whilst Sh’ites and Kurds died.
And, above all, a country that supports Israel regardless of the justice of that country’s position. Israel was itself born out of terrorism, and in the end the injustice of Hitler was rightly compensated for with a homeland. A uniquely generous step in human history. Now Israel wants more and won’t accept Palestine as a partner. UN sanctions calling for withdrawal are ignored by America, no real pressure is exerted to end Israeli settlements. A justification for terror? No. But what other option is open to people who’ve tried to talk, only to find America blindly supporting Israel? They feel ignored and demeaned. They are desperate, so they act like desperate men.
If America really represented justice and ensured fairness between nations, this latest attack would be incomprehensible or it might never have happened. As it is, it is terrible, tragic and heinous, but not incomprehensible. America is not a beacon of freedom and justice for all people in the world. Now she must try and understand why.
LETTER FIVE – 19th September 2001
An issue of simple justice
Last Sunday’s editorial ended with a warning that if America is to lead a War on Terrorism it’s own behaviour must be beyond reproach. In other words, not comparable with that of the assailants themselves. Unfortunately, this has not been, and still is not, the case.
Firstly, its current reaction to the attacks plays into the hands of the terrorists. The more it hits out wildly at other countries and innocent civilians not directly involved in the attack, the more it lowers itself to the level of the attackers. It plays the game according to their rules. Assassinate leaders and bomb civilians and you not only no longer hold the moral high ground, but also open yourself up to ‘justified’ counter-retaliatory attacks. You have undertaken ‘evil’ acts too.
Secondly, suddenly declaring war on all terrorism is both hypocritical and lacking in credibility. The US has consistently armed and supported terrorists throughout the world from Contras in Nicaragua to (ironically) the Mujahadin in Afghanistan. Arbitrarily referring to some groups as freedom fighters and others as terrorists at different points in time, dependent on how they fit into your current political agenda, is Realpolitik at its worst. And IF politicians then cry ‘Ah, but it is unavoidable!’ then all aspects of Realpolitik must be applied with an equal hand to all situations. Jewish terrorists killed 100 people in the King David Hotel in 1946 as part of their campaign of violence in support of an Israeli state. Two years later, Israel was founded. Now, America must listen to the genuine grievances of Arabs (and in particular Palestinians) despite the fact that some of their kind resort to despicable means to achieve just ends. Mrs Thatcher did not bomb Belfast or undertake a mass assassination of IRA leaders after the Brighton bomb of October 1984 which nearly killed the entire British government. She took a deep breath and then set in motion the negotiations, which lead to the current ceasefire. She kept the moral high ground.
Thirdly, the US government’s tacit support for current Israeli tactics against Palestinians makes it very difficult for any fair-minded person to stand four square behind the current War on Terrorism. Even as the dust was settling on the rubble in Manhattan, the Israeli bulldozers were making rubble out of West Bank homes, and Israeli fighters and tanks were bombarding Palestinian buildings. The Palestinians ask for a homeland which is 100% theirs (i.e not dotted with Israeli controlled settlements) just as the Israelis did in 1945. This is the issue of simple justice that has to be addressed and no War on Terrorism will solve it.
LETTER SIX – 11th October 2001
The truth behind the terrorist threat
If government deceptions about terrorism go unchallenged then the threat will continue until it destroys the US.The truth is that no nuclear weapon, no missile defence, no fleet of bombers, no turkey hunt for terrorist leaders can protect it from these threats. A weapon – nuclear, chemical or conventional – can be delivered in a sail boat, a Cessna or a rental truck. To quote Psalm 33: ‘A king is not saved by his mighty army.’
So is there anything the US can do? There is. But to understand what means that the US people must know the truth about the threat. The US is not a target because it stands for democracy, freedom and human rights; it is a target because, in much of the world, it stands for dictatorship, and human exploitation. US people are the target of terrorists because they are hated. And they are hated because, over the last fifty years, their government has done numerous hateful things in their name. In Iran, where US Marines deposed Mossadegh, because he wanted to nationalize the oil industry, imposed the Shah, and trained his hated Savak National Guard. In Saudi Arabia, where a feudal family hoards wealth and rules without democracy. In Israel, where covert support for that country’s nuclear weapons and blocking of UN resolutions gives the lie to the US championship of peace and justice. In Chile. In Vietnam. In Nicaragua and other republics of Latin America. In country after country, the US government has thwarted democracy, stifled freedom, maintained double standards and trampled on human rights.
That is why it is hated around the world. And that is why it is the target of terrorists. It is not hated because it practices democracy, values freedom, or upholds human rights in its own land. It is hated because its government denies these things to people in Third World countries whose resources are coveted by US multinational corporations. Now that hatred it has sown has returned to haunt it.
Once that truth is understood, a solution emerges. The US must change its ways. Instead of sending its sons and daughters to kill impoverished Afghanis, repress Arab populations so it can have the oil under their sand, or impose alien political systems on Asians, it should send them to help rebuild infrastructures, supply clean water, and feed the starving. Instead of continuing to kill hundreds of Iraqi children every day with sanctions, it should help rebuild the electric power plants, water treatment facilities, hospitals and other things it destroyed and now prevents the Iraqi people from rebuilding. Instead of training terrorists and death squads, the US should close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia. Instead of supporting insurrection, destabilization, assassination, and terror around the world, it should abolish the CIA and give money to relief agencies.
In short, it should do good instead of evil. Show understanding and some humility towards other cultures, towards other ways of doing things; not preach, but listen; be seen to be fair and tolerant, not ideologically fanatical. Who’d hate the US then? Who’d want to bomb it? That is the truth the American people needs to hear.
LETTER SEVEN – 23rd November 2001
The lesser of two evils
Two nights ago, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was interviewed by journalists. When asked whether Osama Bin Laden should be captured or killed, he smirked and said he wouldn’t mind if the guy was dead. Then his mouth broke into a broad grin and the journalists present clapped. A chill went down my spine. It sounded like a death knell for modern ‘civilization’, for humanitarian values. It seemed to herald a return to the Wild West or even worse to the medieval ways of the Taliban themselves. To hell with justice, let’s lynch the guy and the rest of the bastards as well! A message of total justification for future terrorist acts.
When I was young, I believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of America; perhaps because of American films and television programmes, perhaps because of stories from the Second World War. Maybe I was being brainwashed, but America seemed to stand for justice and reason, for considered action, for good against evil in the world. The sheriff protected even the worst villain from the fury of the mob and the summary justice of dictatorships was shunned. Then, when I was older, I saw images of Vietnam, the killing of villagers in cold-blood, the dropping of bombs and napalm on a country that was fighting for its independence, that could not hit back at the US aggressor thousands of miles away. My faith was shaken, but restored by the gradual up-swell of horror and revulsion amongst ordinary Americans against the war.
But now, because for the first time in its history mainland America has been attacked, all notions of justice seem to be being swept away and few seem to be protesting. No one suggests America should ‘turn the other cheek’, but, if it is to show the world the difference between civilised behaviour and barbarism, it must lead by example, however heinous the crime against it. With its current behaviour (both as bounty hunter and carpet bomber) America in no way represents ‘good against evil’, but at best ‘the lesser of two evils’. Maybe, it always was just that. Maybe, I was naive to believe otherwise. Maybe, the mask has fallen and the real US character has emerged – gun worship and use of the death penalty have, after all, always been part of its so-called ‘civilisation’.
Let’s just hope countries like China do NOT follow its example.
LETTER EIGHT – 9th January 2002
In yesterday’s SCMP, several pages were dedicated to the American report on human rights and the front page headline referred to the emergence of so-called ‘self-censorship’ in Hong Kong since the handover. In contrast, only a small story in your newspaper referred to the recent Chinese report on human rights issues in the US, an unfortunate imbalance of information that was in stark contrast to the previous night’s news bulletin on ATV World where the Chinese report was given equal coverage to the American one.
What the Americans mean by self-censorship might also be interpreted as an understandable moving away from slavish representation of American and Western views on issues (particularly those concerning China) and a logical move towards reporting issues in a more balanced way from both Chinese and Western points of view – hopefully the aim of the SCMP’s recently announced expanded coverage of China. Self-censorship in the media, if it exists at all here in Hong Kong, is much more to do with newspapers such as your own feeling nervous about either praising or agreeing with the Chinese point of view. The ‘hidden censor’ tends to be the ideology of free market western capitalism which (as in most western newspapers) invisibly excludes most other points of view and often presents opinions from Western governments and experts as facts.
There was a telling ‘complaint’ in the American report that said journalists on Chinese language newspapers now had to check their facts on mainland stories more carefully than before. That sounds like better journalism, not self-censorship. Interference by and excessive influence of newspaper owners was also quoted as a sign of deteriorating press freedom in Hong Kong (a reference to a recent mainland Chinese takeover of a newspaper here). As if that isn’t a problem in the West, too! Owners of papers such as the Sun, The Times, The Mail and the Washington Post do not run many articles on the danger of newspapers being in the hands of just a few rich owners – or any other issue with which the owner disagrees. The Communist party in China or Rupert Murdoch in England, there is not always a lot to choose between them when it comes to slanted news and self-censorship by journalists.
Many points in the Chinese report on Human Rights in the US were well researched and accurate. Why were these self-censored out of the SCMP, or not given detailed coverage like the US report? Both are ‘subjective’ views of governments often serving propagandistic ends and the reader should decide on their credibility.
LETTER NINE – 8th February, 2002
Good and Evil
There is no fixed definition of what is good and what is evil. Like beauty, these are qualities that tend to exist in the eye of the perceiver. Bandying them around, as President Bush does, is to sink to the level of puerile playground propaganda. Childish insults used by bullies and nerds alike, and hurled back and forth with knobs on.
When Ronald Reagan referred to the USSR as an ‘Empire of evil’, that same evil empire was educating its children and keeping its population more healthy and wealthy than present day ‘not evil’ Russia. Iraq managed to be switched from ‘good’ to ‘evil’ without even changing regimes. Iran, now ‘evil’ under relatively moderate mullahs, was ‘good’ under the murderous regime of the Shah. North Korea hoping to join the ‘goodies’ is shoved back to the ‘baddies’ side of the playground. And Israel? Surely ‘bad’ – at the moment? Illegally settles land, bulldozes houses, and attacks unarmed people with tanks and jet fighters? No. Israel is always ‘good’. And the US? Always ‘very good’. Of course. Spending, like all good guys, trillions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction to sledgehammer the pimple of terrorism. Sensibly not sharing its trillions to change the diet of poverty and injustice that causes the pimple.
But, you may say, that doesn’t sound very ‘good’? No? Well, let’s call them all ‘evil’ then. Not an axis, but a pentagram or hexagram or even mega-gram of evil at play, with us good decent folk on the sideline. So why do the good people do nothing – most of the time? They’re too frightened, I suppose, or too brainwashed to call the biggest bullies ‘bad’ – or even recognise them as such. Except that is for a few. Like courageous Israeli reservists who recently pointed out the evil of soldiers shooting unarmed women and children, and refused to play the ‘good guys’ playground game of ‘let’s pretend’.
LETTER TEN – 17th September 2002
In an Analysis article by Ralph Cossa in today’s paper, he states that the Iraqi situation is an important test of UN credibility. It certainly is, but not, I think, in the way Mr Cossa (and your second correspondent on the letters page) suggest. Indeed, the UN (and China as a veto holder) will only prove its credibility, if it can stand up to US bullying and indicate that selectivity in enforcing UN resolutions at the whim of one superpower is not right or proper.
If the Security Council caves into US demands for an ‘impossible-to-comply-with’ resolution on Iraq, it will do nothing to enhance its image of impartiality and fairness. Rather it will show to the world that the UN has become nothing more than an extension arm (albeit twisted behind its back) of US foreign policy. If, on the other hand, other unenforced resolutions (particularly those relating to Kashmir and Israel) were put on the table and enforced (in the order in which they were passed) with the threat of UN/US military action as back-up, the UN might gain some credibility and, perhaps more importantly, the US would be seen as a fair and impartial world policeman and not as the very selective and biased one it currently is.
Israel has nuclear and chemical weapons, it has invaded and occupied neighbouring territory and committed acts of military terrorism against civilians. It is as much a danger to world peace (if not more so) than Iraq, but it has good lobbyists, no oil and a guaranteed US veto at the UN.
LETTER ELEVEN – 24th September 2002
In a recent editorial, you commented on the new US security doctrine presented by the Bush administration. In your usual balanced way, you felt there may be some good and some bad in it.
Indeed, if the US were a uniquely unselfish, unbiased and beneficent power – and was also one of several such powers working for real peace and justice in the world – some good might come of such a doctrine. But the US is an ideologically motivated juggernaut with a ‘God-given’ task, and apparently no longer capable of following a diplomatic path to solve disputes.
It is also the only power with an unlimited military capability and, in its own words, will brook no competition to unseat it from this unique position. Herein lies the danger. ‘Power corrupts and absolute Power corrupts absolutely’ – that is as close to fact as any adage comes. America is the most Absolute Power the world has ever seen and thus presents us with a moment of great historical danger. War is avoided by a balance of power whether regionally or globally. When one power (with its satellites in tow) thinks it can act militarily with impunity it will do so. Human lives are lost, human livelihoods destroyed. The bloated get more bloated.
The Bush doctrine enshrines this frightening approach. And just how frightening it is, can be seen in US criticism of Germany’s democratically approved opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy. If it is anti-American to give voters a choice in their country’s foreign policy, then America no longer stands for democracy, but for Absolute Power. As at other times in history, anyone aspiring to that must be opposed at all costs.
LETTER TWELVE – 18th October 2002
A traumatic birth for all concerned
Mr Lerner’s letter of Tuesday October 2nd (and to a lesser extent Mr Channon’s of September 21st in response to my letter of 17th September) touch on Israel’s beginnings. I’d like to comment further.
The idea of a new Jewish homeland floated around for centuries, but became more defined in the 19th Century for two key reasons: pogroms in Tsarist Russia sent Jewish immigrants to Palestine (then under Turkish rule) and the British decided a pro-Empire Jewish enclave in the Middle East might be a good idea. There followed the emergence of Zionism at the Basel congress of 1897, and Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 supporting the establishment of a national home for Jews within Palestine.
After World War 1, Britain ruled Palestine. Jewish immigration increased. Arabs were unhappy at European outsiders coming to their land and, once there, forming an underground government and army. An Arab rebellion in 1936 failed, but made Britain modify Balfour’s position. They now called for a Jewish Entity within a Palestine ruled by Arabs. It was the Zionists turn to be angry. The brutal Irgun and Stern terrorists bombed indiscriminately and in 1946 blew up the King David Hotel killing over a hundred people.
The British handed the problem to the UN, who voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors. Jewish fighters cleared Arabs from designated and some non-designated areas and, on April 9th 1948, massacred 200 Palestinian villagers in West Jerusalem. On May 15th 1948, the state of Israel was declared. President Truman, despite warnings from advisers, decided, largely on emotional grounds understandably influenced by the holocaust, to recognise Israel. An ineffective attempt by Arab countries to fight back intensified the plight of Palestinians and, by mid-1949, up to 700,000 had fled to Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank – the refugees Israel will now not allow to return.
The birth of Israel might or might not not have had world support without Hitler. Either way, it’s birth was traumatic in the extreme for Arabs who had lived in Palestine for thousands of years. Today, after two further wars, the (nuclear) arming of Israel by the US and peace with most Arab neighbours, Israel’s position is not threatened. It is time for it, and the US, to show understanding for the Arab trauma (as the world showed sympathy for the Jewish trauma in 1945), to dismantle settlements and pull back to pre-1967 borders as called for by UN resolutions. America has never put any pressure on Israel to conform with these resolutions or remove settlements. The deal offered to Arafat by Barak resolved neither issue and was therefore rejected by Palestinians.
Palestinians still commit acts of terrorism – Israelis no longer need to. They have an army and air force with which to impose their will and get their way.
LETTER THIRTEEN – 7th December 2002
The beam in one’s own eye
In your newspaper of 5th December, you reported on the visit of a certain Ms Frances D’Souza to Hong Kong. She thinks Article 23 might turn Hong Kong into a ‘police state’. But compared with the Official Secrets Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Public Order Act and other legislation in her country of origin, Britain, Article 23 seems a relatively benign and reasonable proposal.
Anyone who was involved with alternative politics in the latter half of the twentieth century in Britain will know that phones were tapped, demonstrators arrested, houses searched and suspects questioned, just for the mere fact of being against nuclear weapons or the presence of British Troops in Northern Ireland, or in favour of striking miners. Since 9/11, the situation in so-called ‘Western democracies’ has become even worse and, in the USA ,even the term ‘police state’ does not do justice to the Bush administration’s curtailment of civil liberties – the CIA now has the right to kill American citizens with connections to Al Quaeda.
Not that there is any reason for Hong Kong to be as repressive as either Britain or the US. But in the whole debate, opponents imply that Article 23 is something peculiarly sinister being imposed by the mainland government. What they are really objecting to is the recognition implicit in the proposal that China has sovereignty over Hong Kong and not Britain or America. ‘Subversion’, says Ms D’Souza appears in no other jurisprudence as a crime. But the phrase a ‘threat to national security’ certainly does and is used freely by British and American governments to justify any amount of repressive legislation.
Hong Kong citizens, as well as those living here, need to accept that they live in China now, not Britain. China’s is the primary national interest here, which should not be subverted any more than that of Britain was before the Handover. If people don’t want to live in China, they can always try Britain or America, lands par-excellence of the phone tap, official secrecy and covert state policing.
LETTER FOURTEEN – 16th December 2002
Encouraging nuclear proliferation
American Foreign policy, in its current form, far from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons actually encourages, or even demands, their proliferation. It makes their development a necessity, a matter of survival, for smaller states. By threatening pre-emptive strikes and ‘regime change’ for anyone who doesn’t buckle under and ally itself with its interests, the US leaves only one option open: to stop such an attack you must be able to threaten the US (or a neigbouring country) with a large number of casualties. In the cold war, it was called deterrence and today, as then, to deter you need to develop a deterrent. Oil apart, the different US approaches to Iraq (which almost definitely has no nuclear weapons) and North Korea (which almost definitely does) prove this point. Any ruler, anywhere in the world, seeing how these two countries are treated would be crazy not to get a few WMD’s stashed away in the freezer to keep the bully at bay. If, on the other hand, in return for inspections, the US offered engagement and support and a quid pro quo reduction of its own obscenely large arsenal of WMDs, the costly business of developing a deterrent would become less attractive to smaller states – and less of a necessity. Does the US really believe asking a country to lay down its arms, and threatening it with Armageddon if it doesn’t, is a good way of discouraging others in their development of WMD’s? Behaving like a bully does not bring out the best in other people and sets a very bad example.
LETTER FIFTEEN – 18th January 2003
Today, we read of US pressure on the arms inspectors to fly out Iraqi scientists for questioning. Let us hope that after Iraq is eventually disarmed (hopefully by peaceful means) the US shows the same determination in relation to another Middle Eastern power with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – namely Israel.
Let us hope the UN passes a similar resolution with a clause allowing Israelis with information on Israel’s weapons of mass destruction programme to be flown out (with their families) for questioning. I would then hope that the first person the UN requests for such questioning would be Mordechai Vanunu, currently serving an eighteen year prison sentence for his bravery in revealing that Israel was producing weapons grade plutonium at its Dimona reactor in the Negev desert. While Iraqi scientists are being brow beaten into giving some (any) excuse for the US to pulverise their country, the most important Israeli whistle-blower is branded a traitor, put in solitary confinement and refused parole.
And why would Iraq (or Iran, or any other middle-eastern country) want to develop nuclear weapons in the first place? In large part, because it knows Israel has developed them with French and US help. The current pressure on Iraq is hypocritical and Iraqi disarmament (with or without war) will be a one-sided gesture with no (or only adverse) effects on regional (and world) security. As long as one Middle Eastern power is allowed to keep nuclear weapons, especially when that power is seen as a puppet (or increasingly as an out of control pit-bull) of America, the world will time and again be dragged into a long drawn out US/Israeli war of hegemony in the Middle East for which there is no justification except territorial and economic greed.
The only just settlement of the current tensions with Iraq would be one in which Israel were brought into line, too, with destruction of its weapons of mass destruction and an end to its occupation and creeping colonisation of Palestinian lands. But, as Mordechai Vanunu found out to his cost, such a settlement may be a pipe dream in the current amoral climate of power politics, PR democracy and survival of the fittest.
Let’s hope the world can unite in time against the real dangers to peace and stability today: Israel and the US – the tail and its dog. Or, perhaps better still, let’s hope the people of these two countries will see through the propaganda they are being fed and call on their governments to change course.
LETTER SIXTEEN – 7th February 2003
The law of propaganda
On today’s Insight page, you ran an article entitled ‘The legal basis for war against Iraq is watertight’. The author was a certain Dr Stephen Hall, who apparently works as a law professor at City University. Perhaps he would be better employed in the Pentagon as propaganda advisor to Messrs Powell and Rumsfeld. At least then his argumentation need not aspire to being truthful or accurate.
Much legal opinion, better versed in International law, has reached precisely the opposite conclusion to Dr Hall. And, indeed, his own article leaks more water than it holds. Firstly, Dr Hall quotes Article 24 of the UN Charter: the Security council’s primary responsibility is the ‘maintenance of international peace and security’. But that is precisely why Resolution 1441 was passed: to avoid war by giving the inspectors the means and the time to (a) find out if Iraq was armed and (b) bring about its disarmament in a peaceful manner.
Later in his piece, Dr Hall says that the resolution speaks of ‘serious consequences’ IF there is a failure to comply with the obligations of this resolution. As yet, there is no proof that Iraq has failed to comply or not, simply because the US is not giving the inspectors time to find out, but rather producing its own dubious information and presenting it as fact. In addition, it was made patently clear by at least three of the security council members that ‘serious consequences’ did NOT mean war unless there was second resolution from the UN specifically mandating such action. There is therefore no existing authorization either in Resolution 1441 or previous resolutions.
Finally, Dr Hall argues that US military action is justified by the ‘inherent right to self-defence’. There has, however, been no proof of any link to Al Quaeda (in fact both the CIA and British Intelligence have said there is none) or any other terrorist groups directly threatening the US. Iraq itself is no threat whatsoever to the US.
In short, the legal basis for war on Iraq is non-existent and the US knows it. This is why it is producing more and more dubious evidence to try and bolster up an illegal act of military adventurism in pursuit of oil. Dr Hall should be reminded that the League of Nations became irrelevant precisely because of the kind of unilateral action by the then imperial powers (Germany and Italy included) that the US is now proposing to take. Indeed, the UN will only prove its relevance and value if it can stop the US going to war and give time for resolution 1441 to be carried out in a proper manner, which may take up to a year.
American impatience and the needs of military commanders are not watertight legal bases for war. As a law professor, Dr Hall should know that.
LETTER SEVENTEEN – 18th February 2003
Telling lies to justify war
Your Editorial on Saturday called for unity in the currently Dis-United Nations. But there should not be unity for its own sake just because a small minority seeks war – often against the wishes of their own peoples – and others (the vast majority) seek peaceful solutions. In other words, the UN should not go to war to preserve American face and a façade of effectiveness for itself. If America wants to ignore the UN, then so be it. It will not be the failure of the UN, but the failure of American vision, leadership and diplomacy.
And if full unity is not possible at the UN, there should at least be logic and consistency of approach. Otherwise, countries will get the message that it is better to defy than cooperate with it. If Iraq, after allowing inspectors more access to its defence establishment than any other country in history, still gets blown to pieces by the US and Britain, governments, such as that in North Korea, will draw two conclusions. Firstly, it is better not to let inspectors in in the first place, as who knows what information on a country’s (non-mass destruction) defensive capability they will leak. And secondly, it is best to develop nuclear weapons sooner rather than later as this seems to be the only way to deter the Americans (and fellow-travellers) from destroying your country and taking it over.
The UN must also show consistency by insisting on inspection regimes for all countries with weapons of mass destruction working back from South Africa (already inspected), through Israel, Korea, Iran, Pakistan and India to the biggest hoarder of all the US.
Finally, heads of government on the Security Council should be consistent in their use of moderate and reasonable language, basing their arguments on fact and not supposition or rumour or wild accusation. At the moment, it is Iraq’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz who comes across as the sane and patient one, the one who – despite goalposts being continually moved – is doing his best to abide by the demands of the UN. It is Bush and Blair who come across as the lunatic fanatics. happy to malign, misinform, plagiarise and endanger the peace of the world. Does this set a good example to other leaders? No. It says that if you want to invade another country, make up ludicrous stories about it without waiting for (or even wanting) verification. Like the Nazis did before invading Poland.
In recent opinion polls 80% of Germans and 75% of British people rated the US as the number one threat to world peace, pushing North Korea into second place. US inconsistency, hypocrisy and (under Bush) blatant bullying – even of allies – sets the worst possible example and consistently undermines the effectiveness and unity of the UN as a body for world peace as opposed to world war. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war said Churchill – Bush, and his loyal corgis Brit Blair and Oz Howard seem to have forgotten that.
LETTER EIGHTEEN – 5th March 2003
Tuesday’s opinion page article discussing the future of the United Nations assumes its imminent demise and calls for new approaches. But maybe there is no need for a new approach. The article argues that the UN will lose whatever happens: either be made redundant if the US goes to war without its blessing, or lose all credibility if the US bullies and bribes its members to condone an attack on Iraq. Certainly in the latter case the UN – in the eyes of the vast majority of its members in the general assembly – would cease to be a credible organization and would no longer be seen as one that can act fairly and firmly with ‘rogue’ members.
But if it rejects the US pressure for war then there is every hope for it in its present form – with some alterations to the voting and veto structures – a, perhaps, the last best chance of reigning in American (or any other future hyper-power’s) hegemonic ambitions. If the US fails to get UN approval, it will become the world’s number one rogue state, ignoring world opinion and established mechanisms for solving disputes peaceably. As such, it should be temporarily suspended from its Security Council position in the UN and subjected to sanctions for holding the UN in contempt. Any other country ignoring a ‘No’ from the Security Council (whether achieved by majority vote or Veto) is not something the US would tolerate in relation to Israel (on behalf of whom it has vetoed 30 UN resolutions) and the UN should not tolerate it in relation to the US and Britain.
When countries behave in a totalitarian manner, ignoring both public opinion at home (opposition to war without a mandate ranges from 65% in the US to over 80% in Spain and Britain) and the wishes of the international community in the UN, then they must be stopped in their tracks. And, with or without a mandate, proclaiming, as President Bush has, that his is a mission to spread democracy in the Middle East by force is as repugnant as the spread of Nazism or Communism, or any other ideology – by force. Imposed democracy is Diktat-democracy and therefore not democracy at all. And, in any case, Bush does not care for democracy when democratically elected governments (elected with far greater majorities than his own minority presidency) strongly oppose his wishes. Germany is to be punished, France ridiculed and Turkey bribed, bludgeoned and economically threatened into accepting occupying troops. And British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s comments that Britain has a duty to replace regimes that cannot offer stable government is pure nineteenth century imperialism and just as totalitarian as its forerunner
The UN in its present form can and must stand up to this new ‘democratic’ totalitarianism, in the way that the League of Nations did not stand up to Fascism and its doctrine of a 1000 year Reich in Europe. No one country has a monopoly on ‘rightness’; no one country has a right to impose its vision on another, unless directly threatened.
LETTER NINETEEN – 18th March 2003
The lynch mob
It was ironic that, on the day Mr Bush issued an ultimatum to Iraq without any backing from the United Nations, or majority support in his own country or any of the countries supporting him, a correspondent (E.J.Drew of Jardine’s Lookout) should compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler. There was, perhaps, in 1991, after the invasion of Kuwait, a faint resemblance to the territorial aggrandisement policy of the Nazi government, and, indeed, with regard to Kuwait, the world response, through the United Nations, was immediate and unanimous. Aggression must be punished and not appeased.
But that is not the situation today. In fact, if anything, the boot is on the other foot, because this time aggression will be appeased. Iraq has not invaded any country, the skies above its northern and southern territories are already patrolled by the US and Britain, and UN inspectors had free run of the country until the Americans told them to leave. The current US President elected on less than 25% of the popular vote (and a minority of the total votes cast) has trumped up charges against Iraq, refused to wait for proof, ignored or ridiculed the positive reports of the objective arms inspectors, and bullied and bribed democratically elected governments around the world (as well as his own people) to support his illegal war.
If anyone is acting like the German Government of the thirties, and needs standing up to unequivocally, it is the current US Republican regime and its Anglo-Saxon axis partner Blair. Using a massive arsenal of modern weapons to attack a weak country with antiquated defences and a vulnerable civilian population (who will be killed in their thousands) reminds many of us, who have studied history, of September 1939 and the subsequent invasion of Poland and other European countries whose cities were massively bombarded from the air.
As Mary Robinson, a former commissioner on Human Rights at the UN, said at the weekend (‘Hardtalk’, BBC World), our only recourse, given the enormous military superiority of the US and the lack of political will of the world’s other powers to stand in its path militarily, is to bring Prime Minister Blair, and others, before the International Court for undertaking an illegal war. Unfortunately, President Bush’s government refused to ratify the treaty setting up the Hague Court so he and his cold-war colleagues, Cheney and Rumsfeld, will remain what they have, through their actions, declared themselves to be – a band of international outlaws leading a lynch mob and cocking a snoot at world opinion.
LETTER TWENTY – 18th March 2003
A fallen hero
I very much sympathise with the heartfelt cry of disillusionment expressed by your correspondent Rebecca Wyatt on Saturday. Somewhere inside most of us was a feeling (or at least a hope) that the US and Britain stood ultimately for peace and fair-play. That feeling is now dead.
However easy or difficult the US led aggression against Iraq may turn out to be (and we all hope casualties will be minimal) the damage it has done to people’s faith in democracy and the image of the US (and to a lesser extent Britain) as a peace loving and mature nation state is probably irreparable. Both US and British Governments have ignored majority opposition at home, manipulated public opinion with lies and half-truths (including, since the plan to invade Iraq was already on Bush’s agenda before his election, gross misuse of the 9/11 tragedy), defied the majority wishes of the UN and the reports of its inspectors, ridiculed or bullied democratically elected governments that have opposed it in France, Germany and Turkey and pretended to be invading Iraq in order to impose democracy there and throughout the Middle East.
But already it is clear that the US has no real interest in democracy, either in Iraq or in neighbouring countries. Indeed, it is only because they are NOT democratic that countries such as Kuwait, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia have given active or tacit support. The democratically elected government of Turkey has resolutely refused. The US does not want democracy, it wants states that bow to its will, with puppets at their head. States where the oil is delivered to American companies, and the people march to an American beat. They have done it before with their installation of the Shah of Iran in the fifties, but this time it is being done with the unashamed use of military might and may be the beginning of a series of such imperial wars.
This is an ugly and cowardly New World Order that is being set up. It takes no bravery to use state of the art weapons of terror to crush a third world country with antiquated defences. In the end, such arrogant aggression and defiance of the General Will for peace will lead people to seek other means than democratic elections, democratic protests and peaceful weapons inspections to halt the spread of an American Empire worldwide. If powerful Governments ignore their electorates, muzzle their media, and tell foreign states that even if they allow inspectors in they will still be invaded and bombed, no one will trust the goodwill or sincerity of those in power and some (whether as individuals or governments) will turn to more extreme means.
Unfortunately, at the root of this situation is the persistent need of the US since the Second World War to ‘have an enemy’. First the communists, then the Radical Muslims and so-called rogue states, and next probably China. Its need to divert attention from domestic issues and the continuing greed (in both financial and power terms) of its military-industrial complex – the growth of which President Eisenhower so cogently warned against in the fifties – makes America in current mode a very, very dangerous rogue state.
Let us hope that the people of America can get it back on course before more damage is done to the cause of peace and maturity in the world.