Cutting through the bullshit.

Thursday, 2 November 2006

I have a confession

I have a confession to make: I don’t know enough about Darfur.

From what I’ve read, however, it seems clear that all those killing and being killed are both black and Muslim. It also seems patently obvious that the heart of the issue is access to resources.

A year or so ago, when the Times brought in Times select, it was such a relief not to have to read Friedman and Dowd and Kristof anymore. But someone forwarded me the sage Nicholas D Kristof’s article in yesterday’s NY Times where he writes that ‘gunmen on the Sudanese payroll heave babies into bonfires as they shout epithets against blacks’ and ‘Arab leaders need to show that they care about Muslim children being shot’. Clearly, Kristof thinks the gunmen and baby slaughterers are white Christians, Jews, and Hindus, and who would know better than him?

In his op-ed, he suggests an eight point plan for what ‘we’ can do to alleviate the crisis. Not one of those eight points involves providing food, water, medicines, doctors, nurses, or any of the other things that might help to alleviate both the suffering and the underlying causes of the conflict.

He goes on to lament:

After fewer than 10,000 white people had died in Kosovo, the U.S. intervened to prevent a genocide.

Wait a second…that wasn’t the US that bombed Serbia, was it? They said it was NATO – a completely different kettle of fish. And the widespread killings and displacement of the ethnic Albanian Kosovars occurred after the NATO bombing campaign started. Just as everyone expected it would. And the motivation for the bombing? Was that to prevent genocide? Well, my understanding was that Serbia had agreed to withdraw from Kosovo and provide for Kosovar autonomy in accordance with the Rambouillet Accords, until the notorious Appendix B was inserted at the last minute. The provisions of this Appendix effectively provided for a NATO occupation of Serbia. The terms, as I recall, were much more stringent than the terms on which Serbia eventually surrendered after ten weeks of bombing, including, for example

NATO personnel, under all circumstances and at all times, shall be immune from the Parties' jurisdiction in respect of any civil, administrative, criminal, or disciplinary offenses which may be committed by them in the FRY.

I thought that Tory Blain and many others had made it plain that the objective of the bombing was precisely to restore the credibility of NATO in the post Cold War world on its fiftieth anniversary (see this article by Steven Shalom, and this one by Brendan Stone, and this one by Chomsky).

following the "promise" that "we would not tolerate the brutal suppression of the civilian population," to walk away now would not merely destroy NATO’s credibility, more importantly it would be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians, whose only desire is to live in peace and who took us at our word. (HC Deb 23 March 1999, c161)

On 19 March 1999, President Clinton said,

This is a conflict with no natural boundaries. It threatens our national interests. If it continues, it will push refugees across borders, and draw in neighboring countries. It will undermine the credibility of NATO, on which stability in Europe and our own credibility depend.

US National Security Advisor Samuel Berger told Jim Lehrer on 23 February 1999,

…there really is a question of NATO's credibility here. NATO has been the alliance, the transatlantic alliance which has kept us at peace for the last 50 years, hopefully for the next 50 years. NATO has an investment here in trying to use its strength to implement a peace if we can reach it.

As David Fromkin wrote in the Prologue of his 1999 book Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields as reprinted in the NY Times:

In the former Yugoslavia, NATO found that it had lost its credibility. No longer could it deter the other side. Put another way, the Serbs refused to fold in March 1999, so NATO was obliged to play out the hand. Now that it has done so, perhaps its credibility will be restored.

It frequently has been said, and perhaps with reason, that the future of NATO, and of American global leadership, were at stake on the battlefield of Kosovo.

As Fromkin has come up again, one of the people [formerly] on this list was quite angry at how I had treated him and wrote to ask to be removed. I was very grateful to receive her email rather than just get reported as spam! And of course it left an opening to engage with her criticisms.

Anyway, she reckons:

It's always unwise to trash the work of someone you haven't read. In that volume, Fromkin produces the most detailed diplomatic history of the Sykes-Picot agreement that I've seen in one place, as well as its interplay with Zionism and its betrayal of promises to the Arabs. (Chapter 41 is titled "Betrayal".) His history is utterly damning of British and French colonialism as well as illuminating of the role of the oil companies. He also offers a detailed history of what happened to Turkey, and Syria. It's a great piece of scholarship and pulls no punches. In short, he covers everything you think he should cover.

Finally, saying that Fromkin is "completely subservient to power" is simple nonsense. It's glib and silly to denounce, especially in such sneering tones, a historian you haven't read and who, demonstrably, knows vastly more than you do.

To which I responded, in part,

Fromkin would not be much of a scholar if he didn't know vastly more about his specialty than some grunt like me. But that does not raise him above criticism and I reject your apparent suggestion that I can't criticize what he has written for publication to a mass audience in the NY Times without familiarising myself with his complete opus. I don't think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that very few of those reading his op-ed would have already read 'A Peace to End All Peace' - it has to stand on its own.

My blog is not intended as scholarship and I am not a scholar. I am just someone with a low tolerance for bullshit and an inclination to write about what I read. Whatever merits Fromkin's academic work may possess, and indeed whatever actual information he conveys in the op-ed - and there is some - it is contained in a matrix of assumptions that coincide with the received wisdom that underlies a significant element of the propaganda system. Whether deliberate or not, this is precisely an example of an intellectual at the service of power.

I was relieved when she replied, as I hadn’t really set out to alienate her. She reiterated her view,

But it is incumbant on critics at least to have a look at the major work of that author before assuming basic things about his/her politics and, implicitly, character. It's very unhelpful to slash and burn and deride wonderful scholars who have contributed in major ways to our understanding of what happened, based solely on a sour reading of some quick public essay in which they didn't say precisely the right thing in your view, or cover precisely the right ground.

…We have to support and promote the great scholars who have helped expose the frauds and lies, not discredit and deride them. Everybody should read Fromkin. For those who are concerned about the Middle East, it's a page-turner.

I have now replied, in part,

I think the issue is that the author has to take responsibility for what they write. In my view, if anything, what you write for a general audience is more important than what you write for a specialized or academic audience. My critique of Fromkin's NYT op-ed does not require that I know anything about his other work, although if he had not been presented as an expert, I probably would have been slightly less unsympathetic to the lapses in the NYT piece.

… I hope you will agree, for example, that 'The Arabic-speaking Muslim world had been taken in hand by Britain and France after the First World War' is a curious way of talking about the Sykes-Picot Treaty. I can only read 'taken in hand' as beneficent, with a strong component of paternalism, at best. Or that writing 'the third world remained unconvinced' suggests that harbouring such suspicions was groundless, when it plainly was anything but.

If I had read Fromkin's book and felt as you do about it, I would definitely want to promote it. But that doesn't give him carte blanche and my support would only go that far. As I said last time, his NYT piece has to stand on its own and he has to take responsibility for it, although, if truth be told, I don’t know how much the editors tampered with it, but I doubt they actually changed the substance. On reviewing what I wrote, I might have gone a little lighter on the sarcasm, but don't perceive anything unfair. You see, what I think is unhelpful is for those who have established themselves as authorities to purvey stuff to a mass audience that, for example, glosses over British, French, and US imperialist designs, as this piece appears to.

On the strength of her recommendation, by the way, I have added Fromkin’s book on the Middle East (but not the one on Kosovo!) to my Amazon basket.

Fromkin concludes the prologue to his Kosovo book by enjoining reconsideration of

the questions that have arisen so often in the years following the end of the Cold War, and that are likely to recur in the twenty-first century: when, why, and how should the United States send its troops overseas in an attempt to resolve conflicts if they do not threaten the nation's physical security?

I find it hard to stomach some of the implicit assumptions evident in this question:

· There are situations where the US should send troops overseas.

· The US attempts to resolve conflicts.

· It is possible for US troops to resolve conflicts.

But he goes on to conclude, somewhat ambiguously, in my view,

… The Kosovo war raises the question of the extent to which America, in the world outside its borders, has the power to do good — or even whether it knows with any certainty what "good" is.

The central issue, however, is the way he writes of America, fully buying into the myth of the nation – that there is some entity called ‘America’ that has interests other than those of its rulers. That there are just ‘Americans’ who can come under collective threat, rather than one group who determines what to call a threat, ‘al Qa’ida’ for example, and what not to call a threat, NAFTA, for example, and another group that cops the consequences, whether it means losing their jobs, or killing and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. What ‘good’, I can hardly help asking, has the US government, because that’s clearly what he means by ‘America’, done for ordinary people within its own borders? A clean environment? Health care? A decent standard of living? Even protection from terrorists? Even on their own stated terms?...

And outside its borders? Well, the US blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon for over a month. And slaughtered some 655,000 in Iraq. Fromkin wrote that in 1999, before W was elected, so he couldn’t have anticipated the absolute certainty of this administration in prosecuting good and suppressing the axis of evil.

I’m not that sure that certainty is the issue. The US has a very long and consistent history of wreaking havoc wherever it goes, from Nicaragua to Haiti, to Brazil to the Dominican Republic, to Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia, back to Nicaragua, to El Salvador, to Guatemala, to Grenada to Panama, to Iraq, back to Haiti, to Somalia, to Serbia and back to Iraq and, as George Shrub would say, Cubaragua to East Nicador and many more, always doing good.

I remain hopeful that Fromkin’s more scholarly contribution will not betray the kind of silliness I’ve observed in what he writes for us plebs.

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