World leaders from about sixty countries (according to a Washington Post report) have been congregating in the city of Newport in Wales for a summit meeting of the NATO alliance. There are, in fact, only twenty-eight member states, so clearly there were a few hangers-on availing themselves of Welsh hospitality. These meetings are not a regular event – the last one was held in May 2012 – and this one, it seems, was convened in response to perceived threats to world peace. As we might expect, the focus was on current goings-on in Ukraine and Iraq.
In one statement, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO ‘will create a new military force based in eastern Europe designed to mobilise quickly in the event of a hostile incursion into the region.’ Apparently this force will consist of thousands of troops, and is fairly obviously a sabre-rattling exercise directed at Russia and president Vladimir Putin. The other issue was clearly too important to be left to an underling, so it was US Secretary of State John Kerry who ‘pressed representatives [including Turkey] . . . to lend military and financial support in the fight against the Islamic State of Greater Iraq and Syria (ISIS).’
Well, I’m a big supporter of world peace myself – and I have no sympathy for large and powerful countries invading the space of sovereign states. Nor do I in any way condone murder or terrorism. However, I confess I don’t find the issues as clear cut as Messrs Rasmussen and Kerry appear to. I don’t intend to discuss Ukraine and Crimea in any depth, but it does seem to me that the gnomes of Brussels have been almost indecent in their haste to welcome former Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union fold – while continuing to hold long-term loyal ally Turkey at arm’s length. For Russia, access to the Black Sea has been a crucial foreign policy objective for more than two centuries, and, rightly or wrongly, there is no way they are going to readily accept the Western alliance interfering with that. And whatever the rhetoric, I doubt if Europeans are very enthusiastic about a war with Russia, even with American support.
Far more dangerous is the threat of another major Western military invasion of the Middle East – and not only for those of us who live in Turkey. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that the more governments try to suppress a religion or ideology (such as nationalism) the more determined its proponents become, and the more people of previously moderate views are forced into an extremist position. How many militant Islamist organizations are causing trouble in how many countries around the world these days? Suddenly the activities of ISIS are in all the media. Where did they come from? Boko Haram are kidnapping Christian girls in Nigeria, and achieving some success against government forces – as if the poor Nigerians didn’t have enough problems already. Hamas insurgents are lobbing rockets into Israel from mosques and schools in Gaza – admittedly without doing much damage. United States drones (there’s a word we didn’t use to hear much of) are firing rockets into Somalia to terminate the leaders of a group calling themselves al-Shabab. Dammit! They’re like those plants you cut into pieces, and every little piece takes root and grows into a new plant.
Nevertheless, bombs and missiles seem to be what we do best. According to Newsweek, the US has been spending $7.5 million a day bombing those ISIS guys in Iraq – not so much if you compare it with the $1.3 billion a week they spend in Afghanistan (yep, they’re still there trying to sort out the Taliban!) – but not an insignificant amount when you think they’ve been doing it since mid-June, and now they’re considering extending bombing operations into Syria.
Well, who knows? Maybe it’ll work this time. Hope springs eternal in breasts at the Pentagon and in the boardrooms of US arms manufacturing corporations. On the other hand, just think what that money could do if even a small portion of it was directed towards rebuilding the economies of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is saying, “The Syria crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them.” Imagine what $7.5 million a day, a month, or even a year, could achieve – and how many Muslim hearts and minds might be won over in the process.
But it doesn’t seem likely. I came across an article back in February in which the writer was discussing the impending collapse of the ‘Arab State system’. Itamar Rabinovich, ‘a Distinguished Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings’, noting the wars and chaos spreading across the Middle East, quoted a US military expert’s opinion that the Syrian conflict could become ‘an engine of jihad that spews forth attackers bent on bombing western embassies and cities or disrupting Persian Gulf oil markets long before the fire burns out’ – and both seem to be suggesting that the United States and Israel need to play a more active role (read ‘more bombs’).
Rabinovich rightly refers to the boundaries drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 as establishing the political geography of the modern Middle East. He fails to mention, however, that this was a secret agreement between Great Britain and France aimed at ensuring their control of the region after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. He also manages to write a 5,000-word analysis of current problems in the region without mentioning the role played by the creation of the modern state of Israel and the determination of successive United States administrations to support the Israeli government’s actions no matter what they do.
Well, we shouldn’t be surprised. Itamar Rabinovich is the president of the Israel Institute (Washington and Jerusalem). He was Israel’s Ambassador to the United States in the 1990s and former chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996, and the former president of Tel Aviv University where he is currently professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History. The Brookings Institution is a US think tank based in Washington DC educating the world on ‘economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, and global economy and development’. According to TTCSP, it is ranked the most influential think tank in the world.
Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, I guess. Why shouldn’t the US government take Mr Rabinovich’s opinions into consideration? On the other hand, take a look at another news item that appeared just last week. A report in the LA Times announced that the Israeli government had appropriated 990 acres (nearly 400 hectares) in the Palestinian area of the West Bank with a view to expanding Israeli settlement. Israeli leaders said the action was revenge for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the area, and was ‘an appropriate Zionist response to attacks against Israel.’
In case you didn’t know, the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, is the largest piece of territory allocated to Palestinian Arabs by international agreement after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In defiance of international agreements, there are around half a million Jewish Israelis (20% of the population) living in settlements in the area. What would you do if you were a Palestinian Arab? Secretary of State John Kerry himself was widely quoted as saying that Israel was in danger of becoming ‘an apartheid state’ – words which he apparently later regretted.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. For example, I’ve always thought of Denmark as being a very modern, democratic, egalitarian, peace-loving country. All the Danes I’ve met have been intelligent, educated sensitive people. But there’s that Danish guy, Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general, a neo-conservative, neo-liberal proponent of tax cuts for the rich, reduced immigration and George Dubya Bush’s invasion of Iraq – and seemingly in favour of war with Russia and Muslims in the Middle East. I really want to believe that our guys are the good guys, but . . .
Getting back to Newport, Wales, that was an interesting place to choose as a venue for the NATO summit. It was, some say, the site of the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain (I guess if you discount the Irish Rebellion – probably they mean ‘unsuccessful’ armed rebellion). Back in 1839 a large crowd of several thousand Chartists, angered by Parliament’s rejection of their proposals and the imprisonment of some of their number, were fired on and dispersed by the British military. The leaders were convicted of high treason and initially condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered though the sentences were later commuted to transportation for life. That particularly creative punishment was still on the books in Britain until the 1870s, though this was the last time it was actually invoked as a sentence.
And what was Chartism all about? It focused on a People’s Charter calling for:
- Giving the vote to men over the age of 21
- Secret ballot for parliamentary elections
- No property qualifications for members of parliament
- Payment for members of parliament
- Equal constituencies
- Annual elections
Pretty insidious stuff, huh! But then the West Country had a reputation for causing trouble. Back in 1685 a much larger armed rebellion occurred when opponents of the Catholic King James II rose behind the monarch’s illegitimate nephew, the Duke of Monmouth. The uprising was put down and there were mass grisly executions as an aftermath, handed down by Judge Jeffries at his infamous ‘Bloody Assizes’. One of the more famous victims was a woman, Alice Lyle, originally sentenced to be burned alive – but later more mercifully executed by beheading in the market place of Winchester.
Interestingly, however, just three years later, that same King James was ousted by a ‘Bloodless Revolution’ orchestrated by Parliament itself – and Judge Jeffries died a prisoner in the Tower of London. It took a little longer, but five of those six items on the People’s Charter eventually became law – crucial elements in modern constitutional democracy.
I can’t say whether any of those NATO visitors to Newport took an interest in the town’s colourful history – or if they did, whether they thought there might be a lesson applicable to themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps there’s a message of hope. Bob Marley said it pretty well back in the day.