23 December, 2007

Let's Not Give Peace A Chance

As you know, Hamas (an Islamist political-military movement) currently exercise day-to-day control of the Gaza Strip region of Palestine (while the Israelis control its borders and airspace). From there, Hamas and other groups have been firing Qassam rockets across into Israeli border towns. As well as killing people and damaging property, this is causing great annoyance in Israel. Israeli forces have staged incursions and bombing raids into Gaza, killing many more people and destroying much more property than the rocket attacks; they have also run a blockade of the Gaza Strip, reducing the amount of foodstuffs and so on available to people there. The Israelis have, however, been unsuccessful at preventing the rockets from flying across the border.

Recently there has been some talk from Hamas of instituting either a hudna (truce) or a taddhiyya (period of calm, in which military operations would be downscaled) with the Israeli state. This would not be unprecedented, as Hamas has operated several such hudnas and taddhiyyas in the past. There was a slightly so-what quality to them in the longer term, as they failed to achieve any breakthrough in the political morass of Palestine-Israel; crucially, the Israeli state continued to assassinate Hamas activists and carry out offensive operations, and Hamas ceasefires would typically breakdown after the killing of a Hamas leader or the butchering of some Palestinian civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. From the Israeli side, the Hamas ceasefires seemed rather inconsequential, given that they did not cover other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad. Nor were they always strictly observed by Hamas cadres.

The current situation seems a bit different. The talk from Hamas of a ceasefire in Gaza was initially scoffed at by the Israeli establishment and taken as a sign that the movement was hurting as a result of Israeli military action. Then some government ministers broke ranks. Perhaps registering that military action was neither halting the Qassams nor securing the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, some Israeli government ministers have suggested that a serious truce offer from Hamas should not be rejected. While these people are still placing hoops for Hamas to jump through, they are talking about concrete issues rather than the symbolic demands on which the Israeli state is traditionally fixated. It is perhaps also significant that the politicians talking about engagement with Hamas are from the mainstream of Israeli politics and not its pacifist fringes; Shaul Mofaz is from the Kadima party of Ariel Sharon and current prime minister Ehud Olmert, while Binyamin Ben-Eliezer is from the hard-nut end of Labour.

For the moment, all this talk about truces and engagement with Hamas is just talk. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has rejected any kind of engagement with Hamas unless the movement formally recognises Israel, something the movement is unlikely to ever do. The military campaign against Hamas will continue indefinitely, whether Hamas declares a truce or not. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, another Israeli government minister announced the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian East Jerusalem. So maybe we are in for more of the same next year, or maybe the public position of Mofaz and Ben-Eliezer suggests that there are subterranaean movemens taking place within the Israeli body politic.

05 December, 2007

The Postmodern White House

You may recall that I was discussing theoretical approaches to International Relations. That ran into the ground a bit, sadly before I reached any of the more entertaining theories. One day I will climb back on the wagon.

In the meantime, an entertaining thing to do can be to look at real world political leaders or organisations, and try to work out what is their theoretical perspective. Take George W. Bush (please, take him*). Like most people, he probably does not think of himself as having a theoretical perspective, he just does things he reckons will advance whatever goals he happens to have at hand. Or maybe he just does things (the whole idea of people actually having clearly defined goals that they rationally work to advance is surprisingly problematic when applied to real situations). However, one can still look at what he says and does and attempt to deduce the perspectives that guide him, even if they are subconscious.

The Bush regime is sometimes seen as embodying a realist view of international relations, with all that willingness to project US power wherever they like and tell anyone who doesn't like it to shag off. But the current US administration is also often seen as being driven by liberalism, albeit a kind of crusading bad-ass liberalism far removed from the stereotypes of hand-wringing whingey liberalism. From this point of view, it is Bush's liberalism that drove him to invade loads of countries and threaten bloody war on others - he is trying to make the world a better place, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It might be, though, that in trying to place the White House in terms of the old-school big two of International Relations theory, people are missing the point big time. We live now in the 21st century, and the Enlightenment derived certainties that drove people in the past are looking distinctly frayed around the ages. Realism and liberalism are both approaches from within the tired Enlightenment tradition... could it be that in our post-Enlightenment era, the current US administration is driven by post-modern ideas?

In 2002, some journalist fellow called Ron Suskind talked with a Senior White House Figure. The SWHF took issue with something the journalist had written, and berated him for belonging to a "reality-based community", defined as being people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality". The SWHF went on talk about how the world no longer conforms to this paradigm: ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" (SWHF quotes from this article by Ron Suskind: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush)

A key feature of the postmodern worldview is to repudiate the idea of objective reality. Instead, people construct a reality for themselves. Ideas and theories become more important than mere facts, and if you can get enough people to believe something you have created your own reality. Suskind's contact suggests that at least some people in the White House buy in to this kind of postmodern perspective.

The last few days have seen another example of the Bush regime's postmodern view of reality. Over the last while, the Bush administration has been talking a lot about how Iran has a nuclear weapons programme and how something needs to be done about it; that "something" is implicitly war of one sort or another. However, US intelligence officials have released a report that says that there is strong evidence to support the idea that the Iranian regime halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. While one could argue that this evidence supports the idea that a tough Western policy forced the Iranians away from nuclear weapons, it severely undermines the idea that Iran needs to be invaded or fucked up to stop it acquiring nuclear weapons in the very near future. President Bush, however, is determined to press ahead with his policy of ramping up sanctions against the Iranian regime, possibly as a way of building tensions that will have the way towards a US strike. Bush's response to the inconvenient, reality-based report of his intelligence community has been to ignore it - instead he has rhetorically urged Iran to come clean about its non-existent nuclear weapons programme. In doing so, he is attempting to conjure such a programme into being, at least in so far as it can be used as pretext for war.

Pictures from, in order: Wikipedia, Wikipedia, and the BBC.

* Thank you, I am here all week

02 December, 2007

The Collateral Damage of Colonialism

Here is an interesting blog post on the possible development of HIV/AIDS in the years before the 1980s: Notes towards a pre-1981 history of HIV/AIDS. Randy McDonald, the post's author, suggests that it was the social dislocation wrought be colonialism (and in particular the exploitation by France and Belgium of rubber resources in the Congo basin) that led to the virus crossing from animals and then being able to spread through the human population.