Newsnotes 022 – March 1991

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

God and the big battalions

Armies from 30 nations, with a combined population of more than 300 million, gathered to crush a small third world nation of just 17 million. The pretext for the crushing was that small nation’s seizure of another even smaller nation, or rather a small semi-autonomous city that had been boosted up as a nation-state after it was found that it was sitting on an enormous wealth of nation. The small nation did in the end offer to unconditionally quit the even smaller ‘nation’, but was crushed nevertheless.

The rapid collapse of the Iraqi army took everyone by surprise. It had always been a possibility – Iraq’s army was strong on paper, but was a largely conscript force up against some of the world’s best professional soldiers. Yet the caution of government spokesmen during the first few hours shows that no one was sure of it, and that no one could have counted on it Saddam Hussein himself contributed to it, by his offer to unilaterally withdraw. Few armies would be ready to stand and die against vastly superior forces, just to defend something that their own · government had already agreed to give up.

Saddam Hussein’s behaviour has so far been entirely calm and rational. Since America had not protested when he raised the matter just before he grabbed Kuwait, and then began treating him as the worst thing since Hitler after the Saudis agreed to let US troops get a foothold in the Gulf, there was no point in his trying to appease the Americans. Whatever he gave, something new would be invented to impose upon him. It ended up with everyone agreeing with George Bush that only unconditional surrender would do. Bush then once again rewrote the rules and called a ceasefire anyway, with Saddam still strong in Baghdad.

Iraq has sent out a steady rain of Scud missiles throughout the war. All of America’s boasts about being able to destroy them have proved false. Patriot missiles could usually hit a Scud as it was coming in to land and reduce the damage it did. This would be of little use against poison gas, or against a warhead packed with contaminating nuclear isotopes. And to put one or other of these in the warhead, in place of chemical explosives, must surely be a simpler matter than keeping Scud launchers operational against the most powerful and sophisticated air forces in the world.

Saddam seems to have held his worst weapons in reserve on the assumption that he still had some hope of survival. Secret Russian diplomacy may have played a part here. Or Bush may have secretly passed on the message that Saddam would be left in Baghdad with the remnants of his army, provided that no poison gas or radioactive contamination was used. In any event, while there was talk of trying Saddam as a war criminal every time he tried to negotiate a peace, this objective has been forgotten about at the very moment when it would have been a practical option. He has a sporting chance of being able to carry on gassing Kurds and torturing political enemies for many years to come.

Does anyone still think that international law and justice for all was what it was all about?


Wars of religion

Anyone living in London has to take the Paddington and Victoria station bombs very personally. All sorts of ordinary people have on occasions been in those places at those sorts of times. An even wider group would know someone who might have been there, and would have had a worrying wait on that Monday morning wondering if someone they cared about had been hurt or injured.

Someone they cared about. For most Britons, that category would exclude all of the ordinary Iraqis who have been killed in the course of the allied bombing. A large majority of the population went along with the policy of ‘softening up’ Iraq with generalised bombing before the ground war started. This was publicised as being to save the lives of Western troops, and this is undoubtedly correct. It was also obviously going to cause civilian casualties, as innocent and uninvolved as the commuters who were caught by the bomb at Victoria station.

Of course this bomb, like the mortar attack on Ten Downing Street, was the work of the IRA. But the timing is unlikely to be coincidental. It would be too much of a coincidence if the two biggest IRA operations in London in recent years – arguably the biggest ever – just happened to be occur at the same time as the Gulf War. The two things are linked, although only the IRA could tell us just how they are linked. I doubt if Saddam’s fate greatly concerns them: their normal strategy is that ‘England’s problem is Ireland’s opportunity’.

Arabs and Muslims have had it made abundantly clear to them over the past few weeks that neither their lives nor their opinions count for much in the eyes of Western military planners. It would have been possible to have totally refrained from bombing any targets that were in or near cities. Most of the Iraqi troops were sitting in uninhabited desert regions. It would have been more costly and difficult to do this, and more British and American soldiers would have died. But it would also have avoided both Iraqi civilian deaths and the risk of damage to Muslim holy places.

In the Falklands war, there was never any question of bombing Argentine cities, or even military targets in Argentine cities. Great care was also taken not to kill any of the unfortunate Falkland Islanders. There is little doubt that British military casualties were higher as a result. But – whether or not the war itself was right – fighting it that way was undoubtedly correct. Civilised laws of war try to confine the killing and the dying to the regular military forces.

The war against Iraq has not been civilised. It was supposed to be against the regime of Saddam Hussein, which has of course been extremely brutal in all of the wars it has waged, using poison gas against both soldiers and civilians. But if the claims to be establishing a civilised ‘new world order’ were to be taken seriously, the war should have been waged with the utmost scrupulousness, ignoring even the most tempting of military targets if the lives of ordinary people would be put at risk. Anyone who works with high technology devices knows that they can go wrong in drastic and unpredictable ways. The fact that the new bombs and missiles could often be extremely accurate did not mean that they could not also sometimes miss completely. The RAF has admitted that one of the laser guided bombs aimed at a bridge in the Iraqi town of Fallujah went wild and missed by a full 800 yards (The Independent, February 18th).

It must have been known in military circles that some of their ‘precision’ weapons would kill ordinary Iraqis instead of the military and economic targets that they were aimed at. And that is quite apart from cases like the notorious bunker incident, when the weapon worked perfectly against a place that women and children had been using to shelter themselves against ‘wild’ precision bombs.

What I said in L&TUR No. 20 remains valid: “terrorism directed against a society that you have no intention of trying to conquer or rule is usually counterproductive.” The technically brilliant bombing campaign against Iraq seems mainly to have consolidated both ordinary Iraqis and the bulk of the wider Arab and Muslim world behind Saddam Hussein.

In order to minimise the risk to British and American soldiers – or perhaps we should say, in order to minimise the risk of loss of electoral support for those who launched the war – a global process of polarisation has been begun. In Western countries, people were finding they rather liked the war. Meanwhile Arab and Muslim public opinion has swung very strongly towards Iraq and Saddam. He probably has majority support even in Syria and Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s populace seems to be against him, but there has been some dissent, and there is no knowing how strong it might be growing in places where western journalists do not go or among people they do not talk to.

There is a worrying prospect of pro-Western Arab regimes being overthrown over the next few years, with the even more worrying possibility also of further Western interventions to save them. Most worrying of all is the possibility that people like Hurd and Bush might actually want such a future, as an alternative to a peaceful world in which America would lose its leadership to the more efficient and productive economies of Japan and the European Community, and in which Britain would have no special role as America’s close and special ally.

The New Right might prefer a future in which a whole series of wars are fought to defend small states or unpopular rulers against the bulk of the Muslim world. They might see them as ideal foes in a permanent war economy – unlike the Russians, who were serious opponents capable of either winning or else destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust. They would see the Muslim world as nice safe enemies, who can be fought conveniently at the same time as their oil wealth is diverted into the West’s economy.

Not everyone in the establishment would go along with such a future. Heath and Healey have not. Major will go whichever way the wind blows, as will Kinnock. For now, it seems to be blowing in favour of Hurd and Bush. The technically brilliant overrunning of the Iraqi army and the wanton slaughter of Iraqi soldiers and civilians may not in fact save Western lives in the long run.


The Patriot Game

Labour’s chances of winning the next election are now fairly small. The party has allowed Neil Kinnock to impose unprecedented personal power on it, but he cannot use it coherently. He can do nothing coherent, because he is a lapsed leftist who dare not follow the dictates of his own heart. If he had had a real change of heart – like Dennis Healey, who was once a member of the Communist Party – that would be another matter. But Kinnock has lapsed from leftist grace, attracted by the prospect of power, rather than genuinely changing his ideas. And because every move is calculated against the dictates of his own heart, most such moves are not calculated very well.

De Valera was successful in Irish politics because, as he put it, he could look into his own heart and know what the nation would want. Kinnock has to avoid looking into his own heart and work out consciously what will be a vote winner. An increasingly large number of people know that this is just what he is doing. Cynics can sometimes be effective politicians, when no more is needed than to keep everything ticking over safely and when they are whole-hearted in their cynicism. For that task, we already have John Major. Kinnock, though he often acts cynically, also sometimes lets his heart get in the way of all his calculations.

Having decided that Labour must be a loyal and subservient opposition on the matter of the Gulf, Kinnock then baulked at the last minute. His sudden insistence at the eleventh hour that sanctions should be given time to work was irrational. It was a cop-out. To have left hundreds of thousands of troops sitting uselessly in the desert while waiting for sanctions to work would have been ridiculous. The right time to protest was before those troops were sent. Alternatively, he could have taken the bull by the horns and demanded that Saddam be given something, as both Ted Heath and Dennis Healey were suggesting. But the little word appeasement scared him off. Even though the West had been backing and arming Saddam up until last year, he accepted the ludicrous argument that the man was suddenly a threat to world peace who had to be crushed at all costs. He agreed that Labour would go along with the Crusade. (The word was not used, because it would obviously have a nasty sound to Arab and Muslim ears, but Crusade is what it is, with the same mix of greed and self-righteous anger that attended the crusades of the middle ages.) Kinnock said he would back the crusade – but when the critical moment came, when the House of Commons debated the matter just before war was due to start, he baulked.

Kinnock had worked out what he considered to be a pragmatic policy. But when it came to the point, when a blatantly unjust war was about to be launched with the full support of the UN and the Archbishop of Canterbury, when brave young British airmen and soldiers were about to be sent to die against an enemy cynically armed and made powerful by the West over the past few years, sent to die destroying military installations that British businessmen had made fat profits constructing, he gagged, his heart rebelled, he dithered on the absurd point of continuing sanctions.

Hurd, Thatcher, Major, Bush and Saddam Hussein are all righteous in their own eyes. They can follow policies that will cause untold death and suffering with a light heart and clear conscience. Kinnock, however, is not righteous in his own eyes, and it is a devastating handicap. He had agreed to go along with the war, and then acted weakly in the sight of everyone at the most critical moment. He could be neither a Socialist-Patriot nor a Socialist-Pacifist nor a Socialist-Internationalist. Perhaps a new term should be invented for him: Socialist-Ditherer.

Kinnock used to be an impressive orator. But in those days, he was righteous in his own eyes. He may have played small tricks to get what he wanted, but he basically believed in what he was doing. These days, he flounders as leader of the opposition because he dare not trust his own instincts. His instincts would reveal him as still a Footite at heart. But it is more than a personal fault: Labour is full of lapsed Leftists who are now Socialist-Ditherers. Kinnock accurately represents a large class of people within Labour politics: the people who successfully stopped radical socialist reform through industrial democracy in the 1970s, and then saw their own state-socialist alternative crumble in the face of Thatcherism in the 1980s. They cannot recognise that Thatcherism was a result of mistakes by Labour leaders in the 1970s, because it was they themselves who made many of the mistakes that let her in. “Pragmatically’, they act as if nothing besides Thatcherism had ever been possible, and as if the only possible future for Labour is to be Thatcherism with a slightly nicer face.

At the end of January there was a sudden revision of the war aims. People began to state openly what we in the Bevin Society had long known to be the war’s true aim, the destruction of Iraq. The Iraqi army was scheduled to be destroyed, whatever it does. This was a moment when Kinnock could have struck, occupied the moral high ground by saying that it was a betrayal of stated principle as well as a guarantee of lining up the Arab world behind Saddam. But he was not righteous in his own eyes. He did not believe in what he was doing, and had not done so for the past few years. He could not take a moral stand, because he would have had nothing to stand on. Labour’s official line· has remained a dithering no-and-then-again-yes, with no one having any clear idea what Kinnock would be doing if he was in Ten Downing Street instead of Major.

Again, when the Russians did get Saddam to agree to pull out of Kuwait, without getting anything from the West in return, he dithered again. First he supported the plan, and then he backed off.

There is a strong probability that Major will call an election this June, claiming it is the normal time for such a thing, as it has been during the Thatcher era. He will call it with high and rising unemployment, with a deep and worsening recession, with the weakest and worst-performing economy in Western Europe after more than a decade of uninterrupted rule by his party. Yet Major may well win, because Kinnock will look totally implausible as an alternative. Kinnock is an appeaser of Tories, just as Neville Chamberlain was an appeaser of Fascists. And like Chamberlain, he will discover that each concession only paves the way for more.

Labour has its Neville Chamberlain. The one silver lining in Labour’s more or less inevitable defeat is that at least we will then be rid of him. Can Labour then find a Churchillian figure to turn defeat into victory? Time will tell. It was after all Labour that imposed Kinnock on itself: the man was merely responding to what a lot of people wanted. He has only been openly opposed by people who are out of the race for jobs and power, which is not encouraging. Labour without Kinnock will be no improvement if there is no regeneration of its ideals.


Slick and economical with the truth

The Economist has a problem with reporting the Gulf War. Its role in the world is to be the voice of a world-wide English-speaking thinking bourgeoisie. It is a medium through which opinions within the governing class can be intelligently formed and changed. It cannot turn itself into a propaganda journal, like most of the rest, since that would mean that the bulk of this governing class would no longer understand what it was doing or why (and risk suffering the fate of the Soviet elite, which told so many lies and so little truth that it can no longer act coherently). Yet in the case of the Gulf War, to display too much of the truth would be risky. A large measure of double-think is necessary: an uneasy shuffling between abstract morality and greedy pragmatism, when neither method would yield the ‘right’ answer if applied consistently.

The Economist for February 2nd said:

“… the prospect of war began to fade; the power of money began to look greater than the power of guns. Deficit-ridden America was down; the big names of the new order were Germany and Japan. Then came Mr Hussein. In six months he has shattered the first new world order. It will take time to build a second one.”

Economist readers are presumably supposed to believe that it was the ubiquitous Saddam Hussein who bullied poor little America into starting a process that has shattered the peaceful world that was starting to emerge in 1990. Saddam alone created a new situation in which America has recovered its hegemony, Germany and Japan are left confused and Iraq vastly weakened. That sort of thinking would be in the wider reaches of ‘if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything’.

No doubt readers are supposed to grasp the half-made point that the war is not about protecting rich weak greedy Arab rulers, but about restoring America’s position in the world after Japan and Germany have been unfair enough to disbelieve the New Right and flourish wonderfully as a result. Yet they cannot actually say this either. Because if you think about it seriously, it seems likely that Britain and America will merely do further damage to their own economies while building up unrealistic expectations of what the UN can and should do.

There is also the matter of the oil slicks. The Economist, being the place where people expect to find hard facts not available elsewhere, must have felt obliged to tell the truth rather than repeat the propaganda that the bulk of the media has been putting forward. Two essential facts have got quite wide circulation. One is that there are a number slicks, and that those released deliberately by the Iraqis are not the same as the inshore one killing the wildlife, which came either from Iraqi shelling of a Saudi oil refinery or American bombing of Iraqi tankers. The second is that the oil could have clogged up Saudi desalination plants, as much a legitimate target as the Iraqi bridges, roads and power stations that now lie in ruins.

The third essential fact has mostly stayed out of the mass media. Tam Dalyell has mentioned it, but very few other people seem to have picked this up. But The Economist (February 2nd, p 20) is also aware of it.

“Despite disclaimers from the official spokesmen, the slick could hamper the allies’ military operations… all ships take in sea water, usually to pass it through heat-exchangers and cool down machinery… Ships operating in seas coated with a thick sludge of crude oil would run the risk of fouling their heat exchangers, which could then make electronic equipment fail or damage the ships’ engines.”

That is to say, the oil releases were not ‘eco-vandalism’, but a rational if unsuccessful military move.

One wonders what might have been said, if the Iraqis had defended themselves against amphibious landings by setting the sea on fire so that their enemies either burnt or suffocated. They must certainly have considered such a tactic – because it was what we British had prepared for the Germans in World War Two, if the intended invasion of England had ever actually been launched.


From Hungary to Lithuania

The Baltic states should be blaming Bush more than Gorbachev for the way they were cracked down on back in January. Britain and France robbed the Hungarians of whatever small chance they had of being left alone by the Suez conspiracy and invasion back in 1956. 35 years later, Britain and America seem to have messed up the limited chance the Baltic states had, by deciding that Saddam was to be humiliated or destroyed rather than simply negotiated out of Kuwait.

I doubt if either case was really an accident. From the point of view of the British Foreign Office what happened to both the Hungarians and the Baits might even be seen as a desirable by-product of other larger operations. Hungary challenged Khrushchev to show if he actually believed his own talk about ‘socialist democracy’ replacing Stalin’s dictatorial methods. But the FO had nothing to gain by the successful development of socialist democracy in Eastern Europe. Whether or not a real democratic renewal of socialism was possible it was certainly nothing they would have been wanting. Let popular power be destroyed in Hungary, and let the other side have the odium for doing it. Meanwhile a similar populism was scheduled to be destroyed in Egypt, although this part of the operation failed to come off.

Now look at the USSR today. The sort of solution proposed by Boris Yeltsin, a popular renewal of the state on a democratic basis, would not be to the FO’s taste. The loss of Eastern Europe has ended Russia’s position as a superpower or serious threat But the sort of peaceful democratic world that seemed to be emerging before the Gulf crisis was whipped up would leave them as a semi-redundant department serving a dwindling middle-sized power. A relatively weak, unattractive and unpopular military dictatorship in Russia would guarantee the FO a continuing important role in the world. And the whole Gulf crisis, with Russia for several months being used by the West against an old ally, was bound to enrage the Soviet military.

Russia has now returned to its normal cold-war role of counter-weight to the West. That’s bad news for the Balts and all of the other small nations who hoped to be allowed to quit the Soviet Union. It is also bad for peace. Even a very cut-down Soviet Union would still have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the rest of the world.

The serious alternative would be a world in which all nations have the right of self-determination, and in which the UN could enforce this right effectively, without China, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and America being able to put their own questionable actions ‘off limits’ by use of the Veto. In 1990, there was at least a small chance of such a world developing. It would have given the Balts their best chance of developing as free and independent nations. And to have peacefully negotiated Iraq out of Kuwait would have improved the chances of such a ‘new world order’. But of course, that was the last thing America wanted. For the time being, Bush has stopped it coming into being. And the future for the Baltic states is not at all bright.


Driving the Iraqis out of Iraq

Even the worst of wars can have its moments of humour. Some are when real thoughts get mixed up with written or spoken words, after the fashion of Mime in Wagner’s Siegfried.

It was on a late night Channel 4 program that I heard a commentator talk about “driving the Iraqis out of Iraq“. Naturally, the ‘anchor man’ instantly reminded him that he must mean drive them out of Kuwait. But I can’t help feeling that he was right first time.

More recently, on the 19th of February, the BBC’s Ceefax teletext service had the headline “Only Iraqi Civilians hit, says King.” The report in fact detailed how our own dear Tom King was saying that only the Iraqi military were a target But the ‘error’ ran for several hours until it was finally spotted and corrected.


666 and all that

Iraqi propaganda has been good at getting Arabs on their side – although Bush was their best propagandist, doing things like setting a deadline of noon Washington time for the solution of a Middle Eastern problem. He has pleased his own people, and alienated the Arabs. In his victory speech, he said “Seven months ago, America and the world drew a line in the sand.” He barely even bother to conceal his view of Arabs as worthless sand sitting on top of useful and valuable oil. He started the ground war after setting a deadline of noon, Washington time. He called a cease-fire at midnight, Washington time. The first operation was called Desert Shield’. Issue 85 of Planet, the Welsh Internationalist magazine, has an Arab describing how the Saudis ‘translated’ it into Arabic as ‘Kingdom Shield’. Yet it was followed by ‘Desert Storm’. He has treated the Saudis with contempt Since they have not yet protested, that contempt is clearly justified. It remains to be seen what, if anything, the ordinary Arabians will do about the matter.

The Iraqis have been clever at winning over people who are very similar to them. But they missed several tricks that could have been used to worry the Americans. The American Christian Right – self-styled Fundamentalists, although they blandly ignore those bits of the bible that don’t suit them, and pay great heed to many things that are not in the bible at all – are quite a superstitious bunch. They might think it significant that the Emir who was kicked out was Kuwait’s 13th ruler. Moreover, he came to power in 1977, so that you could say his overthrow came in his 13th year of rule. One of the resolutions condemning Iraq was Resolution 666. It was passed by thirteen votes to two, on the 13th of September.

None of this should be a cause for worry: the war was certainly a bad business, but even those who believe in a supernatural end-of-the-world should not be expecting it just yet Superstitions over the number 13 is quite modem. Certainly, medieval trials of witches do not mention covens of 13 – it is a much more recent notion. 666 is an expression in Arabic numerals of the value “six hundred threescore and six” that is mentioned once in the Book of Revelations. (Chapter 13.) It was not until the middle ages that Christians started using Arabic numerals (which were actually of Hindu origin, but came to Europe from the Arabs, along with many other aspects of advanced civilisation). The numerals 666 would have been totally meaningless to Christians in the era when the Book of Revelations was written, and for many centuries afterwards. Of course, I suppose that True Believers would consider that such considerations should not be applied to prophecy.

The Book of Revelations makes a certain sort of sense if read as a commentary on and protest against the upheavals in the Roman world after the overthrow of the Emperor Nero. And if six hundred threescore and six is written in Latin numerals, as DCLXVI, it could be taken as code for the initial letters of a sentence protesting against him. Or perhaps someone else. Or it may have some completely different meaning, in the context of beliefs . that have since been forgotten. The number is even six hundred and sixteen according to some texts.

For that matter, the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are not quite as the popular version has them. You find them in Chapter 6 of Revelations. Death on his pale horse is there, and two other figures on red and black horses are close to the standard War and Famine. But in place of Pestilence is a figure on a white horse who seems to stand for Conquest. He’s actually the first named, but has been squeezed out of popular mythology. Maybe he had a demarcation dispute with War.

When Mr Ronald Nelson Reagan was first elected to the White House, there were some jokes about him having three names of six letters each. Indeed, his notions of ‘star wars’ could have lent themselves to apocalyptic interpretation. But the Christian Right in America has never let the bible get in the way of their prejudices. Few of them give much regard to the principle of ‘love your neighbour as yourself, defined by Jesus as one of the two greatest commandments. Just as the Saudis reinterpret the Koran’s clear requirement for religious freedom for Christians and Jews so that they can forbid any such worship from their kingdom, so the Christian Right reinterpret loving your neighbour as a pretext for hating everyone not of their own narrow little sect.

Reagan ended up making the world a much safer place that it had been. Bush has made it rather more dangerous again. If I believed in Satanic machinations, I know where I would be looking for them.



These Newsnotes appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at