Sunday, 17 August 2014

Seumas Milne – the eternal adolescent Marxist: ISIS and US

Guardian is my favourite paper. And among its many formidable writers I have a particular penchant for Jonathan Freedland, Nick Cohen and Alex Andreou. Not that I always agree with them, but they write beautifully and tend to offer alternative perspectives combined with acknowledging the unbearable relativistic complexity of being.

Then there are writers like Simon Jenkins whose prose is admittedly sublime, but only harps on about the utter miserability of things. It’s commendable to be critical of societal phenomena, but if that’s all you can be – critical and moanful – you come across as being as unconstructive as the phenomena you condemn.

Then there’s Seumas Milne, a Guardian pontiff who persistently pontificates about the perpetual evil that is the west, particularly the pernicious US. Milne too can churn out some fine passages, being in possession of an enviable ability to summarize complex aspects on a few laconic lines. This quality is however consistently compromised by his unrestrained dogmatism.

If Jenkins is the eternal miserabilist, Milne is the eternal adolescent Marxist. I like reading him, but mainly because it soothes my ego as it confirms how far I’ve come from the socialist – and omniscient – 20 year old with a big heart, to the current social liberal 40 year old whose heart is still big but now complemented with a humble, pragmatic brain.

The quinquagenarian Milne hasn’t come that far. Yet.

And so it happened again this week, when Milne wrote a piece on the current crisis in Iraq, primarily on the US military intervening to reportedly save tens of thousands of refugees from the brutal onslaught of the Islamic state (ISIS); a jihadist army who has vowed to systematically destroy peoples’ not adhering to its interpretation of Islam. 

Since overrunning northern Iraq in June, there have been much horrific evidence of ISIS putting its money where its mouth is. This is an army that even al-Qaeda has disowned for being too brutal – reminiscent of that cartoon in which Hitler is refused entry into hell by a disgusted and terrified Devil (who suggests Hitler go start his own Hell instead).

Seumas Milne. The immutable adolescent Marxist

In Milne’s article, all the events were filtered through that blinkered prism of his –  a prism embossed with names such as Pilger and Chomsky – with the end result amounting to such a disingenuous selection and presentation of ‘facts’ it would have impressed the (detestable) likes of David Irving and Robert Faurisson.

That politics in general – and perhaps US foreign policy in particular – is hypocritical is hardly a revelation. But hypocrisies’ are not by default malign. As long as one acknowledges that pragmatic cynicism is part and parcel of the political game, such hypocrisies’ can even turn out to be predominantly true, even benign, in a broader perspective.

Milne however does not do broad perspectives. He’s of that leftist ilk that denounces the US no matter what. If Washington hadn’t intervened, he’d be on his ivory tower barricade scorning the US for not taking responsibility for once. As long as he can paint the US as the Great Satan (and Britain as the Little Satan), he doesn’t care how many thousands of people who die. And he shouldn’t feign that he does.

In the article Milne has tried to force all the worms into that black & white box labelled 'US-always-bad' (a box any self-respecting dogmatic Marxist must keep). And he does it magnificently bad. Any reader who swallows his piece must be immensely ill-informed. Reality is a tad more complex and nuanced than Milne (always) portrays it. How about assessing each individual case on its own merits? Just like I personally opposed US intervention in Syria last year, I support US intervention in this specific case and context. US military force has been wrong many times, but that doesn’t make it wrong all times. It’s just lazy loony leftism to refuse to see that.

So let’s dissect the contents of the article. We’ll start with the United Nations (UN), seeing as Milne claims that:

“after decades of lawless unilateralism, any armed intervention for genuine humanitarian protection clearly has to be authorised by the United Nations to have any credibility

Decades of unilateralism? UN e.g. authorized the humanitarian intervention in Lybia 2011. That is, the legal multilateral intervention that Milne denounces on the grounds that it:

“ratcheted up the death toll by a factor of about 10 and gave cover for rampant ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate killing”

So seeing that it was UN sanctioned, shouldn’t Milne blame the UN? Legal multilateralism no good either? What is it, Milne, make up your mind? Perhaps you’re bitter because by the UN giving the US the right to stop Gaddafi from committing genocide on his own people – which he had sworn to do – you lost an opportunity to lambaste the US for not stopping Gaddafi from committing genocide on his own people.

Milne writes that:

“In 1999, Nato’s air campaign in Kosovo, also without UN authorisation, triggered a massive increase in the ethnic cleansing it was meant to halt

It is sad that Guardian can allow a writer to employ techniques normally used by revisionists like aforesaid Irving and Faurisson. The fact of the matter is that Nato’s intervention 1999 did not only halt but it put a final stop to the cleansing. Would Milne have preferred if the cleansing had continued, only in a slower pace? Also, remember that in this case the US were saving a Muslim population from being terrorized by Christians.

Milne goes on to suggest that “there are several regional powers that could deliver” air cover for the Iraqi refugees instead of the US. One wonders if Milne is aware that those powers would ultimately have needed US backing anyway (military infrastructure, equipment, service, intelligence). I think it safe to assume that if any of those powers had intervened Milne would have condemned them as US stooges.

Milne writes that: 

“It might be said that the latest US bombing campaign in Iraq has greater legitimacy because the Iraqi government appealed for support”

Indeed, and not only has the Iraqi government appealed to the US, so too have several of those “regional powers”. But, Milne continues, the Iraqi government appealed for air support:

“back in June, after which Obama stayed his hand until the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, could be replaced with someone more acceptable to the US”

So Milne would’ve supported US bombings in June? To buffer up that beacon of non-sectarianism and creator of stability al-Maliki (there’s not a hint of criticism towards Maliki in Milne’s piece)? Who would’ve funk it, Seumas Milne siding with hawkish right-wingers in denouncing a US president who refuses to use military means unless there is a possibility of a long-term political solution. Who would’ve funk it, indeed.

I know that to your dogmatic ilk, Milne, all US presidents look alike, but please try to understand that Obama – despite many flaws – is not a Bush, Nixon or LBJ. He opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and put a final end to that war. He has been opposed to intervene again, and although the humanitarian situation has forced him to act now – combined with strategic concerns for the Kurdish enclave – he concurrently and consistently stresses that there must be prospects for a long-lasting political solution if the US is to get involved any deeper. Hence, Obama is obviously of the same opinion as you, Milne, that to ultimately defeat ISIS, to use your words:

“demands a decisive break with the sectarian and ethnic politics bequeathed by a decade of war and intervention”

For any such break to stand a smidgeon of a chance Maliki had to go, and you know it. And I’m also sure you know that the new Iraqi PM is not only “someone more acceptable to the US”, but also to that Washington poodle – the Grand Ayatollah of Iran – who has been pivotal in fanning the flames of pro-Shia sectarianism in Iraq and buffering up Maliki, only to see it now blow back in his face in the form of ISIS (who is e.g. financed by Saudi Arabia; that is, Iran’s main regional foe against whom Iran is fighting proxy wars in Iraq and Syria). It was more Tehran than Washington that was exerting its influence when Maliki finally stepped down earlier this week.

Milne writes:

“If the aim were solely to provide air cover for the evacuation of [the refugees], there are several regional powers that could deliver it. The Iraqi government itself could be given the means to do the job

To a certain extent it was. But it failed. Abysmally. And if it had been successful Milne would nonetheless have condemned it as a US stooge, just like with the regional powers.

Milne writes:

“In fact, the force that has done most so far to rescue [refugees] has been the Kurdish PKK, regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey”

Qualified drivel! PKK has undoubtedly provided important reinforcements, but the Peshmerga is the one and only Kurdish force of importance, not only in rescuing and defending refugee corridors but also – obviously – in consistently protecting the relative safe haven that is Irbil with surrounding Kurdish areas.

And in any case, Milne hereby admits that Kurds with weapons can rescue the refugees. So why does he complain about supplying them with arms, be they PKK or Peshmerga? If you lambaste the US (wrongly) for not giving the Iraqi government the military “means to do the job”, why complain when Kurds are given the means?

Milne writes about:

“The danger of the US, Britain and others being drawn again into the morass of a disintegrating state”

Here I agree. It is very dangerous. There is a significant risk of a blow-back. But in this extreme situation, the moral imperative supersedes much of the realpolitik. Also, as Colin Powell once put it: “If you break it, you own it”. Thus, the US has a particular responsibility towards Iraq.

And this is a US with a president wary of deploying military force. A president who was elected to end wars. A president who is of the judicious opinion that any deeper US involvement in Iraq should be conditioned to support the creation of an inclusive government in Baghdad – primarily appealing to disenfranchised Sunnis. This is the only viable long term solution if Iraq is to stay together and ISIS not gain support.

An inclusive Iraqi government who in turn can invigorate the Iraqi military, where commanders are not selected on basis of sectarian monopoly and nepotism (like with Maliki), but on a combination of meritocracy and ethnic quotas; an able military that reflects Iraq’s groups and is supported with infrastructure and intelligence by the west. This is the only chance of consolidating Iraq and fighting down ISIS without the latter gaining more support.

Before the US intervention a couple of days ago, this seemed a complete impossibility. Now, it seems to at least be a distant possibility.

But, I repeat, as long as Milne can paint the US as the Great Satan, he doesn’t care one iota about the people who die and suffer. And he shouldn’t act as if he does. It just makes him look as deceitful as the US foreign policy he condemns.