By Stephen Gowans
Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has been hailed as a champion of human rights and democracy. His jailing by Chinese authorities for inciting subversion of the state is widely regarded as an unjust stifling of advocacy rights by a Chinese state intolerant of dissent and hostile to ”universal values”. But what Western accounts have failed to mention is that Charter 08, the manifesto Liu had a hand in writing and whose signing led to his arrest, is more than a demand for political and civil liberties. It is a blueprint for making over China into a replica of US society and eliminating the last vestiges of the country’s socialism. If Liu had his druthers, China would: become a free market, free enterprise paradise; welcome domination by foreign banks; hold taxes to a minimum; and allow the Chinese version of the Democrats and Republicans to keep the country safe for corporations, bankers and wealthy investors. Liu’s problem with the Communist Party isn’t that it has travelled the capitalist road, but that it hasn’t traveled it far enough, and has failed to put in place a politically pluralist republican system to facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of an unrestrained capitalist economy.
Liu taught literature at Columbia University as a visiting scholar, but decamped for his homeland in 1989 to participate in the Tiananmen Square protests, bringing with him the pro-imperialist values he imbibed in the United States. For his role in the protests—which ultimately aimed at toppling Communist Party-rule and promoting a US-style economic and political system–he served two years in prison.
Liu is committed to a pluralist political model and untrammelled capitalist system of the kind he witnessed firsthand in the United States. Charter 08, the Nobel committee, the US government, and the Western media have all anointed free markets, free enterprise, and multi-party representative democracy as “universal values”. The aim is to discredit any system that is at variance with capitalist democracy as being against universal values and therefore doomed to failure.
Liu served more jail time in the 1990s for advocating an end to Communist Party-rule and conciliation of the CIA-backed Dalai Lama, the once head of a feudal aristocracy who owned slaves and lived a sumptuous life on the backs of Tibetan serfs, before the People’s Army put an end to his oppressive rule.
Liu’s latest run-in with Chinese authorities happened in December, 2008 after he signed Charter 08, a manifesto he helped draft. The charter was published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms (UDHRF) and is a reference to Charter 77, an anti-communist manifesto issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia. While the UDHRF endorses economic rights (the right to work and to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control), the only economic rights Charter 08 endorses are bourgeois privileges. In that respect, it is hardly in the same class as the UDHRF and, significantly, is emblematic of the kind of truncated human rights protocol favored in the United States.
On June 24 of last year Liu was charged with agitation aimed at subversion of the Chinese government and overthrowing the socialist system. He was convicted and is now serving an 11-year sentence.
The Western press describes Charter 08 as a “manifesto calling for political reform, human rights and an end to one-party rule”, but it is more than that. It is a manifesto for the untrammelled operation of capitalism in China.
The charter calls for a free and open market economy, protection of the freedom of entrepreneurship, land privatization, and the protection of property rights. Property rights, under the charter’s terms, refer not to the right to own a house or a car of a toothbrush for personal use but to the freedom of individuals to legally claim the economic surplus produced by farmers and wage laborers—that is, the right, through the private ownership of capital, to exploit the labor of others through profits, interest and rents.
While capitalism thrives in China, it does not thrive unchecked and without some oversight and direction by the Communist Party. Nor is China’s economy entirely privately owned. Many enterprises remain in state hands. The drafters of Charter 08 have in mind the elimination of all state ownership and industrial planning–in other words, the purging of the remaining socialist elements of the Chinese economy. At the same time, the Communist Party as the one mass organization with a programmatic commitment to socialism (if only to be realized in full in a distant future) and which zealously preserves China’s freedom to operate outside the US imperialist orbit, would be required to surrender its lead role in Chinese society. Political power would pass to parties that would inevitably come to be dominated by the Chinese bourgeoisie through its money power. (1) Rather than being a country with a mix of socialist and capitalist characteristics presided over by the Communist Party, it would become a thoroughly capitalist society with bankers and captains of industry firmly in control, their rule governed by the need to enrich their class, not make progress toward a distant socialism by raising standards of living and expanding the country’s productive base.
The charter also calls for the implementation of “major reforms in the tax system to reduce the tax rate”, and to “create conditions for the development of privately-owned banking.”
The US State Department itself could have written a manifesto no more congenial to corporate and financial interests.
Charter 08’s champions gathered 10,000 signatures before Beijing blocked its circulation on the Internet. While the Western media cite this as evidence of a groundswell of support for the charter’s demands (though 10,000 represents an infinitesimally small fraction of a population of one billion), the ANSWER Coalition in the United States has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to letters calling for the lifting of the US blockade on Cuba, a level of opposition to US policy that dwarfs Charter 08’s support. Yet ANSWER’s collection of signatures in opposition to a policy aimed at promoting the interests of US capital is virtually ignored in the Western media, while a smaller movement that would benefit US capital is presented as having widespread backing. This, of course, is not unexpected. The Western media quite naturally represent the interests of the class of hereditary capitalist families and financiers from whose ranks its owners come. The class nature of capitalist society and patterns of ownership within it mean that the mass media construct a reality congruent with their owners’ interests.
Likewise, the Nobel Prize, founded by a Swedish chemist and engineer who amassed a fortune as an armaments manufacturer, is not free from politics. The Nobel committee, a five-person committee selected by the Norwegian parliament, has strayed quite a distance from Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. In his will, Nobel set out conditions for establishing and awarding the prize. “The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” While arguments may be made on either side of the question of whether Liu’s actions are praiseworthy, there is no question that trying to organize the transformation of People’s China into a replica of the United States of America, and getting arrested for it, amounts in no way to working for fraternity between nations, abolishing standing armies, or the holding of peace congresses.
A further double standard is evident in the condemnation of China’s crackdown on anti-communist dissent—one of the goals of awarding Liu the Nobel Prize (the others: to legitimize Charter 08 and demonize Communist Party-rule in China.) The reality is that any revolutionary society, if it is to successfully defend itself against counter-revolution, must limit the rights that would be used to organize the revolution’s reversal. To place political and civil liberties ahead of the preservation of the revolution, where the revolution is aimed at improving the economic condition of Chinese peasants and workers, would be to declare political rights to be senior to economic rights. Liu has clearly worked toward a counter-revolution that would push economic rights to the margins and bring the rights of the owners of capital to organize society exclusively in their interests to the fore. Allowing Liu to freely organize the overthrow of the current system and to replace it with one modelled on the US political and economic system would be to set political liberties above goals of achieving independence from imperialist domination and building the material basis of a communist society.
Other societies—including those which trumpet their credentials as liberal democracy’s champions—have freely violated their own pluralist and liberal principles to counter individuals, movements and parties which have threatened the capitalist mode of property ownership. The history of Western capitalist democracy is replete with instances of states running roughshod over their own supposedly cherished liberal democratic values, from the persecution, harassment and jailing of labor, socialist and communist militants to the banning of strikes and left political parties to open fascist dictatorship. Whenever militant leftists have seriously threatened to disrupt the tranquil digestion of big business profits, their freedom to openly advocate, organize and act has been abridged. Think of the Palmer raids in the United States, jailing of anti-WWI activists, the purge of communists from the civil service and Hollywood, the banning of the Socialist Workers Party, and the suppression of the Black Panthers. Similar practices were replicated in many other capitalist countries. In Italy and Germany, strong workers’ movements were suppressed by fascist dictatorship.
This is a pattern of behaviour so recurrent as to have the status of a social scientific law. The state, whether in capitalist or revolutionary societies, almost invariably violates rights of advocacy, free association, and the press, in order to preserve the dominant mode of property ownership wherever it is seriously under threat.
As a matter of politics, restrictions on the rights of individuals, movements and parties to openly advocate and organize the overthrow of the current economic system are good or bad depending on what one’s politics are. Nationalists in liberated countries will approve restrictions on the rights of foreigners and colonial settlers to own productive property unchecked; measures to prevent movements from encroaching on capitalist interests will be deemed warranted restrictions by capitalists; and communists will oppose the right of individuals and groups to openly organize a capitalist restoration within socialist societies, just as republicans opposed the right of individuals and groups to openly organize the restoration of monarchies within republican societies.
While Liu is cleverly portrayed by the Western media as a fighter for human rights and democracy, his organizing for low taxes, call for the jettisoning of the remaining elements of China’s socialism, and promotion of a robust capitalism, have received virtually no Western media attention. It is difficult to persuade people that capitalism is “a universal value”, and Liu’s commitment to making over China into a replica of the United States—with its economic crises, bail-outs for wealthy financiers and mass unemployment for the rest—is hardly the kind of thing that is going to marshal much popular support. Hence, the Western media have wisely (from their point of view) dwelled on Beijing’s seemingly unjustified crackdown on dissent and failed to elaborate on Charter 08’s implications for China, while playing up Liu’s advocacy of the pleasant sounding terms, democracy and human rights, pushing his commitment to free markets, free enterprise and low taxes into the shadows. Carrying out all the charter demands would almost certainly result in China being sucked into the US imperialist orbit, and whatever chances the country has of achieving socialism, would be forever dashed.
For anyone concerned with the promotion of economic rights, or the weakening of US imperialism, or with the chances that socialism might one day flourish in the world’s most populous country, the Nobel committee’s attempt to lend credibility to Charter 08 by conferring its peace prize on Liu Xiaobo is hardly to be welcome. It is as inimical to the interests of peace and the welfare of humanity as was last year’s awarding of the prize to US President Barack Obama, who has expanded the number of countries in which the US is waging war, and has tried to create the illusion that the continuing US combat mission in Iraq has ended by renaming it. Likewise, Liu has done nothing to advance the welfare of humanity. His remit, as that of last year’s peace prize winner, is to expand the interests of the owners of capital, particularly those based in the United States. He deserves no support, except from the tiny fraction of the world’s population that would reap the benefits of Charter 08’s demands. Instead, it is Beijing’s action to preserve its freedom and independence from outside domination, and to maintain elements of a socialist economy, that deserve our support.
1. The Chinese Communist Party has, with justification, rejected “Western-style elections …(as)a game for the rich.” As a party representative explained: “They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors and become spokespeople for the minority.”
Edward Wong, “Official in China says Western-style democracy won’t take root there,” The New York Times, March 20, 2010
See also Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, “Do supporters of Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo really know what he stands for?” The Guardian (UK), December 15, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
In political contests the objective of each side is to discredit the opposition, and when that can’t be done, to silence it. This is done to prevent the opposition from persuading others to take its point of view. If one side can persuade others to its position, it can count on their support and possibly gain an advantage over the other side.
While all sides seek to silence their opposition, or at least, to marginalize it, they often present themselves as being champions of free speech, prepared to jump into the rough and tumble of the free market of ideas, confident their ideas will, through their sheer force, prevail. If they seek to silence the other side, it’s not because they oppose free speech, but because they’re against “propaganda” and providing platforms to “monsters.” By contrast, their own propagandists are not to be understood as propagandists. Nor do they promote the views of monsters. Instead, they are neutral, objective and balanced.
Coverage of foreign affairs in the West is almost wholly dominated by news media that are controlled by the wealthy, operating to amplify the views of the Council on Foreign Relations and high state officials who are either wealthy themselves or owe their position to the patronage of the wealthy and will likely end up at the CFR when they leave their government positions. But for a few obscure publications, coverage of foreign affairs is dominated by the interests of the rich; that is, of investment bankers, corporate lawyers, the chairmen of corporations and members of hereditary capitalist families. Even those who write for obscure publications that profess to take an alternative view are usually so immersed in the received media wisdom that they either can’t escape it on all matters, or are afraid to escape it on some, for fear of being dismissed as extreme.
In countries that have taken a strong anti-imperialist stand, the Western media monopoly is often broken. In these countries, some media outlets, usually state-controlled, provide a point of view that radically departs from that of Western ruling classes. This deprives the wealthy in the West of monopoly control of the means of persuasion. Accordingly, they try to disrupt and disorganize media that challenge their monopoly.
In Zimbabwe, state owned newspapers, including The Herald and The Sunday Mail, reliably present the point of view of the Mugabe government. The Western media criticize these newspapers as “Mugabe’s mouthpieces,” which, in large measure, they are. But while Western media criticize The Herald and The Sunday Mail for reflecting the point of view of the Zimbabwe government, they hide the fact that they too are mouthpieces – not of governments directly, but of the wealthy interests that own them, and indirectly, through the inordinate influence the wealthy exert on Western governments, of Western governments, too. Some of the competing media outlets in Zimbabwe, from community newspapers to SW Radio Africa and the Voice of America’s Studio 7, are mouthpieces of the US and British governments that fund them. The rabidly anti-Mugabe SW Radio Africa, for example, bills itself as the independent voice of Zimbabwe, but operates on funds from the British and other Western governments and Western ruling class foundations. There is nothing independent about it.
Arrayed against Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspapers are “six anti-Mugabe weekly newspapers, three based in Harare, two from South Africa and one from the UK, and all freely distributed in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.”  On top of these are the US government’s Studio 7 and the British government’s SW Radio Africa, plus the ubiquitous – and uniformly anti-Zanu-PF – Western media.
Despite the formidable weight the West has thrown behind anti-Mugabe media, it has still found virtue in going beyond countering The Herald’s and The Sunday Mail’s content, to seeking to intimidate its journalists. In July 2008 the EU announced it was expanding sanctions to include Munyaradzi Huni, the political editor of The Sunday Mail, and Caesar Zvayi, the former political editor of The Herald and a frequent contributor to the newspaper.
Zvayi is nothing, if not anti-imperialist and committed to the Mugabe government’s efforts to invest Zimbabwe’s nominal political independence with real economic content. He describes the Movement for Democratic Change, the Western-created and -guided opposition party, as “a counter-revolutionary Trojan horse that is working with outsiders to subvert the logical conclusion of the Zimbabwean revolution,”  rather than as an organic expression of grassroots Zimbabwean opposition, as Western propagandists would have it. He likens Zanu-PF’s political platform to “getting beyond the façade of flag independence to full socio-economic empowerment of the historically disadvantaged Africans,”  rather than as a program to enrich Mugabe and his cronies, the Western media line. To Zvayi “Zimbabwe represents the last frontier in Africa for the struggle between black nationalist resistance and Western neo-colonial encroachment by proxy,”  rather than the accustomed Western media view of the country as a former breadbasket that has become a failed state owing to “disastrous” land reform policies.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which says it “seeks ways in which to promote the free flow of information and co-operation between media workers,” refused to condemn the sanctions the EU slapped on Zvayi and Huni. MISA is funded through USAID by the US State Department, through The Westminster Foundation for Democracy by the British Parliament, and through Fahamu by the European Union, the British Department for International Development, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Small wonder then that MISA refused to condemn the EU’s sanctions on journalists.  Zvayi, who landed a job as lecturer at the University of Botswana, was later fired and booted out of the country by its president for his association with The Herald.  It seems Botswana puts as little store in the free flow of information as MISA does. Predictably, MISA uttered not a word of protest about Botswana’s actions.
The Zimbabwe Guardian, also known as TalkZimbabwe.com, is a British-based online newspaper that offers a radically different take on what’s going on in Zimbabwe than found in the Western media, or in Western government-funded “independent” news sources, like Studio 7. While it would be going too far to say the newspaper is a Mugabe mouthpiece, it is conspicuously absent of the hysterical anti-Mugabe line that marks the British-based SW Radio Africa. This refusal to contribute to the limitless demonization of Mugabe has landed the online newspaper in hot water in the UK. On December 14, the UK newspaper, The Observer, reported that,
“…there are concerns that a website that carries articles written by UK-based Zimbabweans is acting as a propaganda machine for the Mugabe regime. Talkzimbabwe.com started life as a critic of Mugabe but in recent months has positioned itself strongly behind him and against his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Sekai Holland, a veteran political activist who has been targeted by the Mugabe regime, said she was worried the site had been ‘infiltrated’ by Zanu-PF supporters. ‘It’s very dangerous,’ Holland said. ‘This website is being used to spread stories in support of Mugabe.’” 
This portended the beginnings of a campaign of intimidation to disrupt The Zimbabwe Guardian for refusing to toe the West’s anti-Mugabe line. The campaign was given momentum when Lance Guma invited the website’s founder, Itayi Garande, onto SW Radio Africa’s “Reporters Forum.” Guma told Garande,
“A lot of people are saying in view of targeted sanctions that target people who are said to be aiding and abetting the regime and Mugabe, you qualify under that criteria, because you are supporting the regime from here in the United Kingdom and as a result you should be deported. What’s your response?” 
It was clear from what followed that Guma wasn’t particularly interested in Garande’s response; what he was interested in was building momentum for Garande’s eviction from the country and demonizing anyone who publicly challenges Western propaganda. This echoed an earlier media campaign to have an expatriate Zimbabwean who writes opinion pieces for The Herald fired from his job as a London transit worker for “aiding and abetting Mugabe,” that is, challenging the West’s campaign of vilifying the Mugabe government.
Interestingly, SW Radio Africa Guma’s view boils down to this: if you’re not writing propaganda for us (i.e., SW Radio Africa’s sponsors, the former colonial master, Britain) you’re writing propaganda for the other side. Guma would never use the word “propaganda” in connection with SW Radio Africa, though it’s clear that’s what Radio SW Africa does: it propagates a point of view (one congenial to British financial and corporate interests.) Garande, too, writes propaganda, as does anyone who writes to persuade others. The relevant question is: is the content of the persuasive communication true or false, and should someone be fired from his job, deported or sanctioned for writing it? The normative question can be skirted by pointing out that whether it ought to happen or not, it does happen, and it happens often. There is no free environment of public advocacy, no limitless freedom for one to say whatever he pleases with impunity, and there never has been. As George Galloway points out, no one could have marched through the streets of London in 1941 urging support for Hitler and escaped punishment. Today, it many places, no one can deny that Nazi Germany sought to systematically exterminate Jews without facing a jail sentence. You can say that journalism is different from persuasive communications related to political views, but that accepts the fiction that journalism is politically neutral. It never is, whether in the journalism of The Herald, The Zimbabwean Guardian, Radio SW Africa or The New York Times.
Political battles can be waged as much at the level of ideas as on the streets or in the battlefield. Those who engage in battle accept that as a consequence of joining the battle they may face adverse consequences, including death. While those who wage the battle from the field of persuasive communications face less severe penalties (though some are occasionally killed) they’re no more immune from some form of injury than a guerilla or insurrectionist is; they may be fired, deported or sanctioned.
As to the normative question, the answer depends on which value you place higher: the victory of your side in a political battle, or the right of others to advocate an opposing view to marshal support to defeat your side? When conflict represents exploitation versus the end of it, the question becomes, which is senior: The right to be free from exploitation or the right to justify it? There are similar conflicts: between protection of children from sexual exploitation and the right of pedophiles to advocate the production of child pornography; between the right of Africans to achieve true independence and the right of imperialists to demonize anti-imperialist movements to undermine them. Public advocacy rights ought never to be senior to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression. If they are, free expression becomes more important than freedom from exploitation. Inasmuch as exploiters, by virtue of the wealth that is the fruit of their exploitation of others, are likely to have greater access to platforms that allow their free expression of ideas to count, the view that the right of public advocacy is inviolable and absolute is congenial to their interests, but not to those of the exploited. The exploited and oppressed need to struggle to create their own platforms, and preserve the few they have, from the depredations of exploiters who would silence them, by intimidation or otherwise; at the same time, they must be prepared, where they have the upper hand, to subordinate the right of free expression to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression.
1. New African, May 2008.
2. TalkZimbabwe.com, August 1, 2008.
3. The Herald (Zimbabwe), May 29, 2008.
5. The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 26, 2008.
6. The Herald (Zimbabwe), August 9, 2008.
7. Jamie Doward, “Key Mugabe ally is free to live in London,” The Observer (UK), December 14, 2008.
By Stephen Gowans
The Canadian government has disavowed a training document written by its own bureaucrats that lists the US and Israel as countries that abuse prisoners and practice torture.
Officially, the Canadian government says the US and Israel aren’t torture states, no matter what its internal documents – or Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem, an FBI investigation, the UN and photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib — say.
But Ottawa also says officially that Afghanistan doesn’t practice torture, despite the fact that the “Canadian military secretly stopped transferring prisoners to Afghanistan’s government in November after Canadian monitors found evidence that they were being abused and tortured.” *
Canadian soldiers began transferring prisoners to Afghanistan at the end of 2005. Prior to that, prisoners were handed off to the US military for interrogation. Ottawa ordered its troops to stop transferring captured fighters to the US when fears were raised that the prisoners were being abused and tortured.
While the government of Canada is willing to play along with the deception that the US and Israel don’t torture prisoners, its actions add to the weight of evidence that the US is not the beacon of democracy, freedom and human rights its leaders say it is.
* New York Times, January 24, 2008
By Stephen Gowans
An internal document of the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department has listed both the United States and Israel as countries that potentially torture and abuse prisoners.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkens, says his country’s inclusion on the list is “offensive”, as if the Canadian designation of the U.S. as a country that practices torture is a baseless slander, rather than a near certainty based on mountains of evidence.
A perusal of newspaper headlines over the last few years at the very least makes the case that there’s reason to believe the U.S. and Israel abuse prisoners, if not torture them.
For example, on October 6, 2007 The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department in 2005 authorized the CIA to use torture techniques that produce no permanent physical injury.
You can quibble about whether non-injurious interrogation procedures are torture, but anyone who is subjected to such techniques, which include simulated drowning, have no illusions about whether they’re being tortured.
The United Nations agrees. On May 19, 2006 the world body concluded that the use of so-called extreme interrogation techniques – torture without permanent physical injury — is a violation of the U.N. Convention against Torture.
Consider this headline, from the British newspaper the Guardian, dated May 7, 2007, summarizing the findings of the Israeli human rights groups The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem: “Palestinians ‘routinely tortured’ in Israeli jails”.
Guantanamo Bay, identified by the Canadian government as a place where torture is likely practiced, has a deservedly infamous reputation. As British cabinet minister Harriet Harman asked, “If there’s nothing wrong with what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay, why isn’t it in America?”
The answer to that question was offered by the FBI on January 2, 2007. According to a Bureau investigation, captives at Guantanamo Bay were chained to the floor for 18 hours or more, forced to urinate and defecate on themselves, and were subjected to extremes of temperature. A United Nations investigation declared these acts to be tantamount to torture.
Gauntanamo isn’t the only prison that is deliberately located outside the U.S. Locating prisons on foreign soil allows U.S. interrogators to escape the restraints U.S. law imposes on abuse of prisoners at home.
On June 9 of last year, The New York Times revealed that the Council of Europe confirmed suspicions that the U.S. operated secret prisons in Europe. Prisoners were abused and tortured, according to the Council.
On January 7, The New York Times reported that prisoners held by the U.S. at Bagram prison in Afghanistan are subjected to cruel treatment. This was according to the Red Cross, which says the U.S. routinely keeps prisoners away from its inspectors. Bagram, it’s said, is worse than Guantanamo.
Prisoners are being abused at other U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, as well. Human Rights Watch said it has separate consistent accounts from eight men detained at a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan of being tortured.
And let’s not forget the abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. On March 7, 2006 The New York Times reported that Amnesty International had found that the U.S. had committed “widespread abuses in Iraq, including torture.”
What, then, should we make of the inclusion of the U.S. and Israel on the Canadian government torture list – misguided and baseless, or simply a reflection of what has been clear to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last five years?
If the U.S. ambassador is astonished, he hasn’t been paying attention.
There are dozens of US client states whose leaders fit the description “cruel dictator” who most people don’t know rig elections, jail opponents, close newspapers and start wars. On the other hand, there are a few leaders, invariably elected, who preside over governments that pursue traditional leftist goals of socialism or escape from neo-colonialism or both who many people understand incorrectly to be cruel dictators (Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Alexander Lukashenko, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe.) Government officials, news media and even many leftists in the West reserve the term cruel dictator for the opponents of imperialism, while saying virtually nothing about the real dictators who defend and promote Western strategic and economic interests at the expense of their own people. This essay focuses on Robert Mugabe, one leader the West vilifies as a cruel dictator, and compares the accusations made against him with the records of such US allies as Hosni Mubarak, Meles Zenawi, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Mikheil Saakashvili and Pervez Musharraf.
By Stephen Gowans
The government of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is accused by Western governments and assorted left-wing groups of breaching the civil and political liberties of Zimbabweans and of operating a human rights horror show. Were all of the accusations against Mugabe’s government true, Harare’s actions would still pale in comparison to those of scores of other governments that imperialist powers support and the anti-Mugabe left says nothing about. While the left critics of Mugabe are vociferous in their condemnation of the Zimbabwean president, and prepared to accept uncritically all damning accusations against him, they remain virtually silent on the grave assaults on civil and political liberties carried out by US client states.
The charge sheet against Mugabe includes intimidation of political opponents, restrictions on press freedoms and electoral fraud. But there are dozens of US client states whose leaders steal elections, shut down newspapers, arrest bloggers, jail opposition leaders and ban opposition political parties. These assaults on civil and political liberties are as grave, if not graver, than anything the Mugabe government has been accused of, and yet the leaders of these governments are not widely vilified in the West (though they are in their own countries.) The point, here, is not to engage in apologetics by saying that even if we assume all the charges against Mugabe are true his actions are still minor in comparison to those of scores of other governments, but to ask why imperialist powers, their media, and assorted left-wing groups remain virtually silent on the grave human rights violations committed by scores of other governments. Why Mugabe and not Seles or Mubarak?
Those who rail against Mugabe as Africa’s great anti-democratic Satan appear to have failed to recognize that, in every country in north Africa, Islamist opposition parties have been banned. Significantly, these parties are acknowledged to be sufficiently popular to win large parliamentary blocs, if not outright majorities. (1) While Mugabe is accused of using the state to intimidate Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, he has never banned it, though some would say as a Western-created and funded organization, Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, the MDC, ought to be banned. The MDC was cobbled together through funding provided by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the British equivalent of the US National Endowment for Democracy. The NED does overtly what the CIA used to covertly (i.e., destabilize foreign governments.) Both the Bush administration and the British government acknowledge that they are working with the opposition to bring down the Mugabe government. (2) Certainly, neither the US nor Britain would tolerate outside interference in their own electoral politics. Zimbabwe, held to a higher standard, is expected to, and does.
While Zimbabwe is sanctioned and demonized by the US, Egypt’s government, whose leader Hosni Mubarak rules with an iron fist, is showered with Washington’s largesse, and only occasionally shows up on the radar screens of the West’s anti-Mugabe left. Mubarak, and his son Gamal — who is expected to succeed his father as president, and not through means that would be considered fair in the West — are regarded by Egyptians as US lackeys. (3) Mubarak bans the Muslim Brotherhood, a party strong enough to unseat him, and by implication, to end US domination of Egypt. He also jails opposition figures, locks up bloggers who criticize him, but receives over $1 billion a year in US military aid. The US may present itself as the world’s champion of civil and political liberties, but it rewards dozens of states that severely limit formal political rights with billions of dollars in aid. In return, foreign strongmen keep their countries open to US trade and investment, carry out proxy wars on Washington’s behalf, and repress their own populations.
Late last year, Mubarak announced a full-scale retreat from the social security gains of the 50s and 60s. The socialist principles the country adopted in the 60s would be scrapped to establish conditions more favorable to the profit-making interests of US banks, corporations and investors. (4) This came in the wake of strides the government had already taken to impose neo-liberal reforms, which have seen illiteracy rise and social services crumble, in a country teeming with the poor.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned since 1954, has moved in to fill the gaps left by the retreating state, setting up clinics, nurseries and after-school tutoring. (5) Hezbollah, in a similar way, has built support in southern Lebanon by providing social services the state won’t provide. Not surprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity has soared. Its members, running as independents, contested 161 seats in the 454 member Egyptian parliament, and won 88 of them. Mubarak countered by rounding up hundreds of party members (paralleling the Israeli practice of jailing Hamas legislators.)
The comparison with Zimbabwe is instructive. The MDC operates freely and has contested elections. But unlike the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the freely operating MDC favors a neo-liberal tyranny. This is no surprise, given the MDC’s connections to the dominant economic interests in Britain and the United States.
In September, an Egyptian “judge ordered a year’s hard labor for the editors of four leading opposition newspapers, saying they had made the ruling party, Mubarak, and his son Gamal, appear dictatorial.” (6) Had Mugabe jailed the editors of Zimbabwe’s opposition newspapers, complaining they had portrayed him as a dictator, the story would be blanketed across the Western media, state officials in the West would howl with outrage, and demands would be made for immediate intervention to turn back Mugabe’s intolerable tyranny. Soon after, three more opposition journalists were sentenced to two year prison terms for impugning Egypt’s justice system. On top of this, an Egyptian human rights organization was banned. One thousand of its members have been jailed over the past year. Perhaps all the indignation of newspaper editorial writers, Western state officials, and various left-wing groups was exhausted in denunciations of Mugabe. It certainly hasn’t been exhausted in denunciations of Mubarak.
Jordan, a centralized monarchy with a largely ceremonial parliament, jailed government critic Toujan al-Faisal for criticizing the state’s auto-insurance policies. Author Ahmad Oweidi, who wrote e-mails critical of the government, was arrested for harming the government’s reputation. (7) By comparison, the Mugabe government not only tolerates critics but also tolerates those who openly call for its forcible removal. Hajia Aminata Sow, a retired Guinean jurist attended NGO meetings in Zimbabwe at which “speaker after speaker openly advocated for forcible removal of Mugabe’s government.” She was astonished the speakers weren’t arrested. (8) The principal leaders of the opposition routinely threaten violence to drive Mugabe from office, but nevertheless remain free to continue to call for insurrection. MDC faction leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s threats began early on, and have continued since. In 2000, he told Mugabe that if he didn’t step down peacefully, “we will remove you violently.” (9) The then Archbishop of Bulawayo Pius Ncube told the London Sunday Times that he thought “it is justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe.” He complained that though he was ready “to lead the people, guns blazing” nobody was willing to follow him. (10) Last Easter, the Roman Catholic Church posted messages on church bulletin boards around the country calling on Mugabe to leave office or face “open revolt.” Mugabe’s failure to step down, the Church warned, would lead to bloodshed and a mass uprising. (11) Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway MDC faction, pledged to “remove Robert Mugabe…with every tool at my disposal.” Asked what tools he was referring to, Mutambara replied, “We’re not going to rule out or in anything – the sky’s the limit.” (12) Unlike Jordanians Toujan al-Faisal and Ahmad Oweidi, who were jailed for merely criticizing their government, Tsvangairai, Ncube and Mutambara are free to issue threats to remove the Mugabe government through extra-constitutional means, to call on foreign powers to impose sanctions, and to importune a former colonial power to intervene militarily – a freedom few governments, including those in the West, are willing to grant. In light of revelations that Britain has considered attacking Zimbabwe on several occasions (13) and that the US is bankrolling opposition activities aimed at regime change (14) some measure of restriction on fifth column activities is wholly justified and is a necessary part of defending the gains of Zimbabwe’s program of breaking free of neo-colonial domination. If Mugabe is to be criticized, he should be criticized for allowing agents of imperialism too much latitude, not too little.
On top of the Jordanian government’s other affronts to civil and political liberties, it can be faulted for drawing electoral boundaries to favor rural areas in which support for pro-government parties is strong, threatening to ban election monitors, and ordering soldiers to vote for pro-government candidates. (15) Such blatant contempt for basic standards of representative democracy, displayed by the Mugabe government, would elicit howls of outrage from Whitehall and indignant editorials calling for immediate action, from an escalation of sanctions to military intervention. But Jordan, a US ally, can practice a tyranny that exceeds anything Mugabe is accused of, without comment. George Bush calls Mugabe’s government “a brutal regime.” (16) Washington’s March 2006 National Security Strategy refers to Zimbabwe as a “stronghold of tyranny.” Jordan, which fits these categories, is called neither of these things.
In the Philippines another US ally, president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is waging an all-out war against communist militants. Karapatan, a Philippines human rights organization, has documented 900 cases of extra-judicial killings, in which the Philippine military has hunted down militants and summarily executed them. Human Rights Watch complains that in failing to prosecute members of the military implicated in the killings, Arroyo has failed to uphold international law. But the larger crime lies in the fact that an all-out war (i.e., one outside the rule of law) is being waged to eliminate a militant opposition. (17) Dispatching the military to take out members of a political opposition, even if it is a militant one, would be loudly decried as a heinous crime, meriting military intervention on humanitarian grounds, if undertaken by a leader of a country resisting imperialist domination. Were the Zimbabwean military to hunt down MDC militants for summary execution, there would be no end to the incensed cries for justice from the West. It’s no so outlandish to suggest a war crimes tribunal would be established, and the accused dragged before the court. Arroyo, however, can hunt down and exterminate as many militant opponents as she likes, with little fear anyone in the West will notice, and even less fear of being dragged before a tribunal. Tribunals are reserved for leaders who resist imperial domination, not accept, welcome and promote it.
In Zimbabwe, “there are frequent calls by the opposition party and its allied trade unions for street protests. Once, in what they termed as the ‘Final Push’, the opposition called for a march on the State House, the seat of government, for its overthrow. No government folds its arms in the face of such provocations. And when the police are used to restore law and order, it becomes a human rights violation.” (18) That is, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere outside the US imperial orbit. Inside, it becomes a justified police action to restore law and order.
The Mugabe government was roundly criticized earlier this year for a crackdown on demonstrators, especially when police beat Morgan Tsvangirai, who had tried to force his way past police lines into a police station. Demonstrations had been banned in the wake of several fire-bombing incidents, but the opposition chose to defy the ban. When the police moved in to disperse demonstrators, the opposition, predictably, cried foul, and the Western media, NGOs (funded by Western governments), opposition newspapers, and Western state officials echoed the cry.
Not too many weeks later, 900 German police officers swept down on 40 sites in half a dozen German cities in a “show of force against potentially violent demonstrators” who were planning to protest outside the G8 summit. German authorities said they were investigating 18 people they believed were planning fire-bombings. (19) Although clearly intended to intimidate a civil opposition movement, no hue and cry was raised at the heavy-handed tactics of the German police. The protests that accompanied the actions of Zimbabwe’s authorities were, however, deafening, even though actual, and not anticipated, fire-bombings had occurred in Zimbabwe. A show of force by 900 Zimbabwean police swooping down on hundreds of MDC activists to prevent possible fire-bombings would have been denounced by state officials, journalists and various left groups in the West as blatant political intimidation, the work of a strongman. The German incident passed virtually unnoticed.
Ethiopia and Somalia
The Meles government of Ethiopia receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid from the US and Britain. These injections have been used to build one of the largest and strongest armies in Africa, which stands ready to be deployed to enlarge and defend US and British economic and strategic interests in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian forces invaded neighboring Somalia late last year at the behest of US officials, a blatant violation of international law on par with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, for which Ethiopia has not been censured at the UN, bombed by a coalition of the willing, or sanctioned by the international community. No one has denounced Meles as a strongman, said the world would be a better place without him, or deplored the humanitarian disaster the invasion has touched off. An estimated 850,000 Somalis have been displaced, almost one-tenth of the population. (20) The New York Times acknowledges that “the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa may not be unfolding in Darfur” but in Somalia. (21) The head of the United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia complains that “if this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss.” (22) But it’s not happening in Darfur, it’s happening in Somalia, as a result of an illegal invasion undertaken by Ethiopia, assisted by US military forces, and at the request of the United States. It’s for this reason there has been no big fuss. Washington had pushed for the invasion to oust a popular Islamist government Somalis had embraced and to restore the rule of the unpopular US-backed government that US firms had been planning undercover missions to support, with the full knowledge of the CIA. (23) For doing the West’s bidding in this and other ways, the murderous Meles was handpicked by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair to sit on Britain’s Commission for Africa, to lead the “African renaissance.”
Meles’ repugnant behavior goes further than this. Following Ethiopia’s May 2005 general election, which the opposition claimed was rigged, Ethiopian authorities opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people. Thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were rounded up and jailed. Meles asked that the death penalty be imposed on 38 opposition leaders, including the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. The court rejected Meles’ request, but imposed life sentences (overturned after the US, embarrassed by its client’s actions, intervened.)
Meles is all that Mugabe is accused of being, and more. He’s a strongman who rigs elections, and then beats, shoots at, jails and threatens to execute the opposition when it protests. He’s a war criminal. And he’s the architect of an unfolding humanitarian tragedy. Yet 99 percent of those who rail against Mugabe have never heard of Meles. How curious that Meles, whose government has engaged in far more repressive actions than any Mugabe has even been accused of, is showered with honors and aid, while Mugabe is treated as Africa’s version of Hitler. How curious that such patently silly charges as come from some fairly visible Western leftists can be made (among them that Mugabe is, appearances aside, an agent of imperialism ), while the same people have next to nothing to say about such conspicuous agents of imperialism as Meles and Mubarak.
Only recently, after Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf invoked a state of emergency, has Western media coverage and left-wing commentary got around to lambasting Musharaff for his restrictions on civil and political liberties. Significantly, this sudden concern for human rights coincides with Washington’s realizing that Musharraf has lost control and bungled the war against militants on Afghanistan’s border. The Bush regime is making clear to Pakistan’s military, and in particular, to the favored successor to Musharraf, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that the $1 billion in military aid it receives every year is in jeopardy, unless Musharraf is gently pushed aside. Washington would like a civilian president to be appointed to douse the flames of growing civil unrest, who would call for new elections. De facto power, however, would remain with the military, and, by implication, with Washington, through the leverage over Pakistan’s military its substantial military aid provides.
One would think the sudden flowering of concern for human rights in Pakistan is a reflection of Musharaff doing a sudden about-face, but the Pakistani strongman is doing nothing new. He has been arresting opposition activists and blocking transmission of TV coverage critical of his rule for some time, and he has been doing so with the full knowledge of his paymasters in Washington. (Pakistanis call their president Busharraf, an acknowledgement of Musharraf’s role as a proxy for Washington.) Even so, the various left-wing groups, and the Western media, who seem to know no limit when it comes to denouncing Mugabe’s government for imagined lapses, have been largely silent on the human rights violations of Musharraf’s government, until now. Now that it serves US interests to harp on Musharraf’s generous abridgment of liberties in Pakistan in order to justify his removal have the Western media and pro-imperialist left decided to loudly condemn Musharraf.
While there are two state-owned newspapers in Zimbabwe, The Herald and Sunday Mail, most newspapers, including the Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard, Financial Gazette, The Zimbabwean and The Mail & Guardian of South Africa are pro-opposition and are sold freely on the streets. You would think, from the tales that are told about Zimbabwe, that there are no opposition newspapers and that they have all been closed by a tyrannical government that brooks no opposition. On the other hand, press freedoms are restricted in dozens of countries in which US strongmen rule as virtual dictators, and yet these affronts against freedom of the press are barely acknowledged, let alone condemned. This is another case of the Mugabe government being demonized for something it hasn’t done, while those who are actually engaged in practices the Mugabe government is accused of, get a pass because they are US client states.
The list of US allies that have jailed journalists or banned newspapers or both is endless. An impartial list, counting only recent crackdowns on press freedoms: Saudi Arabia, a human rights horror show if ever there was one, but one that rarely provokes much complaint from Western state officials, the media and the left groups that deplore the Mugabe government, recently banned a leading Arab newspaper, al-Hayat, because one of the newspaper’s columnists criticized the government.” (24) In September, Egypt’s Mubarak government sentenced four newspaper editors to one year jail sentences, and sentenced three journalists to two-year prison terms, because they criticized the government and made Mubarak look like a dictator. (25) In Georgia, the darling of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, has moved to crush the Rose Revolution II, in part by violently closing down the country’s most popular television station, because, he said, it was fomenting a coup. (26) Predictably, the people power enthusiasts who thrilled at protests against US target governments in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe, have shown no interest in the people power protests of Hezbollah supporters against the US-supported Lebanese government or of Georgians against Washington’s man in Tbilisi, Saakashvili. It seems that what represents a genuine expression of people power depends on whether it is instigated and bankrolled by the West and elevated to significance by the Western media.
Saakashvili deserves more attention from the anti-Mugabe left than he gets. The color revolution poster boy is described by many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who marched against his government in early November in a way that is reminiscent of the picture the anti-Mugabe forces paint of Mugabe. He is described as “domineering and abrasive.” His opponents accuse him of “hoarding and abusing power, and of running the nation through a clique that will neither tolerate dissent nor engage in dialogue with the opposition, which Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly made clear he despises and considers weak.” On top of that “the government also faces pressure from rising prices and lingering underemployment” and “economic conditions remain difficult enough that many Georgians travel abroad for work.” (27) Surely, those who thunder against Mugabe should be expressing their outraged indignation at Saakashvili, for, in the real world, Saakashvili is all they imagine Mugabe to be. Tony Blair’s chief of staff for 10 years, Jonathan Powell, says that Britain should intervene militarily in Zimbabwe, rather than standing back and watching Zimbabweans suffer. (28) He’s silent on Georgia.
Charges of Economic Mismanagement
On top of accusing Mugabe of rigging elections, repressing the opposition and stifling a free press, the Zimbabwean president is also accused of grossly mismanaging the Zimbabwean economy, turning the breadbasket of southern Africa into a basket-case. Even if you show that all the other accusations against Mugabe are gross hyperbole at best, and that there are dozens of other governments doing with impunity what Mugabe’s government is falsely accused of, one charge remains: Mugabe has wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy by carrying out a misguided land redistribution program.
There’s no doubt Zimbabwe is in the grips on an economic crisis. Food and electricity shortages plague the country. But not all of Zimbabwe’s economic problems are unique. In fact, many of its problems are part of a wider pattern of scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa. Last summer, The Washington Post (29) pointed out that “daily power outages are forcing Zimbabweans to light fires to cook and to heat water.” The result is that wood poaching has stripped nearly 500 acres of conservation woodland. But what the Post didn’t point out was that it’s not only Zimbabweans, but people throughout sub-Saharan Africa, who are stripping forests bare to provide heat and cooking fuel. (30) Because rolling power blackouts are depriving southern Africans of electricity to cook their food, they’re turning to wood fires. Drought, climbing oil prices, and the chaos caused by the privatization of formerly state-owned power companies have created an “unprecedented” power crisis that not only affects Zimbabwe, but Zambia, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Togo. Even South Africa was hit by rolling blackouts in January and sporadic power failures continue to bedevil the country.
But it is in Zimbabwe alone that the electricity shortages are attributed to economic mismanagement. The Washington Post noted that Zimbabwe’s “power, water, health and communications systems are collapsing,” and that “there are acute shortages of staple foods and gasoline.” These problems are attributed to economic mismanagement and Harare’s land reform policies. But acute food and gasoline shortages are common to neighboring countries. If Zimbabwe is short of gasoline, “Uganda’s gas stations are…short of diesel for vehicles.” (31) If there are shortages of food staples in Zimbabwe, there are close to two dozen other sub-Saharan countries that are contending with food scarcity, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Since neighboring countries have not pursued Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform policies, and have tended to shy away from the economic indigenization policies Harare favors, gasoline, electricity and food shortages can hardly be attributed to policies uniquely pursued by Harare.
The US and its Western allies use sanctions to pressure Zimbabwe to adopt policies that welcome, promote and defend foreign ownership. The former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, urged Mugabe to “implement the market reforms the IMF and others, including the United States, have been recommending.” Dell emphasized “the importance of a free-market economy and security of property,” which is to say, abandonment of the expropriation policies Harare has used to redistribute land to Africans. (32) It’s clear that sanctions would be lifted if Mugabe were to return Zimbabwe to neo-colonialism.
The sanctions, imposed by the US and EU, deny Zimbabwe access to international development aid. NGOs, following the Western governments that provide their funding, have also cut off assistance. These aren’t trade sanctions, but even so they have a devastating bite, making region-wide drought and the oil-price-rise-induced energy shortages more acute. It may seem as if Mugabe has mismanaged the economy, but Zimbabwe’s economic troubles are exogenous: drought and oil price increases, worsened by economic sanctions. In a pastoral letter issued last spring, 13 Anglican bishops and one canon of the Anglican Church, observed that Zimbabwe’s economic troubles have “been exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed by the Western countries” which have “affected the poor Zimbabweans who have borne the brunt of the sanctions.” The clergymen called upon “the Western countries to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe.” (33) To paraphrase Tim Beal, who has followed the effects of sanctions on north Korea, sanctions have three great advantages for the West. They cause virtually no pain to Americans and Europeans, they produce no Western casualties, and the results – the misery of ordinary Zimbabweans – can be blamed on Mugabe, which in turn is produced as evidence the sanctions are desirable and necessary. (34)
Edward Herman points out that “in the real world, both Musharraf and the Shah of Iran fit comfortably the category of ‘cruel dictator,’ whereas (Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad does not.” And yet when Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University this year he was a called a ‘cruel dictator’ by university president Lee Bollinger. When Musharraf visited Columbia, Bollinger showered the Pakistani strongman with praise, calling him “a leader of global importance” and gushed “it is rare we have a leader of his stature at campus.” (35) Likewise, while in the real world Musharraf, Mubarak and Seles fit the description of cruel dictators, Mugabe, who was elected in a contest the Southern African Development Community declared to be free and fair, does not. Still, if you polled 100 people who claim to be well-informed, 99 would, like Bollinger, echo a line that reflects the interests of Western powers in demonizing a leader who opposes “our interests” and “our values”, to borrow the rhetoric of Blair advisor Jonathan Powell. What it’s important to recognize is that “our” does not refer to you and me, but to the dominant economic interests of the US and Britain, who would profit from Mugabe adopting IMF reforms, a free market, and safeguarding the property rights (of foreign firms and descendants of European settlers.)
What Western state officials and the media who amplify their words say about Zimbabwe should be considered critically and treated with the skepticism that is due highly partial sources that have well-established records of making false accusations (Western governments) and uncritically propagating them (the Western media.) One need point no further than the weapons of mass destruction that never were to make the case that what the US and Britain say and the media passes on should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism. In taking on the project of liberating the country from neo-colonial domination, the Mugabe government has challenged powerful interests in the West. We should expect that Western governments, Western news media and NGOs (which are funded by wealthy Westerners to promote their privileged interests under the guise of doing good works) to be hostile to the Mugabe government, and to portray it accordingly. By the same token, we should expect these same forces to portray the affronts against international law and civil and political liberties of states that act to defend and promote privileged interests in the West in a dispassionate, if not, apologetic manner, according them little notice. The Bollingers and Blairs of the world will continue to bestow honors and flattery upon cruel dictators who serve US and British interests, while reserving the label ‘cruel dictator’ for leaders of struggles against imperial domination. We need not follow the same pro-imperialist practice. Politicians, state officials, university presidents, CEOs, NGOs, and editorial writers are not politically neutral. When we mimic their positions on foreign affairs, we’re not showing solidarity with all oppressed people, though we might think we are in opposing the people dominant Western interests call ‘cruel dictators’. More often than not we’re showing solidarity with people who are accepting money from Western powers to oppose governments motivated by traditional leftist values of socialism or national liberation. At the same time, we’re failing to show solidarity with people oppressed by strongmen the US has brought to power to ensure Western corporate and financial interests prevail over the interests of local populations.
1. New York Times, April 15, 2007
2. Guardian, August 22, 2002
3. New York Times, September 20, 2006
4. Al-Ahram Weekly, February 21, 2007
5. Guardian, July 19, 2007
6. Washington Post, October 1, 2007
7. Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2007
8. Hajia Aminata Sow, “Zimbabwe: Burying the truth,” New African, November 2007
9. BBC, September 30, 2000
10. The Sunday Times, July 1, 2007
11. The Herald, April 15, 2007
12. Times Online, March 5, 2006
13. According to General Lord Charles Guthrie, The Sunday Mail, November 18, 2007
14. US State Department, “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record, 2006”, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/
15. New York Times, November 11, 2007
16. Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2007
17. New York Times, June 29, 2007
18. Hajia Aminata Sow
19. New York Times, May 10, 2007
20. Washington Post, November 14, 2007
21. New York Times, November 20, 2007
23. New York Times, December 14, 2006; Observer, September 10, 2006
24. Financial Times, August 29, 2007
25. Washington Post, October 1, 2007
26. New York Times, November 8, 2007; New York Times, November 18, 2007
27. New York Times, November 3, 2007
28. Jonathan Powell, “Why the West should not fear to intervene,” Observer, November 18, 2007
29. July 28, 2007
30. New York Times, July 29, 2007
32. Christopher Dell, “Response to Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe monetary policy statement,” February 7, 2007
33. Pastoral letter issued by 14 Anglican bishops and one canon of the Anglican Church, Province of Central Africa, April 12, 2007
34. Pyongyang Report, October, 2007, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/pyr9_4.mht
35. “More Nuggets From A Nut House, reprinted from Z Magazine at http://www.globalresearch.ca, November 17, 2007
Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”
By Stephen Gowans
Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.
Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.
Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.
Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”
Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.
The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.
Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.
It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.
For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.
(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.
The arrest by Iranian authorities of U.S.-Iranian scholar Haleh Esfandiari should come as no shock. She is almost certainly guilty of working to foment a color revolution, and governments, especially revolutionary ones, never stand for attempts to reverse their revolutions or to make fundamental changes in the class which wields state power. Whether her arrest was legitimate depends on which rights one believes to be senior: the rights of public advocacy and freedom to organize politically or the rights of self-determination and freedom from foreign domination.
By Stephen Gowans
Few people had heard of Haleh Esfandiari until she was jailed by skittish Iranian authorities who feared she was involved in a U.S. plot to engineer a color revolution in Iran.
The director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Esfandiari had been visiting her mother when she was detained by Iranian authorities in May. She was accused of co-opting Iranians into a U.S.-sponsored regime change program, offering them research grants and scholarships, paying their way to conferences and linking them up with “decision making centers in America.” (1)
This wasn’t the first regime change-related arrest. Last summer, Iranian authorities arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, a scholar with dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship (*). The Ministry of Intelligence said the arrest was made in connection with U.S. efforts “to start a soft revolution in Iran.” (2)
Parnaz Azima, a reporter who works for Radio Farda, a Persian language radio station financed by the U.S. government has also been arrested, as has Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with billionaire speculator George Soros’ Open Society Institute. OSI has been instrumental in providing funding for color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.
While there has been “a spate of recent crackdowns against Iranian activists” reflecting a “concern by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the United States is using democracy advocates to promote regime change,” (3) Esfandiari’s case has received the most attention.
Left scholars, like Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole, have condemned Esfandiari’s arrest, and others have suggested that the Ahmadinejad government is cracking down on legitimate dissent.
But how legitimate, and how independent, are the so-called democracy advocates, Tehran has jailed?
Esfandiari is the director of the U.S. government-established Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. The Center is hardly a neutral body, independent of either the U.S. government or its foreign policy goals. Partly funded by the OSI, the Middle East Program was launched in February 1998 to assess “American interests in the region” and “strategic threats to and from the regional states.” It’s no secret that the U.S. considers Iran to be a strategic threat and considers its interests are best served by regime change in Iran.
Esfandiari’s program, according to the Center’s website, “devotes considerable attention to the analysis of internal domestic and social developments in Iran” including “the aspiration of the younger generation for reform and expansion of individual liberties” as well as the development of “civil society.” (4)
Is it any wonder Iranian authorities regard Esfandiari as a threat? She’s an Iranian living in the U.S., works for a U.S. government-established body, and directs a program whose mandate relates to American interests in the region. The program receives funding from the OSI, which has been instrumental in regime change operations in countries that had remained stubbornly outside the U.S. imperial orbit.
By itself, this is damning, but in the broader context of U.S. policy, it’s difficult to dismiss Tehran’s accusations as either paranoid or contrived.
Bankrolling a counter-revolution
In May of 2005, R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs said the U.S. was ready to hike funding to groups within Iran seeking regime change. The United States had already spent $1.5 million in 2004 and $3 million in 2005 on exile groups with contacts inside Iran. (5)
Burns equated the ramped up spending to “taking a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia, where, as the New York Times explained,” in those countries the United States gave money to the opposition and pro-democracy groups, some of which later supported the peaceful overthrow of the governments in power.” (6)
But it would take longer to spark a color revolution in Iran, Burns warned. “We don’t have a platform to do it. The country isn’t free enough to do it. It’s a much more oppressive environment than Ukraine was…during the Orange Revolution” where the U.S. was able to take advantage of the country’s openness to meddle in its internal affairs. (7)
On February 15, 2005 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed to add $75 million to the $10 million already earmarked for U.S. government programs to “support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.” Two-thirds of the additional funding was to be used to “increase television broadcasting to 24 hours a day all week in Farsi into Iran.” (8)
It’s unlikely that Esfandiari, working for the U.S. government through the Woodrow Wilson Center, and on a program that emphasized U.S. interests in Iran, wasn’t part of the stepped up efforts to oust the Ahmadinejad government.
Mercenaries of non-violent struggle
Equally unlikely is that the Iranian Center for Applied Non-Violence was passed over for Uncle Sam’s regime change largesse. The Center invites Iranians to workshops to teach them how peaceful revolts in Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere were set off. Training sessions are held “every month or so, hoping to foment a non-violent conflict in Iran.” The Washington-based International Center on Non-Violent Conflict helps organize the sessions. (10)
The U.S. Center is interesting. It appears to be a grassroots organization – the kind of group that appeals to Z Magazine-reading activists in the West — but has strong connections to Wall Street and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The Center’s founding chair is New York investment banker Peter Ackerman, who is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR formulates foreign policy for the U.S. State Department. Its key members circulate between the council, corporate board appointments and State Department positions.
Ackerman is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, an organization that champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are insufficiently friendly to U.S. trade and investment. Funded by the OSI, USAID, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of U.S. ruling class activists that have sat, or currently sit, on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others. The only freedom these people are interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please.
Ackerman’s Center has been heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia, which Ackerman celebrated in a PBS-TV documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, about the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. If Ackerman, who studied under U.S. non-violence guru Gene Sharp, is truly committed to the peaceful way, he’s done a terrible job of transmitting a commitment to non-violent change to his children. Ackerman has two sons, one of whom is a U.S. Marine Corps officer, who earned a silver star for service in Iraq, using bombs and bullets to change Iraq’s regime.
The Center’s vice-chair is Berel Rodal, formerly a senior Canadian government official in foreign affairs, international trade, defense, security and intelligence (hardly the background of a budding Ghandi.)
Another Center associate is Robert Helvey, whose book “On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamental”, is promoted on the Center’s website. Anyone who does a little digging into Helvey’s background will soon discover that strategic non-violent conflict means enlisting grassroots activists to bring down socialist or economically nationalist governments in order to privatize their socially-owned assets for the benefit of U.S. corporations and investors.
Helvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. military attaché to Burma (like Rodal’s, an improbable background for a budding Ghandi) who was brought to Caracas in 2003 “by a group of businessmen and professionals to give courses to young activists on how to ‘resist, oppose, and change a government without the use of bombs and bullets.’” (10) Helvey’s dalliances with the anti-Chavez opposition came fast on the heels of “his work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall” where he “briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime.” (11)
What comes after a color revolution?
So, what has happened to Serbia, now that the non-violence loving, dictator-hating Ackerman and Helvey have completed their missions and moved on to plotting the overthrow of other foreign leaders, like Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
“In Serbia dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” (12)
Meanwhile, in the Serb province of Kosovo, the “coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” (13)
It should be recalled that prior to the U.S. corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place investment bankers like Ackerman, or speculators like Soros, are keen on. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations should have been apparent to anyone who read chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.
Helvey hasn’t limited himself to training activists to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Serbia. Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey holding seminars on non-violent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran. “Helvey conducted a week-long course on nonviolent struggle for a group of Iranians in March 2003. The participants were young professionals in exile in the United States and Canada who would be used as spokespeople for various Iranian democracy groups.” (14)
A mercenary of non-violent direct action, Helvey would be a much more sympathetic figure were he also organizing seminars on how to use non-violent direct action to overthrow the U.S., British and other war-mongering Western governments, but somehow his list of targets always seems to line up with the governments Washington wants to overthrow. Helvey and Ackerman aren’t really committed to non-violence as a way of life, but only to non-violent struggle as one of a number of tools to be used (along with air strikes, ground invasion, saber-rattling and economic warfare) to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives – objectives which have nothing to with the stated goals of promoting human rights and democracy and everything to do with putting U.S. capital in the driver’s seat.
Advancing U.S. corporate interests
Iran, as is true of other countries Washington has targeted for regime change, is economically nationalist, and it is this, and less so concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, that lies the heart of U.S. efforts to bring down the Ahmadinejad government. “’Regime change’ did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush,” New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer points out in his book Overthrow, “but has been an integral part of American foreign policy for more than one hundred years…starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1883” (15) and yes, including the overthrow of Iran’s economically nationalist president Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh had nationalized British-owned oil companies. The U.S. engineered his overthrow and then handed the once British-owned and now nationalized oil industry over to U.S. companies.
In his survey of Washington’s addiction to regime change, Kinzer couldn’t help but trip over the centrality of the profit-making interests of U.S. capital in decisions to overthrow foreign governments. American corporations, Kinzer explains, are so powerful that they find “it relatively easy to call upon the military or the Central intelligence Agency to defend their privileges” in other countries. Of course, no one ever says regime change is about profits. Who’s going to rally around fattening ExxonMobil’s, Lockheed-Martin’s, GM’s, General Electric’s and Bechtel’s bottom lines? Regime change is always said to be about something larger: democracy, human rights, freedom, checking the spread of nuclear weapons and combating terrorism.
From the perspective of U.S. corporations and investment banks the problem with Iran is the same as the problem with Yugoslavia under Milosevic and Belarus today. There are too many publicly-owned enterprises, which means not enough room for U.S. investors and corporations to sell their goods and services and to profitably invest their capital. “Today,” observes the New York Times, “Iran’s economy … is almost entirely in the hands of the government.” (16) The country has its own automobile industry, and has secured deals with Venezuela and Syria to produce cars in those countries. Virtually all of the country’s drugs are produced domestically. (17) And, of course, there’s oil. “Iran’s petroleum reserves are the second largest of any OPEC country.” Only “Russia has more natural gas.” (18)
Ahmadinejad represents the economically nationalist wing of the Iranian ruling class, which “advocates state control of the economy, subsidies, continuation of uranium enrichment and the standoff with the U.S.” (19) “His call for justice – primarily economic justice…resonate(s) with a population angered by a perception that it had been denied the benefit of oil wealth.” (20) Iran will spend $25 billion this year to hold down the price of flour, rice, even gasoline. Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost the last presidential election to Ahmadinejad, represents the neo-liberal faction and favors “privatization, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and overtures to the U.S.” (21)
While Tehran’s support for the Palestinian nationalist struggle and the country’s nuclear program may irritate Washington’s policy makers, it’s unclear that these irritants figure prominently in Washington’s regime change policy. Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran approached Washington with a proposal for a broad dialogue, to include “full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian groups.” (22) In other words, Iran would act to resolve all the irritants Washington said were at the heart of its dispute with Iran.
Richard Hass, then head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Washington rejected the proposal because the administration wanted the regime changed. And the administration believed “the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse.” (23) If Ahmadinejad’s government fell, or was toppled from within thanks to U.S.-funded regime change efforts, the neo-liberal, pro-West Rafsanjani would likely be the successor.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, pro-capitalist ideologue Francis Fukuyama asked, “What is it that leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have in common that vastly increase their local appeal?” His answer: “Their ability to promise, and to a certain extent deliver on social policy – things like education, health and other social services, particularly for the poor.” Fukuyama lamented that “The U.S. and the political groups that it tends to support around the world…have relatively little to offer in this regard.” (24)
The Brzezinski warning
Earlier this year, former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski speculated on how Washington might engineer a “plausible scenario for military collision with Iran.” He warned that U.S. military action against Iran could follow “Iraqi failure to meet the benchmark followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure, then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran.” (25)
In late May, Brzezinski’s prediction seemed to be coming true. U.S. officials began to accuse Iran of forging an alliance with al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, and Syria, with the goal of undermining achievement of the benchmarks in Iraq. In addition, the U.S. claimed to have “proof that Iran had reversed its previous policy in Afghanistan and is now supporting and supplying the Taliban’s campaign against U.S., British and other NATO forces.” (26)
Bush has repeatedly warned that while the United States is prepared to explore non-military means of forcing Iran to relinquish its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium, “all options are on the table.”
The Democrats are equally bellicose. “Top Democrats in the House and Senate issued a report” in July 2005 calling for the United States to use “military pressure, including ‘the possibility of repeated and unwarned strikes’” against Iran. (27)
Earlier this year, the U.S. and Britain started to beef up their joint armada of warships and strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf region “in a show of military resolve toward Iran.” (28)
The American Enterprise Institute, a principal fixture of the U.S. ruling class policy formulation network, has been “urging Mr. Bush to open a new front against Iran.” (29) The think tank, whose mandate is to promote free enterprise, counts Coors, Microsoft and ExxonMobil among its major funders. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq originated in a recommendation from the AEI. (30)
“More than 40 major international banks and financial institutions have either cut off or cut back business with the Iranian public or private sector as a result of a quiet campaign launched by the Treasury and State Departments.” (31)
The campaign began last September, when the U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson announced plans to isolate Iran financially, by prohibiting U.S. banks from dealing with Iran. (32) Paulson also strongly suggested that foreign banks follow suit, listing more than 30 Iranian companies and government enterprises banks should steer clear of. Afraid of jeopardizing their access to the U.S. banking system, several European banks, including Credit Suisse and UBS in Switzerland, HSBC in Britain and ABN Amro in the Netherlands announced that they had scaled back their dealings with Iranian banks and enterprises. (33)
Pressure was also brought to bear “on major U.S. pension funds to stop investment in about 70 companies that trade directly with Iran and international banks that trade with the oil sector, cutting off the country’s access to hard currency. The aim is to isolate Tehran from world markets.” (34)
This is part of a “full-court press on foreign companies…to impress them that it would be a mistake to do anything with” Iran. (35)
The Iranian view
Former Iranian Interior Minister and deputy foreign minister Ali Muhammad Besharati told the New York Times last August that, “If we backed down on the nuclear issue, the U.S. would have found fault with our medical doctors researching stem cells. What they would like to see us do is plant corn, make tomato paste and bottle mineral water. They do not want to see us high-tech.” (36)
Support for this thinking comes from the Bush administration itself. Asked whether Iran “might at some point in the future be allowed to enrich uranium on its own soil” “after it has satisfied regulatory bodies that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful” a senior Bush administration official replied “when hell freezes over.” (37)
The Iranian leadership sees the conflict with the U.S. as “a fight for survival against a far more powerful enemy that has lumped them into an ‘axis of evil’ and allocated millions of dollars to oust the government.” The fight is “Tehran’s frontline effort to…never again allow Washington to have the upper hand in Iran.” (38)
It’s no secret that Washington is maneuvering to regain the upper hand in Iran it lost when the U.S.-backed Shah was overthrown in 1979. Washington has a tripartite game plan: threaten air strikes; pressure the world’s banking and investor community to ruin Iran’s economy through financial isolation; build up grassroots activists and exile groups to bring down the government. By these means, Washington hopes to put itself back in the driver’s seat, to reclaim Iran’s resources, labor and markets, and to plunder its publicly-owned assets, on behalf of the U.S. corporations and investors.
Short of capitulation, there’s little the Iranian leadership can do – either to stop the massing of U.S. and British warships and strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf or to stay the quiet campaign of financial isolation the U.S. Treasury Department is pursuing against Iranian banks and enterprises. But it can disrupt U.S. efforts to build a fifth column in the country. Arresting Esfandiari, and other members of the U.S. government and corporate funded complex of regime change groups, is part of that.
Were Iranian authorities justified in arresting Esfandiari? Those who place advocacy rights above other rights will say no. We can place Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole in this group. Neither man, for obvious reasons of self-interest, would like to see much legitimacy given to the idea that fierce opponents of established authority can be locked away for advocating non-violent opposition. This applies even if the critics are on the payroll of a hostile foreign government. On the other hand, those who place more value on the right of societies to be free from foreign domination and meddling will say yes, Tehran was justified.
There are no absolute rights, only conflicting rights whose valence depends on perceived interest. Advocacy rights are favored by corporate groups and the governments they dominate, because they have the money to exercise those rights – and reap the benefits of their exercise — more fully than anyone else does. The class that benefits most from freedom of the press is the class that can afford one.
Rights of economic independence are favored by those who have suffered from economic subordination to a metropolitan power. To them, the right to be free from foreign domination is senior to the right of others to advocate, and organize politically to achieve, the restoration of foreign domination.
What about the interests of ordinary people in the U.S., UK, Canada and other Western countries? Where do their interests lie?
Neutrality or alliance?
There are three views that I know of on this. One says interference in the affairs of other countries is illegitimate. It subverts democracy and the self-determination of other people. Those who hold this view are also likely to say that jailing those who are working to remove a government through peaceful means – even if they’re funded by outside governments and corporations – is also illegitimate. But what happens when these rights clash? Which is senior to the other?
Proponents of this view usually have no answer other than to say that the two rights are equally legitimate and neither cancels the other out. Governments, they contend, shouldn’t be meddling in the affairs of other countries, but equally, victimized governments shouldn’t be jailing the people on the ground whose meddling, however deplorable, amounts to nothing more than political organizing. This is the schoolyard monitor mentality. Johnny shouldn’t beat you up, but equally, you shouldn’t fight back to defend yourself. Like the neutral school authority who abhors the violence of self-defense as much as the violence of the aggressor, proponents of this view refuse to take sides.
Related in its neutrality, but not in the way the neutrality is arrived at, is the view of those who say they are partisans of the working class alone, and since the clash has no direct bearing on the working class per se, there is no need for them to take sides. Indeed, why should they side with capitalist governments, either that of the U.S. or Iran?
A third view says that the defense of the economic independence of countries from the predations of foreign capital is indeed a working class issue, even if the government under threat is not a working class government. The reasoning is that corporations and investors in metropolitan countries become stronger – or at least, avoid crises – as they increase their sphere of exploitation. In one view, this furnishes governments and employers with sufficient wealth to keep the working class in their own country docile with social welfare programs and comfortable living standards.
Alternatively, or additionally, outward expansion averts the otherwise inevitable economic crises in the metropolitan areas that would create momentum for revolutionary change. Since the working class and capitalist class are antagonistic, what strengthens one weakens the other. If Iran’s successfully defending itself from integration into the imperial orbit of the U.S. capitalist class checks growth in the strength of that class, or disorganizes it, the revolutionary possibilities for the working class are strengthened. Proponents of this view, then, are quick to side with governments that resist subordination to the profit-seeking interests of the corporations, banks and investors of their own country.
It’s probably true that Haleh Esfandiari was working to build a U.S. government and U.S. corporate-funded fifth column within Iran to bring down the Ahmadinejad government with a view to installing a pro-Western, neo-liberal government that would open Iran to U.S. exports and investments. Iran’s arresting Esfandiari, as well other mercenaries of public persuasion in the pay of the U.S. government and corporate-backed regime change organizations, is aimed at defending the country from subordination to U.S. corporate interests.
Whether the arrest is legitimate (assuming Esfandiari is guilty of what she is accused), cannot be asserted or denied as an absolute. It depends on which rights are senior – those related to public advocacy and freedom to organize politically or those related to self-determination and freedom from foreign domination. And which right is senior depends on where you’re situated within the global capitalist system.
Iranians who would profit by facilitating U.S. political and economic domination of Iran will favor Esfandiari’s civil liberties. The government of Iran will favor its right to defend itself from outside interference and U.S.-directed regime change. Ordinary people in metropolitan countries who are conscious of belonging to a class, and are able to work through the fog of nonsense on Iran, will take sides, or not, on the basis of strategic considerations: are the interests of the working class advanced by siding with governments resisting integration into an imperialist orbit, no matter what their stripe, or are they advanced by limiting alliances to members of the working class of other countries alone?
There are a number of class-conscious leftists who espouse the latter view sincerely, but there are those who use it as an excuse to climb into bed with their country’s own ruling class, to advance its interests. Left groups that worked to oust the Milosevic government in Serbia have nothing to show for their efforts but a country that is precisely where those leading the charge against Milosevic wanted it to be: subordinate to U.S. corporations and investors. Left groups that are working to oust the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe will have achieved, if they’re successful, not the succession of a socialist or working people’s government, but the installation of the Western-backed, neo-liberal opposition, which will reverse land reforms, and sell off the country’s publicly-owned assets. The rural poor won’t be cheering, but investors, corporate lawyers and CEOs in the West will, along with the former colonial-settler land owners.
Likewise, a color revolution in Iran will not be followed by the flowering of a progressive, socialist or working class movement in the country, but by the replacement of an economically nationalist pro-capitalist government with a government prepared to compromise with Western and especially U.S. capital. State enterprises will be sold off at a fraction of their value, subsidies will be cancelled, profits from the sale of the country’s oil and gas will disproportionately accrue to U.S. oil companies, and the lives of ordinary Iranians will become poorer and more uncertain.
It is hard to muster much sympathy for Esfandiari. Anyone who works to reverse the gains of a revolutionary government – and this is undoubtedly what those engaged in regime operations in Iran are up to – should expect to be cracked down upon, especially where their activities constitute a very real threat to the survival of the revolution. With its threats of air strikes, economic warfare, and tens of millions of dollars in overt (and who knows how many more millions of dollars in covert) spending on regime change operations, the U.S., and its agents, of which Esfandiari must surely count herself, are lethal threats to Iran’s revolution. No one should be surprised she was arrested.
Iran’s efforts to resist domination by U.S. capital are no less worthy of solidarity than the efforts of the resistances in Iraq and Afghanistan to throw off the U.S.-led occupations or of Cuba’s and north Korea’s resistances to the unceasing efforts of the U.S. and its allies to return both countries to the capitalist fold and bring them into the U.S. imperialist orbit. Taking sides with the Iranian government in its resistance to U.S. aggression is in no way equivalent to endorsing the Iranian regime, theocratic rule or the theories of Iran’s president on the anti-Jewish holocaust. It is, instead, a recognition of the rights of other people to self-determination and to be free from foreign domination. If the exercise of these rights implies the arrest of those actively working to deny these rights – as it appears Esfandiari was – so be it. The civil liberties of one person – especially when exploited to aid a privileged minority of hereditary capitalist families and wealthy investors – are not senior to the rights of hundreds of millions.
1. New York Times, May 22, 2007
2. New York Times, July 3, 2006
3. Associated Press, May 13, 20074
5. New York Times, May 29, 2005
8. New York Times, February 16, 2006
9. New York Times, November 20, 2006.
10. Reuters, April 30, 2003; Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez accused Helvey’s employer, the Albert Einstein Institution, of being behind an imperialist conspiracy to overthrow his government. The Guardian, June 7, 2007.
12. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4
14. The Albert Einstein Institution, Report on Activities, 2000 to 2004, http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/2000-04rpt.pdf
15. Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2006.
16. New York Times, May 28, 2006
17. Workers World, May 5, 2007
18. Washington Post, April 20, 2006
19. Lalkar, September/October, 2005
20. New York Times, December 20, 2005
21. Lalkar, September/October, 2005
22. Washington Post, June 18, 2006
24. Wall St. Journal, February 1, 2007
25. Granma International, February 8, 2007
26. Guardian, May 22, 2007
27. Boston Globe, August 14, 2005
28. New York Times, December 21, 2006
29. Guardian, February 10, 2007
30. Washington Post, February 11, 2007
31. Washington Post, March 26, 2007
32. New York Times, September 17, 2006
33. New York Times, October 16, 2006
34. Guardian, January 26, 2007
35. Washington Post, February 1, 2007
36. New York Times, August 28, 2006
37. New York Times, September 12, 2006
38. New York Times, August 28, 2006
* “On April 27, 2006, the Iranian philosopher was detained at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, and shortly after was accused of actively preparing to take part in a “velvet revolution” in Iran. This polyglot thinker … elected to write his doctoral dissertation on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent change, Satyagraha. Jahanbegloo continued to espouse nonviolence after returning from the West to his homeland. …On one of his many trips to India, Jahanbegloo met with the Dalai Lama, who in turn has made frequent visits to Prague to meet with Havel since 1989. All such links reinforce suspicion among Iran’s clerical rulers that “the velvet revolution” is at hand.
“Rasool Nafisi has suggested that the main reason for Jahanbegloo’s arrest was his research project for the German Marshall Fund in which he compared the Iran’s democratic dissidents with their East-Central European predecessors. This line of comparative inquiry analyzed the balance of political power between Iranian civil society and the governing clerical regime. While Jahanbegloo sat in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, eminent international figures—among them Havel and Habermas—sent an Open Letter to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protesting the philosopher’s detention. The Iranian minister of the interior, Hojjatoleslam Qolamhoseyn Mosheni Eyhe’I, said in a July interview that Jahanbegloo was arrested on suspicion that he had been assisting the US to provoke “a velvet revolution in Iran,” an activity that, according to him, seems to be the US’s main business these days.”
Martin Beck Matuštík, “Velvet Revolution in Iran?”, Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Fall 2006.
On June 11, 2007 the New York Times reported that Ali Shakeri had been detained by Iranian authorities. Shakeri is a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. The Center, according to its web site, studies “the best grassroots peacebuilding methods in both domestic and international conflicts, and utilizes those findings in direct engagement in peacebuilding projects in … selected communities in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and the former Soviet Union.” The Center has honored Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama with its Citizen Peacebuilding Award. The only peace the Center is interested in, is the peace that comes from capitulation to US foreign policy goals.
Brendan Stone interviews Stephen Gowans on the subject of left and support for demonized regimes.
By Stephen Gowans
It is widely believed in the Western world that respect for civil and political liberties is more highly advanced in the United States and among countries of the Anglo-American orbit than it is anywhere else. The idea is so deeply ingrained that even egregious abuses of human rights by the US government (most recently in connection with the “war on terror”) are insufficient to discredit the fiction among US citizens that their government is the world’s principal human rights champion. While the US government has been criticized by such human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the criticisms have been made in the context of concern that the US is squandering its human rights moral authority – criticism that serves to reinforce the dogma, not challenge it.
Juxtaposed against the view that the United States is the world’s most highly committed human rights defender is the view that its official enemies are human rights monstrosities. This was especially true of the Soviet Union and is true today of Cuba and north Korea –countries seen to define the opposite pole of the human rights continuum. Indeed, Western wars of aggression are often cast as human rights missions – campaigns to deliver civil and political liberties – free speech, freedom of religion and multi-party democracy – to the supposedly gagged, subjugated and politically enslaved people of certain Third World countries the US declares to be its enemies.
But while Western discourse on human rights emphasizes civil and political liberties, it ignores economic rights altogether – the right to a job, to participate in enterprise management, to free health care, to free education at all levels, and freedom from foreign economic domination – rights developed to a significant degree in the communist countries, and to an admirable degree in some economically nationalist Third World countries (Iraq, for example, before human development and social welfare were undermined by war, sanctions and finally abolished by the US occupation authority.)
Significantly, economic rights conflict with the profit-making activities of Western capital. The right to a job conflicts with the right of capital to hire and fire labor. The right to decent pay conflicts with the right of owners to minimize wages and salaries to maximize profits. The right to free health care conflicts with the rights of insurance companies to make a profit and of doctors to sell their services to the highest bidder. Because economic rights conflict with profit-making rights, they are not recognized as legitimate rights in the Western capitalist world. Here, profit is alpha and omega; all else is subordinate. Instead, civil and political liberties, which only have substantive meaning to those who have the money power to own the media, fund think tanks and foundations, pay lobbyists and finance the campaigns of sympathetic politicians in order to be heard and dominate the political arena, are elevated to special status. The Soviet Union, east Germany, Cuba and north Korea, which championed economic rights and pushed the rights of the many to fore, are given no credit, yet, for most of us, it is the rights they championed that have substantive meaning. Freedom of the press means little to those who don’t own one, and much less to those struggling to get enough to eat.
Rights have a class character. Freedom of expression to persuade others has little meaning if you haven’t the resources to own and control the mass media. Freedom to run for elected office has little meaning if you haven’t the money power to buy high profile advertising, hire pollsters, campaign strategists and PR firms to persuade voters. Because they often have no substantive meaning to anyone except the wealthy investors, bankers and hereditary capitalist families who have the money power to turn them to their advantage, political and civil liberties have been allowed to flourish in parts of the Western world that have not been challenged by significant labor and socialist movements. But when political openness has allowed these movements to threaten the status quo, civil freedoms and electoral democracy have been abridged or cancelled altogether (as in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; in Chile in 1973; and in countless other countries, usually with the blessing, if not the assistance, of the US government.)
Despite civil and political liberties being skewed in favour of those who have economic power, commitment to civil and political liberties is never absolute. The notion of warranted restraint – that liberties can be abridged or even denied under certain conditions (freedom of expression does not give me the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre) – says that formal human rights are conditional. The conditions are often presented as the need to strike a balance between liberty and security, but what civil and political liberties have always been conditional on is the degree of threat they pose to whatever class dominates the society. Security, it’s true, is relevant – but whose security?
In the list that follows, you’ll see what appears to be an exposition of the hypocrisy of Western governments that criticize Third World governments for human rights breaches, while engaging in the same, or worse, practices at home or in territories they control. And while the list is indeed an exposition of the hypocrisy of Western governments, it is important to note two things. In all of these cases, the human rights breach in question protects the interests of some ruling class, whether in the West or in the Third World from a threat posed by an antagonistic class or nation. Or to put it another way, no right is absolute. Enforcing the rights of a dominant class or nation means negating the rights of an opposing class or nation. For example, the freedom of expression rights of Iraqis to persuade others to join the resistance movement to end the occupation of their country, or the political freedom of the Ba’ath party to run candidates in elections to restore the status quo ante, have been denied by the US government to secure the right of US capital to economically reorganize Iraq. That a ruling class of any class society, whether feudal, capitalist or socialist, will limit the civil and political liberties of its enemies, where those liberties become a threat to the dominant economic class, can be posited as an inexorable law.
Most Leftists in the Anglo-American world, however, are committed to a different view, not one that recognizes rights as class-defined and as relative rather than absolute, but one that is ultimately moralistic and tied to dogma congenial to the economic elite of Western societies. In this view, the problem is not the human rights rhetoric of Western governments, but the failure of those governments to live up to it; the goal of Leftist forces is not the promotion of the rights of oppressed class and peoples over (and hence the denial of) those of oppressing classes and nations, but the expansion of civil and political liberties for all. It is, for this reason, that the soft Left has often had difficulty identifying with socialist and national liberation forces which operate in a real world of right against right, where conflict among classes and nations is inevitable, and where the elevation of the rights of one class or nation inevitably means the negation of the rights of another class or nation.
Moralist positions on human rights are not only beside the point; they’re nonsensical, inasmuch as they assume rights are absolute and that antagonisms between the rights of oppressor classes and nations and the classes and nations they oppress can be mediated. In the real world, it is not possible to build a socialist society if the capitalist class is allowed the freedom to organize to restore its power. It is not possible for a government of national liberation to achieve its country’s independence if it grants political and civil liberties to all, including agents of the oppressor nation who seek to restore that nation’s formerly privileged position. It is inconceivable that a revolutionary socialist government would tolerate a multi-party democracy that allows pro-capitalist parties to operate openly, just as it is inconceivable that the post-war east or west German governments would have allowed the Nazi party to run candidates, or that the revolutionary US government would have allowed pro-British monarchist parties to stand for election, or that the US occupation authority in Iraq would have allowed the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein to contest elections.
The battlefield of human rights isn’t one in which the object of Left forces should be the securing of absolute rights for all (for there is no such thing as liberty and democracy for all) but the securing of the rights of oppressed classes and nations at the expense of those of their enemies. The right of the sheep to be free from predation comes at the expense of the wolf’s right to eat the sheep. The question is never whether you’re for human rights or not. The question is always whose rights are you for?
Public Advocacy Rights
While much is often made of China blocking access to websites, little is ever said about south Korea’s blocking access to 73 pro-DPRK websites. (1) US ideologues sometimes argue that respect for civil and political liberties is inextricably linked to capitalism, and conversely, that socialist regimes are repressive by nature. We might expect China, then, to be repressive in this way, but not south Korea. The truth of the matter is that the ruling class of any class society is repressive toward its class enemies, and only opens space for the exercise of political freedoms where and when its class enemies are weak and pose little threat. Capitalism, socialism or the peculiar form of socialism practiced by the Chinese Communist Party have nothing to do with it. That class societies are antagonistically divided, does.
Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez is criticized for refusing to renew the license of RCTV, a private television station that colluded in the short-lived April 2002 coup, but the closing of news media by the US or governments under its control are barely acknowledged. For example, the TV station Al Zawra was banned in Iraq for broadcasts said to “promote attacks against the Americans and the Shiite militias.” (2) Iraqi government forces raided and shut down the station’s offices when a newscaster wore black mourning clothes following the execution of the country’s legitimate president, Saddam Hussein. (3) While Chavez is criticized by US ideologues as being repressive, anti-democratic and dictatorial, he is none of these things. On the contrary, Chavez can be criticized for not being repressive. The country’s dominant economic interests have plenty of room to organize their return to political power. Chavez’s socialism for the 21st century – nothing more than Western social democracy circa 1965 built on oil wealth – will almost certainly fail to come off for allowing the opposition (to use a hockey term) to stick around in the game too long. That’s not to say that Chavez has a lot of options and that he can make history just as he pleases. Circumstances limit his room for manoeuvre, but even so, that doesn’t gainsay the regularity of reformist and social democratic movements being swept away by resurgent Rightist forces that have been given time to recuperate their strength. Fascism, it has been said, is punishment meted out to those who fail to go far enough because they naively believe capitalism can, in time, be peacefully transformed into socialism from within while the Right stands by passively and allows it to happen.
Cuba is often taken to task for jailing dissident journalists. However, the Cuban case rarely gets a hearing. The journalists were arrested for what they wrote, yes* (though that is often denied), but more importantly for taking money from the US government to further the project of overthrowing socialism and restoring US hegemony over Cuba. The job of the US is to provide funding and support to the journalists to allow them to amplify their anti-socialist, pro-capitalist views. The job of the dissident journalists is to persuade others. The job of the Cuban government is to protect Cuba’s socialism and political independence. While the jailing of the Cuban journalists is fairly widely known, what is barely known is that the US jails journalists in Iraq and holds them without charge. The US arrested at least three Reuters journalists in Iraq and held them without charge for eight months. (4) The US feared the journalists were materially aiding the resistance, and therefore were acting to thwart US goals related to re-organizing Iraq economically to the benefit of US corporations. The Cuban government feared Cuban journalists, materially aided by a hostile foreign power, were acting to undermine the socialist economic organization of Cuba and its political independence. In both cases, the battlefield pitted right against right.
On June 10, 2003, the US occupation authority in Iraq proclaimed Order #14, prohibiting “media activity” which “incites violence against Coalition Forces” or the occupation authority or “advocates the return to power of the Iraqi Ba’ath party, or makes statements that purport to be on behalf of the Iraqi Ba’ath party.” In late 2005, an Iraqi court disqualified 90 candidates because they had ties to the Ba’ath Party. (5) The US pushed sectarian and ethnic-based parties to the fore, part of a project of re-organizing Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines (the usual conquering nation ploy of divide and rule.) US forces routinely close newspapers that express views that get in the way of pacifying opposition. The offices of al-Arabiya were shut down as was the al-Hawza newspaper, published by the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (6) The US government clearly regards the Ba’ath party as a threat to its designs on Iraq. Likewise, the Chinese government regards the Falun Gong movement as a threat to its particular view of socialism. In both cases, the repression is carried out to limit opposition to the dominant authority in the country.
A British Muslim who led a crowd in chants of “Bomb, bomb Denmark, bomb, bomb USA’ in protest over the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad was found guilty of incitement to murder. (7) Two Canadian newspaper columnists who called upon the United States to launch a nuclear strike on Iran were neither charged by Canadian authorities nor found guilty of any crime. Any demand that they be charged with incitement to murder would be dismissed as frivolous, and an attack on freedom of speech.
Twenty countries prohibit Holocaust denial, including Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and Israel. (8) Holocaust denial laws often appear together with laws prohibiting Nazi or neo-Nazi parties. The intent is to designate certain political views as being beyond the pale and inimical to the smooth functioning of a country’s social order. These prohibitions are regarded, in large measure and even among Leftist forces that define the aim of socialism as enlarging democracy and civil and political liberties for all, as being legitimate and as warranted restraints on rights of free speech and political association. Conversely, laws enacted in revolutionary societies which ban political parties that call for the restoration of class oppression or oppression by former colonial or foreign powers, or prohibit the advocacy of such restoration, are regarded in the West, including by large parts of the Left, as illegitimate, despotic and authoritarian. Clearly, they are despotic and authoritarian, in the same manner Holocaust denial laws are despotic and authoritarian, but they are not illegitimate from the point of view of the formerly oppressed class or nation.
In this respect, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government comes to mind. ZANU-PF was a leading force in the armed struggle of the Black majority to wrest political control from the White minority Rhodesian settler regime. While the Black majority achieved a kind of formal political independence, de facto independence has always been limited by the reality that the White minority remains economically dominant. The land seizures were a way of carrying forward the revolution to its logical conclusion in the absence of Harare having the wherewithal to buy out the White settlers and absentee British landowners. While the confiscation of land was, on the one hand, a denial of the previous owners’ rights to make a profit, it was, on the other, a reclamation of a right to land that had been stolen by colonial plunder — a war of right against right (with the soft Left in the West, sadly, though predictably, aligning itself in the war with the landowners.) Zimbabwe is not, however, a one-party state, and nor is it a country in which those with money power are prohibited from buying mass media or funding opposition political parties to oppose the government. For this, Zimbabwe too, along with Venezuela, can be criticized for failing to be repressive enough, and yet it is revolutionary and national liberation movements that fail to repress their enemies with sufficient zeal and that allow ample opportunity for their enemies to marshal a counter-strike, that are often the most vigorously reviled by the soft Left (and perhaps because part of the counterstrike is PR campaigns mounted in the West to discredit the regime in question – campaigns the soft Left has always shown a particular vulnerability to.) Whatever repressive measures ZANU-PF takes toward its opposition must be understood in the context of the history of the struggle for national liberation and of the alliance of the main opposition party, the MDC, with Britain and the White settlers.
The Soviet Union, east Germany, Cuba and north Korea are often thought of in the West as police states. To deny the reality that the USSR and east Germany were, and that Cuba and north Korea are, police states would be disingenuous. But at the same time, to deny the reality that the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and other Western countries are also police states would be equally disingenuous. It is only the power of anti-communist propaganda that allows the socialist east German Stasi to be invested with a unique menace while any recognition that an equally repressive police state apparatus existed in capitalist west Germany is entirely suppressed.
“Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the (US National Security Agency) monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the United States without warrants.” (9) The New York Times held back this story for a year, after Washington asked that it not disclose the violation of its own laws to spy on its citizens.
Canada’s RCMP and intelligence services amassed files on 800,000 Canadians (Canada’s population is only 30 million) and secretly monitored thousands of organizations, including church and women’s groups. For over three decades, the Mounties spied on Tommy Douglas, esteemed by Canadians for his role in creating public health insurance, even when Douglas was leader of the social democratic New Democratic Party and a Member of Parliament. (10)
In Mexico, more than 700 people were assassinated by the state and many tortured, from the late 60s through the early 80s, as part of a secret campaign to eliminate militant leftists. Successive governments used “massacres, forced disappearances, systematic torture and genocide, in an attempt to destroy the part of society it considered its ideological enemy.” (11)
These examples, drawn from recent newspaper reports, only scratch the surface. You could write tomes and tomes on US police state activities (COINTELPRO being one of the more infamous programs to neutralize class enemies), and many have been written. But it’s not the reality that the US government conspicuously parades around the world as human rights champion, when it’s just as repressive, when circumstance demand, as any other state, that is important. Nor should the failure of Western governments to live up to their human rights rhetoric hold our attention. Human rights rhetoric is based on the idea that rights are absolute, not relative, and that different groups of people don’t have antagonist interests, based on their economic positions and role as either exploiter or exploited. And we certainly shouldn’t expect that states can be pressured to live up to their rhetoric, anymore than we should expect that lions can be pressured to give up meat for grazing on grass. Have they ever? All states are police states, and always will be, so long as antagonist classes exist. The antagonism is played out on many battlefields, human rights among them. In battles over human rights, we shouldn’t ask whether rights, as an absolute, are being denied, for rights are never absolute. We should ask whose rights are in conflict with who else’s, which rights are our own, and whether sheep can be faulted for denying wolves their flesh.
1. Reuters, January 27, 2007; Yonhap News, March 26, 2007.
2. New York Times, January 21, 2007.
3. New York Times, January 2, 2007.
4. New York Times, January 23, 2006.
5. New York Times, December 25, 2005.
6. Antonia Juhasz, “The Bush Agenda: Invading the World One Economy at a Time,” Regan Books, 2006, p. 205.
7. Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2007.
8. William Blum, Anti-Empire Report, November 19, 2006; New York Times, December 21, 2006.
9. New York Times, December 16, 2005.
10. Globe and Mail, December 18, 2006.
11. New York Times, November 23, 2006.
* Had they written in favour of Cuban socialism, they would never have been arrested, even if they were taking money from Washington. To say what they wrote had nothing to do with their jailing, then, is absurd, and has more to do with pandering to liberal prejudices than anything else.