"Our men train military personnel, train pilots to land airplanes, escort food and supply convoys, and provide protection for Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority." Sound like an advertisement for the U.S. military? In fact, these are the words of a spokesman for Blackwater Security Consulting, a private security firm based in North Carolina, describing the role of his employees in the occupation of Iraq. It gives new meaning to the phrase "a private war."
Blackwater hit the headlines in late March 2004, when four Americans were killed, burned and dismembered in the turbulent northern town of Fallujah. Media reports described them as "civilian contractors" who were "protecting food shipments"; it later transpired that they were four of around 450 Blackwater employees on the ground in Iraq, who, along with other private firms, are playing a central role in the coalition's war effort.
The killings in Fallujah brought to the world's attention the mercenary phenomenon in Iraq. The coalition has contracted thousands of private military personnel from companies such as Blackwater, to do everything from feeding and housing coalition troops to maintaining key weapons systems, including M-1 tanks, Apache helicopters and B-2 stealth bombers, to providing armed protection to leading coalition officials. Such personnel are mostly ex-soldiers, from American, British, South African, European and other armies, who now make up to $1800 a day offering their skills and services to the private sector.
An estimated 15 to 20,000 of them are currently in Iraq -- and as one report points out, that is a greater number of men than provided by any other American ally, including Britain.
In some parts of Iraq, including the hostile Sunni triangle in the north, private military personnel have been at the forefront of the occupation. According to one report, they have become the most visible part of the occupation, often running high-risk operations that the American and British military would rather not do; and therefore, to some Iraqis, they have become "the most hated and humiliating aspect of the ... occupation."
Private personnel have borne the brunt of much of the Iraqi anger over the past two weeks. One report says "the ubiquity of heavily armed foreigners partly explains why so many people are being kidnapped in Iraq;" many of the "civilians" killed and kidnapped in hostile towns such as Fallujah in the north and Najaf in the south in the past 10 days have been private military personnel.
Why has the coalition contracted a private army of ex-soldiers, in the pay of profit-making security firms, to execute aspects of the occupation? Why is it increasingly relying on private guards, who are not subject to the coalition's chain of command and who can up and leave whenever they please?
Some claim the coalition is intensifying the occupation, creating a fearsome vanguard of toughs from around the globe; others that it is "privatizing the war" in order to make up numbers on the ground -- both the U.S. and British armies have shrunk over the past 10 years and are currently stretched, from Haiti to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Some on the American left argue that the rise of a private military complex shows the "jobs for the boys" mentality of the Bush administration, which is providing security contracts to "politically connected" firms.
These considerations may have impacted on the nature and number of private military personnel in Iraq. But fundamentally, the use of private firms in the war and occupation points to problems within the coalition. By outsourcing the occupation, the coalition is trying to distance itself from the political consequences of its actions, in effect creating a buffer between its war and what happens as a result.
The coalition seems to want to occupy Iraq without physically having to occupy it, concentrating its troops in Baghdad and on the outskirts of hostile towns and cities while pushing hired guns to execute risky tasks, including protecting America's main man on the ground. What the coalition may have gained in political distance, however, it has paid for in terms of logistical coherence on the ground.
According to Peter W Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the number of private military personnel in Iraq is "unprecedented," in both scale and scope. Singer tracked the development of the private military sphere over the past 10 years for his authoritative book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military," published earlier this year. He notes that private firms have played an increasingly central role in war zones around the world since the end of the Cold War, but says that something bigger is happening in Iraq. "We have never seen numbers this high," he tells me. "We're talking somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 private personnel, and that is expected to rise to 30,000 when the coalition hands over power to Iraqis on 30 June."
Singer says the U.S. and British military have for the past 10 years used private military personnel to "protect military installations, escort convoys, things like that -- usually in war zones that the great powers didn't really care about, like Sierra Leone." But in Iraq, the big, defining global issue of today, private personnel have become central to the war and occupation effort.
"We're talking about people using military training and weapons to carry out military functions within a war zone," says Singer. "Some refer to them as "security guards;" but they aren't like security guys in the shopping mall. Some of these firms have been given airport security contracts in Iraq, and airport security in Baghdad doesn't mean watching bags go through the x-ray machine -- it means hiring ex-Green Berets to defend the airport against mortar attack."
Singer points out that traditional U.S. military doctrine held that civilians accompanying U.S. forces abroad should not be put into roles where they had to carry or use weapons (although they were allowed to carry small pistols in "extraordinary circumstances"), and that "mission-critical" roles should strictly be kept within the military itself. "But in Iraq, the private guys are heavily armed," he says. "They have guns, helicopters, everything. And they are carrying out mission-critical operations, including military support, military training and advice, and tactical military roles. They are even protecting Bremer, and you can't get more mission-critical than that. So much has been handed over; basically we have a system where it's not civilians accompanying the force, but civilians who are an essential part of the force."
This has become apparent over the past two weeks, as private contractors have clashed with armed Iraqis. Much of the fighting in the north and south and in parts of Baghdad has been between Iraqis and coalition troops, leaving an estimated 500 Iraqis and 30 Americans dead. In some parts of the country, however, private military personnel have been left to fight their own battles -- and the coalition's.
According to the Washington Post, on Apr. 5 eight commandos from Blackwater "repulsed an attack by the militiamen of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr against the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters in Najaf." Apparently, the Blackwater employees spent hours calling the U.S. military and CPA for back-up, but to no avail. Blackwater had to send in its own helicopters, twice, to deliver ammunition to its employees.
On Apr. 6, the home of five private contractors employed by the London-based Hart Group Ltd came under fire from Iraqis in Kut. The five defended their home for two days -- one was killed, bleeding to death after being shot; the other four were wounded. Apparently, the Hart employees called U.S. and Ukrainian military forces so many times during the two-day siege that "the battery on their mobile phone ran out."
"We were holding out, hoping to get direct military support that never came," said Nick Edmunds, Hart's Iraq coordinator. Other private military personnel have been wounded or killed and some kidnapped, while defending their own posts or coalition buildings and property.
Now, the Washington Post claims that private security firms, "unable to rely on U.S. and coalition troops for intelligence or help under duress...have begun to band together, organising what may be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence."
Defending coalition buildings and defending themselves with no back up from coalition forces -- it seems that in some parts of Iraq, private military personnel are not so much accompanying the coalition and providing it with back-up as substituting for it. Coalition forces have abandoned private military personnel in some hotspots, leaving them to maintain some semblance of control.
As we watch private contractors fighting against Iraqis, getting kidnapped and in some cases killed, Singer says we could be forgiven for asking: Whose occupation is this? "Instead of questioning the mission, the public were probably trying to figure out just who exactly was performing the mission in the first place," he says.
Where private military personnel in the past were generally not armed and certainly not used for mission-critical operations, today, in Iraq, there are thousands of them, most with guns, and some apparently fighting the coalition's corner. "Yes," says Singer, "there has been a severe blurring of the lines between civilian and military forces in Iraq."
Why has the coalition privatized so much? Singer believes it is more for political reasons than practical ones. He doesn't buy the argument put forward by some, that the use of private firms is a money-saving technique. "There is no single study that has proven that the use of private military contractors saves on the costs of the occupation." He does believe, however, that the shrinking and stretching of the U.S. and British military over the past decade has been key in forcing a turn towards the private sphere. "The U.S. military is 35 percent smaller than it was during the last Gulf War; it is also deployed in places like Afghanistan, Haiti, Uzbekistan, and so on. The British military is the smallest it has been since the Napoleonic wars. Private forces are filling the space."
But he thinks political considerations have been the main motivation. "There is an attempt to displace the political costs of the operation, and those political costs include everything from having to call up more regular forces, which the American military in particular does not want to do, to avoiding suffering casualties. Between 30 and 50 private contractors have been killed, and a lot more are captured right now. Can you imagine the controversy if actual U.S. marines were being held hostage? There is a desire to offset the controversies associated with war."
These considerations no doubt impact on the coalition's thinking in Iraq -- but there is more to the privatization of the occupation than a desire to avoid casualties. The "handing over" of more responsibilities to the private sector, the unprecedented use of thousands of armed civilians to operate in hostile towns and cities, the overriding question of "who exactly is performing this mission?," fit into the coalition's curious style of occupation.
America and Britain's domination of Iraq often looks like an occupation-in-denial; the coalition may have thousands of troops in Iraq, but it has little desire to exercise political control, or even political responsibility, over Iraq's present or future. Its occupation has a hands-off feel, where a huge military presence can coexist with political cautiousness and a desire to stand above events on the ground. In much of Iraq, coalition forces are all but invisible.
While the occupation has proved fatal for many Iraqis over the past year, particularly protesting Iraqis, it has not been an all-out military clampdown on Iraq's towns and cities. Much of the occupation has been conducted from behind high walls or from helicopter gunships. One report describes how hundreds of American troops spend their time in Saddam's old palaces, or guarding the "Green Zone" in the centre of Baghdad, a cordoned-off part of the city centre, massively guarded and for the exclusive use of coalition officials, only occasionally venturing out on missions.
A recent poll asked Iraqis what they thought of the coalition forces -- 77 percent said they had never had an encounter with a member of the coalition forces. Coalition forces have stayed on the outskirts of some cities, in particular Fallujah and Najaf - which is one reason why private contractors have been left to defend themselves, and coalition buildings, in those cities over the past two weeks.
The outsourcing of so many responsibilities to private firms looks like being part of this strange occupation -- an attempt to create a distance between the coalition's actions in Iraq and the consequences of its actions, between its physical occupation and the political ramifications of the occupation. This is best summed up in the person of Paul Bremer -- America's "administrator" in Iraq (not its high commissioner, note), who surrounds himself with armed men trained by Blackwater in North Carolina and whose main job is to ensure the nominal handover of power to an Iraqi administration on 30 June.
The end result of this frantic outsourcing of responsibility is logistical and political confusion on the ground, which has come to a head over the past two weeks -- where no one seems to know who controls which cities, or why.
Is a terrorist attack on an American city imminent? First the US Department of Homeland Security upped its color-coded terror warning from yellow to orange, claiming there had been a worrisome rise in chatter between terrorists; then six flights from Paris to Los Angeles were cancelled after US officials told French officials that al-Qaeda types might hijack one of the planes to use as a missile against America; then US officials insisted that selected foreign airlines should post armed marshals on flights to America; now British Airways has become embroiled, with BA flights to Washington and Riyadh cancelled on the basis of 'security advice."
Of course terrorists might be plotting to hijack planes -- but for all the cancelled flights, armed guards and endless column inches about the return of terror, it remains uncertain whether or when an attack will occur. The investigations into the Air France and BA flights have turned up little, except that a five-year-old child on one of the French planes had a similar-sounding name to a Tunisian terrorist. The British Air Line Pilots Association believes that the cancellation of BA flight 223 to Washington last week was a 'shot across the bows" by America, an attempt to get skeptical BA pilots to accept having armed air marshals on their planes.
Whatever the prospect of an attack might be, the recent security scares highlight some big problems with the "war on terror." America and Britain's approach to the alleged terror threat appears less as a measured reaction to specific information, than a panicky response to often indecipherable "chatter;" not so much an attempt to deal with specific threats, as a very public fretting about a potential attack occurring somewhere, somehow, some time. By going public with all sorts of intelligence -- reliable or otherwise -- the US and UK elites appear effectively to be projecting their own uncertainty on to the rest of us, and fostering a climate of paranoia in the process.
The US Department of Homeland Security kick-started the current terror alert when it raised its threat warning to orange, in response to an "unprecedented increase in "chatter"" -- the term used by intelligence officials to describe communication levels between suspected terror groups and individuals. But how reliable is "chatter," as an indicator of terrorists' intentions or imminent action? Unlike human intelligence -- which collects information through human contact with a terror group or enemy state, usually through infiltration -- "chatter," or signal intelligence, is collected by technical means, by using satellites to eavesdrop on phone conversations and email correspondence between suspected terrorists. Not surprisingly, such chatter often proves inadequate for those involved in counter-terrorism.
"Chatter is a descriptive term," says John Hamre, President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "Much like when you walk into a room and there are many conversations underway, you can not clearly hear any complete conversation, only random pieces." Hamre, who served as deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, tells me that "chatter" also refers to background noise. So as it relates to intelligence, chatter reflects a larger, though not necessarily a large, number of messages that have suspicious references, which appear related but with inadequate specific details.... Often the capacity to analyze these references is quite limited, so they are aggregated into general categories."
Hamre doesn't believe that the French or British flights were cancelled on the basis of chatter alone. "I don't think they would have cancelled specific flights based on non-specific information. I suspect there were specific references to flight numbers or take-off times." This may be so -- though some security experts reportedly suspect that BA flight 223 may have been cancelled because intelligence officials "heard" terrorist chatter about United Nations Resolution 223, which criticizes Israeli treatment of Palestinians and is often cited by Arab leaders and activists, or that terrorists allegedly picked on this flight because of its numerical symbolism.
However, Hamre points out that even responses to specific leads can later become bound up in non-specific "chatter." "Once a flight is cancelled, this can become the subject of subsequent "conversations" which could be collected and might become the basis for subsequent groundings." So chatter provokes a response, the response becomes part of the chatter, which might cause another response....
According to Adam Dolnik of the Terrorism and Political Violence Programme at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, human intelligence is always preferable in counter-terrorist situations. "Signal intelligence can be, and historically has been, a reliable source of intelligence," he says. "But its utility is limited when it comes to fighting terrorism, since terrorist groups make decisions in a small circle of people who communicate personally in unknown locations. That is why human intelligence is the most valuable tool in fighting terrorism, as getting a person into this closed circle can provide you with information that you could not attain otherwise."
John Hamre is concerned that responding to non-specific threats could have the unintentional effect of helping out the terrorists. He describes a simulated war game, "Silent Vector," conducted by CSIS in late 2002, to test how the US National Security Council might cope with a credible but non-specific warning. "One of the key findings of our exercise was the need to avoid responding to non-specific threats," he says. "It is quite easy for would-be terrorists to create ambiguous but credible warnings in general terms. If we respond every time we have a general warning we would fall prey to cheap terrorism -- doing the work for the terrorists by disrupting our economy and society only at the pointing of rumors."
Instead of responding to everything, Hamre argues that "it would be better to announce that there are general threats, but that they lack the specificity to act in a sensible way." Yet isn't this penchant for going public with all manner of intelligence, whether chat-related, specific or non-specific, also part of the problem? The recent terror alerts are not only the result of listening too keenly to "chatter" or misreading and overplaying apparently specific threats -- they are also a consequence of US and UK officials increasingly making public their concerns about the potential for attack. This conflation of private intelligence and public information has contributed to today's climate of fear and suspicion.
Of course, the authorities ought to disseminate and analyze the intelligence they receive, whether that intelligence is recorded "chatter" or information gathered by humans in the field. And there also ought to be public information, specific, targeted information when the need arises, that might assist the public in dealing with an event or crisis. Yet these are two distinct things -- intelligence should be analyzed privately and discreetly, behind closed doors, by experts; and information should become public when it is potentially useful. In the current war on terror, these two things have been thrown together in a dangerous concoction, resulting in the publication of both general and specific intelligence in the name of permanent vigilance.
This "going public" with intelligence plays an important role for the authorities in the war on terror: Government officials and institutions are keen to demonstrate concern for the public, to show that they are actively considering our welfare and safety; and it also becomes a means of avoiding blame -- when, if anything does go wrong, the authorities can say: "We did issue warnings beforehand...." Yet this conflation is detrimental to public trust. Indeed, it seems that we now have the worst of both worlds -- private intelligence that is often inadequate or misjudged, which is made public in the name of blame-avoidance and reassuring the public. The end result is that the authorities continually project their anxiety on to us -- just in case.
Writing in the UK Independent, Kim Sengupta argues that "in the current security climate, overreaction is preferable to under-reaction. The IRA message to Margaret Thatcher after the Brighton bombing -- 'You have got to be lucky all the time, we have got to be lucky just once' -- has never been so relevant, even if the threat comes from another quarter."
Yet the notion that we should organize the skies, or any other part of society, around guarding against one potential (and unpredictable) instance of "luck" on the part of terrorists is highly problematic. The price of this kind of permanent vigilance and suspicion is a disabling state of anxiety -- the like of which any cynical terrorist, whose aim is to spread fear and loathing in the West, could be proud.
"Deaths will bring Iraqis real liberty
" So said a headline in yesterday's U.K. Sun, as political editor Trevor Kavanagh claimed that the "richly deserved deaths" of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay had finally given Iraq "the chance to shake off 35 years of repression and claim its place as a major voice in the Arab world."
How could the killing of two former Ba'ath Party henchmen who have been on the run for four months lead Iraq into a bright new free and Arabic future? The widespread hope that the deaths - and the grisly photos to prove them - will turn Iraq around reveals much about the coalition's hollow campaign.
The coalition and its supporters are staking a lot on the killing of Uday and Qusay. According to one report, "the way is now clear for democracy to flourish." Others hope that the deaths will be an "important morale boost for the increasingly demoralised occupation forces," and a "useful distraction for the White House, which is under intense scrutiny for its misleading prewar claims."
An Iraqi civic leader says the deaths "might turn the tide in favour of the coalition," by finally bringing the sporadic violence against U.S. troops to an end. American military analyst Ralph Peters says the killings "could be more important in the long run than the fall of Baghdad," finally showing the world, and more importantly Iraqis, that Saddam is a "man of the past."
Of course two deaths cannot resolve political crises, deliver democracy or end violence -- even if the dead are, as U.S. officials helpfully remind us, the Ace of Hearts and the Ace of Clubs in America's playing-card guide to evil Iraqis. That much is clear from the fact that, since Uday and Qusay were killed on Tuesday, five Americans have been killed, bringing the total number of U.S. deaths for the past week to 11 -- the highest weekly rate since the war officially ended in mid-April.
Rather, the idea that Uday and Qusay's deaths represent the liberation of Iraq and the vindication of the war indicates that this is still very much a campaign of style over substance. Throughout the Iraqi venture, American and British forces carried out symbolic stunts and searched for "defining images" as a means of "demonstrating" that they had "liberated Iraq."
Americans blew up a 40-foot statue of Saddam in order to "send a powerful message to remnants of the regime;" Brits launched a dawn raid to knock down two statues in Basra "to show the people we will strike on any representative token of that regime;" even when U.S. forces seized Saddam's New Presidential Palace in early April, it was described as being a more symbolic than strategic target.
In wars of old, it was usually after declaring victory that the winners would put on massive displays of symbolic force and topple symbols of the defeated regime. In Iraq, such gestures took place before the war had ended, as part of the campaign to "liberate Iraq." In a war where the very aim was to "send a message" and project a positive image of the coalition forces, toppling statues was seen as being just as important as winning cities.
By the same token, the deaths of Uday and Qusay are now talked up as "more important than the fall of Baghdad" -- not because there's any evidence yet that the Hussein brothers were organising operations against the coalition forces, but because their deaths apparently "send a message" to Iraqis and the world. As Ralph Peters claims, "The symbolism is almost biblical . And as our symbolism goes up, theirs goes down. Far from driving us out of Iraq, we go in and kill [Saddam's] sons."
So the battle in Iraq is a battle of symbols - with America apparently symbolising Good, and Uday and Qusay symbolising Evil. From this view, killing Uday and Qusay was the equivalent of knocking down a statue, or some other "representative token" of the old regime. The shootout in Mosul on Tuesday was less a clash between U.S. forces and threatening hostile elements, than yet another image war played out in real time.
This same obsession with the symbolic informed America's decision to release Uday and Qusay's death photos. After 24 hours of internal doubt and debate, the Pentagon decided that making the pictures public was in the best interests of the Iraqi people. Why? Because it will finally convince them that they are free, thus transforming Iraq's fortunes.
According to one report, U.S. forces may even allow broadcasters and journalists (those all-important communicators of "messages") to film and photograph Uday and Qusay's bodies, as part of the mission to "convince Iraqis that they are free of the former repressive regime."
U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has justified the publication of the pictures with reference to the killing of the Romanian tinpot dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989: "It was not until the people of that country saw him, saw his body, that they actually believed that the fear and the threat that his regime posed to them was gone." According to Paul Bremer, America's man in Iraq, "The strategic importance of the killings, of their being dead, is to help us persuade the Iraqi people that [we have] liberated the country."
In this psychological view of postwar Iraq, all that Iraqis need is to see a photo or two of their dead former rulers in order to realise that they are free. Iraqis are seen as being either in thrall or in fear of the former regime, and America's role is to snap them out of it with the aid of some snapshots. In short, the barrier to Iraqi liberation is the people's own fearful mindset.
Of course, there's much more to it than that. It is one thing to chase a failing regime out of a failing state, to topple statues and to kill two has-been dictators in a six-hour shoot-out in Mosul. It is quite another to create something of substance to put in their place. As postwar Iraq remains a mess, the attempt to "convince" Iraqis with images and stunts that the war was good and their liberation is imminent, looks increasingly like an attempt on the part of the coalition to convince itself of its own role in the world.
Brendan O'Neill is an editor at Spiked Online.
"There can be no peace for either side ... unless there is freedom for both," declared President George W Bush, as he introduced his roadmap for peace in the Middle East to an expectant world (1).
By "freedom" Bush means the people of the Middle East will be given strict instructions on how to resolve their conflict. The Palestinians will be told what kind of government to install, whom to elect, when to elect them, why to elect them, and what kind of politics to practise. The roadmap for peace lays the ground for relentless intervention by a "Quartet" of powers (the USA, the EU, the UN and Russia) to oversee the Middle East's transition from conflict to peace by no later than 2005. Freedom doesn't get a look-in.
The roadmap sounds less like an historic strategy to negotiate a treaty between warring factions, than a Third Wayish attempt to wish away political conflict. It is a "performance-based and goal-driven roadmap, with clear phases, timelines, target dates and benchmarks aimed at progress through reciprocal steps by the two parties in the political, security, economic, humanitarian and institution-building fields" (2). It sometimes sounds as if the Quartet of powers is trying to get the trains to run on time, rather than resolving a clash of two nations.
Yet behind the new-fangled focus on timelines and targets, the roadmap seeks to impose a solution. It is "goal-driven" in the sense that the goal has already been defined by the Quartet, and there will have to be "clear, unambiguous acceptance by both parties of the goal of a negotiated settlement as described below," because "non-compliance ... will impede progress" (3). It is "performance-based" in the sense that the Quartet "will meet regularly at senior levels to evaluate the parties' performance," and will take an "active and sustained" interest in "monitoring" the emergence of a Palestinian constitution and elections (4).
The roadmap is profoundly anti-democratic. Like the peace process that gave rise to it, the map is premised on the idea that a solution to the Middle Eastern conflict can only come from outside the Middle East. The parties to the conflict are clearly too blinkered and untrustworthy to resolve the issues among themselves, and need the helping hand of a disinterested and rational outside power (or four), who can show them what their best interests are.
This approach has defined the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. From the Madrid Conference of 1991 to kickstart "a Middle Eastern peace strategy," to the "historic handshake" between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, to the Oslo Accords of the same year -- the perceived wisdom has been that the further you are from the Middle East, the better placed you are to determine a sensible and fair outcome to the whole debacle.
In the world of the peace process -- not only in the Middle East, but in South Africa, Ireland and elsewhere -- the most authoritative are those who can rise above messy clashes and conflicts, who have no apparent self-interest in the end result, and who only want peace. This idea of resolution by a disinterested third party (usually the USA or the UN) is now seen as a commonsense approach to conflict resolution around the world -- yet it is the antithesis of democracy.
The roadmap confirms the final emasculation of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have always been party to the peace process from a position of weakness rather than strength. Like other US-sponsored peace processes, the Middle Eastern one came about as a result of shifts in the global political climate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Western powers had a freer hand to impose solutions on conflicts around the world. The end of the Soviet Union and the isolation of the left-wing movements internationally put national liberation movements like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) on the defensive.
Palestinians first got involved in peace talks at the Madrid conference in 1991, when the PLO leadership was increasingly isolated in the Arab world as well as internationally. During the 1991 Gulf War the PLO supported Saddam's Iraq, which alienated many of their wealthy supporters in and around the Gulf. It was from a defensive position of global and local isolation that the PLO entered the peace negotiations, during which it has made numerous concessions on its traditional goals and aims.
Now the new roadmap illustrates that the Palestinians -- as a community with political aims and aspirations -- no longer figure as an independent factor in the Middle East. Palestinian political life exists only inasmuch as it supports and subscribes to the broader requirements of the US-sponsored peace process. The "viable" Palestinian state envisaged by the roadmap will be one designed to suit external requirements, rather than being internally built and sustained by the needs and desires of the Palestinian people.
Consider the Palestine Authority's new office of prime minister. This was created and filled because America demanded it, rather than as an expression of Palestinian political will. Earlier this year, Bush officials said there could be no progress in the Middle East until Palestinians installed a prime minister. America's primary interest was to sideline PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who is seen by some in the Bush and Blair camps as a barrier to a settlement. So Palestinian leaders created a prime ministerial office and filled it with Mahmoud Abbas, in line with American diktat.
The Palestinian prime minister is in power (if you can call it power) to suit outside demands, rather than being anything like an embodiment of Palestinian will. Likewise, the roadmap describes how the Quartet of powers will keep a close check on the emergence of a Palestinian state, to ensure that it puts "tolerance and liberty" centre stage and follows the roadmap rules (5). In this vision for the Middle East, "Palestine" will be little more than a hollow shell, where the leaders' primary responsibility will be to the peace process and the roadmap, rather than to their own people or politics.
Many have interpreted the roadmap as an old-style US/Israeli assault on Palestinian demands. Yet for the defeat of independent Palestinian politics, this roadmap also turns Israel into a pawn of the Quartet powers. The roadmap makes a list of demands of the Israeli leadership relating to its borders, security and political culture. The roadmap may not have Palestinian interests at heart, but neither does it represent Israel's interests.
It remains to be seen whether the new Palestinian state due to be created by the roadmap will be "viable" -- the Quartet's favourite word. Durable political structures emerge from real struggles to decide the future and direction of society. The PLO, for all its shaky politics (a kind of unhappy marriage of Stalinism and Islam) and its documented corruption, was created and sustained by a struggle and by mass support from those who saw it as representing their interests. Its aims were internally generated, and it won fierce allegiance from the Palestinian people.
Will the Palestinians swear a similar allegiance to the hollow state envisaged by America's "performance-based and goal-driven roadmap?"
(1) President Discusses Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East, White House, March 2003
(2) A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, US Department of State, 30 April 2003
Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
It isn't only US troops in Iraq who are taking down the Stars and Stripes, after their commanders warned that raising the flag gave the "wrong impression" of the coalition's war aims. On the homefront, too, wartime flag-waving seems to be flagging.
Across America, newspapers report that the flag has been notable by its absence since the war started. In Michigan, the Detroit News headlined a report "Combat fails to inspire new patriotic movement," claiming that "plenty of flags still sit on store shelves, but people aren't flying them in the days following the invasion of Iraq" (1). Further West, the San Jose Mercury News says: "Look around. The nation is at war. But the flags aren't flying..." (2)
Even in the traditionally pro-war South, where some have hoisted up the Stars and Stripes since the war kicked off, there hasn't been quite the patriotic outpouring many expected. A Texan paper reports that "Old Glory is making a reappearance," but it is "nowhere near the level we witnessed" after the Sept. 11 attacks.
What's with the lack of patriotic symbols? An American shop-owner, disappointed by poor flag sales, reckons people "still have the flags they bought [after 9/11], and they don't need new ones" -- though that raises the question of why not very many are dusting off their flags and flying them for the war in Iraq (3). One war supporter thinks patriotism has become privatized, arguing that "there's patriotism here ... but it doesn't have to be worn on your sleeve" (4).
In truth, the lack of flag-waving reveals a deeper ambivalence about the war. Across the USA and the UK, from the war planners themselves down to everyone else, there doesn't seem to be much strong support or passion for the war in Iraq. The majority of people seem to have a shoulder-shrugging approach to it, rather than any especially pro-war feelings. After all, if even US troops have effectively been banned from flying the flag, for fear of coming across as conquerors, then Americans are hardly likely to be fired up to flag-wave.
In Britain, too, there is nothing like the "Falklands Factor" of 1982, when then prime minister Margaret Thatcher stirred up nationalist sentiments over the Falklands War with Argentina to boost her own standing. The UK tabloid The Sun may have printed its usual wartime one-page special saying "Support our boys" (and girls, this time), which it is encouraging its readers to stick in their windows -- but outside of army towns and naval bases, not many seem to have taken up the offer.
Even those who are waving the flag in America don't sound especially gung-ho. "These flags are not about whether you are for or against the war," says one US flag-waver; it's more about "feeling helpless," so you want to "do something to show pride in our American boys and girls" (5). One retailer says that some pro-war types have opted for "patriotic paraphernalia," like teddy bears with Stars and Stripes t-shirts, over flags themselves. And some are wearing blue, white and red "remembrance ribbons" instead of flying flags, to express their support for the troops but not necessarily for the war.
The lack of wartime flags suggests a broader discomfort with war, aggression and gung-ho displays of old-style patriotism. Everyone contrasts the few flags fluttering in the USA today with the masses of flags that flew after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the flying of the flag post-9/11 wasn't a traditionally patriotic outpouring, so much as collective expression of fear and angst in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
After Sept. 11, the Stars and Stripes was flown not as a symbol of American power and defiance but as a "coming together" around a shared sense of grief. As one report put it, the flag became "an instant, universal symbol of mourning" (6). Some Americans who would never have dreamt of flying the flag in the past claimed that it had "lost its stigma" after 9/11, while others flew the flag next to signs saying "Hate-free zone," encouraging people to "respect Muslims". This was hardly war fever.
It seems that while it's okay to fly the American flag as a symbol of victimhood, it's not so cool to fly it in support of a war. We live in an age that feels uncomfortable with aggressors, but comfortable with victims -- uncomfortable with old-style ideals about military heroes, but comfortable with the notion that we're all damaged goods now, who can often only feel united in response to tragedies like the Sept. 11 attacks.
So one way that some at home are expressing their "support" for American and British troops in Iraq is by empathizing with them, rather than by supporting their mission (whatever that may be). In parts of America, communities are apparently holding candlelit vigils for US troops, while in Britain some have laid flowers outside army and naval bases in memory of the troops who have died. According to one report, it is ceremonies like these that most express "support on the home front" for the troops in the Gulf.
As the war drags on -- without much enthusiastic support from those organizing it or from those watching it -- some in America and Britain are supporting their boys (but not necessarily their boys' war) by expressing solidarity with them as potential victims, rather than supporting them as soldiers fighting for a worthwhile cause.
Brendan O'Neill is an editor at Spiked Online.
(1) Combat fails to inspire new patriotic movement, Detroit News, 22 March 2003
(2) Fewer flags flying in nation divided, San Jose Mercury News, 23 March 2003
(3) New flags go up in Woodbridge, Amity Observer, 25 March 2003
(4) Echoes of war reverberate in county, Montgomery Gazette, 26 March 2003
(5) Flags, symbols of America flying off the shelves, Chillicothe Gazette, 25 March 2003
(6) Fewer flags flying in nation divided, San Jose Mercury News, 23 March 2003
'Mother of all bombs', says the UK Sun, next to a picture of America's new 'fearsome superbomb', which will apparently 'help destroy Saddam Hussein's evil regime' (1).
The MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) is a 30-foot long bomb, made up of nine-and-a-half tonnes of high explosives, which apparently unleashes a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud when it blows up. 'This is not small', said a deadpan defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, after the US Air Force tested the bomb at Eglin Airbase in Florida (2).
The superbomb may be the world's 'most powerful non-nuclear bomb'. But it also shows the gap between America's military might and its deeper political uncertainty. US officials are trying to fill the moral vacuum exposed by the planned attack on Iraq with a very big weapon -- a case of 'when all else fails, get your bombs out'.
The US Air Force made a public spectacle of the MOAB test explosion. Where weapons testing in the past was generally shrouded in secrecy, the explosion of the superbomb in Florida was accompanied by a press release, official statements and even video footage.
One of the aims seems to be to make a virtual impact in Iraq. Apparently, US officials plan to have the video coverage of the test explosion 'beamed to Iraqi troops to terrify them into surrender' (3). The US Air Force has taken to dropping bombs in 'safe military zones' in sunny Florida in an attempt to make an impact in the enemy camp of Iraq. That's enough to make the US military's increasing reliance on unmanned drones to do their bombing in Afghanistan and elsewhere look like the height of military engagement.
Some are comparing MOAB to the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, arguing that this new superbomb might put a stop to the Iraqi crisis just as the atom bombs brought an end to the Second World War. Leaving aside the fact that you can't compare the Second World War to the West's self-induced crisis in the failed state of Iraq, the contrasts between the role of MOAB today and the role played by the A-bomb nearly 60 years ago are striking.
Of course, for those on the receiving end, the choice between being MOABed or A-bombed is no choice at all. Whichever weapon of mass destruction America decides to use in its foreign ventures, the end result is devastation. That the new 'superbomb' is a 'non-nuclear weapon' but with the 'power of a small nuclear explosion' is a detail that will be lost on those who feel its heat. But the current discussion about MOAB and Iraq captures something of America's current cautiousness on the international stage.
The atom bombs were hugely devastating, laying to waste two Japanese cities and killing at least 200,000 people. But the atomic bombing of Japan was about more than reaping blind destruction, even though it did that very well. With the Second World War coming to a close, and a new world order emerging, the devastation visited on Japan was about displaying America's military, economic and political power to the world, embodying the USA's aim to assume dominance over the postwar globe.
As the Japanese Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki succinctly described it: 'The A-Bomb attacks were needed not so much against Japan - already on the brink of surrender and no longer capable of mounting an effective counter-offensive - as to establish clearly America's postwar international position and strategic supremacy in the anticipated Cold War setting.'
The new superbomb seems to be all about making a military impact, and little else - a demonstration of America's brute force and ability to instil fear. Military officials talk up the psychological and military impact that the superbomb will have. 'A primary reason to utilise this kind of weapon is psychological', says one Pentagon official. 'The intent is to paralyse and terrorise Iraqi troops, to stop them in their tracks.' (4)
For some US officials, one of the benefits of the superbomb is that, upon impact, it looks like a nuclear attack without actually being one. 'It sends up a mushroom cloud so vast that enemy soldiers who see it from many miles away will think America has done the unthinkable', says a Pentagon official (5). In 1945 America did the unthinkable in order to impose its political power on the postwar world; now America wants to project an image of the unthinkable in order to traumatize Iraqi troops.
There also appears to be a different attitude to civilian casualties within today's uncertain administration. The atom bombs of 1945 were specifically targeted at civilian populations. Hirsohima and Nagasaki were picked because they were cities with huge numbers of civilians, and the bombs were dropped, without warning, at times of the day that would ensure the largest number of civilian fatalities.
Today, officials claim that the superbomb will be kept away from civilian areas. According to a Pentagon official: 'It will be used for shock value alone and dropped well away from cities where it could inflict civilian casualties.' (6) Shock value? Listening to US officials, you could be forgiven for thinking they were launching a piece of performance art in Iraq, rather than a war.
Of course, the fewer civilian casualties there are in Iraq, the better. But the USA's concern about civilian casualties today is not driven by a newfound respect for innocent life. Consider the Afghan campaign, where large numbers of civilians were killed by American bombs, including civilians at at least three wedding parties. Indeed, in Afghanistan it was military disengagement and uncertainty - the fact that America fought its war largely from the air without going in on the ground to sound out allies and gather intelligence - that led to some of the more lethal bombing raids.
Rather, US concern about civilian casualties is more about how such issues play in today's supposedly humanitarian era. At a time when wars are justified in the language of human rights, when foreign interventions have to care as well as kill, civilian casualties don't look good. For US officials, being seen to avoid civilian casualties is more about PR than principle.
None of America's uncertainty means that US forces will not ship their superbomb from Florida to Iraq and reap destruction with it. But the apparent choice of the superbomb reveals much about the planned attack on Iraq. It seems that some US officials would rather drop superbombs on Iraq from on high and hope the crisis just goes away, rather than have to think about it for very much longer.
(1) 'Mother of all bombs ', Sun, 12 March 2003
(2) Air Force tests MOAB monster bomb, United Press International, 11 March 2003
(3) 'Mother of all bombs ', Sun, 12 March 2003
(4) 'Mother of all bombs ', Sun, 12 March 2003
(5) 'Mother of all bombs ', Sun, 12 March 2003
(6) 'Mother of all bombs ', Sun, 12 March 2003
You've heard of national liberation, women's liberation and even animal liberation -- but what about accidental liberation?
This is a theory doing the rounds among some liberal commentators feeling guilty about their support for war with Iraq. It holds that, however bloody, barbaric and American the war will be, at least it will have the godsent side-effect of liberating Iraqis from oppression.
According to Johann Hari of the UK Independent, "This war is going to be terrible -- but leaving Saddam in place would be even more terrible.... The difference is the deaths at the hands of Saddam will shore up Ba'athist national socialism, while deaths in war would at least clear the way for a free and democratic Iraq" (1).
Guardian loudmouth Julie Burchill puts it more bluntly: "If you really think it's better for more people to die over decades under a tyrannical regime than for fewer people to die during a brief attack by an outside power, [then] you're really weird ." (2)
The idea that the coming war will accidentally liberate Iraqis betrays a breathtaking naivete about the consequences of Western intervention. Outside interference in Iraq has already exacerbated local tensions, and military intervention can only further unravel the fragile Iraqi state. The internationalisation of Iraq's local conflicts threatens to divide Iraqis further and store up conflict for the future, rather than herald anything like a new era of freedom.
By turning Iraq into an international issue, America and Britain have paved the way for a carve-up. Local players like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all want a piece of postwar Iraq, while the big powers -- including the supposedly anti-war French and Germans -- have their own plans for postwar occupation. And if you think such intervention will bring democracy to Iraq, then you're really weird.
On the ground, the divvying up of Iraq between different powers has already started. As part of its deal to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to launch attacks on Iraq, Turkey has been given the green light to double the number of its troops in northern Iraq from 6000 to 12,000 in recent weeks (3). Northern Iraq is territory that the United Nations designated as a "safe haven" for Kurds following the first Gulf War in 1991, taking the area out of Baghdad's control and granting limited self-government to Kurdish groups.
Turkish forces are fortifying a 25-mile buffer zone between Turkey and northern Iraq -- though according to Newsweek magazine, Turkish forces are keen to go even further into Iraqi territory. "Turkey is demanding that it send 60,000 to 80,000 of its own troops into northern Iraq to establish "strategic positions" across a "security arc" as much as 140 to 170 miles deep in Iraq", reports Newsweek. "That would take Turkish troops almost halfway to Baghdad." (4)
The Bush administration claims that it is allowing Turkish forces into northern Iraq for "humanitarian reasons only" (5), to assist with the flood of refugees that the war in Iraq will no doubt create. In truth, with America's blessing, Turkey is pursuing nobody's interests but its own in northern Iraq.
Turkey is demanding free rein in northern Iraq. It wants to be in charge of "supervising the armament and disarmament of Kurdish groups" and of "restricting the movement" of Kurdish forces where necessary (6). Under the guise of a humanitarian effort, Turkey's intervention in northern Iraq is about keeping a check on Kurdish demands for independence, to ensure that such demands do not impact on Turkey's own volatile Kurdish population.
Since 1984, Turkey has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which fought for Kurdish independence within Turkish territory. Turkey refuses to recognise the "ethnicity" of its Kurdish population and continues to ban the Kurdish language. Now, Turkey sees intervention in northern Iraq as the latest front in its war against the Kurds. As Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis said when asked about postwar Iraq: "A Kurdistan should not be set up." (7)
The opening up of northern Iraq to Turkish forces as part of the planned attack on Iraq lays the ground for renewed conflict between Turks and Kurds. According to Hoshyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which administers the western portion of northern Iraq: "Any Turkish intervention under whatever pretext will lead to clashes." (8) "People in northern Iraqi Kurdistan are more scared of the Turkish military than of Saddam", says Nasreen Sideek, a KDP minister (9).
For Independent columnist Johann Hari and other Western commentators, northern Iraq epitomises the kind of democracy that ought to be extended throughout Iraq. According to Hari, "[U]nder US and British protection, a democracy with freedom of speech and protection of human rights has flourished for the past decade" in northern Iraq (10). Yet, according to a Kurdish newspaper poll taken on 22 February 2003, 83 percent of the residents of northern Iraq are opposed to "any Turkish intrusion" (11). In what kind of "flourishing democracy" can you have foreign intervention against the will of the majority?
Western intervention in Iraq has turned northern Iraq's local problems -- muted conflict between different Kurdish groups, the existence of Islamic terrorist groups -- into an international issue. Whatever stability existed in northern Iraq as a "safe haven" is likely to be undermined by Turkey's US-backed intervention to pursue its own interests.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, Iran has sent in 5000 Shia troops, complete with "heavy equipment" (12), in an attempt to protect its borders with Iraq during and after the war. The Iraqi Shia troops were originally an Iraq-based Islamic opposition to Saddam's regime, though they have been granted safe haven and training by Iraq's longstanding enemy Iran for the past 20 years.
Iran claims to have sent the troops into northern Iraq as a defensive measure, to protect against a potential attack on Iran by the People's Mujahideen Organisation, an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq that allegedly receives support and funding from Saddam's regime (13). But Iran's real interests seem to be in fortifying its borders by pre-emptively crossing over into Iraqi territory, and staking its interest in any set-up in postwar Iraq.
According to the Financial Times, "Through inserting a proxy force, Iran is underlining that it cannot be ignored in future discussions over Iraq's make-up" (14). One expert on Iraqi/Iranian relations claims that Iran is pursuing "nothing but an Iranian agenda", to ensure its future stability. Some Iranian officials are floating the possibility of extending their influence among Iraq's Shia Muslim population, by encouraging them to stand up to the Sunni Muslims that dominate Saddam's regime -- a move that could only cause further fragmentation and division inside Iraq.
It might seem odd that Iran -- one of America's "axis of evil" states, remember -- can send 5000 heavily armed troops into Iraq without incurring much international condemnation (though the Bush administration is apparently "concerned"). Perhaps Tehran officials have been buoyed to intervene in Iraq by their meetings with UK prime minister Tony Blair earlier this year, who promised that Iran's interests would be "taken into consideration" during and after war with Iraq.
With Turkish troops on one side of northern Iraq and Iranian-backed troops on the other, US officials are said to be ever-more concerned about "the increasingly complicated patchwork of forces in northern Iraq", and the potential for instability that this brings about (15). But who was it, if not Western forces, that made northern Iraq into such free-for-all territory in the first place?
The north was taken out of Baghdad's control after the first Gulf War by Western forces. It was one of the UN "safe havens" that was being demanded by many of those now opposed to military intervention. As a consequence, Iraq's sovereignty and borders were seriously undermined, making northern Iraq a less governed (and generally less governable) place than the rest of Iraq. It was the West's undermining of Iraqi state control over northern Iraq that made it such a borderless and intervention-friendly place.
As Muzaffer Baca, vice-president of a Turkish humanitarian relief organisation, argues: "There [has been] no effective control of the central authorities or international institutions. Northern Iraq is a haven for drug and arms smugglers .The instability creates an atmosphere in which terror and terrorist organisations can flourish." (16)
Far from being an example for the rest of Iraq, northern Iraq shows the dangers of Western intervention, and how undermining a state's sovereignty heightens the potential for instability and conflict. Besides, the "patchwork" of Turkish and Iranian-backed forces in northern Iraq that so concerns Bush and co appears to have come about as a result of at least American and British agreement, if not their full-blown support.
Perhaps in response to the potential for what one newspaper calls "the permanent disintegration of Iraq", the Bush administration unveiled its latest plans for postwar Iraq in late February 2003. The White House plans a total occupation of Iraq following the war, to oversee the "reconstruction of the country's shattered infrastructure" (the infrastructure that US forces will just have shattered?) (17).
According to one report: "The White House will outline plans for taking complete control of post-Saddam Iraq "for an indefinite period" and overseeing the reconstruction of the country. General Tommy Franks, the Texan commander of the allied invasion forces, will be named as interim governor until all weapons of mass destruction are found and disabled and wanted members of the regime tracked down and arrested." (18)
And what will happen once the military occupation has disarmed Iraq and destroyed any opposition to its presence? Then the reins will be handed over to an American civilian, or an "American of stature" as one report puts it, who will, again, control Iraq for an "indefinite period" (19).
The French and German alternative to America's occupation plans isn't much better. France and Germany may be heralded by the anti-war movement as forces for peace in the Iraqi crisis, but they too propose that Iraq be occupied -- only by UN rather than American forces. In France and Germany's preferred option for Iraq, the UN Security Council would take control of Iraqi airspace and soil, and Iraq would effectively become a protectorate, like Kosovo. Liberation, accidental or otherwise, would be notable by its absence.
There is something missing in the American, British, French and German proposals for postwar Iraq - the Iraqis themselves. The people of Iraq may have a starring role in Bush and Blair's rhetoric, but in the plans for postwar Iraq they don't even get a look in. Bush and Blair talk up the need to "free Iraqis" from "Saddam's grip", but they push ahead with a plan that will divide Iraq up and put American generals in charge.
This is the "free and democratic" Iraq we can expect following further Western intervention -- an Iraq where Iraqis are more divided than ever; where local conflicts are internationalised and exacerbated; where neighbouring powers Turkey and Iran vie for territory and influence; and where the country is occupied by American or UN forces.
The liberals' idea of accidental liberation is a con. It depicts the people of Iraq as hapless saps who should only expect freedom as the by-product of a Western war. And it displays a wilful ignorance of the big power interests that are currently carving up and destabilising Iraq, even before the war has started. I prefer the idea of human liberation for the people of Iraq. And that is something that only the Iraqis themselves -- free from outside interference -- have a vested interest in fighting for.
(1) The case for war: we must fight to end the Iraqis' suffering, Johann Hari, Independent, 15 February 2003
(2) Why we should go to war, Julie Burchill, Guardian, 1 February 2003
(3) Turkey weighs economic, political costs of a Gulf War, Ilene R Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, 10 January 2003
(4) Risking a civil war, Owen Matthews, Sami Kohen and John Barry, Newsweek, 24 February 2003
(5) US to station thousands of troops in self-rule area, Michael Howard, Guardian, 24 February 2003
(6) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003
(7) Turkey, US rebound from stalemate over aid package, Ilene R Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003
(8) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003
(9) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003
(10) The case for war: we must fight to end the Iraqis' suffering, Johann Hari, Independent, 15 February 2003
(11) Kurds brace for Turks, Cameron W Barr, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 2003
(12) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003
(13) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003
(14) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003
(15) Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, 19 February 2003
(16) War would threaten Iraq's Kurds and Shias, Muzaffer Baca, AlertNet, 29 November 2002
(17) General Franks "to run Iraq after war", Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003
(18) General Franks "to run Iraq after war", Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003
(19) General Franks "to run Iraq after war", Ian Bruce, Herald, 24 February 2003
"We don't know exactly how many there are. But they number in the tens of thousands. They are everywhere among us. They intend to tear down the world as we know it...."
Those might sound like the opening lines to a trashy Triffids novel or a Rumsfeld rant about mad mullahs threatening the USA -- but Jonah Goldberg in the Washington Times is in fact writing about blogs.
You know blogs: personal, self-made websites where Anyman (or Anywoman) comments about the news, links to other sites or posts pictures of their pets. Weblogs, to give them their full techie name, have been around since the mid-1990s, and now they're everywhere. According to CNN, "Several sources put the total number of blogs in the range of 200,000 to 500,000". Blogger.com, which provides idiot-proof software for setting up your own weblog, claims that 1000 blogs are created on its site every day.
Most blogs have a dozen or so readers, but a handful have built up audiences in their thousands. There are news blogs, comment blogs, war blogs, diet blogs, disease blogs, cat blogs, dog blogs, blogs about blogs. There's even a "homeless guy" blog, written by a fortysomething man who lives on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee. "All human life is there," said the UK Guardian in a feature about the "blogging phenomenon."
The vast majority of the estimated 200,000 to 500,000 blogs are little more than online diaries, where individuals post musings and write about their daily experiences. But there is a growing number of "big bloggers" -- bloggers who write about news, politics and culture -- who claim to be forging new forms of journalism and correspondence.
Apparently, such blogs threaten the traditional media's hold over the spread of information and ideas. By allowing the man in the street to get his hands on the means of production -- to write, produce and publish his own content without needing an editor or publisher -- blogging has been hailed as a "publishing revolution," which will "transform journalism" and "democratise the media."
Glenn Reynolds, an American law professor who runs the hugely popular weblog InstaPundit, claims 2003 will be the "year of the blog." "For Big Media," says Reynolds, "[blogging] is going to produce an increasing degree of either conscientiousness or paranoia, as it becomes apparent that the megaphone now works both ways..."
For Andrew Sullivan -- British-journo-in-America, Sunday Times columnist and big into blogging -- there has been nothing less than a "blogging revolution." "Blogging is changing the media world and could, I think, foment a revolution in how journalism functions in our culture," says Sullivan. He goes so far as to argue that blogging might represent "a publishing revolution more profound than anything since the printing press." Wow.
So is the "blogosphere" making the crusty publishers of yesteryear obsolete? Is the spread of personal websites on a par with the birth of print? Not quite. Blogging may be fun -- which is why I've been publishing one at brendanoneill.net for the past six months; it may even be a new and exciting way of using the web. But it's not journalism, and it ain't no revolution.
For all the claims that the "big bloggers" are challenging the traditionalists, in fact many blogs simply leech off the old-style media. The political and comment blogs that are seen as being at the forefront of the "blogging revolution" often do little more than write about and react to articles published in traditional media outlets (or "the Big Media" as they call it), rather than generating new journalistic content.
Two of the things that bloggers became famous for in 2002 were "Fisking" and the "fact-checking of asses" (seriously -- as in "Blogs: fact-checking Big Media's ass"). Fisking is named after the Independent's left-leaning foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who is despised by many right-wing bloggers for what they perceive to be his anti-American attitudes and especially for his critical comments about Israel. According to one "Blogging Glossary," published on a libertarian weblog, to Fisk is to "deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner."
And they really mean "point by point" -- some bloggers leap on the latest column by Robert Fisk, or Paul Krugman of the New York Times or George Monbiot of the UK Guardian, whomever they like the least, and Fisk the content in often laborious detail.
Then there's "Fact-checking asses," which, according to the Blogging Glossary, means "using internet search engines to ascertain the veracity of dubious claims made in the press." According to Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit, there is something almost subversive about keeping the old media in check like this. He writes of the "underdoggish thrill of hobbyists 'fact-checking the asses' of the pros who chafe at the slightest indication of non-pros intruding on their monopoly turf."
If bloggers want to spend their time fact-checking the traditional media's ass, that's fine -- and some of them even do it entertainingly. But when that becomes a major focus of blogging, it hardly points to a "radical transformation" of the "journalistic culture." Blogs come across less as a revolutionary vanguard remaking journalism into something new and dynamic, and more like traditional journalism's poor cousin -- putting it down, picking holes in its arguments, and generally having a good old moan about the Fisks and Krugmans of the world.
An ironic effect of the "Fisking culture" has been to boost traditional journalism's fortunes on the web. As a result of having his name turned into a verb, Robert Fisk has assumed almost legendary proportions on sections of the internet. Fisk is now a kind of mythical figure, that strange British journalist who dares to say the unthinkable -- a view which, it has to be said, is often out of proportion to any biting insight on Fisk's part.
In May 2002, Hollywood star and well-known web-user John Malkovich was asked whom he would most like to fight to the death and he nominated Robert Fisk, capturing Fisk's newfound fame (and loathing) as a result of bloggers having spread his name around the web.
Likewise, some claim that the UK Guardian has become a big read around the worldwide web largely as a result of bloggers attacking it. Andrew Sullivan, the right-wing journalist whose personal blog is one of the most popular, has made a point of "Fisking" Guardian articles -- and according to Wyeth Ruthven, who runs a centre-left American blog, "No one here had even heard of the Guardian until Sullivan began his personal jihad" (surely an exaggeration?). Writing in the New Statesman, British blogger James Crabtree claims that "in a country [the USA] with no recognisable left of its own, bloggers have made [the Guardian] the pantomime villain of the right."
The blogosphere's focus on the faults and failings of the traditional media does more than give a shot to print journalism's web presence -- it also makes for blog-writing that is more bitter and bitchy than insightful. By setting themselves up against "Big Media," against the writers they love to hate (or love to love), bloggers often sound like the critics who can't rather than journalists who can. There is a group of right-wing British bloggers who spend their days Fisking the Guardian -- except they don't call it the Guardian, they call it the Wanker. Which is not even funny. And see what I mean about bitter?
This kind of blogging is little more than a subjective spouting match, where bloggers spill forth their views on everything, anything and sometimes nothing. But there is more to journalism than instant reaction and response. Good journalism involves rising above your immediate concerns, weighing up the facts, and attempting to say something more measured and insightful -- sometimes even truthful and profound. Blogging creates a white noise of personal prejudice, akin to students arguing in a bar rather than experts saying anything striking. I haven't got a problem with pub-style debates about the issues of the day -- but journalism it isn't.
On my weblog, for example, I have a recurring item called "What the fuck...?" -- for when something so bizarre happens, or when a public figure says something so ridiculous, that there is little more to say in response than "What the fuck...?" President Bush says Saddam Hussein got al-Qaeda to bomb Bali: what the fuck? Jimmy Carter wins the Nobel Prize for Peace: what the fuck? Et cetera...
But this isn't journalism -- it's a blogger's rant. If I were to write a journalistic piece about Bush's obsession with a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda it would have to say more than 'What the fuck...?' And if bloggers fancy themselves as cutting-edge "new journalists" giving the old media a run for its money, they'll have to do more than post quickfire comments in response to already published material or breaking news or another blogger's comments about another blogger's comments. Perhaps they could start by generating some new content.
The rise of blogging on the web, and the way in which it has been hailed as a media revolution not only by bloggers but also by some newspapers, reflects recent shifts within journalism itself. In the traditional media, everywhere from the papers to the TV, there has been a rise in personal opinions and emotionally responsive journalism over objectivity and hard-hitting investigation. Of course, there's nothing wrong with opinion journalism, especially if the journalist has got something to say. But too often today, much opinion writing seems to be driven more by feelings and emotions than by insight or having a distinct argument to put forward.
It is unsurprising, then, that similar trends are impacting on online journalism. And the thing about the web is that, even more than newspapers and TV, it lends itself to the expression of personal opinion and prejudice. The ease and speed with which anyone can publish their views on the web is no doubt a potentially positive development, but it can lead to an explosion of opinion that ends up saying very little. To describe this free-for-all expression/commenting/ranting as a journalistic revolution is disingenuous. As Clint Eastwood once said, "Opinions are like assholes -- everybody has one."
A final claim made by bloggers is that they can offer radically more content than we will find in the word-counted articles subbed and squashed into a newspaper or magazine. "We can publish everything online," says one blogger: "transcripts, research material, every detail. Newspapers publish, what? 800 words?"
To this end, Sheila Lennon, a well-known American blogger, recently published on her blog the entire transcript of an interview that she gave to the New York Times. The NYT interviewed Lennon about the blogging phenomenon, but only used one sentence from her in the published article. Lennon said the Times "asked fine questions, and I didn't wince when I read my answers," but still she felt the urge to post the entire interview on her own blog. "It seemed natural for me to publish the 'rest of the story' online for readers who might be interested."
All of which is fine -- except this reproduction of source material was then presented as some kind of radical act. According to the American Journalism Review: "Not only had Lennon revealed the raw material of a story; she'd empowered herself as a citizen publisher and an interviewee." The Review claimed that by publishing the interview transcript, Lennon had created a "really revolutionary scenario," where "anyone can set up a virtual press in order to contribute to the reporting process, talk back to a journalist or set the record straight."
The "Lennon incident" (as some now refer to it...) showed the benefits of publishing on the web -- and also how such benefits get blown out of proportion. One of the most transformative things about web publishing, as distinct from print publishing, is that you can provide "extra material." Through hyperlinks, further reading suggestions and footnotes, articles on the web can become gateways to a wealth of material. Some blogs do this very well, providing links to articles you might otherwise not have found -- and you only have to browse the BBC News website to see the promise of such publishing.
But to describe this as a new form of journalism, as "putting journalism's house in order," is bizarre. Indeed, Sheila Lennon's self-publication of her interview transcript ended up reminding me what journalists are for. There was some interesting stuff in the transcript, but generally it was long, rambling and boring in parts -- as transcripts tend to be. By contrast, the final New York Times article, which incorporated a tiny part of the interview, was measured, concise and a good read.
It might feel "empowering" to publish transcripts and other "behind the scenes" material -- but a professional journalist's job is to take all that material, consider it, and turn it into something more profound. That's why editors exist -- to ensure that published material is readable and clear. No doubt some writers would like to have their every word published, but editors put economy and clarity before writer overload. Indeed, some modern newspapers and book publishers could do with harder editors.
The blogosphere, by contrast, not only lacks editors, it celebrates their absence. It claims that this lack of quality control gives the blogosphere a special freedom. As a result, the bloggers' "radical act" of providing raw material as a way of challenging traditional journalists' stranglehold over information often shows up just how important traditional journalists, and editors, are.
For all that, I actually like blogs. Really I do. Some are funny, some alert me to interesting articles, some even say original things. But the biggest revolution since the birth of the printing press? Blog off.
Brendan O'Neill is an assistant editor at Spiked Online.