The electing of a president for the United States has a certain morbid fascination for non-Americans. The rest of the world holds its breath while US citizens decide who shall be the individual responsible for US foreign policy. It is a frenzied spectacle at once compelling and distasteful. Compelling, because the president has enormous power for good or ill. Distasteful, at least for democrats (small 'd'), who believe that democracy was invented to curb dictators, and shift decision-making power to the people. Remember 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'?
Today, the US president has power not in line with the original New World conception of the role. Today, for a proposal to be safe from the president's veto the Senate needs a two-thirds majority on an issue. Not only that, but decisions are routinely taken by the president with his selected advisors behind closed doors, and then either simply announced to Congress and the nation, as in the Cuban missile crisis, or else, as in the case of the Contras scandal, kept secret until ferreted out.
In a way, the worst feature of all is the public acceptance of this situation. The undemocratic nature of electing an individual with such gigantic power generally goes unrecognised. In fact, the public demand a great leader (or a Great Helmsman, as Mao described himself). And, perhaps worst of all, the qualities demanded have little to do with efficient management, but everything to do with charismatic appeal to the common denominator in us all. Barrack Obama had to counter the charge that he was an intellectual, and so in an elite group, as if being such was a grave impediment to being in charge of a powerful nation.
The world-wide peace movement has no vote in the US presidential election, but we all have to cope with the consequences of the choice. It is quite a general consensus even amongst the wider public that the misrule of George W. Bush has had disastrous consequences for us all. So much so, that the Republican candidate John Mc Cain was forced to declare publicly that he 'was no George Bush'.
As I believe that the power leaders of democracies have today undermines democracy itself, I was surprised to find myself close to tears when, late in the night of 4th November, it became clear that Obama had won. Well, nobody's perfect.
There is every indication that President Obama will be a great improvement (he did vote against the invasion of Iraq). And what he emphasises in his speeches is redolent of true democratic instincts. Congratulations are surely due to the American public on their choice this time. But the flaw in the system remains. The world urgently needs more democracy in the United States, as well as here in Britain and elsewhere. President Obama is to review all the executive orders of his predecessor, and will perhaps reverse some of them. But he probably won't go a step further, and abolish executive orders themselves as undemocratic. To get to a more peaceful world, we need our representatives to have more power, and our Great Helmsmen less.
|A KPC message to Aldermaston workers, used first at Faslane last year|
The huge complex at Aldermaston, Berkshire, ringed by a tall barbed-wired fence, is where Britain's nuclear weapon is built, and the new improved Trident warhead is to be designed. To call attention to this proliferation, when Britain has a treaty obligation to phase out our weapon of mass destruction, a day-long protest, organised by Trident Ploughshares and supported by CND, for 27th October, aimed to do what was possible to block the gates and so delay work on the new weapon. In fact, it was more than a day, for there was an all-night vigil leading up to the day of action. Ten members of Kingston Peace Council/CND went down in two cars to support the demonstration, and raised our banner by the main gate.
There was an adequate police presence, recruited from the MOD, Berkshire and Thames Valley, backed up by four fine mounted horses. They kept order, but were unable to prevent activists blocking the gates and the road for some time, causing long tail-backs of cars taking workers to the site. As they were directed away on a detour, the cars came by our rainbow peace flag, and we received a few significant gestures of disapproval from workers but also, perhaps surprisingly in the circumstances, an even greater number of hoots and thumbs-up.
The police appeared reluctant to make arrests at first, simply carrying those lying on the road to the side and releasing them, but persistent offenders were ultimately arrested. In all, 33 were carried away in police vans.
What was striking, and very encouraging to those of us who are veterans, was the number of young people there. They were among the most fearless, certainly the most vocal, and their enthusiasm was cheering and reassuring. We met a young man who had driven down with a group from Edinburgh - a nice reciprocation of our Scottish visit to Faslane - and Ailsa from far-flung Cornwall joined our lot.
One group of four young people used superglue to fasten their hands together and lay down on the narrow road, blocking the traffic for a long time. Another young activist managed to build a tripod on the road about 8 feet tall and ascend it. The police, careful to avoid any harm during the arrest, ended by building a scaffolding around the tripod, which they then ascended to make the arrest in safety. We watched for ten minutes or so whilst the scaffolding was being constructed, but had to go before the arrest was made.
The day was fine, blue sky, bracingly cold, and the company was excellent. Watch this space for info concerning the date of the next blockade.
There were numerous uncontroversial Resolutions passed, including condemnation of US Missile Defence and UK Trident renewal in the face of condemnation by Kissinger and Schultz, switching resources to social care, support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention to replace the toothless NNPT, campaigning targeted at the nuclear weapons to be resited in Turkey from Lakenheath, campaigning about NATO, its advance eastwards to Russia and beyond, and the congruence of weapons and agreement which effectively brings all into the US first-strike nuclear orbit, raising awareness of military funding of university technology and physics courses, and our own by Jim McCluskey seeking to take nuclear weapons off "hair trigger alert", and thus reduce the possibility of accidental or hasty launch of weapons capable of destroying the Earth!
Guest speaker, Judith Le Blanc, of United for Peace and Justice, USA, emphasised the connection between the US economy and war. UPJ campaigners take the message door-to-door that the endless wars have been financed by huge budget deficits to avoid unpopular taxes. The widening wealth gap (1% of the population has 20% of the income), lack of health care for many, and tax give-aways for the wealthy is grossly unjust and harmful for America and its economy. The anti-war movement is pushing for peace, disarmament and troops out of Iraq. They want improved health and social care instead. They also want a changed Foreign Policy and support for the United Nations.
Graham Bennett of One World Action said 200 children will die during his ten minute speech. One World Action is part of a consortium running a follow-up campaign to Make Poverty History, the grass-roots campaign hijacked by Tony Blair. Public perception is that government will see to it, but many of the promises haven't been honoured and the economic climate is unfavourable. The campaign to take the fight forward is called STAND UP AGAINST POVERTY. All organisations need to cooperate to raise awareness of the link between government expenditure and priorities, like the fact that large chunks of money are earmarked for weapons. Poverty is associated with lack of access to power, and weaknesses in our own democracy have permitted taxation-funded commitments like nuclear weapons and the Iraq war.
Dr Amrit Wilson of the South Asia Solidarity Group is concerned at the nuclear trade agreement between India and USA. An Indian ruling elite is keen on "standing shoulder to shoulder" with the USA to project India as a world power, whereas the USA sees strategic advantage in the deal which could pitch India against China in a regional power game. There will be massive costs to India and inevitable subservience to the USA under the Hyde Act, requiring foreign policy to be congruent. The US seeks Iran's isolation, so cooperation between India and Iran for access to Iranian oil has been deferred. The Act requires inspection of civilian nuclear facilities but not weapons, and India hasn't signed the NNPT. India should exploit lots of other power generation options which are more practicable and less costly. The deal was kept secret till its announcement so opponents were unprepared. However US companies are establishing commercial operations in areas of India, behaving irresponsibly, consuming valuable resources, and becoming unpopular.
Noel Hamel. 20 October 2008.
It was a real bonus to have Professor Arif Mohamed to talk to KPC members about his country - Afghanistan - and give us some context, and his thoughts on the present situation. Media coverage of Afghanistan in the UK is usually either misleading or simply lacking so it was good to hear from someone who knows the country and its problems so well.
If we are to understand those problems we need to realise that powerful countries have, for centuries, seen Afghanistan as important to their strategic interests. This has had very damaging effects on the country and its people - from British invasions of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, as Britain sought to control its empire and confront Russia, to the NATO force's current activities. One could reasonably ask what these armies from 'far away countries' were doing in Afghanistan in the first place.
Professor Arif said Afghanistan used to be a tolerant country where Christians and Jews could live and work alongside Muslims. Family and clan loyalties were very important while central government had less impact on people's lives. In the 60s and 70s the reformist movement was working for women's rights, the acceptance of Trade Unions, land reform and the abolition of some of the debts which crippled the poor. However neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, Iran and China, for their own particular reasons, were not happy with the idea of a reformed and stable Afghanistan and their governments worked to destabilise the country. The USA was also active in the de-stabilisation process.
There was a communist revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 which was only partially successful. Some of the revolutionary leaders subsequently looked to the Soviet Union for support and in 1979 Soviet troops arrived on the scene and the country gradually took on the role of Cold War battleground. Professor Arif told us how the US and neighbouring countries had created the fundamentalist Muhajideen - even producing textbooks in local languages which encouraged holy war and getting them distributed in Afghan schools. How could anyone have thought this was an acceptable or even a sensible policy? In 1989 the Russians left but this only meant that rival groups of Muhajideen fought for supremacy while ordinary civilians struggled to stay alive. Readers will, I'm sure, remember the pictures of Kabul with hardly a building left standing. It was here that a young Saudi activist, Osama bin Laden, gained experience and developed his ideas.
Out of this chaos came the Taliban - very strict Muslims who took control in Afghanistan and brought some degree of law and order at a pretty high social cost with women more or less confined to their homes and the banning of all non-religious music. In 2001, 9/11 - carried out of course mainly by Saudis - brought the wrath of the USA down on the wretched citizens of Afghanistan since bin Laden was held responsible. Carpet bombing followed and the arrival of NATO troops, and later Hamid Karzai was elected as President. All this will be very familiar to readers. There is rather more media coverage with British troops in Afghanistan.
So what is happening now? Conflict is increasing and the media suggest that the Taliban are regrouping for a comeback. Professor Arif said that the new Taliban are very different from those of the 1990s. He said they were young men - the older Taliban had mostly gone - less strictly religious and better seen as 'resistance fighters' who were fighting to get rid of foreign soldiers from their country. Professor Arif felt that whereas the western world did not have the stomach for a prolonged fight with more soldiers being killed, resistance fighters would continue till the troops had left. Our speaker believed that nothing good would happen till the troops had gone and wanted a date set for withdrawal. He suggested that perhaps some neutral UN force could come in temporarily as acceptable peacekeepers, as Afghans took control of their own country.
Professor Arif answered questions on a wide range of topics including women's status and education, the opium economy and possible alternatives, and the country's relationship with Pakistan and Iran. He left us in no doubt that the country had many problems. These are not going to be solved overnight. The withdrawal of NATO forces may be a first and necessary step but it is far from a sufficient one. The international community and the UN need to provide aid for reconstruction and development for some time to come. But this must be under the control of the Afghans themselves.
Hilary suggested we should mark the date at the end of November 2001 when the western alliance entered Kabul and the initial phase of the conflict came to an end. So we will be outside Bentalls in Kingston on 20th November with leaflets and posters to draw attention to the situation in Afghanistan and the pressing need for real peace.
Once upon a time there was a credible basis for the formation of a military pact designed to counter the perceived threat posed by the nuclear-armed USSR. If you had no faith in the United Nations, an organisation that was formed to prevent war, then an old-fashioned military alliance seemed the sensible way to go. Thus, on 4th April 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, was born.
Military alliances are not new. In fact, they were in vogue for centuries before their failure to prevent two catastrophic world wars in the 20th century caused leaders of nations to rethink ideas on security. Military alliances were not designed to keep the peace always - sometimes they were formed so as to guarantee success in waging a war upon a neighbour. The new security organisation, called first the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, was specifically designed to save mankind from 'the scourge of war' by achieving a general international consensus to outlaw armed conflict.
16th century Italy, broken up into small, warring provinces, provides an excellent example of how military alliances work in practice. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a book on the subject, instructing Princes on when to form alliances, and when it was profitable to break them. The following quote, taken from his famous book, The Prince, illustrates his ideas on when alliances should be formed, and incidentally also shows one great weakness of such alliances - they are not to be trusted.
Everyone realises how praiseworthy it is for a prince to honour his word and to be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; nonetheless contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.
Looking at Nato in the way Machiavelli would doubtless have done, a different scenario to that advertised begins to emerge. If Nato really was a pact to counter the communist threat, it lost its raison d'etre when the Warsaw Pact collapsed. But instead, Nato took the opportunity to expand further, and now includes many of the former 'enemy' nations that had been members of the Warsaw Pact. Starting with an original 10 members, Nato today has 26, and the further additions of Ukraine and Georgia are apparently being seriously considered, and even urged by the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, though German opposition seems likely to be decisive.
An article by Rae Street (Morning Star 2/9/08) describes how Nato now carries out joint exercises with Israel, and is forging alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, whose troops have been deployed in Afghanistan under the Nato banner.
Everyone wants peace - it is just a question of the best method of obtaining it. Nato has an appeal not only to the military-industrial complex, which would not survive if a cooperative approach to peace were to be chosen, but also to those who have given up on the chances of obtaining peace though an international cooperative effort, though, it must be said, the track record of expensive, militarist, adversarial alliances is appalling.
It is interesting that in 1954 the Soviet Union suggested that it join Nato. Its application was refused, possibly on the ground that that would make too many cowboys and not enough Red Indians.
Stella Rimington, who retired 12 years ago from the post of director general of MI5, was recently (18th Oct) interviewed in the Guardian. She thought that the response to 9/11 was 'a huge overreaction'. I suppose this was a predictable opinion, given her job. You don't normally respond to terrorist attacks by bombing and invading the country where the perpetrators are hiding. If in your job as a counterterrorist you suggested such a thing, you would probably be judged insane, or at the very least unfitted for your job in intelligence.
She also thought the 'war on terror' (a phrase she hopes will not be used by the next US president) responsible for the macho posturing of political leaders, and was relieved that government was unable to push though its proposal for powers to detail suspects for 42 days without trial. She also thought that the British participation in the war in Iraq was responsible for the terrorist attacks on London.
Now, you may think the latter opinion is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Before the attack, think tanks had warned of its probability, and the Metropolitan Police spokesman had said an attack on London was 'only a matter of time'. To make certainty even more certain, the perpetrators themselves stated in videos filmed before the attacks that the war was indeed their motivation. Yet Tony Blair, the recognised architect of British involvement in the 'coalition of the willing' in this pre-emptive, illegal war, had such an easy ride in parliament after the 7/7 attacks. On the seventh of July 2005 he flew down from the G7 meeting he had been attending in Scotland when the news of the attack on London broke, and addressed an emergency session of parliament. In the comments that followed his statement, no one mentioned the Iraq war! In fact, he was much praised for his 'statesmanlike' speech by the leader of the opposition, and in the papers the next day one hack, overcome by emotion, demanded that Blair rethink his planned abdication in favour of Gordon Brown, and please would he lead Labour into the next election! !
Our member Jim McCluskey has written a book on nuclear weapons for which he is currently seeking a publisher, that hopefully will one day be reviewed in KPN and other prestigious journals. Using copious illustrations of the vast power of the hydrogen bomb, and of the several blunders that have come so close to unleashing it, McCluskey generates in the reader a feeling of awed disbelief that we have been so extremely stupid in our handling of the problem posed by the Bomb, and also a feeling of urgency that the menacing shadow of this Armageddon weapon be removed from the future of mankind. After reading the draft one comes away with a sense of wonder that we, the people, have gone along with such a crazily dangerous method of control.
The famous nuclear button must represent the ultimate example of trust in leaders, when the power to destroy the human race is given to an individual. We, most of us, accept the situation where the leader carries around a box with the codes, and on his say-so, on his sending a message to those who control launch of ICBMs, the missiles capable of destroying humanity will be sent on their way. This is an absurdly dangerous situation, and Mc Cluskey, in his remorseless, carefully-researched examination of the details of the unimaginable power of the H-bomb, of the several occasions when we survived the chance of an accidental nuclear war, brings together in scholarly fashion the many facts that constitute the sorry history of the Bomb. The story is striking even for a peace campaigner well versed in the danger, and would surely appal the general reader, to whom the book is most addressed, and lead to a public demand for corrective action.
McCluskey compels us to face the dangerous, and therefore unpleasant, facts about the nuclear age. He makes it quite clear that the danger has been manufactured by us, and that it can be eliminated by us. Perhaps this supreme test of home sapiens will end with us earning our soi-disant wise categorisation.
This extract from the War Memoirs of Lloyd George, Vol 11, pp1206/1207, was sent to us by our Welsh correspondent Lib Rowlands-Hughes
As to enemy countries, one heard as early as 1915 that Austria was tired, and that some of her leaders were becoming frightened of the ultimate effect on the monarchy of the unexpected prolongation of the war. In 1916, Jane Addams, the famous American leader of women's movements, called upon me at 10 Downing Street on her return from a continental tour. She had visited Germany, Austria and France and wished to tell me all about it and at the same time influence me in the direction of peace. In Vienna she had had an interview with the Austrian Premier. Having explained to him that she had come there to find out whether it was not possible to bring this horrible war to a peaceful end, she said, 'I have no doubt you are saying to yourself at this moment, this American woman is quite mad.'
He replied, 'Mad? Do you see that door?'
At this she thought he was terminating the interview brusquely, but he went on, 'Every hour of the day, and far into the night, men come through that door and say to me, "We want more men for the trenches - we want more guns - more ammunition, more money."
Mad, indeed? You are the only sensible person who has passed through that door for a long time.'
The Austrians were not happy about the war they had provoked. A sense of impending catastrophe was chilling the air of Vienna.
Why is it that though people across the world see peace as so desirable it remains so elusive? I'm sure many readers have struggled with this question. Harry Davis asked the same question and went on to write an excellent book - The Palace of Crystal: a World without War - to give his answer.
Harry says, "The book is all about democracy - about the potential of democracy to save the world from the scourge of war". He argues that the problems arise because modern democracies are not democratic enough. He considers leadership and the power that we the people now seem happy to hand over to our leaders, even in democracies. Harry's solutions are based on ideas, developed by Tom Paine in The Rights of Man, of a grass roots democracy where power stays with people.
KPC members felt it was fitting that we celebrate the publication of The Palace of Crystal, written by our long-time and much-appreciated newsletter editor. That's why members and guests got together on 21 October at Kingston University for a book launch and discussion of the important issues raised. The Mayor of Kingston, Councillor David Berry, welcomed us and Harry read extracts from his book. Tony Kempster, Chair of the Movement for the Abolition of War, then led a thoughtful and interesting discussion which included a contribution from Richmond Park MP, Susan Kramer.
In particular we looked at reasons why people are not active in the cause of peace when the issues are so immediate and important. Sheer lack of awareness? A feeling of impotence? Too many other distractions? Our media? We shared ideas and then Harry signed copies of his book.
Re the media: The British media has its faults but we were delighted that The Surrey Comet had a very good interview with Harry plus photo - on Page 3 too. Some well-deserved celebrity status.
(Harry adds: Thank you Mary. The publisher has been in touch, saying he plans to reduce the price of the book in January to £16.99 - still too much. KPN readers can have a copy for £8 (incl p&p) while my stock lasts. But in addition, the publisher promises to put the book on the net as an E-book in January, so it can then be read for nothing first - try before you buy! Details when available.)
"These studies therefore raise difficult questions, including whether vulnerable people - for example, pregnant women and young children - should be advised to move away from nuclear facilities. Another question is whether local residents should be advised not to eat produce from their gardens, as the food pathway is the largest contributor to local doses.
But the largest question concerns the wisdom of the recent decisions by several governments to continue to press for the construction of nuclear reactors."
Conclusions from an article in Medicine, Conflict and Survival , July-September 2008, by Dr Ian Fairlie, who was Secretariat to the UK government's CERRIE committee. The article itself, which examines the results of a study ordered by the German government into the cancer risks posed by nuclear power stations and refers to many other such studies, deserves a fuller revue in KPN on a future occasion.
Official government estimates of the running cost of just maintaining our nuclear weapon is 6% of the defence budget. (Guardian, 5th November) This expensive housekeeping works out at £4,931,500 every day of the year, year after year. In these times of financial crisis, someone should tell Gordon Brown.
When you go to drain a marsh you don't tell the frogs. (The answer of a French nuclear power station director, when asked about the consultation process involved in building a new nuclear power station.)
Like alcoholics condemning teenage drinking, the nuclear powers have made the spread of nuclear weapons the terror of our age, distracting attention from their own behaviour. Western leaders refuse to accept that our own actions encourage others to follow suit . . . So we are left with a policy of vigilante bravado for which we have sacrificed the proven methods of weapons control. ( Dan Plesch, Guardian 10/10/06, in an article explaining how North Korea has been pushed into making its own nuclear weapon.)
Today's oak tree is yesterday's acorn that held its ground.
Newsletter editor for this issue was Harry Davis.
Disclaimer: It is the nature of a newsletter like KPN that views cannot be sought on everything that appears herein, so views expressed are almost never the agreed opinion of the group.