Saudi Arabia and Yemen: is honesty too much to ask?

This morning, BBC News published an astonishing story under the headline “Yemen conflict: Saudi ban ‘catastrophic’ for aid”. At least I found it astonishing. It was written in a very restrained and understated way. Very British. But the story it told was astonishing – at least if one stops and thinks for a couple of moments.

Let’s take a look at it.

Aid agencies are seeking urgent access for humanitarian supplies to war-torn Yemen, after the Saudi-led coalition closed all routes into the country. The UN and the Red Cross said a “catastrophic” situation threatened millions who rely on life-saving aid.”

So – what we have here is a country that currently has the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, where people are dying of disease and starvation, and the neighbouring country has closed the borders, thus making it impossible for aid to get in. And this neighbouring country, Saudi Arabia is actually responsible for much of the disease and suffering.

Saudi Arabia justified the move saying Houthi rebels were being supplied with weapons from Iran, and has accused Tehran of “direct military aggression”. Iran denies arming the rebels, who have fought the coalition since 2015.

So the government of a country that invaded its neighbour, which by most definitions, constitutes “direct military aggression” justifies its closing of the border by accusing another country of “direct military aggression” – despite the fact that any Iranian military support for the Houthis has been pretty limited, and there is no evidence at all of any Iranian military support of the Houthis before the Saudi invasion.

On Saturday, a ballistic missile was intercepted near the Saudi capital. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said providing rockets to the rebels “may be considered an act of war”.

So was Saudi Arabia’s invasion in 2015 not an act of war?

The US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, said Saturday’s missile and others could be of Iranian origin. She said Iran was violating two UN resolutions simultaneously and said it should be held accountable. She appeared to be referring to:

A ban on Tehran supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country without prior approval from the UN Security Council

A ban on the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders and their allies, including former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Iran’s foreign ministry has insisted that the missile launch was “an independent action” by the Houthis in response to Saudi-led coalition “aggression”.

Seems reasonable. If Saudi Arabia invades Yemen, to expect no Yemeni attacks on Saudi Arabia in response would be remarkably optimistic.

In response to the attack, the coalition announced the “temporary” closure of all Yemeni land, sea and air ports, tightening an existing blockade, but said humanitarian aid could continue to enter Yemen under strict vetting procedures.

And we know from what has been happening for the past two years that in practice, that means very little humanitarian aid getting into Yemen.

However, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says aid agencies have reacted with dismay and anger to the border closures. The Red Cross said its shipment of chlorine tablets, vital to combating a cholera epidemic which has affected more than 900,000 people, had been blocked.

“If these channels, these lifelines are not kept open it is catastrophic for people who are already in what we have said is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at the moment,” said Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs spokesman Jens Laerke. “So this is an access problem of colossal dimensions right now.”

The UN says seven million Yemenis are on the brink of famine. The country relies on imports for virtually everything civilians need to survive, but now neither food, fuel nor medicine can get in.

And this has been the case for well over a year now, and it has been no secret, and the situation has just continued to get worse.

More than 8,670 people – 60% of them civilians – have been killed and 49,960 injured in air strikes and fighting on the ground since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, according to the UN.

That’s important bit. Read it again. The vast majority of the people killed by the Saudi coalition in its air strikes have been civilians. Saudi Arabia is accusing Iran of an “act of war”, when not only has Iran not actually done anything, but Saudi Arabia has carried out much bigger acts of war, and not only that, but it has been killing civilians by the thousands. It has repeatedly bombed civilian targets, and it has deliberately killed civilians by blockading the country to kill as many people by starvation and disease as possible.

To accuse another country of an “act of war”, as if that was something terrible, when you are busy committing war crimes on a daily basis, is just beyond belief. It tells you all you need to know about the Saudi government.

And by the way, what is happening to people in Yemen is truly horrible. Cholera causes vomiting and diarrhoea – which in turn cause dehydration. To die of vomiting and diarrhoea isn’t a pretty way for children to die.

Which brings us to what the BBC report leaves out.

Which is connected to the rather strange thing that it includes. Why are the comments of the US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley being mentioned? Why is she talking about this?

Well, there is a helpful article in The Independent this morning which throws some light on the matter.

Here is what it tells us:

The number of British-made bombs and missiles sold to Saudi Arabia since the start of its bloody campaign in Yemen has risen by almost 500 per cent, The Independent can reveal. More than £4.6bn of arms were sold in the first two years of bombings, with the Government granting increasing numbers of export licences despite mounting evidence of war crimes and massacres at hospitals, schools and weddings.

And of course, that is where Nikki Haley comes in. The American government and the British government have given their full backing to the Saudi campaign in Yemen. As The Independent reports,

The British Government has emphasised that it is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition or party to the conflict, but reinstated its support for its intervention to “deter aggression by the Houthis and allow for the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government”.

This raises three obvious questions.

1) What about deterring aggression by the Saudis? Why is aggression by the Houthis so much worse?

2) What makes the government in Yemen that the UK supports the legitimate one?

3) If the UK is so opposed to efforts to overthrow legitimate governments, why did it participate in the violent overthrow of the internationally recognised governments of Afghanistan, Iran, and Libya?

The dishonesty concerning Yemen shown by so many governments is, in my humble opinion, breathtaking.  

And the reticence of media to give proper priority to what should be one of the biggest stories of the day is not much better.

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Michael Fallon resigns: seven strange things

1) Two days ago, the fact that Michael Fallon had touched a journalist’s knee 15 years ago made the headlines. I published a piece, asking why he hadn’t been sacked. With hours, he had resigned.

It was strange enough that he resigned within hours of me posting my article. What was very strange indeed is that I had actually composed the post before I even heard about his knee-touching activities.

2) The second thing that was strange is that had nothing to do with the subject of my article – (which was about his disgraceful part in enabling the mass slaughter of civilians in Yemen – and being completely unapologetic about it) – but, apparently, because of the knee touching incident.  If so, that is bizarre.  As Julia Hartley-Brewer (the journalist whose knee was touched) said, if he had gone because of her knee, it would be “the most absurd reason for anyone to have lost their job in the history of the universe”.

Well, I did say, in my post, that it was absolutely astonishing that such a trivial item was considered by the BBC to be one of the 6 main UK News stories this morning – and a sign of the idiocy that prevails in this country.

Now it may be that Fallon resigned because of something other than the knee-touching incident. But it is clear that it has nothing at all to do with his support for the Saudi regime’s brutal actions against Yemeni men, women, and children. 

(There has been speculation that it may have been connected with lewd remarks he is said to have made to Andrea Leadsom, who, in a statement to Parliament on Monday, said Commons procedures for handling complaints about MPs needed to be overhauled as women working in Parliament had “a right to feel safe”.   One wonders how many MPs believe that people in Yemen have a right to “feel safe”.)

3) The third strange thing is that the BBC, in the profile of Fallon that it published on his resignation, gave no hint at all about the fact that he had given his full support to Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen – nor to the fact that he had expressed support for the brutal rule of the Islamic extremists who had captured and held the city of Aleppo for several months.

What it said was “His time as defence secretary was characterised by his role overseeing UK military efforts against the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East.” Well, that may have been what he spent his time doing, but it ignores his words in support of Jihadists in Syria and the Islamic extremists who run Saudi Arabia.

4) The fourth very strange thing is that entirely by coincidence, on the very day that Fallon resigned, a report came in that the Saudis, whose bombing of Yemeni civilian targets Fallon had enabled and defended, had done it again.. According to the BBC report,

“A suspected Saudi-led coalition air strike has killed at least 26 people in rebel-held northern Yemen, medics and local officials say. War planes are reported to have bombed a hotel and a busy market in the Sahar district of Saada province.”

The BBC report also says “The coalition also stressed it was “morally and legally committed to protecting civilians as well as civilian objects” and that operations were “conducted according to the highest standard measures of targeting”. ”

Based on Saudi Arabia’s record so far, one can take those claims with a grain of salt.

5) A fifth strange thing is that the BBC report managed not to mention British or American government support for Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that just last week, Campaign Against the Arms Trade was saying “Fallon should be doing all he can to stop the bloodshed and end UK complicity in the suffering, ….” and opposition in Congress to America’s involvement has been in the news this week. 

Let me again quote Daniel Larison, again, speaking about an article in the Financial Times:

That’s the other thing you won’t find in the article: any mention of U.S. or U.K. support for the coalition or the complicity of those governments in what is being done to Yemen. It’s a glaring omission that is unfortunately still all too common in news reports about the war.

Larison can call it a glaring omission. I’ll just say that it is strange. Very strange.

6) A sixth strange thing is the remarkable coincidence that about 3 hours before the market bombing in Yemen, there was an attack in New York City. Innocent civilians killed in both. Whereas at least 26 were killed by the bombing in Yemen, the number to die in New York was eight. Guess which one got all the media attention. Yes, despite the fact that Saada is closer to London than New York is, it was the New York attack.

7) And to make it up to seven (thanks to Glenn Greenwald for pointing this out) there was an interesting response to the New York attack by American Senator John McCain, which, I suppose, could be considered strange. 

Greenwald on McCain_crop

According to Salon

“Take him to Guantanamo. He’s a terrorist and he should be kept there. And there’s no Miranda rights for somebody who kills Americans,” McCain told reporters at the U.S. Capitol.   In a joint statement with Graham, McCain said Saipov “should not be read Miranda rights, as enemy combatants are not entitled to them.”

Greenwald certainly finds it strange, and I am inclined to agree, that McCain, who was famous before he entered politics because he had been tortured by the North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war, is now calling for a suspect in a crime to be sent to a military prison, and not have the ordinary rights that criminal suspects have.

His grounds for saying so are certainly very strange: he says that these rights are not there for “somebody who kills Americans” – which surely implies that nobody who is a murder suspect in America should have them – and that “enemy combatants” are not entitled to them. I think that any objective person can see that the suspect is obviously a suspect in a murder case, not an enemy combatant.

A final thought

One last thing. In the wake of his resignation, Michael Fallon said “The culture has changed over the years, what might have been acceptable 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now. “

It is true enough that some things that are culturally acceptable in one culture are not acceptable in others. However, there are some things that are always morally wrong. The sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, forbids murder no matter what culture you live in.

It seems to me that if it was murder for a man to kill eight people in New York by deliberately driving a truck into them, then it is murder for Saudi Arabia to repeatedly bomb civilian targets in Yemen. Yemenis are people just as much as Americans; and the fact that there is a war on does not make attacking and killing a group of civilians anything less than murder.

What would we make of it if some government, somewhere in the world, were shown to be working with New York attacker?

And does that not raise interesting questions about governments that are complicit in the Saudi governments actions in Yemen?  And, in particular, about Michael Fallon?

Why hasn’t Michael Fallon been sacked? The scandal no-one is talking about

This morning, news came out that Sir Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, was rebuked by a journalist in 2002 for putting his hand on her knee during dinner.

Which brings me to my question: Why hasn’t Michael Fallon been sacked?

However, the question has nothing to do with today’s story. Indeed, it is absolutely astonishing that such a trivial item was considered by the BBC to be one of the 6 main UK News stories this morning – and a sign of the idiocy that prevails in this country – or at least in the media.

The reality about Michael Fallon is much more serious. It has to do with a story from last week. Here it is, as reported by The Independent:

“Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has claimed that criticism of Saudi Arabia in Parliament is hindering Britain’s ability to secure sales of fighter jets to the oil-rich kingdom.

The extraordinary claim came as Sir Michael was quizzed on why a deal on Eurofighter Typhoon jets to the Middle Eastern country – currently being brokered by BAE and the British Government with Riyadh – was yet to be agreed.

The Defence Secretary said: “I have to repeat sadly that obviously other criticism of Saudi Arabia in this Parliament is not helpful and I’ll leave it there.

We need to do everything possible to encourage Saudi Arabia towards batch two and I believe they will commit toward batch two and we continue to work away on the timing.”

Speaking to Parliament’s Defence Committee, Sir Michael continued: “Well we’ve been working extremely hard on the batch two deal and I travelled to Saudi Arabia back in September and discussed progress on the deal with my opposite number the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and we continue to press for signature of at least a statement of intent.” “

Now, that article raises the question: “Is it really the job of the British Defence Secretary to be trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to buy Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft?”   I’m sure it’s very nice for the shareholders of BAE Systems and Airbus that a government minister is working for them, but is it really the government’s job to helping the shareholders of particular businesses? And even if it were, it sounds to me like it would be for someone in a department devoted to business and industry, rather than defence.

But whether or not it is the job of the Defence Secretary to persuade other countries to purchase aircraft made by British companies, there is a bigger issue. Fallon said “I have to repeat sadly that obviously other criticism of Saudi Arabia in this Parliament is not helpful and I’ll leave it there.

Or, to put it another way, he is saying that he does not think that MPs should be criticising Saudi Arabia.

Actually, there are very good reasons why Saudi Arabia is being criticised. Since it invaded Yemen two years ago, it has repeatedly bombed civilian targets, including schools and hospitals, and there is no evidence that it is doing so accidentally.

Furthermore, it has imposed a blockade, ensuring that it is very difficult to get supplies into Yemen, thus causing widespread malnutrition – and a cholera epidemic. Figures for civilian deaths are hard to come by. The UN’s estimate of 10,000 deaths is months out of date, and the reality is probably many times that. We know that over 700,000 people have been infected by cholera and over 2000 have died of it. These deaths are not from natural causes. They are caused by the war, and the repeated Saudi bombing of hospitals and infrastructure targets – combined with the blockade, make it look suspiciously like the Saudi government is using starvation and disease as weapons of war.

Human Rights Watch is not impressed. According to Middle East Eye:

The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen has worsened an already dire humanitarian situation for Yemeni civilians, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The coalition has diverted fuel tankers, closed a critical port, and stopped life-saving goods for the population from entering seaports controlled by the opposing Houthi-Saleh forces, said HRW, adding that the restrictions are in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Saudi-led coalition should end its unlawful restrictions on imports to Yemen, . . . .”

HRW has documented seven cases since May in which the coalition deliberately diverted or held up fuel tankers headed for Houthi-Saleh controlled ports. In one case, the coalition delayed a ship carrying fuel in Saudi port for more than five months without explanation.

In a country that relies on fuel imports to run the generators that power the country’s basic infrastructure and which most Yemenis depend on for electricity, the effects of the blockade have been devastating, an aid official told HRW.

I have seen hospitals that can’t turn on their generator. The labs can’t function, hospitals have to close at night, the cold chain [continuous refrigeration during transport and storage] for vaccines can’t function, and there are no air conditioners or even fans when the heat is unbearable for seriously ill patients.”

The Saudi-led coalition’s cruel restrictions on fuel to Yemen, effectively shutting water taps and hospitals, have turned an impoverished country into a humanitarian disaster,” Van Esveld said.”

Dr Homer Venters, director of programmes for the research group Physicians for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera that coalition hits on clinics and sewage works were a Saudi “tactic of war” that amounted to the “weaponisation of disease”.

In the words of Daniel Larison:

“This is another reminder that the multiple, overlapping humanitarian crises in Yemen did not just happen accidentally, but were produced as a result of the coalition’s targeting of civilian targets and infrastructure along with the deliberate effort to starve Yemenis into submission. The “weaponization of disease” that Dr. Venters refers to has now created the world’s worst cholera epidemic that has already infected well over half a million people in the span of a little over four months. “

So, in the poorest country in the Middle East, hundreds of people, including children, are dying of hunger and disease  because of Saudi policy – policy which Human Rights Watch says is in violation of international humanitarian law.

What Michael Fallon is saying really amounts to, “We should continue to do all we can to enable what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen, and we should certainly not criticise them for it.”

And this is on top of the fact that last year, he expressed sadness at the fact that al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extemist thugs were finally about to be driven out of Aleppo.

It is a scandal that he has not been sacked. In fact, he was not disciplined or publicly reprimanded in any way.

Indeed, the Prime Minister seems to be quite happy about his comments about Saudi Arabia. According to the Guardian,

A Number 10 spokeswoman said the prime minister would always raise Saudi Arabia’s human rights record when speaking to her counterparts. “It’s important that we work with Saudi Arabia including co-operation on defence contracts, which are vitally important to sustain jobs here too,” she said.

We are always clear that where we have concerns about issues such as human rights we will raise them at the highest level and we do. But Gulf security is very important to our security and it’s very important we continue to work together.”

That is almost as astonishing as what Fallon said.

Notice two things.

First, the words “which are vitally important to sustain jobs here.”

In other words, in order to keep people in the UK in jobs, so that they are able to put meals on the table, the government is prepared to pursue policies that are causing malnourishment and starvation to thousands of children in a desperately poor country.

Second, notice the words “Gulf security is very important to our security and it’s very important we continue to work together“.

Actually, I don’t believe for a minute that the war Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen contributes anything at all to the security of people in the UK; such an idea is complete nonsense. But the implication that it would be worth supporting and enabling the killing of thousands of civilians in Yemen because it just might mean fewer terrorist attacks in the UK is astonishing.   The fact is that terrorism is a pretty minor problem in the UK: less than 40 people have killed by terrorism in the UK over the past 10 years.  Is it really worth starving thousands of children in Yemen to save a handful of British lives?

If that is what 10 Downing Street is saying, it is pretty clear that the reason Michael Fallon has not been sacked is because he is simply stating government policy. 

And that is a scandal.

 

Investigative reporting and big stories, ancient and modern: What connects Ephesus, My Lai, Khan Shaykhun, and Jerusalem

The stone

In western Turkey, there is a piece of stone that is a clue to a big story. My attention was drawn to it by a New Testament scholar called Don Carson – who just happened to be the main speaker at the Keswick Convention the week we were in Keswick in July!

Carson is not only a prolific scholar who has written or edited 57 books; he is also a popular conference speaker and preacher. And, rather unusually, he is equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic; he did his Ph.D. at Cambridge, spent most of his career in the USA, and is actually a Canadian – a native of Montreal.

It was Carson who (in a talk he gave) pointed me to this stone, and in particular to the words carved on it: ΓPAMMATEYOVTOΣ – i.e. grammateu ontos, which translated into English means “being clerk”. It is speaking about someone, and saying that he was “clerk”.

The clerk

What is the significance of this? Well, in the biblical book of Acts (19:35), there is a reference to the clerk of Ephesus: And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus . . . .” (In fact, the Greek text of the book of Acts actually says “When the clerk had quieted the crowd”, but English translations of the Bible always translate it as “town clerk” or something like that, to indicate that it wasn’t just any clerk who was quieting the crowd.)

And Carson points out something interesting:

In the ancient world the chief officer of a town could be called many different things depending on where the town was politically, whether it was a senate run town, or whether it was a free town, whatever. … One of them was grammateus, town clerk, and that was very rare.

Acts always gets them right. It mentions the chief officer of half a dozen towns and always gets the label right for the right town even though in fact in some cases it would be that label only for a 2 or 3 years period and then it became something else because the politics changed. Wherever Acts can be checked out in this regard it always gets the details right.”

In other words, the writer of the book of Acts was serious about accuracy and detail.

The historian

The writer of Acts also wrote Luke’s gospel, and we can be pretty sure that he is the physician (doctor) called Luke who Paul mentions a few times in his letters. And in the opening words of Luke’s gospel, he makes it clear that he is serious about accuracy and detail:

“Since many people have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know with certainty the things you have been taught.

Notice three things.

First, Luke speaks of “eyewitnesses”.

Second, he says he investigated everything carefully. The actual words used in the original Greek, are that he “followed closely” – however, it is generally agreed among scholars (see the commentaries of John Nolland and Howard Marshall) that this means “investigated carefully.”

And third, the reason he investigated these things and wrote them down was so that someone called Theophilus could “know with certainty” the things he had been taught – in other words, not have any doubt that they were true.

This is investigative reporting – and the basics involved were the same 2000 years ago as they are today. In other words, what Luke was doing was pretty much the same as what people like Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald, and Gareth Porter are doing in our own day.

By the way, it’s strange how if you google on “great investigative journalists”, Seymour Hersh appears third – after Woodward and Bernstein – and yet his recent investigative articles have been regarded as too hot to handle, and hence ignored by most of the media. (See my post about Hersh.)

great investigative journalists_crop0

Of course, we don’t consider Luke to be a reporter, and in a sense it would be more accurate to consider him as a historian like Herodotus or Josephus. But there isn’t really that much difference between an investigative reporter and a historian – indeed Wikipedia describes Gareth Porter as a historian and investigative journalist.

However, one thing that sets Luke apart from people like Hersh, Greenwald, and Porter is the fact that Luke is known and read almost 2,000 years after his death. And he is still widely respected – Colin Hemer’s The Book of Acts in the setting of Hellenistic History – probably the most detailed modern study of the subject, has concluded that Luke shows all the characteristics of a true scholar and a reliable historian.

The big event

The big story of course, is not in the book of Acts, but in the first volume of Luke’s history, known today as the Gospel according to Luke. And one historical event in that book far outstrips all others in importance – the fact that Jesus rose from the dead two days after his execution.

That is, of course, the most controversial event recorded by Luke. Like most events that took place in ancient history, it has been queried and doubted. And, to be honest, that’s not surprising. Once you are dead, you are dead, and people don’t come back from the dead – as a rule.

The investigators

Of course, there was no mass media at that time – and no Seymour Hersh. Stuart Jackman’s novel, The Davidson Affair, published in 1966, puts the events of the time in a 20th century setting, complete with a mass media (including TV), and tells the story of an investigative reporter called Cass Tennel who looks into the reports of a Jewish teacher called Jesus Davidson (i.e. Son of David) who rose from the dead. I read it many years ago, and it is a brilliant piece of writing.

But while Cass Tennel’s journalistic investigations may be fictional, there are plenty of people who have set out to investigate the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead. One of the most well known is the case of Albert Henry Ross. Ross was sceptical regarding the resurrection of Jesus, and set out to analyse the sources and to write a short paper entitled Jesus – the Last Phase to demonstrate the apparent myth. In compiling his notes, he came to be convinced of the truth of the resurrection, and set out his reasoning in the book Who moved the stone?, published under the pseudonym Frank Morison.

Ross’s investigations took place in the 1920s. But something similar happened to a 21st century Scottish agnostic called David McIntyre. He tells his story in his booklet Jesus: the Evidence

“So through my 20’s and 30’s, I guess I had the view of most people in the UK today that I really didn’t know what to think about God and Jesus. I suppose I thought that you probably needed to have some form of faith to be a Christian – and that this faith was for other people. People who had perhaps been brought up Christians. Or perhaps, people who had experienced some form of life-changing spiritual experience. Neither situation applied to me.

However, in my late 30’s I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting some of the questions I’d left unresolved in my teens. .. . . At this time I happened to meet a colleague on a business trip to the USA who, it turned out, also happened to be a Christian. . . . the conversation turned to matters Christian. The result of the conversation was that he said that he’d send me a few books that might help with the questions I had. Sure enough, two weeks later I received a package containing a copy of “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel and a bible.

Did reading “The Case for Christ” turn me into a Christian? Frankly, no it didn’t. However, what it did do was act as the starting point for my own investigation into who Jesus is. I was amazed by what I found.”

The result was that he investigated the historical evidence, and came to the conclusion that yes, Jesus did rise from the dead. And that Jesus is the Son of God. And so he became a Christian.

And while I was never an middle-aged agnostic (like Derek McIntyre), or someone who set out to write a paper showing that the resurrection was a myth (like Albert Ross), the basic reason that I emerged from my teenage years as a Christian was because I was convinced that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, not a myth. It probably helped that I was interested (then as now) in Middle Eastern history – both ancient and modern.

And so?

I suppose that there are not many people today who refuse to believe that American troops massacred civilians at My Lai in 1968 – though I would be surprised if there were not some people who just refuse to admit it. There are a lot more who refuse to believe what Seymour Hersh has written about Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun, and who are convinced that the Syrian armed forces did launch gas attacks there. I don’t know for certain, but I reckon that Hersh and his reporting will eventually be vindicated.

Does it matter what the American forces did in My Lai, or what the Syrians did in Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun. To some people, it matters a lot. To some, it doesn’t matter at all. Personally, I think it is important – if not vitally important.

The question of whether Jesus rose from the dead or not is completely different. 2000 years later, there are people who are convinced that it was a historical event, and people who are convinced that it is a myth. For many of the latter, it’s simply that they don’t believe that the laws of nature are ever suspended – and hence, any claim based on a supernatural event happening simply cannot be true, and there is nothing more to be said. Needless to say, I don’t buy that.

But as for the question of whether it matters, there is no doubt. It matters a lot. And it matters to everybody. Because if Luke is right, and Jesus did rise from the dead, and this is a historical event – then this is the biggest story ever told, and the most important event in history, and Luke deserves to be remembered long after Seymour Hersh is forgotten.

Why? Because it means that we can be pretty sure that what Jesus said – and in particular, what he said about himself – is true. And if that is the case, it has to make all the difference in the world to the way I live – and the way you live.

Trump, football games, and the anthem

We live in strange times. In the past 10 days, the BBC News website has had about a dozen stories about the use of the American National Anthem at sporting events. That is a lot of stories, giving the impression that this is clearly one of the major issues of our time.

For the purposes of comparison, it is interesting to note that in the same time period, the BBC news website has had only a couple of stories about Yemen with its war / famine / cholera epidemic. That tells you a lot.

And, not only that, but the world’s most powerful man, Donald Trump, the American president, has been at the centre of this story because of remarks he has made. So this is, apparently, something that the world’s most powerful man thinks is an important issue for our time.

Strange times indeed.

On the question of the players concerned, and their motivation, I don’t want to say anything. It is about police brutality in America.  In particular, it is about the number of attacks on black people, including unarmed black people, by police officers in the course of duty. (The allegations made by Michael Bennett are pretty shocking.) And in the course of those attacks, police officers have killed a lot of blacks. That is an important issue, but it is not what most of the recent news coverage has focussed on, and I’m not going to say anything about it either.

Nor do I want to say anything about the nature of the protests. The furore has been about players who kneel rather than standing during the playing of the National Anthem – which, to an outsider, seems like a pretty inoffensive thing to do.

The real questions, it seems to me are these:

Why on earth is the American National Anthem played at NFL games?

Why does everyone accept this as normal, and not something totally bizarre?

Why do NFL teams stipulate what they want their players to do during this ritual?

Most of the history is given in a short article by Stephen Beale in The American Conservative

It was actually during World War II that the then commissioner of the NFL (National Football league) mandated the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Before that, apparently, one could go to a football game in America and not expect to hear the anthem sung. But the practice having been introduced, presumably as a way of supporting the American government’s decision to go to war, it remained in place after the war ended.

(Interestingly enough, “The Star Spangled Banner” only officially became the national anthem in 1931, and even though it was written in 1814, it was not sung particularly frequently prior to 1900.)

However, in 2009, a change occurred. Before 2009, players tended to be in the dressing room while the anthem was sung, and came onto the field afterwards. According to Beale

“The players were told to stand for it about the same time that the Department of Defence was ramping up massive recruitment and media operations around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They began paying sports teams millions in U.S. tax dollars for what amounted to “paid patriotism,” or mega-military spectacles on the playing field before the games. . . .

. . . between 2012 and 2015, the DOD shelled out $53 million to professional sports—including $10 million to the NFL—on “marketing and advertising” for military recruitment. To be sure, some of that was bona fide advertising. But many of those heart-tugging ceremonies honoring heroes and recreating drills and marches and flyovers are what the report denounced as propaganda. “

The President and the football players

And then there is the other big question: Why does the president think this is important enough to speak out about?

His first comments came last Friday at a Republican rally in Alabama, when he said that the action of the players in kneeling during the anthem showed “disrespect of our heritage”. He went on

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired. You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

And the following day, he doubled on his remarks and said

If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

It is about respect.

The real issues at stake 1: respect

I am going to make three comments.

First, on the subject of respect. Broadly speaking, showing respect for other people, and their opinions, and their feelings, and their property, is a good thing to do – it’s good manners. Though it must be said that some actions and opinions are so completely wrong that showing respect for them is mistaken.

The question is “does this go beyond respect?” Does Donald Trump believe that people should also respect other flags, and other countries? Does he believe people should be allowed to disrespect Iran or its flag? Is Donald Trump speaking out about this because he believes in good manners? I find it very difficult to believe that this is the case.

In other words, this is not about respect. This is about reverence. It is about saying that the flag and the anthem are, in some way, sacred. As a Christian, I find that problematical. It looks to me like idolatry. It looks to me like Donald Trump is basically saying that flag, and the nation-state for which it stands, are objects of worship, because they are sacred.

The real issues at stake 2: politicisation

This has been said several times, but I’ll repeat it, because I think that it is important. The players who are protesting by kneeling are making a political statement, and some people are uncomfortable about that. However, it is also the case that singing the national anthem at football games is making a political statement, as is the expectation that the players should be on the field for its singing, and that they should stand.

It didn’t used to be that way. But over the years, sports have become increasingly politicised. And the truth of the matter is that all of life has become increasingly politicised. This is not a good thing, not least because it is divisive.

nfl flag respect

(And by the way, when politicians talk about unity, they almost always mean unity around their favoured political institutions and programmes.)

The real issues at stake 3: The President’s words

Donald Trump’s comments on this issues strike me as being, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, positively deranged. But the really scary thing is that while has been widely, and rightly, criticised for his utterances about football players, the flag, and the anthem, his UN speech, delivered 3 days before his remarks about football players kneeling during the anthem, was just as deranged, and much, much more dangerous. And yet it seems that most Americans are more worked up about the presidents comments on football games.

Bombs, terror, Islamic extremism – and the hypocrisy of western governments

On 15 September, at around 8:20 am, a bomb went off on a District line train at Parsons Green tube station, in London. Thirty people were treated for injuries.

The incident is still under investigation, and is being treated as a terrorist attack.  And most people who speak about it seem to find it necessary to use words like “terror” or “terrorist”. The BBC headline on the day of the attack was “UK terror threat increased to critical after Tube bomb.” 

ISIS apparently claimed responsibility for it, though they seem to claim responsibility for pretty much any attack in the west that might be described as “terrorist”, and there seems to be little doubt that the bombers were Muslim.

What we have got is bombs, terror, and Islamic extremism – and these three things go together in many people’s minds. And, of course in western countries, when we hear about those things, we tend to think of bombs in western cities.

However, there is another side to the story – and some of it is pretty dark.

Iraq

The day before the Parsons Green attack – which, you remember, injured 30 people – ISIS carried out a much more deadly attack in southern Iraq. The Guardian reports:

More than 80 people are now confirmed dead in an attack on a restaurant frequented by Shia Muslim pilgrims in southern Iraq that was claimed by Islamic State. Iraqi officials said 84 people had been killed and 93 people injured in the attack in Nasiriyah, in Iraq’s southern Thi Qar province on Thursday evening. Seven Iranians were among the dead, said the provincial governor, Yahya al-Nassiri.

Again, a bomb attack. Again, what might be called “terrorism” – aimed at ordinary people going about their business. Again, Islamic extremism. But this time 84 people killed – which makes Parsons Green look pretty insignificant. The amount of media coverage in the UK and America, however, was tiny. Is it that the media don’t believe that Shi’ite lives in Iraq matter? Or is that they don’t think that people in the UK and America believe Iraqi (and Iranian) Shi’ite lives matter?

Yemen

Meanwhile, bombs are a part of life in Yemen – and, in particular bombs that are dropped by aircraft. And, just like the bombs in Parsons Green and Iraq, they kill civilians – men, women, and children – going about their ordinary business. Needless to say, they bring terror, so I suppose we could call them “terrorist” attacks. Indeed, a lot of these attacks are on civilians targets, like hospitals and schools, which sound to me like terrorist attacks. They are carried out by the Saudi Arabian government, and you don’t have to know much about the Saudi government to know that they are not just an Islamic government, but also one that represents a pretty extreme form of Islam. (See my post here.)

So again, bombs, terror, and Islamic extremism go together.

But here we start getting into the dark side. I’ll let Daniel Larison tell the story.

The latest attacks fit into the larger pattern of coalition behavior. Since the war began, coalition planes have bombed civilian targets with regularity, and in many cases clearly targeted them on purpose. The country’s infrastructure, power grid, sanitation systems, and health care facilities have all come under attack from the coalition’s bombing campaign, and these attacks have helped create and exacerbate the famine and cholera crises there. As HRW [Human Rights Watch] has reported elsewhere, the members of the coalition evade accountability by hiding behind the coalition label and refusing to acknowledge when a particular government is responsible for an attack:

The coalition currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan; Qatar withdrew in June. The coalition has conducted thousands of air strikes in Yemen since March 2015, including scores that appear to violate the laws of war, some of which may be war crimes, yet JIAT and coalition members have provided no or insufficient information about the role that particular countries’ forces are playing in alleged unlawful attacks.

The Saudis and their allies have consistently opposed independent international inquiries into war crimes committed by all sides, because they know very well that an honest inquiry would find many, if not all, of the coalition directly responsible for war crimes. The U.S. and Britain have also helped the coalition governments whitewash their crimes at the U.N. in order to minimize scrutiny of their own role in making these crimes possible.

The British and American governments have continued to supply not just moral support, but also weapons, to the Saudi government – despite ongoing reports of Saudi war crimes. And the British and American media have, in general, been strangely silent about this. Daniel Larison, again, speaking about an article in the Financial Times

That’s the other thing you won’t find in the article: any mention of U.S. or U.K. support for the coalition or the complicity of those governments in what is being done to Yemen. It’s a glaring omission that is unfortunately still all too common in news reports about the war, and it’s why I keep emphasizing U.S. and U.K. backing for the war in my posts. This is a war in which the U.S. and Britain have taken the side of a group of despotic governments’ reckless, unnecessary intervention and have made the conflict and the plight of the people of Yemen far worse than they would have been. Our news reports at least need to acknowledge our governments’ enabling role every time they cover the war and its horrible effects, and failing to do so just helps the U.S. and British governments avoid accountability for the disgraceful policies they have been carrying out.

To its credit, the New York Times had an opinion piece last month which came out and said it:  “Let’s be blunt: With U.S. and U.K. complicity, the Saudi government is committing war crimes in Yemen.”

So, what do we have? Bombs, terror, and Islamic extremism – actively supported by the British and American governments.

And here is the strange thing. The form of Islam that ISIS subscribes to is the same form of Islam that Saudi Arabia subscribes to – Wahabism. According to David Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times,

“For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van. ” 

ISIS, like the Saudi government, are firm enemies of non-Sunni Islam – and in particular, they are implacably opposed to Shi’ites. Which explains why at the same time that ISIS were bombing Shi’ites in restaurants in Iraq, the Saudis were bombing civilians in Yemen in territory controlled by a Shi’ite related group called the Houthi.

Syria

And let’s not forget Syria. The Syrian government has been dominated for years by members of another Shi’ite related group, the Alawites. Hence ISIS have been fighting against the Syrian government, as have other anti-Shi’ite militia – including al-Qaeda (usually known as al Nusra in Syria), the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks in America. These anti-government militia are referred to by most ordinary Syrians as “terrorists”. And they act like terrorists. And they are particularly hostile to religious groups they don’t like – such as Alawites, Shi’ites, and, of course, Christians.

I tell the story of what happened in Syria in this post but here are a couple of excerpts from reports by MERF (Middle East Reformed Fellowship), an evangelical Christian missionary organization which is led by Arab Christians.

“Armed Islamists closed in on Syrian Christian areas of Aleppo and Homs, forcing many in suburbs and villages to leave their homes, jobs, and businesses. Hundreds have been murdered and many are missing. Others used their life savings to ransom their safe passage or to release kidnapped loved ones. Most remain in Syria, sheltering with relatives or friends in the safer government-controlled areas. Others fled as refugees, mostly to Lebanon. As government forces regained neighborhoods and villages, penniless refugees returned to destroyed or looted homes, jobless and hopeless.”

“While Western diplomats host opposition figures promising a democratic agenda, it is well documented that on the ground in Syria, passionate Islamists effectively head the opposition forces. . . . major media have shown little interest in the fact that opposition militias in Syria have also specifically targeted murderous cleansing operations against Christian civilians. . . . Two pastors, one in Aleppo and the other in Homs, give thanks to the Lord for being able to remain in their neighbourhoods, and that, after security was restored by the army, many members of their congregations returned and Sunday services resumed.”

The truth turned out to be that not only were the Saudi Arabians arming the Islamic extremists who were involved in these “murderous cleansing operations against Christian civilians”, but so was the American government, though covert operations like Timber Sycamore (see, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

And there was also moral support from western governments. When al-Qaeda and its allied militias – yes, the ones who involved in atrocities against the Christian community – were about to be finally driven out of Aleppo, British Defence Secretary, said, in an interview on the BBC on the 11th of December 2016 (over three years after MERF had told the world that the rebels who held Eastern Aleppo were murderous Islamic extremist thugs, and when it was widely known elsewhere), “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall. ”

In other words, a member of the British government was making public his support for Islamic extremist terrorism – as long as it happened on the streets of Aleppo, rather than the streets of London.

Not surprisingly, Michael Fallon has been a vocal defender of Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen.

Hypocrisy

In the wake of the Parsons Green attack, the hypocrisy of the British and American governments is absolutely breath-taking. They have had no qualms about supporting bombings and terror by Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

But what is even more surprising is that the western media have been largely silent about it – year after year. You will get the odd story in the the press, and journalists like Robert Fisk of the Independent have been quite forthright about the failings of the Western mainstream media’s reporting of the Middle East.  The BBC covered it on Radio 4 in an episode of The Report a couple of years ago – but BBC news coverage says nothing about it.  So, in general, we have heard very little. It has been good that some politicians have spoken out – including, in the last week, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders  – about the failings of Saudi regime, but the sheer hypocrisy of Western governments, and their involvement in supporting Islamic terrorists, has been largely covered up.

Of course, perhaps that’s because nobody really cares. Or because people in the west just don’t want to know.  

So, I guess the question is “Do people care?  Do people want to know?”  

Well, it will be interesting to see how many people share this post on Facebook.

Another four words that bring destruction: Come, let us build.

My last post was about the danger of the “Something must be done” mentality.

But experience shows that it is when governments get involved, and think that it is up to them to do whatever it is that must be done, that we should be scared. Why? Because when governments plan great schemes, the result is often exactly the opposite of what we were promised.

In fact, it seems that the last few weeks have shown us more examples than usual of government schemes that have failed miserably.

The War on Fat

Let’s start with the great story about the Wee Dairy in the Isle of Gigha. The island’s primary school was not allowed to use the milk produced by the local dairy, but instead, had to bring milk in from far away – and all because the Wee Dairy’s milk was whole milk instead of semi-skimmed.

A government spokesman said:

“Semi skimmed milk is proven to have the benefits of full-fat milk, including high levels of calcium, with much lower levels of fat. The Scottish Government sets nutritional standards for local authorities to ensure pupils are offered balanced and nutritious food and drink. in schools, this includes guidelines recommending the serving of skimmed or semi skimmed milk only.”

However, the dairy owner was able to point to a study, published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition last year, that showed children who drank whole milk had fewer weight problems than whose who drank skimmed – or, to quote the study itself:

“Whole milk consumption among healthy young children was associated with higher vitamin D stores and lower BMI (Body Mass Index). Longitudinal and interventional studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Something very similar emerged from a major study (involving 135,000 people) published last month in  The Lancet.    It showed total fat and individual types of fat being related to lower total mortality – i.e. death rates.  Each type of fat was associated with significantly reduced mortality risk: 14 percent lower for saturated fat, 19 percent for mono-unsaturated fat, and 20 percent for polyunsaturated fat,” according to the study. Higher saturated fat intake was also linked to a 21 percent decrease in stroke risk.  In other words, eating more fat was associated with living longer.

But this isn’t new. In the 1993, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute commissioned the largest controlled trial of low-fat diet ever undertaken. In 2006, the results were published (in the Journal of the American Medical Association):

“Following an eating pattern lower in total fat did not significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke, and did not reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in healthy postmenopausal women, ….

Among the 48,835 women who participated in the trial, there were no significant differences in the rates of colorectal cancer, heart disease, or stroke between the group who followed a low-fat dietary plan and the comparison group who followed their normal dietary patterns. Although the women in the study who reduced their total fat intake had a 9 percent lower risk of breast cancer than did women who made no dietary changes, the difference was not large enough to be statistically significant — meaning it could have been due to chance.”

So – study after study after study in the last 20 years has show that cutting down in fat consumption is not associated with better health.

What does this have to do with government? Well, it was because of government policy that the school in Gigha wasn’t allowed to give the children whole milk. And, of course governments have, for decades now, felt it was their duty to give dietary advice – including, of course, advice on fat consumption.

Ian Leslie tells the story:

In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example. The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything).

And the result was?

Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled.

The government felt that something must be done. So it acted to do something it had never done before . And what happened was exactly the opposite of what it intended.

time-Magazine-fat1

In 2014, Time Magazine had a cover story entitled “Ending the war on fat”. It came out almost exactly 30 years after Time‘s front cover featured the beginning of the war. The 1984 cover proclaimed: Cholesterol: And now the bad news . . . . By contrast the message of the 2014 cover was “Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.

Perhaps the most interesting lines from the article were these: “The war over fat is far from over. Consumer habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on demonizing fat. TV teems with reality shows about losing weight. The aisles are still filled with low-fat snacks. “

Three years later, nothing has changed. And the Scottish government is still keen on keeping whole milk out of schools – despite the fact that the war on fat has been fairly effectively debunked.

The War on Terror

Then there is the “War on Terror“. Sixteen years ago, as a result of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. president George W. Bush first used the term “war on terrorism” on 16 September 2001, and then “war on terror” a few days later in a formal speech to Congress. In the latter speech, George Bush stated, “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” The term was originally used with a particular focus on countries associated with al-Qaeda.

What happened? America (in conjunction with the UK and other allies) literally went to war. They attacked Afghanistan the following month – and proceeded to overthrow the government. This might seem slightly odd, since the government of Afghanistan were not actually involved in planning or carrying out the 9/11 attacks.  However, since the attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda – and since the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was in Afghanistan – and since the Afghan government had responded to the American request to hand him over by saying that they would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks – the Americans invaded.  Even though bin Laden promptly fled to Pakistan, the American forces stayed in Afghanistan, and 16 years later, show no signs of ever leaving. (I tell the story here)

How successful was the invasion and occupation?  Not very.  Afghanistan is still a country at war, and the Taliban today control more territory than at any point since 2002.

Iraq

However, America didn’t stop with Afghanistan. They went on to attack Iraq. This too, seems odd, since not only did the Iraqi government have nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but it had never harboured al-Qaeda (or any other terrorist organisation that was threatening Americans). Indeed, it was a secular government, with no enthusiasm for Islamic extremism. The American government did, at one stage, claim that there was evidence of connections between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda, but this story was quickly debunked. The fact that the story was debunked made no difference of course; the American government was determined to overthrow the Iraqi government, and so most Americans continued to think that in some way Iraq was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

The result was not only that more Americans died in action in Iraq than were killed in the 9/11 attacks, but thousands of Iraqis died, and Iraq has been in turmoil ever since in an never-ending war between different factions.  Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties so far at around 200,000. Many believe the total number of deaths caused directly and indirectly by the American invasion to be well over half a million. And, while al-Qaeda had no presence at all in Iraq before the American invasion, the chaos in the country created by the invasion allowed them to get a foothold, and an al-Qaeda splinter group called ISIS soon controlled much of the country – making post-invasion Iraq a much more safe haven for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan had been at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Syria

And then there is Syria. America never actually invaded Syria. But it did get involved. I recently quoted the Dutch scholar, Nikolaos van Dam (whose book, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, came out just over a month ago) saying

“It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results. If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”

But Western influence didn’t just contribute to the death and destruction. It also empowered al-Qaeda. Syria under Bashar Assad, had (like Iraq before the American invasion) a secular government which was hostile to Islamic extremism, and particularly hostile to Salafist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. America, however, declared that Assad must go, and launched an operation called Timber Sycamore to funnel arms and equipment to Syrian rebels. Since al-Qaeda dominated the Syrian rebel groups, the arms basically went to al-Qaeda. As a result, it was U.S. government policy that was largely responsible for having extended al-Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory. 

The really scandalous thing was that not only did western politicians refuse to admit what they had done, but the western media has done its best to make sure people in Britain and America don’t find out. Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent of the Independent has spoken about this many times, just last week writing:

“Journalists who had arrived in Aleppo with the rebels, en route for the “liberation” of Damascus along the lines of the “liberation” of Tripoli in Libya, justifiably retreated when the warriors of ISIS took to beating, imprisoning and chopping off their heads – but largely without telling us what had happened to the revolution. The “good guys” in our stories, after all, are not supposed to turn into the “bad guys”. Van Dam asks why, in all the later reports on the bombardment by the regime of eastern Aleppo, the world never saw film of the Islamist fighters there, nor their weapons, nor their armed control of the streets. “If you look at the media reports,” he says, “it’s as if the bombs only fell on schools and hospitals.””

The prize for spectacular dishonesty (or delusion) goes to British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. When it became clear last December that al-Qaeda and its allies were going to be finally driven out of Aleppo, he said “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall.”

The good news for Fallon is that al-Qaeda and its allies remain in control of the nearby Idlib province in Syria, which makes it another handy safe haven for terrorists.

Libya

And then there is Libya. A year ago, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Britain’s military intervention in Libya ago came out. The report found that the result of the French, British and US intervention that took place in 2011, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in north Africa”.

According to the chairman of the committee, Crispin Blunt, “we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.”

In other words, it’s the same story as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The result was exactly the opposite of what we were promised.

And terrorism

As for the situation on the ground in America and Western Europe, violent attacks by politically motivated Muslims, which were very rare before the launch of the war on terrorism, became a lot more common. In the UK, the first attack was on the 7th of July, 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 56 people (including themselves) in London.

Two of the bombers made videotapes describing their reasons for their actions. One included the line

“What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”

There is little doubt that Britain was targeted largely because of its foreign policy, and in particular, its actions in the Middle East – or, to put it another way, its involvement in the “war on terrorism”.  

There is also little doubt that the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in several countries in the Middle East in recent years by Western powers, has had the result of making many people – some in the Middle East, some of Middle Eastern background but living in the West – very angry – and also very hostile to Western governments and Western society.1

In other words, the “war on terror”, like the “war on fat”, seems to be achieving exactly the opposite of what it promised.

And, just as it could be said that the “war on fat” was far from over because consumer habits were deeply formed, and entire industries were based on demonizing fat – I think it can be said that the “war on terror” is far from over because political habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on playing up the need for military action.

Hearts and Minds

And, while we are on the subject of the war on terror, it is worth remembering that western governments had a lot to say about humanitarian reasons for involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. There was great talk about bringing democracy and freedom to the people of these countries. And it is true that a lot of aid did flow in, especially to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The story from Iraq is not good. Peter van Buren, an American civil servant was sent there in 2009 to work on American government goodwill projects. The title of his book about his experiences – “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” – tells you all you need to know.

The story from Afghanistan is even worse. According to an article published by the Journal of World Affairs in 2013 entitled “The Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan,” the aid has been exactly that, a failure. Since 2002, approximately 100 billion has been appropriated for aid, and “all of that has not brought the United States or Afghanistan a single sustainable institution or program.”

But it’s worse than that. In her 2012 book, When more is less: The International Project in Afghanistan, Astri Suhrke not only says that the resources poured into the country have not actually helped the Afghan people. She also says that the Afghans are often left bewildered and alienated by the work of such groups—or worse, after sufficient alienation, are inspired to join jihad against them.  She concludes

that the objectives of the international project have generally been unmet and that, in particular, the scope of involvement from international players and the grand scale of their financial, military, and political “support” has been not only ineffective but counterproductive

Efforts by the American government, at great expense, to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan achieved nothing at all – and the evidence suggests that once again, we have examples of government programmes that achieved exactly the opposite of what was promised.

Education?

Which raises the question – what about other government programmes?

This month, the BBC covered a story entitled “New curriculum could be ‘disastrous’, says education expert.”  Prof Lindsay Paterson, from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted as saying that the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (introduced in Scotland’s schools in 2010) lacked “academic rigour” and was “dumbing down” education, and that it could widen the attainment gap, not close it.

The Scottish government, of course, insisted CfE was “strong, bold and effective”.

I don’t know what the truth is. But, as the BBC report says “the government’s studies on literacy and numeracy do suggest that things are not getting any better and may in some ways be getting worse.” And it points out that “Last year’s international PISA rankings caused concern placing Scotland as “average” in all three categories for the first time ever.” 

Scotland PISA_crop

Looking at the graph, I’d say that’s an understatement.

The point is that it is not as if the Scottish Government doesn’t care, or isn’t trying. It does care. It is putting a lot of effort – and money – into education. And yet, once again, what we have an example of a government programme achieving exactly opposite of what was promised.

Healthcare?

And then there is government healthcare. One of the biggest advances made by government in healthcare anywhere in the world recently was the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) in America.

It is only in its early days, and is much appreciated by many people. But will it actually cause Americans to have better health? Of course we don’t know yet, and perhaps we never will, but early results indicate that, oddly enough, it might actually be hurting rather than helping.

Robert Murphy, an economist who is a Christian (and who strikes me as a very honest person) wrote an article a few months ago entitled “Did Obamacare Really Save Lives?

He begins, “One of the popular objections to the GOP proposals to reform health insurance markets is that the Affordable Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) saved thousands of lives per year, and hence that tinkering with ObamaCare will literally kill lots of people.”   However (he continues) “Believe it or not, the data suggest that if anything, ObamaCare actually caused more Americans to die.”

If you are interested, you can look at the article, and the research that it links to. But the gist is that in the year after the ACA insurance coverage took effect, the age-adjusted mortality rate (which tends to fall over time) went up. But the really interesting thing is that not all states in America fully adopted the ACA – and that it was in the states that more fully adopted Obamacare that the death rate went up. In those that didn’t, it went down.

Could this be yet another thing that the government has done that has actually achieved the opposite of what was promised? It’s too early to know, since data is only available for one year, but it will be interesting to see what the data shows next year.

So what?

So – we have governments

  • giving advice on diet,
  • telling schools what milk they can serve,
  • attacking countries thousands of miles from their borders (that have not attacked them) in an effort to stop politically motivated crimes,
  • spending billions on infrastructure projects in foreign countries that they have attacked in an effort to buy goodwill,
  • telling schools and teachers what they should be teaching, and
  • making detailed rules about forcing people to buy health insurance and telling health insurance companies exactly what they can and cannot do. 

Apart from the facts that these schemes by governments so often seem to be counterproductive, and that politicians seem to be totally unwilling to admit (even to themselves) that their grand schemes are counterproductive, two things strike me.  

The first is that when I read the Bible, none of these things seem like the things that governments are supposed to do.  The second is that when I look at human history, it is pretty clear that none of these things were things that governments would dream of doing for most of human history.  Even 150 years ago, governments never would have thought of doing these things.  

Of course, a lot of this is simply about what people are like.  We often think that we can, if we really put our mind to it, do things, and then find that those things turn out not to be so easy. And so I think again of the ancient Biblical Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:9) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (19:21).  

Self-confidence is a problem many of us have.  But self-confidence is particularly problematical, when we are confident that we have the ability to make a real difference in the lives of other people, or in the groups and organisations that we are involved in.  When we believe that, our self-confidence often turns out to be badly misplaced.  Hence the apostle Paul encourages Christians to mind their own business (I Thessalonians 4:11), and he speaks about the danger of people being busybodies (I Timothy 5:13).  

But when you have not just self-confidence and the busy-body tendency, but also lots of people coming together to achieve something, you have another danger – the danger not just of being over-optimistic, but of being utopian.   We think that if people come together and organise, they can build great things. And of course they can – to some extent. But utopian visions are usually unrealistic, and social engineering does not have as good as track record as mechanical or civil engineering.

So this isn’t just about self-confidence and human pride. It is also about government – about the belief that people coming together and organizing can shape society.

And so I am reminded again of the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – a story about people coming together to achieve great things – and how it all fell apart.

It begins with unity, and a great plan:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

It ends with the plan in tatters, and the unity gone, and the people scattered:

“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”

One of the implications seems to be that confidence in human ability to come together with great schemes – and in particular, utopian schemes – is something we should be sceptical about.  

So it’s not just the words “something should be done” that should scare us.  There are other calls to action that we should also be wary about.  And, it seems to me that the words “come, let us build” are another four words that often go before destruction.


1. Within a day of writing, another (and closely related) example of government action that is likely to be counterproductive popped up – this this time from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent.

Government initiatives like the “Prevent” campaign are an irrelevance where they are not counterproductive. They purport to identify and expose signs of domestic Islamic radicalism (though nobody knows what these are), but in practice they are a form of collective punishment of the three million British Muslims, serving only to alienate many and push a tiny minority towards sympathy for Isis and al-Qaeda-linked movements.

 

Four words that bring destruction: “Something must be done!”

Nikolaos van Dam is a Dutch scholar, who served for many years in his country’s diplomatic service – including several in Syria. He is the author of three books in Syria, the most recent of which, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, came out just over a month ago.

Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent, published an article last week about van Dam, his book, and the situation in Syria. It’s well worth reading. This bit jumped out at me:

It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results,” he told me a few days ago. “But Western democracies feel they have to do something If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”

It is worth reading that again. And again. Until you take it in. And especially the words “Western democracies feel they have to do something . . .

He is of course correct – on both counts. Western influence did make the violence in Syria much worse – see Gareth Porter’s articles here and here. As Porter explains, U.S. government policy “has been largely responsible for having extended al-Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory. ”

Indeed, Western influence, interference, and intervention have also brought death and destruction to Iraq and Libya (see my post about the British Parliamentary Report). It was not as if Syria, or Libya, or Iraq had actually attacked any Western country, or even threatened any Western (or other) country. It was that Western political leaders felt that the situation in those countries was bad, and felt that they really ought to do something to help.

And notice that van Dam doesn’t just say “Western countries” or “Western governments”; he says “Western democracies feel they have to do something . . . .” Yes, on one level the fact that the Western countries that interfered in Syria, Iraq, and Libya were democracies is totally irrelevant – non-democratic countries (like, of course, Saudi Arabia) often interfere in the affairs of other countries.

But there is something about democracy that does encourage the “something must be done” mentality. Popular pressure from voters encourages it.  Why?  Because whenever something terrible happens, people don’t just grieve. They ask themselves how the event could have been avoided.  And that often leads to people saying things like “This must never be allowed to happen again”. Which of course means “something must be done” – which means “the government has to do something.” So politicians swing into action. And what they do often does not have the effect intended. Indeed, it sometimes achieves pretty much the opposite of what was intended. See, for example, the whole matter of fat in diet, which I wrote about last year – and I see that a recent study in the Lancet gives further support to what I wrote.

What seems right

And so, in his final paragraph, Fisk writes:

“Van Dam’s expertise shows all too painfully how ignorance and stupidity governed the reflexes of Western politicians who preferred moral correctness to the realities of finding a solution . . .”

It is an interesting thought. What Western politicians consider to be morally correct apparently included pouring arms into Syria, even when they should have realised that those weapons would go to Islamic extremist thugs – just as moral correctness includes dropping bombs on countries all over the Middle East that have never attacked them.

As the Bible says (Proverbs 18:12) “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

We are back to the hubris and self-confidence of politicians. Boris Johnson recently commented “We were way over-optimistic about what would happen when we got rid of Gaddafi. We thought that the elections in 2014 would be a solution, when actually they made things worse.” He is to be congratulated in admitting that the Western governments were wrong, and that what they did achieved the opposite of what was intended.

But the problem was not simply optimism. It was optimism about about the wisdom of politicians and their ability to achieve what they intend. And that hubris and self-confidence is not just a trait of politicians. It is a human trait.

Hundreds of years ago, Thomas à Kempis wrote “Man proposes, but God disposes.” But the ancient Biblical Proverbs say much the same thing: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:9) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (19:21)

Which is why, of course, we should not put too much confidence in great schemes and promises of politicians, who are skilled at using great words about what they will achieve, but often don’t know what they are talking about. Or, as the psalmist put it (Psalm 146:3): “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”

One of Ronald Reagan’s best jokes was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.””

It was funny at the time.

40 years later, looking at what American government has managed to do in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, it doesn’t seem so funny any more. Rather, it is scarily true.

Hurricane Harvey in Texas vs war, famine, and disease in Yemen

Storm Harvey has brought real suffering to people in Texas. 33 dead so far. And a lot of coverage on TV and the papers.

Meanwhile, a lot less visible on TV and the papers – but faithfully kept before readers of The American Conservative by their writer Daniel Larison –  Yemen has experienced an estimated 16,200 deaths, many of them children and other civilians.  (The picture above – taken from a recent article in the New York Times, entitled “The Photos the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Don’t Want You to See”  shows Buthaina (or Bouthaina), a girl believed to be 4 or 5 who was the only survivor in her family of a bombing last week by the Saudi coalition that killed 14 people.)

And . . . it is now in the grip of a cholera epidemic, with an estimated 500,000 victims.

And . . . there is widespread malnutrition.

And . . . it has seen its cities demolished by years of bombing by Saudi Arabia.

And . . . the Saudi-led coalition war and blockade are the chief causes for famine and cholera crises in Yemen. The blockade is a major reason why both crises are as severe as they are, and it is why it is so difficult to combat both of those crises.

Why do we hear so little?  One of the main reasons is that Saudi Arabia makes every effort to ensure that journalists are kept out – as (to quote Larison) “part of the [Saudi-led] coalition’s effort to conceal its crimes and hide the disastrous effects of their war from the rest of the world.”*

And . . . (and this is the important part) the U.S. and Britain have backed the bombing campaign and blockade from the very start, and that support has remained constant despite ample evidence of coalition war crimes and the enormous suffering that the intervention has caused and continues to cause.

Will there be consequences?  There almost certainly will be.  Larison: “Our government has made us the enemy of tens of millions of innocent Yemenis who have never done anything to us.”

Some of you will have noticed that I keep writing about this.   This is my 8th post on the subject of Yemen.  And I have been pointing out the same thing over and over again.  Over a year ago, I wrote:

According to CNBC, “U.N. investigators say that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen, or approximately 2,000 deaths. They said that Saudi forces have killed twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen.”

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, said Sunday that coalition strikes over the weekend had targeted schools and hospitals, in breach of international law.

According to Reuters, “The U.N. report on children and armed conflict – released last Thursday – said the [Saudi-led] coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year, killing 510 and wounding 667, and half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

According to Medecins Sans Frontiers “Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. The coalition forces are armed by states including the USA and UK.” Note the word “targeting”. MSF seems to be saying that Saudi Arabia is deliberately attacking schools.

And from the Red Cross: “The International Committee of the Red Cross says Saudi war planes have targeted hospitals in Yemen, killing staff and wounding patients.”

Why do I do keep writing about Yemen?  Well, it seems to me that it is an important story.  Much more important than most of the trivia that fills the news.  And nobody seems to realise what is going on.

And also because the Bible says (Proverbs 31:8) “\Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the justice of all who are destitute.”

I reckon that describes the people of Yemen far too well.

 

* Note:

That is not the whole story of why so little news comes out of Yemen.    Iona Craig (winner of the 2016 Orwell Prize for journalism and the 2014 Martha Gellhorn Prize for investigative journalism), who has visited Yemen several times and done a lot of first class reporting of what is going on there, writes:

“Yes, it’s extremely hard to get into Yemen. But it is possible. Getting travel costs and expenses covered as a freelancer is much harder.  In my experience, greater barrier to covering Yemen than Saudi coalition is media organisations unwilling to cover expenses.  I rely on donations or grants to get to Yemen. Media organisations have never covered my costs to get there. Not in seven years.  And I can guarantee my travel budget is a small fraction of what BBC, CNN et al pay to get there.  Yemeni friends make it possible with warm hearts, comfy floors and home cooking. I wouldn’t travel 3,000 miles around Yemen any other way.  “

And then there is the way the media report Yemen . . .

But there is another problem.  Even the news that does come out of Yemen is often reported in a way that seems designed to keep people in the dark, according to Ben Norton, in an article yesterday at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) entitled “How Media Obscure US/Saudi Responsibility for Killing Yemeni Civilians.”  He writes:

“A coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, with minor support from several other Middle Eastern nations, has relentlessly bombed Yemen since March 2015. This August, the coalition ramped up the ferocity of its airstrikes, killing dozens of civilians.

On August 23, the US/Saudi coalition bombed a hotel near Yemen’s capital Sanaa, killing 41 people, 33 of whom—80 percent—were civilians, according to the United Nations.

Then on August 25, the coalition bombed homes in Sanaa, massacring a dozen civilians, including eight members of the same family.

Major Western media outlets have, however, obscured the responsibility Saudi Arabia, and its US and European supporters, bear for launching these airstrikes.

There are no other parties presently bombing Yemen, so media cannot feign ignorance as to who is responsible for the attacks. But reports on the bloody US/Saudi coalition airstrikes were nonetheless rife with ambiguous and downright misleading language.”

His complaints are basically that headlines about deaths in air strikes rarely mention Saudi Arabia, headlines sometimes speak of Yemeni air strikes, when the air strikes are never carried out by Yemenis, and that stories often give the impression that air strikes on civilian targets are Saudi mistakes, when there is a lot of evidence that they are deliberate.

He writes:

“Media frequently obfuscate and downplay the culpability for bombing when the US and its allies are responsible.

When the US bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October 2015, killing dozens of civilians, media scrambled to craft almost laughable euphemisms. FAIR (10/5/15) documented at the time how news outlets used circuitous headlines like “US Is Blamed After Bombs Hit Afghan Hospital.” Also seen in the August 23 NPR report cited above, this brand of misleading, ambiguous rhetoric is the “officer-involved shooting” of war reporting.

On the other hand, the responsibility of US enemies for killing civilians is rarely if ever obscured.

It is instructive to compare Western media coverage of Yemen to that of Syria . . . .”

In fact, Norton reckons that calling the war in Yemen a “civil war” is misleading, on the grounds that the reality is that “the conflict is actually a foreign war on Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their US and European sponsors.”   And there is also the uncomfortable fact that in reality, “if the US wanted the war in Yemen to end, it would end overnight. The “Saudi-led” coalition is only led by Saudi Arabia in name.”

Is he right?  It is interesting to look at recent BBC reports about Saudi bombings.  It turns out that Norton is spot-on.  An article about Bouthaina says nothing about who dropped the bomb.  The only mention of Saudi Arabia is in the middle of the article, and reads, “Since 2015, Saudi-led forces have been fighting Houthi rebels, who control northern Yemen including Sanaa.” .

There are two linked BBC stories about Saudi bombings.  Neither mention Saudi Arabia in the headlines.  One, entitled “Yemen war: Air strike on hotel outside Sanaa ‘leaves 30 dead‘” does mention Saudi Arabia in the opening sentence of the report: “At least 30 people have been killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, local medics and an aid group say.”

The other, entitled “Yemen war: Children dead after Sanaa air strike”  when it does mention Saudi Arabia in the text, suggests that there is uncertainty about who dropped the bomb:

“At least nine people, including children, have been killed after an air strike hit a residential area of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.  Witnesses said two buildings in the south of the city, which is controlled by Houthi rebels, had been destroyed.  Saudi-led forces have been fighting Shia Houthis – backed by Iran – for the last two years.  Thousands of civilians have died. The country is on the brink of famine and facing a cholera outbreak. The planes, thought to be from the Saudi-led Arab coalition which backs Yemen’s government, hit the buildings in the southern district of Faj Attan, according to AFP.”

By the way, the article does not point out that: 1) The part of under the control of the “government” only contains about 20% of the population.  2) It is questionable whether the government has popular support among Yemenis.  3) And it is actually a government in exile, since the president actually resides in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.  4) The “president”, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, was overthrown in an uprising in 2015, resigned, then fled the capital and proclaimed himself president again.

Afghanistan: The longest war, and the sad truth about democracy

This week, Donald Trump made his long awaited statement about Afghanistan. But nobody I know was actually waiting for it – because nobody talks much about Afghanistan, and nobody cares much about Afghanistan – except a few foreign policy aficionados. And hence most people know very little about it.

And yet, the story of America’s involvement is interesting – not least because, at 16 years, it is the longest war America has fought in its history, and shows no sign of ending. (Yes, I realise that for those of us in Europe, looking back over hundreds of years of history, 16 years for a war is nothing, but for America, it is – or at least should be – something big.)

The lessons of history

Several people have compared America’s involvement in Afghanistan to its involvement in Vietnam, including Rod Dreher, who refers to comments by Mark Bowden, author of a recently published book about the American defeat in Vietnam at the Battle of Hue in 1968. Dreher says that according to Bowden,

that there were plenty of reasons specific to Vietnam and its history why this war was unwinnable. The American leadership could not conceive that the United States, the most powerful military in the world, could be beaten by local guerrillas. Bowden calls it “a triumph of ideology over reality in Washington, this anti-communist ideology which completely ignored the realities of Southeast Asia and Vietnam’s history and what actually was happening there.”

He says the same thing is happening today in Afghanistan. I think he’s right, except now, we, the American people, have no excuse for putting up with it. We have lived through Vietnam. We have lived through the debacle of Iraq. And yet — and yet! — we will allow Washington to send thousands more American soldiers to fight and die in a war we cannot win.

afghanistan graveyard of empires

And history suggests that it is not just a matter of learning from Vietnam. Afghanistan has been called the Graveyard of Empires, and it has often been said that although it was invaded by Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Mongols, the British, and the Soviet Union, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.

And, rather memorably, when the Soviet Union tried (1979-1989), the American response was to arm the Islamist extremists called the Mujahideen, celebrated as brave freedom fighters by Hollywood in the film Rambo III in 1988. (And of course America has been involved in arming Islamic extremists much more recently than that, including, yes, al-Qaeda in Syria.)

Indeed, there seems to be widespread opinion that America cannot win this war, and many people think that America has nothing to gain by staying. Indeed, the Taliban, who were removed from power by the American led invasion in 2001, actually control more of the country today than at any time over the past 15 years.

afghan map b_crop

How it all started

The invasion came about because of the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001 – in which over 3,000 people were killed. The attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was soon traced to Afghanistan. America demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda. The Taliban responded that they would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, but added: “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country”.

America refused the Taliban offer, invaded the country, and have been there ever since (even though bin Laden fled to Pakistan).

Now, it seems to me very, very questionable whether the Taliban’s refusal to unconditionally hand over Bin Laden was sufficient grounds for an invasion. And the conditions they suggested were not totally ridiculous. If every country that refused to extradite a wanted criminal was invaded by the country that demanded the extradition, the world would be a somewhat more dangerous place.  The American government could have at least tried to negotiate.  But it didn’t.

And yet despite that, there is no doubt that the vast majority of Americans believed that their government was justified, and supported the invasion.

Democracy

Indeed, one suspects that most Americans actually wanted the invasion to take place, and that one of the main reasons that the Bush administration was eager to invade was because of public feeling. America was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, and people were angry. They wanted action. George Bush couldn’t just do nothing. Failure to take strong decisive action would have been politically disastrous. And, under the circumstances, invading Afghanistan was probably, politically speaking, the smartest thing to do.

In 2004, Afghanistan had democratic elections. Many people saw this as good, with democracy as the first step along the road to a better, freer, future.

But what really happened seems to be that democracy actually came to Afghanistan in 2001. That is, American democracy came to Afghanistan. The American feeling that something must be done, which in practice meant a desire for justice, which in reality often meant a desire for blood – meant that the armed forces of America (and the UK), acting on behalf of the baying mob (i.e. the American electorate), arrived. National pride had been insulted, and must be avenged.

And therein lies the problem with democracy. The electorate may be mistaken in what they want.  What they want may be very foolish.  Indeed, it may be profoundly evil.  And democracy certainly doesn’t solve all problems.   Western military interventions in the past 20 years brought democratic elections to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Before the western interventions, those countries had their problems – but since the elections they have known little but turmoil and war.

The first fully democratic elections in Egypt, which took place 2012, were won by the Muslim Brotherhood – and the resulting government had the worst record for freedom of religion of any recent government in Egypt.

And even in Europe, democratic elections do not necessarily produce good outcomes. Germany in the 1930s had fully democratic elections. And the choices that the people made in them were not just unwise – they were a strong indication that there is something deeply flawed about human nature.

Democracy has become one of our great modern idols.  People in the west speak of democracy as if it is sacred. It isn’t. It is just a way of making decisions – particularly political decisions. And, as Marvin Simkin wrote, 25 years ago, “Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.”

But over 1000 years ago, Alcuin of York, a theologian, said much the same thing: “Those who always say ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’ should not be listened to, for the uproar of the crowd is always close to madness.”

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, and democracy is probably better than most (or even all) of the alternatives. But there are plenty of times when electorates will make decisions that are so foolish that they verge on madness, and Simkin was certainly correct in his view that voters often think and act like hungry wolves.

As for the voice of the people not being the voice of God – well, that is certainly correct, as any reading of the Bible will show. In the Old Testament, the children of Israel repeatedly grumbled against God in the wilderness in the time of Moses; in the New Testament the crowd in city after city wanted to kill the apostle Paul. In the Bible, what the people wanted was often completely wrong.

And the same is true in the modern world.

And so, in 2001, the American armed forces invaded Afghanistan.  Today, almost 16 years later, they are still there. There is no reason for them to remain – other than the fact that it would look rather embarrassing to leave. And no president (so far) is willing to be the one who admits that, and allows the troops to go home. And so it seems that we can expect the longest war to get longer still, and probably continue indefinitely.