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Chomsky, Cockburn and Worthington Forced To Testify Only in Writing in Assange Case

Chomsky, Cockburn and Worthington Forced To Testify Only in Writing in Assange Case

I really do not know how to report Wednesday’s events. Stunning evidence, of extreme quality and interest, was banged out in precis by the lawyers as unnoticed as bags of frozen chips coming off a production line.

The court that had listened to Clair Dobbin spend four hours cross-examining Carey Shenkman on individual phrases of first instance court decisions in tangentially relevant cases, spent four minutes as Noam Chomsky’s brilliant exegesis of the political import of this extradition case was rapidly fired into the court record, without examination, question or placing into the context of the legal arguments about political extradition.

Twenty minutes sufficed for the reading of the “gist” of the astonishing testimony of two witnesses, their identity protected as their lives may be in danger, who stated that the CIA, operating through Sheldon Adelson, planned to kidnap or poison Assange, bugged not only him but his lawyers, and burgled the offices of his Spanish lawyers Baltazar Garzon. This evidence went unchallenged and untested.

The rich and detailed evidence of Patrick Cockburn on Iraq and of Andy Worthington on Afghanistan was, in each case, well worthy of a full day of exposition. I should love at least to have seen both of them in the witness box explaining what to them were the salient points, and adding their personal insights. Instead we got perhaps a sixth of their words read rapidly into the court record. There was much more.

I have noted before, and I hope you have marked my disapproval, that some of the evidence is being edited to remove elements which the US government wish to challenge, and then entered into the court record as uncontested, with just a “gist” read out in court. The witness then does not appear in person.

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The UK and US are Starting a New Cold War with Russia and China, So What are These Governments Trying to Hide?

The UK and US are Starting a New Cold War with Russia and China, So What are These Governments Trying to Hide?

Photograph Source: Jonathan Stonehouse – CC BY 2.0

The new Cold War launched by the West against China and Russia is escalating by the day. In a single week, the Kremlin has been unmasked trying to discover the secrets of Britain’s pursuit of a vaccine against coronavirus and revelations are promised about covert Russian interference in British politics. Boris Johnson made a U-turn on Huawei, announcing that it is to be kicked out of participation in the 5G network because it poses a threat to British security, though a curiously slow-burning one since they will only be evicted over seven years.

The US may put the widely-used Chinese video app TikTok on a blacklist that would prevent Americans from using it. The administration is considering using the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act in order to penalise TikTok as “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to US security. President Trump says he is considering banning the app in response to the way China handled the coronavirus epidemic.

This is a clue to the prime motive for Trump to ramp up the Cold War against China, which is his determination to win a second term in the White House by diverting voters’ attention from his catastrophic handling of the pandemic. “Don’t defend Trump – attack China,” is the advice of a leaked 57-page memo circulated among Republican Senatorial candidates in April. It suggested that Republican politicians should blame China for starting the epidemic by allowing the virus to escape from a laboratory in Wuhan, lying about it and hoarding medical equipment needed to treat the sick.

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Brexit, Britain and the Permanent Crisis in the Gulf

Brexit, Britain and the Permanent Crisis in the Gulf

What on Earth were the British politicians and officials thinking who gave the go-ahead for the seizure of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar on 4 July? Did they truly believe that the Iranians would not retaliate for what they see as a serious escalation in America’s economic war against them?

The British cover story that the sending of 30 Royal Marines by helicopter to take over the tanker was all to do with enforcing EU sanctions on Syria, and nothing to do with US sanctions on Iran, was always pretty thin.

The Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, has said categorically that Britain took over the tanker “following a request from the United States to the United Kingdom”.

One fact about Iranian foreign policy should have been hardwired into the brain of every politician and diplomat in Britain, as it already is in the Middle East, which is that what you do to the Iranians they will do to youat a time and place of their own choosing.

The US and UK backed Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in 1980, but this was not unconnected – though it was impossible to prove – with the suicide bombing that killed 241 US service personnel in the marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Commentators seeking an explanation for the UK’s seizure of the Grace 1 suggest that it was suckered into the action by super hawks in the US administration, such as the national security adviser John Bolton.

But, given the inevitability of the Iranian reaction against British naval forces too weak to defend British-flagged tankers, the British move looks more like a strategic choice dictated by a lack of other options.

Confrontation with the EU over Brexit means that Britain has no alternative but to ally itself ever more closely to the US.

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The Mysterious “Sabotage” of Saudi Oil Tankers: a Dangerous Moment in Trump’s Escalating Conflict With Iran

The Mysterious “Sabotage” of Saudi Oil Tankers: a Dangerous Moment in Trump’s Escalating Conflict With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s claim that two of its oil tankers have been sabotaged off the coast of the UAE is vague in detail – but could create a crisis that spins out of control and into military action.

Any attack on shipping in or close to the Strait of Hormuz, the 30-mile wide channel at the entrance to the Gulf, is always serious because it is the most important choke point for the international oil trade.

A significant armed action by the US or its allies against Iran would likely provoke Iranian retaliation in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region. Although the US is militarily superior to Iran by a wide margin, the Iranians as a last resort could fire rockets or otherwise attack Saudi and UAE oil facilities. Such apocalyptic events are unlikely – but powerful figures in Washington, such as the national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, appear prepared to take the risk of a war breaking out.

Bolton has long publicly demanded the overthrow of the Iranian government. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he said last year before taking office.

“The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”

Bolton and Pompeo are reported to have used some mortar rounds landing near the US embassy in Baghdad in February as an excuse to get a reluctant Pentagon to prepare a list of military options against Iran. These would include missile and airstrikes, but it is unclear what these would achieve from the US point of view.

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The Death Toll in Yemen is Five Times Higher Than We Think…How Much Longer Will We Shrug Off Responsibility?

The Death Toll in Yemen is Five Times Higher Than We Think…How Much Longer Will We Shrug Off Responsibility?

Photo Source Felton Davis | CC BY 2.0

One reason Saudi Arabia and its allies are able to avoid a public outcry over their intervention in the war in Yemen, is that the number of people killed in the fighting has been vastly understated. The figure is regularly reported as 10,000 dead in three-and-a-half years, a mysteriously low figure given the ferocity of the conflict.

Now a count by a non-partisan group has produced a study demonstrating 56,000 people have been killed in Yemen since early 2016. The number is increasing by more than 2,000 per month as fighting intensifies around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. It does not include those dying of malnutrition, or diseases such as cholera.

“We estimate the number killed to be 56,000 civilians and combatants between January 2016 and October 2018,” says Andrea Carboni, who researches Yemen for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an independent group formerly associated with the University of Sussex that studies conflicts and is focusing attention on the real casualty level. He told me he expects a total of between 70,000 and 80,000 victims, when he completes research into the casualties, hitherto uncounted, who died between the start of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen civil war, in March 2015, and the end of that year.

The oft-cited figure of 10,000 dead comes from a UN official speaking only of civilians in early 2017, and has remained static since. This out of date statistic, drawn from Yemen’s patchy and war-damaged health system, has enabled Saudi Arabia and the UAE – who lead a coalition of states strongly backed by the US, UK and France – to ignore or downplay the loss of life.

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The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall

The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall

Photo Source The White House | CC BY 2.0

The Middle East has a century old tradition of being the political graveyard of American and British political leaders. The list of casualties is long: Lloyd George, Anthony Eden, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and George W Bush. All saw their careers ended or their authority crippled by failure in the region.

Will the same thing happen to Donald Trump as he struggles with the consequences of the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi? I always suspected that Trump might come unstuck because of his exaggerated reliance on a weak state like Saudi Arabia rather than because of his supposed links to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Contrary to the PR company boosterism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his ambitious projects, Saudi Arabia has oil and money, but is demonstrably ineffective as an independent operator.

The Middle East disasters that toppled so many Western leaders have a certain amount in common. In all cases, the strength of enemies and the feebleness of friends was miscalculated. Lloyd George was forced to resign as prime minister in 1922 because he encouraged the doomed Greek invasion of Anatolia which almost led to a renewed Turkish-British war.

George W Bush and Tony Blair never understood that the occupation of Iraq by American and British ground forces had no support inside Iraq or among its neighbours and was therefore bound to fail. A British military intelligence officer stationed in Basra told me that he could not persuade his superiors of the potentially disastrous fact that “we have no real allies anywhere in Iraq”.

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Iraq is Threatened by Catastrophic Drought

Iraq is Threatened by Catastrophic Drought

Photo by Jayel Aheram | CC BY 2.0

“I once rescued a friend from drowning when he was swept away by the force of the current as we were swimming in the Diyala river,” says Qasim Sabti, a painter and gallery owner in Baghdad.

“That was fifty years ago,” he recalls. “I went back there recently and the water in the Diyala is so shallow today that a man could walk across it with his dog.”

The rivers of Iraq, above all the Tigris and Euphrates, are drying up. The country is becoming more arid, and desertification is eating into the limited amount of agricultural land.

Dams built upriver in TurkeySyria and Iran since the 1970s have reduced the flow of water that reaches Iraq by as much as half and the situation is about to get worse.

“On 1 July, Turkey will start filling the Ilisu dam on the Tigris and this will cause another decline in the inflows to our country of about 50 per cent,” Hassan Janabi, minister of water resources, told The Independent.

He says that Iraq used to get 30 billion cubic metres of water a year from the Euphrates, but now “we are happy if we get 16 billion cubic metres”.

As Iraq begins to recover from 40 years of wars and emergences, its existence is being threatened by the rapidly falling water levels in the two great rivers on which its people depend.

It was on their banks that the first cities were established cities 8,000 years ago and where the flood stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible were first told.

Such floods are now a thing of the past – the last was in 1988 – and each year the amount of water taken by Iraq’s neighbours has been rising.

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Trump and Netanyahu May Not Want War With Iran, But They May Fall Into One Anyway

Trump and Netanyahu May Not Want War With Iran, But They May Fall Into One Anyway

Photo source StateofIsrael | CC BY 2.0 by Addy Cameron-Huff | CC BY 2.0

Iran has an exaggerated reputation in the Middle East for Machiavellian cunning and an ability to outmanoeuvre its enemies. Britain used to be regarded in the same light in the region: its most ill-considered actions were admired as devilishly clever plots when all it was doing was taking advantage of the blunders of its opponents.

The Islamic Republic is similarly seen as the sinister hidden hand behind many developments with which it has little to do. It is accused of creating a corridor of pro-Iranian states from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing an existential threat to Israel and the Gulf monarchies. The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 is to be dropped by Donald Trump because it has supposedly done nothing to avert these dangers, possibly leaving military action as the only option.

Iranian influence has certainly expanded but only thanks to a series of disastrous US-led military interventions since the start of the millennium. In early 2001 Iran was isolated with Afghanistan to the east under the rule of the Taliban, whose Sunni sectarianism inspired them with hatred of Shia  Iran whose diplomats they casually murdered. Iran’s neighbour to the west was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with whom it had fought a ferocious eight-year war.

All this was to change in two years: in 2001 the US overthrew the Taliban, though it was never able to defeat them permanently or stabilise the rule of its local Afghan allies. In 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq, bringing to power the first Shia government in the Arab world since the days of Saladin and one which inevitably looked to their fellow Shia in Iran.

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De-escalation With North Korea, Escalation With Iran 

De-escalation With North Korea, Escalation With Iran 

Photo by DAVID HOLT | CC BY 2.0

As a journalist, I have always dreaded reporting on meetings between world leaders billed as “historic” or “momentous” or just plain “significant”. Such pretensions are usually phoney or, even if something of interest really does happen, its importance is exaggerated or oversimplified.

But plus ca change is not always a safe slogan for the cautious reporter, because real change does occasionally take place and professional cynics are caught on the hop.

Watching the “historic” meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea at the Panmunjom border crossing this weekend – and listening to reporters bubbling over with excitement – it was difficult not to be captured by the enthusiastic mood.

But I recall similar meetings that were once billed as transforming the world for the better and are now largely forgotten. How many people remember the Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986, which once seemed so important? Then there was the famous handshake on the lawn of the White House between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat confirming a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 that, whatever else happened, did not produce peace.

Rabin was assassinated two years later by a religious fanatic and Arafat died with his hopes for Palestinian self-determination in ruins. Sceptics who had argued that disparity in political and military strength between Israel and the Palestinians was too great for a real accord turned out to be right.

The meeting in Panmunjom feels as if it has got more substance, primarily because the balance of power between the two sides is more even: Kim has nuclear weapons and claims to have a ballistic missile which could reach the US. Their range and reliability may be exaggerated but nobody wants to find out the hard way.

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Big Noise: Apocalyptic Tweets, Limited Strikes

Big Noise: Apocalyptic Tweets, Limited Strikes

“Big noise on the stairs, but nobody comes into the room,” runs an old Chinese saying. This is an apt description of the very limited airstrikes on Syria launched by the US, Britain and France overnight, which came after apocalyptic tweets from President Trump and threats of military retaliation by Russian diplomats.

In the event, the fears of a “Russian-American clash” and runaway confrontation leading to a “third world war” have turned out to be overblown. They did not look quite so exaggerated earlier in the week when Trump tweeted about US missiles: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’.”

The Russians hinted that their retaliation might include American targets.

Of all the options available, the US-led coalition chose the one involving minimal action and geared not to provoke Russia or Iran. This was a one-off attack on three suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, one in Damascus and two west of Homs. It was more of a gesture of disapproval than an attempt to damage President Bashar al-Assad’s military machine. Hours after the missiles had struck, his supporters were understandably demonstrating their defiance in the centre of Damascus.

Trump, reportedly under pressure from his military chiefs, may have chosen the most cautious option, but in fact there were no good options. Assad has all but won the civil war. Even if it was possible to weaken him, this might present opportunities to Isis and al-Qaeda, which are battered but not entirely out of business.

The attacks may or may not deter Assad from using poison gas in the future, but they will not change the balance of power against him. Chemical weapons are only a small part of his arsenal and have played only a minor military role in the war.

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It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes

It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes

Photo by John Pavelka | CC BY 2.0

The first pathetic pieces of wreckage from North Korean fishing boats known as “ghost ships” to be found this year are washing up on the coast of northern Japan. These are the storm-battered remains of fragile wooden boats with unreliable engines in which North Korean fishermen go far out to sea in the middle of winter in a desperate search for fish.

Often all that survives is the shattered wooden hull of the boat cast up on the shore, but in some cases the Japanese find the bodies of fishermen who died of hunger and thirst as they drifted across the Sea of Japan. Occasionally, a few famished survivors are alive and explain that their engine failed or they ran out of fuel or they were victims of some other fatal mishap.

The number of “ghost ships” is rising with no fewer than 104 found in 2017, which is more than in any previous year, though the real figure must be higher because many boats will have sunk without trace in the 600 miles of rough sea between North Korea and Japan.

The reason so many fishermen risk and lose their lives is hunger in North Korea where fish is the cheapest form of protein. The government imposes quotas for fishermen that force them to go far out to sea. Part of their catch is then sold on to China for cash, making fish one of the biggest of North Korea’s few export items.

The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.

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The Real Destabilizer in the Middle East in Not Iran But Trump

The Real Destabilizer in the Middle East in Not Iran But Trump

Photo by David Stanley | CC by 2.0

As President Trump withdraws certification of the nuclear agreement with Iran, commentators across the world struggled for words to adequately convey their outrage and contempt. A favourite term to describe Trump is as “a wrecking ball”, but the phrase suggests a sense of direction and capacity to strike a target which Trump does not possess.

The instant that Trump decertifies the deal struck by President Obama in 2015, the US becomes a lesser power and Iran a greater one, because he will confirm the belief that America is led by an egoist motivated by ignorant prejudice. Accusations of mental derangement have always been part of common currency of political abuse, but there is a growing belief among international leaders that in Trump’s case there might be something to it, though they have few ideas about what they should do about this.

Their bemusement is understandable given that the situation is so bizarre. In the past, highly neurotic individuals were most like to gain power as hereditary monarchs, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany being a prime example. Full blown psychoses are less common, though madness of Charles VI of France and Henry VI of England in the late Middle Ages precipitate both countries into civil wars. What is extraordinary about Trump’s all-consuming egomania, or what some call “malignant narcissism”, is that it did not prevent his rise to power.

Iranian leaders may calculate that, short of all-out war, they come out the winner: the US-led coalition of states that once isolated Iran has disintegrating and today it is the US that risks isolation.

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Corrupt Elites and the Looting Machine

Corrupt Elites and the Looting Machine

The answer varies according to which countries one is talking about, but in many – particularly those relying on the sale of natural resources like oil or minerals – it is surely too late to expect any incremental change for the better. Anti-corruption drives are a show to impress the outside world or to target political rivals.

The anti-corruption summit in London this week may improve transparency and disclosure, but it can scarcely be very effective against politically well-connected racketeers, busily transmuting political power into great personal wealth.

This is peculiarly easy to do in those countries in the Middle East and Africa which suffer from what economists call “the resource curse”, where states draw their revenues directly from foreign buyers of their natural resources. The process is described in compelling detail by Tom Burgis in his book, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth. He quotes the World Bank as saying that 68 per cent of people in Nigeria and 43 per cent in Angola, respectively the first and second largest oil and gas producers in Africa, live in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.25 a day. The politically powerful live parasitically off the state’s revenues and are not accountable to anybody.

Burgis explains the devastating outcome of a government acquiring such great wealth without doing more than license foreign companies to pump oil or excavate minerals. This “creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract lootingmachinebetween rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people – so it has no need for their consent.”

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How Politicians Duck the Blame for Terrorism

How Politicians Duck the Blame for Terrorism

The reporting of the events in Brussels is in keeping with that after the January (Charlie Hebdo) and November Paris attacks and the Tunisian beach killings by Isis last year. For several days there is blanket coverage by the media as it allocates time and space far beyond what is needed to relate developments. But then the focus shifts abruptly elsewhere and Isis becomes yesterday’s story, treated as if the movement has ceased to exist or at least lost its capacity to affect our lives.

It is not as if Isis has stopped killing people in large numbers since the slaughter in Paris on 13 November; it is, rather, that it is not doing so in Europe. I was in Baghdad on 28 February when two Isissuicide bombers on motorcycles blew themselves up in an outdoor mobile phone market in Sadr City, killing 73 people and injuring more than 100. On the same day, dozens of Isis fighters riding in pick-ups with heavy machine guns mounted in the back attacked army and police outposts in Abu Ghraib, site of the notorious prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad. There was an initial assault by at least four suicide bombers, one driving a vehicle packed with explosives into a barracks, and fighting went on for hours around a burning grain silo.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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