Camel greeting

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Prince Chas goes to Saudi (again) - It’s the oil, stupid!

News media in the United Kingdom announced last week that the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, was paying a visit to his royal mates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Photographs were widely circulated of Prince Charles, dressed in traditional Arab raiment, dancing and partying with local royals, politicians and military officers. Duchess Camilla of Cornwall was noticeably absent from the festivities – in fact I checked all the photos and couldn’t spot a single woman in any of them.  Nevertheless, all the guys seemed to be having a great time, brandishing swords and demonstrating some cool Arab moves to their Welsh guest.

Can't see the Duchess in one of those
According to reports, this is Charles’s tenth visit to the Saudi kingdom – at least twice as many times as he has been to New Zealand, one of his Commonwealth’s staunchest members. Well, to be fair, New Zealand is a lot further from Cardiff than Saudi Arabia is – but still, you’d have to wonder what the big attraction is. Apparently the next stop for the Heir Apparent is Qatar, and a spokesman for Amnesty International has expressed hopes that Charles will raise the issue of human rights in both places. My advice to them is, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Light a Torch for Match-fixing – There’s a conspiracy under your bed

We live near a street in Istanbul called Baghdad Avenue. Probably if you headed down it in a southeasterly direction, and didn’t take a wrong turning along the way, you might actually end up in that legendary city on the Tigris River. In our part of the world, however, it is a boulevard of brand-name stores, up-market bars, restaurants and cafes - a hangout for well-heeled matrons, reincarnated middle-aged bikies on Harley Davidson hogs and YUMTUMs (young upwardly mobile Turkish urban middle classes). Despite its location on the Asian side of the city, you would be hard pressed to find a more European-looking district in this megalopolitan bridge between East and West.

Kicking a football
for justice and democracy
Our stretch of Baghdad Avenue is situated in the administrative precinct of Kadıköy, home also to the Fenerbahçe Football Club, one of Turkey’s Big Three Istanbul clubs. Support for “Fener” is strong around here, and I would be wary of making known my preference for Beşiktaş, a second member of that sporting triumvirate. Locals are also proud to have it understood that their mayor belongs to the CHP (Republican People’s Party), staunch upholders of Kemalist secularism and bitter foes of the AK Party that has governed Turkey for the past twelve years.

Last weekend there was a gathering in Baghdad Avenue. Residents were called upon to show their support for justice, democracy and the Fenerbahçe Football Club. Banners were waved, the club’s yellow and blue and the nation’s red and white; placards brandished emblazoned with the catchy but untranslatable pun: “Adalete Fener Yak” (“Light a torch for justice” – with a play on the double meaning of Fener, named after a lighthouse formerly located on the coast nearby). Our neighbours expressed in one breath undying loyalty to their beloved football team and deep-seated hatred of the Prime Minister and his government.

I received notification the other day of a workshop to be held at Brookes University, Oxford, UK. The theme apparently is “Bridging Divides: Rethinking Ideology in the Age of Protests.” Organisers observed that anti-government protests in Turkey last year seemed to unite an eclectic community of agitators: attractive (and educated) young women in red dresses, anarchist youth, respectable aunties wielding slingshots, Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, secular Kemalists, headscarved anti-capitalist Muslims and chanting football fanatics. This evidently encouraged them to ask “(1) whether similar trends have been observed in other countries and (2) to what extent political ideologies have become obsolete in today’s politics and society. In brief, we are interested in learning how and to what extent ideological divides have been transcended during the recent anti-government demonstrations in different parts of the world such as Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Brazil, Europe, and the USA.

Turkey's next prime minister? President?
Well, I wish those people at “Changing Turkey” good luck in seeking a common factor in such a disparate group of countries. Greece, Spain, Ireland and the other PIIGS nations, yes – reacting against demands by Germany and the IMF that the common people tighten their belts so that bankers and financiers of the world can continue to live beyond our means. The UK and the USA, sure – where 99% of the population are getting increasingly cynical about the 1%’s excuses for refusing to spread their wealth around. Egypt’s probably out on its own in that group – they had a brief fling with democracy before their military (with who knows what outside support?) stepped in and reinstated the US/Israel-friendly status quo. Turkey and Brazil probably do have quite a lot in common – maybe we’ll take a look at that another day.

I just hope the artisans at that Oxford workshop manage to direct a little cynicism of their own towards the anti-government demonstrations in Turkey. Every year, two or three Turkish football teams take part in competitions organised by UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) for the top clubs from all nations on the continent – but this year, both Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş are absent, having been banned by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who had determined that the clubs were guilty of match-fixing in the 2010-11 season. Fenerbahçe also missed the 2011-12 UEFA Champions’ League tournament as a result of being withdrawn by the Turkish Football Federation for the same reason. Both clubs unsuccessfully appealed the CAS decision and the ban stood.

The chairman of the Fenerbahçe club, Aziz Yıldırım, was tried in a Turkish civil court on charges of fixing six matches and sentenced to six years imprisonment. He is currently at liberty while his lawyers appeal against the conviction. Interestingly the Turkish Football Federation has taken no action of its own against the banned clubs on the grounds that they could find no evidence that the match-fixing activities had actually affected any results! Wow! Mr Yıldırım, on vacation recently in Cannes, was quoted as saying that the court’s decision to jail him was part of a political conspiracy currently said to be playing out in Turkey.

Well, who can know? There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in political studies workshops. Certainly the Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe clubs have done a great job of motivating supporters to turn out in the streets chanting confusing double entendre slogans mixing anti-government sentiment with football enthusiasm. I heard recently that the Fenerbahçe club is planning to diversify its interests and open a private university in Istanbul in the next academic year. Maybe they’ll start a political party too in time for the next general election.

PS – As I was about to publish this post an article appeared in our Sunday newspaper under the headline: “Yeni Muhalefet Fenerbahçe Mi?” (Is Fenerbahçe the new political opposition?) Among other remarkable claims, the writers draw a parallel between the years when Turkey’s economy was strong and the years Fenerbahçe won the Turkish Premier League Championship! Apparently the correlation is high. Perhaps my last sentence was more prescient than I thought on writing it. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Read This Book! ‘The Brothers’ by Stephen Kinzer

“Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book.”[1]

“A secret history, enriched and calmly retold; a shocking account of the misuse of American corporate, political and media power; a shaming reflection on the moral manners of post-imperial Europe; and an essential allegory for our own times.”  John Le Carré.

Some of you may remember a duo of Irishmen who delighted listeners of an olde worlde sentimental disposition in the 1970s and 80s with tear-jerking ballads such as, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” Mick Foster and Tony Allen continued to pluck the heartstrings of loyal fans into the new century – but “Maggie” probably remains their signature tune.

The song was written in the 1860s by a Canadian schoolteacher with the illustrious name of George Washington Johnson. Maggie, apparently, was a student of George’s whom he married – but lost to illness within a year of their wedding. One-hit-wonder George may have been, but “Maggie” earned him a place in the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Wikipedia assures me that you can visit the schoolhouse in Hamilton, Ontario where teacher wooed student, and examine a plaque commemorating their enduring love.

For the love of George and Maggie
Click to hear the song
Stephen Kinzer, on the other hand, has written a book about a relationship of hate. “During the 1950s,” goes the cover blurb, “when the Cold War was at its peak, two immensely powerful brothers led the United States into a series of foreign adventures whose effects are still shaking the world. John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history. He uses the framework of biography to ask: Why does the United States behave as it does in the world? ‘The Brothers’ explores hidden forces that shape the national psyche, from religious piety to Western movies, many of which are about a noble gunman who cleans up a lawless town by killing bad guys. This is how the Dulles brothers saw themselves, and how many Americans still see their country’s role in the world. Propelled by a quintessentially American set of fears and delusions, the Dulles brothers launched violent campaigns against foreign leaders they saw as threats to the United States. These campaigns helped push countries from Guatemala to the Congo into long spirals of violence, led the United States into the Vietnam War, and laid the foundation for decades of hostility between the United States and countries from Cuba to Iran.”

 “The Brothers” is not a humorous book. For many readers, in fact, it may be deeply disturbing, even frightening. Kinzer does not undermine the seriousness of his subject by making jokes. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that his references to “Foster and Allen” throughout the book were unconscious. There is an irony here that is inescapable:

The green growth is gone from the hills, Maggie
Where first the daisies spring
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie
Since you and I were young.

The dynamic self-belief of 1950s United States has been replaced by doubt and uncertainty. The naive patriotism that allowed post-war America to internalise the anti-communist scare-mongering of the Dulles brothers and their allies has gone like the green growth from the hills of Maggie's youthful memories. The economic and industrial mill that was once the wonder of the world may not be completely still, but it is certainly creaking.

In his introduction, Kinzer mentions a controversy that surrounded the opening of a state-of-the-art airport in Chantilly, Virginia in 1962 - controversial because the naming of the facility after recently deceased Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was only achieved after some high level lobbying by influential people including Foster’s brother, CIA head, Allen Dulles. “Half a century after [John Foster] Dulles’s death stunned Americans,” Kinzer says, “few remember him. Many associate his name with an airport and nothing more.” The larger-than-life bust of Dulles that was once centre-piece of the Virginia airport vanished into storage when renovations were carried out in the 1990s.

George Washington Johnson, in his much-loved song, was able to sing . . .

Oh they say we have outlived our time, Maggie
As dated as songs that we've sung
But to me, you're as fair as you were, Maggie
When you and I were young,

but the fair reputation of the Dulles brothers, that made them two of the most powerful individuals in the world from the last years of the Truman administration to the first years of JFK, hardly survived their own lifetimes. Nevertheless, as that cover blurb goes on to say, “The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. It illuminates and helps explain the modern history of the United States and the world.”

In his dedication, Kinzer quotes Herman Melville's Captain Ahab: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” For Melville's legendary Captain Ahab, the white whale represented all the evil of the world. “He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.”[2] For the Dulles brothers, the evil was international communism and the threat that national independence struggles posed to the supply of raw materials on which the US economy depended. For them the welfare of Wall St and corporate America was synonymous with the good of the world as a whole, and anything that threatened them was self-evidently endangering the very existence of the free world.

Kinzer’s book examines six case studies of leaders in emergent nations whose attempts to assert national sovereignty were seen as manifesting the malignant aims of Soviet Russia to achieve world domination. They were perceived or portrayed as puppets of Moscow, evidence of the domino theory, which held that freedom and democracy were in danger of being overwhelmed, step-by-step, by the forces of totalitarianism. That being so, they were hated, and any means taken to remove them were justified.

Part II of “The Brothers” is entitled “Six Monsters”. Its six chapters are devoted to accounts of six leaders of emergent sovereign states, each of whom was identified by the Dulles team as inimical to American interests and hence an enemy of the free world: Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Ho Chi Minh in Viet Nam, President Sukarno in Indonesia, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Kinzer describes, in well researched, persuasive and horrifying detail how “Foster and Allen” used the industrial, economic and military might of the United States in overt and covert ways to effect the downfall of these undesirable leaders.

Not all of the brothers’ machinations were successful, of course – neither in the short term, in getting rid of the leader in question, nor more importantly, in the long term, in spreading the ideals of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno and Castro survived CIA moves to oust or assassinate them. Mossadegh, Arbenz and Lumumba were removed from office – though few would argue that those countries and their people derived much benefit from the US puppet leaders who replaced them.

In the end, probably the most frightening aspect of this book is what it does not say. John Le Carré suggests that it is “an essential allegory of our times.” If it is indeed true that those few men were able to persuade the people of America and that nation’s allies that this course of action was in the best interests of the world as a whole, why should we think that process stopped with the deaths of Foster and Allen Dulles?

We now know that the US, under the Reagan administration, supported and armed the mujahidin (among them, a young Saudi Arab by the name of Osama bin Ladin) in Afghanistan against Soviet Russia. We know that in the same years the US sold arms to the Islamic government of Iran to fund its support of anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. We know that the US suppled arms and intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s government when Iraq was at war with Iran. We also know that the present US government is going to great lengths to suppress and discredit Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, and silence its sources, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

I am sometimes taken to task by readers who suggest I am anti-American. I don’t think that is true. This book was gifted to me by a patriotic citizen of the United States – although interestingly, Amazon refused to ship it to Turkey. I have, in fact, like many within America and beyond its shores, ambivalent feelings towards the world’s one remaining super-power. I grew up with the products of its music and film industries, and they are a part of my very being. I admire and benefit from the results of its technological ingenuity and expertise. I know and respect many of its citizens for their energy, warmth, intelligence and achievements.

On the other hand, I suspect the motives of that nation’s ruling class. I question their commitment to the ideals set out in their exemplary constitution by their founding fathers. I fear the results in the wider world of their foreign policies. Nevertheless, as long as such a book can be written and published, there is hope for democracy. It is your democratic duty to read it!

The Brothers – John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, Stephen Kinzer (Times Books, 2013)

[1] From a review by Adam LeBor in The New York Times.
[2] Moby-Dick, Chapter 41